The Over-Enthusiastic Volunteer Syndrome

Damaged Spanish Jesus fresco

One of the best characteristics of many Small Churches is that everyone wants to pitch in.

One of the worst characteristics of many Small Churches is that everyone wants to pitch in.

Sometimes that volunteer spirit has great results. Sometimes…not so much.

The split-screen photograph in this post is an especially hilarious example of the not-so-much part.

On the left side is a small fresco of Jesus, painted by Elias Garcia Martinez in the 19th century. It has hung on the wall of the Santuario de Misericodia church in Borja, Spain for over 100 years.

It’s a beautiful painting that became seriously damaged from weathering over the last century-plus.

In 2012, the granddaughter of the artist decided to donate the painting to a local archive. But when the archivists showed up to assess it, what they found shocked them. Someone had painted over the existing fresco, leaving it looking like the deformed figure on the right side of the photo.

After the desecration was made public, an 85-year-old church member named Cecilia Giménez confessed that she was the unintentional vandal. She’d been upset by the fresco’s wear-and-tear, so she grabbed brushes and paint and went to work “fixing” it.

Not being an artist herself (oh sure, it’s obvious now!), she told them the project “got out of hand” almost immediately, so she kept adding more paint in a futile attempt to repair her repair.


Only in a Small Church

When I read about this incident a few months ago, I immediately had one response…

…only in a Small Church.

If you’ve been in a Small Church for very long, you’ve experienced it, too. The Over-Enthusiastic Volunteer Syndrome.

We’ve all dealt with…

  • The musician who’s more passionate than talented
  • The repair-person who’s more likely to break things than fix them
  • The newcomer who promises to be the best helper you ever had, only to disappear as quickly as they showed up.


Adding Insult to Injury

By the way, if you’re thinking it was unkind of me to expose this well-intended elderly lady by telling you her name, I agree. Most news outlets initially left her name out of the story for just that reason.

But recently, this strange saga has taken an even stranger turn. After turning a beautiful fresco into what people have call “Beast Jesus”,  “Werewolf Jesus” and “Monkey Jesus”, the Over-Enthusiastic Volunteer is demanding the church pay her for her work.

You read that right. She wants to be paid!

Why? Well, the news exposure about her faux pas (I think that’s French for Only In a Small Church) has turned the fresco into a tourist attraction.

The tourism has increased church donations. And Cecilia Giménez wants a cut.

That’s right. A cut. Of her church’s offerings. As a reward for vandalizing church property.

So, what can we learn from this twisted tale? Here’s my eight cents:

    1. With some volunteers, we need to hide the paint
    2. When the paint isn’t helping, stop painting!
    3. Innocent mistakes should be treated with grace
    4. Greed should exposed for the sin it is
    5. Perfection is impossible – stop expecting it and you’ll be disappointed less often
    6. Sometimes it’s cheaper to pay a professional
    7. This is why mom says we can’t have nice things
    8. Old, damaged beauty is better than clean, new mediocrity


How about you? Have you had any experience with The Overly Enthusiastic Volunteer Syndrome you can share with us?

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5 thoughts on “The Over-Enthusiastic Volunteer Syndrome”

  1. When my wife and I first met, we were both in the Navy. She worked in a department full of high ranking enlisted career Navy guys who commanded her total respect. One day, she cleaned all their coffee cups that had been setting in the sink. Unbeknownst to her, it was a tradition to only rinse your cup, allowing the cup to stain, often times for years. For some, it was a source of pride they had been working on for perhaps years, which washed away in an instant. This story immediately came to mind when I read your post.

    It’s possible there’s a part of this story missing, that it has yet to be fully understood, and holding up this 80 year old woman as an example of greed may not be warranted… least not yet. The part of the story that has yet to fully be heard is hers.

    I have learned to restrain myself from accepting everything I hear. As a result, I’m cautious that maybe the perceived sin of greed emanating out of this ugly painting incident is not the real sin, but rather the REAL sin is that being committed by the world press holding her up for scorn. For that reason, maybe we should be cautious, not lining up to throw her under the bus. God has a way of letting us think we’re right when we’re wrong.

    The painting itself was not of any artistic significance and had it been lost to other circumstances, chances are we never would have heard about it. Think about that for a moment, if the fresco had been covered with white paint, would we have heard the same furor? I doubt it. The real reason this initially became of any human interest is because it was painted poorly. Think for a moment about how you might react if you made a mistake and your church allowed your volunteer work to be ridiculed, that work held up for the world to see. You might feel a bit abandoned, don’t you think? Now, consider also that the church is talking openly about a lawsuit against you (that’s also been reported in the press, but not as widely) and the church is charging admission to see your work. You might feel betrayed. Maybe this 80 year old woman sees some travesty in that action and thinks the money is better given to charity than the church (she said she wanted her share of the profits to go to muscular atrophy charities, a condition her son suffers).

    It might be a reinforcing observation that we’re really not hearing any real effort by the church to refute her testimony. We’re talking about a volunteer in a church in plain sight who’s said she was told to touch up the painting, but admits she may have gone too far. There had to be some trust there to allow her to be doing what she did and I doubt she did this without anyone observing her. To be sure, they have said they don’t view it as vandalizing.

    My point here is perspective and you should always consider the perspective of the volunteer. When the pastors that read your blog here consider the over-enthusiastic volunteer syndrome, I would hope they can smile over some of their own experiences in the past, but do so only after looking in the mirror, asking themselves first:
    • Did I continue to stoke the passion of the musician while I developed his talents, or did I sideline him until he went away?
    • When I stopped asking the break-things repair guy to fix things, did I find something else for him to do so he stayed engaged?
    • Did I ever stop to really find out why the newcomer who never showed up, didn’t show?

    In my opinion, if the volunteer you’re musing over isn’t sitting next to you laughing about the same thing, you should probably hold your laughter.

    1. Brian,

      Thanks for your response. There are a some details in your comment that would have changed the way I wrote this post, I think.

      I didn’t know 1) the church was considering suing her, 2) they’re charging people to see the painting, or 3) she says she would give the money to charity. Those facts may make the church a more worthy target of my “greed” comment than the woman.

      Also, your points for pastors to ponder about their own motivations and actions in dealing with over-enthusiastic volunteers are definitely worth considering. It’s good to have a from-the-congregation perspective like yours on issues like this.

      Small Churches have more than their fair share of over-enthusiastic volunteers. We need to be grateful for them and we need to learn how to deal with them with grace, wisdom and a sense of humor. But we need to make sure we’re taking their feelings and motivations into account, too. And we have a responsibility to train them to do better next time – perhaps in a ministry that lines up more closely with their gifts.

  2. Pastor Karl, Only another Small Church Pastor will totally understand your article about Volunteer’s to do things at the church. We want so much to allow each one to be a part of the family of God, and feel a part of the church, so when they say I can do Such & Such, and we have never seen their work or heard them play an instrument, or sing a Special Song, the Pastor’s stomach get’s in a hard knot as He/She says OK, thank you very much. When you see the Work and are embarrassed, you still say Thank You, but know next time to not let them do that kind of Job again. The Singer or musician you can continue to work with to help them, if they will let you. Here is the problem with some people though, they are a know it all, and will not listen to advice. That makes the position for the Pastor very very hard. I know from experience, allowing any body to do whatever they want too, can Hurt your Church Must have Wisdom and Lots of Patience !!! God Blesss all Pastors, especially SMALL CHURCH PASTORS !!

  3. pastortoshrinkingcongregation

    I’m experiencing the opposite, people rarely volunteer and typically say no when asked.

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