Where do you get your story ideas? How do you know what so many local churches are doing? When readers ask questions about United Church News, these two questions frequently arise. One answer is quite simple: a volunteer reads about 500 church newsletters every month.
In 1990, I advertised for a volunteer to read church newsletters and look for article ideas. When Mary Seymour, a branch bank manager and an active member of Bethany UCC in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, saw the notice, she thought, "There's something I can do to help out—and I can contribute some of my professional skills." A few years later, faced with work assignments she could not accept, she left the world of commercial banking to work for the UCC's Cornerstone Fund—but she kept on reading newsletters, seeing her suggestions appear in "Across the UCC" and the readerwritten columns. Next, she entered a Master of Divinity seminary program but stayed on with the Cornerstone Fund—and kept on reading newsletters. Now 13 years have passed.
"First you think, oh, let me see how I can help," she says, "and then you stay because you really get involved. Besides helping out, you discover that you're really feeding your own soul."
"That's often the way it happens," says Susan Sanders, the UCC's minister for global sharing of resources and former head of volunteer ministries. "Volunteers come to help, but often stay to serve. I frequently hear volunteers say, ÔI got so much more out of it than I gave.' One recognition of that dynamic is the change of name from church groups going on Ôwork camps' to going on Ômission trips.'" "The partnership model is very important," says the Rev. Kathleen Ackley, the current executive for volunteer ministries. "It means being sensitive to the context of the volunteer setting, being partners in the service rather than deliverers of the service."
She points to the biblical story of Jesus washing the disciples' feet (John 13:3-16) as being basic to what volunteering is all about. "Here Jesus says that he has come to serve," she explains, "and says that he has set us an example, so we, too, are asked to go and serve."
Seven years ago, Terry Green faced a crisis in his life and left Fort Wayne, Ind., where he was a member of Plymouth Congregational UCC, and headed to Albuquerque, N.M. There he signed up through the UCC's volunteer program for one year as assistant to the director of admissions at the Menaul School, established in 1881 primarily to serve Native American and Hispanic youth.
"The kids keep me young," he says, so the single year stretched to seven, including marriage to another volunteer. Now they are leaving New Mexico for West Virginia to volunteer in a different setting.
"I wanted to serve others, to give back for some of the benefits that I have received," he says. "But the work stimulates me. I feel as wanted and as needed as I've ever been. Volunteering has been an inspiration."
On our living room wall hangs a framed photo of Francine, a beguiling 5- year-old who lived in a mountaintop village in Honduras. I took the photo while my wife, Deborah, and I were volunteering with a medical mission from the New York Conference. My role for the week was to photograph village life to help raise funds. But whenever I see that photo, I'm reminded that Francine turned the tables. While I was capturing her image on film, she captured a bit of my heart.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.