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Like a mighty army but not being paid

27 September 2013

Peter McGeary reads advice on a body that is growing scarce

Building up the Body: Encouraging, equipping and enabling volunteers in the Church
Richard Steel
BRF £7.99
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MANY years ago, as a young curate, I was given a very sage piece of advice by the verger at the church: never interfere with flower-ladies. These devoted souls of quite firm aesthetic opinions were, in his view, to be left alone to do what they did. The alternative could lead to war. I have heeded this advice ever since.

Flower-arranging is, of course, only one example of the plethora of jobs that need doing to make a church look beautiful, loved, and used. Churches need churchwardens, PCC members, group leaders of all shapes and sizes, musicians, fund-raisers, bell-ringers, administrators. And for most churches most of the time, all these jobs will be done by volunteers - people who do not have to be there, but who for one reason or another choose to be.

And this is where the busy parish priest's troubles can begin. What about the loud bass in the choir who has faithfully given decades of service, but who can't sing any more? What about the treasurer who hangs on to his position, but does not actually do the job? What about the ones who say they are going to tidy up the churchyard, and then don't?

And then there is the opposite problem: what about a situation when keen faithful people turn up to help with something that is disorganised and wasteful of their precious time (I am dealing with just such a situation as I write this review)?

Richard Steel is a parish priest in Yorkshire, and has considerable experience of working with volunteers. His focus is on smaller churches with limited resources, and is particularly directed to those of us who have to identify and encourage men and women to give something of themselves to God's service in the Church. He deals with issues to do with recruiting, training, dealing with conflict, and so on.

What are the highlights of this book? For me, there are three. First, it is important to understand the "psychology" of volunteers - why people bother in the first place, and what keeps up their interest - as this may vary greatly, often on generational lines.

Second, it is important to ensure that your volunteers see what they do as part of something much bigger: the mission of the Church. Being a flower lady is about much more than just arranging flowers.

And, third, don't forget to say "Thank you."

The last book I was asked to review for these pages was, among other things, about the importance of living the Christian life outside the walls of church. This book is about getting things done in church. It is a very readable and practical help for leaders who might be tempted from time to time to think that volunteers are more trouble than they are worth.

The Revd Peter McGeary is Vicar of St Mary's, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

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