Pondering Faith

Volunteer Expiration Dates

Expiration dates are on all sorts of things and for good reasons.  We can find them on loaves of bread, gallons of milk, and egg cartons.  Expiration dates are on our driver’s licenses, professional certifications, and even the President of the United States.  These dates make sure things stay fresh, maximize effectiveness, and give us an opportunity to evaluate the need for change.  And these are great reasons to put expiration dates on volunteer positions in the church.

Sometimes we put someone in a position and leave them there until they are used up.  When volunteers are excited about doing good work for God, they begin like a freshly struck match.  Their flame and energy are intense.  Too often, though, we leave them burning in one spot for so long that their flame can sputter and die.  Expiration dates can protect us from burning out volunteers.

Rotating fresh people into positions can achieve maximum effectiveness.  Baseball coaches know how many pitches their pitchers can throw before they start getting tired.  They have a whole crew of pitchers that they rotate in to keep them fresh and effective.  Rotating volunteers in the church setting is just as important.  It keeps the ideas fresh and the energy level high.

Rotating volunteers can also keep programs from getting stuck in ruts.  In baseball, there are some situations when a left handed pitcher can be more effective than a right handed pitcher.  The same is true in church work.  Sometimes we need to change things to achieve our mission.  Establishing a culture of rotating volunteers helps the church to be more prepared when changes become necessary.

Expiration dates are a form of checks and balances.  An approaching expiration date is a wonderful opportunity to evaluate and to redirect.  Every four years, we have the opportunity to evaluate the needs of our country as we decide who should be the President of the United States.  When volunteers stay in one position too long, it becomes difficult to make necessary changes.

We tend to resist expiration dates because it is easier to let someone stay in one spot than it is to find and train a replacement.  But it is well worth the effort.  As leaders in the church, it is our duty to help people find meaningful ways to serve.  And using expiration dates to allow more people to rotate into places of service gives the church community a broad expression of faith.

Dan

Welcome to Church and tea! My name is Dan. I am the Director of Congregational Vitality for the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. This is where I do some reflecting out loud, usually over a glass of sweet tea. Feel free to pour yourself a glass and join me!

7 comments

  • I agree yet also beg to differ! Length of service is not the only reason volunteers burn out and possibly not the primary reason. We certainly shouldn’t make any position a lifetime sentence! But more importantly, we do a great disservice as “the church” when we don’t use an intentional process of calling volunteers to serve–working to match our ministry needs with their gifts, passions and interests. When we put the wrong person in the wrong position, it’s not a healthy or blessed ministry from the start. And then if we fail to equip them for ministry (training, support, providing them with a team, etc., etc.) they burn out.

    Liz Perraud
    The LOGOS Ministry

    • I completely agree, Liz, and I am glad you are adding that angle to the discussion! I did not mean to imply that that length of service is the only factor or reason for burnout. In fact, I have a follow-up post sitting in draft that echoes your concern here. You beat me to it 🙂

      The gist of the coming post goes like this: When I worked for Disney, they taught us to identify people in the wrong position as being “miscast” for their role in the company. Rather than firing someone for under performing or not fitting into their role, they would try to recast the person in a role that was a better fit. The church has some great tools (spiritual gift inventories, Every Member in Ministry model from Frazer UMC, etc.) to help cast people in the roles that God has called them to play.

      Thank you for your comment! You may have even helped to motivate me to polish that post and get it out of draft!

  • I agree with the need to rotate leadership. Here is another angle on which I would like to here of your experience. How do you inspire and find committed volunteers?

    Finding new volunteers for open positions has been difficult here. Members who have served over many years are often tired of serving, even if they have been rotated among leadership positions, and want the next generation to do more leading. Younger members are less inclined to volunteer their time and have so many competing priorities that even when they agree to serve they tend to miss many meetings.

    Other than required positions, I tend to leave positions open unless and until we find someone who expresses interest in that ministry area. But this has left a number of ministry areas vacant or short of people. We developed a 5 year plan about 18 months ago, but many ministry areas are on hold waiting for volunteers. Suggestions?

    • Ron, if I could answer that question, I would be a best selling author!
      Hey, Ron. You pose a dilemma that is near and dear to my heart. If I had a complete answer, I would be a best selling author, for sure… this has been a persistent problem in every church that I have served.

      First of all, I commend you for not forcing people in roles and having the courage to leave spots open. That takes some courage, but it is far better than to put people in places where they do not fit.

      I also believe that if volunteer leaders do not step forward to fill certain roles, that it is a clue that God is not moving in that direction! It may be time to evaluate what you are doing and allow some programs to have a natural death.

      I am currently serving a small church. We have one youth in our youth group. Our church has been preoccupied with trying to build a new youth group. We have thrown lots of money, meeting time, and program effort at the issue. We also have a large population of older adults. We have done nothing for them. No budget money goes to older adults. No volunteers run an older adult program. No older adult planning meetings are taking place. In other words, we have paid attention to where we wished God was working in our church, and have ignored where God IS working! I do not think that we need to abandon our one youth, but I do think that we need to recognize that there is a difference between what we would like our church to be, and what God is calling it to be at this moment. There is a time for every season under Heaven!

      I think we do the same thing with volunteer positions… we fill them because we think we need them. What we really need to do is evaluate where God is working in our church, and work with God and the leaders that God has given us at this moment. It may be that some of your volunteer positions are not currently needed for what God is calling your church to be today.

      ——

      My wife, reading over my shoulder, just commented, “But sometimes you need a second grade teacher, but no one will do it.” So, what do you do when you have 15 3rd graders who need a Sunday school teacher, but no one steps forward? Eek! I don’t have a simple answer! The only thing that comes to mind is to ensure that you cultivate a continuing atmosphere of leadership development so that you are continuing to develop new leaders for these type of positions. For example:
      1. Having set terms for teachers may help people volunteer, because they know their commitment in advance.
      2. Preaching and teaching about gifts, and encouraging people to find ways to use their gifts in service of the church (see membership vows)
      3. Having periodic special events that teach people of the church what ministries are available in the church, and allow them to sign up to help.
      4. New member classes that have a volunteer element to get new people connected to serving in the church right away.
      5. A mentor program (possibly attached to an expiration date program) that encourages current leaders to suggest and train replacements.
      6. Well done training… if I tell a potential volunteer that I have contacted another church that does that position well, and that I have arranged for the volunteer to shadow the other church, it becomes easier to say yes.
      7. Continuing effort of care for leaders. Our church just implemented a system that ensures that every ministry leader is connected to ministry area chairperson, whose main job is to care for and support each leader. Don’t leave volunteers on an isolated island of ministry… let them feel their connection to the ministry of the overall church.

      If I did half of these things well at my church (I’m trying… this is one of those things where I can rattle off ideas, but I am still working on their implementation), I would be fostering an atmosphere of growing leaders and volunteers in our church. If anyone has any other things to add, please do! This seems to be the beginning of a great future post!

  • […] Set term lengths for volunteers. When you ask someone to volunteer for a position, tell them how long you would like them serve. One great advantage of term lengths is that it helps to take the guess-work out of when you will need to replace volunteers. There are many other advantages to doing this as well (see my post on Volunteer Expiration Dates). […]

    • It sounds to me like the real issue in this question is the pastor’s decision. If you have an issue with your pastor’s decision or with a specific function of the church that is not effective, go straight to the pastor and have an open conversation. Your pastor will most likely appreciate a direct approach rather hearing quiet whispers of discontent.

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