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Help Volunteers Fulfill their Calling to Service

“The One who calls you is faithful.” (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

Volunteers both need and deserve conscious and carefully considered pastoral care. All too often, volunteers are recruited to a service position within the parish and then left completely on their own. Even if priests in large parishes are far too busy to give individualized attention to every volunteer, they can still provide the structure for volunteer development. These are leadership and management functions that properly belong to the priest. If a priest is too busy or a parish cannot afford a fulltime paid volunteer manager who oversees this ministry, then at the very least, an exemplary and capable volunteer could be recruited and trained to be the Chief Volunteer Manager (CVM).

Before describing the eight key steps to volunteer management and development, let’s consider the extraordinary value of volunteers. First of all, they are often functioning as unpaid staff. Those with professional education and degrees bring enormously valuable expertise to bear on all types of specialized needs within the parish – legal, plumbing, electrical, technological, roofing, architecture, security, planning, insurance, real estate, teaching, fundraising, catering, coaching, accounting….the list goes on and on. Consider the cost involved if it were necessary to replace them with paid staff.

Most of those who volunteer time and talent are also reliable financial supporters of the parish. They are sensitive to the “emotional temperature” of the community. They often advocate for the mission of the parish, speaking without vested interest. If they are involved in fundraising, then they provide connectivity to present or potential donors and assist in understanding their disposition. Those who regularly volunteer and therefore demonstrate a deep love for God through service, may be the very ones who would want their most deeply held beliefs and values to be extended to future generations following their falling asleep in the Lord though a planned gift, such as a bequest.

We acknowledge and confess that the Holy Spirit is the animator of the parish as the “Lord and Giver of Life”, but next in line are volunteers who so often are the hands and the voice of the Holy Spirit!

The Eight Essential Steps of Volunteer Management and Development

1. Analyze volunteer needs

Please note that step one is not “analyze parish needs”. Right away we see that the recommended process is a reverse of how we normally approach the need for volunteers. Those who give time and talent often need to be personally asked to serve in a specific capacity. They will also likely need emotional and spiritual support, practical information such as job descriptions, policies and procedures, contact information, materials, perhaps a budget for their position, expectations, a calendar, a team mate, specialized training, orientation, etc. Volunteers who are properly equipped and empowered are usually highly proficient at their task(s). Thoughtful consideration and careful creation of the content and structure of volunteering within the parish is the process of working not only “in” the parish by filling volunteer positions, but perhaps even more importantly, it is the process of working “on” the parish with strategically effective leadership and management. Though individual pastoral care is always available and occasionally necessary for a specific volunteer, the priest is now in a position to manage the whole sphere of volunteering through a Chief Volunteer Manager equipped with policy, procedures, materials, budget, training, etc. In the world of philanthropy, this is termed an “unpaid professional volunteer”. Ideally, the priest now has created more time and space for teaching, preaching, pastoral care, strategic planning, parish council development, etc. giving less time to recurring tactical issues associated with volunteer ineffectiveness, turnover, discontent and burnout.

2. Identify potential volunteers

Some prospective volunteers are readily apparent. However, very often highly talented and willing volunteers are overlooked because they have never been personally asked to serve as a volunteer. Perhaps there has been a failure to creatively match a parishioner’s expertise to service opportunities in the community. One effective way to identify hidden talent or undeveloped readiness and willingness is to conduct a parish talent and interest survey. The Stewardship Advocates Library has a sample of such a survey. Consider also those in the community who are not yet Orthodox. Volunteering can be a great way to begin to integrate them into parish life, though obviously, great care must be exercised not to place them in a position of frustration or disappointment. Another fruitful approach would be to ask highly connected and longtime members of the parish for suggestions concerning a specific volunteer task. Most people, including priests, find it difficult to ask for help.

3. Recruit volunteers

It’s not enough to identify volunteers, or worse, to plead for volunteers from the amvon. Volunteers often require personal cultivation and a personal request for their service commitment. So much of successful parish ministry is learning how to personally ask people for commitment. Before asking, reflect on certain questions. Who should do “the ask”? Who should be present? What benefits can be described? What is the time requirement? What are the specific duties of the position? What support is available from the parish? What is the term of the service? A year? An event? What additional information do they need? Are we prepared to negotiate?

4. Train and orient volunteers

This was alluded to earlier in the article. It’s a critical step, which if managed poorly, can lead to dropout, burnout or copout. Is there a plan? Are training and orientation materials available? Is it useful to hold a half-day training and orientation session for all new volunteers? Is the parish prepared to invest through seminars, consulting service or conferences for the Chief Volunteer Manager, stewardship chair, youth ministry directors, strategic planning committee, evangelization committee, capital campaign committee, etc.? This is where volunteer longevity and competency is forged. One priest, much in need of a transformed choir, personally recruited a new director, arranged for choir retreats led and taught by experts and systematically sent choir members to St. Vladimir’s Liturgical Institute over a number of years. The result was 30 years of exemplary service by the director and a choir renowned throughout a diocese.

5. Involve volunteers in programs and reflect upon their emotional and spiritual needs

Volunteers may lead or freely staff a parish need, but would it be helpful for them to benefit from other programs in the parish as a simple participant or observer? A simple phone call inquiring how their volunteer work is going and how can the parish assist them to more meaningfully or beneficially complete their service commitment can make all the difference.

6. Use the volunteers’ time thoughtfully and carefully

Parish life can be such a rush of activity that many dedicated volunteers are unknowingly exploited because they are trusted and have demonstrated effectiveness in their task. One universal aspect of volunteering is to feel that a meaningful difference is made in the lives of others. A classic example is a parish council that endlessly occupies itself with tactical, managerial issues resulting in members feeling that the service is unchallenging, unfulfilling and that there is a much better way for them to spend their time. Compare this to parish council members driving home after a meeting, who feel that something was meaningfully accomplished and that their commitment of time, talent and treasure is being utilized in the best possible way.

7. Evaluate volunteers

This step exists to assist volunteers to do their work more effectively and efficiently and to learn from them how better to structure the volunteer position. What changes would they suggest? How are they feeling about continued service? Do they feel adequately supported? Does the parish need to find another volunteer service position for this person? Are they not functioning well? Are people complaining? Sometimes this is the difficult conversation that many people avoid but is very necessary for the benefit of the volunteer and the well-being of the parish. A short questionnaire prior to a meeting with the Chief Volunteer Manager or priest sets the basis for a useful conversation.

8. Give recognition to volunteers

Some parishes or priests have a formal, articulated policy of never thanking anyone. Sometimes this policy exists for fear that once started then everyone must be thanked all the time. Another reason this policy often exists is the “doctrine” that all giving and volunteer service must be offered freely expecting nothing in return. Perhaps there is a middle ground here. Lavish or inflated expressions of gratitude or personal, public acknowledgements of a specific gift at the end of liturgy might be overstepping the bounds of good diplomacy and parish decorum. Yet balanced with the scriptural injunctions of “Do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing” (Mt 6:3) and “Do good and lend, expecting nothing in return” (Lk 6:35), we find dramatic examples of expressions of gratitude spoken by God Himself: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17) and “Well done good and faithful servant” (Mt 25:23).


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