Vocations in the United States to the priesthood and consecrated life have been on the rise almost continually since 2011. This does not negate however, the precipitous decline compared to previous years, the challenges of decreased participation and the resulting strain on parish life and ministry. In this space ripe for opportunity, many Catholics have rallied to the cry of Vatican II; reawakening to their baptismal call to be servant-leaders, whatever their vocation, in accordance with the gifts and talents given them.
A strong surge of men and women increasingly dedicate their careers to the Church as lay ecclesial ministers. Coming alongside them, parishes are also discovering the unique contribution of trusted volunteers. Trusted volunteers are vetted and qualified individuals filling a defined role within the parish office.
Unlike a typical volunteer, trusted volunteers are screened and qualified to handle sensitive information, such as for offering and ministry. A precautionary framework, careful selection of volunteer candidates and the maintenance of review protocols are the additional safeguards that protect parishioner data and ensure organizational effectiveness. Successfully implemented, trusted volunteers alleviate staff workload and promote a culture of stewardship where parishioner contributions are valued, sought out and applied for maximum effect.
Establishing a trusted volunteer position requires first defining the role. Similar to a job description, a clear understanding and articulation of the specific need, parameters, and associated responsibilities are foundational to attract suitable candidates. A well-defined position also provides the framework to evaluate effectiveness long-term.
In order to maintain team unity and prevent confusion, a clear understanding of how volunteer roles fit into the parish office structure is needed. Volunteer responsibilities may include tasks previously owned by staff and it is important to acknowledge the hard work and achievements of current staff. Trusted volunteers are not intended to replace staff, but free them to do the tasks that only they can do.
A sound job description sets the stage for recruitment. You may choose to start with an established parishioner gift inventory or list of parishioners looking for service opportunities. If you are currently tracking job information, strengths and ministry preferences in your ParishSOFT software, this is an opportunity to utilize filtered lists, advanced search criteria or the ParishSOFT Intelligent Query module to mine your data for potential candidates. Likewise, the role description also provides what is needed for a compelling “advertisement” for the bulletin or other parish media channels.
Once potential candidates have been identified or stepped forward, clearly communicate the volunteer role parameters and invite them to consider learning more about the service opportunity. It is important that the invitation communicate that this is a joint discernment: the parishioner is invited to learn more about the role and the parish is likewise conscientiously considering whether the person would be a good fit. Similar to a job, the interview is a necessary part of this process.
Invite interested candidates to a meeting or “interview.” Pax Christi Catholic Community, Eden Praire, Minnesota, refers to these meetings as “discernment sessions.” You may find a similar name to be beneficial in helping parishioners and staff understand the goal of these initial meetings. The discernment, or interview, process is not a mere formality, but a joint process of careful examination to determine fit.
Requisite qualifications may include the aptitude and ability to maintain confidentiality, trustworthiness and data entry skills. In order to invite them fully into the discernment process, role requirements, tasks, and other pertinent factors are discussed openly with candidates, recognizing that a lack of suitability for this role simply means the possibility of serving in another capacity.
Parishioners are always encouraged to give their time and talents to the many avenues of service at a parish. It is imperative to honor the trust parishioners and donors have placed in the parish by taking the necessary measures to protect their privacy and personal data. This safekeeping includes maintaining professional standards, insisting upon data integrity and limiting potential breaches in confidentiality. Consequently, it is of vital importance to establish and implement standards for trusted volunteer positions, and to uphold them consistently . . . never sacrificing standards according to resources that appear to be available.
Once you and the volunteer candidate have determined that it is likely a good fit, confirm the choice through appropriate measures. For example, anyone working with money requires, at minimum, a background check. Likewise, Virtus or comparable training and background screening are mandatory for those working with or around vulnerable adults and children. If your parish currently has an agreement of acceptable standards, code of conduct, or additional safety and security requirements, address these items, as well.
As in the interview process, frank discussion sets expectations of appropriate behavior and modes of operating. Topics to address may include the concerted effort to “forget” parishioners’ personal information (such as contribution and pledge amounts). Open dialogue regarding professional standards is an important step pointed toward preserving parishioner trust, respecting privacy and setting the criterion for parish office operations.
If working within the ParishSOFT system, the volunteer will be set up with a unique login and system permissions appropriate to their role. The ParishSOFT system grants unlimited logins at no additional cost, while the system administrator at the parish sets permissions.
Appropriate permissions ensure the individual does not have access to unnecessary information and can only perform the tasks needed. For instance, if a trusted volunteer is responsible for entering pledges, she will not be given permission to see parishioner giving history nor to delete a parishioner record. It will not be the standard that volunteers are able to see financial or family records at liberty.
Permissions and preventative measures communicate the parish’s commitment to building a culture of verified trust. Parishioners can expect their personal information and privacy to be protected at every point of interaction with the parish through prudence and due diligence.
You want your volunteers to feel gratified and competent in their work, not frustrated. You also want them to stay onboard. A training protocol will greatly ease transition and contribute significantly to volunteer and parish office success. Skimping on training is a recipe for uncertainty, turnover, and potential fallout from issues of data integrity. A best practice is to partner each volunteer position with a staff member willing and able to train and oversee the volunteer. Ideally these two positions will complement each other, enabling them to work cohesively as a team.
If volunteers are utilizing the ParishSOFT system, it is simple to assemble a basic curriculum of handpicked training videos and how-to articles from the ParishSOFT Support Center. Volunteers who use this resource will learn about the library of readily available help resources within the ParishSOFT applications and the Support Center, should they have additional questions.
Oversight and Review
Checks and balances enable prudent operation and promote effectiveness. It follows that it is necessary to establish oversight and a review process for the work of trusted volunteers. Although rarely suspected, the number of instances of fraud and embezzlement in the Church mandate that parishes always be on guard and have systems in place to deter predators and foster transparency. We are all accountable when it comes to protecting church resources.
It is also necessary to ask the question: is this working? Likely the parish will encounter volunteers who will need to be redirected to ministries more closely aligned with their talents. This can be done with tact and compassion, honoring their willingness to serve and providing suggestions for a more suitable position if desired.
Shifting parish structures have opened new avenues for growth. Trusted volunteer positions are a means to engage parishioners, inviting them to active discipleship as co-laborers in the work of the church. Meanwhile, the parish office receives help in high-need areas while also protecting sensitive information through preventative measures, judicious supervision and best practices.
Increase team cohesion and build a culture of stewardship that empowers laity and aids parish staff in realizing parish mission and vision. How can trusted volunteers further your mission?
Please see the case study for Pax Christi, Eden Praire, Minnesota for an account of trusted volunteers in action.