From the beginning, God said that it was not good to be all alone (Genesis 1:18).It is said that a properly yoked pair of plow horses yoked together can plow much more than double what a single horse can pull, and four horses can pull more than double what two horses can pull. More than that , a team of horses provided flexibility, because the farmer could harness them in whatever arrangement suited the task at hand.
Scripture teaches that a cord of three is not easily broken. And in business, companies will often form strategic partnerships, where they agree to cooperate for a limited period of time for a specific purpose. Each brings unique capabilities to the equation to provide synergy of operations unavailable to either.
Made in God’s image, we are. This “tri-une God, one but three, created a helper for Adam who was also his wife. But the helper doesn’t always have to be a wife. When Moses tried to do all the judging for the entire nation of Israel, his father-in-law Jethro told him he would wear himself out unless he got help. And the Apostle Paul, writing first to the Galatians and now to us, reminds us to “bear one another’s burdens” (6:2), which includes being willing to let someone help you through the tough times.

I have seen pastors work themselves sick. They’ll work and work and push that rock up hill, or try to move the immovable object (the intransigent elder) to support your reforms. More often, it’s an activist leader trying to work the issue by themselves, without support from leadership, other workers or both. The most common result is burnout. In some cases, the leader sees no solution. Can’t quit, can’t go on. This is the point where pastors become vulnerable to their most dear sin, whether it’s a sexual excursion, drugs or alcohol, gambling the rent money, or other erratic behavior.

It’s most dangerous because there seems to be no place to go for help. These leaders of small congregations (or isolated senior leaders of large, impersonal churches) can’t reveal their secret. They will sometimes try to take time off, but time with family is not true sabbatical, and time away without family is often not acceptable. Who would believe a “man of God” would need alone time away from the people of God?

Churches, especially small churches, are always in need of work to be done. Early in his pastoral career, my cousin said he would have traded a pay raise for a part-time secretary. I remember the struggle to get the bulletin designed, checked for errors, copied and folded each week. Without office staff, the ringing phone will keep the small church staff from doing necessary work in favor of the merely urgent.

When appropriate, many of these jobs could be done by volunteers. The value given by volunteers in the church is hard to overestimate. Partly to save on costs, many churches have members cut the grass. One area church uses this as an opportunity for ministry; they have a large campus of 47 acres, and it takes a crew of a dozen on riding mowers and tractors to keep it under control. These men, all retirees, take it as their spiritual duty to keep the landscaping attractive, and use the time after the work is done for prayer and small group fellowship. At Willow Creek Community Church, a similar small-group ministry exists with the crew that vacuums the miles of carpeted hallways in their buildings.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[iv]<!–[endif]–>

A study in the late 90s indicated that 37.4% of Americans over 65 would serve as volunteers “if asked.” More than 4 Million seniors who were already serving as volunteers indicate that they are willing to do more.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[v]<!–[endif]–> While that was a wide-ranging study that involved all kinds of people doing all kinds of volunteer activity, it is safe to assume it is applicable to the church. In a study by US News and World Report magazine, volunteers say they participate “because a) they were asked by someone, b) they learned of an opportunity through an organization to which they belonged, or c) a family member or friend would benefit as a result.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[vi]<!–[endif]–>

However, many in churches discount the value of volunteer labor. The same US News study found that leaders often give away only those tasks they don’t want to do. Jeanne Bradner, a nonprofit consultant in Chicago, says there is a widespread attitude that “anything which is free can’t be valuable.” One survey she quotes says that “80 percent of nonprofit managers said they didn’t believe volunteers could be substituted extensively for paid professionals in non-profit organizations without a significant decline in quality.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[vii]<!–[endif]–>

Another recent poll found that “20 percent of those who had volunteered in the past year said they had cut back because they weren’t sure if their work was helping solve a problem.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[viii]<!–[endif]–> Rosabeth Moss Kantor, a leading scholar in organizational behavior, observed that the most successful organizations help people feel that they are doing important work to solve shared goals, and that what they do matters.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[ix]<!–[endif]–> Conversely, organizations on “losing streaks” tend to make decisions by a select few like themselves, “to be sure the advisors understand (the manager’s) opinion.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[x]<!–[endif]–> The result, says Kantor, is that “decisions made in secret behind closed doors … reflect favoritism, not fairness, and that people are being left out.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xi]<!–[endif]–>

