Professor Walter Deller, the McBride-Haley lecturer at Trinity College, says it best in his forward to The Church as a Volunteer Organization. It “is one of those books that invites you to turn your socks inside out, to think beyond the box of your assumptions.” Indeed, the cover of this slim, affordable paperback, with its driftwood cross on beach pebbles, invites you to take off your socks and walk barefoot through the process of parish volunteer management.
This is a practical book of theological reflection. Author Mary Stewart, a life-promised oblate of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, pioneered volunteer management in the health industry and has written and consulted on church volunteerism since the early 1980s. This new book distills her accumulated wisdom.
Ms. Stewart targets new clergy and veteran priests who are taking up new assignments, and especially lay leaders and churchwardens “seeking to reflect on the current operational status” of their churches. This book is more than a programmatic fix; rather, it offers a structure upon which your parish leadership might assess its ministry and dream about a different future.
This book offers more than dreams. The first chapter challenges you to imagine, and then draw up, an image of your parish as a jigsaw puzzle. Then Ms. Stewart leads you on a step-by-step process to improve current volunteer structures or design new ones by: identifying the pieces already in place; imagining what the complete picture looks like; determining the missing pieces; and completing the picture by implementing that vision.
This is only one of a dozen metaphors the book offers. You cannot miss the author’s sense of humour when she aptly compares managing change in the church to draining a swamp, stitching a patchwork quilt or baking a cherry-topped cupcake.
I recommend this book because Ms. Stewart does not by-pass the most important planning step in volunteer management and organization: refection. I would love to fix every problem I encounter; wouldn’t you? I diagnose problems quickly and tend to jump to quick solutions. The Church as a Volunteer Organization reminds us to slow down, collect all the data, and take time to pray and think things through before we act. We need to let God’s life-giving, comforting spirit breathe through these exciting times of change and challenge.
Ms. Stewart rightly invites us to “reflect on the church as a volunteer organization with staff support.” Our churches are full of talented lay people and gifted ordained, theologically trained clergy. If you are looking to forge a better partnership of the two in your parish, this book is for you.