This summer, I had to say “no”. Had it been a professional context, it would have been much easier. I’d have deployed my top tips - do it quickly, don’t create false hope, never say you’ll think about it, don’t beat about the bush or offer a list of lame excuses, remember you are allowed to have boundaries and “no” is a complete sentence. But when I got a message asking me to get involved in a church organisation re-starting in the autumn, my heart sank. The person who asked had worthy intentions, I like them very much, I fully understand they are struggling to find additional support, a lack of succession planning means they will likely have to identify their own replacement should they wish to step down at any point. I was crippled with guilt. Even though I had valid practical reasons, a solid rationale, I wrestled with saying “no”. I felt weighed down with psychological baggage. Would it look like I was unwilling to serve? Was I being selfish? Was I saying “no” to God? What about sacrificial giving? Is it not meant to be hard? What if the organisation couldn’t function without me? Would I be responsible for children having nowhere to go on a Monday evening?
As September looms, and churches greet their first post-pandemic calendar of activities, with no limitations on what can and can’t return, there is also a potential crisis looming in relation to the continued availability and willingness of people to serve. Churches have often used the Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule (80% of output in any given system is determined by 20% of the input) to describe the nature of their serving population. We will regularly hear that 20% of a congregation do 80% of its work. Therefore, the conclusion is that 80% of the congregation are passive, disengaged and peripheral as they do not actively serve inside the church. Basically, they are consumer-like, popping in on Sunday and doing nothing during the week, they want fed, entertained. But this is dangerously simplistic - perhaps 80% are better at setting boundaries, are more discerning about what they engage in, or are serving in a multitude of roles outside the church. I have heard much lamenting about why people are deciding they no longer want to serve - they have different priorities now, they want to spend time with family, they prefer online, they are stretched too thin, but I am yet to see effective management of the situation - strategic re-evaluations of church schedules, a pruning, a return to basics, depth instead of breadth.
As I typed a response and tried to frame my “no” in as holy a way as possible, I knew despite all those valid reasons, I was mainly saying “no” because I just couldn’t go back to how I felt before. Because, it was usually on the Sabbath, the day of rest, that my panic about the week ahead would set in.
I’ve never been good at ignoring a request for help - a call from the pulpit, an urgent notice in the weekly email, a massive plea in the order of service and I fully believe it’s directed at me. My husband would roll his eyes in despair as yet another announcement for volunteers was made and I leaned forward in the pew, poised to speak to someone at the end of the service.
Even though I was juggling four children under the age of seven, a full-time job, a never-ending basket of ironing and a to-do list the length of both my arms, I found myself running a créche in one congregation and managing a section of the Girls’ Brigade in another. Add in a few random committees and a ‘home group’ to ensure I ticked the spiritual box and I could be out of the house for four nights in a row. I’d arrive home late, exhausted, collapse into bed and wonder why I was so bad at daily devotions.
It was the white envelopes that tipped me over the edge. Because volunteers liked to stick a copy of the rota to their fridge, I’d print fifty copies and then spend a number of Sundays trying to track each person down to hand them over. Rather than listening to the sermon or to the still, small voice of God, I’d be scanning the balconies, mentally preparing the most expedient route to get rid of as many as possible after the benediction.
Church kept me fit. In between circuits of the building chasing people, I’d rummage aggressively in cupboards to check there were adequate supplies of nappies, wipes, juice, biscuits. I’d be frustrated by the store jam-packed with equipment that needed yet another clear-out. I performed the same duties at church as I did at home. There was an awful lot of tidying up. Tuesdays were a killer. Like some sort of manic Anneka Rice, I’d do my weekly ‘beat-the-clock’ challenge. I’d leave work, speed down the motorway, yank the children from their various childcare arrangements, chuck dinner in mouths whilst grabbing sieves and saucepans, glue sticks and crêpe paper. Despite being neither creative nor artistic and lacking any cookery skills whatsoever, I’d rustle up a varied programme for all the girls that weren’t mine at Girls’ Brigade. My car boot was permanently stuffed with a buggy, booster seats, plastic crates and craft supplies.
Looking back, I’m not sure why I believed this relentless busyness was what I had to do to please God, I’m not sure why I was doing things I wasn’t very good at and I’m not even sure if we are allowed to have boundaries at church. As I write this, I am concerned that I sound negative, somewhat resentful, terribly un-Christian. It is not that I am unwilling to serve, it is just that after much soul-searching, I realise that I primarily served from a place of guilt, I filled gaps and I rarely used my gifts. I was spiritually hungry yet administratively consumed. Recently, I listened to a number of talks at a Christian conference. Most highlighted how important it is to prioritise intimacy with God. I wholeheartedly agree but personal intention has to meet corporate responsibility. We can’t individually flourish if perpetual cycles of church activity drive us to burnout.
Last year, I moved to a new church. I should emphasise that I did not run away from the old one to escape serving, far from it, but this ‘break in service’ plus pandemic restrictions have given me the opportunity to review how I best serve going forward. Here are the three questions I now ask myself….
Am I feeling guilty or am I feeling called?
There is a huge difference between feeling guilty and feeling called. To proceed on the basis of guilt is foolish. How will I know if it’s a calling? I guess my heart will not sink.
Am I filling a gap or am I plugging a gap?
Often churches will look for ‘extra bodies’ to fill gaps in what already exists. How much better would it be if churches looked at how their resources enable them to plug gaps as they emerge? We cannot under-estimate the trauma that needs processed as a result of Covid. Maybe it’s less about continuing existing programmes and more about churches stepping in to provide safe spaces - no script, no agenda, just community and conversation.
Am I using my gifts?
Quite simply, I want to be able to use my true gifts. I’m a mum with children but children’s work is not my gift. I am organised but I can do more than stuff envelopes. I can write ideas better than I can write rotas!
If I am serving out of guilt, I do not have the right motivation. If I am serving just to fill a gap, I am not the right person. If I am called to use my gifts to plug a gap, then I am probably serving in the right place.
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”¹.
I find this focus on guilt, gaps and gifts helps me to know when it’s ok to say “no”. After all, whether church or not, “no” is still a complete sentence!
 Frederick Buechner (11 July 1926 - 15 August 2022) said it best.