What was interesting at the conference?

By Liz Carrol Lowe, East Taieri Church, Mosgiel

I viewed the conference “Volunteering Unleashed” with many hats so I was constantly visualising things in different contexts. My main focus was as a representative of my church.

However, I am both currently a volunteer manager and a volunteer for different organisations, including Mosgiel/Taieri Community Patrols, Community Patrols of New Zealand, Cancer Society and recently the Red Cross, serving as a member of the committee tasked with the regional restructuring process. I have been a volunteer manager for the last 12 years, so some of the concepts they were talking about at the Conference were nothing new to me. They are simply the things I have implemented in my teams of volunteers over the last 10 years - whether it was a team of 10 or a team of 200.

But analysing the concept of volunteering from the faith perspective was quite different. For many churches the word volunteering is almost a swear word. I have heard people say that church members wouldn’t want to do a task if it was referred to as “volunteering”. So it gets called “serving” or “ministry leadership” or something else that has a “God-like” ring to it. However, I believe this puts just as many people off volunteering for a church role as it does encourage others.

Following the conference, I feel challenged to try and implement some new concepts to the volunteering of spiritual gifts in our church. In general, I feel that most of our recruitment of people is done on a needs basis. The church has a need and we recruit to fill it. However, I believe it is vital for the future of volunteering in the faith community that we go back to looking at the individuals and what skills they have to offer and what skills the church can identify to grow in the individual. For example: when I first joined ET, I was asked to work with the youth group running the café on a Friday night. Anyone who knows me knows that although I love my own kids, I only tolerate other people’s, and this request made me run a mile. It was a needs-based request instead of an opportunity for the individual to grow. Again, anyone who knows me knows how much I like the sound of my own voice (!!) and that I would love to be invited to read a passage of scripture at the Sunday Service. Being offered this opportunity might grow me into potential leadership with in the Church. Maybe leading an Alpha Group or a home group or even eldership. Despite mentioning this desire of mine to a few people within the “need to know” circles, this offer has not been forthcoming after nearly two years in the congregation. An opportunity missed to grow a volunteer?

The Volunteering Unleashed conference had the most amazing spiritual feel to what was a secular forum. This can be attributed in part to the guest speakers, some of whom prayed before speaking, prayed after speaking, or acknowledged God’s work in their experiences and to the team from the Presbyterian Church who were acknowledged not only for our presence but for the number of us attending. Those of us representing the Church also contributed to many of the discussions and forums. A number of organisations commented on our presence and the forward-thinking approach of the Church in recognising the role of the volunteer as significant.

The panel of Adam Awad from Somlia, Alfred Ngaro from the Cook Islands/Pacific Island Community and Joyce-Anne Raihana representing the Maori Community provided an excellent insight into the cultural aspects of volunteering in their communities. I have taken much from their discussion, including the use of the words “duty” and “cultural expectations”. It has made me look again at the importance of tailoring a volunteer programme to adjust to cultural differences. Church communities today are so diverse and Jesus’ love for us transcends all boundaries/ethnicities and cultural differences. We must ensure that our volunteer programme from the recruitment stage, through training, and into the management of the volunteers, accepts and adjusts itself to these cultural differences and that these are recognised and accepted by all within the team.

The Presbyterian team had the opportunity for a photo shot with the Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector, Tariana Turia, who was very graceful about posing with our group. She was genuinely interested and delighted that the Presbyterian Church was actively supporting and encouraging people to look at the roles of volunteers in their church community

What ideas and concepts are useful for my Church?

Facebook – Twitter – blogs. This was all gobbledegook for me till the conference. Since returning I have overcome my own prejudice and learnt how to use Facebook. I have joined the Presbyterian Church fan page, the Willow Creek fan page and am in the process of assisting one of the NFP groups I volunteer for to set up a page as a way of recruiting new volunteers. Our church at ET has set up a blog for staff, elders and ministry teams following our discussions on these. One of our programmes, called “Lunch at our Place”, is to take on-line registrations next year. Technology is happening – but it will never replace that all important one-on-one contact.

Marcus Akuhata-Brown was the most inspirational speaker of the Conference and in fact one of the most inspirational speakers I have ever heard. I am preparing a plan to bring him to East Taieri next year and have already received offers of funding from other groups wishing to be involved. His message about the difference one person can make in someone’s life should be heard by everyone and I believe will be highly influential in our new community outreach programme.

Volunteering and its implications for my church

I hope to work with our ministry leaders and elders in developing a programme that will strengthen the number of people who step up to volunteer their spiritual gifts at ET and to encourage those who have not yet discovered their gifts. A community is only as strong as its people. Community should be by the people – for the people! So this means we all have to be active in some way within our community – our Church community. It shouldn’t be something people feel they have to do – to fill a need – instead people should be drawn to volunteer because they will benefit as individuals, collectively as community and gain knowledge and understanding of the importance of God’s great love in our lives and find within themselves the desire to share this knowledge and love with others. That’s how volunteers grow. That’s how community grows. That’s how the church will grow.

Volunteering and its implications for the Church nationally

People are time poor –or they think they are. A lot of people don’t volunteer because they think they don’t have time and “someone else” will do it! Some of our Churches are running out of “someone else’s”! Without growing new volunteers now, recognising and accepting the variety of reasons that people volunteer and adapting our programmes accordingly - services, programmes and events currently offered within churches will have to be cut. We cannot let apathy or a perception of volunteering as difficult, time consuming and restricting, damage a future in the Church that our children deserve. Volunteering has to be looked at nationally and recognised for the lifeline to the future it is. We need a revolution!

I believe that the Presbyterian Church is well on the way to encouraging this to occur. I commend those who made the decision to offer the ten of us from around NZ the opportunity to attend such an important conference together. I applaud the energies of Angela and Amanda who worked hard to keep us together as a group to give us opportunities to discuss volunteering from a faith perspective with others in the same circumstances, so that ideas we were learning could expand and grow.

I am very proud that I belong to this group. Sending us to the Conference was an innovative approach by the Church. I am impressed by this forward thinking and very hopeful for the future of our national Church community. In fact – I would go as far as saying I am excited to be part of it!!