How not to Serve — St. Peter's Fireside | Vancouver, B.C. 

by Andrea Parkhill
June 12, 2018
11 min read

We’ve been pretty enthusiastic about serving in church on the blog lately.

I wouldn’t mention it, except that I want to make sure you hear this last post of our series as a continuation of that enthusiasm, not a contravention. For the vast majority of you reading this post, you should be looking for more ways to serve or ways to grow in depth and maturity of service, seeking leadership or learning to use your giftings, or perhaps deepening relationships with those you serve alongside.

Please, go, and do, and grow! You can’t imagine the ways God is going to bless you through that service.

And yet, there’s a small minority out there that it’s important not to forget as we call for more commitment and more involvement. Those of you whose hearts have wilted a little when you think of serving or doing more, feeling small and incapable or weary and worn, you are the ones we want to address here.

For any of us who call the church home and family, there are seasons, long and short, obvious and not, when we need to step away from serving to rest and be served. In those seasons please do so, for your sake and the sake of the body.

Because we’re all very different and serving is by far the norm, it takes some discernment to see these seasons.

Those of you whose hearts have wilted a little when you think of serving or doing more, feeling small and incapable or weary and worn, you are the ones we want to address here.

When it comes to discernment, the first and best tool you have will always be your church family, particularly those who know you and your relationship with God well, the ones you walk alongside. Ideally, that’s your community group, your leaders, your close friends, or your spouse, if you have one. If you don’t have at least one of those, find one. These people are invaluable. They’ll be able to show you your blind spots [those patterns and habits of yours that you haven’t noticed] to encourage you, and to support you. They’ll be there to pray for you.

We talk often about the gift of being seen and known, and this is what we mean. When you need help figuring something out, it can be so hard to admit. It can be so hard to give someone permission to tell you things you might not want to hear, and yet God gives us each other because we can’t do this on our own.

Pro tip: counsel-givers should be at least as concerned about you, your health, and your growth as they are about the service you give the church – because we value people over tasks.

For a second discernment tool, I’d like to identify a few archetypes I’ve known – or been – who need to take a breath and accept that now is not the time to serve consistently or even at all. These are definitely extreme cases, given as examples for you to examine your heart and tendencies, hopefully before you fall into the traps described. If these don’t resonate with you, consider if there’s someone you know and love who might have one of these blind spots or need encouragement. Whether this insight is for you or another, start praying and being open to conversations on the subject.
 

Burnt-out Billy (or Betty)

This guy or gal is first up because their case is both the most urgent and the most understandable. He has been serving for a long time, has a lot of knowledge or responsibility, and may share some traits with our next friend, Kelly/Keith. The big divider between them, however, is that Billy is exhausted. whether he knows it or not, he is serving with less and less joy and energy, and more and more obligation. He may be burning out because of overcommitment, too long in one service area, or he may simply be over-stretched in other areas of life, and burning the candle at all ends will always take its toll.

Billy, Betty, no one wants you to serve at the cost of your health, joy, or worship, least of all our Lord. Take a breath, a step back, or even a break if needed, because we love you and want your good. We don’t want to use you or use you up.

Keeping things running Kelly (or Keith)

Ah, Kelly and Keith. These dudes and dudettes are so wonderful. She is always there, can answer any question you have, and can jump into anything. Her attitude is awesome, she’s so responsible and conscientious, and you often wonder what we would do without her. She wonders too, the times she thinks of taking a break or a vacation. She is serving out of joy, but is serving every Sunday, because there is no one else available to do what she does. She may be on her way to burnout, but she’s not there yet.

Kelly, stop. Humble yourself. God has gifted you greatly, but he has not made you responsible for the success of the church on any given Sunday or overall. He didn’t put the world on your shoulders when he called you to serve and love the church.

Worse, when you are always stepping in, always available, you might be preventing someone else from fulfilling their calling and gifting, because the needs you fill are always filled. Look around for those you should be training or encouraging in your service area, and once you have, let them know you trust them with God’s work. Then build sabbath rest back into your Sunday schedule, at least periodically.

Hurting Hunter (or Hannah)

St. Pete’s is a wonderful church, as you know, for many reasons. One of the very most special things about it is its capacity and willingness to care for the hurting souls that every church has, but few of them love so well.

In fact, it’s a bit of a hurting-souls magnet. Some of us are hurting physically – unable to lift things in setup or even click a button without pain, because for some reason God has allowed the pain of injuries to inhibit our natural abilities. Some of us are hurting mentally – struggling with mental health concerns that prevent certain areas of service or even showing up consistently. And some of us are hurting emotionally and spiritually, traumatized by other churches and bad experiences or theology. God can and does redeem all these ills, but rarely on our preferred timeline.

