It’s no surprise that the United Methodist Church is declining in membership. The church has not had a year of growth in terms of overall membership in decades and decline seems to be occurring among most mainline protestant churches. What we can’t seem to figure out is WHY we’re declining in membership and WHAT we can do about it.
I’ve thought for several years that one thing that would increase membership is something a little counter-intuitive: raising expectations. The churches that are growing (Catholic Church, Church of Latter Day Saints, and Assemblies of God) have high expectations of their members. Catholics can’t take communion without confession. Mormons have a strict moral code and high standards for young people in discipleship and missions. Part of the appeal of the Methodist church is that we don’t have firm boundaries for members. The UMC offers an ideal and logical option for denominationally blended families looking for a place where everyone feels comfortable.
When the Methodists were first beginning to meet, well before there was even a hope for a separate denomination, John Wesley had very high standards for the membership of his societies. One could not simply walk down the aisle (which is, admittedly, intimidating!) answer a quick question (if asked!) and BAM! become a member of the church. John Wesley had established rules and expectations for those who wanted to participate. Beyond simply arriving on time and keeping confidentiality, members were expected to answer (open and honestly!) the following 4 questions during each meeting:
1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
2. What temptations have you met with?
3. How were you delivered?
4. What have you thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
Most United Methodist Churches are not providing a space for their members or potential members to even consider these questions, let alone answer them in the presence and accountability of other believers. Over the years, we’ve slowly lowered our level of expectations of members.
Logically, it seems like the best thing to do in an instant-gratification, fast-paced, busier-than-ever society. People are so busy that the church doesn’t need to be just one more thing on their to-do list. In our youth ministers, we tend to take this low-expectations approach with volunteers as well. We expect little, make boundaries blurry, and have no scale of judging success. While we think we’re doing our volunteers a service, we are more than likely making this more complicated than they need to be.
Volunteers want clear boundaries and expectations. They want to know if they have met goals and if they are successful. Before committing, volunteers what to know exactly what they are committing to. They can’t fully say yes or no if they don’t know what you really expect of them. Unfortunately, many of us sugar coat what we want, make things sound easier than they are, or lessen the commitment level to get someone to say yes.
Jeff Dunn-Rankin imagines what this would look like if we reinterpreted Jesus calling the disciples in this way:
And verily Jesus saw Peter, busy with his day job, and said reluctantly unto him, “Listen, man, I need you to do me a favor. Nobody’s responded to my note in the bulletin, and I can’t get anybody to help us out on this thing I’m putting together. I don’t know what happened to commitment, but hey, whatever. I just need you to spend some time with me once a month. You and Nathanael and Judas could do it on a rotating basis. Look, I know you’re busy, but if you do this I’ll definitely owe you one. If not, we’re canceling the Last Supper.” – Working The Recruitment Process By: Mark DeVries
As a youth minister, I’ve too often asked for help like this. It typically leaves the volunteer feeling under-utilized and leaves the youth minister feeling over-worked. As a youth volunteer I’ve been asked in this way and it makes me feel like I’m simply needed to be a warm body, not an active and vital part of the youth ministry.
We need to raise expectations across the board. Student leaders need clear expectations so that they know where successes and failures are. Volunteers need the same clear boundaries and expectations.
This looks different in each unique ministry setting, but regardless of whether you’re in a large urban church or a small rural church, you need to have a clear understanding of what you’re looking for in a volunteer. Ask for that. Reevaluate as needed.