Churches: Don’t Work The Body To Death

20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work.

This statement is a version of the Pareto principle and, while it has not been rigorously tested within the parameters of modern Western Christianity, it sure feels true to me.

Think about who most often and consistently works in service at your church.  Think of the deacon or deaconesses, the ushers, the greeters, the parking lot helpers, the kitchen servers and the kitchen cleaners, the children’s ministry volunteers, the choir and musicians and special singers, the groups who organize church-wide fellowship and ministry events…

You’re thinking of a lot of the same folks in each category, am I right?  Maybe less so in a large church where there are more bodies to go around – but proportionally, I’m still willing to bet that there’s a core group of people responsible for most of the service and ministry going on.  At least in my experience, that’s the way of things: every church seems to have a small group of People Willing To Do The Bulk Of The Work, with others sort of floating in and out as need and desire demands.

This post is not written for the People Willing To Do The Bulk Of The Work.

It is for the People Who Let Those People Do the Bulk Of The Work.

That means you, pastor or church staff who thinks it doesn’t really matter who does what or if the same people always do it so long as something gets done.

That means you, church member who doesn’t contribute much because that one group of people seem to have it all under control.

That means you, believer who shows up on Sundays and has no other investment in anything that the church does but who also feels free to critique, and benefit from, their services.

That means you, faithful overseer who always keeps calling the same list of people when you need something because, gosh darn it, you know they’ll never let you down.

It’s easy to point fingers at these folks who do all the work – I’ve done it – and tell them not to do so much.  Be a Mary, not a Martha, we chide.  Learn how to say no.  Draw boundaries.  Be more assertive, for goodness’ sake.  Don’t you know you’re letting that church run all over you?

These aren’t all bad encouragements.  A lot of believers do need to be taught how to say no, how to manage their schedules, and how to draw boundaries and be assertive about what they can and can’t permit, or what God does and doesn’t want them to do.  But sometimes lost in these conversations is the simple truth: we (the bystanders, the people good at saying no, the people who need something done) allow this to happen.

We depend on the same group of people to do everything because…well, we need stuff done, and we need people to help it get done.  We depend on the same group of people because we know they’ll never turn us down.  We depend on the same group of people because we know their good hearts and their consciences won’t let them say ‘no’ to something when we insist it’s for the good of the church or the glory of the Lord.  We depend on the same group of people because somehow our schedules and our needs trump their chance to step back and take a rest.  We depend on the same group of people because everything we want to do as a church has grown more important than the potential burnout and absolute exhaustion of our brothers and sisters.

So let’s stop doing it.

It’s not as hard as it looks.  When the next opportunity for service or ministry comes around, don’t cave in to the easy temptation to call the same old people (who are really so dependable and who will do it on such short notice!) and ask them to serve, or minister, or help, or provide in some way.  Find other people to do it. Let it be known loudly that it’s time for The People Willing To Do The Bulk Of The Work to have a rest and that everyone else is going to have to start showing up.

And if no one else shows up?  If no one else jumps in to fill in the gap?

Let it fail.

That sounds harsh, I know.  But sometimes that’s what it takes.  If people miss an event or a ministry or a fellowship or they want it badly enough, then trust me – they’ll find a way to make it happen.  Yes, even without the aid of the people who always do everything.  God will find a way to work.  He’ll move people’s hearts.  He’ll create something from nothing.

And if no one wants it badly enough and the ministry/service/fellowship opportunity folds?  Well, maybe that’s okay, too.  Maybe it isn’t as necessary as you think it is.  Maybe your church has a habit of multiplying event after event after event, but the growth of disciples and willing servants in your church isn’t matching up.  It’s not a sin to cut back and focus on doing less.

As a body, we tend to delude ourselves that everything we decide to do is absolutely necessary.  The five musicals, the cantata, the eight fellowship dinners, the forty-two different church ministries: we buy into the myth that they’re vital, and that without them we are somehow less.  So we keep leaning on the same people over and over to make these things possible, at the risk of obliterating their boundaries, causing burnout, and simply demanding more than we’d ever ask of our loved ones.

Let’s put a stop to it today.  If you’re a member of that core group of believers that always works everything and always does everything and is perpetually on call and it’s threatening to overwhelm you, step back.  And church body, do everything in your power to allow these people to step back.  Step up on their behalf.  Engage.  And drop what you don’t have the manpower to do.

Let’s enable everyone to get involved and work together for the mutual benefit of the church.







8 thoughts on “Churches: Don’t Work The Body To Death

    1. I’d love to hear that sermon! And yes, I think those two problems go hand in hand sometimes: churches fill up their calendars with tons of purpose-less things, which people are not inclined to volunteer for, and so they often don’t…and, as a result, the “people who work” end up doing it instead.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. In the really conservative churches I’ve been to, there’s always been this unspoken rule: men call the shots, women work behind the scenes. Our churches never had deaconesses, such responsibilities was the role of the pastor’s wife. In some churches she would also be the pianist, choir director, children’s ministry coordinator, and women’s ministry coordinator (she can’t preach/teach, so she can’t have the title or office that suggest leadership in any way, shape, or form.) Women were generally permitted to run the nursery and the kitchen under the direction of whichever deacon was responsible for that particular area. There was one church that had a member who could never say no, so he was always getting volunteered to mow the lawn, tear out the landscaping, buy and plant new landscaping, repair the drive-way, paint the door, investigate and fix random leaks, and teach last-minute at Sunday School. “If I don’t do it, nobody else will get it done.” He’d say. I still feel that the church was taking advantage of him and had made ridiculous rules that prevent most of the body from doing anything at all.


    1. Oh yikes. That sounds daunting. I can’t say I’ve been to a conservative church that has that kind of attitude where the men call the shots, though I know they’re out there. But I’ve been to churches where I’ve seen similar things happen, at least in the sense that one member is carrying four or five major church duties to make everything work. I can’t imagine how those people do it without burning out completely. And yes, spoken or unspoken rules can often go a long way toward creating the kind of environment where only certain people do the work while everyone else feels like it isn’t their place.

      It’s funny you should mention the landscaping guy – I had something similar to that at my old home church. Every time anything needed to be done, they’d call him up. Eventually there was just this attitude of “well S will do it” even when someone else could have or should have. It wore him out, and I think he did end up feeling used, though he never once complained and always said he didn’t mind. It was heartbreaking, and I worry that those kinds of happenings can eventually drive people out of or away from a church.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Good post. Balanced. “And if no one else shows up? If no one else jumps in to fill in the gap? Let it fail.” – YES! and your comments after that. I think there can be an underlying issue with pride – if I don’t do it, it won’t get done. Everything hangs on me. Some of us need to get over ourselves! That probably sounds harsh…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks!

      And a big yes to pride as an underlying issue! Sometimes over time it can transform into this ego thing where the reason people are doing so much is because everyone acts as though, and they have bought into, the idea they are indispensable and “what would they all do without ME?” As overwhelming as it can be to be the person always doing the work, it also can cause a lot of inflated self-worth – or the temptation to believe that your service is somehow fundamentally more important or necessary than anyone else’s

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I used to volunteer at the church nursery on Sundays and sometimes I seriously wondered why the parents couldn’t just watch their own babies during the 1.5 hour church time. Sometimes it seems like churches don’t see a need and then create a ministry, they instead create the ministries because all the other churches have them then try to do all of it.


    1. HAH.

      I think there are definitely needs at certain churches for certain ministries but, as you say, there isn’t always a need for ALL those ministries at ALL churches. There’s a strange keeping-up-with-the-Joneses church mentality that says we all have to jump on all these new trends, and sometimes it creates more work than blessing!


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