Volunteers

I am going through a rite of passage that isn’t mentioned in the books as far as I know. It isn’t one I anticipated, and I really didn’t see it coming. In a plain envelope from the Department of Health and Human Services this week I received my medicare card. My coverage doesn’t begin for another 45 days, but the existence of the card is enough to remind me that I’m heading towards the category “senior citizen” in a way that is more difficult to ignore than the weekly appeals to join AARP. As an aside, what it it with an organization that keeps offering membership reward after membership reward and absolutely none of the items offered is something I want?

There is something interesting about my age cohort - at least the males who share my birth year with me. We are the first to have lived in a post-draft world. We received our draft cards, were assigned our lottery numbers, and some of us were ordered to our physicals and then, at what seemed at the last minute, the draft was ended and no one born in my birth year was drafted into the U.S. Army. That means that all who served as a result of the draft are older than me. And you know how old I am. It won’t take too many more decades before the nation has no one who remembers first hand what it means to be drafted into military service.

I bring that up because of an entirely different topic. In the early days after the draft the term that was bandied about was the “all volunteer army.” It is, when you stop to think about it, a serious misnomer. While those serving in the Army and the other branches of the U.S. military have chosen to serve without coercion, they are highly trained and highly skilled professionals who are paid for their service and who are directed and managed as employees, not as volunteers.

I know the difference. I have spent my career working in volunteer organizations. I serve on the board of multiple organizations that rely heavily on volunteers. You can’t get away with giving orders to volunteers. It doesn’t work to try to motivate them by yelling at them like a drill sergeant.

One of the things that seems to go with the medicare card that I will soon be carrying with me in my wallet everywhere I go is that I have developed a bit more patience than I had when I was younger. I’ve spent more than a few wild rants telling whoever would listen about my frustration with the slowness of decision-making in volunteer organizations, the lack of commitment of some volunteers, and the seemingly stupid decisions made by some volunteer boards of directors. I’ve been party to church politics and petty power struggles in an institution that has virtually no power to be grasped. I’v seen some of the worst of human behavior in the service of some of the noblest of human causes.

Trust me, the United States Army is not a volunteer organization.

The rag-tag militias of the early days of the American revolution were volunteers. But it has ben a long time since our forebears pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to support their declaration of independence. These days the brave and self-sacrificing young men and women of the Army have a right to demand lifetime health care, reasonable retirement benefits, and fair wages for their service.

Meanwhile, I am committed to working with volunteer organizations. There are some types of community service that simply work better with volunteers. Habitat for Humanity doesn’t make sense as a housing provider without volunteer labor. Adding labor costs to the costs of the homes they build would drive those homes out of reach for those who need them. The model depends on volunteers. The law enforcement chaplaincies in our community are better as volunteer organizations. Volunteer chaplains don’t owe loyalty to the formal structure of the agency. They serve because there is no greater honor than being allowed to serve those who serve. An exchange of salary would cheapen the process. Our Local Outreach to Survivors of Suicide team is effective precisely because we are volunteers - people who are involved because of our life experiences not because someone has paid us to be there. Our caring is born out of genuine loss that we have known first hand. If my home were to experience a fire the volunteers who show up in the fire truck are my neighbors and friends. If I were to be injured deep in the woods, the volunteers of Pennington County Search and Rescue would be there to respond with skill and compassion. There are many things in our society that work best when staffed by volunteers.

The church is one of those institutions. I know. I receive a salary for what I do in the church. My family has been primarily supported by wages from the church for as long as I have been an adult. While the church has a few paid professionals, the strength of our organization lies in its volunteers. Volunteers staff our mission and outreach. Volunteers make the key decisions in the life of the church. Volunteers lead the organization, plan its budgets, manage its resources and care for its future.

Which brings me to another definition of volunteer. In gardening and agronomic terminology, a volunteer is a plant that grows on its own, rather than being deliberately planted by a farmer or gardener. Unlike weeds, which are unwanted plants, a volunteer may be encouraged by gardeners once it appears, being watered, fertilized, or otherwise cared for. Being a lover of sunflowers, I’m a big fan of volunteers in my garden. The botanical definition of volunteer brings to mind the delight and surprise of plants that seed themselves and come up without any human intervention.

I think that my passion for voluntary organizations is as much driven by the surprise and delight of gifts freely offered as it is by any other cause. May the spirit of volunteers continue to delight us this spring and every season of our lives.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!