I once volunteered to help out with a church’s Vacation Bible School my first summer there. They made me head of the 5th grade class and gave me the names of three other clueless volunteers and told me to go design my room. I am a teacher, not an artsy, crafty designer. It was beyond my giftedness and experience, to create the VBS experience by myself. My 2 volunteer assistants didn’t show up at work days, and I was floundering. I asked the church leadership for help but was only told just to” follow the instructions in the book.” It was too much for me, and since I wasn’t being given any assistance from the leadership, and I told them they would have to find someone else to lead. They took my books away and gave the project to a clique of women who had worked together many years previously, but were waiting in the wings to swoop in and pull it together. They had refused to give me any assistance until I gave up and left. I’ve taught VBS since, but not there. A number of former teachers also no longer participate.

So there is the dilemma. If you want it done right, so the saying goes, you do it yourself, until you run out of time and energy to get it done at all. Or you take the time to train someone to do it “good enough” so you can focus on more important issues.

Consider: does the thirsty child care whether the water is the most expensive bottle of filtered spring water available or comes from the tap? In an emergency, a medic will use a pocket-knife to save a life and leave it to the reconstructive surgeon to cover over the scar. In my experience, an encouraging phone call from a “nobody” in the church today is infinitely more valuable in time of despair than the carefully worded home visit from the professional clergy a few days later.

Ezra 4 tells an interesting story. The Gentile neighbors came by, offering to help build the temple. “We seek your God as you do,” they said. But Israel refused their help, and the “adversaries” delayed the building. Common interpretation is that that these were false friends, upset that Israel was rebuilding the temple, and that the neighbors saw it as a threat and thus tried to slow rebuilding the temple.

While I acknowledge that help sometimes comes at a price that is quite dear in the long run, it could also be that the building was creating the only excitement in the area, and they wanted to be part of it. They may indeed seek your God and want to know Him. They only grow defensive when their help is rebuffed as inadequate, or even worse a deception.

Think of when Israel left Egypt. God commanded them to ask for jewelry from their former masters, who gave willingly. They left town rich from the help of their enemies. The narrow-mindedness of the people of Ezra’s day could have had the help of the neighbors and evangelized the region, but chose to be exclusionist, rather than just “separated” in their faith. Just because they want to help doesn’t mean their ideas will take over. It may be persecution for the Lord’s sake, but it may also be unnecessary persecution. Failing to find ways to include those who want to help can often hinder progress.

For my 50th birthday, I wanted to host a cookout over a holiday weekend, but my wife worried about the potential of 80 people invading our house, especially if it was drizzly. We moved the location to the church picnic shelter and invited the whole list. Close to 100 friend and family showed up. If I had tried to organize that myself, it would have been a disaster. We asked for help from a social party planner, who asked people to sign up and bring side dishes. I had someone volunteer an extra grill, and had help cooking that many hamburgers and hot dogs. There was more than enough food, and everyone seemed to have a great time eating and enjoying one another’s company, without anyone doing too much.

Karl E. Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe have written about the concept of “mindfulness.” It’s central in the best organizations, the ones that reliability deliver high quality output. They describe mindfulness as a combination of high alertness, flexibility, and adaptability. In these organizations, everyone pays attention to not just one another, but also the habits and processes within the organization to be sure that nothing they do causes harm to the organization, the employees, the customers or the community at large. Everyone feels accountable for not just doing things well, but doing the right things well. They are hyper-aware of one another and how their individual actions affect the overall organizational success.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xii]<!–[endif]–>

Instead of employees, churches have members. Instead of customers, we have those we minister to. But in many other ways, churches are very much like other organizations. In most organizations, the people at the top think they are the only ones who can see the big picture, but Weick & Sutcliffe have found that frontline workers (active lay people) are able to see the needs of the community more clearly because they spend more time interacting with them than the leadership that stays in the church. “In most cases, they see more chances for bold action than the executives at the top.” The best church leaders spend their time training and equipping the front-line lay people to be effective. <!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xiii]<!–[endif]–>

