By Eddie Pipkin

Part 2 of our January series on avoiding ministry self-sabotage presents a true story in which a leader whiffed when given an opportunity to engage an interested volunteer.  All of the topics in this series are based on true stories from my adventures in ministry or attempted adventures, because sometimes so stupefyingly uninterested, distracted, or jaded can a leader be that her or she strikes out without swinging when tossed even the fattest, slowest-moving pitch.  It’s a story I tell often in training sessions because it so utterly flabbergasted me: it’s the time I offered my time and talents freely and was rebuffed with a response that was flippantly glib (or glibly flippant – you be the judge).

This was back in the days when I still had kids in elementary school.  There was something that had happened that I had a complaint about – it was a communications issue: a recurring problem with parents getting basic information about what was going on at the school – and I stopped in to see the principal one afternoon to ask about it.

Now, I have a longstanding philosophy that I’m not willing to make a complaint about things if I don’t also offer to help rectify the situation in some way.  And as we wrapped up our pleasant conversation, I said, “Look, I’ve got some professional experience in communications, so if you’d like me to help solve this issue, I’m more than willing to offer my time and expertise.  And if you don’t feel like you need help with that, you can put me on something else.  What can I help you with?”

“Well, you can volunteer in the classroom,” she said.

“Yes, my wife and I already do that,” I said.  “I was really thinking of something more on behalf of the whole school, any sort of bigger, long-range project.”

And to my fascination and consternation, she replied, “Thanks, but we don’t need any help right now.”

Not “Let me think about it for a couple of days and get back to you”; not “Let me refer you to the vice-principal and let you talk with her about some of our ongoing projects”; not “If you think you see some potential areas where we could use some help, why don’t you draw up a list with some of your thoughts and email it to me.”  No handing me a prepared flyer with the 101 ways to volunteer at the school; no casual spitballing of potential ideas; no connecting me with anyone else for further exploration; just a polite but unequivocal dismissal.

For a split second, I thought she was pranking me.  I have never, ever been a part of (or even heard of anecdotally) any institution that couldn’t use some help when someone offered it.  She was not pranking me – she was serious.  In the months that followed, the more I learned, I came to understand that she was a good administrator and leader, and it was a well-run school, but she was the kind of leader who liked to be sure things were closely controlled.  The introduction of random parents into the mix was an unpredictable and therefore, in her mind, unacceptable risk of rocking the tightly guided boat.

I’ve seen plenty of churches take the same approach.

With churches, it is rarely a direct rejection (although it can be).  With churches it’s more often deflection, or straight up confusion.  But the tricky thing with churches is that, unlike elementary schools, it’s actually in our mission statement that every single person involved with the institution has a sacred calling from God to be actively involved.  It is a fundamental element of the local church’s purpose to help individuals understand what that calling is, equip them for pursuing it, and grow them in excellence as they do so.

In my own experience, in recent years as I was navigating career transition and exploring new ways to plug into the local church, on at least two occasions I made a similar offer to ministry leaders in areas of missions and youth to help out on some special project.  “I’m a little bored,” I would say.  “Why don’t you give me a project to do for you – something you need done but don’t have the bandwidth to address yourself?”

“You can come help out with youth on Sunday nights” they might say, or “Come out for our workday on Saturday,” to which I would reply, “No, that’s not what I mean – I mean a project, something bigger in scope I could do for you, beyond just showing up at your regular event.”  This stumped them.

It too often stumps us as ministry leaders.  We have boxes, and we have schedules, and we like our ‘volunteers’ to conform to our schedules and our boxes, and when we get an offer that is literally ‘outside the box,’ we are disoriented!  Meanwhile, people in the pews are hearing our inspiring sermons and taking them to heart, feeling the Holy Spirit’s inspiration and wanting desperately to serve and be useful, applying their talents, skills, and passions to God’s good causes.  But what they are feeling doesn’t align precisely with the available boxes, and they squeeze themselves into the boxes anyway (out of guilt and a sense that they must be the one with the problem, surely not the boxes themselves), and they end up unfulfilled and burned out.

The great misalignment.  It is one of the epically sad misfires of ministry.

The truth is that the wonderfully individual combinations of skills, talents, passions, quirky interests, and life experiences of the people who have wandered into our doors is one of the greatest blessings of the work that any local congregation ever does.

So, the answer to anybody asking a ministry leader “How can I help?” should never, ever be “We don’t need any help right now” or even “Yes, you can help in one of these 27 pre-ordained ways, but that’s it.”  Our response should be ready, even eager, more free form and expansive, an exploratory conversation and a beginning point for what unexpected revelations will follow.

To wit:

  • Keep a yellow legal pad in your desk draw on which you write down projects you would love to see your congregation take on, if only the right person was to walk through the door and ask what they could help with. Have your team leaders do likewise.  In fact, quiz them periodically.  Ask them, “If someone came through your door this afternoon and asked ‘How can I help’ or said “Please give me a project,’ how would you respond?”  This is an outstanding staff meeting or leadership team exercise.
  • Know the difference – talk with your teams about the difference – between projects that have to get done with the folks at hand and projects that are ‘dream projects’ (projects that are not necessary for survival, but that would be wonderful if/when God provides the right person). We short circuit (self—sabotage) these projects sometimes because God sends the person for the dream project, and seeing a warm and willing body, we divert them to the necessary project.
  • Have a clear system in place for guiding people who wish to get to work. It is astonishing how many local congregations have no system in place to help people figure out how they are uniquely called to serve, much less to equip and empower them for that service.  Many congregations, large and small, are still working off a system in which ‘volunteer needs’ are listed, and people check those boxes if they are interested.  Christian discipleship is intended to be a far more dynamic process than that.
  • Have a policy in place in which anyone feeling called to serve is able to engage in one-on-one conversation for the purpose of thoroughly exploring that calling. Such conversations happen in most congregations with a few individuals who get face time with the pastor or ministry leader, but it is much less common that they happen at scale, that they are a routine part of the discipleship life of every single person in the congregation.  And they should be.  This clearly means that these conversations cannot be the sole provenance of a clergy person (unless you are a clergy person serving a small, rural congregation).  Leaders must be equipped to lead these conversations.

How would you answer the question posed by a person who waltzes into the office and says, “How can I serve?  Put me to work.”  Is there a process in place?  Is it flexible and contextual?  Does it take full advantage of the panoply of possibilities present in a diverse and lively congregation?