Posts Tagged Volunteers

Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard

Work Hard Play Hard Pray Hard

This past weekend, I experienced a rather fascinating, mostly-unplanned intersection of ministry life.  Those of us who lead know well that experts tell us we need to take a rest from our ministry work, filling our own bucket from time to time.  We also know that leadership experts extol the value of developing extracurricular bonds with our team members outside of our work.  Additionally, we all want to add value to those we serve.  My 4-day-weekend  was an intersection of all of these things.

I have written before about my annual BSL Women’s Retreat that I cherish each Autumn.  Deep, spiritual work is done while I enjoy time in far Northern Wisconsin, hours away from home.  I attended the first year with a personal friend.  Subsequent to that, I have told others about this phenomenal getaway.  As a result, some mothers and volunteers with whom I work have begun attending.

It took my breath away this year to see what God had orchestrated.  I try to respect people with the confidentiality they deserve, so not all of these attendees were aware of their connection to our ministry.  Not including myself, 14% of those in attendance at this year’s retreat were either parents of children with special needs, benefactors, or volunteers involved with our organization.  To have that common thread running through the heart of these women, growing together, both those who are typically served alongside those who typically serve, gave an incredibly beautiful picture of the Body of Christ.

The triple bond that developed began in the usual way.  We worked hard together.  Whether it was co-laboring as parents or building our ministry through service, we grew in our relationship with one another as we worked hard.  At retreat, we got extra opportunities to play hard together.  Boating, horseback riding, hiking, skeet shooting, and crafting offered the type of bonding that makes memories.  New friendships developed and grew.  But the game-changer with a retreat like this was the opportunity to pray together, again and again.  Even in the car, some of us had occasion to pray together.  Coming together to speak to our Mighty Father, sharing concerns, and an earnest desire to grow in our walk enriched our prayer life.

An experience of this type, apart from our usual special needs ministry work, humanizes each of us.  Leaders, participants and volunteers become fellow sojourners and friends.  Rather than seeing people as an event or means to get much-needed help, we are able to come together as family members in Christ.  This only enriches and deepens the commitment involved with our ministry work.

I pray that each of you get the opportunity to attend such an extracurricular event with your adherents, volunteers and benefactors.

QUESTION:  What sorts of ways do you connect with your team members, participants and donors outside of your typical ministry work?

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The Advantages of the Suffering Servant

Psalm 133 1

If there’s anything that has made me crazy over the years of leading a “disability” ministry, it has been hearing time and time again, “Oh, I would help, but I’m just so busy.”  There’s no way to say this without seeming like a total jerk, so here goes.  Find someone in this day and age who isn’t busy!  Try to hold down the average responsibilities of a life with the added challenges of special needs piled on top of them!  If anyone would have an excuse to opt out, it would be the person who is always at doctor or therapy appointments, the one whose hands, feet or voice may not work properly, or the one who faces serious financial difficulties.  Yet, we all seem to find time for that which we deem a priority.  The excuse-maker’s “I’m too busy,” comes across to me as, “Your mission is not important to me.”  As I am crying out, “Lord of the harvest, send more workers,” these types of individuals are on yet another fluffy retreat, or at another relaxing party, or playing Candy Crush Saga online.

Whew!  Now that my nasty rant is over with, let me share with you what it looks like as I watch those families who are suffering, yet still serve.  Let me explain how God is using them powerfully as they make time for His priorities, rather than their own.  Allow me to describe for you how their service actually is a blessing to them, rather than an increased burden:

