Friday, January 29, 2010


A recent tweet, it may still be hanging around, asked the question, 'Why is the church hopeless at looking after its volunteers?'

Now my initial reaction was to be sad. That sort of question normally means, 'Why haven't you looked after me?'

I suspect that is not the case here. Firstly I know the person, who will probably be one of the first people to read this, and he is not a moaner. Secondly he is, although a volunteer himself (after a number of years on the other side of the fence as a paid church employee) more a looker-afterer than a look-after-me sort of person. So the question, I'm guessing, has an element of self-criticism. Morning Dennis by the way. Let's not pretend that anonymity stuff is going to work here. If you don't want people to know you asked the question you shouldn't tweet it.

So, to the question with haste, and first the assumption. Is the church hopeless? And do we mean the universal, catholic church or our church?

A friend walks into your home nursing bruises and asking to borrow some money to get home because he's just been mugged for his wallet and phone. What do you reckon will be his reaction to the news that violent crime is down? Thought not. Two of you with black eyes now.

I have worked in churches as a volunteer and as an ordained member of staff for thirty five years now. As a volunteer I never felt neglected, although if I had I knew I could pick up the phone and have a chat to, or call and see, the clergy or my line-manager.

Since ordination I can count, on the fingers of one hand, the number of people who have stood down because they said they felt uncared for. Fewer than twenty ever picked up the phone and asked for an appointment to discuss the task for which they were currently volunteering. I did the chasing. Maybe there was a small army of the silently-seething out there who I missed. By and large I have been told over the years that I am good at getting the best out of volunteers and supporting them although I appreciate that one angel doesn't mean we are over-run with spiritual support. No, I wasn't calling myself an angel there, just moved from the particular to the general without stopping the flow.

If you feel unsupported you will probably jump to the conclusion that everyone does. Steady now.

My point, for the moment, is no more than this. Clergy are not mind-readers. No-one ever moaned that the doctor didn't visit when they were ill if an appointment hadn't been sought. If you are a volunteer and you are feeling pissed off and uncared for please tell. I am not good at 'hearing the vibe' as it were so I use a pastoral group of three people who tell me what is going on and advise me if a visit or intervention from me would help. Tell us if you want help. We would like, to quote the only management question worth asking, to find out how to help you do your job better.

Of course we can't wave wands (although prayer is good and works). Listening to you may not mean we will be able to do what you want. I am currently over-working my children's volunteers because no-one will come forward to help. I care for the over-worked. Desperately. I have thought long, hard and even creatively about how to help solve the problem and still am. The lack of a solution does not mean I don't care.

Recently, in a church near mine, a volunteer who ran a major ministry, resigned retrospectively with a week to go before the start of a new term's programme. I wonder who cares for the carer who has that done to them?

As a representative of the church I pledge to try and do better in future. One way might be to hold volunteers to account more thoroughly, to discipline if performance is sub-standard and to require that all volunteers tell their line manager how they are doing, by appointment, on a monthly basis. In return we will give nothing but love. Will that cause a steady rise in the number of volunteers? Is a volunteer any less than an employee without a salary?

You may not know that I often start conversations by stating things a bit more bluntly than they actually are. Let's talk, not fight.


Caroline Too said...

... and then, as you hear the volunteers out, st... who will listen to you? Mrs Mustard? of course, but....

part of the logic of giving you some money to be a pastor-teacher is to free up your time to do this sort of thing

but it is draining and I frequently wonder who's looking after the looker-afterers...

my usual response is an invite to supper and space to talk of whatever comes to mind, but Nailsea to Northamptonshire and a gap of 30 years is probably too big a commute,

but following your post, I'll give my clerical error a call today, and invite him and his wife for supper in your place...

not so much an angel as a mean Shepherd's pie or curry! :-)

Revsimmy said...

Thank you ST. It's amazing how many people seem to think that ordination also confers omniscience!

Kathryn said...

As Revsimmy said...

Sally said...

Let me leave an interesting slant.
The church teaches us to give freely.
Where an individual is motivated by passion and zest from within there are opportunitites for both sides - giver and receiver - to grow and develop. The outcome should be no less than if one was paid. An interesting point you make, how does the church hold volunteers to account when undertaking such heart felt work, often with busy lives?
Firstly, when volunteering, we need to examine our underlying motive carefully in undertaking church work. Most human beings grow when they are supported in their work and need genuine affirmation, but perhaps we need to examine in taking such a position whose needs the act of service is meeting? The fact that we gain pleasure doesn't matter as long as we know in what proportion this is in. (Pride in balance for our work is not perhaps the sin we think it is!) A church needs though to be aware of the idealising transference which is put upon the system and also realise that individuals will be drawn to this environment for a sense of belonging through positive identification with one another. Theory remarks that an organisation where there is a common Christian passion can mirror the process of a person's family. Flip! When we are let down there may be fantasies that are shattered bringing disappointment in our expectation.
As a leader in a church you are Steve, tredding on fragile ground, which could blow up with an overacting, self detructing response! Helpers too need responsibility to continually assess committment taking responsibility for their own boundaries. Having said all that if the church, generally speaking, becomes more encompassing of the (sometimes) struggle in the work, for the wellbeing of others for various complex reasons, the helper gets positively reinforced and the roles between helper and receiver are more consiously defined.
To finish, clergy have a role that has parallel task, the vision of God's work, where we too hope to instigate action, and the complexity of us individuals in the church who have needs. Paid and unpaid have the vision. Let us not foget that Clergy too cannot fulfill everthing for us and that they have their own personal needs for support whilst ministering.
For us both there is a limit but we believe God's limits are infinite!