Building a Body that Serves Part 4: the Pyramid Scheme

I never quite got pyramid schemes.  It’s always apparent to me that the person at the bottom is doing all the work to make the person at the top richer.  It’s also apparent that the failure will always fall on the person on the bottom.  So I’ve always steered clear of them. That is, until I started working with volunteers in the church.

As I worked with volunteers I started noticing a pattern in people and what worked at getting them engaged in ministry, and how they grew in ministry.  I also noticed a pattern of how people would hit their limit at times and then step out of ministry altogether.  I worked with these observations and started creating a strategy that began looking a lot like a pyramid.  I had, in fact, created a pyramid scheme.

Saying I was  running a pyramid scheme in the church doesn’t sound great, but in reality it’s nothing like the schemes that are filled with fraud and profiteering.  This scheme was about helping people be healthy in ministry, and find the right places to step into opportunities in the church. When we recruit for a task, what often happens is we try to find someone to fill that role.  We can often feel pressure as we recruit to get a ministry going, or even to continue it. The result is positions are filled, but we have to ask how healthy the church body is in serving.

What I suggest is we move past our models that equate all roles and all volunteers as equal where a warm body is needed. A standard pyramid scheme is all about the person at the top benefiting.  My pyramid scheme has nothing in common with that other than the shape.   For my model there are two pyramids  – an individual pyramid and a ministry pyramid.     The goal is to use these two pyramids together to help find the right people for the ministry that will fit them best.   Let’s look at both pyramids

The Ministry Pyramid

Almost every ministry in a church has multiple roles needed to sustain and help the ministry grow.   There’s leadership,  the workers doing the hands on ministry, and those working behind the scenes.   If you back up even more, you can see different ministries.  When I was in children and family ministries we had infant room, toddler room, preschool class, first service programs,  second service programs, summer camps, and the list would go on.  Not every responsibility was equal in terms of needs.   I’m not saying those doing the ministry roles have different value, or that the effectiveness of ministry was more or less valuable. I am saying that some ministries are harder to fill with the right people due to different variables.

These variables determine how high or low on the pyramid the role is.  When I start recruiting I aim to fill the top of the pyramid first.  Why? Because they have the most specific mix of commitment, maturity, and gifting.  Those roles are going to need more prayer to fill by the leaders and the potential individuals filling those roles. The roles lower on the pyramid are more flexible.  Perhaps a broader range of gifts work to fill that role, perhaps the time commitment is less, or there is not the same spiritual maturity needed to fill that role.

These roles are more flexible because there is a broader base of people who can fit the range needed for that role.  These roles are important.  However, if we fill these roles first at the cost of ignoring the roles higher on the pyramid we do two things.

First, we run the risk of putting someone in a role that is not challenging them or using their gifts to their full capacity.

Second, if we fill those spots with someone in the wrong role, we remove those opportunities for someone new to step into ministry.   The levels of the ministry pyramid do not connotate superiority, they reflect opportunity.  Our goal in building a body that serves is to help people serve at the right level of ministry that helps them to continue growing in faith and working to build God’s kingdom.  Which brings us to our next pyramid – the individual pyramid.

The Individual Pyramid

This pyramid is less about going from the bottom to the top as it is from left to right.  We often describe faith as a journey, and as we know there are peaks and valleys on any journey.  Each person’s ministry reflects that journey.  The individual pyramid reflects the journey of a person from starting ministry to finishing ministry.  The peak is the point where they are contributing the most through their gifts and skills while maximizing their spiritual growth and impact.

I believe each person will have different peaks in their ministry over their life. Each stage of life presents different opportunities where we can begin to explore how our gifts can be used, where we demonstrate passion and commitment, and then when we begin the descent to a period of rest or transition.

Our goal is to help each person recognize where they are and take the next step.  Sometimes that means introducing someone to ministry for the first time.  Other times it’s challenging someone to increase their ministry investment in time, leadership, or focus.  There are also the times when you encourage someone to step back and move towards finding some rest and sabbath after a significant investment in ministry.

Why is this important?

If our purpose is to help people use their gifts, we want to help people be healthy doing that.  Being aware of where they are in their ministry journey helps us care for them effectively.  There are too many individuals in ministry who only stop when they get burnt out.  There are  a lot of people who are never challenged to take a step deeper into ministry.   We need to recognize when people need challenging to step up in ministry, and when to step back.   Understanding the ebbs and flows of volunteers helps us to be effective in creating a healthy ministry overall.

Putting Them Together

The trick to this pyramid scheme is realizing ministry is messy.  These two pyramids don’t always line up nice and neat… actually they rarely do.  However when we try to overlap our two pyramids we should start seeing what ministry roles fit which volunteers.    This means reflecting on both the role and each individual volunteer.  It means spending time in prayer, knowing where people are at, and helping people take the next step.   The benefit is a growing volunteer base.  Another benefit is more time out of existing volunteers.

When you’re watching for when people should step out of a ministry you can help them avoid burnout.  Instead of them quitting cold turkey from a ministry role you can use them as mentors, substitutes for other leaders, or any other option your creativity can use them for in the stage they are at. I wish this was a clean and simple model… but the reality is life is not clean and simple. Volunteers are not clean and simple. A model that provides easy answers is not one equipped to  deal with the real people in our churches.

This model isn’t perfect… but for me it’s been an effective tool to help build a body that serves.