  • Suffering servants are on the cutting edge of current issues because they are in the thick of it.  Nothing can match the intense relief that comes from one who is walking the same journey as you are.  When people are willing to volunteer their time as they are going through intense situations in their own life, they know what current treatments are for different health issues, what the latest challenges are in the schools, how insurance companies are currently treating payment for given therapies, and so forth.  While there is definitely great value to having some space between our time of deepest suffering and our service to those undergoing the same, the further we move away from it, the more we seem to forget what that suffering was like.
  • Suffering servants find purpose in their pain by offering compassion to others.  If there’s one question we all tend to ask when we suffer, it is the circular question “Why?”.  As we reach out to another, despite our challenges, we discover the real-life, here-and-now truth of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (NIV)  We are blessed to be a blessing to another.
  • Suffering servants shrink their own problems by focusing on the troubles of another.  We have all heard the phrase, “It could always be worse.”  That truth becomes reality when we reach out to another person in trouble while we are in the midst of our own storms.  While we can get a chip on our shoulder sometimes, thinking, “I wish I had it as easy as them!”, the truth remains that few of us would exchange our crises or trials for our neighbor’s.  The size of our own troubles can suddenly diminish in size when we hold them up against the challenges of those who need our help.
  • Suffering servants live out the Christ-life as an example to all those around them.  When others see those who have a disability, illness or difficulty serving in spite of those things, they suddenly are without excuse.  Not that the goal is to shame others, but rather to show them what practical, relentless, Christ-like love looks like.  Our children learn the beauty of volunteerism when they watch us serve in spite of our own issues.  Neighbors, fellow church members, friends and others around us are inspired by watching our simple acts of kindness.  The ripple effect is quite transformational, especially in today’s self-absorbed culture.

Who wouldn’t want to be used by God in such ways!  I am so very grateful to say that the majority of our ministry’s most effective volunteers are those who are undergoing all sorts of challenges.  When we started this organization, I lived under the false impression that those were the ones that should only be served and not allowed to serve.  Over a decade of transformation, I incrementally learned how erroneous that thinking can be.  These volunteers inspire me, and are my encouragement to press on in faith every single day.


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When Our Volunteers’ Faith Becomes Sight


Anonymity can be the fierce enemy of Christian service.  Being made visual creatures, people often struggle to find motivation to activate unless they are able to see the impact of their volunteerism.  It can be such a blessing for those who give of their time on our teams to see the end result their work produces.  Real people with real challenges, can be transformed by the love of Jesus administered in simple, practical ways by someone who cares enough to give.

This past weekend, one of our teams had that opportunity.  Our organization ships our signature “TLC baskets” all over the country to parents of children with special needs.  These baskets go to mothers and fathers who are in need of some tangible encouragement in their lives.  It could be a job loss, a child who is hospitalized, difficulties with the school or other situation where a caregiver is facing discouragement or extra stress.  We package these TLC baskets in bulk quantities through the help of faithful volunteers.  Some are repeat packers.  Some are serving with our ministry for the first time.

When I arrived this past Saturday to unload the supplies, one of the early arrivals helping me began to ask more about what our ministry does.  As we chatted, she came to share her story with me.  Abandoned by his birthmother, this woman’s stepson had suffered trauma in birth, causing severe CP.  Now age 9, he was cognitively at the age of an 18 month old child.  With great affection, this volunteer shared how she would soon adopt this stepson she was raising with her husband.  This precious family had just return to our area after a brief 114 mile move away that ended up being a difficult one for them.

After the 8 other volunteers showed up to help us, the packing began in earnest.  These men and women rolled up their sleeves, took charge and lovingly filled each basket with attention to detail.  First we assembled all of the baskets we could for special needs fathers, and then we did the same for mothers.  Cases were broken down and hauled out to the dumpster once emptied, and totes were filled with the finished product.  The team made light work of an otherwise involved job.

While they served with joy, I thought I would allow them a privilege that volunteers on this particular team never get to see — the people they bless.  So I told these people who so generously donated their time the story of a little 9 year old boy with CP who just went through a rough time with his family, moving away and having to move back to our area because of their inhospitable new home.  I told them that this sweet boy’s stepmom, who was just about to adopt him, had come to help with our project that morning expecting nothing and knowing little about what we do.  And in front of them all, I handed this dear woman a “mom basket” and “dad basket” that we had packed that morning with the signature tag on it, “Loving you in the name of Jesus…  Just a little TLC from us to you!”.

