Thursday, May 27, 2010

Rethinking Church Programs & Volunteers

I can show you a number of church’s who have several hundred people attending on Sunday mornings, but are lucky to have twenty-five show up for the Sunday night service and even less on Wednesday night. Yet, they keep the program going as is.

Something in our human nature causes us to stick with the familiar and comfortable. Unless we are challenged to act differently, most of us try to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. That’s fine as long as they work. But when they don’t, it’s time for a change.
In rethinking church ministries, some tough calls have to be made. At PCC we are ruthless in our evaluation of church ministries. We follow a simple format – (1) Review, (2) Reaffirm/Refine, (3) Remove/Replace. First we review programs, ministries, and personnel for evaluation. If they are found to be effective and productive, we will then reaffirm them as being valuable to our church and then refine them to be better. But if they are ineffective, they are simply removed and/or replaced.

It doesn’t matter to us if a church across town has the same program or ministry – or even that it worked for us in the past. If it is not working for us now, of if it will not help us fulfill our mission, we won’t do it. And similarly, we won’t reject an idea just because no one else has tried it. If it holds the promise of helping us do a better job, then we’ll give it a try.

Let Dying Programs Die

A main principle in church effectiveness is: Let dying programs die, and put those that are terminally ill out of their misery. Call in Dr. Kevorkian, the suicide doctor, if you have to. But whatever you do, do not let a dying program linger. It will only drain resources, cost more money, sap energy, and demoralize members.

A few years ago we had a ministry in our church that was doing very well. It had gotten off to a good start with a public launch, had an ample budget, and support from the congregation. But after fourteen months and a few thousand dollars later, this particular ministry had went from more than 50 people down to six. It was dying a slow, agonizing death and the ripple effects were being felt throughout our church. It was time to cut our losses and a decision had to be made. And it was.

Cutting our losses is easier said than done. Few of us are anxious to admit our mistakes. So when a program or ministry fails to live up to its expectations, we tend to hang on. No one wants to preside over the death of a once-thriving ministry area. That sounds too much like failure or spiritual retreat.

Another thing that makes it hard to let a dying program die is that every program has its champions. Usually, they are former leaders who invested time and energy into making it successful during the good old days, or folks who were once ministered to by the program. For obvious reasons, they object when we start talking about pulling the plug. But we can’t let that dissuade us, or we’ll soon end up with a bloated calendar, so loaded with yesterday’s programs that we have no energy or resources left for today.

It's time for us to look at every single program in this church.

Volunteers Aren’t Cheap

In rethinking the ministries of PCC our leadership fully understands that it costs money to run an effective volunteer organization. Volunteers are not cheap.

Like all churches, PCC uses volunteers extensively because we cannot function without them. In fact, we use volunteers in many areas that traditionally (in other churches) have been turned over to paid staff. For instance, our church offices utilize five volunteers who carry out a great deal of our administrative duties. All of the custodial services for our building are provided by volunteers. Our campus grounds are maintained exclusively by volunteers. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Every single ministry at PCC is staffed with volunteers.

Pace Community Church has been blessed with a congregation that is willing to serve. At last count, my best guess is that something like 50-60% of our people are serving in an identifiable area of service. I believe one of the main reasons we’ve been able to keep people involved is that our leadership team has been willing to spend money on volunteers.

We understand that the cost of keeping a volunteer happy and well equipped is not so much expenditure as it is an investment. Volunteers have the power to make or break our ministry. If we are plagued by poor morale or constant turnover, or if they lack the proper equipment or supplies they need, they won’t be able to succeed. And any time they fail, we do too.

To keep our volunteers well equipped and happy, we have loosened the purse strings on three important things:

1. Purchase, as soon as possible, the equipment volunteers need. When a teacher says they need a new blackboard or projector, we get it. When our musicians need another monitor or instrument attachment, we buy it. And when the CD ministry gets bogged down, those who run that program get the additional duplicator or faster machine they need. When our hospitality team needs food stuff, we get it. The volunteers who serve in the administrative area have access to computers. When new vacuum cleaners are needed, they are purchased. And when we needed to resource our grounds keeping team this year, we purchased a commercial grade mower and had a shed built to store their equipment in. This costs a lot of money. But it’s not an expense; it’s an investment in our volunteers (and ultimately, our church).

Occasionally, we have to ask for time to raise the money. Sometimes we have to tell our volunteers, “you’ll have to wait until next month.” But we try to never tell our volunteers, “Sorry, you’ll have to make do with the crappy equipment you have.” Eventually, they know they will get what they need. And as long as they know that’s true, they will keep plugging along as faithful as ever.

2. Cover the personal costs that volunteers incur. Volunteering is enough of a sacrifice without asking people to bear the additional expense of child care, training, supplies, or mileage. So we reimburse our volunteers for the costs they incur.

Included is the cost of any training they need in order to do their job better. When it was apparent that our ushers and security team could benefit from a seminar on church safety and emergency response, we gladly picked up the tab – as well as lunch. When the sound-booth crew needed additional information about running our sound system, we paid for a training tutorial. When our ushers and greeters need new polo shirts, we buy them. When some of our adults take off from work to be chaperons at youth camp in the summer, we are glad to subsidize their costs or provide full scholarships.

Not everyone takes advantage of this offer. In fact, many people would rather pay their way and save us (PCC) the money. For this we are thankful. In fact, many people take such ownership of their ministry area that they refuse to let the church pay. But what is important is that the offer has been made by PCC. It lets our volunteers know we appreciate their sacrifice and we’re trying to do everything we can to make their job easier.

3. Hire people for the positions that have the highest turnover rate. These jobs are easy to identify. Those jobs or positions that have a high turnover rate require hired help.

Any time three or four people fail in the same job, you can be sure the problem is with the job, not the people. That’s an important point to keep in mind when dealing with volunteers. If a task is burning out a succession of volunteers, the problem is with the job, not the volunteers. It’s time to break the job into smaller parts or make it a paid position.

Some jobs are simply unfair to ask a volunteer to do. They go too far beyond the call of duty. The people who step forward to tackle these impossible jobs are usually the most loyal and hard-working volunteers. That’s why they step forward in the first place – because no one else will. Allowing them to be eliminated by a suicide mission or burn out makes no sense. We need to keep those people for the long haul. So when faced with a job that has a high turnover rate of volunteers, we try hard to hire someone to do the task.

These are some of the issues I am thinking about right now. As we put these matters on the drawing board and start thinking outside the box, I am confident that we will formulate a better strategic plan for PCC.

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