As a church leader, your primary calling is to equip fellow saints to do the work of the ministry, not to do it all yourself. Volunteers are the backbone of any church. Unpaid and faithful, these many workers are the team that brings hope and care to their community. Without people sacrificing their time and offering their talents to serve, any ministry is limited in its impact.
One sign of a healthy church, then, is the presence of equipped and empowered volunteers.
But there is a tragedy that befalls these ministry heroes; often, we take them for granted. The pathway is common: there is always a need for more volunteers.
So when Jasmine steps in to volunteer multiple weeks in a row, we’re happy to let her—soon, she’s happily serving every week. Over time, though, Jasmine starts to get tired. She gets worn. Finally, Jasmine gets burnt out and stops volunteering for a while.
So how do we end this tragic cycle of volunteer burnout?
One way to better equip and empower volunteers—while also caring for the ministry’s long-term health—is to create rhythms of sabbath practices. Here are three ways to encourage rest among our most faithful workers.
In small churches, it’s common to not have enough workers for nursery and kids. Many nursery workers serve every week and rarely have the opportunity to participate in the main gathering.
To help address this dilemma in our church, we’ve implemented Family Gatherings once a quarter. Whenever a month has a fifth Sunday (four or five each year), our people know that everyone—babies and kids included—gets to be together in the main gathering. The church provides crayons and coloring pages for parents to give their kids, the worship team may play a song the kids know, and the preacher knows to adapt the message for adults and children. Often at the end of this unique service, there is a quiz time for kids to answer questions from the sermon to get little prizes. This practice of Family Gatherings guarantees all kids and nursery teams one week off a quarter.
By the way, some parents are nervous about their kid crying in the gathering. They don’t want to be stared at or embarrassed when their son or daughter causes a disruption. To help alleviate this anxiety, the church must communicate the blessing and opportunity of the Family Gathering. Minor disturbances ought to be welcomed and celebrated! These reaffirming words remind parents they are not a burden but treasured members of the family of God.
Sabbath is a practice seen throughout Scripture. It begins when God created the heavens and the earth in six days, and on the seventh day, he rested. We see the importance of rest built into the rhythms of Scripture and church history, so we’ve instituted Sabbath Sundays at Flint City Church (the church I pastor). Team leaders make it a point to make sure, at minimum, that each volunteer has one week off out of every seven, building a rhythm of rest into the busy life of the church.
Implementing Sabbath Sundays doesn’t seem like much. But I recently talked with a door greeter from another church who shared that he had not sat in the main gathering for three years. In three years, no one thought to give this guy a break. The church was happy that this job was being covered and gave it no extra thought.
Taking rest goes for team leads as well. Everyone understands the importance of this break: the worship leader, nursery director, and even the preacher. One week out of seven with no duties. This break allows for a pause without having to ask for it.
Creating a mandatory rest routine also forces teams to train new people. Someone needs to fill the gap when one volunteer rests. Some volunteers are willing to serve every week, but there are many more who will help less often—once or twice a month.
Some people are willing to fill in when there is a shortage. These volunteers may not lead a team, but they are essential in releasing the people of God. Someone serving once a month lets someone else tag out. A new person may be willing to give up one day a month, but it’s a much higher ask for one day a week.
Serving less often provides a very unthreatening first assignment for new members. Lowering the commitment for new volunteers allows those more-consistent volunteers time off. And the hope is that these new volunteers will catch the vision for the ministry and desire to serve more to see the kingdom advance.
In some traditions, when a pastor serves seven years or more, they get an extended period off from work. This sabbatical practice gives this hard-working servant time to recharge after many years of faithful service.
A sabbatical is also a very powerful tool of rest for volunteers. I once served at a church that closed down the midweek kids and youth programs for the summer, allowing all those volunteers to have an entire summer off to rest and reload.
Recently our church’s worship leader—who has led every week for six years on a volunteer basis—asked for the summer off. Admittedly, his request seemed horrifying at first. How could the church survive without the worship leader singing for three months? As the worship director prepared to take time off, he began to give other younger leaders a chance to lead. They would start out by leading one song, then two songs, then a weekend alone.
When the time came for his summer sabbatical, the church had four different worship leaders, one for every Sunday of the month. They all had different strengths and songs they loved. It was a great summer for the church and the music team.
Leadership multiplied from one to four.
Now that the worship director has returned, they are not leading every song and only lead two Sundays a month. If he had not taken time off, we wouldn’t have known how many gifts were sitting in the pews waiting to be unleashed. By letting volunteers rest, it forces each team to empower new people. It allows the burden to be shared instead of being carried alone.
Rest isn’t easy. But empowering volunteers and teaching them to sit at the feet of Jesus in rest is essential. Building rhythms of resting is critical to everyone’s well-being, including your own. These are three ways our church encourages rest among its volunteers—what might rest look like in your setting?