Hunter, it’s time to rest. It’s ok to rest. God is a good shepherd, and you could use some still waters and green pastures. Don’t rush the work he’s doing, and he has given you freedom to wrestle with your full attention during the service, to turn tears to worship. Sit, absorb, get prayer, lift your eyes, and let your family serve you while you recover.
 

Every Sunday Elsa (or Eric)

Similar to Kelly, Elsa is always around, so volunteers or gets pulled into serving in all sorts of ways. She doesn’t have the same sense of obligation or responsibility, she’s just happy to be of help. Elsa is essential and delightful and can be a real lifesaver when someone has an emergency and there’s a hole to fill.

But Elsa, dear one, you need some Sundays off. Say no once in a while. If there’s a need, maybe it’s someone else’s to fill.

Sunday serving is great. You are useful, known, appreciated, even visible, and that can feel great. But Sunday is about all kinds of worship. Serving is just one kind. Sometimes, you need to sit and absorb and wrestle and pray, and not be waiting to jump up and do your part. Sometimes, you need to be in the first part of the service to worship, and let others greet. Sometimes, you need to sing and receive, rather than give, communion or prayer. Take and enjoy those as equally sweet, before you go down the road of Billy or Kelly.

On false positives

It’s a sad irony that those who need this counsel are least able to hear it, and those more inclined to take it to heart are actually quite capable of serving more intentionally. To those in that second group, you deserve a post of your own, but please consider a brief caution.

Beyond the advice already given on seeking discernment and counsel, consider your view of your life and the church’s place in it. Is it a place to rest? It should be. But is it merely a place to rest? There are a couple warning signs there.

One, you may need to consider the letters to the early church in the New Testament, and whether you have been given the fullest expression of a faith community. In Acts, in Galatians, in Philippians, church is a place of profound action and involvement, but no member is ever considered a spectator – it was a family at a table; there were no perpetual houseguests.

Two, you might wish to ask some questions about the pace of your life. If you live all week in the world and come to church to take a respite from it, is being-the-church an integrated part of your life? If your daily life is so wearying that you can’t do more on Sundays than receive, perhaps you are attempting more than God is asking of you. God doesn’t ask us to participate in the life of the family to exhaust us with one more thing, but he does tend to flip the priorities of the world upside down and redefine the proper pace and importance of our time.
 

For The Sake Of Us All

Let’s return a little to the beginning, where I said we are wildly enthusiastic about serving. We are. We are because we believe it is one of the best ways to grow in faith, and godliness, and maturity, and relationships. We are because serving is good for you, good for your brothers and sisters, and the growth of the church is good for the city and the world.

Being served doesn’t mean passivity, but rather it means being active in waiting and active in seeking and receiving care.

But sometimes it’s no longer good for us. Sometimes it’s not spring or summer, with everything blooming about and shooting new branches up and up and up. Sometimes it’s fall or winter, and what the Lord has for you is a dormant season, where he is doing mysterious and hidden things to prepare for the next spring. If it’s the Lord at work, resisting is more likely to cause pain than to succeed in changing God’s mind.

If you’re in that season of dormancy, taking a break is your gift to the body. In slowing down, you are helping all of us to become a place that values health in real and tangible ways. It’s a service to all of us for you to be able to be your healthiest self.

So care for yourself. Seek care, too – St. Pete’s has some really wonderful leaders and Stephen’s Ministers, not to mention our Pastors. Any of those people would love to listen to you, to pray with and for you, and to encourage you. Being served doesn’t mean passivity, but rather it means being active in waiting and active in seeking and receiving care.

In all these things, the way forward is to listen for the moving of the Spirit, whether he’s being very direct or a little more subtle by shutting doors you expect to be open. Examine your own heart and your reasons for serving. This is a place where the ends (Sundays being perfectly presentable) do not justify the means (exhausting yourself or feeding your idols of feeling useful and critical).

It’s ok for things to fall apart, just a little; the Lord can build a better, truer, healthier church. So, as you serve, as you rest, as you work or as you wrestle and wait and pray and spur one another on, be looking for the movement of God and the work of his Spirit.

about the author
Andrea is a huge nerd. She studied drama and computer science and now works in the industry that people love to hate, the big bad Hollywood – even worse, she often works on “CGI”. But really she’s just a huge superhero movie loving, science fiction book reading, visual-storytelling nerd. She’s not really sure how she ended up at St. Peter’s Fireside, she just showed up one day and then kept showing up and somehow ended up feeling at home.

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