Volunteering: Why You Don’t; Why We Need You

Volunteering, anger, judgment, hell, wrath


As part of the Mystical Body of Christ, we’ve each received gifts unique to our position in the Body, with graces that equip us for our work within the Church. If that’s the case, why do so few Catholics volunteer to use their gifts for the benefit of the Church?

Who’s Doing All the Work?

At your parish, who makes up the cadre of dedicated volunteers that keep it running smoothly? Research conducted some time ago by the Dynamic Catholic Institute revealed some startling findings: In a typical Catholic parish, 7% or less of registered parishioners generally contribute 80% or more of the financial support and 80% or more of the volunteer hours worked.

Common Characteristics of Active Catholics

The research also identified four things that the roughly 7% of more involved Catholics do which the other 93% generally don’t do as much of: prayer, study of the faith, generosity and evangelization. Those more involved Catholics have cultivated habits of daily prayer such as praying the Rosary, attending daily Mass and praying through Lectio Divina. They study the faith, continually learning more about it (and as a result seem to be less likely to complain about the positions of the Magisterium and about the Church in general). They also give more time and financial support, and are enthusiastic about sharing their faith with others.

Why More Parishioners Don’t Volunteer

On the other hand, research shows that this group of the most active laity actually may discourage others from participating at their parish by, among other things, being territorial or cliquish, and using religious terminology that others don’t understand. They also may not relate well to others who are not as far along in their spiritual journey as they are.

Territorialism. We probably have all seen this in any number of volunteer membership organizations, from social clubs to church organizations. Symptoms might include long-time members being annoyed by new members’ suggestions for ways of doing things—what might be called “symptoms of a closed mind”—“that will never work here, we tried it before, it’s all too complicated,” and so on.

Other signs might be a hesitancy to actually accept a volunteer’s help because, well the job is just too important, and it takes years to get good at it—“if it wasn’t so complex, I could teach you to do it, but it’s just so critical, and we simply can’t take a chance [or take the time] right now,” or, “I prefer to do this by myself” (implying that no one else can do it right).

As well, some people, for whatever reason, seem to relish the thought of being the only ones doing the work—“Look at me. I am so overworked and no one else is helping me.” It satisfies a need of theirs, but it doesn’t help the Body of Christ. So, is it a question of control or simply wanting to be a martyr? It doesn’t really matter—what matters is that it’s getting in the way of building up Christ’s Body here on earth, today, in our parish.

Cliques.  Does the group welcome newcomers into it?  Or does it keep them at arms’ length?  When a newcomer joins a small group at a table for donuts after Mass, are they included in the conversation and an attempt made by “the regulars” to get to know them?

At other parish social events, are new parishioners invited to join an intact group’s banquet table, or are they simply left to fend for themselves in breaking the social “ice” as newbies? Do we actively work to bring new volunteers into a committee discussion, or do we use committee time to make personal plans between the more well-acquainted members? What kind of messages are we sending to new members of our faith community? It’s difficult to get enthusiastic about volunteering if one is held at arm’s-length socially.

Use of terminology that others don’t understand.  We occasionally do have some of this in the Church. From a practical perspective, where and what are the narthex, the nave, the sanctuary and the ambo? What is a pall, a purificator, a thurible, or a corporal? This one seems to be pretty easy to avoid, though, with just a little self-awareness.

Not relating well to others who are at different places in their spiritual journey. This might be another, longer description of what some call “spiritual pride.” And boy, does pride do us in! The evil one will play to our weaknesses. He will use against us any forward movement we’ve made spiritually in something of a spiritual ju-jitsu move. We can make it so easy for him with our pride!

A wise confessor suggests that we need to look into each person’s face and see the face of Christ—recognize that God made him or her in His image and loves them very much. As well, look in the mirror and see that we’re a work-in-progress that depends totally on God’s grace. Then, reach out to that other person. By walking with someone as a friend in Christ, we can provide them with the entre they need to become more active in the parish, regardless of where they are in a spiritual growth path.

The Role of Staff

In addition to the above reasons that prospective new volunteers get discouraged, I’d suggest adding one dealing with parish staff. At some parishes, a new parishioner may run into a staff member who is either or both incompetent and inattentive. When this happens, it might stifle the volunteer’s drive to contribute. It doesn’t have to, though. Persistence pays off. If you feel that the Holy Spirit is calling you to share your gift with the parish, uncooperative staff members won’t pose an insurmountable barrier if you really want to get involved.

Other Reasons for Lack of Volunteers

There are any number of additional reasons that some don’t participate at their parish. A pastor of mine from long ago believed that many people don’t volunteer and serve because that’s not the way they were raised in their home, the “domestic church.” Without the modeling from parents or a subsequent conversion of heart and mind, we are less likely to consider getting very involved in our parish.

