Over the past week, I’ve noticed a lot of discussion regarding church volunteer work. Not much of it sounds positive, either. In fact, it reminded me intensely–and most unpleasantly–of group work from my school days. Here’s why church volunteering reminds me of those old hurts.
(In this post, I discuss a bad bunch of experiences I had as a grade-school student in many different school systems across the United States. However, it is not an indictment of today’s teachers or modern education in general. From my research this weekend, it sounds like we’ve come a long way–hopefully–from those Dark Ages days. I hope so. It’s dismal to imagine students these days still facing this hair-tearing frustration and helpless, impotent anger, especially when the knowledge exists to do better. Anyway, on to the post – thanks for listening!)
An Old Pain.
Every semester, when I first announce that there will be a group project, I can hear groans emanating from the class. Many students complain about how much they hate group projects.
— Jeffrey W. Murray, Cogent Education
Out of everything I remember from school, the phrase I hated most was a teacher’s call to get into groups.
Oh my gosh, just recalling the memory puts me into a bad mood. Those calls always meant the same thing:
I’d be doing almost everything, while the other people in the group milled around like cattle.
I knew, as well, that if I didn’t handle the entire project myself, then nothing would get done at all. And then I’d receive a poor grade for the project. So I felt like the other students essentially held me hostage. Very quickly in the year, they’d realize they could laze about–because they knew I’d pick up their slack. They didn’t care that it was massively unfair to me. At all. Nor did they care about their grades or futures.
And Nobody GAFF.
In all the years of my grade-school education, I never once had a teacher who took any pains whatsoever to ensure that everyone did their fair share–or that conscientious students weren’t victimized and overworked.
On a regular and reliable basis, they’d tell us to get into groups, and lay down the assignment. Once we were all ensconced into misery, they retreated with a relieved smile to their desks to do whatever it was they needed/wanted to do that day instead of being present for the task. I seriously wonder if they just wanted to grade fewer papers!
If I complained, and you can absolutely bet I did cuz the situation outraged my sense of justice, I got lectured: blah blah, collaborative work is soooo important, blah blah.
Oh yes, I hated all of it with a passion.
Carrying It Forward.
Churches rely on volunteer effort. They simply can’t afford to run their churches with paid staff. Really, most of them can barely afford to pay a minister–and some can’t even afford that. Newbie pastors learn almost immediately that they’re going to be doing everything in their churches–from maintenance work to fundraising to secretarial stuff.
If they’re married, they can foist off a lot of that work onto their wives. But they’ll still need volunteers aplenty.
Most churches are extremely small–like fewer than 50 or 100 people. One research organization claims that roughly 59% of churches host fewer than 100 congregants at services. Fewer than 3% of churches host more than 1000 worshipers attending services.
Church volunteers learn the same lesson grade-school students learn:
Yes, other people will take ruthless advantage of you in this world. You’re gonna get dragooned into doing everything on a regular basis, or else you’ll see your project and future shot down in flames.
And there ain’t nothing anybody’s gonna do about it if these facts bother you.
Not even in church. Maybe especially not then.
The 10% Carry the 90%.
As most folks who’ve run roleplaying games know, a certain low number of players carry the game for others. Most people join a game just to enjoy being served up entertainment. To a great extent, that’s fine. Games need consumers of entertainment. They provide the bulk numbers needed to keep plots moving. If those folks weren’t there, there wouldn’t be much of a game for anybody. So in theory, if someone shows up or logs in and doesn’t feel “on” that day, someone else can carry a plot forward. Everybody takes turns moving a plot along.
Some players really prefer to be the leaders in plot movement, and others really prefer to just show up and help them. Admins do their part by throwing these “helper” players regular attention by giving them opportunities to take active roles within the plot and by finding and developing newer players to enjoy being leaders and instigators. Admins also carry the plot along if nobody feels “on” that day, so there’s always a fallback.
And crazily enough, that works pretty well in a functional game.
Group projects in the real world operate in the same basic mechanical manner, but they bear one key difference: nobody actually wants to do the project, but they’re required to at least go through the motions by someone they can’t really refuse. If allowed to slack off, then they’ll enter the project workspace and then drag their feet–or vanish.
When nobody actually wants to do the project, and those folks are at liberty to refuse the call to participate in it, everything changes.
Always Be Seeking Volunteers.
The reality of volunteer recruitment dominates pastors’ lives, it seems to me.
