by Zach Below
I worked in full-time ministry for about 5 years straight out of college. Then, due to geographical changes, opportunities and a number of other factors I spent the next 10 years working in the marketplace and volunteering in the local church. Now, at age 35, I am once again in full-time ministry.
Let me tell you; as a volunteer I would not have wanted to work with my 20 year-old self. That kid was foolish. He had no responsibilities. He had no life experience. He had no idea what it was like to juggle work, parenting, and everything else on top of that.
I see things much different now. I know I don’t value volunteers the way I should but I have learned a thing or two since my early ministry days. Here are 3 things I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self about his hard working volunteers.
1. Some seasons in life are really hard
That 20-year-old me had no idea what it was like to live off of short bursts of sleep. He was kid free and newly married. He could binge watch Netflix 7 days a week. He had no idea that waking up to a newborn crying every three hours is maddening. Especially when that newborn wakes up his 2-year-old brother in the room next door.
Our churches are full of parents who manage kids while working 40 hours a week and volunteering with the PTA or t-ball or any number of other good activities. Some seasons of life make it hard to stay awake past 6 p.m., let alone take on another volunteer role at church. I would tell my 20-year-old self that some seasons of life truly make it hard to add consistent church service in the mix and that we are putting many of our families at risk of service being life-draining instead of life-giving. Recognize the season, offer opportunities accordingly.
2. Full-Time Ministry is a Privilege
The next thing that younger thinner me needs to know is that full-time ministry is a privilege. I know it doesn’t always feel like it, but it truly is. When I was working in the market place, it felt like I had zero time for daily self-reflection and growth. I tried to find time, finding pockets of 15 minutes here or 10 minutes there, falling asleep as I read a couple pages of something in bed at night. It felt like my mind was held captive to my job and church responsibilities and the scraps that were left got to focus on my own spiritual growth.
That is a sharp contrast to full-time ministry. I am so thankful for my time in the marketplace because it made me truly appreciate the large blocks of time I get for self-reflection, visioneering, and study. My 20-year-old self-squandered that time. I would tell him to always remember that ministry is a privilege.
3. Offer Me an Out
As church leaders, we let people fail for to long. I only know this because it happened to me as a volunteer. I took on a director role right in the midst of one of those truly hard seasons of life. I wanted so bad to be faithful and to do a great job, but I just couldn’t—at the time I just didn’t have the capacity. It led me to feelings of guilt and shame and it just continued to spiral downward every time I told myself, “I’m going to do better this time” and subsequently failed. Thank God that the pastor finally confronted me on my struggles and graciously offered me an out. We talked about my guilt and I felt like a burden was lifted off my back.
My 20-year-old self just secretly judged volunteers like that. There was no compassion, no confrontation and discussion; he just silently drudged on about, “why in the world is ___________ not doing their job.” I would tell that guy that people really are trying. They want to do a great job for the ministry and the church; sometimes they simply can’t pull it off. Offer them an out. If they take it, reaffirm them because I guarantee they need it. If they don’t take it, have enough guts to have a crucial conversation about why things aren’t getting done.
If you are a volunteer, what do you wish your pastors knew about your service? If you’re a church leader, would you tell your 20-year-old self anything about volunteer recruitment and retention?