Volunteers, servants, suckers or what?

By the Rev Sue Fenton, Pioneer Mission Ministry Co-ordinator, Wellington Presbytery

During the last week in October I was fortunate, along with two others from Wellington, and seven others from around the country, to be sponsored by the Presbyterian Church to a two-day conference called Volunteering Unleashed run by Volunteering NZ in Wellington.

I have been reflecting since the conference on the place of the word “volunteer” in the Church. Although the church, and more specifically our Presbyterian Church, is largely an organisation made up of volunteers, is the word “volunteer” an appropriate or helpful term to describe people involved in church life? How does it fit with our concept of the “priesthood of all believers” or Jesus’ call to us to love and serve each other? According to a couple of speakers at the conference, in the Samoan and Maori languages, the word “volunteer” doesn’t exist, but rather there is an expectation that you simply help each other out; it’s just how society works, and to a certain extent that’s probably how many see the church working too.

However, many organisations that were represented at the conference, such as IHC and the Red Cross, could not function, and would not exist, without actively recruiting, recognising and rewarding people who give their time as volunteers, and having people in paid positions who managed, or supported these volunteers.

The Oxford dictionary defines a volunteer as “a person who freely offers to do something” or “a person who works for an organisation without being paid”. Jesus called his disciples out of paid employment, whether fishing or tax collecting or whatever they were doing, to follow him, and presumably not to be reimbursed for it, in financial terms anyway!

Another main theme of the conference was volunteer management or volunteer support. How well do we do this in the church? At a workshop on faith-based volunteering, the speaker said, “don’t let the call to serve God let us off the hook to look after each other as human beings”. I would suggest that although the Presbyterian system of governance has many benefits, one of its disadvantages is that it is often unclear who is supposed to be supporting and encouraging the volunteers. Is it solely due to the paid minister? Are ministers trained, aware, or do they have time to do this well? In not wanting to be patronising or hierarchical, do we just hope that someone does it? How many hundreds of people have quietly slipped out the back doors of our churches because they have felt undervalued, unappreciated, and disillusioned as a volunteer? Do we need to be more intentional with our volunteer management/support and development programmes, even if those are not the terms we would feel comfortable using?

The conference featured some inspiring speakers such as Melissa Moon, Marcus Akuhata-Brown, Steve Carden and Wayne Poutoa. With many secular community and volunteer-based organisations there, it was great that there was such a large contingent from the Presbyterian Church. In one of the workshops we were encouraged to think about what is our point of difference as an organisation from other organisations. Although in one sense, this is fairly obvious for us as a church, it is also easy to lose sight of what this might be in our context.

Another challenge was to think how we can “open up the church” to the community in terms of engaging people who want to volunteer time with us. The question was asked by the workshop leader (and echoed by others at the conference I suspect) was “do you have to be a Christian to volunteer with the church?” What are we doing to serve our community that people could get involved with as a volunteer? (apart from our Sunday worship).

A common theme that came through was how important it was for older organisations to look at the roots and founding values of their organisation, but at the same time asking “are we prepared to embrace change?” We recently had a 19-year-old girl staying with us, who had been in England for a year, and returned to her home Presbyterian church in the South Island. She went out of duty with her parents, but after attending, she sighed and said she would rather go to Elim. When I asked her why this was, she said that the Presbyterian church hadn’t changed since she was four, and that they weren’t prepared to embrace change; putting our theological preferences aside, we need to listen to these sorts of statements from young people.

One of the most inspiring speakers was on the last day. His name was Marcus Akuhata-Brown. He was from the East Coast, and was the first from his extended family to attend university. At the age of 21, he was the principal of a school for at-risk children.

He had us laughing one minute, and weeping the next. Marcus had got to the point, after a year of being principal of this school of total despair, of feeling totally inadequate. But when he was realising that he couldn’t do it anymore, he had an epiphany. He told a story about fleas in a box. Fleas have the ability to jump very high, the equivalent of us jumping two kilometres high. This box the fleas are in has a glass lid on it, which when the fleas jump up they hit. Even when the lid is taken away, the fleas have lost the ability to jump. He said that the kids he worked with are often conditioned by low expectations, imposed on them by themselves and others. He was reminded of the statement of Goethe that if you look at someone as they are, they will get worse, but if we look at someone as they could be, that is what they will become. He said we all have the ability to lift the glass lid off others people’s lives by the power of recognition and encouragement, and do what we can to release the potential to reflect God’s character in each other. I guess Jesus was quite good at this, especially with those that society saw as being of little or no value.

If we look at other people, parishes, organisations as they are, and rip them apart, be critical and disparaging, it will be de-motivating and damaging. If, however, we start to see people, parishes and even presbyteries as they could be, then that is what they will become. He challenged us to ask how we can release the potential in others, through encouragement and recognition. I sometimes wonder if we are so intent on growing our own patch, our church, our role, and/or our own kingdoms, that we forget what the Kingdom of God really looks like and the importance of serving and encouraging each other.

I have been personally challenged to think how I can implement these reflections on volunteers and volunteer support in my presbytery role and also in my role as co-ordinator of a new Messy Church congregation at St Mark’s in Lower Hutt.

Part of my response will be to work on developing some workshops for churches in Wellington presbytery around volunteer support and development as a result of attending this conference, and also to value and support the wonderful volunteers I work with at St Marks.