Revolutionising rosters

By the Rev Margaret Mayman, St Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington

The Volunteering Unleashed conference revolutionized how I feel about rosters. I learned much more, but for this one insight, I am particularly grateful. It happened in the first few minutes of the conference when the opening speaker, Steve Carden, declared that volunteering was good for mental well-being. The people in my congregation are, on the whole, very busy people. Many of those who give their time to St Andrew’s on The Terrace have challenging jobs and high levels of family commitment, especially those who are caring for their teenage children and their elderly parents. I often wondered if church was yet one more demand on their lives and frequently felt guilty about asking people to help.

I’d gone to the conference thinking I might learn some things about “managing” volunteers. It really hadn’t occurred to me that in providing volunteering opportunities, the church is offering people a chance to create community and that the volunteer roles that they take are not simply an additional burden. As a minister, I have been transformed from seeing the volunteers as “martyrs to our machine,” to people who are being blessed by the opportunity to work together to create something of real value.

Yes, there are theological frameworks that could and should be applied to how we think about the people whose unpaid labour keeps our congregations humming. Yes, of course I hope that they consider what they are doing as work that is done for the glory of God and the building up of the body of Christ. But I found it hard not to think of this as a sacrifice on their part. The very secular Volunteering Unleashed conference gave me some tools to rethink my views, overcome my guilt, and to be free to really appreciate how wonderful and central to the local church, is the work of committed volunteers. For a progressive congregation, like St Andrew’s, I needed to know that their reward would not just be in heaven!

The other major insight that I gained from the conference was that there are generational differences among volunteers. People who volunteer at St Andrew’s range from teenagers who help with the children’s programme to our theologian in residence, Emeritus Professor Sir Lloyd Geering, who is in his 90s. So we cover the generational range from the Builders, to Baby Boomers, to Gen X, Gen Y and iGen. Conference presenters referred to the generation before the Baby Boomers as the Silent Generation. I think that is a terrible name for that group of people and certainly doesn’t describe their representatives at St Andrew’s who tend to be articulate and passionate about following the way of Jesus and building progressive Christian faith community. So I prefer Builders to describe the generation of the World Wars and the Great Depression.

However, it does make sense to think about generational differences and particularly about the shape that volunteering is taking for younger generations who operate less out of sense of loyalty and duty than the generations that preceded them. Andy Fryer painted a picture of contemporary volunteering in these terms:

  • shorter-term episodic volunteering
  • people volunteering for a project rather than an organisation
  • more focus, looking for meaning…
  • value for volunteers in future careers
  • corporate world donating employees time
  • highly skilled volunteers expecting to use their skills
  • volunteers’ expectation that they will be well-managed
  • technology has changed recruiting and communication with volunteers

Churches have traditionally organised ourselves around the volunteering patterns of the Builders, who saw volunteering as a life-long commitment to the organisation. Younger Christians may be equally devoted to following the way of Jesus, but less likely to want to make a life-time commitment to a particular role within a parish. And much less likely to join committees! The days of having a treasurer who served for forty years are probably over. Since I’ve been at St Andrew’s, our treasurers have been Boomers or GenX. In eight years, we’ve had four treasurers. Instead of regarding this as a failure to retain volunteers, perhaps we should be grateful for their intense short-term commitment and their desire to keep fresh, and above all their resistance to staying so long that they ended up feeling resentful.

Volunteering Unleashed confirmed my belief that the governance changes we’d made in my second year at St Andrew’s were sound and future-focused. We changed from a session with “life-time” participation to a parish council where people could be elected for a maximum of two three year terms before they had to take a sabbatical year off. Our governance group changed from being predominantly male Builders to a diverse group of Boomers and GenXers. Two of the people who joined our new parish council had not wanted to be “on session” but as parish councillors, they became the mainstay of the Saving St Andrew’s programme, which enabled us to restore and refurbish our historic church building last year. At the annual meeting this year, they had to step down from parish council and they both deserve a breather. However, they have both chosen to work on stage two of Saving St Andrew’s.

Several conference presenters talked about the role of social media in volunteering. St Andrew’s has a Facebook page and this year I’ve been using Twitter (the social networking and micro-blogging site). At the conference we watched an amazing little video called “Social Media Revolution” (which you can find on YouTube). It made the point that social media is not merely a fad but a communication phenomenon that we need to come to terms with. I showed it at the recent 25th Anniversary of the St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion and Society to illustrate how we might look at engaging younger participants in the work of the Trust in the future. Look out for our planned Web 2.0 Progressive Presbyterian website that will be developed next year (thanks in part to the Presbyterian Foundation!).

Finally, the conference led me to think some more about people who volunteer to help the church but who are not members or even attenders at worship. Our free lunchtime concerts are coordinated by wonderful woman who is a public servant with a love of music. She gives hundreds of hours a year to support our ministry of music, a gift to those who live and work nearby and a platform for new and experienced artists. And the musicians are also volunteers who give their time and talent because want to share their music with people who might not be able to attend a full evening concert because of limitations of time or money. On our Saving St Andrew’s team, we had another wonderful public servant who is not interested in religion at all but is very committed to the care and preservation of Wellington’s historic buildings. She has skills in project management and contracts, which were invaluable. Some of us talked about our non-church volunteers in a session at the conference and the speaker expressed surprise and delight that people could volunteer at churches without having to “go to church.” We had mixed feelings about this response!

The non-church volunteers also include corporates who we might ask to help us. I attended a session run by Liz Hampton of IBM who spoke about community/business partnerships. Again I learned that we have opportunities to offer businesses and it helped me to think about asking for help with our heads held high. Liz talked about IBM’s priority for long-term, reciprocal partnerships with maximum community benefit. In future, when asking for corporate support, I plan to be more strategic and more focused on how the corporate will benefit from partnering with us rather than approaching them asking for “charity”.

I really enjoyed my two days out of the office, thinking about volunteering. While it might not be the language that we normally use to talk about our Christian lives, it seems clear that there are insights to be gained by joining in conversations with the community and volunteer sector. Thanks to the Presbyterian Church for supporting us to do this, and particularly to Amanda and Angela who looked after us all so well.