Saying No to Church Activities

On Fridays I usually publish some opinion pieces. I used to publish my columns, but I quit my weekly column a few weeks ago. I am, however, the female columnist for Faith Today, Canada’s largest Christian magazine, and I thought I’d publish my first column for them, about how overburdened many women are by church activities.

I hate it when someone from our church family dies.

I’m not talking about hating grief. Grief is a normal part of life. I’m talking about hating guilt.

And when someone I don’t know from our church passes away, I invariably receive that guilt-inducing phone call: Can you make sandwiches for the funeral?

I must have missed the Sunday School lesson when they taught girls how to make funeral sandwiches, because I don’t know where to start.

I don’t like tuna or salmon sandwiches to begin with; I’m more of a soup-for-lunch kind of gal. And I hate mustard. Sandwiches at funerals always have mustard.

But it’s not the fact that my palate doesn’t suit the typical church funerals that bothers me. It’s that I have no time. I understand that someone has to make the sandwiches, but does it have to be me?

Life is certainly busy, but I think one of the biggest sources of stress isn’t the amount of work on our plate; it’s that nagging feeling that one more straw is going to cause the whole thing to come crashing down.

And for many Christian women, church commitments feel like that final straw.

If I’m super-organized and super-energetic, it is possible to keep my house clean and to get all my work done and, hopefully, to head to the grocery store before we discover that all we have in the cupboards are tins of cranberry sauce and cream of mushroom soup.

But if an emergency–or a funeral–comes up, I’m in trouble. I have no margins in my life.

I don’t think I’m unusual. Most women are pulled in so many different directions that we’re seriously in danger of burning out. Even women who don’t work outside the home are busy. Their husbands may have shift work, or the kids are in activities, or they’re baby-sitting for grandkids. When most adults started working outside the home, it affected those inside the home, too. There’s more work to go around and fewer hands to do it.

Women have become busier, but church life hasn’t adapted to this new reality. It’s still expected that women will teach Sunday School, run the nursery, cook for the potlucks, and supply the funeral sandwiches. That’s what a church community is all about, right?

Now most churches do have a dedicated army of older women who have given selflessly over the years to create community. They’ve cooked more casseroles than President’s Choice, they’ve decorated for Christmas and Easter longer than I’ve been alive, and they’ve made church homey and inviting. Β We couldn’t function without them.


Unfortunately, there aren’t very many of them left, and my generation isn’t exactly clamouring to fill their spots.Β  And so these ladies, who have given tirelessly for decades, have even more thrown at them. They “overfunction”, as Peter and Geri Scazzero, authors of The Emotionally Church Church say, filling in the gaps so that other people–including many of the men–can get away with underfunctioning. Churches tend to take advantage of those who consistently say yes, instead of telling them, “You’ve done enough.”

And this dysfunctional system can’t right itself until the over-functioning people start saying no.

Looking around, I think we’re just about at that point. Women are just too tired, and few men will willingly take on the jobs women have been doing in the background for years. If churches want to support the women in their midst, then, they will start adapting to the new reality.

We all still crave a vibrant community life, but let’s think outside the box about how to create it.

Host community events that don’t require work, but just let us put our feet up and relax. Hold more family games nights–after the dinner hour, so we don’t have to bring food. Invite women to simple scrapbooking and craft get-togethers where we can relax doing things we long to do–rather than organizing a big women’s day that requires a ton of volunteer hours.

Instead of focusing on church programming that adds “extras” onto our lives, incorporate things we already do. Host homework clubs on Saturday morning where parents can pool their knowledge, or host once-a-month freezer cooking days where parents can all gather together and cook meals to last a month. And, please, ask people to throw money into a pot to have the funeral catered, rather than requiring women to make sandwiches. I’d much rather give $20 than an hour of my time.

In other words, meet us where we’re at. And don’t expect me to buy any mustard.

UPDATE: I’m getting some push back in the comments, and I want to just state that I DO run a whole ministry in our church–I run our youth quizzing program which meets for two hours before the service every Sunday, and then has four out of town tournaments every year. So I am serving! I’m not saying we shouldn’t serve. What I’m saying is that many of the things we are asked to do aren’t necessary and don’t serve to build community, and maybe if we focused more on the real needs we’d be more effective. I don’t have room to say everything because I have a tight word count, but read in the comments for more thoughts!

It’s kind of ironic that I would write this, since I actually make a fair amount of my income speaking at women’s events. I know that the occasional “big” event is really helpful and necessary. But I still believe that what most women crave is fellowship, not teaching, and if we could design women’s retreats less around making crafts and more around letting women just talk, we’d get a lot further ahead (and need far fewer volunteer hours).