How Pastors and Congregations See Sundays Differently – And How It Changes Everything

Split“Why can’t I get more people to volunteer on Sundays?”

It’s one of the most common frustrations I hear from pastors – especially pastors of Small Churches.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to offer a few ideas to help get volunteerism up. But today, like a blow to the back of the head, it hit me why this challenge never seems to go away.

Pastors and congregations see Sundays in opposite ways. And this affects everything.

Here’s the difference.

Sunday is their day OFF!

But Sunday is the pastor’s biggest day ON!

No wonder we’re not seeing eye-to-eye.

Sunday is their Sabbath. Their day of rest and worship. But Sunday isn’t the pastor’s Sabbath. Yes, it’s a day of worship, but it’s not a day of rest. Because it’s our biggest day on, a lot of us think it needs to be our church members’ day on too.


Sunday On / Sunday Off

This literally just occurred to me minutes before writing this, so I’m still processing what it means. But it feels like a game-changer to me.

When Sunday is our day on, church is work.
When Sunday is their day off, church is rest.

…day on? Church is putting out.
…day off? Church is taking in.

…day on? The week leads up to Sunday.
…day off? The week settles down on Sunday.

…day on? You want to dress up.
…day off? You want to dress comfortably.

…day on? You want to motivate your workers.
…day off? You want to hang out with your friends.

These are not small differences. 


Faithful to the Church ≠ Faithful to God

When people don’t show up for church as faithfully – nay, obsessively – as we do, most pastors are tempted to interpret that as lack of faith. Like an employee not showing up for work.

But they’re not employees!

We are (but maybe we shouldn’t be), so we want to judge them by the standards by which we’re judging ourselves.

This reminds me of Peter’s words at the Jerusalem Council about the differences between gentiles and Jews, “…why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10)

A pastor’s life is very different – often painfully so. We can’t expect our burden to be carried by others. We probably shouldn’t expect to carry it ourselves.

The next time a congregation member forgets to show up for the special church service, maybe it’s not because they’re unfaithful, ungrateful sinners. Maybe it’s because they’re busy living something that 99% of the world calls a normal life. Life outside the church walls. Life with friends and family.

But so many pastors have equated faithfulness to God with faithfulness to church meetings that we have a hard time seeing this. We think that anything less than full dedication to church attendance means they want less of God.

Nowhere is this pastor/congregation chasm more evident than on Saturday nights. While most people are out having fun or enjoying a relaxed evening at home, the typical pastor is sweating over last-minute preparations for Sunday morning.

This may also be one reason why bigger churches keep growing, while so many Small Churches struggle to get out of survival mode. A big church doesn’t have to rely as heavily on volunteers. The pastor can hire people to be “on” with them every Sunday morning.

I’m not saying that’s a better way to do church. It’s just reality.


What To Do About This?

I don’t pretend to have any answers. This reality truly did just occur to me less than an hour before I’m writing this.

But I might have a starting line.

When pastors realize Sunday is most people’s day off, we can adjust our expectations accordingly.

Maybe we can start by realizing that most people don’t live their lives thinking about the next Sunday service like we do.

No, that doesn’t mean settling for church-as-audience. The greatest, most impactful churches are always more interactive than passive. Plus, as I’ve written before, the attitude of “Sit Back, Relax and Enjoy the Service” May Be Killing Your Church.

But maybe there’s a healthy middle ground between driving them to work harder on the one hand and doing everything for them on the other.

And maybe, when they do come, we can give them what they’re looking for – and what they really need, too. A break from the pressures of life while worshiping, serving and yes, hanging out with their friends (you may want to call it fellowship). Instead of adding to life’s pressures, let’s help ease them. And while we’re at it, what if pastors gave ourselves a break from the pressure to perform, too?

I’m convinced that one of the primary reasons for pastoral stress and burnout is that most pastors don’t have a church home. We tell our congregation they need weekly fellowship with other believers, but most of us don’t have that for ourselves.

When we’re always on and we only see our church as the place where we are the pastor, we miss out on the church being our much-needed place of fellowship.

Some of us need to learn to let go, loosen our tie or clerical collar – even if it’s just metaphorically – and receive the blessings of our church people.

Even Jesus wasn’t always on. He took time away from the crowds to be alone with the Father in prayer, of course. But he also took time away to relax with the twelve or the three. Why? Because, while they certainly needed him, he also knew he needed them. The human part of Jesus needed what we all need – time to be a person, not just a pastor.


