Children’s ministry volunteers are loving, caring people who are…leaving? As much as we strive to recruit and keep them, volunteers all too often make the decision to leave their positions. The real reasons the high turnover of children’s ministry might not always be clear, but we have to dig deep to discover the reasons so we can hang on to our fantastic volunteers. What’s causing volunteers to quit, to slip out the door of your ministry? And what can you do about it?
The Struggle With Fatigue
Being an active part of Sunday mornings has its downside: Many of those in ministry find very little opportunity to attend a worship service. Especially in smaller churches where worship time is on-duty time, spiritual stagnation creeps in. Children’s ministry volunteers risk not nourishing themselves in Christian community.
Many people who’ve left children’s ministry report feeling caught in a “cycle.” The hours, the people, and the church culture create a trap for giving natures; it’s easier to get in too deep than it is to pull back. Even the things doctors tell everyone to do — such as getting enough rest and exercising on a regular basis — become extra tasks squeezed out by ministry commitments. It’s a path to physical exhaustion and spiritual collapse.
To counteract the exhaustion cycle, help volunteers commit to health by recommending the following things.
Keep reasonable hours. Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” in Matthew 9:37, but he still left the crowds to refresh himself. Help your volunteers control their schedules by not allowing them to overcommit to children’s ministry.
Take care. Exercise may seem too time-intensive, but the energy boost helps people focus more clearly and relax when stress is unavoidable. In addition to recommended exercise, encourage your volunteers to eat regular, healthful meals — and not just potlucks!
Attend regular worship times. It’s critical that volunteers have time to worship. If you have multiple services on Sunday mornings, this is easier to accomplish. If not, encourage your volunteers to attend a midweek service so their worship becomes an uninterrupted love song to God.
Balancing Ministry With Family
“There are beautiful Christian people who, if you’re not careful, will run you to exhaustion,” says a former children’s minister.
Children’s ministry can attract people who need to be needed — to a fault. These people don’t know when to say no and can overcommit to the point that their families suffer. Other than having a heart-to-heart talk with these “burn out” rather than “rust out” volunteers, try these ideas.
Do the simple math. New commitments mean new demands. If there’s going to be an addition to your list, there must be a subtraction. Encourage overcommitted volunteers to decide what to let go of before taking on a new task. Find an alternative position. If a volunteer simply can’t scale back to what his or her family needs in this life stage, help the person look for another way to serve. Having written expectations and agreed-upon hours can prevent guilt and miscommunication. Match prayer partners. In addition to prayer support, ask partners to be accountability partners. Encourage honesty if one person is becoming off-kilter. One person who left children’s ministry says a prayer partner needs to be someone with similar experience. Praying with someone who understands provides a more sympathetic ear.
“It wasn’t until I was walking out the door that I was listened to,” says a former children’s minister. “There were too many layers between the senior pastor and myself for him to even know there was a problem.”
When people give their time and hearts to a ministry, they develop ideas about the program. God speaks to everyone he calls, so don’t frustrate others’ urge to improve the ministry. Of course not all ideas will be used, but do your volunteers know why some things make the cut and others don’t? Be wary of the attitude that volunteers aren’t as knowledgeable as your hired staff. Taking “just one of the moms” for granted increases the chances that she won’t return.
To invite your volunteers’ input:
Rely on representation. Anywhere there are church decisions being made, plant a person with children’s concerns in mind. Consider creating a committee made up of children’s workers who volunteer to attend other committees’ meetings. Initiate changes wisely. Ask people for input rather than telling them what you think should happen. And don’t ask just to be asking; be genuinely open to their ideas as you shape a new direction.
In the life of a church, many types of growing pains can impact your children’s ministry. It may be a staffing change that’s big enough to alter the church or program’s face, such as the senior pastor moving on or a founder of your ministry leaving. Building projects can be especially brutal. The division of attention and labor can overload many who are called to ministry. When the extra work isn’t managed well, problems snowball.
Programming changes that shift people or increase expectations are dangerous to those who are already considering leaving. If they don’t have the training for the new ministry, or if they’ve been left out of the loop, volunteers find it easier to walk away.
To gain volunteers’ support in times of upheaval:
Keep up with trends. Challenge yourself to be a positive force in the direction of your children’s ministry. Don’t be content just because everyone else is. And share these trends with your volunteers so they continue to strive for excellence.
Stay connected locally. Church upheaval can leave you discouraged, too. So stay connected to stay encouraged. Networking is the most structured way to do this. Create or find a group of children’s ministers who agree to meet on a regular basis. Having outside support will be invaluable when your home church is shifting. And an encouraged leader is better able to encourage volunteers.
Seek ongoing training. Ask your church to provide finances for you and your volunteers to attend conferences and other learning opportunities. As in the two previous points, finding new people and new ideas is important and provides a base that won’t be torn down by big changes.
Leaving is a hard decision when it’s carefully pondered. Make sure you help your volunteers make the right decision with these tips.
Conduct “exit interviews” with people who are leaving. Exit interviews demonstrate that you’re concerned about a volunteer’s future as a fellow Christian, not just concerned about how you’re going to fill the spot. Exit interviews also provide valuable information for you to improve your ministry. Encourage a sabbatical.
“My best advice is that when you have someone you really want to keep, tell them to take a sabbatical,” says one former children’s minister. “Before you quit, take some time off to really reflect before you make that final decision.” Emotion and fatigue can cause a volunteer to leave when what’s really needed is a long break. Do you give summers off? Do volunteers even have weeks off? Help people plug in elsewhere. Realize that those who leave children’s ministry still hunger for a strong relationship with Christ. They might return to serve in your ministry in the future or find somewhere else that’s more specific to their call. God gives each person talents, and even the best fit may not be permanent.
Lidonna Beer was an assistant editor for Children’s Ministry Magazine.