Sometimes ministers feel that they are carrying the entire congregation on their shoulders and that the church would crumble without them. But no matter how much we do as religious leaders, we know that we are not the church. Our temple are communities of volunteers who keep it alive with their hands and thoughts, their phone calls, prayers, casseroles and committee reports. Without the many hours of service members give to their congregations, we would be out of a job – or out of our minds.
Gratitude is fundamental to religious faith. We give thanks to God for our blessings and sing psalms of praise. But we must also create a culture that recognizes and celebrates the many contributions members make to their religious homes every week.
Of course, it is their duty to shape and maintain their church. Ministers come and go, but the members are the stewards of the congregation. Even so, it is to our benefit to model God’s grace by evoking feelings of confidence and belonging, of happiness, pride and achievement. The more we can find ways to acknowledge volunteers, the greater the commitment they will feel to the congregation, and the more willing they will be to take on new challenges and roles. Volunteers are more likely to talk about their church activities with friends and spread the good news of their faith.
I’ve been in congregations that voted for a volunteer of the year. Perhaps it was motivating, but it struck me as a very fallible system. It was too prone to chance and the power of popularity. So for a while we had an annual volunteer recognition service, where all the committees and contributions were acknowledged. It was nice for members but the lists tended to get tedious. Some congregations have volunteer dinners, and others leave it to the committee chairs to celebrate their members, and so on in a chain of hierarchy.
I support anything that works. I think that we can also encourage and supplement these methods by modeling and facilitating more spontaneous forms of praise. For instance, At AT&T in Jacksonville, they keep sticky pads of a globe with “Thank You” written all over it in different languages. Anyone in the company can write and send a message of thanks to anyone else. In four years employees there have used over 130,000 notes. Some companies create a floating award, like a bunch of flowers or a special medal. The recipient gets to keep until he or she finds someone else that they want to recognize and thank. The feelings of pride and belonging get spread throughout the community and create a network of stewardship.
Some of us are very good at writing thank you notes. This is something all religious professionals should perfect. But why not add spontaneity to your repertoire? Keep little party favors on hand. Surprise your board with a bunch of balloons, or give your administrator a cupcake of thanks. It’s the little things that make life sweet.
Mostly, just keep at it. Change is incremental, so we may not notice any difference. But each time we praise and thank someone we affirm their place in the web of creation. We strengthen their devotion. And we renew the wellsprings of our vocation.