I cringe a little at using the word “volunteer” with regards to ministering in the local church. It makes it sound so optional, an extra add-on. The reality is that almost all of us who are followers of Jesus Christ have been given gifts to be used for the building up of the Body of Christ. A “right and duty” more than an “If I have time and if I’m needed…” option.
But 🙂 practically-speaking, the word “volunteer” in a broader, secular sense simply means one who is not paid for their labor/services. Our parishes and ministries are filled with volunteers. If you know of a disciple-making Catholic parish without lots of volunteers, I’d be interested to the the model–simply because it is so rare! For most of us then, volunteer management is a key component of our administration and leadership. Management of volunteers requires just as much intentional planning and attention to human resource practices as does management of employees!
With that in mind, here are 5 key questions to examine your own volunteer culture from Rich Birch, 5 Heart-Check Questions about the Volunteer Culture at Your Church | unSeminary.
All five may be useful, depending what stage your volunteer cultivation is at–but Birch’s #1 question on culture–Are you helping them grow in their relationship with Jesus?–shines a light into an area many of us can certainly improve in!
For Catholic ministries, there’s a more fundamental, critical question than Birch’s, and it’s this: has each of your volunteers had the foundational, fundamental conversion, i.e. the “conversion [that] means accepting, by a personal decision, the saving sovereignty of Christ and becoming his disciple”? (Redemptoris Missio, 46).
Most (but not all) times I’ve volunteered in Catholic ministry, no one has asked me about this conversion, this decision. I suppose it was either assumed or considered not something relevant or worth talking about. And it wasn’t skipped because of my outward fruits, since in some cases I was brand-new to the Catholic community. To put in bluntly, a background check prior to working with children was a non-negotiable (for good reason!). But, any details concerning my conversion or present relationship with Christ were optional.
If we skip over the “growth as a disciple” aspect of volunteer culture, we’re sending folks into ministry who are not able to “give” what they have not yet fully realized they’ve received! While a volunteer may be baptized, if grace of baptism and gifts of the Holy Spirit are not fully unleashed, their impact in ministry will be limited. We’re doing the volunteer (as well as those served) a disservice. Just think how hard it would be to sustain oneself in volunteer ministry without a daily walk with Jesus as friend.
Start with the basics–conversion and decision for Jesus Christ. Don’t turn away interested volunteers who are not yet conscious disciples, but instead enter into a new relationship with them to grow, mentor, and disciple them so that they are ready to make a decision for Christ and become the volunteers you [and our Church!] most deeply need.
You may want to develop a parish-specific version of this “Discipleship Road Map” from the FOCUS Catholic Ministry to help name the discipleship stages of your volunteers. By doing this you’ve created a path for growth, and set the conditions so that all are welcome to come and grow, i.e. if someone volunteers as a children’s catechist, and through an interview you discover that they aren’t sure about deciding to be Jesus’s disciple, maybe place them as an assistant with a more mature disciple, who can meet with them outside of class to serve as a spiritual mentor. Through this person’s presence in a catechetical setting where the kerygma is clearly proclaimed, he/she can experience foundational conversion and make a decision to yield one’s life to Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit!