Part two of a two-part community building series, adapted from The Practical Minister
Now that you’ve begun the work of engagement and service in your community (Beginning Where We Are, part one), you’ll want to strengthen and broaden your circle. It isn’t easy to keep volunteers motivated and energized. Even with the best of intentions, volunteers are often pulled away by life’s responsibilities; sometimes, they may feel undervalued or even overused.
Our parish community outreach group occasionally struggled to motivate volunteers, as well as to ensure that those we served felt welcomed as part of our community. The strategies we developed (again through trial and error and eventual success) proved useful to us—and, I hope, to you.
Make everyone an insider.
A common refrain heard in many organizations is that a small group does all of the heavy lifting. One way to lighten the load is to invite new volunteers often. The personal invitation is still the most–and sometimes the only–effective one. You may need to invite individuals again and again because people forget, people are inattentive, life happens.
Keep everyone aware of opportunities. The most effective means I found to keep volunteers informed of opportunities (and actually have them sign up to help) was to build an outreach database of interested volunteers and send them regular email notices of activities and needs both in the parish and in the wider community. Parish groups also held ministry fairs (less effective), organized breakfasts for new parishioners (labor and time intensive but appreciated by those who showed up), and followed up with all newly registered parishioners to see how (rather than if) they would like to participate in the parish community. We stayed current with various forms of social media so that we could communicate with young adults on platforms they use.
Play to volunteers’ strengths. Instead of trying to fit an individual to an existing need, take the time and effort to learn the interests of the individual and then identify the need that her talent meets. This seems self-evident, but often an organization tries to fill a role with the next person who volunteers. I know; I’ve tried to do it! While a good-hearted individual may help once, if the role she was shoehorned into is not one that fits, it is unlikely she will become a regular volunteer. Far better to spend time at the outset of the relationship really getting to know her talents, availability, and wishes.
On the other hand, everyone cannot always experience the ideal volunteer gig. On our parish’s annual Service Day, for example, we sent hundreds of volunteers into the community to as many as fifty locations, where we undertook whatever task was needed. Many parishioners would have liked to paint or serve meals. However, each year, many of us instead enjoyed an afternoon of bingo because a real need was time spent with elderly seniors at nursing facilities. We paid attention and tried to change it up for volunteers each Service Day so that the same people weren’t always playing bingo.
Appreciate volunteers. While most individuals do not volunteer for the purpose of being thanked, we all like to feel valued. I always expressed appreciation for service in a regular and intentional way. I sent written thank-you notes to groups and emailed individuals after volunteer activities. Notes and emails go a long way to letting volunteers know that their efforts are seen and appreciated. I also often copied the pastor and relevant parish leaders on emails so that leadership was aware of the service and the volunteers were aware that their service was noted. In addition, at the Mass after our annual Service Day, we recognized parish groups who served the parish and the wider community all year long.
Build community continually.
Keep pushing the margins out to include more people in your community. Our parish was a large one, and this made it more difficult for some to feel part of the community. Membership in smaller groups, such as ones focused on young families or singles, however, gave individuals a place inside the larger community. Because staff realized the potential of smaller groups to become individually isolated within the larger community, the parish provided service, social, and spiritual opportunities for them to interact both with other groups and with the congregation as a whole.
Build a reputation for working with other community groups. Collaborating and partnering with others broadens the community even further. So stay aware of community needs and the work of other organizations, and be open to saying “yes.” “How can we help?” became my favorite question.
Ask volunteers what they need. Provide ongoing opportunities for discussion, reflection, and brainstorming. For instance, at a meeting of a pastoral care committee that provided support to senior citizens, one volunteer mentioned that she was feeling grief after the death of a parishioner whom she had visited for a number of years. After other volunteers agreed that they had felt such grief, we planned a subsequent committee meeting with a counselor to address bereavement issues.
Make yourself accessible.
Respond to others promptly and with action.
Learn about community resources so that you, in turn, can be a resource. If you are familiar with the services offered by city, county, social service agencies, and food banks, you can serve as a resource not only for those who may need those services but also for those who may wish to volunteer at those places.
Welcome those you serve as part of your community rather than considering them simply as those who need help. Sit and eat with diners instead of standing behind the serving table when you go into the community to host meals. Share your facilities and resources. Years ago, when our parish hosted homeless families in our church hall two or three weeks a year as a member of Family Promise, we invited them to take part in activities occurring that week at the parish so families knew that our space was their space, too.
Finally, it is likely you will experience a number of false starts, aborted projects, and relationships that do not work out.
Consider these not failures but the embodiment of reaching out, offering opportunities, and answering the call. Begin where you are and work with what you have. If, ultimately, an initiative does not go forward, know that at least you are standing in the right place–with and for others.