A United Methodist volunteer team from the California-Pacific Annual (regional) Conference prepares to work on a home damaged by Hurricane Sandy in Long Beach, N.Y., a part of Long Island. The home is elevated on concrete pilings to help avoid future flooding, requiring the team to climb a ladder to the living space.
The Volunteer Movement: Strong in Purpose and Promise
By Thomas Kemper*
As a German, I continue to admire and be impressed by the enormous volunteer spirit and movement in the United States. A large number of the applicants for full-time missionary service through The United Methodist Church cite volunteer experience as their introduction to mission. That is not surprising. In recent years, the volunteer movement has exploded, becoming an essential part of the church’s global mission. For some the experience is as part of a local church, district or campus ministry mission team. For others, it is individual service that may last from a few months to a few years. The volunteer movement is strong in purpose and promise.
The types of service are diverse and the locations and participants international. More than 100,000 United Methodists from the United States take part in voluntary mission service in the U.S. and around the world each year. The movement also exists in the conferences of the church in Asia, the Philippines and Europe, and also among the autonomous Methodist and united churches that are our partners around the world. Volunteering for mission is a global reality. It reflects and serves the worldwide church.
A few months ago we launched a new handbook, A Mission Journey, which covers the history, goals and best practices of mission volunteers. It emerged out of the actual spiritual and work experiences of volunteers and their hosts — their travels, prayers, theological reflections and practical planning. Prepared by a team through Global Ministries and printed and distributed by The Upper Room, the publication is an impressive collaboration of mission volunteer practitioners and interpreters, including those familiar with needs and responses following natural or human-caused disasters.
An understanding of mission as rooted in both theology as the understanding of faith and action as the practice of faith is pivotal in mission voluntarism. An essay in the handbook by Jeremy Basset describes the mission volunteer as one who shares God’s love in a broken world. Sharing God’s love also means that we believe that the broken world can be healed. It means we are always open to the power of the Holy Spirit to “sweep the church into a new mission age,” as affirmed in the mission theology statement of the General Board of Global Ministries. Mission volunteers are often at the forefront of mission, again quoting the mission theology statement, waiting for “the leading of the Spirit in ways not yet seen as God continues to work God’s purposes out in our own day … .”
The mission volunteer movement is increasingly aware that volunteers work with hosts and must avoid the unintentionally negative implications that can arise when volunteers from more affluent places take an attitude of performing service for those who are poorer and more marginalized. Cultural awareness and humility of purpose and action are necessary for a mission volunteer to reach its greatest effectiveness.
The mission volunteer movement within Methodism is deeply rooted in the dual emphases on spiritual and social holiness of John Wesley, our church’s founder. Wesleyan theology and practice teaches us to both do as much good as we can and to do as little harm, insights evident in our current denominational focus on Ministry with the Poor — not ministry “for” or “to” anyone, but “with” as co-equals in the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Volunteers in mission seek first to praise and glorify God by sharpening their responsiveness to God’s grace and then share the assurance of that grace with others through humble, thankful service with others.
*Thomas Kemper is the General Secretary for The General Board of Global Ministries.