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Choose your own adventure: an honest guide to volunteering at church

April 13, 2023 
Question: Do you want to volunteer with/through/at church?

Answer: No

Cool beans, the Christian vocation is in daily life, so go about your business and apply the best social justice and ethical insights to your workplace. For example, if you currently make more than $150,000 per year at your poultry plant or university, do everything in your power and use all your influence to ensure all employees in the organization receive above a living wage.

[If you answered no, you’ve chosen your adventure outside of volunteering at church. Just circle back and keep applying the best progressive Christian insights to all aspects of your daily life.]

Answer: Yes

Excellent, now I can help you think a little bit about how you can best share your gifts through the body of Christ as part of the church’s direct institutional life.

Question: Do you want to help with already existing church volunteer functions, like church usher, or choir member, or lector?

Answer: No

OK, if the traditional church-y volunteer tasks aren’t for you, this probably means you’ve either seen some things that interest you more and you don’t know how to volunteer for them, or you’re of an emerging generation of churchgoers for whom those traditional roles just don’t make sense for a variety of reasons.

Answer: Yes

Approach the staff person leading that volunteer role, or the lay member, or the pastor, and say, “I’d like to teach Sunday school with you. I’d like to help collect the offering. I’d like to sing in the choir.” Then follow next steps.

[If you answered yes, you’ll now have a new cool thing in your life to do each week, like attend choir or band practice, or race others up to the front of the sanctuary to help with communion. Congratulations!]

Question: Do you want to help with an emerging church ministry for which there doesn’t appear to be a straightforward onboarding process?

Answer: No

OK, no problem, but we’re going to have to do a bit of thinking in the realm of culture change rather than technological adaptation to help figure out what you really want to do.

Answer: Yes

Great, treat this like getting Bruce Springsteen concert tickets. I mean, nobody showed you how to get those tickets, you’re an adult and figure out all kinds of complex things all the time and then do them, if in fact you desire to do them. So ask yourself first, “Do I really want to do this, or am I just gesturing at wanting to do this?” Pause. Ask yourself this again. Then, if you really want to do this, proceed.

Question (for those who answered yes to the previous question): Are you willing to start showing up alongside the ministry area you’re interested in and just be present, and keep being present, possibly for years?

Answer: Yes

Great, now we’re getting somewhere. To really engage a challenging ministry area, especially if it includes cross-cultural engagement, you will need to invest time, lots of time, in order to connect to that ministry in a non-colonizing way. For example, if you’d like to join Marshallese ministries at our church, you’ll need to build trust, learn some of the language, make some friends, and illustrate you’ll keep showing up and are adaptable for whatever length of time it takes to build mutual trust and joy. By then, you’ll know what to do (although some of the time you won’t know what to do but you’ll know not-knowing-what-to-do is part of knowing what to do).

Do you want to volunteer with/through/at church? Excellent, now let’s think a bit about how you can best share your gifts through the body of Christ as part of the church’s direct institutional life.

Pastoral interlude

Here’s my confession. Some of you ask, “How can I help?” and I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s not that I don’t desire help. I’m excited you are asking! It’s just that it takes a lot of extra work to try and create an onboarding process that would get you from point A to point B, from “being interested in helping” to “they show up every time for this thing we’re doing together.” Consider it the other way around: if you teach chemistry or build houses, and I said, “Let me know how I can help…”

It’s just not always possible to make church ministry low-bar in terms of entry, even though we do need volunteers and member participation in a way different from construction crews.

If you want to do church ministry in some of the ways we do it (whether this is partnership with the Marshallese community, or with LGBTQIA community, or mutual aid or rent advocacy or even just making caring phone calls to members in the congregation), it’s honestly the case that there is no turn-key program for new volunteers. It’s much more “you learn by doing.”

My grandpa always used to tell the story of how he ran for Congress in the state of Iowa. His first campaign, he showed up in a neighborhood and needed to walk door to door. He sat behind the steering wheel of his truck for an hour, telling my grandma he couldn’t do it, then finally got out of the truck, walked up to the first house, and handed out his campaign material and made the pitch.

A few houses down the block, he then knew how to campaign, and 16 years later it was all familiar and easy.

I can’t tell you how to go door to door campaigning. Well, I can tell you a few things about it, but I can’t get you over the fear of the initial encounter. That you just have to go do for yourself.

Most if not all of the challenging and rewarding aspects of church life are like that. It’s less about where to show up when and what to do, and more about overcoming fear and discomfort.

Question: Do you really want to help, but you don’t have time?

Answer: Yes

Then give as much money as you possibly can. Most organizations, whether they are non-profits or churches, need your financial support even more than your time.

Question: Do you want the easiest way to support our ministries without actually volunteering in person?

Answer: Yes

Then create habits where you share everything the church posts on its page in your own social media. Share our fundraisers, informational posts, and calls to action. Every time.

Question: Do you wish someone would teach you how to make phone calls to new people, or more about cultures or people groups different from you?

Answer: Yes

You can Google almost anything. Treat getting to know the church ministry like you treat learning how to change the heating unit in your dryer. There’s probably a video about it. Doing research in ways that don’t ask others to do more work for you is often a really good idea.

Question: Are you afraid, uncomfortable, or worried about how your actions might make you vulnerable?

Answer: Yes

The real question underneath so much of the work of being the body of Christ in the world is actually about fear (for example, of making cold calls) or discomfort (immersing ourselves in new cultures in de-colonizing ways) or vulnerability (I might lose my job if I challenge my corporation to do the right thing). But of course, that’s the whole thing about Christianity. We have a theology of the cross for a reason. Being Christian is hard stuff.

Question: Are you struggling because there seem like a lot of options?

Answer: Yes

Choose one thing. Just one thing. Then treat that one thing like playing a sport. Show up for all the practices and all the games because it’s a team sport.

I’m sure that some of you, having read this far, will suggest additional insights. But I hope this has been helpful for many of you as you live into the adventure of volunteering with or through your local church.

Rev. Clint Schnekloth is pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a progressive church in the South. He is the founder of Canopy NWA (a refugee resettlement agency) and Queer Camp, and is the author of Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era. He blogs at Substack.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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