Turf-Guarding Has No Place in the Church

Every one of us has observed a turf battle. You see it in movies when gangs draw imaginary but definite lines and dare anyone to cross over. If you live in or near a large city, every week you read about homicides that are often the result of drug-related turf battles in the inner city.

And it makes me sad to say that most of us have experienced turf battles within the walls of our churches. We build churches with the best of intentions - to show people the love of Christ and to teach them to love others. But then we surround ourselves with a bunch of sin-tarnished human beings (just like ourselves). And, as human beings are apt to do, we begin to erect walls, define our "turf," and bring into the church the style of relating that we've used our whole lives - in society, in our families, and in our workplaces.

Here is how this works. We establish our "territory" (the Sunday school room or certain storage shelves, for example) or our "property" (supplies or materials) or our "people" (volunteers). We draw an imaginary line around "it," and we put up a sign that says, "Keep Off. Do Not Touch. Don't Even Think About It. This is Mine!" No, it's not a visible sign, but it's made clear to everyone through our attitudes, verbal responses, or body language. People stay away from "it" as they would a minefield. The possibility of causing an explosion just isn't worth it. 

I use the word "it" even though we are referring, in part, to volunteers., because that is how we treat them and view them. If you drill down to the root of the issue, you'll see that we often view volunteers as property. "They are on my team. They are my volunteers. Do not talk to them. Do not try to recruit them. I own them." I've actually heard a ministry leader say, "Don't talk to any of my volunteers about your ministry without asking my permission first." I've heard about "keep away" lists of volunteers. "You can recruit anyone in the church to your ministry except for those on this list."

Here are some other places where I've seen turf-guarding show up in a church:

Kitchens - We've all seen church kitchens in which every cupboard is labeled with a "do not touch" sign. Cupboard 1: "This belongs to Women's Ministry. Do not touch." Cupboard 2: "This belongs to High School Ministry. Do not touch." Cupboard 3: "This belongs to Seniors' Wednesday Morning Underwater Basket Weaving Class for Widows of Korean Conflict Veterans. Do not touch." And so on. And we know what happens when we dare to open a restricted cupboard. Sirens sound, alarms go off, and out of nowhere pops Mrs. Snodgrass with a ruler to smack our offending hands. What happened? We crossed into someone else's turf.

Children's RoomsIt can happen in any room in the church, but I've seen it many times in children's classrooms. The teacher comes to you on Sunday morning and says, "Someone was in my classroom and went through my cupboards, and now I'm missing some of my supplies." There is nothing wrong with having volunteers or staff take responsibility for a room to ensure that resources aren't wasted. Turf-guarding shows up, however, in the way we communicate an infraction. 

Learn the distinction between turf-guarding and not stealing talent. It all comes down to your view of God and you interpretation of the church's purpose.

If you really believe that you are serving one church with one purpose, then you'll realize that everyone is on the same team pulling in the same direction.

if you really believe that we are called to love God and others, then the importance of how we treat one another in ministry will become as important as the ministry itself.

If you really believe that all the people in the church should serve in areas about which they are impassioned, excited, and committed, then you will encourage those on your team to continually pursue those things that make their hearts beat fast.

If you really believe that God is sovereign, that he is still on the throne, and that he is the one who is all-knowing (not you), then you will trust him when people move on or off your team.

I once asked Byron, my former boss at Life Action Ministries, how he was able to maintain his calm at a time when so many good people were leaving his team. He taught me a valuable lesson: "I really believe that God is in charge, and if a high-capacity person is leaving, then God has someone even better in store for us."

Let's hang on to God tightly and to one another loosely. And let's stop the turf-guarding in our churches.

This post is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of my book "Simply Strategic Volunteers."

Tim StevensComment