Dorothy Bass says the more effective organizations have a “shared language.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xiv]<!–[endif]–> I’m not talking about the way they drop their ‘r’s in New England or the slow drawl of the deep south. Rather, this is the oral history of a people, both their unique idioms and their common history. When I moved to Massachusetts, I quickly found out that “coffee regula” had two creams & two sugars, instead of just not being decaf. The Red Sox had been everybody’s die-hard favorites, but were cursed because they traded Babe Ruth to New York to get a “power hitter” instead. And although it often snowed up to 80 inches over the course of any given year, warnings of a blizzard still sent people out to strip the store shelves of milk & bread, because (as they said) “back in the blizzard of ’78, we left our cars out on 128 and were stuck in our houses for a week.” Even if a person hadn’t lived in Boston in 1978, they still got caught up in the fervor and ran to the store to get their half gallon of milk before it was all gone.

The act of sharing an experience lets you empathize with the others. Tragedy and disasters, especially, are effective in creating a bond with everyone else who goes through it with you. We went through Hurricane Isabel here, and everyone has a story. I was without power for three weeks, and had to cook every meal on the grill on the deck. The kids did their homework while the sun shined and finished by lantern light. Others had neighborhood cookouts before the meat in the freezers spoiled. (My neighbor down the street had a generator and let me run 400 feet of orange extension cords to it to keep my fridge running.) Other friends of ours had six feet of water in their house and had to tear it down, living in close quarters above a garage for 2 years until they could rebuild.

This shared language was important in 2005 when hurricane Katrina wiped out the Gulf coast, including New Orleans. A large number of people in my church volunteered immediately to go help out. But without any idea of how, we consoled ourselves with collecting multiple tractor-trailer loads of supplies for the region. Half a year later, we used the energy from those memories to create a disaster relief capability that could be called on at a moment’s notice.

Unfortunately, the trend in volunteer organizations in general and churches in particular is the belief by leaders that the volunteers don’t have any ideas worth implementing. They ignore the reality that it is the front-line worker who is most likely to see a problem emerging. But most often, the leader has insulated himself from unpopular opinion. Rosabeth Moss Kantor, one of the most respected organizational theorists in the country, says that there are common patterns characteristic of losing streaks: “that decisions are made in secret behind closed doors, that inequalities reflect favoritism, not fairness, and that people are being left out.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xv]<!–[endif]–>

Dr Kantor notes that there is a tendency for leaders instead to “surround themselves with people like themselves. In a healthy organization, that buck was stopped by someone lower in the organization who felt they had permission to deal with the issue. Rather than having to always be in control, being the place “where the buck stops,” one leader joked he was lucky if he could find that buck at all, where it stopped, or who stopped it before it reached him.” <!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xvi]<!–[endif]–>

1 Corinthians 12 tells us that God has given to the church a variety of different spiritual gifts. No one possesses the full spectrum of what is needed, but rather it is the sharing of the Gifts with one another that supports the work of the church, and keeps any one member from being overtaxed. Dupree notes that “Identity means inclusion. … to know and to be known… to be respected … to be heard.” <!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xvii]<!–[endif]–>

I’m a member of a work-related professional society. Many professionals in most fields join societies of experts to share knowledge and encourage continuing educational development for one another. Mentoring is also part of this process, where those who are more experienced will pass along the “soft skills” of the job. Even – or especially – in a small church, the leadership needs a way to learn from experts. Mentoring and encouragement is the reason behind ministerial associations, and regional pastor meetings. Although some have turned into “brag sessions” or score-keeping, these can be used by wise leaders to support one another.

In the same way, a church leader can use mentoring to train volunteers to do the necessary jobs better. I’ve heard it said that the process of mentoring is: watch me do it, do it with me, do it while I watch, do it by yourself, do it for another learner.

Apostle Paul used described that method in his letter to Timothy, chapter 2, verse 2: “The things you’ve seen me do in the presence of many witnesses, you entrust to reliable men, who will themselves be able to teach others.” Four generations of learning: Paul to many, including Timothy, and then Timothy to many, including a reliable several, who will give that same teaching to reliable others.