So what do you think? What ideas do you have to help bridge this gap?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(7-10 Split photo from Matt Reinbold • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

17 thoughts on “How Pastors and Congregations See Sundays Differently – And How It Changes Everything”

  1. Such a great perspective and the reality we all live with. I would also add the importance of leading our all-volunteer teams in such a way that church is life-giving for them and not burdensome. My heart breaks when I ‘feel’ the stress and pressure of volunteers who are giving so much. I’m working on being relaxed and enjoying the day with our congregation. They feed off of my stress level, so I should feed them rest and encouragement. Another great one, Karl! Thanks!

    1. Great point, Scott. When we’re leading well, volunteers should anticipate our arrival with joy, not dread because they know we’ll be there to solves problems and ease burdens, not add to them.

  2. great stuff, Karl! Good insight! What we’ve been trying to do at our church is have a “3 team concept” where every ministry area has 3 teams, hence the name. Team A would do their ministry, Team B would hang out (I call it building relationships, to include enthusiastically greeting first time guests) and Team C’s mission that day would be to pray. And then the next Sunday, rotate This takes away from the “empire building” that is prevalent in so many ministry areas (like Tech support for example). It also helps to foster a warm and caring fellowship where every person, not just the greeters take part in helping a new person feel cared for. The 3 team concept includes a tag team approach in preaching, where two other men are helping me through the book of Hebrews.

    Because we don’t have very many in our fellowship, admittedly we don’t have this set up for every area yet. But that is what we’re working towards. And as we add more people, we will even be able to give the volunteers “time off”. the only team we have so far that is “fully 3 team functional” is our music team. It is working well for them.

    We are coming to realize that Sunday morning is not a performance, but a time when we come together to corporately worship the Lord. We definitely are not slick and polish, and we are not really into “excellence”, though we all realize that the Lord deserves our best. And if things don’t go right, that’s OK. We don’t get uptight about it. This may not make for a smooth “have it all together” feel, but we are family, and as people who are new walk through the doors, our prayer is that the Lord helps them to worship well that day. Often they don’t return, but to a person, they all say they have been loved on and that they have enjoyed the service.

    1. 3-teams? Sounds interesting, and Trinitarian. I like it. And when someone volunteers, they know that they aren’t going to be “stuck” doing that all the time and forever (because no one else will step up). Many are willing to take their turn, but don’t want to get stuck in a rut.

    2. That’s one of the best ideas I’ve heard in a long time, Glenn. Do you mind if I borrow your idea for a future post? With credit going to you, of course.

  3. Another great post Karl. I wonder if the problem lies in how we understand and do Sabbath. More than a day of rest, it is the Lord’s day, the day we are called to intentionally find rest in Him. That should include worship, and discerning how God is calling us to be involved in that worship. It is less about volunteerism and more about equipping God’s people to be….well…. God’s people.

    1. No question about it, Matthew. Sabbath was a primary practice for the Hebrews, but we’ve gotten so afraid to become Pharisaical about it that we’ve relegated it to the sidelines, if we observe it t all. We need some healthy balance between those two extremes.

  4. Wow what a way to look at this I’m not a pastor but my son is and him a wife and 3 kids are just a hand full without all the stress but as you say as a member we seem to think he don’t need a life other than the church and that is where the phase PK (preacher’s kid) children came from. They get the same thing even if they don’t want it and sometimes this will push them away from the church as does the church kids that have to give up some thing they want because Dad and Mom says it church first. I’m like you I don’t have the answer but you got me thinking but what about teaching the church and the world that God’s house is important to. So I guess I’m more thinking like Matthew Voyer posted . Wow is all I can say but what ever we do don’t let the church die to what the world tells us is right. We need that time in church and as I have always said church usually take about 4 to 5 hours out off our life a week and Jesus die for the cause.

    God bless and thanks for the thought

    Wade Humphrey

  5. Well its me again as I started to leave the page I remember a book I read some time ago and had to share. The book is called The Armor Bearer by Cutshal I’m not sure of the spelling of his name but every member should take time to read it. And one more thing PASTOR’S need to learn to let go and quit trying to do it all there self and yes people will make mistakes but as a pastor you can handle helping someone get the problem straightened out instead of trying to be a earn boy and this takes away from the most important thing is bring Gods word to his people

  6. There are congregations which purposely have “A Day On, Not a Day Off” to encourage people to go out in service. “Remember, Celebrate, Act! A Day On, Not A Day Off!”

    What if congregations did this once a year, and then expand the number of days a year (perhaps quarterly)? This might be a first step towards helping people to realize what a blessing it is to step up, rather than step away from opportunities. When people get that first experience (without making an ongoing commitment), and get the blessing and encouragement of others, it just might lead to more willingness to volunteer. It seems there are always wheelchair ramps to make, houses to paint, yards that need cleaned up, elderly who need a ride for groceries, and people who just need someone to take the time to sit with them and listen.

