A Bill of Rights for Parish Volunteers
Reprinted in the “Parish Ministry in Practice” series from Today’s Parish Magazine, Volunteers — Getting Them, Placing Them, Keeping Them: Empowering Parish Volunteers, edited by Dan Connors (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 2001): 20-26.
By Bridget Lynch Fischer
A close friend recently developed a life-threatening illness. I knew that my friend would need help as she struggled with her disease. For that reason, I signed up for a training program to become a hospice volunteer. My city’s hospice program trains volunteers to assist people threatened by serious illness and to provide respite for their care-givers, who are usually family members.
On the first of the seven training sessions, we were introduced to a “volunteer’s bill of rights.” These are the principles that govern the relationship between the volunteer and the hospice program. They also illustrate how much the hospice values its volunteers. When I read this bill of rights, I immediately saw how my parish could use it. Just like the hospice, the parish depends on volunteers. Parishes should grant the same rights to volunteers as my local hospice does, and volunteers should know their rights.
Volunteers have the right to be treated as co-workers, to know as much about the parish and its policies and procedures as possible.
The first “right” that should be granted is the right to be treated as a co-worker. If a parish is to reflect the community of Jesus and his disciples, if it is to really continue that community’s mission, then it should act like a community. This means, among other things, that it must foster a spirit of trust. Volunteers have a right to know as much as possible about the parish and its policies and procedures. In terms of trust and courtesy, volunteers should be on par with the parish staff.
Some years ago, when our parish hired a new choir director, I volunteered to organize the music library along with a few other people. We went through piles of music, discarding and destroying illegal photocopies, putting legitimate octavos into folders, and organizing the music to make it easily accessible. When we were done, the music was beautifully arranged, but we had no place to put it. We petitioned the parish business manager for a pair of filing cabinets. Without hesitating, he ordered the cabinets and had them delivered.
The business manager’s responsiveness really impressed me. He trusted my judgment. He recognized that the filing cabinets were a real necessity. He treated me like a co-worker. And the choir director really appreciated the reorganized choir library.
2. Suitable Assignments
Volunteers have the right to suitable assignments that take into consideration personal preference, temperament, life experience, education, and employment background.
We volunteers have a right to assignments that make our volunteer work enjoyable. Such assignments enable us to make a better contribution.
One member of our parish choir was completing her M.B.A. degree at the time I was organizing the choir library. She was adept at computers, and volunteered to create a choir library database. She made a record of each composition, indicating the composer, title, publisher, cost, liturgical season, date when performed, and number of copies in the library. When she was done, our new choir director could tell how many copies we needed to order to complete our set and how often we had sung the piece in recent years. And our computer whiz received university credit for her project.
The previous director knew that this woman had expertise with computers, but he never asked her to contribute anything but her soprano voice. The new director recognized her computer talents and called upon them. Volunteers have a right to expect that the parish will take their abilities into consideration. This is not to say that parishes should take advantage of volunteers, but should fully appreciate all their talents.
Volunteers have the right to training for the job as well as the right to continuing education.
One of the best training programs I ever experienced was offered some years ago to my parish’s lectors by a husband and wife team. He was a theologian who taught at the seminary, and she was an actress. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles has certified them as lector-trainers, and they volunteered to give a lector workshop. During the workshop, they invited a lector to tell a true life-story, then they analyzed the way the story was told. Their point was that good lectoring is like good storytelling. Both require conviction and timing. When lectors have internalized what they want to say, they convey it with enthusiasm and conviction. Proper inflection and projection follow naturally. When the workshop was over, we lectors felt better trained for our ministry.
For some reason, however, the parish never invited them to offer their workshop again. As the years passed, some of the lectors who had profited from their workshop left the ministry of lector. New lectors joined the ranks, but they never received the same kind of training. Many of the new lectors did not know how to project their voices. Parishioners began to complain that they could not understand them. Some people thought that the problem was with the public address system. Right now the parish is engaged in a renovation of its loudspeakers at a cost of more than $10,000. Wouldn’t it be cheaper and better to bring back good trainers like the theologian and the actress?
4. Guidance and Feedback
Volunteers have the right to sound guidance, direction and feedback on their performance.
Two years ago, our parish made a number of liturgical changes at the behest of its part-time director of liturgy. The director was a world-renowned scholar and published composer who resided in the parish. He had volunteered his services to our new pastor.
The pastor was naturally delighted to receive the expertise of such a knowledgeable and capable man. Prior to volunteering, the liturgy director did not regularly attend Mass at our parish. He ordinarily participated in the worship of a nearby monastery, at which he was an oblate. So when he became director of our parish’s liturgy, he wanted to introduce some of the style of the monastic liturgy. He brought in a new seating arrangement, new music, and a new procedure for distributing Communion.
