Raising the bar

At my last church, one of the first things that I did was recall the history of the congregation with an elder. She was sharp, insightful, and honest. I appreciated the way that she could come to quick assessments of each pastor. There was one in the history that people rarely talked about, but she didn’t hesitate. She began by saying, “He made me a better leader.”

“Really? How?” I asked. Curious to hear more about the pastor.

“He just expected a lot out of us.”

Later on, when I shuffled through his files, I could see that he expected a lot from them and from himself.

This stuck with me. I’m not sure I’m that great at expecting a lot out of people. I often say, “Well… you know… they’re volunteers.” Meaning, you have to learn to settle, you can’t be too disappointed in the quality of work, you just have to appreciate what you get, and realize the fact that you can never fire them.

But I’ve been wondering lately if I’m going about this wrong. I think I need to have a long chat with Miriam’s Kitchen chef, Steve Badt. Miriam’s is the feeding and social services organization in our church, and if there’s one thing that I notice (even though I can’t volunteer much there myself), it is that Steve expects a lot from the volunteers. He expects high quality food, served with the utmost consideration, and he’s an absolute stickler about the health and safety of the clients. He expects a lot and he appreciates them a lot. And they have a waiting list for volunteers.

Now… I don’t know about you, but I have never, ever heard of a feeding program where you have to get there by 6:00 a.m. to serve the homeless, and it has a waiting list for volunteers.

Last Sunday night, as the college students gathered together for music and dinner, we heard from Amiko Rorick, who works as a Special Assistant to the CEO on Strategic Initiatives at the Corporation for National and Community Service. In her role, she focuses on ways to further engage students in communities. In short, she’s an expert on volunteerism.

She talked about a trend that seems very interesting. Typically, we have the idea that we should hire people for the tough, skilled jobs, and then use volunteers for the mindless work. But research is showing that for every 5 volunteers who sign up, only 2-3 actually stick with it. When trying to figure out why, they find that volunteers disengage because they feel useless, like their skills and gifts are not truly being tapped. They’re not challenged enough. And so non-profits are starting to look at things differently.

They are finding volunteers for the difficult jobs and hiring people for the mindless ones. They expect more from their volunteers, and the volunteers are happier.

So what works for you? Do you have high expectations? What do you do to appreciate your volunteers? Are you able to keep them engaged? How do you manage to raise the bar?


2 thoughts on “Raising the bar

  1. Carol, I am back about language.

    In reason years there has been a switch to talking about members of local churches as volunteers. What does this say about the meaning of membership and the reformed tenet of “the priesthood of all beleivers”? And how does this jive with the Biblical concept of spiritual giftedness and the research that would suggest if church members (ministers) are working out of their passions and giftedness then we would have less burnout and more people working to build the kingdom in their small sphere of the world?

    For me one of the questions that need to be asked is, “is there a colloration between the professionalism of the clergy and an accompaning lessening of membership expectations that has lead to a vacuum of lay leadership in churches?” Don’t many Sessions and congregations continue to believe that this is the reason pastors are hired (too rarely do we hear the word call anymore). After all, they would say, isn’t it the pastor’s job to do the work of the church, preach, make sure the buildings are locked after Worship, etc.

    Although I,like you, have problems with some of what Toby writes over at A Classical Presbyterian, he did a great series, IMHO, on the Images of Pastoral Role that Must Die . . . pointing out how these are ineffective in pastors being partners with local congregations in carrying out the mission of the local church and the Mission of the Church.


  2. Thanks, Lydia. I appreciate your insight. Interesting to note that “volunteer” comes from the word “will,” and it’s etymology indicates that a person is doing something out of his/her free will. The opposite of our reformed view of “calling.”

    That being said, I don’t have a problem with the words “volunteer” or “job” (which you’ve taken issue with on other posts) or “hired.”

    For me, my annoyance comes when we over-spiritualize things.

    Sometimes we make bad financial decisions in the church (just got back from a Presbytery meeting) and say, “We have to have faith.”

    Or we use the idea of “calling” to underpay our pastors.

    But, it is a very personal thing as well. For instance, on most days, I feel called to my ministry. Deeply called by God. But other days, it’s a job. At those times I just need to show up and get my work done. Then I need to go home, and leave my headache at the office. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    As someone who is also married to a pastor, who writes about church for fun, and who puts too much emphasis on allowing my particular call to define me as a person, I often need to remind myself, “It’s a job.”

    But I think of jobs as important too. Regular, ordinary jobs can be sacred.

    The other thing that I worry about is the vocabulary or thought bubble that we can create. I usually don’t like to use church words for things if a regular word will work. You know… we don’t have a “fellowship hall” in our church. We do have volunteers.

    I’m sure it also has to do with the number of unchurched people in our congregation as well.

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