    I’ve been in that place of volunteering at an unsustainable level, leading down the path of burnout. On the other hand, I’ve also seen how being a volunteer on the set-up team (for a church start), helped me to get there each week, which lead to being in studies each Sunday and being in Worship.

    1. That’s a great idea, Dennis. We do that twice a year at our church. We call it Share Day. We meet for our regular church times, then we break up into groups to go to the community to help people with various needs. After that, we come back to the church for an evening meal together, worship and sharing stories. People look forward to it.

      Here’s a link to a video I shot on one of our recent Share Days.

  7. I think your analysis is probably accurate, but I see the problem, and solution, as being somewhat different. I believe the ideology of a congregant seeing Sunday as their day off is just symptomatic of a deeper issue that has infected the Church. Some would say that this is another example of “Consumer Christianity” run-a-muck, but again Consumer Christianity is much more of a symptom than the root of the problem. I believe the root of the problem is that we don’t understand the purpose and responsibility of the Pastor/Congregant relationship.

    Ephesians 4:11-16 give us a clear picture of the proper relationship between the Pastor and Congregation. The Apostle Paul says that Pastors are given for the equipping of the congregation for the work of ministry. The goal is to disciple people to maturity in Christ, and to equip them to engage in gift oriented ministry within and outside of the gathering times of the Church. Verse 16 tells us the results, “He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” (NLT)

    The reason we find it so difficult to get people to engage in gift oriented ministry is due to maturity level. What I mean by this is that most of those that don’t engage in gift oriented ministry don’t do so because their focus is more on themselves rather than their neighbor. “I don’t want to serve in the nursery because it will keep me out of the main worship service and I don’t want to miss that, even though I know Mrs. Volunteer has worked the last 3 Sunday’s in a row and may get to attend the worship service once in a blue moon.” I call this a maturity level issue because they have not reached that state of maturity where they “love their neighbor as much as they love themselves.” (Matthew 22:39)

    This is also perpetuated in small churches because the pastor is so busy doing the work of the ministry (because it has to be done) that they don’t have time to focus on their real responsibility, equipping saints. Also, because there is a small percentage of the congregation (usually 20% or less) that have come to enough spiritual maturity to engage in the work of the ministry while the larger percentage of the congregation is left un-engaged, ill-equipped to serve (even if they wanted to), and the pastor is left frustrated because he finds himself in the all to familiar 80/20 rule (80% of the work being done by 20% of the congregation).

    How do we fix this? Pastors need to focus their efforts on discipleship and equipping the 20% and teaching them to reproduce themselves through personal discipleship of those among the other 80%. Jesus modeled this for us with the 12 Apostles. There were many that followed him, but he focused on the 12 with in-depth discipleship. If I have 3 leaders that I disciple, they in turn need to engage 3 to disciple. And so on, and so on, and so on. We, pastors and congregants, must remember what our responsibilities are and be willing to engage in our particular tasks and focus on the goal; spiritual maturity and each part of the body engaged in gift oriented ministry.

  8. Karl thanks for your words you make some good points. I do, however, take exception to your comment, “A big church doesn’t have to rely as heavily on volunteers. The pastor can hire people to be “on” with them every Sunday morning.” As one of the pastors in a larger church, it’s not that easy, or realistic. In fact in my experience it takes more, not fewer volunteers (both in actual numbers and as a percentage of the congregation) to keep it all running, because there is more to keep running – even if you do have a staff. In a larger church you do typically have the $$ and the need to hire some people to do some jobs that are done by volunteers in a small church. But you still need as many, if not more, volunteers, as in a smaller church, because a larger church is a different animal than a smaller one, not just bigger.

    1. Good point, Dan. Big churches certainly do rely on volunteers as much as Small Churches do. The difference is that a large church can hire their primary leaders instead of having to rely on volunteer staff. When the leadership is hired, that changes what the lead pastor can expect from them. I should have made that distinction in my post. But that’s what I get for rushing to publish, I guess. Thanks for being kind in your correction on that point.

  9. This one is an “outa the park grand slam”! And it doesn’t mean we need to compromise either, just change our perspective a little!
    Thanks Karl for your continued insights!

  10. Another great post. Here’s something else that I’ve been thinking of lately:
    I believe younger believers (let’s say Generation X and younger) don’t equate church activity with spiritual maturity the way older believers do. I’ve noticed that senior adults will really try to attend any time the doors are open if they are able. Younger people (even those who are faithful to the church) don’t automatically assume they should try to attend everything. I don’t have any empirical data to back this up, but it just seems like it is an older crowd that comes back for Sunday evening, etc.

  11. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *