Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Random thoughts about the Church and volunteers

The other day, I found myself thinking about the movie Lilies of the Field. Many people know the story of Homer Smith, a handyman and a Baptist who (greatly to his own surprise) finds himself building a chapel for a convent of East German nuns who have settled in Arizona.

I'm not entirely sure why I was thinking about that movie, except that it probably has something to do with some random thoughts I've had lately about the Church and volunteers.

Let me give a few examples, some that I heard about myself directly, and others that I only know about:
  1. A deacon stood up after Mass and announced that the church was looking for a skilled computer person to create and maintain the parish social media presence as well as take care of other computer-related tasks. Both a high level of knowledge and a commitment to a significant number of weekly hours was needed, but (the deacon paused) they wanted a volunteer...
  2. A message circulated from a local young adult ministry leader: someone with graphic design and art skills was needed to help with an important project. The group was looking for a volunteer...
  3. An announcement was made: the parish wanted someone with calligraphy skills to help with some lettering efforts (probably for sacramental certificates and things of that nature). The parish was looking for a volunteer...
  4. A school carefully spells out its policy: parents are required to volunteer a certain number of hours per enrolled student to help keep tuition costs low. They may be "billed" if they don't deliver the required number of hours of volunteer assistance...
These are just a few of the sorts of things I've seen that have made me think about this topic. I'm still thinking about it all, actually; this is one of those posts where I'm really just thinking out loud. I hope you'll bear with me.

To begin with, I know that there is a long and venerable history of volunteers, especially lay people, being active in their parishes and schools and other Catholic ministries. Despite what some of her detractors sometimes say, the Church is not made of money, and there are many times and situations where volunteers make all the difference. The Catholic laity are supposed to contribute to the support of the Church--it is one of the precepts of the Church, and despite a common misunderstanding that precept has never been solely about giving money. In many ages, the laity could only "help provide for the needs of the Church" by giving their time, their skills, and the work of their hands, whether in the form of food or of handmade material goods or whatever the case might be.

And the work that volunteers do for the Church is valuable and important, a true gift of the heart in many instances. Neither is there anything wrong with Church leaders, clergy or lay, asking for specific kinds of help. So nothing that follows should be construed as attacking the principle of volunteering.

Having said that, I think the reason I'm somewhat uncomfortable with some of these random examples is that they do seem to be pushing the envelope a bit in terms of what volunteering actually means. Asking someone to work the equivalent of a part-time or even full-time job, and a job that requires education, training, certification and so on, while emphasizing that there will be no pay whatsoever seems to be a bit much. Well-meaning people do sometimes respond generously to these kinds of appeals, only to learn that the person in charge (the pastor, the deacon, a lay leader, etc.) has every intention of treating them like an employee in terms of the kinds of demands made, the amount of work that is expected to be done, the unreasonable deadlines, and so on--except that unlike an employee they aren't being paid or compensated in any way. I have known people who have taken on a volunteer assignment like this in their home parish, who have then had to step down when the demands of the "voluntary job" started to take over their lives. Some volunteers who have been through this sort of thing meet with understanding and compassion from those in charge, but others are treated as though they were unsatisfactory and disloyal "employees" who "quit" when the going got tough, which can certainly create tension in a parish community.

Perhaps the reason I was thinking of Lilies of the Field was because in the movie there was a bit of conflict between two ideas: the idea that those who belong to God (like a convent of nuns, or a pastor of a parish) are a bit like the lilies in the scripture passage, whose needs are met by God Himself on the one hand, and the idea on the other hand that the laborer is worthy of his hire. Nobody thinks that the Church ought to pay those who volunteer for certain roles, such as usher or lector or acolyte; nobody who offers to help set up tables and make pancakes for a breakfast fundraiser expects to be paid. But I can't imagine a parish asking a professional chef to make a weekly voluntary commitment to cook and serve food for an ongoing fundraiser; I can't imagine a pastor putting out a call for a certified public accountant to handle the Church's finances on a purely voluntary basis (though perhaps it happens!); I can't imagine a parish finance committee asking a parishioner who owns a heating and air conditioning business to volunteer to install a new heating system. As for the parents who are told they will be billed for uncompleted "volunteer" hours--well, when something becomes mandatory, it's pretty hard to argue that it is still voluntary, isn't it?

I know that parishes these days are in difficult situations. Only one in five Catholics even bothers to attend Mass on Sundays anyway. Donations continue to dwindle. Pastors can be in a tough spot in many ways when it comes to paying for things, and volunteers may seem like the ideal solution.

