Volunteer service is people’s top choice for contributing to making the world a better place. Ironically, by conceiving of volunteering as something we go to do in order to change the world, we may not be changing much at all. In some ways, we may actually be perpetuating the very systems and structures we are hoping to change without even realizing it. The very narrative we use to describe what we are doing (i.e. “helping” or “serving”) conditions us to connect to others in terms of a rather utilitarian or functional framework.
It may seem counterintuitive, but by reimagining volunteer service in terms of cultivating healthy and just relationships, and focusing time, energy, and money on relational aspects of the connection (whether you are in a local or global context), you are more likely to be engaged in the change you hope to see in the world.
Here are three tips for how to volunteer from within a new framework we like to call Just Relationships.
Tip #1: Relationship is the end. Reconciliation, restored community, and right relationship is the end. Our natural tendency as human beings is to see relationships as a means to an end. Whether we are the ones who are serving others or the ones in need of help, all of us tend to view others as a means of receiving some type of personal gain or group benefit. Often, we build our relational networks based on the perceived potential return on investment. If we are the ones serving, we may not even recognize the ways we subtly exercise our power and authority over others as a way to gain moral status or relieve emotional guilt. If we are the ones in need, we may not intend to manipulate our relationships with those who have power over us in order to get what we need or want, but sometimes that is exactly what happens. Either way, our conditioned way of relating to people needs to be radically readjusted. We are supposed to love people, not use them. We are supposed to relate to one another for mutual edification as equals, not be under or over each other vying for our own personal gain.
Tip #2: Everyone’s invited to the banquet. We tend to view resources with a banking mentality. Those of us who volunteer often believe that we can do anything with enough money. Others fall into the trap of thinking we can’t do anything without money. Either way, we are subconsciously conditioned to think of our own and other’s worth in terms of whether we are giving or receiving resources. We also often perceive resources as limited or scarce and so compete with one another for them. Some of us feel a sense of entitlement toward what we have because we feel we’ve earned it and deserve it—it is our right to decide what we do or don’t do with what we have. Others, who may have been denied access and opportunity to certain things, come to believe that those with abundant resources owe us something. But, if all of us were to begin to acknowledge that we are guests in a world where we are supposed to share freely whatever resources we’ve been given with everyone at the table, it changes our whole perspective. It also changes the way we act. We start to connect with each other in ways we are uniquely gifted in order to do what we can as we come together for the common good.
Tip #3: Be fruitful. We tend to think of results or success in terms of production rather than fruitfulness. Some volunteers have a “we can achieve anything we set our minds to” triumphalism when it comes to their sense of expected outcomes. What they may not realize is that some of those they are serving may be more fatalistic, believing that “life is what it is” and so simply try to get what they can when they can get it. Volunteers often base decisions about what they give their time, money, and efforts to on what will have the highest return on investment rather than what truly makes sense for a particular community. But, an alternative is to think of results and success in terms of fruitfulness, recognizing that small and often imperceptible seeds that are planted at the right time, in the right way sometimes make an exponentially huge impact. In other words, despite appearances, it is often the patient, faithful, action and perseverance with others who are doing what they can with what they already have that yields the most transformation and restoration in the world.
When we begin to fundamentally change how we relate to each other across distance and difference we will begin to make a difference in the world because our vested commitment in the lives of others compels us to notice and correct power inequalities, abuses of authority, and exploitation. You want to share with people you love. You look out for your family members, right? You want to make sure your neighbor is treated fairly, don’t you? In sum, the world will begin to change as the natural byproduct of how well we build Just Relationships.
To learn more about how you can get training in this area , or to find out how you can get connected to our local and global partners please contact us via: