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Missing in Action

Lidonna Beer

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 people to slip out the door of your ministry...and can you do something 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 of themselves. 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.

No Input

"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.

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