But I keep thinking of the end of Lilies of the Field, when Homer Smith, having completed the nuns' chapel, hears them planning to have him build a school next...and so he slips quietly away, disappearing into the night.

22 comments:

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I have mixed feelings about this one...

I've been a full time volunteer, expected to carry out assignments and maintain a high level of professionality... which of course is something I knowingly walked into, knowing that the organization I volunteered for would support me, in terms of shelter, food, etc., allow me reasonable time off, but not pay me a wage.

I know of organists who are paid, and organists who play every Sunday as volunteers. I also know that volunteers, unless full time and supported in some fashion, or retired with social security and/or an adequate pension, have to have a paid job to sustain themselves.

I also recall my mother talking about having served on boards of useful community programs, where she was the only conservative Republican mostly working with people who thought of themselves as liberals, and when it became necessary to hire someone, e.g., to cook lunch for the children in a day care program, they all wanted to hire at minimum wage to stretch limited funds. And the Republican in the room was the only to say, no, if we hire someone, we pay them a reasonable wage so they can support their family on it.

I guess a volunteer should be someone who steps forward and says, 'here I am,' but if you have to put out a call for someone to do a job on a regular basis, you should be prepared to pay them. Its possible a CPA would volunteer to do the church's books... its sort of like a lawyer doing a pro bono case. But it shouldn't be an obligation. If the announcement has to emphasize "We need a VOLUNTEER," then perhaps its not really a volunteer job, because if it was, it would be self-evident.

Red Cardigan said...

Well said, Siarlys. My feelings here are mixed too, and I totally agree with your final paragraph.

Kirt Higdon said...

A couple of other random thoughts. What about the requirement for service hours for high school kids to receive Confirmation? This has always struck me as simony in all but name. If it's a mortal sin to demand money as a condition for receiving a sacrament, why is it OK to demand unpaid labor? And of course the hours are demanded in the senior year of high school, just when kids are at their busiest trying to graduate and get into college. In my opinion, this is a major reason why Confirmation is often postponed ten years or more or simply not received at all.

And what about the requirement that volunteers for any work involving the young (and now the elderly as well) be subjected to periodic certification involving background police checks and indoctrination that any claim of abuse should be believed and reported? The volunteer is treated as a criminal suspect and expected to be the equivalent of a police informer at the same time. I don't think even paying jobs outside the Church generally have such requirements and this is a major reason why many people (especially men) will not do any work involving minors. One accusation and your life is over. You may not go to jail (or you may) but you'll lose your volunteer position, your paying job and family if you have either, and pretty much all your friends. Who's going to volunteer for a risk like that?

Kirt Higdon

Daddio said...

Kirt beat me to it.

Ever since I volunteered as a Confirmation Catechist - which I only did because the pastor refused to let home schoolers opt out of the parish's program, and I refuse to drop my teen off with no oversight - I have been slammed with paperwork. Safe Environment training. Chaperone training. They want my auto insurance card in case I have to drive my car for an errand in support of the ministry (actually, this one was required by the people who coordinate nursing home volunteers - you can't bring the Eucharist to the elderly unless you've got $100K minimum limits...) They want my social security number to check my driving record. And NOW they insist all catechists must take some sort of Catechism Class online, total of 12 months or more to complete, with mandatory check-ins to discuss the material with a priest or deacon, so that we are actually "qualified" to teach the faith (...to my own kid - again, the only reason I'm there!)

They accept my tithe without much investigation... but when you actually show up to DO something, it's incredibly demanding and invasive.

I don't know what the solution is, but it's becoming really aggravating.

Daddio said...

Also, "to help keep tuition costs low"...

PPPPFPFPFPFPT!!! Coffee all over my keyboard.

Red Cardigan said...

Kirt, those are also some really good points!

Daddio, that's incredibly awful. We got lucky--the priest who gave two of our girls their first holy communions also let them be confirmed at his parish without any fuss or bother when they were still quite young. If that had not been an option for us, I would NEVER have permitted them to go through the teen confirmation program. I would have made them wait until they were old enough to go through the parish RCIA program instead, because the RCIA doesn't require overnight co-ed retreats. (I'm sorry--why exactly does the Church demand a co-ed teen sleepover as a Confirmation requirement, anyway?)

