Balancing Work and Play When You’re Employed by the Church

August 24th, 2013

For many years, my sons and I attended a special Halloween-alternative event hosted by my sister’s church. It was an anxiously awaited event in our family. My children had a blast, as did the whole community. Many of those years, my sister (the Children’s Leader at her church) either asked me or another family member to take her own children to the booths, or her children actually worked the event with their parents. I know it was a struggle for her. She felt like at best she was missing out on experiencing the fun of the evening with her own family. At worst, she felt that her children were sacrificing for her service, and unfortunately, this was not the only occasion that resulted in such an emotional struggle.  

Church staff members are in a unique situation. They are employed (or volunteer) to perform specific duties for the church; yet, they are also members of the body of Christ. They and their families desire and need to take part in many of the activities that the church hosts. But, if they are serving, how are they supposed to fully participate and enjoy the events themselves?

In her own words, here one mother (who chose to write under the fitting name of I.M. Haggard) shares her struggle with one such situation—family camp.

I’m a begrudging camper. I camped a lot as a child and truly believe that camping is better left to others. The kids have a ball running around, getting dirty, ignoring me. My husband enjoys the quiet times and the chance for conversation.

At last year’s camp I tried to avoid working since I paid to attend the event, not to work it. That worked fairly well, except for the afternoon I was sucked into the vortex of the lodge, where the kids ran rampant and generally acted like kids. I naively agreed to check on a child, and when I saw that much chaos, I felt obligated to stay and supervise. Was I effective? Of course not!

This year I was prepared. We signed up as a family, and I volunteered for one simple activity (to avoid sliding into the vortex): a Christmas-in-July party on Saturday afternoon.

This “simple” activity absorbed all my energy from 3 to 8 p.m. It included setup, support, tear-down, dinner, and KP duty. Every family is asked to do some task at camp, and I thought I’d get ours done early. One problem—my husband and the kids left, so I did KP for the family.

That night I slept lousy in my sleeping bag. I was looking forward to a quiet worship service Sunday morning and a nice trip home. Instead, we were assigned to clean up the lodge where the Christmas party was held. I packed Christmas decorations, swept the floor, mopped, and helped with—you guessed it—KP. The others put away the tables and chairs and figured they were done.

Now, am I complaining? Yes!! I was pooped, slept all the way home, and was in bed by 8 p.m.

The kids were in school by 8 the next morning, and I showed up at staff meeting for the requisite discussion of the weekend. The consensus: Family camp is an incredible expression of support, love, belief in, and connection with families of all ages. However, staff members attending camp need to be much clearer about our roles. Are we working? Or are we there just to enjoy our families?

I’m wondering if next year I should go alone and plan to work the weekend or send my husband and kids without me. The others on staff disagree completely. Of course you come as a family. It’s family camp!

You know why this is so hard to think about? This is my church—the one I joined, was married in, and had the kids baptized in. It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve worked there. I’ve run into this problem before and still haven’t figured it out. How do I participate in a church where I’m the employee?

Did I have a horrible time at family camp? No. I enjoyed the campfire with my kids, talked with friends, enjoyed outstanding food, and participated in a beautiful worship service that ended with a couple renewing their vows after twenty-five years of marriage.

But the problem still lingers: Do I play or work? Do I feel responsible or not?

Even through the written word, the bitterness and fatigue of her tone are obvious.

There is an old saying that goes around churches. It goes something like this: “Twenty percent of the members do eighty percent of the work.” I am not sure if that is an accurate statement, but when you are one of the small group cleaning up the kitchen while everyone else is enjoying the desserts, it definitely feels true.

This is not a new struggle. And there are no easy answers. After all, someone has to do the work. However, whether we are church leaders or simply members, there are things we can keep in mind:

Be Organized

As the mother above noted, assigning specific duties can help. When an event is being planned, take the time to review who is doing what, and make sure that no one person (even the person “in charge”) is carrying too heavy a load. If you are helping to plan the event, try scheduling specific times for the volunteers to spend with their families. For instance, if you are hosting a Back-to-School Bash, and your volunteers have children attending, then assign a “floater” whose primary job is to relieve parents for a specific amount of time during which they can participate in the activities with their children.

Be Kind

If you are simply a member attending an event, do so with gratitude at the sacrifices that are being made so that you and your family can have a night of fun, relaxation, or worship. Be forgiving if things don’t go “according to plan.” Say “thank you” often. If possible, consider taking a few moments to relieve a volunteer for a bathroom break, or ask volunteers if they would like you to bring them something to eat. Be considerate. Even if they are paid staff members, think about the time and effort they are putting forth, and treat them with compassion. Consider the possibility of organizing a special event where you and your friends can “treat” those who regularly serve you. This may be a special dinner, a pre-paid family night to a ball game or concert, or some other fun activity. Whatever the event, make sure that those who regularly served are not asked to lift a finger. Find ways to bless the servants of your church and their families.

Be Firm

If you are in a position of leadership, be firm about having everyone do his or her part to help. When someone volunteers to complete a task, do whatever you can to ensure that person does what he or she has signed up to do. When someone fails to complete a task, it is usually one of a few that picks up the slack. When the few take on too much, they become burned out and bitter. If you see someone slacking off or walking away, politely but firmly redirect them to the duties at hand. If you see a group of workers standing around and talking while there is still work to be done, assign tasks that they can complete. Many times people are willing to help, but they get side-tracked too easily. Don’t be afraid to delegate duties.

Find Alternatives

Finally, if you find yourself feeling frustrated with your current position, look for alternatives to the situations you are facing. My sister did this when she found herself frustrated that she was missing out on the Halloween (or Easter or Christmas) fun. She started setting aside a day prior to the “big event” when she would take her kids out for a special time together. For example, while she couldn’t participate in the “trunk or treat” activities with her kids, she would schedule to take them to a corn maze one day during the week before. It didn’t necessarily solve the problem, but it definitely helped.

I wish I could say that in the end it all works out, but it doesn’t always.

These problems, these frustrations are real, and they are dangerous. Church staff members, whether they volunteer or are paid, are a valuable asset to the church, but they are people too. They need time with their families. They need time to be refreshed. They need time to worship and relax too. When they are overworked, they burn out, and when they burn out, they either quit or lose the joy of service. Neither is a good option. We (as church members, fellow leaders or pastors) should not take these servants for granted because if we do, we may just lose them.

Italicized section excerpted from Family Camp--For Whose Family? by  I. M. Haggard. The original article was published in Leader in Christian Education Ministries - Summer (Online) Edition.

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