Tears flowed as she accepted these simple gifts.  Those tears were powerful because the volunteers gathered around her, comforting her and learning more about her precious family.  We were all impacted by seeing the simple work of that morning come full circle.

Friends, I know that we can all get so waste deep in the planning and executing of our loving care for those with special needs.  Yet, we need to remember that we not only transform the lives of our participants, but also our volunteers when we allow them to more deeply encounter those they serve.  This means different things for the different areas of work we do.  It might mean having a social event where Sunday School or respite volunteers get to spend more time just chatting with the parents of the kids they shepherd.  It might mean a note or a year-end report with photos, personal stories, and details of how their work created meaningful impact at a time where it was needed.  Whatever that positive feedback is, let’s not forget to pour it out on those who volunteer, because that is how we create a ripple effect in the world, sending loving inclusiveness far beyond the doors of our churches.

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Our Biggest Struggles

ID-10032808Leadership is not for the faint of heart.  Ministry makes the challenges of leadership that much more complex.  Combining our own spiritual state with trying to motivate and direct a group of individuals, all with different attitudes, opinions and desires can really put us to the test.  I will always remember the words of an experienced friend when I answered the Lord’s call to lead a ministry.  She had a dynamic history, not only as a pastor’s wife, but also in women’s ministry.  As we strolled around a placid, glistening lake she warned, “Leading a ministry is a double-edged sword.  On one side of the blade, you wield the incredible power of God.  And the other side will pierce your own heart.”  If you have served for any length of time, like me, you may find those words to be true.

For the past week, I have watched a fruitful and lively conversation between colleagues at the Special Needs & Disabilities Ministry Leaders Forum on Facebook.  The conversation began with the terrific question from Laura Lee Wright, “So what are the biggest challenges facing us as disability leaders today?”.  The flood of answers have ranged from difficulty with volunteers, to awakening churches to acknowledge the need for disability ministry, to raising up the next generation of leaders.  As leaders have shared their greatest struggles, debate has ensued as to what our primary role as leaders should be.  Should it be inclusion?  Should it be an extension of special education?  Should it be showing others that those with intellectual challenges have as much need for salvation as anyone else?  It has been a worthwhile discussion.

At the risk of irritating those I hold in high esteem, the answer to these deep questions and greatest struggles are likely found in Jesus’ response in Matthew 22:36-39, “’Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mindThis is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (NET)  In other words, rather than “doing” ministry, the ministry occurs as an outpouring of our daily living.  It’s that easy and that hard.

We have long heard the expression in real estate that the key to success is “location, location, location.”  These days in leadership circles, it seems the theme from every remarkable authority on the topic points to “relationship, relationship, relationship.”  The biggest struggles facing us as leaders in the special needs arena may be best overcome by heeding those words.  In the context of Matthew 22:36-39, it’s relationship with the Lord first, then relationship with every type of person the Lord puts in our path.  God pours into us, and we pour into others.  By being in relationship with those who have medical, emotional or cognitive challenges as well as having relationship with those who do not, we are able to be “bridge builders”.  It’s the old 1 Corinthians 11:1 mandate, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.”  (NIV)  When others see us hanging around with people they may be afraid of, they see that it might be okay for them to hang around with them too.  As we serve those with disabilities publicly, we bear witness to the value of all individuals and their need to know Christ.  As we build friendships outside of that service, we are able to do what Tony Morgan terms “shoulder tapping” or inviting others to serve along with us.

My encouragement to my fellow servants would be that we all develop a consistency in practicing these simple-yet-difficult relational rhythms to achieve our ultimate goal.  And isn’t that ultimate goal that all individuals, regardless of ability level or trauma faced, be presented with the Gospel of hope and opportunity to grow in relationship with the One True King?

What are YOUR thoughts?  We would love to hear!