I learned how to do home visitation by going out every week with Bill Sisson in the hour before a forty-week discipleship study. He was doing his job as Assistant Pastor, but also he was mentoring a future leader in practical ministry skills. In the years since, I’ve done quite a bit of home visitation, and have been team leader many times, teaching before, during and after individual witnessing visits. The teaching that was given to him was given to me, among others, and I have passed it along – hopefully with sufficient clarity – to those I have mentored, so they can help others.

As volunteers gain experience, they begin to be asked their opinion. People like it when their ideas are valued. They are more likely to support the decisions when they had a hand in framing the discussion or in affirming the outcome. It will be easier to get them to volunteer for something if they themselves came up with part of the solution. It will be more comfortable for them to contribute financially to the organization if that organization values their participation.<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xviii]<!–[endif]–> They have an “equity stake” in the organization and its results. Max Dupree reminds us that “equity means to be fairly treated.” <!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xix]<!–[endif]–>

Shared language also happens in times of celebration. Birthdays, weddings, and graduations bring people together and create lasting memories. They build community without having to go through external tragedy. Celebrations can be created by leaders, and the wise leader knows that to achieve big celebrations means they must also create opportunities for smaller celebrations.

The lack of celebrations can demoralize an otherwise motivated volunteer force. Bill Breen, who wrote about Simon Walker’s participation in the BT Global Challenge race around the world “backwards”, says that the most successful crews were the ones who celebrated the small accomplishments of one another. He quotes one skipper, Andrea Bacon:

“Taking the time to celebrate an achievement — whether it was passing another boat, rounding Cape Horn, or finishing the first leg — made a huge difference in people’s morale. But we could have been better at that. For example, we spent Christmas day in the Southern Ocean, and we did a radio linkup with the other boats. All of them had done something special to celebrate — one crew had written a Christmas play, another had drinks — but we did nothing. The conditions were horrible down there, and we all needed a lift. But the fact that everyone around us was celebrating, and we weren’t, made it that much harder to take.”<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xx]<!–[endif]–>


The celebrations do not need to be large events to build the camaraderie of the organization. Teenaged “Matthew” had never really played baseball, but his new step-mom was an athlete. She joined the church adult coed softball team, and he tagged along. Team members coached him on catching and throwing, and spent time before each game in batting practice. On the day he hit his first single, there was great rejoicing among the team, a celebration for one of our own who was successful at a new task.

Leaders need to be “mindful” not just of volunteers within the church. Especially in a small church, leaders need to be open to partnering with others outside the organization, banding together to accomplish a greater purpose. For example, one church, beginning to outgrow its rented storefront, joined with a country church whose founding pastor was ready for retirement. The country church had a building and land and the expanding city development was quickly reaching out in that area. Neither congregation was large enough to make a significant difference, and both independent would have continued to struggle for some time. Combined, they presented a force to take the gospel to an area with thousands of homes but very few church buildings.


I was helping my daughter Meredith study one weekend for an upcoming science test, and learned about the three kinds of levers: Type 1 are those where pushing down on one side of a fixed fulcrum raises the other side.

Type 1 Fulcrum

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You see this kind of lever in most playgrounds, as a seesaw. It’s a great lever for lifting and rolling a heavy log. It shows the kind of activity where some members of a congregation work to lift up and support one of their members who has fallen on hard times. When one believer falls into sin, and a brother comes to help him get out of it, he exerts the power of God to use to lift the man from his sin. An evangelist is this kind of lever used by God to lift a person from spiritual death and into salvation.


Type 2 levels are where pushing up on the lever pushes the force on the other end.

Type 2 Fulcrum

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I use this kind of lever to pry loose two boards nailed together, like when I did some remodeling in my first house. It was the kind of lever I used to remove the tack strips left behind after I ripped up the carpet in my family room. In the course of teaching the truth of scripture, a pastor may have to dislodge old traditions or long-held beliefs. When a denominational official (or management consultant) comes to help a struggling church, the training and evaluation they use are levers to pry away unprofitable practices and behaviors.

