God’s people at works of service
Central Heights Church is “volunteer healthy, yet looking to become even healthier,” says John Thoutenhoofd, pastor of outreach at the 1,038-member MB congregation in Abbotsford, B.C. He oversees activities including spring and fall community parties, a clothing giveaway, Christmas hampers, basketball activities, and Divorce Care, Effective Relationships, and Boundaries courses.
“I used to joke that you could put volunteer management pastor in our titles,” he says, “but it’s not far from the truth.” His volunteers reflect the broad spectrum of ages in the church and contribute 1–10 hours per week. As for getting church members to participate, “I’m surprised how effective just asking works. Then you need to make sure you connect a genuine volunteering desire with a real volunteering activity.”
To avoid over-commitment or burnout in its members, Westview Christian Fellowship in St. Catharines, Ont., with only 72 members, has taken the philosophy that if people don’t volunteer for programs and activities, the church will not run them. Telling stories of the fruit of volunteering helps people make an emotional connection with the needs and encourages involvement. Rather than responding to a sense of duty, “it’s coming from a different place,” says church administrator Cheryl Enns.
The Women 4 Women open house for residents living in the nearby low-income neighbourhood, supervised by associate pastor Erika Klassen, is the “heart’s call” of the team of women who volunteer several hours each week cooking, cleaning, and supervising the community cupboard at the church’s weekly outreach. And the value of volunteer service has rubbed off on some of the patrons: several spend a couple hours at the church the previous day sorting donated clothes and items.
Mission is a foundational element of the Mennonite Brethren church, and short-term missionaries – volunteers – play an important part in mission work and church planting through assignments, often in North American communities. MB Mission and Service International (MBMSI) makes room in its programs not only for youth and retirees, but for families as well.
In the past year, 780 people volunteered for MBMSI’s short-term mission programs, contributing a total of 21,322 days through SOAR, ACTION, TREK, Disciple Making International (DMI), Urban Mission, and church teams.
Whether a weekend trip or a longer commitment, MBMSI always facilitates training and debrief for its participants, and partners with established agencies working long-term in the target neighbourhood or ministry. “Our bottom line: we will not perpetuate or encourage a fly-in, fly-out mindset,” says mobilization coordinator Sam Dick. “We go in under the umbrella of those who live and serve there and have a long-term vision.”
The goal of MBMSI programs is to develop a heart for mission in its participants. “We want to grow prayer, awareness, vision,” says Dick, and to “give tangible ways to turn emotional response into action that can go the distance.”
Lloyd and Carol Letkeman, directors of SOAR Heartland, see this happening with the people who participate each year. In 2009, 263 participants paid to volunteer with compassion ministries in Winnipeg, while another 300 support volunteers served 1–10 days cooking and cleaning at the host facility. As many as 40 percent of 2009 participants were alumni of the previous year. The Letkemans “often joke that we mobilize more workers for Youth for Christ and other agencies through Heartland than we do for MBMSI.”
“I hear from supporting pastors that many of their youth who are being baptized mention SOAR Heartland as a significant life transforming event, where their walk with Jesus and the faithful community was solidified,” says Lloyd.
Mennonite Disaster Service
Celebrating 60 years this year, Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) “specializes in managing volunteer labour” and shares the gospel through doing. Yet, MDS volunteers commonly say they were “blessed more than they gave.” In 2009, 840 people volunteered short-term with MDS, 100 of whom self-identified as MB, and there were 280 long-term volunteers, 53 of whom were MB. Anyone can volunteer, though construction, office, and cooking skills are needed at each project, so spots for completely unskilled volunteers are somewhat limited. MDS faces a surfeit of volunteers from November to March when skilled volunteers like farmers and construction workers have a slow season, and a dearth of volunteers from April to October.
Short-term opportunities with MDS generally attract volunteers under 50, with a good representation from young adults. Long-term opportunities generally attract retirees, though a small number of young adults take a few months off school to serve, says Lois Nickel, director of region relations and programs.
Special event volunteering
With Vancouver serving as host to the recent Olympic Winter Games, churches in B.C.’s Lower Mainland had a wealth of opportunities to volunteer, as visitors from around the world converged on their neighbourhoods. More Than Gold (MTG) invited churches to bring proposals for involvement, but “churches are so busy with their own ministries, they need something really specific to grab onto,” says Marilyn Hiebert, MB representative for the MTG efforts. “They don’t have time to dream.”
However, the volunteers Hiebert spoke to “loved being able to serve.” When she called to remind people of the time and location of their assigned SkyTrain station shifts, the volunteers who’d already worked needed no reminders; they had a “big sense of excitement” about volunteering. It’s an experience “they will never forget,” says Hiebert.
Everyday volunteering at home
Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is a household name for Mennonites in the areas of disaster relief, sustainable community development, and justice and peace-building work. Service opportunities with MCC range from long-term crosscultural exchanges for youth and multi-year international assignments, to myriad weekly or monthly local opportunities like Circles of Support and Accountability and the well-known MCC Thrift Stores.
The 5,000 volunteers who keep 55 MCC Thrift Stores functioning from Ontario to B.C. fulfill the vision of the four Altona, Man., women who started the movement with a vision for ecumenical cooperation on a practical level. The stores provide opportunities to try out new skills, not only in sales and administration, but also in fixing appliances and designing displays.
Though a 2007 survey indicated 72 percent of the volunteer force was over the age of 65, Thrift Stores are seeing a gradual shift toward younger workers who see it as a way to gain work experience. Another growing trend is young families volunteering together on Saturdays – a practical way for parents to teach their children the value of giving time and resources to others.
“Helping others” is volunteers’ top motivation for donating time and energy to MCC Thrift Stores, according to the survey. While the retirees who give up to 5–12 hours a week, and make up the bulk of the volunteer force cite friendship networks and the opportunity for an “outing” as another perk of volunteering, younger people increasingly find the ecological benefit of reusing items and the financial contribution to MCC’s project to be attractive reasons to donate their time.
While Mennonite and evangelical agencies offer great opportunities to serve outside the church, Dan Harder, past executive director of Big Brothers of Regina, urged MB Herald readers not to forget that secular agencies need volunteers too. “The goal of a Christian who volunteers for any organization should be to bring Jesus to them; our methods may be different, but not any less effective.”
From the Anabaptist perspective, “the priesthood of all believers” (see 1 Peter 2:9) means that all members of the body of Christ – local church congregations as its visible manifestation – have been given gifts and are called to serve. “The recent use of the word ‘missional’ means, in short, that the local church sees itself as ‘sent’ into the (immediate) community by being engaged in the life of the community,” write Nzash Lumeya and P. Menno Joel, in the ICOMB study guide, Knowing and Living your Faith.
The call is clear and opportunities to serve with time and talents abound from the church to the public square.