In his book Payoff, behavioral economist Dan Ariely recounts an experiment involving motivation. In short, participants were asked to perform a meaningless task, circling pairs of matched letters on randomly generated sheets of paper. When they were finished, they returned their paper and were given 55 cents. Each time, they were offered a smaller amount to complete another sheet until they declined to continue. The goal was to see how small the pay could go before participants decided that it was no longer worth their time. But, that wasn’t the real experiment.

How Are People Motivated?

What participants didn’t know is that they were divided into three groups. The first group was asked to write their names on each paper, and the person running the experiment spent a few seconds looking over their completed sheets before placing them face down on a pile and asking if they wanted to do another. The second group did not write their names, and their sheets were not reviewed but simply placed on the pile without acknowledgment. The third group was treated like the second, except the pile was replaced with a shredder, and their pages were destroyed immediately without a word.

A purely logical assessment would favor the third group to go the farthest; after all, once they realized there was no way to prove they really did the work, they could “complete” sheets at a much faster rate, increasing the value of each sheet relative to their time. But we all know that’s not what happened because we are all people, and we know how wrong that feels. People are not purely logical. All of us could correctly guess who went the longest, but it’s the gaps between the groups that tell a story church leaders can learn from.

The Real Story

The first group predictably hung in the longest, making it down to an average of 15 cents before quitting. The group that got shredded gave up the most quickly, quitting at 29 cents. But the real story is the group that received no acknowledgment. They quit at an average of 27.5 cents. Let that sink in for a moment. The spread was not remotely even. There was only a 1.5 cent difference between not acknowledging a person’s work and openly destroying it in front of their eyes.

Some of our most faithful servers can fade into the background because they do their jobs well and do not create problems. It’s very easy to consider an issue dealt with and to forget the effort people are putting in week in and week out. None of us do this on purpose, but church planting is an ever-shifting effort, and problems tend to take up a lot of our attention, robbing those who are consistently advancing the church.

Acknowledging the Overlooked

We developed a staff policy that everyone writes and mails a handwritten thank you note to a volunteer at a minimum of once a week, often more. This may sound cold and mechanical, but think about it: we value a culture of thankfulness. We know that putting out weekly fires will likely consume our attention if we are not careful. Without a policy driven toward actively thanking volunteers, these notes would fall through the cracks and people would serve without acknowledgment. The fact that such a policy exists is an indication of our desire to be thankful.

This could look different for you—maybe it means budgeting some money to carry a few Starbucks gift cards. When someone goes above and beyond, thank them, and give them one. Either way, it’s a simple step and, hopefully, one that shapes our relationship with volunteers beyond mere requirements. We are all on this mission together and we will go farther if we don’t ignore those who are helping the most.

Todd Flaming

Todd Flaming

Todd Flaming is a founding member of Valley Life | Tramonto, where he serves on the worship team and assists with church planting strategy.