Throughout her years of serving in Church ministry, Patricia Brooks has heard one phrase repeated so often that it has almost become a cliché – volunteers get more out of the experience than they can possibly give.
Having spent many years as a volunteer with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Brooks understands the sentiment.
“Being able to serve in any capacity is always a joy,” said Brooks, president of the society’s Trenton Diocesan Council. “Between the volunteers and the people we serve, you just meet some wonderful people.”
But in her role, which includes helping regional and parish councils recruit more members to the all-volunteer ministry, she also understands that the work of those who give their time and talent to the Church is needed more than they may ever realize. As just one of the Church’s social outreach ministries, the St. Vincent de Paul Societies in the diocese have a network of nearly 5,000 volunteers at various levels who donated more than 180,000 hours of their time in service during the past year, Brooks said.
And without their generous assistance, the ministry would cease to exist.
“Most people do not know what it takes to make a conference run or to make a parish run. It is something they never think of,” Brooks said, noting that there are numerous tasks for which helpers are always needed. “Recruiting volunteers is a full-time job. You have to be alert all the time.”
A look through the list of ministries in any parish will reveal that the critical importance of volunteers is not limited to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. From ushers and lectors at Mass to religious education teachers to those who set up chairs or prepare food for an event, volunteers are the backbone of parish life. And with fewer available priests and religious to staff parishes, involvement of the laity has become increasingly important in organizing and running Church ministries.
Recruiting Like Jesus
The challenge for many parishes, however, is building a large enough base of volunteers to keep their ministries active and vibrant without burning out those who are willing to serve.
A recent study of parishes conducted by the diocesan Office of Evangelization and Parish Development revealed that while the majority have a committed core group of volunteers, in most cases it is the same individuals who are staffing multiple ministries.
Of the 61 parishes who responded to the survey, 64 percent reported that they have enough volunteers to cover all of their ministries, but those volunteers are taking on too much work. Of the remaining parishes, 19 percent reported difficulty in maintaining volunteers and 17 percent said they do not currently have enough volunteers.
To help parishes address these needs, the Office of Evangelization and Parish Development hosted recent workshops in St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, Freehold, and St. Ann Parish, Lawrenceville, on effective methods of volunteer recruitment. Christopher Weber, director of the Mount Summer program at Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, Md., and a veteran of Church ministry, shared insight from his upcoming book, “Recruiting, Jesus Style” (Visual Dynamics Publishing), on how the Gospel can act as a guide for bringing people into ministry.
Scripture, Weber said, is filled with examples of Jesus acting as a “warm body recruiter,” spontaneously calling people who were seemingly unlikely candidates for discipleship and then preparing them for their roles.
“Jesus recruited his disciples through inspiration and then formed them through on-the-job perspiration,” Weber said. “Maybe there are some things we can do to follow this example.”
The approach of Jesus in inviting people to service can be adapted for the Church’s modern needs, Weber said. Among the ideas he discussed were offering varied levels of commitment, trying to reach all segments of the community and inspiring people with the truth of the Gospel.
And while placing information about volunteer opportunities in the parish bulletin or making announcements at Mass are helpful, Weber added, there is no method more effective than a personal, one-on-one invitation.
“People are at all different places when they come to Mass. Some people might very well just be shy and have not necessarily thought about volunteering for something, or they are interested, they want to find out a little bit more and they are just unsure of themselves,” he said. “Until we ask, we have no clue.”
The call for Catholics to volunteer in the Church should also come with the reminder that it is not merely another job to do or a way to fill their free time, but a concrete means of living out the Gospel.
“It is putting your faith into practice,” said Msgr. Sean Flynn, pastor of St. Mark Parish, Sea Girt. “It is giving physical expression to your love of God and love of neighbor.”
Although St. Mark is a small parish community, Msgr. Flynn said, approximately 200-300 people are involved as volunteers in various ministries. Opportunities such as helping the poor in the local community, bringing the Eucharist to the homebound and serving on the bereavement committee are among the avenues parishioners have taken to deepen their own faith and the faith of those they serve.
“It is a very satisfying thing to be a volunteer, to know that you are making a difference in someone’s life, to know that you are helping someone and that you are helping the Church to reach out to other people, especially the poor and the suffering,” Msgr. Flynn said. “I think it helps them grow spiritually and emotionally.”
In St. Pius X Parish, Forked River, efforts to involve parishioners of all ages in ministry have benefitted both individuals and the parish community as a whole. The parish’s volunteer coordinator, Anne Brennan, said that efforts are made to slowly introduce people to new areas of ministry and expose them to different aspects of church life.
In particular, Brennan said, there is an effort to bring together both younger and older generations for the same activities and events.
“To get the different age groups together, that then fosters a parish family,” Brennan said. “That is our goal when we are doing a lot of these things – not just to get the job done, whatever it might be, but to foster that growth here in our parish.”
In addition to lessening the workload for individual volunteers, getting large numbers of people involved in parish ministry helps to form new relationships among parishioners. Brennan explained that this approach is something that can transform the parish community and enhance all aspects of parish life.
“If you work in some of these areas you get to know people that you normally might not meet,” she said. “I think that gives you a richer fabric of coming to Mass. It makes everybody feel connected.”
According to Weber, creating that type of parish atmosphere is the first step toward the ultimate goal of recruiting volunteers, which is to help them spread Christ’s message outside the church walls.
“Our goal is about encouraging our whole community to be disciples of Christ alive for the world,” Weber said. “Of course we want to bring them into church and we want to strengthen them through the sacramental life of the Church. But we’re actually doing this because our whole business is to go out and make a difference in the world.”[[In-content Ad]]
For information on how to obtain Weber's forthcoming book, email [email protected]