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Help! My Volunteer Culture Is Toxic! 3 Cultures to Be Aware Of and What To Do.

Help! My Volunteer Culture Is Toxic! 3 Cultures to Be Aware Of and What To Do.

The volunteer base has become the currency with which children’s ministries do business within our churches today! This movement to, “equip the lay”, has lead to churches scrambling to figure out how to properly recruit, train, and release their leaders to succeed each week. I speak regularly with children and student pastors all over the world and in those conversations, I have heard a range of all different types of needs, environments, resourcing, staffing models, and church cultures. Within these churches, equipping the lay can create all sorts of different  volunteer cultures. 

Cultures within church are legendary topics of discussion that happen regularly around dinner tables, offices, and therapist’s offices everywhere.  Volunteer culture; however, is something I am fascinated by and it has a real impact on the overall health of the ministry you belong to. It’s pretty easy to tell when a volunteer culture is healthy and working. Recruits flock to serve in the area, each event builds off of the others momentum, families rave about what is happening each week, and the ministry leader seems to have a glow about them as they walk the halls of the church, or office. However, I joked earlier about talking culture with your therapist and that is not just a joke. I want to identify three different toxic volunteer environments that I see right now in Children’s Ministry. 

1. Complacency Culture

Complacency is simply status quo + fear. Over the years, different churches have had varying levels of success within their children’s ministry. Over the years, the shine begins to wear off and things begin to shift from new and innovative - to status quo. What I am not saying is that it is wrong to find systems and ways of working with volunteers. Many times, you have to work within the parameters your church leadership has set up for you. Other times, you have found the processes that work best for your ministry! However, the culture infection sets in when status quo starts to be protected by the fear of change. 

I am not suggesting change for the sake of change. The old axiom, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” still applies, but the concern should set in when change is vetoed to maintain the model you used in 1986 because it worked back then. Philosophy changes, society morphs, and we should allow for our ministries to adapt as well. Andy Stanley, Founding Pastor of North Point Ministries, uses the saying to teach this point that we want to, “date the model, marry the mission.” When we consistently view our ministry through the framework of that saying, we can be assured that the message of Jesus is being proclaimed in the most relevant and effective way possible within our ministry. This gives us a ton of buy-in and equity with our volunteer leaders. 

2. Fear Culture

Fear culture is really just scarcity mindset masquerading as control. Fear culture occurs when leadership is afraid of losing position within the church. This breeds distrust within our volunteer ranks and ultimately leads to fear culture. I like to describe it like this - I grew up on a farm with all sorts of different animals. One of the things my dad always taught me was that if I was scared; the animals would also be scared. I took that to heart and always made sure before I went into the horse or donkey stall that I was not scared. In the same way, when we air our dirty laundry and project fear to our leaders, especially our leadership teams, we contribute to fear culture within our volunteer ranks. Leadership can feel like they are losing position for several reasons.

The first reason is always a personal one: the fear of losing their job. When a leader’s personal position is threatened, whether it is real or not, it often results in the  scarcity mindset taking over. The tension to manage then becomes sharing that with volunteers. While it may feel good to get our “perspective” out to other leaders within the church, this poisons the culture and hurts our volunteer’s resolve. Our spouse, our supervisor, and our therapist are the only ones who need to hear about our frustration. When it creeps into the volunteer teams, that is when fear sets in. 

The second reason leadership can feel like it is losing it’s position is when funding is cut. I know, I know; every ministry area cry’s poor every quarter during finance meetings. However, the danger is that it can feel like your space is being encroached. Language changes and phrases like, “If we just had the money…” begin to creep into our communication with volunteers. Again, this signals to volunteers that all is not well and leads to control grabs and anxiety over what the right move to make is. Again, this should never be talk we engage in with leaders, but instead when budgets get tight, it is time to get creative. I have found that when I have had the most creative growth and innovation within my own team; it has come when money is short. This is actually a principal that Google has baked into its fabric. They limit resources within different departments intentionally to jumpstart creativity. Bottom Line: don’t let finances create a toxic culture within your ministry. Instead, use it as a catalyst to create new ideas and growth. 

The third major reason I see that creates fear within an organization is the fear of change. See the above part of this post to learn more about complacency, but when the boss comes knocking with new ideas; many of us run for the hills. This is often the time when instead, we need to evaluate ourselves. This means that either we need to grow and add new skills to our repertoire, or that it is time for us to move on. When we view the pain of change as being greater than the pain of remaining the same, it is a warning sign we need to heed. This can be the worst of the three types of fear culture because this is one where we are directly the bottle neck holding back our ministry. That also means that we are the primary person that needs to identify and work on this to solve the problem. 

Fear culture is a disease that needs to be cut out immediately from our volunteer teams and can be mostly fixed with preventative measures. 

3. Achievement Culture

Achievement Culture is pride inflated by numbers. This is a sad state to exist in as a ministry, but it is also the most glorified state to be in as a ministry area. All of us have sat in a meeting where all anyone wanted to talk about are numbers. The number of volunteers, the number of kids, the number of baptisms, the number of confirmations, the number of parents, (I have always thought the number of babies crying in the nursery to be a worth while statistic to keep. I mean, don’t you want to know how many kids cried in your ministry on a given Sunday……. Maybe not…) are all things that we love to brag on. I am not saying that all numbers are bad and that they can tell us good things to know about our ministry. What I am saying is that when our ministries are judged off of the number of kids in Large Group instead of the number of meaningful conversations that changed lives, we have a potential problem on our hands. What is worse is when we allow this to creep into our volunteer teams. 

I talk with my leadership team regularly and share different numbers and statistics with them that are relevant to our ministry. I always make the caveat with them that I want to hear the stories behind the numbers we are seeing and that the number is simply an untold story and a name. The danger that I have run in to and many others have as well is that when we model to our leaders that the only thing that matters in our ministry is the number of kids and small group leaders - they begin to act like that is all that matters.  Again, numbers are not bad, but if we can’t look past them to see them as a story and a name; we are in the danger zone and are participating in the toxic achievement culture. 

The dark side of achievement culture is that it is really the sin of pride. We can sometimes get our juice from the fact that we have bigger numbers than the church across town. Another nasty one is when we get our juice from having better numbers than other ministries within our church. This is why the story behind the number is the most important piece of data we can collect. It is a lot harder to brag about something like that when you have stories to attach these people to. 

Pride is something that will infect and kill our ministries. There is a reason that the, “Rich Young Ruler”is⁠1 one of the saddest moments we see in Jesus’ ministry. This young man was more concerned about his numbers than the story that Jesus was writing. Let’s make sure that we are safeguarding our ministries by keeping our priorities in order and fighting back against achievement culture. 

Toxic cultures can kill a team and if it is left unchecked, it can actually destroy a church. For us to achieve the “Great Commission,”⁠2  and work to bring others into the kingdom of heaven, we need to work to get rid of these different cultures within our ministry. Toxic environments hurt our leaders and a bi-product of that is that it really hurts our families and kids we serve. For more posts like this, subscribe to the blog so that you never miss another post!


1 Mk. 10:17-31

2 Matthew 28:16-20

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