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Professional Volunteers

“Happiness is thinking of myself; joy is thinking of others.” (Anonymous)

St. Paul is a good nominee for the patron saint of volunteers – of especially “professional” volunteers. His profession was tentmaker. In his spare time, together with a few others and the not insignificant help of the Holy Spirit, he turned the world upside down.

There are two ways in which the term “professional volunteer” is used today. In both ways, volunteers freely give of their time, energy, talent and resources.

The first meaning of the term relates to those good souls, who through a lifetime of service and immersion into nonprofits world, have acquired a deep knowledge and not a little wisdom regarding how nonprofits work. They understand the vital necessity of adhering closely to the mission of the organization. They have benefited from expert consultants who periodically have been brought in to assist with development. They may have read books on volunteer management and board service. They understand the value and purpose of strategic planning. They involve themselves in fundraising. They give generously according to their ability. Their presence on a nonprofit board brings resident expertise in the ways and means of mission fulfillment.

Of course, anyone in parish life can see the value these people may bring to a parish council suffering from mission-drift, lackadaisical performance, non-engagement with fundraising, a “watchdog” mentality, personality driven decision making, failure to plan, tone deaf to obvious parish need, etc. A wise priest might quietly seek professional volunteers as described above and consult with them regarding parish council development. This assumes the priest is willing to ask for help and has grasped the basics of nonprofit board development – as properly applied to Orthodox Church ecclesiology (90% of nonprofit board development is good to go).

The second way in which the term “professional volunteer” is used today is when an expert in a particular vocation freely offers their education, training, skill and experience in service to a nonprofit, or in our case, the mission of the Church. A number of excellent local, regional, national and international Orthodox charities present a plenitude of opportunities for this.

In some sense this naturally occurs in almost every parish. Most priests are looking for help in website management, accounting, building maintenance, etc. Yet rarely is the practice of utilizing the knowledge and skills of expert professionals formally structured in a parish.

Here are key elements of implementing a structured process of identifying, recruiting, engaging and supporting the work of professional volunteers in a parish setting. This process has the potential of fulfilling an important aspect of the mission of the parish by bringing a host of people into the joy of serving our Lord Jesus Christ.

1. Identify the skills and talents in the parish by conducting a skills and talent survey. However, do not do this if there does not exist a firm plan to act upon the findings of the survey.

2. For priests, lighten your load by hiring or carefully recruiting a Chief Volunteer Manager, whose volunteer service is precisely to manage the volunteers in the parish.

3. If not already discovered, practice the incredibly powerful tool of “asking”. What is there to lose except a little time? What is there to gain? Perhaps valued and incredibly helpful partners in advancing the parish further into the Kingdom of God.

4. Be creative in how volunteer skills are used. These skills include not only practicing law, medicine, business, technology and construction, but also interpersonal skills like employing empathy and patience, public speaking, mediating conflicts, and creative skills like crafting and theater.

Are there medical professionals in the parish? How about a health fair on a Saturday both for the local parish and for the local community? Are there public relation and marketing professionals in the parish? Would they be willing to perform a public relations “audit” of the parish with a written report with findings and recommendations?

One parish was blessed to have the CEO of one of America’s largest consulting firms. He was absolutely faithful in attending church. When asked if he had ever been approached to offer his assistance in strategic planning or leadership coaching, he replied that he had not. Would he have not only offered his own personal expertise, but also would he have tapped a department or person known to him in the corporation who could assist pro bono in any number of ways? Probably, but the answer to this remains unknown. One wonders how much a for-profit corporation would have to pay for the freely offered advice of this person.

5. Consider creating an Advisory Committee of expert professionals who readily offer their services to the priest and parish council. Once again, there is an article on this topic in the Stewardship Advocates Library. Query the term “advisory” in the search field.

6. To effectively utilize extraordinary talents and skills it will likely require the priest to find the humility and the willingness to suspend “pulling” people into his “zone of comfort” (Ortho-speak, the inner life of the Church, the advisory role of the pastor where his authority, knowledge and experience is the primary reference point) and perhaps accompanied with some measure of discomfort, seek to enter into the world of the expert to sympathetically understand his or her terms of reference, specialized vocabulary and sometimes widely divergent view of Orthodoxy and then to look for ways in which this parishioner can link his or her work vocation into the spiritual life of the Church. This process is actually a form of pastoral work. As St. Francis of Assisi famously said, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”

7. As an exercise, pause to consider your own skills that might be placed in service to a charity. What are you good at? What comes easy for you? What aspects of your professional life might be assets to a local charity or community effort? What personal or interpersonal talents do you have?

One priest, who was qualified to do so, accepted responsibility for answering phones at a local Alcoholics Anonymous central office. Another priest jokingly said that he was incredibly well- qualified to mop floors at the local Ronald McDonald house. Another priest served as an appointee of the governor of New York to the board of trustees of State Universities of New York consisting of 64 campuses.

8. Check out pro bono resources from the Corporation for National and Community Service, a U.S. federal agency that engages more than 5 million Americans in service through its core programs — Senior Corps, AmeriCorps and Social Innovation.


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