If you’ve been reading the news, you’ve probably heard the term “The Great Resignation.” It refers to a societal phenomenon in which we’ve seen significant swaths of the workforce resign from their employment in the last two years. Factors include wage stagnation, workplace dissatisfaction, and both safety and fatigue regarding COVID-19.
Churches experience a Great Volunteer Resignation as well.
Susan Beaumont, who writes and coaches particularly around the intersection of organizational health and spiritual vitality, describes the situation she’s seeing in many congregations this way:
We don’t know whether the absence of volunteers is due to temporary post-pandemic fatigue, ongoing fear of the pandemic, or a seismic cultural shift.
The early days of the pandemic provided a natural pause in many volunteer relationships. When the buildings closed and programs went on hiatus, we relied on staff to innovate a narrower portfolio of offerings. It was safer to keep the number of people in the building to a minimum. Congregants were overwhelmed with the demands of work, school, and family—all restricted to the home. Churches grew accustomed to working with fewer volunteers. Now we want our volunteers back, but they are slow to respond.
At this stage of the pandemic, people are carefully assessing how they will invest their time and talent. Job transitions in the workforce are at an all-time high as people reevaluate how they will spend their days. It makes sense that people are extending the same scrutiny to their volunteer lives.
I observe this at my congregation too. As we work to resume, reinvigorate, and revitalize ministries that have been dormant amidst the pandemic, many of our former volunteers are either not returning or taking this opportunity to retire - and reasonably so.
Take Ed Tucker; he “retired” after 35 years teaching Faith Formation this last spring. No one begrudged Ed his retirement, and yet he is one of the faces of the Great Congregational Resignation. The depth, breadth, and length of his volunteer service stands out, but this wouldn’t be a Great Resignation if he were alone. Folks have, reasonably, stepped back from ushering, reading, hosting coffee hour, gardening.
And, while many of my colleagues are pessimistic about this phenomenon, I’m not.
A church consultant that I worked with years ago whose name I’ve forgotten had a theory that vital churches needed to continually be creating new opportunities and ministries because it’s hard for people to insert themselves into already existing groups. His idea was that it’s hard to navigate the already existing interpersonal dynamics and unwritten rules of existing programs and offerings, and so he was a big advocate for creating new opportunities, so that folks would see that there was room for them around the circle.
I see this dynamic in the music ministry of my congregation. Without our experience of the pandemic and the resulting need to put the chancel choir on hiatus, several of our cantors would not have had the opportunity to share their gifts. Our online services gave these folks a different opportunity to serve the congregation in a way that worked for them, a way that was different from the tried and true “way we’ve always done it.”
Don’t get me wrong, one of my ministerial fears is having NO ONE to teach Faith Formation or lead Youth Group. My initial reflex to the news of very active volunteers moving and others stepping back from roles is absolute dread. But recently, I’ve become more philosophical about it. Maybe it’s age or parenting or pandemic wisdom, but more and more, I find myself looking at resignations as opportunities for the church. Maybe, instead of framing this as a Great Resignation, we need to look at it as a Great Reimagining, a Great Reshuffling, a Great Transformation. While we’re deeply grateful for the time and energy and gifts people have given to the church and its ministries in their current shape, the Great Resignation can be an opportunity to update both what we do and how we do it.
Susan Beaumont, the coach and writer I quoted earlier, has a few suggestions about re-engaging volunteers, including streamlining roles, promoting flexibility (i.e. the time / way things happen), moving toward episodic micro-volunteering, and helping people pursue their passions. I think all of these suggestions have possibility, and I also think that the Great Resignation gives us some space.
How do you make space for new volunteers in your congregation?
For some people, that space is made by knowing that there’s room for them to offer their gifts. In some instances, that space will be made by reimagining and reshaping how we share the Gospel.
How do you help people know they can share their gifts?
I know my congregation needs people. Not just to fill someone else’s shoes. It would be almost impossible to do that. We need them to be part of a next chapter of our congregation’s magnificent story, a story of thousands upon thousands of people over the years who have striven to live our church covenant in which we promise to “do the will of God and to make the Christ Spirit dominant in our lives and in all human relations.”
Rev. Bridget Flad Daniels
Union Congregational UCC, Green Bay, Wi
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