What do the person running the church nursery, the senior running the register at the local St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, and the person unloading canned goods at a food pantry all have in common?
They are all volunteers, drawn into service by a desire to make a difference in someone else’s life. The motivation may have a spiritual component to it (“God had done so much for me, I want to use my time and talents to pass on his love”). It may flow out of a wish to pay it forward, the “it” being a specific kindness received to an overflow of general gratitude. Countless studies confirm what most of us know instinctively: Serving others is very good for our mental and spiritual health.
But service comes with some hidden landmines in addition to its benefits. I’d been a ready volunteer in children’s ministries when my own children were growing up. As they left the nest and my emphasis in ministry changed, I found myself irritated and restless when I was on the children’s church rotation in a small congregation we attended for about a year. One Sunday morning, I sat in the nursery alone with two toddlers I didn’t know at all for an hour and forty-five minute long church service. There were no other children in that age group in the congregation, and no other volunteers stepped forward to help. The kids were sweet enough, but I left that morning feeling used, frustrated, and neglected. I could have used some coaching to help me assess whether this form of service was still a good fit for me, as well as recognizing that perhaps I was contributing to perpetuating a childcare system that was no longer needed in its current form in that church. (Also, most child protection advocates strongly encourage churches to make sure there are always two adults caring for children, but I digress.)
What I could have used was some of the practical coaching Meredith Gould offers in Deliberate Acts of Kindness: A Field Guide to Service as a Spiritual Practice (Clear Faith Publishing, 2016). Gould draws on her academic background (she has a PhD in sociology) and her own spiritual journey as someone raised Jewish who spent over a decade with a yoga-based community and eventually Christianity. Most opportunities for service are presented from the point of view of an organization in need of help. Gould offers a refreshing counterpoint designed to help readers respond to those asks with intention, from a place of emotional and spiritual health. She offers tools that will assist them as they sift through questions of discernment, organizational fit, healthy boundaries, motivation, and recognizing the gifts serving others gives to us. Her relatable writing style offers insight in bite-sized, easily-digestible chunks, interspersed with quotes and prayers drawn from her own faith journey, along with questions for contemplation, discussion, or journaling.
She encourages readers to bring knowledge of themselves to the process of determining whether they’re the ones who should say yes to a particular request. She suggests this exercise in her chapter on discernment:
Here’s an exercise, one grounded in your own experience of being supported during difficult times, to help you figure out how to answer the inner call to service.
First, list major life challenges and losses that have led you to grow emotionally and spiritually. Next, note all the ways you were supported during these periods. Include the big stuff, like the money your future ex-in-laws gave you without expectation of repayment, as well as big little stuff like the pint of fresh raspberries your neighbor left on your doorstep. Now, take a look at what’s on these lists, and write out whatever comes to your mind as you answer these questions:
Which acts of generosity or kindness mean the most to me?
What made these gestures meaningful?
How can I give to others what was given to me?
One note – some conservative Christian readers may not be comfortable with Gould’s wide-ranging selection of source material. That said, if you are someone looking to make a difference through community service – say, volunteering with a local community theater, hospital, animal shelter, or political organization – Deliberate Acts of Kindness is a helpful conversation partner as you seek to get or stay involved, or as you downshift away from active involvement.
- Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book. The price I didn’t pay didn’t in any way affect my review.