Some Common Reasons Given by Less Active Parishioners

Many other reasons are given by individuals as to why they don’t participate more fully in either attending activities at their parish or taking a leadership role to help with the activities.  Some might include:

“I’m just too busy—I am already ‘slammed’ and can’t possibly give the parish any time.” That certainly can be possible in a time when many corporate cultures can be characterized as “doing more with less,” leading to more intense and longer work hours. We also can’t forget that in many households, both spouses are working outside the home. And some households are single parent families. In either case, it leaves little room for church-related or other volunteer activities outside of the little family time left after the daily grind. This often is exacerbated by the extracurricular, secular activities of the children that can run the entire family ragged. But can this be the primary cause for all of the other 93% of Catholics not being more active in their parish?

 “None of the activities are that interesting to me.” In some less active parishes, this could be the case. However, in most parishes that are a bit more active, would there not be an area or two, or a weekend ministry that might fit into one’s schedule? Volunteering, for example, as a hospitality minister for an occasional Sunday Mass is just one example.

“So-and-so [fill in the blank—a parish lay leader, a priest, a staff member, you name it] ticked me off and I don’t want to have anything to do with the parish now.” Really? I’d like to know of any organization outside of the parish where someone hasn’t even inadvertently ticked us off. They’re all made up of humans, and humans make mistakes. Part of following Christ is showing His merciful love and forgiveness to others. He loves each of us so much, and yet we’ve done nothing to earn it—so why can’t we all model His behavior a little more closely?

“They have plenty of help already. I don’t need to do anything but show up.” This seems to be more of a “take” than a “give” approach to building a healthy “give and take” relationship.  When one sees ads for volunteers, it means the parish really does not have plenty of help already. We each need to help our parish in its mission as part of the Mystical Body of Christ.

“I just don’t enjoy socializing and trying to make conversation with strangers, so it’s really hard to get more involved.” As something of an introvert myself, I can relate to this, but getting to know people at church isn’t that hard. For one thing, we all arguably have something really big in common—our faith. For another, there usually are so many needs to be met at the parish that someone will be really happy to make our acquaintance and welcome us into the fold.

No matter which side of the volunteer fence we’re on—whether on the inside, already volunteering, or on the outside looking in, it seems that we might all benefit from some prayerful consideration of our role at the parish. Taking it to prayer and asking what we individually are doing to help bring souls to God for His Greater Glory through our work at the parish might be a good starting point. If we’re not doing as much as we might actually be called to do, perhaps through prayer we can be directed to doing something more, however seemingly small, to lend a hand. If we’re already involved, perhaps we can obtain the grace through prayer to more quickly welcome and meaningfully involve newcomers. In doing so, we can help build up the Mystical Body of Christ through our cooperation with His grace:

And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ… speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and builds itself up in love. – Eph. 4:11-16


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20 thoughts on “Volunteering: Why You Don’t; Why We Need You”

  1. Pingback: Before and After Confirmation-Fanning the Flames of Pentecost - Catholic Stand


  3. Very perceptive piece, thank you. As a volunteer, a few brief reflections.

    Some of us–this would be me–are hardwired as ‘churchy’. Even before I became Catholic, I was a churchy evangelical. I just love church, even when it doesn’t go well.

    But there are things, esp. as a guy, that I take absolutely no interest in: Examples–sports, space travel and exploration, tech gadgets. You can’t believe the looks I get. Oh well.

    So I try to remind myself often that some folks don’t have the same degree of interest I have for churchiness and all its redemptive qualities. I think church is the best thing….ever, sort of like some guys think golf and who’s who on what football team is. I remind myself that they just need to be there and live their lives—truly, in a mission parish like ours, it means a LOT just if people show up.

    Admittedly, this is hard and a challenge for me. I’d love for people to be climbing all over themselves to offer help.

    Also, and somewhat indirectly related, but to consider: I am currently applying to be a volunteer in a hospital. So not church, but to lend a hand to our assoc. priest, the hospital chaplain, and to offer support to patients (and to receive from them, as I am told!). But the process to become a volunteer in this ‘para-churchy’ role is burdensome to put it mildly. While the Church Herself has no control over this particular aspect of the volunteer role, I raise it because it coincides with the evangelistic endeavor to bring Christ to others. And intimidating quasi-legal/regulatory barriers that are “structural” or “institutional” are not entirely different from those cultural, clerical, or administrative barriers at a parish, or in a diocese.

    I suppose in an awkward mashup of these two disparate ideas, Francis tells us the Church is to be a hospital. Perhaps in both we can find creative means to serve one another with kindness and generosity.

