Should I Volunteer? 4 Questions to Help You Serve in Your Sweet Spot
Okay friends, I’m diving right in today: I want to think about Christian discernment. Or as my brain thinks of it: There’s a thousand important volunteer causes out there: How in the world do I decide which ones to pursue?!
Because I just can’t say yes to them all. Well, not if I want to stay sane.
I know. I know. I’m kinda raining on the sunny summer bliss here. We’re supposed to be sipping lemonade and munching our s’mores.
But we all know what’s coming in just a few short weeks: New requests for our help. From teachers, community, church, etc. And I don’t know about you, but I’d like to serve in ways that “fit” instead of doing work that twists me into a hundred tangled threads.
I’ve been reading some books to encourage my thinking in this direction. And several of them pointed to St. Ignatius for wisdom in discerning God’s will. I love this quote from his Spiritual Exercises: “In every good choice, in so far as it depends upon us, the direction of our intention must be simple. I must look only to the end for which I am created.”
The tricky part, of course, is figuring out “the end for which I am created”!
With so many demands for our time, it’s easy to lose sight of who we are and what God created us to do. We end up giving ourselves away to every “urgent” need that arises—regardless of whether we are actually well-suited to fill that particular need.
It’s so easy to let external influences choose our direction instead of taking time for reflection. But something beautiful happens when we let go of outside expectations and look within, where God has been waiting to connect with us in our own heart.
Here are a few of the questions I’ll be praying over in the coming weeks, to prepare my heart for the barrage of requests that’s likely to surface in the fall. I hope you’ll join me! Grab a journal to jot down some thoughts. Talk to a trusted friend or spouse. And then hold them up to God with open hands.
You might just be surprised what He whispers to your heart.
1. The Question of Time: How did you feel about your life balance over the past year?
Some of us have a problem saying no. We get in over our heads for a variety of different reasons—all stemming from the same tendency to forget about checking in with God first. The result? Feeling overwhelmed, unable to be fully present to our family/friends, and growing resentful about our volunteer commitments.
On the flip side, I was chatting with a friend recently who said, “You know, Amy, my problem is that I can be pretty content not to get involved.” She shared her tendencies to let hobbies and little time wasters distract her from opportunities to serve.
Somewhere between us, I think there’s a happy medium—where we hold our time up to God and honestly ask Him how he’d have us spend it. Of course, He wants us to use our gifts to invest in others: But dear friend, you are only one person, and you are in just one season of life. You don’t have to do it all, and you don’t have to do it all right now!
As you look toward next year, consider what kind of life balance you experienced in the past season. If you feel like it was a healthy year, great! (Proceed to the next question, you lucky woman.) But maybe you need to go into the fall with the goal of cutting back? Or maybe you need to give yourself a little push to do more?
How much time did you spend in various church/school/community work this past year? (It might be helpful to actually make a list of your activities. Include the “one-time” things like chaperoning a field trip or volunteering for a local fundraiser.) Take note of which roles felt like a reasonable usage of time—and which ones always seemed to ask a “a little more” than you expected.
2. The Question of Passion: What Has God Been Putting on Your Heart?
Life gets busy in a hurry—and all the activity can pull us away from our true priorities. Take some time to go back to your “first things”: Who are the people you feel called to love and care for right now? Did your ministry experiences over the past year help you engage with them more fully—or did they constantly pull you away?
What issues do you feel passionate about these days? (Hint: It’s the issues that make you angry… or the news stories you can’t stop thinking about. The situation/ministry that pops into mind, even when you’re dong something else.) Maybe it’s connected with your past experiences, and the life lessons you feel strongly about sharing with others.
God built unique passions and interests into each of us. And we serve most effectively when we connect to causes that “fit” those passions. So spend some time examining your passions: Have you been engaged with causes you care deeply about—or distracted by things that kept you busy, but not really engaged?
Look back—even to childhood and adolescence—and consider what people/causes/issues have captured your heart. (Many of our deepest passions have been woven into our hearts from our youngest days.) What hurts have you experienced—and how might those experiences have shaped you uniquely to serve other people?
3. The Question of Experience: Did You Feel Authentic?
Sometimes, we find ourselves feeling disjointed. We’re juggling many “good things” and our days are full, but all the experiences still leave us feeling empty somehow. Does this sound like your past year? Many of us end up in these empty places for one simple reason: We’re trying to do things that God didn’t really create us to do.
We do things because we see other people doing them, or because we don’t want to let someone down, or because we feel like we should be doing them. And even though we do more and more, it leaves us feeling like less.
When we’re serving in healthy ways, we should feel like more of our true self, not less.
God tells us, “You are a masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus, to do the good works which I have prepared in advance for you to do.” (Eph. 2:10, emphasis mine.) Friends, we weren’t created to do every good work—You just need to find the good works God prepared for you.
Now please hear this: I’m not saying our service always has to feel good or make us happy. Sometimes God calls us to serve in uncomfortable places because he’s stretching us, helping us grow into our true selves. Sometimes our work becomes tiring, or boring, or incredibly difficult–but we press on out of authentic love for the people we feel called to serve.
The important question is: Did you feel an underlying purpose, peace, and joy about how God was using you? If not, that might be a sign you were serving with unhealthy motives, or in a way that doesn’t fit your unique purpose.
What were your motivations for choosing the service/volunteer positions you did this past year? Did you feel an internal sense of purpose from God—or an external pull from other people and/or guilt? Did you feel like you as you served? (Did you even think about that?!)
If you were starting from a completely blank slate—no pre-existing obligations to consider —what service opportunity would hold the most appeal to you right now?
4. The Questions of Effectiveness: Are You Good At It? What was the Benefit?
Once we accept the reality that we don’t have to do it all, we can get practical and start asking: Where can I be most effective?
One easy benchmark for considering your abilities is to look at feedback from others: What do you tend to get thanked for the most? In what volunteer spaces do you receive genuine positive affirmation for your work? If you’ve never done so before, it might be helpful to go through a spiritual gifts inventory to discover your unique, God-given abilities.
Family feedback can be extremely helpful as well. Effective ministry shouldn’t cause us to be ineffective at home. And if we’re not really serving in our “sweet spot,” our families will generally be the first to notice.
Also, consider the benefits of your volunteering: Have you seen God producing “fruit” from your work? Do you personally value the benefits of the cause/program—or could you live without them? Let’s just be honest: Some of the activities we feel so pressured to help out with provide more busyness than benefit: It’s okay to just let them go.
There’s no shame in giving up a volunteer role you don’t feel well-equipped to handle. Or in saying no to a request for an activity/cause you don’t highly value. There are so many different causes and organizations looking for help: Ask God to lead you toward the ones where your gifts can be used most effectively.
What do you feel genuinely good at doing? (Write down anything you can think of, whether it’s baking goodies or making people laugh or studying issues or leading committee meetings.) Which of those things do you enjoy the most? What kind of roles make you feel out of your element?
Where do you see fruit from the ways you’ve served in the past? What kind of positive impact would you like to make in the lives of others?
I hope these questions will dance around in your heart this summer and lend some insight into how you spend your time. But mostly, I pray they’ll help you connect with the One who’s dancing with you. He knows your heart and your purpose even better than you know it yourself. So don’t be afraid to let go and let Him to take the lead.