To Keep Committees Filled, Make Church Meaningful

By Donald E. Skinner

Think back to the last time you were asked to chair or serve on an important congregational committee? Did it feel like:

  1. I thought you'd never ask.
  2. I was just going to ask you if I could do that.
  3. A death sentence.

It may be too much to expect that we will be overjoyed when we are asked to take on yet another congregational assignment, but wouldn't it be nice if we didn't feel that life as we knew it was over?

Much of that transformation can happen in the way in which one is asked, says Rev. Mark Bell, Michael Servetus Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship in Vancouver, WA (206 members). "If you have slots to fill and that's how you see them, just as slots, then you're always going to have trouble," he said.

"The Vancouver congregation has adopted a plan of shared ministry that, while not eliminating all the burden of more church work, has reduced it," Bell said. The plan has four phases:

  • Encourage: Look upon congregational responsibilities as ministry. "Everything we do is a form of ministry," said Bell. "Instead of trying to get people to do all the things that need to be done, get in the frame of mind that what we're here for is to minister to and serve each other. People need to be invited into ministries of leadership and service.
  • Educate: After you say thanks to a volunteer for signing on, provide a written job description that says, "Here's what we're asking of you and here are some of the things you'll need to know to do it well." That doesn't mean dictating how the job is done, but it does mean informing them about how it was done in the past and providing access to mentors and books that can be helpful. Tell them how the job will impact the lives of members in a ministerial way.
  • Support: Keep them connected to other people in the congregation who can help them make decisions;. i.e., a program council of major committee chairs.
  • Celebrate: One of the seven major committees at Vancouver is the Volunteer Support Committee. It coordinates recruiting activities and helps members find opportunities most suitable for them. It also writes articles for the newsletter, celebrating individual volunteers and committees each month. And starting this year it "zaps" committees by showing up without warning at a meeting of a particular committee with treats and party hats, just to say thanks. "People really light up over that," said Bell. Twice a year the committee sends around an involvement survey, soliciting people for one-shot opportunities like ushering.

Bell also suggests that congregations ask themselves: "If a job is a chronic volunteer pain, do we really need to do it?" When it became extremely difficult to line up people to make coffee at Vancouver, the congregation hired a couple of teenagers to do it "for not that much money."

Roger Comstock, District Executive for the Thomas Jefferson District, reminds: "What I always tell my congregations whenever they complain is, "If you are having trouble filling the job it is likely because the job has become too big. Figure out a way to break it up into smaller pieces. This works."

Rev. Mark Christian, at UU Church of Las Cruces, NM (126), finds it helpful to frequently remind his members of the church's mission and vision. He uses the pulpit, newsletter and one-on-one conversations to keep those statements in front of members.

It's the same principle used in fundraising. "People don't give to need, they give to vision," Christian said. "Asking someone to do it because we need to fill this slot is not as powerful as telling them 'You understand where this institution is going and we want you to play a vital part in its future.'"

Atlanta's UU Congregation (722), attempts to always have an assistant chair in training on key committees. That way, the second-in-command can move up when the chair resigns. In that manner the committee always has an experienced person as chair. The congregation also regularly provides money in its budget to send members to leadership school and to regional church conferences, said Rev. Edward Frost.

Lawrence Palmieri Peers, the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA) Education and Research Director, recommends that potential committee members be told exactly what the committee does, including how often the meetings are and how long they last and the work required between meetings. Tell them also how long the responsibility will last.

Sabbaticals are also important for active leaders, he said. "It's important for people to be able to say 'no' to a commitment for a while, but this is only possible if others will say `yes' to taking up new commitments."

Ken Wheeler, former District Executive for the Mountain Desert District, said he's heard from an increasing number of congregations who have expanded their nominating committee so that it doesn't meet 'just for two panicked weeks before the annual meeting.' Instead it takes time to cultivate and educate and sort of mentor, individuals who show promise. They take time to bring someone capable along and finally they end up on the board. Most congregations just don't take that long a view."

Ease of recruitment for leadership positions is also directly related to how much members value their religious community, Wheeler said. "If we're able to create a value in membership, then people will stay on and work on committees, but for those who the church is not yet a central part of their life, it's difficult. My advice to a church that has committee problems is—you do community well and people will feel rewarded and they will invest time at the next opportunity."

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

For more information contact .