A Different Route to and through Service: Head as Well as Heart

 By: Eileen E. O’Brien, former Claretian Volunteer

I arrived at full-time, faith-based service along a route different from most of my colleagues.  Most of my fellow volunteers were right out of  college, where they had earned undergraduate degrees in the liberal arts. I, however, came out of graduate school having earned my Master’s degree in business administration. With such a background, I faced quizzical responses from family, classmates, community members, even people in casual conversation when I mentioned interest in faith-based service. 

Given my Catholic background—in upbringing and education—I wanted it to be a Catholic program.  Fortunately, I found the Claretian Volunteers, which worked to find a position to match each volunteer’s talents with its service communities’ needs.  I told the director that I wanted to work in administration.  He found a cooperative of parishes in north St. Louis that welcomed my ministry and our community. I was privileged to serve in the Claretian Volunteers program from August 1985 to August 1988, working as a parish business manager for a cooperative of four inner-city parishes in St. Louis, Missouri. 
People thought this career path was strange. My family, while loving and accepting, commented on how this career path differed so markedly from my older siblings’.  “You’re taking all of this good Catholic education to go off, live in the inner city, and earn $75 a month (along with room and board)?”  Yup, they taught me well, didn’t they?  I was placing my talents—along with my time and life—at the service of God and God’s people.  A strong and recurring impetus in my discernment process about volunteer service has been:  I do not want regrets.  I did not want to look back 50 years from now and ask, “What would my life have been like if….?”  I did not want to regret not serving in that way.
My classmates were supportive, but also bewildered.  We joked that I would bring down the statistics for the average starting salary for graduates.  Given the widely-perceived view that business students cared only about money, and how to earn more of it, my stated ambition of joining a volunteer corps caused others to shake their heads in disbelief, but also in admiration.
Do what you love.  Do not do it just for the money.  Within the first two months of my volunteer time, I was offered a job at the local chancery office—a real job, a paying job.  That would have meant leaving the community, reneging on my commitment of a year of service.  But it was a job!  What was I going to do?  I felt both happy and anxious.  After talking to community members, trying to get some perspective, I realized that I was more enamored of the job offer than I was of the job itself.  This was my first real job offer.  Wow:  someone was willing to pay me money.  My work was valuable.  Once I saw that, I was able to express my gratitude to the chancery office, but decline their offer.  I would be true to my commitment, and to my desires.  Even with a newly-minted M.B.A., it was not all about the money.
As I also learned later, during further graduate work in religious studies, “administration” and “ministry” come from the same root word, ministrare, meaning “to serve.”  My administrative work in the parish office—budgets, databases, facilities maintenance—was not just supportive of their ministries; it was in and of itself a ministry.  Administrative ministry (I Cor. 12) serves the church, just as educational ministry, pastoral ministry, and liturgical ministry do too.  
Incorporating my practical nature into my ministry was also important. God gave us a mind to use in service of God’s people, as much as God gave us a heart.  I could introduce pastors to budgets, which were foreign documents to them.  I could remind them that while they might desire to engage in every wonderful social service project they formulated, our parishes had limited financial resources.  As I frequently said, “We are a not-for-profit organization, but that also means we are not-for-loss.”

In addition to our ministry, we in the Claretian Volunteers also live in community, and that was an important element in volunteer life.  I lived in community for three years.  Others came and went, so there were multiple formations of community:  female and male, older and younger, single and divorced, each with unique life experiences.  Somehow we had to form community, not just people who lived together as roommates.  We were not just people who happened to check into the “hotel” (in our case, a parish rectory) at the same time.

One key was communication; another was the assumption of goodness and good will.  When the door slams, do not assume it was because someone was mad.  Maybe the wind blew it closed.  If someone does not speak in the morning, it could be because she or he is not a morning person.  Talk about it, but always work from a foundation of love and care, from an assumption of the other’s good will.  Community members should be able to assume of the others:  Remember that the person who is telling you this loves you very much.
Community members also need to remember appropriate relationships.  There is a difference between family members, community members, friends, and roommates.  Each has a particular claim on a member’s time.  That commitment differs with respect to length, depth, and intensity.  These people are your community members.  They may or may not be or become your friends.  I have been fortunate enough to see one of my community members many times, even though we left the Claretian Volunteers almost 25 years ago.  I have hosted her in my home many times, and we enjoy a deepening and blessed friendship.  Fortunately, our professional paths continue to cross too, so we have frequent opportunities to see each other, even though we live two time zones apart.  With other community members, though, you may never see them again once your volunteer service ends.
Looking back over 25 years, I see how some of my reactions were not as developed or mature as I would have hoped them to be.  That is all part of the growing process, I hope.  Volunteer life gave me the opportunity to see a new city, new culture, and new living arrangement, all while meeting some people who are still my dear friends, and developing my professional skills.  It also gave me the opportunity to realize that I enjoy administrative ministry—working on the business side of church—a calling I am still fortunate enough to pursue.
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