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Increase Volunteerism in Your Congregation
(Adapted from "Research Briefs from Related Projects Connecting Faith and Service," Baylor University School of Social Work and partners.)
The primary goal of social service programs is to improve the situations of program recipients, of course. But as any long-time volunteer will tell you, serving others brings as much benefit to the giver of the service as to the recipient, if not more so. Research indicates that when Christians volunteer, they're not just ministering to the community; the degree of their personal faith can be affected as well. Studies show that voluntarily serving others is more effective in strengthening the impact of faith than attending worship services more than once a week; that volunteering with persons of different or conflicting backgrounds and beliefs tends to confirm, rather than confuse, a volunteer's faith; and that church members who are personally involved in community ministry are more apt to financially support the church than non-volunteering members.
Yet in spite of the confirmed spiritual benefits accrued through faithful service, volunteers may find themselves feeling unchallenged and unfulfilled by their work in the community. Strengthening the faith-life of volunteers should be an important focus for congregational leaders, not only because service is such an integral component of the Christian lifestyle, but also because community needs are great, and volunteers are consistently in high demand. Here are some steps church leaders can take to revitalize their congregants' commitment to serve, and to strengthen the faith-life of volunteers at the same time.
- Challenge members to get involved in community ministry as a necessary outgrowth of the Christian faith, then provide the means for them to respond to your challenge. Offer mission opportunities through the congregation itself, and seek out opportunities for volunteers in public, private, faith-based and secular venues. Consider programs that require once-daily volunteers as well as once-monthly volunteers, so that even members who have very little time to donate can get involved in volunteer work.
- Work on moving members from short-term volunteer ventures to long-term commitment. Many congregations literally move their members, sending them on long-distance mission trips during which participants can gain a new appreciation of the positive impact made in people's lives because of their efforts. But opportunities for joyful service exist close to home, too. Volunteers who thrive in distant missions settings may be inspired to get involved in similar projects locally.
- Define volunteer jobs in ways that emphasize the relational aspect of volunteering. Services such as delivering meals weekly to a regular set of people, or tutoring the same child over a period of time, give volunteers the chance to develop personal bonds with other people. The challenges and rewards involved with personal relationships are far more significant for the faith formation of volunteers than non-relational service.
- Set the standard by setting an example: get personally involved in community service. Congregational leaders who are involved and visible in community ministries will be better equipped to connect the church's services with the community's needs.
- Celebrate and educate volunteers. Pray for upcoming volunteer events, and plan time afterward for the volunteers to share and reflect upon their experiences. Consider establishing a prayer group or Bible study to help support volunteers through potentially difficult experiences in their community work. Use the group time to examine the social and economic factors that create the problems that volunteers are called upon to alleviate. Encourage volunteers to find ways to respond to systemic problems as well as to the impact of such problems on the lives of individuals.
- Encourage service for service's sake, and discourage the congregation from equating success as a volunteer with solving the community's problems. Remind volunteers that volunteering is an act of Christian discipleship, an opportunity to learn, to befriend and to support, and that the burden of changing lives doesn't rest on them personally, but on God.
With the right balance of encouragement, opportunity, challenge and support, church leaders can lead their congregations toward a renewed commitment to serving their communities and renewing their faith through community service.
-adapted from a series of Research Briefs from Related Projects to be released by Baylor University School of Social Work as part of a 30-month research project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The research reported in this brief was conducted in another research project led by Baylor University and funded by Lilly Endowment, Inc., "Service and Faith: The Impact on Christian Faith and Congregational Life of Organized Community Caring (2000-2003)." The research team consisted of Diana Garland, Dennis Myers, and David Sherwood (Baylor University); Paula Sheridan (Whittier College); Terry Wolfer (University of South Carolina) and Beryl Hugen (Calvin College). For more information on this project, contact Diana Garland (Diana_Garland@baylor.edu).