Some people are impeccable housekeepers. They sweep and mop their kitchen floor every day, vacuum every other day, whether they see any dirt or not. I’m more of a clean-the-dirt-when-I-see-it-on-the-floor kind of housekeeper. When the job clearly needs doing, I step up. I’m more of the spring-cleaning kind of gal.
I’m not unusual. People will rally once around a major job that needs doing. We can call an all-church cleanup day on a Saturday and get a pretty good turnout of helpers. Repeat that again the next week, and participation drops off considerably. By week three, you will probably just have a handful of people. Why is that? People will not regularly rally around a task. The idea that a whole bunch of work needs doing, and we need your help doing it inspires no one. We can appeal to people’s sense of duty, but they will only go as far as their internal duty obligation extends.
I chat with leaders all the time that need help getting their responsibilities done. It’s repetitive work that has to be done all over again every week. Some Christians have an innate sense of responsibility toward the work of the church and step up. Many people, however, just don’t have that, and leaders struggle to get them to involved. Appealing to a non-existent sense of duty will only get you resented. If we rally people just to do tasks every week, they will wind up feeling used.
If our “team” consists of a to-do list on Sundays, we don’t actually have a team. A team has specific dynamics that synergizes it. There are certain elements that glue teams together. Without this glue, we aren’t a team; we are individuals with joint to-do lists. A disconnected team member tends to get an attitude like a teenager looking at a list of chores on a Saturday morning at 7am. It can be a little ugly. So what do people come out for again and again? What makes people feel like they are part of a team?
THE CHURCH SOFTBALL LEAGUE
Our church used to have a softball team that participated in a local church league. Every Monday night, the team would get together and play a casual game against some other church. My husband played on that team, and I spend a number of Monday nights cheering on this mediocre effort of athleticism with a handful of other wives in the bleacher. The team didn’t win often, but that wasn’t really a big deal, because the guys just liked to play for fun. It was a hobby.
Teams that don’t care about winning, that get together only for the enjoyment of playing the game are made up of hobbyists. These guys enjoy getting outside and tossing a ball around a field, but they are not serious about the game. They usually just show up on game day, but they aren’t putting in time sharpening their skills, getting in shape, or practicing their skills. They will never be professional players. If you want to win, you have to practice. I think most of us get that. Hobby teams will never attract great players. Great players want to win. They are willing to put in the hard hours of practice in order to win, because to them, winning is the only reason to play the game.
I can’t begin to count the number of times I have heard the phrase, “they are just volunteers; we can’t ask much from them.” This idea is one of the most sabotaging mindsets on church teams. It keeps us asking the bare minimum from team members—just show up on game day (Sunday), and help us out for an hour or two. We will not build great teams if we buy into this thinking.
People will say yes to a team that wins, even if it means they are signing up for a bigger commitment. Parents and kids say yes to long hours in practice and on ball fields for teams they think will win. They will pay for uniforms and dues and the trips to get to out of state games—with pleasure. This is not because watching twelve year olds play ball is so riveting. It’s because they want to be connected to something that wins.
I have seen highly functioning teams give amazing amounts of time, resources, and energy. Why? Because gifted and passionate volunteers will give just about anything when their team is winning. In the context of church, winning is far bigger than a team getting their assignment done. If completing a task is the big win, people will only give us what their sense of duty affords. They will give us their leftover time, not their scheduled time. Highly functional teams are built around causes that are bigger than just the jobs that we need people to do on Sunday.
We can’t communicate culture, vision, training, or build community on Sunday while we are working. It has to start by rallying our team around a weekly team meeting that happens outside of Sunday services. It’s pretty typical for teams that aren’t already doing this to question whether this is even possible. After all, if you can’t get people to show up on Sunday, then why would they show up on an extra night? As counter-intuitive as it might seem, teams that meet outside of Sunday service actually have better show up rates on Sunday. When we are inviting people to join us in reaching for the eternal souls of humanity and easing their present suffering, no more compelling cause exists. They will come to a meeting if they see the value in what we are working toward, their time respected, and their efforts paying off.
We don’t have to worry about managing people’s obligations. They will do that just fine themselves. They will tell us when they have to work, and when their family needs them. They will freely say no. No one is forced to do anything. Church volunteers aren’t slave labor. People can say no whenever they want to. If we never ask, however, we rob them of the chance to say yes to this great cause.
People will keep showing up when they believe that they are working toward a noble cause.
In church life, every task, no matter how basic or menial, has a connection to the cause of Christ. People cleaning toilets are creating a fresh, appealing, inviting environment for seekers to come to and connect with the church and connect to Christ. People copying of children’s curriculum are investing in the next generation, training young leaders and Christians. If leaders will keep pointing their team members back to the larger cause, then simple tasks become far less of a mind-numbing bummer. It’s our job as leaders to show people what part they play in the body of Christ, and how their work matters to what we are doing. The cause of Christ is simple—to seek and to save the lost. If we will regularly remind people of the why, they are far less prone to burning out. Good church leaders see potential in Christians before they see it in themselves, and help them connect their love for Jesus with a practical work of service.
People will keep showing up when they feel like they belong.
Leaders can’t hand out a sense of belonging. I can give you a membership card, a nametag, a uniform, or a sash with merit badges, but I can’t make you feel like you belong. We can’t make people feel anything, but we can create environments that help our teams connect. People feel like they belong when they are having fun. Nothing makes me feel more connected to a person as when we have had a good laugh together. When real work needs doing, however, this is hard to remember for most task-driven, middle-level managers, me included. We feel this compulsion to keep everyone focused on the work at hand. People feel connected when they are having conversations about real issues they face, or the real issues I face.
People will keep showing up when they know their own value to the team.
It’s easy to get frustrated with under-performing team members. When someone doesn’t show up, or doesn’t do what they committed to do, it means that the leader has to pick that back up. It’s easy for us to begin to treat people who do this with a little distain or irritation. Even when people are failing their team by not showing up, it’s possible to communicate their value. We can be smart with our verbiage, using phrases like, “we missed you,” or “you matter to this team; Sunday wasn’t as strong without you.” I’ve said both that a no-show is not okay and that you are valued on our team. If we just fill in their place on the team and move on without comment, they never know how much we were relying on them. We aren’t just letting them off the hook; we are actually devaluing them.
People will keep showing up when they know that we know where we are going.
Volunteers who serve because they like their job will be committed to that one role, but they aren’t going to think beyond those responsibilities that they prefer. Teams that catch a larger vision for what the whole church is doing will fill any gap that needs filling, even unasked. They will help other team members, doing whatever needs to be done to make sure that the whole team accomplishes its mission. Sharing vision is time consuming, but incredibly worthwhile. Our teams aren’t going to catch the vision from listening to our pastor talk about it once a year on vision Sunday. Every meeting should communicate vision at some level. Vision helps define our strategies, helps us measure what is working and what isn’t. Vision should make the decisions about our annual calendar.
Building a team does not happen overnight. Team building happens one conversation at a time, and one individual at a time. Leaders who are committed to building a great team over a long period of time wind up accomplishing great things for God. Get ready for a slow pace. Team building is always going to be a little bit messy, and that’s both okay and healthy. People get radically saved, but people don’t get radically discipled or trained. It never happens overnight. There is a reason it takes twelve years to become a doctor. Building something that is quality takes time. Our impatience with that process only creates unnecessary pressure that puts people off, so chill out. Chilling out doesn’t mean we sit back and wait for something to happen, it means that while we are working hard to connect, train, and build people, we do it with the fruit of the Holy Spirit—peace, joy, patience, and the list goes on. God is doing something great and he has an eternal time frame, so hang on, my friend!