Reflection by Eileen O’Brien, Former Claretian Volunteer
I took unusual paths both into and out of my volunteer time, but I have flourished for over 30 years. It is not easy, but with the right motivation, clear vision, and support, it can be done. There is life after volunteering.
I first considered full-time, faith-based volunteering while I was an undergraduate, but I wanted to continue my education in graduate school. So I went to business school for my master’s degree in business administration. As my classmates were going off to careers in investment banking, management consulting, and accounting, I joined the Claretian Volunteers and moved to St. Louis, where I became a parish business manager for a cooperative of four inner-city parishes, living in community in a rectory with the parish priest and other Claretian volunteers. I was paid with room, board, health insurance, and $75 a month spending money. I would renew my one-year commitment twice, staying there for a total of three years.
During that time—coming into the volunteer corps at age 22 and leaving at 25—I learned a lot about what I like, how I respond to other people, and what I wanted for a career path. I found out I enjoyed administrative ministry, so after three years I came home to Los Angeles and have been working at the chancery office for 30 years now.
Lots of changes: moving across the country; going to graduate school; moving again; experiencing full-time, faith-based volunteering; moving back home; and pursuing my career in church administration.
I realize this is an unorthodox path, but it is mine, and it was the right one for me. That last phrase is important: “for me.” I learned enough in school to see that there are many ways to serve. Thank God for the gifts and talents God has given you. Using those talents—administration itself is lauded by the apostle Paul in I Corinthians 12—and developing them for service can happen in any venue, not just in the institutional church.
If you know someone who is considering full-time, faith-based volunteering, support, but do not push, her or him. I am so glad I chose volunteering. I did not want to be farther along in my life and say, “What would my life have been like if I had volunteered?” I did not want that regret.
You cannot go back and relive your life. So follow your passion. Be realistic about it—consider family obligations, student debt, physical limitations, and personality traits—but consider it. Dream your way into it, but dream with your eyes open. It is healthy to question and consider. Not easy, but healthy and fruitful.
Get good counsel. Some people will insist that you follow the traditional path: corporate job, marriage, family, happily ever after. That is a great path; it is just not my path. Realize that your path is just that—yours. Find people who know you, who love you, and who will (at least emotionally) support you.
When I looked at volunteering, I was fortunate to have enough stability to consider and pursue it.
Look at your gifts. When I entered the Claretian Volunteers, I had just earned my M.B.A. Another volunteer was a lawyer; one was a nurse. Find a program to use and develop your skills. God gave you skills for a reason, and we have a responsibility to develop them. I looked at four different volunteer corps and stressed that I wanted to use my degree. Do not put me in a day care center or a soup kitchen or in a youth group, I told the recruiters. I knew (at least some of) my strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, and I knew I could do ministry with them.
But also be ready to stretch. I moved into a different community in a different part of the country, with people who saw life, ministry, and God differently than I did. I am an introvert who lived with extroverts; a sensate person living with feeling-oriented people; a concrete thinker who lived and worked with intuitives (who kindly had to explain themselves to me); and a person who needs agendas and schedules working for a man who had never even seen a budget. It was a blast.
And as you see the end of your volunteering coming nearer, maybe try an informational interview. As I was starting my last year, I was able to go on informational interviews at various chancery offices. I wanted to know if my background—graduate degree and three years of parish experience—qualified me for chancery work. Yes, it did, and I am so glad I pursued that opportunity too.
So, lots of transitions. And I am sure there will be more in the future. So know yourself, follow your passion, get good counsel, and trust in God. Then move. It is not going to get any easier.
The Staying Connected newsletter is made possible through the partnership of Catholic Volunteer Network and Catholic Apostolate Center.
To find more Former Volunteer Resources, please click here.