Each innovation had an excellent rationale, but the director did not consult widely. He simply instituted the changes without preparing the congregation. This upset a number of ushers, singers, and Eucharistic ministers. The director was surprised at their vehemence. When it became clear that his changes were unpopular, the director resigned.
Parishes often fail to offer constructive criticism for fear of hurting the feelings of volunteers. They do not want to lose the volunteers’ services. But this failure deprives volunteers of a fundamental right. It is the right to sound guidance, direction and feedback from their supervisor. This is an essential part of the volunteer ministry. Supervisors should regularly meet with the volunteers precisely to let them know how they are doing, to affirm their contribution, and to recommend improvements. Undoubtedly, we volunteers prefer praise to criticism. But it is better to receive constructive criticism from a trusted supervisor than to hear through the grapevine that parishioners are complaining behind the volunteer’s back.
5. Variety of Assignments
Volunteers have the right to a variety of experiences through advancements to assignments with more responsibility and through the transfer from one activity to another.
I have served as a lector for many years. I am also the mother of three boys. This spring, the parish asked me to do something apart from my duties as lector. I was asked to prepare young lectors for the Masses during which children receive their First Communion.
I was happy to do so. I appreciate the importance of good reading and the special problems that being a lector poses to children. Finding time for lector preparation in the midst of homework, sports, tutoring, lessons, and Nintendo is one problem. Another arises when child lectors are not well motivated or prepared. So I first scanned the list of children who would be receiving their First Communion. I recognized a number of them with older siblings who I thought might make good readers. These older brothers and sisters would undoubtedly come to the First Communion Mass. I invited them, because I was confident of their ability, motivation and attendance.
I scheduled practice times with the young lectors. We went through everything from processing into Mass with the lectionary held high to adjusting the microphone. Most importantly, we worked on the readings until the children could read clearly and convey the message of the scriptural passage. They knew what they were saying. One nine-year-old boy in particular caught the pastor’s attention. After he finished his reading, the pastor leaned over to me and whispered, “What’s that boy’s name?” Then, as he began his homily, the pastor acknowledged the boy by name. I don’t know who felt more honored, the boy or me.
Preparing the child lectors was a new assignment for me. It built upon the expertise I had acquired as a lector and the life experience I had as a mother. By offering me this new assignment, the parish was honoring a fundamental right&emdash;the right to a variety of experiences. I enjoyed advancing to an assignment with more responsibility. Such changes help us volunteers to sustain our enthusiasm and interest.
6. Free Speech
Volunteers have the right to be heard, to feel free to make suggestions, to have respect shown for an honest opinion, and to have a part in planning.
Four years ago, our choir director resigned. He had built up a choir of more than 50 voices and had a loyal following. His resignation was due to a breakdown in communication between him and the parish administration.
The choir members rallied behind the director. 54 signed a petition to the pastor, asking him to look into the reasons why the choir director had resigned. Some singers published a newsletter, letting the parish community know about the resignation. A group of twelve choir members asked to meet with the pastor.
Some parishioners were aghast that the choir members had questioned the parish’s administrative procedures. They felt that it was disrespectful. But the pastor agreed to meet with the group and invited its members to express their feelings about the resignation. The members also identified unresolved problems that led to it.
Although the pastor listened to the group, he said that he had accepted the director’s resignation. He was not going to reconsider the matter. The choir was disappointed that the pastor would not investigate the matter further. But at least he honored its right to be heard and to make suggestions.
Volunteers have the right to recognition in the form of promotion, awards and day-to-day expressions of appreciation.
Once a year, our parish hosts a volunteer appreciation dinner. It begins in church with sung evening prayer. At the conclusion of the prayer, the pastor honors one parishioner as “volunteer of the year.” This is usually a long-time parishioner who has contributed in numerous ministries and is widely respected and loved. After the evening prayer, we continue the celebration with a buffet supper. The volunteer appreciation dinner is one of the most memorable events of the year. I never miss it. We all sing during the evening prayer. We all applaud the volunteer of the year. We all share in the buffet supper. It is a generous way for the parish to thank us.
What We Owe Them
Some may protest that it is a legal misnomer to use the word “right” to describe the claims of volunteers. No church authority has granted these rights to parishioners. There are no sanctions if these so-called rights are curtailed or infringed.
But I think they deserve to be called rights. Why? Because these statements describe what a Christian community owes its volunteers. If a parish is to be faithful to what the Church teaches about human dignity, and faithful to St. Paul’s doctrine of the many members and the one body, then every parish volunteer should claim these rights.
Ultimately, however, it is not a question of volunteers demanding concessions from the parish. Nor is it a question of the church owing something to volunteer parishioners. All of us are the church. We should freely give to one another the courtesy, respect, support, honesty, opportunity, freedom, and appreciation that we want for ourselves. When we acknowledge the rights of volunteers, we empower ourselves and build up a fuller communion.