Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Time and Talents

My church is working on a new Time and Talents Survey. I'm not sure whether you're familiar with this or not, so allow me to explain. Many churches--I think this is a much more common practice in mainlines than other traditions, but I really don't know--distribute what amounts to a checklist of tasks to their membership, and in turn individuals select things that they're interested in helping do until the next survey is distributed and the process begins again. It's done in the name of stewardship, and can be a helpful teaching tool for people to understand that stewardship isn't just about money.

The problem with Time and Talents Surveys that I've recently discovered (and there are many), is that usually these lists are not really lists of talents. Instead, they mostly consist of tasks within the existing church structure of programs that we really hope you're able to help with. Can you be liturgist, or an usher, or a greeter? Can you serve on one of our committees? Can you play a musical instrument, preferably one that has been pre-approved for worship? Can you help with our bake sale or our community suppers? Can you teach Sunday School or volunteer for the nursery or chaperone a youth trip?

These are the types of questions that T&T Surveys tend to ask. They seem much less interested in real talents that you have, and more interested whether you can donate some time and energy to something that the church is already doing. At best, they want to know whether you have the talent to endure a church council meeting or the talent to pass an offering plate. My experience has been that T&T Surveys are good for asking you about your time, but not so much your talent.

The last time my church administered one of these surveys, we didn't get 25 responses back. There are a host of factors that contributed to that, but I believe that part of the problem was the limitation of options that the survey gave: a list of committees, existing tasks such as teaching a class or being an usher, and not much else. It gave little opportunity for people to share talents that don't seem to fit the existing list of activities offered by the church. In fact, it gave little opportunity for people to share talents at all.

There are multiple issues at work here. The first is the view of the church as an institution; as a machine in which we are merely cogs. We have these programs and we need you to fulfill a role in carrying them out. There isn't a problem in this per se...activities need volunteers, and if those activities are life-giving then there is great merit in keeping them going. But if people are viewed only as means to an end--the end being organizational upkeep--then that is very much a problem. It communicates that we're only really interested in your God-given talents if they can serve the machine.

The second issue is the wealth of talents that the church is missing out on, and in many corners has been missing out on for decades. In my church, I know that we have poets, artists, dancers, people well-versed in multimedia and computers, musicians of the non-organ/piano variety, among so many others, who can't find much of a space currently to share them. I'm reminded of an episode from Sara Miles' book, Take This Bread, where she meets a pastor who insists at every turn on re-injecting art into the church, because otherwise it insists on being as banal as possible. How many absent spouses, bored teenagers, and "C&E"s might consider the church a more worthwhile place to be if they felt like their as-yet "un-churchy" talents and interests would be more appreciated?

So as we work on this new survey together, I'm trying to get people to understand all of this, and I think it's catching on. The next question will be about implementation and follow-up, and also whether anyone taking it will really notice a difference. But even if this particular project doesn't pan out, it's an important conversation to have. What sorts of talents is the church neglecting either out of its institutional myopia, or the dearth of creativity that it has inherited? And how might we be more intentional about correcting these conditions?