There is much we can learn from those who are from the Jewish community. Michael Fishbane is the Nathan Cummings Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago. In his book on Jewish theology, Sacred Attunement, he speaks of the religious practice of neighboring characterized by ‘radical kindness.’ ‘Radical kindness’ is distinguished by acts of meeting needs, listening, serving others, and serving alongside others in their daily duties with a disregard for oneself. “It is a pure giving, in excess.” In order for someone to be a ‘neighbor,’ “one simply has to have the capacity to notice and to respond.”
When I entered into ministry – when I answered the ‘call’ – there existed a deep feeling of compassion towards people and a desire for all people to know the hope of Jesus. My time was filled with ‘being with’ people and ‘serving with’ people in moments of needs, life duties, and brokenness. My ministry toolbox was limited. My bookshelves were bare. Yet, I had a heightened ability to notice others and respond with pastoral care. I would drop everything immediately to respond with comfort, prayer, and serving. I was an immature leader, but a great neighbor.
In my current office, as a pastor to students, books sit in stacks on the floor because my bookshelves are full. (This doesn’t even include the books on my shelves at home.) I have access to some of the best tools in ministry. From my perception, there are many other pastor’s offices that look the same. However, I fear we have redefined the title of pastor as one who plans and executes strategy rather than one who partners with the Holy Spirit to notice and respond.
I am convinced we must embrace the primary call to be a pastor. Specifically, we must restore the art of being a neighbor to our volunteers.
A program-driven youth leader who is working with volunteers and teams of volunteers to pull off large group experiences, social activities, conferences, etc. may perhaps tend to reduce people to a sprocket or gear in the machine of ministry. Becoming program-driven over people-driven steers leaders to first respond to attendance, quality, and atmosphere rather than being a neighbor to the volunteers.
I must remind myself daily of my call to be a pastor to my volunteers. It isn’t enough for me to serve with my volunteers. I must capture the ability to notice the needs and desires of my volunteers. I must practice the discipline of responding to those needs and desires with care and selflessness. This doesn’t come easily in my busy and attention-challenged world.
However, I have had to create ways to respond and train myself to notice because I am so convinced of the importance of being a neighbor to my volunteers. Maybe some of these things can help you return to the call of being a pastor to your volunteers.
- Know their Families – I have great intentions of having deep relationships with everyone. It doesn’t happen, but I can know those I serve with. Depending on the size of your volunteer team, make a manageable schedule to meet with your volunteers and their families. Dinner tables and coffee tables provide great places for these moments.
- Take time to Listen – I am reminded of the story of Hagar where we are introduced to the God who sees and hears. Practice focusing with your eyes and listening with your mind when a volunteer talks to you. Search the internet for listening skills. Feel free to admit to your volunteers when you are distracted. (They already know.) Schedule another time to engage deeper in conversation.
- Respond with Words – The most immediate way we can respond is to reply with words of encouragement and empathy. Pray with your volunteers about specific needs or desires. Take it to the next level and respond with a written note. Notes are rare but greatly valued. I am always amazed when I walk into a house and see one of my notes on the fridge. Words matter. Words are free. Use them often.
- Respond with Action – On occasion, words are not enough. People rarely ask for help, so when they do . . . HELP. Even more so, listen for cues. Someone moving? Family sick? Busy week in the home? Take 30 minutes a week and ask yourself, “What can I do this week for one of my volunteer’s families?” Don’t wait for the invite, but go and serve.
I pray that we will capture this idea of neighboring, where we lean into others and practice neighboring with our volunteers. I pray we will be a people who notice and respond.