What should you do with the days and hours God has given you? For a growing number of people in the Christian Reformed Church, the answer is to spend some time as a volunteer.
“During our marriage, we often mentioned that if we could retire early and were blessed with good health, we would like to volunteer and serve those less fortunate,” said Fred and Mary Visser of Byron Center, Mich.
In the spring of 1988, they read an article in InterMission magazine called “Retirees and the Call to Missions” written by Dr. Roger Greenway, who at the time was executive director of Christian Reformed World Ministries.
Greenway encouraged people to forgo a life of leisure in their retirement years and instead be useful and productive servants of God for all the days God gave them health and strength.
“That article inspired us for a life of service,” said Fred. In 1997 they retired from their jobs and signed up as volunteers with World Renew’s Disaster Response Services—a ministry made up of volunteers who give their time and talents to help clear debris, assess needs, and rebuild homes after disasters strike in North America.
The Vissers’ first assignment was to spend two weeks in Modesto, Calif., doing repairs and reconstruction on homes that were damaged by severe flooding. Fred painted and helped carpenters while Mary learned to mud and finish drywall.
“We were hooked,” they recalled about the impact of that first trip. “The camaraderie with the other volunteers as well as helping rebuild homes and lives was a wonderful blessing.”
Over the next 16 years, the Vissers served at disaster sites across the United States as well as in Canada and Puerto Rico. Sometimes, such as on that first trip, they did general construction, framing, and painting. Other times they went door-to-door in disaster-affected communities to talk to survivors and assess unmet needs. They have also served in volunteer leadership roles as on-site managers at construction sites, project managers in New York and Northern New Jersey following the 9/11 attack, and, most recently, as regional managers overseeing disaster response activities in six southeastern states.
“There have been many highlights along the way,” said Mary. “The hugs from survivors after their home has been restored; praying at a kitchen table with a survivor who has just been to visit her husband who was suffering with cancer; visiting a mother with a little girl who received a trailer that World Renew DRS no longer needed and seeing their joy at having a place to live.”
There have also been challenges.
“One of the hardest times for us was following Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast,” said Fred. “The devastation and loss of life was overwhelming.”
But overall, the experience has been overwhelmingly positive.
“God has blessed us so abundantly that we want to pass that blessing on to those who were affected by a tragedy through no fault of their own. It is our prayer that in some small way we did that through our involvement with World Renew.”
They are not alone. Volunteers play a huge role within the Christian Reformed denomination—both at the denominational level and within local churches.
“Volunteers are what make a church function—no program would exist or ministry happen if it were not for people willing to commit to serving in some capacity or another,” said Carol Sybenga, program manager for ServiceLink, the volunteer services program of the CRCNA.
“There would not be a governing church council or youth programs or nursery attendants to look after young children or people to welcome newcomers, etc. etc.,” Sybenga added.
“Additionally, any community outreach would not take place without the dedication of people passionate to meet the needs within their communities.”
The same holds true at the denominational level. CRC agencies are supported by many volunteers who love the church and desire to give back because of what Christ has done for them. Volunteers serve on agency boards, help stuff mailings, manage disaster response activities, teach English, and a great deal more. But volunteering is more than just providing free labor to complete tasks.
“Volunteering is a mindset within our church,” said Sybenga. “It’s about serving, about discipleship, about faith development, about leadership development, about being part of the body of Christ.”
A story from Bracebridge, Ontario, provides an example. In the summer of 2013, severe flooding in northern Ontario caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage and left some people, including Woody and Theresa Bowers, without a home.
Tony and Jennie DeWeerd are retirees from Caledonia, Ontario, who have served with World Renew DRS two or three times a year since the 1990s. Currently they serve as regional managers for World Renew DRS in Ontario and were responsible for tracking the storm and flooding last summer.
“Through our discussions with people in the affected area, we got involved with the Bowers family and were asked to help them rebuild their home,” said Tony. “Two of our sons are framers by profession and have their own crews. Our other son, Kevin, also has framing experience. It was a natural fit for our carpentry family to build a house for that couple.”