I found no shortage at all of websites advising pastors how to inspire congregants to volunteer, telling them why they can’t find volunteers, and trying to teach them how to avoid alienating volunteers. Even our old pal Thom Rainer gets into the act with a post on the topic–and he demonstrates his skill at avoiding manual labor at the same time (hey, I can spot strategic incompetence when I see it, thanks to having endured marriage to a fundagelical man).
Most of these pages represent sales pitches for groups selling Bizarro-world quick-fix systems to desperate church leaders. Thom Rainer’s post probably comes closest to accuracy here, since he’s speaking directly to his fellow Southern Baptist pastors about a common problem they all face. He tends to be at his most unintentionally-revealing and accurate then. While the others might be overstating things, Rainer tends to get the nuts and bolts of modern fundagelical leadership correct (even if he’s usually dead wrong about how to fix their problems–or even why they’re happening).
Still, taken together these pages all paint a compelling picture of modern Christianity. In that picture, church leaders find themselves frantic to find volunteers–but either lack the soft-skills necessary to acquire them or keep them.
Volunteers, for their part, often know quite well that they have their leaders over a barrel. They often feel overworked and underappreciated, though, which manifests in various ways–through burnout for the ones who, like I did in grade school, feel guilted into overworking themselves even more so the project succeeds, and through half-assing the work by those same jerks who used to ghost me on group projects.
Wherever They Can Be Found.
Probably the most telling of all the descriptions comes from Thom Rainer’s post. In it, he describes how easy it is to accidentally overload already-busy and already-overworked volunteers. That fact comes along directly after his admonishment about y’all aren’t thinking at the ceiling nearly often enough and that’s why you can’t find volunteers to clean your churches or lead classes. That’s how you know it must be important.
He mentions one idea often as well: volunteers get shoved wherever there’s a serious need. Sometimes, perhaps even often, that means volunteers get pressed into service for tasks they can’t perform well or have no interest in performing. Worse, it means the pastor gains volunteers who “have no business” doing the work in question, or who help out only out of guilt. Finally, pastors fail to follow up with their volunteers. They don’t ask how the volunteers are doing or what they need to do their tasks.
I saw all of these elements in all of the websites, in one way or another. Pastors are so overjoyed to have someone doing the work that they don’t care who’s doing it or why, or how suited they are for it.
Finding Answers for Group Work…
Many students complain about how much they hate group projects. Yet, at the end of the semester. . . a majority of students report that they “actually” enjoyed the group project, and a surprising number report that it was their favorite part of the course. . . I believe that these positive end-of-semester reports are also due to the way in which I have designed the group project assignment.
— Jeffrey W. Murray, Cogent Education
As usual, it’s the mean ole secular world’s denizens trying to fix an old problem–not Christians who think they’re inhabited by a real live god.
Indeed, it looks like the problem of group work has attracted some attention at last. I see a 2017 paper discussing the “ethical framework” involved in group projects. It comes to an astonishing solution:
Specifically, this essay (1) asserts that a fully effective collaborative assignment should implement strategies designed to foster three poles of ethicality: responsibility, answerability, and accountability, and (2) shares some best practices to achieve that goal, including assigned “captainships,” a qualitative self-assessment, and the inclusion of a “non-compliance policy.”
That finding makes me feel relief just reading it. FINALLY, someone gets it. I see other similar papers dotting the educational landscape.
…But That Stuff Won’t Really Work for Most Churches.
I don’t know how churches could enact something like this, though. Educators have students over a barrel in a major way. Those students need a good grade from their educators. Church leaders don’t really offer congregants anything they need and can get nowhere else.
Even if they could do that, they’re still going to be hobbled by the resource pool of their congregations. A tiny church lacks a lot of things, but most of all a wide range of talent. The treasurer might not be good at math. The Sunday School teacher might not really like kids or know how to deal with them. And the soloist might not be able to sing well. Churches rely on volunteers to do all of it anyway.
And I’m sure many pastors would love to cultivate close, happy relationships with volunteers. But it’s hard to imagine them having the time or energy to do it.
How It Plays Out: “Pew Potatoes.”
So our commentariat had some things to say about volunteering.