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Con Cuidado — Preventing Abuse in Special Needs Ministry


As sometimes happens, I had another blog post cued up for today.  How I wish I was publishing that post for you now instead of this one!  But a story has hit the news that every leader in our position needs to be aware of.  Reported May 14, 2013 in Chicago area publications is the charging of a Willow Creek Church volunteer who allegedly sexually abused a child with special needs in his care.  While the church had taken all of the appropriate steps of doing background checks on volunteers, one small misstep of allowing an adult to be alone with a child for even a short period of time resulted in an incident that none of us in ministry would ever wish to see.

Years ago, my treasured sister who has worked in Southern California for most of her adult life acquainted me with a terrific Hispanic turn of phrase that I have long since valued.  “Con Cuidado” translates into English as “with great care, carefully, closely”.  I have always liked to translate it as “Go with great caution,” and this is what makes the phrase so very appropriate to engrave upon the minds of every one of us in special needs ministry.

The fact is that given the right set of circumstances, any one of us could be the church or ministry in the Willow Creek story.  Any one of us who have served for any amount of time knows that things can easily get chaotic with our vulnerable population, and that the number of volunteers can sometimes be spotty.  But we must be ever-vigilant in keeping our eyes on those entrusted to our care.  Best practices must be followed without lapse or sloppiness.  This means that we never, ever allow a child to be alone one-on-one with an adult.  It means the following as well:

  • Don’t ever, EVER take a volunteer without a background check out of desperation.  You may think you know that person well enough, but you would be heartbroken to find out you are wrong.
  • Train your volunteers on best practices and policies for assuring abuse or high-risk behaviors are avoided.  (The Inclusive Church has a good post from 2010 that briefly details these procedures.)
  • One of my esteemed colleagues who has asked to remain anonymous has shared with me, “Predators are good at seeking out vulnerable kids and vulnerable ministries. That’s where they’ll find the most success. If a church is implementing safe child policies, then predators will either find the weak spot or, in the absence of a weak spot, move on to a different church or organization where they can be successful in perpetrating abuse.  Also, predators are often skilled manipulators, including manipulating church leaders who think their gut instinct will help them avoid a situation like this.  We can’t rely on our guts when it comes to keeping kids safe, as well as keeping other vulnerable groups safe such as adults with developmental disabilities.  Too much is at stake to pridefully rely on our intellect or intuition about people.  Finally, policies must be in place and in practice.  Just having them in writing isn’t enough; they must be communicated, and every person in your ministry must be trained.”
  • Another anonymous associate of mine shares that an abuse in a parallel ministry occurred with someone that they unwittingly served alongside.  “Sin is pervasive and all the safeguards you can use might not be enough. Do all you can to protect the precious ones in your care. Years later, our church is still wounded in certain places due to the aftermath of our situation, and I never, never, never want any of your churches or families to go through that pain.”
  • In case you hadn’t noticed from the two previous bullet points, churches and ministries hate openly talking about this.  However, we must remember not to sweep such issues under the carpet.  If an incident is reported to you as a leader, always take it seriously and follow up with the proper response.  Be aware of mandatory reporting laws and do not waste a moment in getting those above you involved if you have any reason to suspect something inappropriate.
  • Make certain that there is appropriate liability insurance coverage to protect your church or ministry in the case of harm coming to those you serve at the hands of a volunteer or undetected predator.

While this latest tale involving our friends at Willow Creek is unfortunate, we can also take away from the situation many lessons from the way that they responded to the incident.  Willow Creek should be applauded and imitated in how they dealt with the aftermath.  They wasted no time in contacting authorities, immediately denied the volunteer all access to children, revisited their policies, refreshed the training of their teams, and installed additional surveillance cameras in child care areas.  We should do nothing less in the same set of circumstances.

Con cuidado, friends!

What precautions have you set in place to prevent abuse of the vulnerable population you serve?  What questions do you have about setting policies in place?  As tough as this subject is, we would love to hear from you.

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ID-10060370If you are not intentional, it is inevitable.  Your paperwork is outdated.  It happens oh, so accidentally.  You find yourself one day with your program humming along as it always has, but something causes you to go through the programs forms on file a bit more slowly.  As you thumb through the pages questions arise such as, “I thought we had a space for this on the page,” or “This would be so much better if we included this on these intakes.”