I agree that the Keeping Children Safe requirements and all the hoop-jumping make lay volunteering that much more difficult. And when you add the unreasonable demands, I see a lot of people reaching "Homer Smith" moments and deciding that an extra $5 in the basket every week is an easy trade for all the work.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I had the impression that First Communion was something like at age 14, give or take a year or two. Senior year of high school? I'm skeptical of mandatory volunteering... if you have to, you're not a volunteer. All those hoops to jump through? An institutional attorney advised that if the driver doesn't have insurance, and anything happens, the institution could and would be sued... I have some experience at deflecting opportunistic lawsuits against voluntary organizations... but when there are assets, payroll, endowments, real estate... there's a bull's eye on the operation at all times.

Mandatory co-ed overnight sleepovers... are good practice at facing temptation squarely and preserving one's virtue. I suppose. I was on several co-ed retreats in jr high and high school, and nothing ever happened. Separate rooms, small group, a responsible married couple in charge. But that was in the good old days of the late 1960s. We didn't really think we could hop into each other's rooms. I think most of us were virgins when we graduated from high school, although there were some marriage announcements in the local paper a month or so before graduation.

John InEastTX said...

The folks who handle annulments aren't working on a volunteer basis.

Kirt Higdon said...

Siarlys, I clearly referred to Confirmation, not First Communion. In my parish and those I am familiar with, First Communion is generally given in the second grade for those in Catholic schools, so age 7 or 8. No problem. For those who go through CCD, there is naturally a greater age range. Confirmation used to be given around grade 8 with no requirements for service hours. Now, thanks to the grade 12/service hours requirements, more and more people put if off to RCIA if they get around to it at all.

As far as mandatory co-ed sleepovers being good practice at facing temptation squarely and preserving one's virtue, we all will get lots of such practice and hopefully preserve our virtues without the Church providing the temptations and making a mockery of our petition to the Father to "lead us NOT into temptation".

Kirt Higdon

Laura S said...

This definitely hits a chord for me right now! I was asked to help "a little bit" with some restroom update drawings to submit to the city for a local catholic theater company that blew up into a big massive ordeal with their landlord and a whole host of work that they had already completed without a permit... and it turns out they never had a certificate of occupancy to operate as a live theater venue in the first place? I had to extricate myself and another architect from the ordeal and got guilt-tripped to no end for my closing recommendation that they needed to hire an actual firm rather than rely on volunteering individuals for this project. It's a significant liability to myself and the architect... I could lose my job and he could lose his license if directly connected or involved in projects where the client is refusing to follow the law in how they operate and proceed with their work. I really felt like I was being taken advantage of... I'd essentially already given them thousands of dollars in billable hours of work from my "free time"... if you can call working through my lunch hours, working late and working after putting my toddler to bed "free" time. A few coworkers have helped their parishes in similar ways and said that it's often a frustrating experience when they don't think that they have to follow the same rules as other public spaces.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Kort. thanks for the clarification. Many churches invite teens to communion after some sort of confirmation, around maybe age 14. Even sola scriptura churches that believe in the Real Presence. Obviously there have been some changes in Roman Catholic practice since I was a child, if my friends and neighbors told me straight what was going on in their lives.

As to temptation and all that... are you familiar with the terms sarcasm, parody, irony....? Our youth group did have some co-ed week-end retreats that did not degenerate into Soddom and Gomorrah, but, I wasn't advocating it as universal policy.

scotch meg said...

There are lots of problems with asking for volunteers... but I wanted to respond to John in East TX regarding the folks who handle annulments. I assume you're referring to the canon lawyers. Do you know that to handle annulments (or any other issue involving canon law), you have to get a second law degree? It's called a licentiate in canon law. You have to study theology and Latin as well as law - so even if you start with a law degree (required) and some knowledge of Latin, you will have years of study. There are only a few places where one can obtain such a licentiate (in the US, primarily at Catholic University in DC). Even if a diocese sponsors you (they are starving for canon lawyers), it will take three to five years of spending two months in DC every summer. And then you get paid a VERY low fee (for lawyers) which is supposed to cover all the time - whatever that may be - that you spend on the case.

I am not a canon lawyer, even though I would like to be able to help the Tribunal in my diocese as a Defender of the Bond (even harder to find), because I would have had to spend two years getting a certification in theology (which costs tuition money) and earning more formal certification in Latin (which also costs tuition money because my Latin is self-taught), in addition to spending two months away from my family for a number of years. The alternative? I can volunteer (for no pay at all) to help petitioners or respondents because my diocese doesn't have enough real canon lawyers to help with the process. After spending fifteen years at home full-time, educating my children, this is hardly an attractive way to re-enter the workforce.