    1. Greg–may you be richly blessed for your support of your parish, your priests and the patients you hope to assist in the hospital ministry! I understand what you’re saying when you talk about your interest, or lack thereof, in many secular pursuits–wouldn’t it be great if we could get just a few more people fired up with that intensity that you have for the church and all things church-related? Keep up your good example for others to follow, serving one another, to borrow a phrase from your post, with kindness and generosity. That’s what it’s all about, brother! God bless you for your volunteering!

  4. My husband and I were very active, happy volunteers for many years. After a change of pastors, we were told by our new pastor that we were “pink-slipped” from the responsibilities we had worked at for years.

    We thought that perhaps we truly had been doing a bad job, and maybe it was time for someone else to take over. So we attempted, repeatedly, to volunteer in other areas in a more menial capacity when it was requested in the bulletin. Each time we were turned away from our pastor and his staff. It isn’t because we are too old (we are both 55), or because we are terrible Catholics.

    I think perhaps our beloved parish has become a bit of a clique, and we have been excluded. We respect and like our pastor in spite of everything. We will not leave because it is our home and where God wants us to be. And when God lets us know what He wants us to do to serve Him, we will do it happily with all our hearts.

    1. God bless you for your humble approach to what has to be a disturbing turn of events. Any time there is a regime change, whether in secular organizations or church parishes, there is a potential for some big changes. Sometimes the reasons for these changes are clear and sometimes they are not so clear. But you are modeling the behavior of true disciples, making yourselves available to the Lord’s call. When changes like those you’ve described occur, we can benefit from turning to Him in prayer and asking for His guidance to understand what He’s trying to teach us in the circumstances. As so many spiritual writers and mystics have said through the ages, virtually anything that God allows to happen, does so for greater good to come out of it. Keep your faith, keep praying for your pastor (they all need prayers and lots of them), and for God to direct you toward what He’s looking for as the next step. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Brice! That is a nice piece that you linked to there about Fr. Holden and what he’s accomplished. What struck me is his long-term vision, which is something that we, in my secular business, focus clients on as a starting point–having that big picture, longer view of what you want. Then, getting people involved to build commitment, and again, it appeared to be a longer term approach which built up support over time. There are really good ideas in that article for any parish to consider as it builds up critical mass in lay commitment to the parish and its goals.

    2. I would actively oppose any effort to bring “marketing” concepts into a parish that I attended. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong.

  5. Dom is a guy whom I personally know to be carrying the weight of a parish that far exceeds his allocated portion! In the end, it comes down to WHY these people do as much as they do. That answer is always: Jesus! Jesus didn’t hold anything back from us – His example was selfless, giving, and constant. Dom’s example is also selfless, giving and constant – the reciprocal gift of himself given to God. His article defines solid reasons and logic for those who would offer less, but the essence of such reluctance is very simple: a heart that is not primarily aligned to Jesus won’t naturally emulate Him in initiatives of selfless, giving constancy. Detached parishioners are a dime a dozen. Why? They remain more or less self interested. The few who – like Dom – example what is “above and beyond” in their offerings of service to Christ are become like Him in so many more things. It shows. Their quiet humility of service provides a breathtaking example of what Christ’s potential might also bring forth in the rest of us – if we would only have love enough to rise above our selfishness and say “yes”.

    1. Mike–thanks for your kind (and embellished) comments! 🙂 and thanks for all you do as well! Each of us is blessed to be able to contribute in some way to building up the Kingdom–we might as well take advantage of the opportunities in front of us. God bless.

  6. Parishes used to function as actual communities. They held events that appealed to all ages and expected volunteering from all ages.

    I can remember in my childhood parish, that the big fundraisers were Sunday dinners held two or three times a year. Women did the cooking, men did the heavy lifting, the girls served tables and the boys did seating and cleanup. Everyone had a role and there was simply no “not volunteering”.

    In the area where I live now, there’s nothing like that. Maybe there never was. What few things that exist are for cliques that meet during the day, during the week. Working people are simply not able to participate.

    The parish of my youth didn’t have paid maintenance staff; the men and boys were expected to maintain the ground and shovel snow in the wintertime. The parish I belong to now has a “Director of Grounds” and a paid staff to attend to all that.

    I don’t volunteer because I am not asked, and because there is literally nothing I can do.

    And I don’t know what you mean by “When a newcomer joins a small group at a table for donuts after Mass”. We have masses every 75 to 90 minutes on Sundays. There’s no “donuts after mass”; gotta clear out the parking lot for the next group that’s circling the parking lot waiting for us to leave.

    Don’t give us the “Dynamic Catholic” lecture. It’s so out of touch with reality. (Although my diocese is bringing him in for a few lectures early next year. Not sure why.)

