Engagement is a different point-of-view for understanding volunteerism today, that takes seriously the volunteer’s point-of-view. It is based on the premise that an individual’s decision to become involved in some congregational ministry—as well as the enthusiasm, time, effort and commitment an individual gives to that ministry—depends on a unique internal choice they consciously or unconsciously make. The choice has many possible factors: individual preferences and interests, personal needs and availability, and the matching of skills to the responsibilities. In the internal calculus of engagement people also ask themselves questions like:
- Will involvement in this ministry be a way for me to fulfill my own personal aspirations?
- Will I find this ministry meaningful, satisfying and rewarding?
- Can involvement in this ministry help me develop a new set of skills?
- Will this ministry be affirming for me and help me find my place in the congregation?
- Will I be relegated to doing what I do at work (“I already do enough of that!”), or can I do something that I find completely different, creative and challenging?
- Will this ministry be a means for self-discovery, self-development, and self-actualization?
- Will it be enjoyable?
- Will it help me grow in my faith and discipleship?
The more these factors and interests are met for individuals, the more likely people will
- volunteer for a ministry
- give their time and effort to the ministry
- remain in the ministry over time.
In other words, the more of these factors that are met the more engaged people will be. Canadian research is showing that we like the idea of volunteering, but we also want to talk about the above needs, concerns and interests in order to tailor our involvement. This is the biggest take-away learning from the research today.
Applying that learning in congregations, however, is another matter, because it means we can no longer simply seek out "round pegs to put in round holes" in our organization. The organization itself needs to become responsive and adaptable. But the challenge for congregations today is not unique to us. A 2010 report from Volunteer Canada makes the following blanket statement regarding volunteer organizations in our country: “One of the greatest hurdles [organizations need to overcome] is a traditional mindset of what a volunteer is.” Across the board in Canada volunteer organizations have relied too heavily on a “pool of ‘uber volunteers’ who are aging and tend to represent the traditional volunteer.” The good news of the recent studies by Volunteer Canada is that younger generations think volunteering is important—especially people in their teens and twenties. But engaging them requires a shift away from the traditional mindset of what a volunteer is. We can no longer assume people will simply adapt themselves to the needs of the organization, nor can we assume that simply accommodating volunteers is sufficient. As Volunteer Canada’s 2013 report (“Building the Bridge for Volunteer Engagement”) puts it, “the volunteer relationship today needs an emphasis on reciprocity.” In other words, we need to find a balance between “what are we asking you to do in this ministry?” and “what do we hope participation in this ministry will do for you?”
But at the heart of congregational life, aren’t these things really our hopes for congregants? Congregations are to be places where people can have their needs met while also be a community in which individuals can contribute from their strengths for the sake of others. We would hope that volunteering in a ministry would be meaningful, fun, satisfying and rewarding… a means for self-discovery, self-development and self-actualization… a way to grow in faith. What the research is telling us is that people want to discuss these things when they are asked to volunteer and achieve these things as they volunteer. What it will take, then, is a movement in mindset away from volunteer management to volunteer engagement.
I am currently putting together a growing collection of resources on member engagement. One resource is a three-page summary of some of the most recent findings by Volunteer Canada. Feel free to download this article I’ve written or contact me about the resources I have.
General Presbyter, Calgary Macleod Presbytery