In the proper exercise of church discipline, you will have some people who will not turn from their sin. It could be as simple a problem as people not being willing to exercise hospitality to new members. It may be a “moderate” sin of trying to turn the congregation away from the legitimate leadership of the pastor. It may be as heinous as the sexual sin of an affair between the pastor and the wife of the chairman of deacons. In each case, the church must remove these people if they do not turn from their sin. Their sin must be pried loose from the congregation if it is to be healthy.


Another type 2 lever is a wheelbarrow. Wheelbarrows are useful in my garden for hauling away debris, and hauling in new soil. Spiritual wheelbarrows can be used to haul off old practices and bring in new ideas.


The third type of level is like a shovel, where the fulcrum in the middle lifts as well.

Type 3 Fulcrum

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This is what happens when one church helps another. One lifts up the other and both are blessed. We had a lot of that in our little New England church. 50 people trying to hold it together, pay the bills and maintain the building. We were having committee meeting one day and a painter came by to ask if we wanted him to paint our “shed” (the educational building). Instead, we took advantage of a partnership opportunity with churches from Virginia to come repair and paint that building. Other teams came later to help us convert several of the rooms into apartments, so that we could provide housing to long-term missionaries. When we were called of God to build a new auditorium, we did it with dozens of teams of volunteers from all over. We set the roof trusses in one day with a single crane and over 60 volunteers from 5 different churches! The newspaper came by to see the event, and the name of Christ was publicly declared.

That church now has over 200 members, and is a vibrant member of the community. They hold an annual summer camp that meets the needs of area parents, and the Gospel is preached. Their members are on the front lines for trail bike riders, in jail ministry, sponsoring school-based Bible study organizations, and participating in town social events. They were instrumental in keeping the town sports league from establishing a game schedule on Sunday mornings. And they have become a missions-sending congregation themselves. Immediately following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, that dormitory we had built for visiting missionaries became a shelter for refugees. During floods in New England the following spring and summer (2006), they became the regional command center for disaster relief efforts. The things we had learned by the presence of many witnesses, they are demonstrating to reliable people who will themselves be able to assist others.

Effective churches are aware of their surroundings, aware of the gifts and talents of their people, and celebrate the accomplishments. The shared language of the congregation and the shared concern creates an atmosphere of involvement where the people of God, priests in His name, serve the community as ministers of the Gospel, to build the kingdom of God and to strengthen that local church.



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<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[i]<!–[endif]–> Bailey, Liberty Hyde. The Principles of Agriculture: A Text-book for Schools and Rural Societies (J. Wiley & sons, inc, 1914) p189

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[v]<!–[endif]–> From a speech by Benjamin Akande in Plainview TX on 2 July 97, printed in Frank McGuckin (ed) Volunteerism (NY: The H.W. Wilson Co, 1998), p 7

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[vi]<!–[endif]–> Michael J. Gerson “Do Do-Gooders Do Much Good? U.S. News and World Report 122:26-30+ Ap 28, ’97, reprinted in McGuckin, p87

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[ix]<!–[endif]–> Kantor, Rosabeth Moss. Confidence (NY: Crown Business. 2004). P247 & p 46

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xii]<!–[endif]–> Weick, Karl E. and Sutcliffe, Kathleen. Managing the Unexpected, quoted in Hammonds, Keith H., “5 Habits of Highly Reliable Organizations” Fast Company magazine, 58: 124 (May 2002); also

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xvii]<!–[endif]–> Max Dupree, Leading without Power: Finding Hope in Serving Community, (Jossey-Bass, 1997), in McGuckin, p152-153

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xviii]<!–[endif]–> Barna reports us that people who invest their time and energy into an organization are more likely to contribute to that organization. In How to Increase Giving in Your Church (Regal Books, 1997), he says American’s “determination to give away their money to those in need is a remarkable story.”

<!–[if !supportFootnotes]–>[xx]<!–[endif]–> Breen, Bill, “I Can Only Compete Through My Crew” in Fast Company magazine, Issue 40 November 2000, Page 270ff. found at

Copyright 2008, Harwin House Publishing, Hampton, VA  All Rights Reserved


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