The fact is, forms or paperwork are only as good as their last review.  Registration that we developed 5 years ago is outdated.  We have new insights on special needs over the past 5 years that you might be wise to ask about on registration forms.  The same is true of volunteer screening, financial applications, and myriad other data-gathering resources we establish.

Allow me to share an anecdote with you.  Our ministry had been using a standard form for respite registration for years under the direction of a phenomenal leader.  She was tremendously gifted with the children and got to know each of them well.  After she left us, I began going through the paperwork in an effort to help the new leader get to know some of the nuances of our regular attenders.  As I sought to organize things in a way that would be easier for our new respite leader to manage, I noticed that I would like to add some things into our registration such as whether a child is sensory seeking or sensory avoidant.  I would like to ask better questions of the parents in regards to what their child’s triggers might be.  And the list continues.

It is too easy to work with the default habit that “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Yet, if we want to do anything that we do with excellence, we need to stay on top of these small details.

Other contributing factors change over the years as well.  For example, online registration 5 years ago was not anywhere near what it is today.  One leader in an online leadership forum I belong to recently brought up the notion of using a free resource like PlanetReg for online registration set-up.  Other organizations or churches establish their own online platform.  Many still use PDF files.  All of that is a matter of preference.  Regardless, leadership should operate with an awareness that the methods being used now will need to be reexamined in the near future.

Why not have this as part of the rhythm of your annual calendar?  Review every piece of paperwork that your ministry uses.  See if there are any new questions to be asked or information to be gathered.  Determine if there is something that is antiquated and needs to be eliminated.  Make sure your webmaster is apprised of any needed updates or corrections.  If you commit a specific date on your calendar to doing this type of review, you will actually make the time for it rather than putting it off.

When we keep our information current, detailed and pertinent, our ministry runs more efficiently.  We are more successful at providing the quality of interaction to which we aspire.  We’re happier, and so are those we serve.

What are your methods of reviewing or updating forms?  We would love to hear!

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The Essential Ingredient

Over the past decade we have had members come and go from our Board of Directors.  Unlike a larger organization with more financial resources, we are a largely volunteer organization that requires a “Working Board.”  What this means is that every Board member needs to roll up their sleeves and get involved rather than just attending meetings and giving an advisory opinion.  Although potential Board nominees are made aware of this prior to their tenure, all do not serve equally.  Some excel while getting others engaged can be like pulling teeth.

Upon close examination of those who serve the best on our Board of Directors, committees and as volunteers, the essential ingredient those individuals have is PASSION.  These individuals are driven by an enthusiasm for our mission for a wide variety of reasons.  Most commonly, we find that those living with special needs as parents or siblings are quick to apply their concern for this community towards service in our work.  People who have a deep sense of compassion for those who suffer also tend to be enthusiastic about working with us.  Professionals who love what they do are inclined to also share that zest in volunteer commitment.  Those who have an eye and ear turned to the Lord and where He is working tend to jump in with both feet as well.

Whatever the reason, it is extremely difficult to move the group forward when you have members that are lukewarm.  Open your eyes and ears to those who are passionate about the special needs community.  It may be an Eagle Scout, a local assembly line worker or a therapist.  Whoever it is, be certain to continue to kindle that fervor, and you will see amazing things happen.  Our latest kindling of that passion has come in beginning Board meetings with anecdotes of those we have successfully helped.  Describing how we see deflated, discouraged individuals transformed into those carrying the hope of Jesus is not only gratifying, it feeds that vigor for what we do.  Other methods of continuing to edify that passion might include attending conferences together, reading articles or books that affirm or challenge your mission, or even observing what other teams are doing in the same arena.  As we as leaders are diligent in caring for that essential ingredient, we find ourselves responsive to the admonition Paul gives in 2 Timothy 1:6 “This is why I remind you to fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you.” (NLT)  Go kindle afresh that spirit in your team today!

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