And that’s just what they did. Tony and Jennie, along with their sons Ken, Kevin, and Colin DeWeerd and their grandsons Chris and Bryan all took two days off work and built a two-bedroom bungalow for the Bowers family.
“Our children know that we always go and volunteer. They appreciate what we do, and this was their chance to serve as well,” Jennie said.
Other volunteers from local churches and communities as far away as Barrie, Ontario, came to give a day or two of their time to build decks, attach siding, and shingle the roof. By Thanksgiving, thanks to the time and talents of all of these community members, the Bowers family had the keys to their new home.
“Unless you’ve actually done it and seen the thankfulness in someone’s eyes and heart after you’ve helped them, you can’t understand the reward you get from volunteering,” said Tony. “You’ll get so much satisfaction out of being a blessing to other people. Once you start volunteering, you’ll want to do it more.”
Are You Being Called to Serve?
We asked CRC agencies how many volunteers they had in the 2012-2013 ministry year. For more information, visit their websites.
- Back to God Ministries International: 1,655 volunteers.
- Calvin Theological Seminary: two volunteers, plus people who donate to the food pantry and clothing ministry for students, and those who support international students.
- Chaplaincy and Care Ministry: nine volunteer Advisory Committee members.
- Christian Reformed Home Missions: one home office volunteer and hundreds who serve at the local level on regional teams or at church plants, campus ministries, and local small groups.
- Christian Reformed World Missions: 433 volunteers.
- Disability Concerns: 510 volunteers.
- Safe Church Ministries: 300 volunteers.
- ServiceLink: 90 volunteers.
- World Renew: 3,429 volunteers including 3,151 Disaster Response Services volunteers.
Please pray for
- the thousands of volunteers who make ministry possible within local CRC churches and at the denominational level.
- wisdom, strength, and grace for volunteers serving in difficult or delicate situations (such as Safe Church team members).
- agencies as they recruit new volunteers so that matches can be made between those willing to serve and the needs expressed by the ministries.
- the health and safety of volunteers serving at disaster sites or internationally.
- the graduates of BTGMI Bible study courses and participants in World Renew community programs around the world who now are equipped to be volunteers in their own communities.
CRCNA and RCA Create Volunteer ‘Think Tank’
Do short-term volunteers truly benefit the communities in which they serve?
Could the money spent on sending volunteers be better spent if it went directly to those in need?
These and other tough questions often face potential volunteers and the people who support their efforts.
All too often, short-term volunteers are ill-prepared for their experience; they may give offense because of a lack of knowledge about the context in which they volunteer. They may even jeopardize ministries that missionaries have been working on for years.
Others who serve with a pure heart can create long-term dependency by providing Band-Aid solutions instead of working for lasting change.
Despite these downsides to short-term missions, God regularly calls people to serve. Throughout the Bible there are many examples of God asking people to physically “go.” He did not suggest that they simply send money or respond from a distance. How then can Christians respond to those who feel called to a short-term volunteer experience?
These are the types of questions that a newly-formed “Justice and Excellence in Short-Term Missions Think Tank” was designed to address. The think tank is made up of short-term missions staff from the Christian Reformed (CRC) and Reformed (RCA) denominations, who have more than 100 years of combined experience.
“We are a group of people within two denominations who have a passion for engaging volunteers in ministry,” said Carol Sybenga, program manager for ServiceLink, one of the participating agencies.
She added that volunteering is not just about serving the target community. It also impacts the volunteer and the sending church as well as the sending ministry organization.
“Additionally we strive to collaborate with host communities so the focus of ministry always aligns with their long-term strategies and with an eye on justice,” she said.
To help achieve these goals, the various agencies represented in the think tank have signed on to the Standards of Excellence in Short-Term Missions and agreed to format their volunteer opportunities with these standards in mind. The standards include such things as God-centeredness, empowering partnerships, mutual design, and appropriate training.
The hope is that as agencies design their volunteer experiences in accordance with these standards, they will be able to respond to people’s God-given call to serve and pair it with meaningful volunteer experiences that benefit everyone.