Parish volunteer’s sacrifice comes with benefits

People do indeed give something up when they assume an active role in a parish ministry. Undoubtedly, in the eyes of some, this element of sacrifice is the downside of serving as a parish volunteer.

Jun 05, 2014

By David Gibson
People do indeed give something up when they assume an active role in a parish ministry. Undoubtedly, in the eyes of some, this element of sacrifice is the downside of serving as a parish volunteer. Parishioners surrender valuable time that might be used in other ways. The energy and talent they expend sometimes leaves them feeling fatigued.

But the upside of parish volunteering is born of finding oneself more deeply involved in a faith community. The parish's needs and strengths both come into clearer view for those active in parish ministries. People encounter opportunities not only to use their gifts and talents in ways needed, but to be strengthened personally by doing so.

In other words, the sacrifice of time and energy in a parish ministry comes with benefits. That, undoubtedly, is why so many people volunteer their musical talents to a choir or conclude that their gift for public speaking indicates they might well serve as a lector at Sunday Masses. Others choose to accompany parish teens to a summer work camp or carefully prepare themselves to prepare second-graders for first Communion.

Some parishioners volunteer to work in a food pantry or soup kitchen, attempting to assure that healthful food reaches poor adults and children. There are parishes where volunteers put their experience to work helping the unemployed find jobs or assisting immigrant families trying to survive in a new land. Some nurses and doctors share their medical expertise with those who cannot afford medical care.

A sign of the church’s commitment to serving people in need is witnessed when a parish dispatches Communion distributors at the conclusion of Sunday Mass to bring the Eucharist to sick parishioners unable to get to church. Ministers to the sick are a statement in themselves that people in trouble and people who suffer are kept high in mind by the church.

Parishioners who assume an active role in any of these kinds of parish ministries typically announce later that they received more than they gave in the process, even if it did consume valuable time and energy. Pope Francis talked about this in The Joy of the Gospel, a major document on evangelization that he released in late 2013.

“When we live out a spirituality of drawing nearer to others and seeking their welfare, our hearts are opened wide to the Lord’s greatest and most beautiful gifts,” the Pope wrote.

He said, “Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God. Whenever our eyes are opened to acknowledge the other, we grow in the light of faith.” So, in order “to advance in the spiritual life,” it is essential that we “constantly be missionaries”.

Numerous voices attest that it is possible for lay volunteers to become overinvolved in parish ministries. When that happens, a father or mother may spend so much time in the parish community that too little time is left for the family community at home. There is wide agreement that parish volunteers must seek a balance.

But the gifts of a balanced involvement in a parish ministry are fairly well agreed upon, as well. People can expand as persons by working alongside others in a parish. Insights and experiences get shared.

People help to open each others’ eyes and hearts. And encountering the poor or the sick firsthand, or looking into the eyes of people who feel hopelessly at a loss about what steps to take next in life can prove surprisingly rewarding for them and for you.

“In the gaze of others, and particularly of the person who needs our help, we experience the concrete demands of Christian love,” Pope Benedict XVI said to a 2007 meeting in Austria of volunteer organizations. “The gaze of Jesus, what 'his eyes' teach us, leads to human closeness, solidarity, giving time, sharing our gifts and even our material goods.”

Father Ronald Lewinski, pastor of St Mary of the Annunciation Parish in Mundelein, Ill., incisively described four steps leading to closeness and solidarity with people in need in a 2011 speech on the need to rekindle a spirit of mission in parishes. Fr Lewinski explained:

“The first step into mission for some may be taking a box of groceries to a food pantry. The second step may be talking to a recipient at the food pantry. The third step may be working one night at the food pantry or adjacent soup kitchen. The fourth step may be answering the question of a guest at the soup kitchen who asks, ‘Why are you doing all of this?”’

There initially may be a sense when serving people profoundly in need that “we” are there for “them.” But gradually these encounters can transform; the seeds of human relationships and respectful conversations sprout.

When that happens, the truth of something Pope Francis told an interviewer becomes apparent. “God attracts us looking at the complex web of relationships that take place in the human community,” the Pope commented. God participates in “the web of human relationships.”

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