Who cares for volunteers?

By Pat Ross, Pohutakawa Coast Presbyterian, South Auckland

An opportunity to go into a draw to attend a volunteering conference in Wellington in October caught my eye in Bush Telegraph. This sounds like an interesting happening, I thought, but how come the church is inviting people to essentially a secular conference about volunteering? I couldn’t resist and after a chat with my minister registered Pohutakawa Coast to see how we went. Our name came up and I was lucky enough to be the representative.

Being what I now term a “senior volunteer” and having been involved over many years in several volunteering teams, as well as serving in a variety of roles in the church, I’ve long been intrigued between the way in which we in the church undertake – as we call it – “service” and the difference between being in the wider community as a volunteer.

The conference took place over two days in the Wellington Town Hall and was professionally run, with excellent keynote speakers and a variety of workshops and forums that one could take part in. In total, 150 people attended. Perhaps it wasn’t surprising to find that many of those attending were involved in some way in a variety of different churches. One stream of the conference was towards volunteers and the history, skilling, education, awareness of the volunteer sector and the other stream more towards those who manage volunteers their education and professional development. I quote: “It is acknowledged over recent years that the role of volunteer manager is a crucial component in the success of any agency which utilises volunteer support.” It seems to me that the church is primarily a place that works because of its service/volunteer people who do their tasks both within and without the church. I’ve long asked myself, though, how well do we in the church do the task of co-ordinating those who undertake service, even a small church may have some 30 or so people who are engaged in a variety of tasks about the place. Is it the minister, is it the leader of the home group, or the person who sets up the roster for whatever task. If it is the minister, is it acknowledged in a job description that this is a regular and ongoing task or is it just an unacknowledged role?

It is a fact that volunteers stay in their positions much longer than paid staff, therefore they need co-ordinating or looking after well. Not left mouldering away on stale rosters for years on end, or in ongoing tasks that are taken for granted and grind on and on without any form of review, whether that be as session clerk or managing the foodbank. I think we can be pretty good at thanking our people who undertake service but review is often in the too-hard basket. In our church recently we thanked and finished a roster that had been going for some years with eight souls left holding the fort. We started a new list called “Service Investments” and now are up and running with some 30 people energised to take the tasks forward.

But back to the conference; at one forum I attended the question was asked “What is it volunteers/those who give service want?” It didn’t seem a lot: to be in a task that they felt comfortable with and had skills to cope with, to have a review say yearly and to be acknowledged by the organisation. No doubt there are more but we were keeping it simple. Of course it is acknowledged that all those who choose to undertake service or volunteer want to make a difference; they want the world to be a better place.

Another highlight for me was meeting the other members of our church group from all over New Zealand. We were met and looked after well by Amanda and Angela, who had lots of questions for us about our needs in terms of Church communications. A grand time was had at the Conference dinner where the Hon Turiana Turia was the speaker; we even had a photo taken with her and a chat. We met on several occasions as a group and there was much stimulating discussion about what was happening in our local churches and of course not nearly enough time to hear as much as we would have liked. Hearing how various church groups are involved within their communities was heart warming and stimulating. From involvement with community gardens, local schools, or working with seniors, those within the church who undertake service or volunteerism are doing a life-changing work both within and without the church community and we give thanks for a mighty God who is the stimulus for that to happen and ensures that the world is a better place. It was a great conference and a stimulating experience and I’m grateful for the opportunity to attend.