As part of the Mystical Body of Christ, we’ve each received gifts unique to our position in the Body, with graces that equip us for our work within the Church. Yet, few seem to use these unique gifts for the benefit of the Church.
Who’s Doing the Work?
At your parish, who makes up the cadre of dedicated volunteers that keep it running smoothly? Research conducted some time ago by the Dynamic Catholic Institute revealed some startling findings: In a typical Catholic parish, 7% or less of registered parishioners generally contribute 80% or more of the financial support and 80% or more of the volunteer hours worked.
Common Characteristics of Active Catholics
The research also identified four things that the roughly 7% of more involved Catholics do which the other 93% generally don’t do as much of: prayer, study of the faith, generosity and evangelization. Those more involved Catholics have cultivated habits of daily prayer such as praying the Rosary, attending daily Mass and praying through Lectio Divina. They study the faith, continually learning more about it. As a result of their studies, they seem to be less likely to complain about the positions of the Magisterium and about the Church in general. (In these current times, with bishops and cardinals taking what at best can be described as "unusual" positions on faith and morals, there may be more complaining, or at least questioning, from Catholics who strive to learn about their faith. But I digress...) These most active parishioners also give more time and financial support to the Church, and are enthusiastic about sharing their faith with others.
Why More Parishioners Don’t Volunteer
On the other hand, research shows that this group of the most active laity actually may discourage others from participating at their parish by, among other things, being territorial or cliquish, and using religious terminology that others don’t understand. They also may not relate well to others who are not as far along in their spiritual journey as they are.
Territorialism. We probably have all seen this in any number of volunteer membership organizations, from social clubs to church organizations. Symptoms might include long-time members being annoyed by new members’ suggestions for ways of doing things—what might be called “symptoms of a closed mind”—“that will never work here, we tried it before, it’s all too complicated,”and so on.
Other signs might be a hesitancy to actually accept a volunteer’s help because, well the job is just too important, and it takes years to get good at it—“if it wasn’t so complex, I could teach you to do it, but it’s just so critical, and we simply can’t take a chance [or take the time] right now,” or, “I prefer to do this by myself” (implying that no one else can do it right).
As well, some people, for whatever reason, seem to relish the thought of being the only ones doing the work—“Look at me. I am so overworked and no one else is helping me.” It satisfies a need of theirs, but it doesn’t help the Body of Christ. So, is it a question of control or simply wanting to be a martyr? It doesn’t really matter—what matters is that it’s getting in the way of building up Christ’s Body here on earth, today, in our parish.
Cliques. Does the group welcome newcomers into it? Or does it keep them at arms’ length? When a newcomer joins a small group at a table for donuts after Mass, are they included in the conversation and an attempt made by “the regulars” to get to know them?
At other parish social events, are new parishioners invited to join an intact group’s banquet table, or are they simply left to fend for themselves in breaking the social “ice” as newbies? Do we actively work to bring new volunteers into a committee discussion, or do we use committee time to make personal plans between the more well-acquainted members? What kind of messages are we sending to new members of our faith community? It’s difficult to get enthusiastic about volunteering if one is held at arm’s-length socially.
Use of terminology that others don’t understand. We occasionally do have some of this in the Church. From a practical perspective, where and what are the narthex, the nave, the sanctuary and the ambo? What is a pall, a purificator, a thurible, or a corporal? This one seems to be pretty easy to avoid, though, with just a little self-awareness.
Not relating well to others who are at different places in their spiritual journey. This might be another, longer description of what some call “spiritual pride.” And boy, does pride do us in! The evil one will play to our weaknesses. He will use against us any forward movement we’ve made spiritually in something of a spiritual ju-jitsu move. We can make it so easy for him with our pride!
A wise confessor suggests that we need to look into each person’s face and see the face of Christ—recognize that God made him or her in His image and loves them very much. As well, look in the mirror and see that we’re a work-in-progress that depends totally on God’s grace. Then, reach out to that other person. By walking with someone as a friend in Christ, we can provide them with the entre they need to become more active in the parish, regardless of where they are in a spiritual growth path.
The Role of Staff
In addition to the above reasons that prospective new volunteers get discouraged, I’d suggest adding one dealing with parish staff. At some parishes, a new parishioner may run into a staff member who is either or both incompetent and inattentive. When this happens, it might stifle the volunteer’s drive to contribute. It doesn’t have to, though. Persistence pays off. If you feel that the Holy Spirit is calling you to share your gift with the parish, uncooperative staff members won’t pose an insurmountable barrier if you really want to get involved.
