If you lead a volunteer organization, your biggest challenge is not money. Your biggest challenge is finding motivated volunteers. And by motivated, I mean motivated to be responsible.
Congregations are structured by committees. Committees are lead by volunteers who support the mission of the organization. But not every volunteer is motivated to do the work. So, congregations are often a mix of committees where some function at a higher level while others struggle to accomplish their objectives. What makes the difference? It is the motivation of the volunteers.
There are basically three ways people develop motivation. The first two are about external motivating factors. We all find motivation and inspiration from other people. People who are charismatic can often motivate the unmotivated. This is why charismatic leaders are so popular. The second way people are motivated is when they become uncomfortable with the way things are. If one is uncomfortable with the direction (or lack thereof) of an organization, they become motivated to make things better. Like the first example, this is an external motivator because the motivation is based on a perceived assessment of the organization.
Dr. Murray Bowen observed this external process of motivation in the family. He described it as an over/under reciprocity or over/under reciprocal functioning. The basic idea is that behavior occurs reciprocally in a relationship system or emotional unit (like the family). Bowen observed that one spouse will overfunction, and the other spouse lets them overfunction. The more one does for the other, the less the other does for them self. These same patterns are extended to other relationship systems. If one’s tendency is to underfunction in the family, they will more than likely bring this same pattern to the congregation. If a leader underfunctions on a committee, others on the committee may find themselves taking on more responsibility (doing the things that leader can do). If a leader overfunctions in the family, in the committee they may take on more responsibility than is needed.
It’s helpful to note that anxiety drives this reciprocal process of over/underfunctioning. As one becomes consumed with worry and fear, other picks up the anxiety and each person shifts into doing either more or less. The reactivity to anxiety to do more or do less is the product of a multigenerational family emotional process. In a way, one learns these patterns from one’s family of origin over the generations. The reactivity is automatic in the sense that very little thinking and awareness go into this response. It just happens.
The third example of motivation is what Dr. Bowen identified in the concept of differentiation of self. When an individual is clear about core principles and a life direction, they are motivated to do the work. It is an internal motivation because it comes from within the self. This type of motivation is not determined by the motivation (or lack of motivation) of others but instead is based on a clear understanding of one’s beliefs and direction. The focus of this type of motivation is less on others and more on self. However, it is not selfish. In fact, this type of motivation enables one to be more available to others.
In congregations, some people use the word motivation and calling interchangeably. To find motivation is to rediscover one’s calling into ministry. Again, one's “calling” can be caught up in the reciprocal back and forth process of the relationship system. One might feel called in response to what others are doing or not doing. A true calling is something one pursues with or without others. Leadership can be lonely.
When an organization is full of motivated people, the work they do together is less complicated. When I think back on the many years my kids played soccer, it was easy to tell which kids were motivated to play. The motivated kids excelled and were able to step up when challenged. Less motivated kids depended more on the coach. They did not excel as quickly. A good coach can tell which players are motivated and then knows how to both motivated and train their players. In a congregation, a pastor can tell who is motivated and who needs to be motivated.
The congregation I serve created a new process to identify motivated leaders. If someone is interested in serving on the top leadership team, they must go through an application process. Applicants fill out a form and provide written answers to questions. The questions are designed to help an applicant reflect on their motivation for serving, consider their gifts and talents, and discern if they are called to be on the leadership team. Once the application is completed, applicants are then interviewed.
For many years, the process of filling a volunteer leadership position in the church was accomplished by externally motivating people to serve. It’s sometimes referred to as arm twisting. The result often left unmotivated individuals sitting in positions of responsibility accomplishing very little. This new process addresses the problems with motivation. Is this person applying for a leadership position because the congregation needs someone in that position or because the individual is self-motivated to do the work? And if they are motivated, is it because the work is important to them or because they are anxious and worried about the organization? The answers to these questions can have different outcomes.
The ideal candidate for a volunteer position in the church is someone whose personal goals, beliefs, and life direction is in line with the congregation's goals, beliefs and direction. There may be differences over the details. But in general, what is important to the individual is important to the congregation. In this way, the calling (and motivation) of the individual supersedes the needs of the organization. The individual will pursue what motivates them whether the congregation accepts them as a volunteer or not. One could make the case that a thriving congregation is simply a collection of individuals who are self-motivated to pursue their calling in life. And to that, I say Alleluia! Amen!