I am not suggesting that the Church should pay canon lawyers the $1500/hour that important lawyers in Wall Street firms make, but it's definitely another instance of the Church getting what they pay for (or rather, not getting what they don't pay for). The canon lawyers who do work with the tribunal have spent time and money to educate themselves so they can be there, and that time and money is treated largely as a charitable donation (except by the IRS).

John InEastTX said...

Scotch Meg - how many hours of those annulment investigations could be replaced by a form stating something along the lines of:

I hereby attest that my Civil Marriage was not a Sacramental Marriage for the following reasons:

Quite a few, I'd wager.

Sponsa Christi said...

I'm a canon lawyer, and my education involved a B.A. in Philosophy (an academic philosophy background is required in at least some form for canon law); a Master's in Theology (two years of full-time study for that); and three years for the J.C.L. degree in canon law specifically. For the J.C.L., I also had to move to Rome and take all my classes in Italian---a language I did not have a chance to study at all before setting foot in Italy. In total, that's nine years of study, during which time I generally wasn't able to work for a salary. Also, the time it took to qualify as a canonist was time I did NOT spend training for another (possibly more marketable) career or gaining work experience. Given this, I don't think it's realistic to expect all qualified canon lawyers to work as volunteers. Not because canonists aren't willing to be altruistic, but because treating a canon law degree as a volunteer pursuit is just not possible in terms of being able to afford basic costs of living long-term.

For a marriage situation where a Catholic was married only civilly (and didn't get a dispensation to marry outside of the Church), this already IS basically just a few forms to fill out. Most marriage cases, though, are much more complicated and do require trained canonists.

On the other hand, I've also been a DRE, and our volunteer catechists were essential to running our program, for many reasons. So I'm not certainly not anti-volunteering, either!

John InEastTX said...

>For a marriage situation where a Catholic was married only civilly (and didn't get a dispensation to marry outside of the Church), this already IS basically just a few forms to fill out. Most marriage cases, though, are much more complicated and do require trained canonists.

I wasn't Catholic when I married and divorced. I was only nominally Christian via an infant baptism in a Protestant church. I was agnostic in practice. My first wife was similarly situated.

We married hoping for the best, but with the expectation that the marriage could be dissolved if things didn't work out.

Why would it take a trained canonist to find this not to be a sacramental marriage since the element of 'lifetime marriage' was not present?

Sponsa Christi said...

John in East TX:

For many obvious reasons, it's not a good idea to try to work out individual canonical situations over the internet. However, in the situation you described, it might not take a trained canonist to determine that one might have grounds for a declaration of nullity, but it would take a trained canonist to demonstrate in legal terms, with moral certainty, that the marriage was invalid.

John InEastTX said...

>... it might not take a trained canonist to determine that one might have grounds for a declaration of nullity, but it would take a trained canonist to demonstrate in legal terms, with moral certainty, that the marriage was invalid.

Or they could - crazy idea here, I know - just take my word for it...

Daddio said...

They take our word for it when we say our vows. No offense, but we can't have it both ways.

John InEastTX said...

Who's "they" Daddio? The Justice of the Peace at the County Courthouse?

My first marriage was a civil marriage, not sacramental.

scotch meg said...

John, if you are still reading this thread, you really do have my sympathy. Sounds like you are in a tough situation. The problems are multiple, and non-Catholic marriages are often even more complicated than Catholic ones. The reason the Church won't just take your word for it is not because of who YOU are. You sound like an honest person. But there are many, many instances where people who are already divorced realize that they need an annulment to get married in the Church and... (sadly) LIE. Because they don't remember, because they are scared, because they really, really want an annulment... so the investigation is required. It's the marriage that gets the benefit of the doubt, not the individuals. I am really, really sorry if you have been waiting a long time to get through this process. It shouldn't have to be so long, and the Pope (among others) wants to make it simpler. Somehow, without giving up on the bias in favor of marriages.

John InEastTX said...

Thanks scotch meg - it's gotten to the point where I don't really care anymore.

If a panel of strangers find reason to declare Nullity, great. If they don't - well it isn't like I'm the only Catholic in an irregular situation.

Sponsa Christi said...

John in East TX,

Along with scotch meg, I want to say I'm sorry you're in a difficult situation, and I do hope things resolve for you soon. I also apologize if I came across as a bit cold (if so, it wasn't intentional), and I do hope any canon lawyer you might actually come in personal contact with is kind and helpful to you.