- “Mum, who was once a teacher before getting married and quitting her job, got pressured into taking Sunday school classes, and my gods she was not happy about it. There were many rants about how the same people always did all the work and how most people who attended church never lifted a finger to help out.”(Polytropos)
- “I remember once working out that I gave more hours in a particular week to church activity than I had to my full time job! . . . There were loads of people who turned up week in, week out and did nothing.” (LeekSoup)
- “We couldn’t understand why the other 90% of members whom we privately called ‘pew potatoes’ didn’t have the desire or energy that we did, to get the world converted or ever volunteer to actually do something to keep the church running.” (Jennny)
- “They were all happy to see [Mom] on Sunday to get as much work they could out of her, but ignore her in the community the rest of the week.” (Spike2Heart)
- “These churches on the other hand demand far too much from people who won’t/can’t deliver, pile the responsibility on those at the bottom of the hierarchy and don’t make it clear what they expect from members at the start (free gift, as if).” (Jenn H)
One person, Friend, noted that their church was actually “more welcoming and less demanding” nowadays. This turns out to be a mainline church, however. As usual, the real abuses come from evangelical groups.
I volunteered extensively as a Pentecostal. Briefly, I taught Sunday School before realizing I disliked being around kids. (No offense, they just deserved better than a PTSD-addled anger cauldron like I was back then.) Then, I sang (poorly) with the church choir and helped out at the big Pentecostal summer camp thing. Biff served in the Sunday School, since he hoped to become a “professional Christian” and this route represented an accepted way to slide into the DMs of leadership in our denomination as an alternative to Bible College.
When we moved to a tiny church plant in a Houston suburb, the demands placed upon us grew exponentially. Y’all, when I say tiny, I mean teeny tiny itty bitty Jesus committee tiny. Nobody could just disappear into the crowd there. And the pastor, Gene, made crystal-clear that he and his lovely wife Sulane couldn’t possibly manage the entire church’s duty roster by themselves.
I felt constant pressure to volunteer with Sunday School, or to sing solo. (Seriously. Words cannot express what a bad singer I am. We teased Big David about his singing, but I was only marginally better at it.)
Melting Into the Crowd.
Now that I look back, I can see why so many Christians belong to huge megachurches. Indeed, that “Fast Facts” page tells us that fewer than 3% of churches host more than 1000 worshipers–but that about 50% of congregants attend services at the largest 10% of churches. These huge churches tend to be the only ones really growing in most areas, though even they can fall apart–and they grow at the expense of smaller ones.
Yes, people can melt into the crowd at these large churches. But that said, their sheer size means that the usual tiny percentage of volunteers translates to a lot more people volunteering in terms of raw numbers. The resource pool is much wider, and the crowd itself tends to be more dynamic and buzz-phrase-ish. Moreover, these big churches tend to be younger, with younger pastors and congregations alike, and way less fire-and-brimstone.
The ultra-fundagelical crowd badmouths these churches. Heck, we even got a taste of that badmouthing in This Present Darkness, revealing just how old an enmity this is! Still, for congregants these megachurches often represent a far better experience all the way around.
At my first Pentecostal church, I volunteered out of mild guilt, but mostly enjoyed the experience. At the second, I volunteered out of feelings of obligation–and did not enjoy it nearly as much.
Not the Way Anyone Wants to Stand Out From the Crowd.
Non-volunteers in that tiny church stood out like sore thumbs. There was no way to avoid being known as a shirker. It always amazed me that several members of that tiny church just showed up and enjoyed the hospitality without even tithing (cuz only marginally more Christians tithe than volunteer, and there’s probably a lot of overlap between the two groups). Gene, however, was so happy they attended at all that he clearly felt reticent to rock the boat with them too much.
Gene had no trouble involving Biff in the equally-tiny Sunday School (of like three kids). Biff, remember, still saw youth ministry as the way to slide into a more illustrious paying gig. Once Gene realized I was a born people-pleaser, though, my own course was set as if by magic.
Pastors need congregants like that. They can barely exist without them. But fervent faith in “Jesus” doesn’t make it easier for those congregants to serve to exhaustion. Nor does Jesus stop others from taking advantage of them just like my schoolmates once did to me, nor inspire the 90% to start doing anything to alleviate the load.
So once again, we see another way in which churches are purely earthly, man-made institutions. I mean, we knew that they were. They give that fact away in a hundred different ways.
But the way their social dynamics always remind me of grade school would definitely be one of the big markers–for me at least–that nothing divine or supernatural’s going on with them.
Any group this happy to take advantage of the 10% to carry the 90% can’t be a good system. In Christianity’s decline, it isn’t even sustainable.
NEXT UP: The Satanic Panic strikes out at a friend of mine.
See you soon!
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Final note: I wonder about these keyboard culture warriors we keep encountering. I mean, we’ve already noticed that they tend to be massive hypocrites on a scale that would have horrified us as Christians. How many volunteered like so many of us did as believers? Hmm!