Other Reasons for Lack of Volunteers
There are any number of additional reasons that some don’t participate at their parish. A pastor of mine from long ago believed that many people don’t volunteer and serve because that’s not the way they were raised in their home, the “domestic church.” Without the modeling from parents or a subsequent conversion of heart and mind, we are less likely to consider getting very involved in our parish.
Some Common Reasons Given by Less Active Parishioners
Many other reasons are given by individuals as to why they don’t participate more fully in either attending activities at their parish or taking a leadership role to help with the activities. Some might include:
“I’m just too busy—I am already ‘slammed’ and can’t possibly give the parish any time.” That certainly can be possible in a time when many corporate cultures can be characterized as “doing more with less,” leading to more intense and longer work hours. We also can’t forget that in many households, both spouses are working outside the home. And some households are single parent families. In either case, it leaves little room for church-related or other volunteer activities outside of the little family time left after the daily grind. This often is exacerbated by the extracurricular, secular activities of the children that can run the entire family ragged. But can this be the primary cause for all of the other 93% of Catholics not being more active in their parish?
“None of the activities are that interesting to me.” In some less active parishes, this could be the case. However, in most parishes that are a bit more active, would there not be an area or two, or a weekend ministry that might fit into one’s schedule? Volunteering, for example, as a hospitality minister for an occasional Sunday Mass is just one example.
“So-and-so [fill in the blank—a parish lay leader, a priest, a staff member, you name it] ticked me off and I don’t want to have anything to do with the parish now.”Really? I’d like to know of any organization outside of the parish where someone hasn’t even inadvertently ticked us off. They’re all made up of humans, and humans make mistakes. Part of following Christ is showing His merciful love and forgiveness to others. He loves each of us so much, and yet we’ve done nothing to earn it—so why can’t we all model His behavior a little more closely?
As well, we shouldn't infer and assume intentions of others. If we do assume, let's assume positive, charitable intent on the part of the other person, even if they're something of a bull in a china closet. It might help here as well, to look into that other person’s face and see the face of Christ—and recognize that God made him or her in His image and loves them very much. And here again, let's look in the mirror and see that we each also are a work-in-progress that depends totally on God’s grace. Each of us probably has a lot of "opportunities" for our own personal improvement and growth we can address.
And think about this: if we're withholding volunteering at our parish because of a slight we perceive, who are we really hurting? First, we need to look in the mirror--we hurt ourselves when we don't stay open to the graces God wants others to receive through us. And--we hurt our community because we aren't fulfilling the unique role that God has called only us to carry out in His plan for the salvation of souls. It's serious business, and we need to treat it as such. God gives us such an abundance of grace, if we're just open to it and want to make use of it to help bring souls to Him.
“They have plenty of help already. I don’t need to do anything but show up.” This seems to be more of a “take” than a “give” approach to building a healthy “give and take” relationship. When one sees ads for volunteers, it means the parish really does not have plenty of help already. We each need to help our parish in its mission as part of the Mystical Body of Christ.
“I just don’t enjoy socializing and trying to make conversation with strangers, so it’s really hard to get more involved.” As something of an introvert myself, I can relate to this, but getting to know people at church isn’t that hard. For one thing, we all arguably have something really big in common—our faith. For another, there usually are so many needs to be met at the parish that someone will be really happy to make our acquaintance and welcome us into the fold.
No matter which side of the volunteer fence we’re on—whether on the inside, already volunteering, or on the outside looking in, it seems that we might all benefit from some prayerful consideration of our role at the parish. Taking it to prayer and asking what we individually are doing to help bring souls to God for His Greater Glory through our work at the parish might be a good starting point.
If we’re not doing as much as we might actually be called to do, perhaps through prayer we can be directed to doing something more, however seemingly small, to lend a hand. If we’re already involved, perhaps we can obtain the grace through prayer to more quickly welcome and meaningfully involve newcomers. Participating in Called & Gifted workshops, such as those conducted at my parish and within our diocese can help focus one's efforts. We can take advantage of this prayerfully determined focus and awareness to be able to work closer with Jesus for His Church. In doing so, we can help build up the Mystical Body of Christ through our cooperation with His grace:
And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ… speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and builds itself up in love. – Eph. 4:11-16
Adapted from a Catholic Stand essay of this author, published previously in that online magazine.