Volunteer Coordinators Assume
Hospitality Role, Among Others
by Donald E. Skinner
Rosie Hamilton is a committee chairperson's dream come true. She's a "volunteer coordinator" in her West Hills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Portland, Oregon.
When a committee needs more members Rosie is right there with her database of skills and interests, ready to plug someone in. When a committee chair is ready to move on to other responsibilities, Rosie's the one who has a pretty good idea who might be ready to assume that position. When there's an opening on the board of trustees it's Rosie who, more often than not, knows the perfect candidate.
For many of us, recruiting members for our committees or other leadership positions in our congregations is not our favorite thing to do. We're deathly afraid of rejection, we don't know who to call, or we just hate to bother people.
But Rosie doesn't see it that way. "I love doing this," she says. "It doesn't feel like work. I get lots of thank yous. People seem to really appreciate what I do. And I like the challenge of finding just the right person."
Volunteer coordinators are relatively rare in our congregations. There are only a handful, but they're beginning to increase as congregations realize the value of someone like Hamilton.
She adds so much, says Doug Stewart, board president at West Hills: "We are truly blessed to have Rosie Hamilton. She has a rare combination of people skills, community-building skills, and organizational memory, and has become a hub of our community.
"She enjoys people, is supportive of new ideas, and can create imaginative ways to help get them done, all by relying on the contributions of a talented and generous congregation. If someone sees a need, wants to do something, or wonders who to go to, Rosie is the person to ask! She really does serve as our interconnected web."
No two volunteer coordinators do their jobs the same way. Even the titles are different. Michael Tino is "coordinator of shared ministry" at Eno River UU Fellowship, Durham, North Carolina. Janet Hayes is"membership coordinator" at First Parish, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Donna Gloff is "coordinator of member involvement" at Birmingham Unitarian Church, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
Some coordinators, like Hamilton, do help fill committees. Others focus more on starting new groups and getting members involved in those. They all share common traits: They're good at making newcomers feel welcome. They're the ones who know something about most of the people in the congregation. Before and after church and at social events they're the ones working the crowd in the social hall or the foyer, introducing themselves to those they don't know, and planting seeds of possibility with others about volunteer opportunities or small groups "they'd be perfect for."
Most volunteer coordinators are part of church staff. Rosie Hamilton works 15 hours a week, including some other administrative responsibilites. Michael Tino is full-time at Eno River. "I do love doing this," says Hamilton. "But I wouldn't do it if I weren't paid. The pay makes it serious. If you really want something you need to give it value by paying for it. I don't worry about how much I get paid, but the idea that this congregation values what I do means something."
Pat Emery works 12 hours a week for Jefferson Unitarian Church, Golden, Colorado, partly as new member coordinator and partly as volunteer coordinator. She tracks new members, making sure they're getting involved in ways they want to be.
New folks at Jefferson are exempt from committee work for a year. But she does ask them, and the rest of the congregation to participate in the "foundations of fellowship" program, which asks members to choose four tasks to do during the year from this list greeting, ushering, making coffee, assisting with religious education classes, attending work parties, or setting up or taking down for church events. "They get called once per quarter to do one of those things," says Emery.
This fall she plans to institute an "annual volunteer" program, asking everyone to choose one of the church's annual events such as the auction or rummage sale, and help with that. They won't get called for the other events, she says. Emery calls herself "a Unitarian nun." She says, "I'm totally dedicated to the long-term well-being of this community. I like making folks feel welcome."
Janet Hayes is membership coordinator at First Parish, Cambridge, Massachusetts, a position created a year ago. The congregation had set some goals for itself and many had to do with getting visitors to stay. It hired Hayes, a new member herself, to help.
She doesn't fill committees. "Most of what I do is get to know people and then try to plug them into programs or help them create new ones. Most people come because they want a community. I spend time getting them to imagine what they're hoping for from their community. I try to develop programs they can take a leadership role in so they become visible."
As an example, she organized a book swap and recruited two new members to be in charge. "They got a lot of thank yous from people who liked the event. I try to pick no-fail activities. Day trips are good. If you can get people to spend an hour in a car together they get connected." Beyond that she introduces people to each other during coffee hour. She works all day Sunday, one weekday and many evenings, attending church events.
"I don't spend much time recruiting people for committees but if someone asks me who might be good for a spot I'll tell them," she says. "I don't have a big database, it's mostly a matter of knowing people."
Since she works on Sunday morning, she worships at a midweek service at Harvard and by spending time in nature.
Donna Gloff has been coordinator of member involvement for about a year at Birmingham Unitarian Church, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. She's spent most of the past year not filling committees, but organizing covenant groups groups of five to eight people on the model proposed by the Rev. Glenn Turner and others throughout UU congregations. There are 120 people in such groups at Birmingham, a congregation of 630.
Gloff believes that the small groups will connect people to the church and "generate incredible energy. Then it's up to us what we do with it. If this plan is done right we will have infinite resources. If we give everyone a chance to grow the way they need to grow, then every job that needs to be done will be filled by eager people. And we'll have more energy than the church can use and some of that will spill out into the community." She acknowledges that many committees at Birmingham are still "going begging for members" this year, "but next year will be a lot easier."
She added, "I was hired to work from the needs of the members rather than the needs of the church. We try to feed people, to give them what they need and help them find it themselves."
To that end the congregation has renamed the Membership Commit-tee. It is now the Hospitality Committee. "The term 'membership' seemed to have a marketing focus," Gloff said. "We were looking for the spiritual root, what it is we're about. We shouldn't be out to sell the church. People who come to church are looking for something. We help them find it."
UU World XV:4 (September/October 2001): 52-53.