    1. That’s it? No comment?

      I guess just the back-slappers get a response.

      I’m serious. I would be glad to give of myself to my area parishes. But they don’t ask.

    2. Larry, sorry you have been hurt. Been there, endured that. I know exactly how you feel.

      I am with you on the comment about all the volunteering, etc. taking place during the business day (7 AM to 4 PM). Same goes on at my parish. I cannot even go to daily Mass because I have to be at work and all the pastors in a 30-mile radius think 8 AM or other times during the workday are the best time for Mass, instead of perhaps 6 PM or 7 PM when those of us who work can make it.

      I am tired of being scolded for not volunteering when it is impossible, or because we are not welcome. I once heard some more senior parish ladies complaining that none of the younger women helped with preparing food for the Christmas bazaar. Of course, the hours were from 9 AM to 2 PM on a weekday. Most of us work and have no hope of helping during the day until we can retire.

      I would purely love to help in some way, to volunteer, or to attend some faith formation. I love my parish and parishioners, and I want to be part of things. But it just isn’t happening, 1) because it all takes place during the business day; and 2) we have been specifically excluded and told we were not wanted by our pastor, his staff, and those he has put in charge of programs. Not a thing we can do about it. They only want us to take up space in the pews on the weekends, and our offertory envelope.

      I pray for all concerned daily, and have forgiven them with all my heart, as has my husband. We love our parish, our pastor, and everyone else in spite of everything. We will not leave for another parish because our parish has been home for decades (all my life for me), and because God wants us there. And He outranks all of us.

      I wish you peace. You have my sympathy.

    3. smk629, I would not say that I’ve been “hurt”. I just wanted to call out the author for writing an article that is full of half-truths and outright un-truths. And for what purpose? So his friends such as Mr. White can sing his praises?

      I wish I knew why parish life has essentially “died”. It played an important role in training young people to be responsible adults. And when they became adults and perhaps found themselves doubting their faith for the first time, the social aspect of Church life kept them around. But now, they leave, they don’t return, and no one cares because nobody ever knew they were there. The drop-off in new Catholic marriages to almost zero is, I believe, a sad consequence.

      As I said, I will not tolerate people like Matthew Kelly and Mr. Cingoranelli making up a set of false premises about how “only 7% of parishioners are truly active” and the rest of us ought to be ashamed. As you note, it’s just an incredibly transparent attempt at a money grab.

    4. I think I know why parish life has essentially died, as you put it. Only a very few are made to feel we are needed and wanted. Many parishes seem to only run on a 9-to-5 basis, and if you have to work, have children to care for, or are otherwise committed, it is impossible to participate. As you point out, throwing money to consultants who want to run parishes on a business plan is wasted for the most part.
      It is no mystery to me why teenagers, young married couples, and others leave us. When they are not approached to help, and are made to feel they are not needed or missed by their pastors and fellow parishioners, it is very easy to become discouraged and to dread going to Mass at a parish.
      I know very well we are not there to socialize or to feel good for ourselves, but to worship, when we go to Mass. But it certainly makes a big difference to know we are needed to serve Mass, or to sing in the choir, or to assist in other parish programs or ministries. As you have said, it also gives us a chance to know and learn to love our fellow parishioners. We are not just nameless faces at Mass once per week. And to me, this is what makes a vibrant parish, as the consultants would put it.
      When I first started volunteering at my parish 20 years back, no one was ever turned away unless they were incompetent or dishonest, and even then, they were turned away gently. The parish did not shut down at 4 PM. There were ample opportunities to be of service.
      Sorry to vent, Larry, Dom, and others, but this article cuts close to home for me. You must know assume that Catholics do not volunteer out of laziness. Pastors and parishes must be a little more accommodating and welcoming.
      Peace and all good.

    5. What I genuinely do not understand, is that the social events and other tasks which I’ve been speaking of, took place entirely in the evenings and on the weekends. That’s where all the working folks made their volunteer contribution to the parish. It didn’t matter that the office staff went home at 4 PM.

      Perhaps my childhood parish still exists (last I heard, it had been merged with several others) and perhaps it still has these kinds of events. But in my current diocese of over thirty years now (Phoenix, Ariz.), in perhaps a dozen nearby parishes, there’s just nothing for an ordinary Catholic to do. And yes, I prefer to stay “ordinary”, a state of involvement which served my ancestors just fine. I have no interest in becoming “dynamic” and looking down my nose at others.

    6. Well since comments are about to be closed on this article, I will again express my disappointment that the author chose to respond only to the comments that he apparently agreed with. It makes me wonder about his actual intent in writing the article.

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