Monday, December 3, 2018

"Interesting" Attitudes from Volunteer Coordinators...

     As I've done my usual volunteer activities at various places over the last month, I was struck with a weird sense that at several of these places, I was meeting the same person with different faces, and it was a person I thought very ill-fitted for the job of managing volunteers.  To be more specific, these are people who seem extremely controlling of the people they are in the position to oversee.  Keeping in mind that the people who are coming to work for them are volunteers donating their time for something they believe in, the managers overbearing, unkind, and extremely picky behavior could potentially chase off the people they need in order to provide the service.  So I've found myself thinking and reflecting a great deal this last month on what is really going on with these volunteer managers.
       To give specifics: I was helping prepare food at a place that serves the poorer community out here with daily meals (not going to name te place... not fair since they really do a wonderful service in the community).  One other woman and I were cutting vegetables for a salad, when the person who was in charge that day came over and was very, well, clear about the fact that she wanted the vegetables cut all uniform (whether they were carrots, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, radishes, bell peppers, onions, etc.) in these extremely precisely sized cubes.  Not only was this impossible for me, but I could not figure out why this was necessary.
         Finally, I just asked, "Why do all of these vegetables need to be exactly the same shape and size?"
        "Well, some of the guests don't have teeth."  I stared down at the vegetables.  That didn't actually answer the question for me.  There was no way that someone without teeth was going to be able to handle a carrot of any shape or size, and I thought that if all the vegetables were exactly this same cubed size and shape, it actually might be harder on the guest to pick the carrots out.  I did not voice this.  I was just baffled.  Well, I tried to do my best to produce the cuts she wanted, but again, I was just simply not gifted in this cubed cutting thing and eventually she came over and recut everything that both I and the other woman who was also trying her best but not meeting the manager's standards, had done.
         Okay.  That's fine.  Except I probably will not volunteer to cut vegetables again when she is in charge.  I don't need to waste my time if it's going to be redone anyway.  And I continue to think her extremism around this was actually not helping in the way she believed it would.
        Second scenario: also a place our church volunteers each month.  This time it was a ministry in which guests are offered multiple services.  They come to wash their clothes (which the serving churches pay for), they are served a hot meal, sometimes someone comes to offer hair cuts, and the guests can pick up all kinds of clothing and packaged foods to take home with them, whatever and wherever home may be.  My encounter here was with a different woman, but I've run into her each time we've gone to this location.  The first time I met her, we had a huge bin full of socks.  I know that socks are often one of the clothing items most needed by our homeless population, so I was happily putting the socks out on the table with the other clothing items for folk to pick up.  This woman came over to me, "Oh no!  We don't put the socks out.  We don't give them socks unless they ask for them.  And if they ask, give them only one pair each!"
         Again, ever inquisitive me, "Why?"
         "Well, because if we put out more, they would take them."
          Well, yes, isn't that the point?  I'm confused.  I thought we were trying to get rid of the donated items.  They aren't for us, we don't need them.  The point of this is to give away the things that are needed, isn't it?
          Then the last time I went, I was standing at the packaged foods table, putting out cans and pastas and other foods.  One man came over and asked if I had any Vienna Sausages.  As it turned out, there were a couple cans, so I found them and gave them to him.  At that point the same woman bustled over, "Don't give a person more than one can!"
          Undoubtedly, she has gotten used to my responses every time she gives me an order, but none the less, I persist, "Why?"
         "Well, it's greedy on their part!"  Again, I just found myself confused.  We hand out the food to folk over the course of a few hours.  But the number of people who approach the table asking for canned foods is not huge.  Probably one person every 5-10 minutes.  There were piles and piles of canned foods behind me waiting to be put out.  So why are we not willing to give a person two cans of something he specifically requested?  There obviously was more than enough, not a high demand.  And equally obviously, the food has been donated for the purpose of being given away.  I have no doubt the man who asked for the sausages will not waste them.  So why be stingy in this way?
           I know that I am part of the issue here.  First of all, I don't like being bossed around, micromanaged, snipped at, yelled at, when I am trying to do my best.  Secondly, I have my own opinions about how people should be served, and I believe we should work from a place of abundance rather than scarcity. That naturally will mean that I will lean towards giving more when others might be working from a more fearful, "we might not have enough" thinking.  Third, while hearing and acknowledging the woman at the second place, I also choose to ignore her mandates and continue to give from that place of abundance, so in this way, I cause her to "keep a wary eye on me."
          But I also see that this personality, the one who micromanages the volunteers, keeps showing up at so many of these places.  I've given you two examples.  But I have seen this same personality type at many of the places I've volunteered, often controlling, and even bullying, the volunteers. I've also heard my parishioners and friends talking about this personality at other volunteer places they have served, not just here but in every state where I've lived. So it also causes me to think.  Why does this personality keep showing up in these volunteer locations?  Why does the volunteer manager behave in this controlling, stingy, rigid, legalistic and overbearing way with consistency?  Why does she insist on asserting her authority in this bossy and unkind way?
          I think there are several things going on. One is a simple need for these people to claim power somewhere in their lives.  Perhaps these service locations are the only place where they have authority and so they take it, assert it, insist on making it known.  Maybe they are worried they will lose their position of power and authority if they don't assert it in an aggressive way.  Perhaps they went into the position for the very reason that they needed a place where they had some power or control.  Perhaps they are used to being shut down in other places and they are simply reflecting how other people have managed them in other situations.  
         Second, I think many people do work from a more legalistic and structured world view than I am used to, and they need those rules and that structure to be in place where they lead. There may not even be real reasons anymore for the rules that are in place, but maybe at one time there were.  And those rules have remained even when the reasons behind them no longer exist.  They give the person a sense of comfort, knowing the structure, knowing the boundaries.  This may especially be important when there are people who are not always behaving in socially acceptable ways.  Sometimes those we serve act unpredictably and so having rules may offer order in the midst of a bit of chaos.
        I'm sure there are other reasons as well.  
        I am grateful to the many people who continue to serve even when pushed around, because they believe deeply in the work they are doing.  I know my own parishioners, while they find the behavior of these managers irritating and occasionally annoying, will not be put off by it.  They believe in what they are doing, they have a strong sense of their own self-worth and will treat any belittling or controlling behavior as an issue of the person acting this way, rather than a slight to them.  I am grateful for that response.  I wish everyone had it.  
          I continue to worry that this managerial stance will turn some folk away from service who would otherwise have an opportunity to learn, to grow, to serve, and to be part of something bigger than themselves.  But I realize I don't have control over that.  So I will do my part to challenge rules that I feel are unjust, to offer a different perspective when I think the rule being enforced is failing to take into account the real situation.  I will also try to support those I see being bullied.  But mostly, I am using the experiences I've had volunteering to look at my own behavior when I am leading volunteers, and to strive to offer a different model for how to lead: not one of micromanaging and mistrusting my volunteers, but one of trust, openness, flexibility and giving a lot of latitude.  I believe in the gifts of my folk, their discernment and their ability to see and do ministry with grace and love.  I believe the Holy Spirit works through them, their vision, and their efforts even when they have a different world view and different way of doing things than my own.  Being the volunteer (rather than the manger) is a good reminder to me of what I choose not to present, not to model, not to be in my leadership positions. And for that I am deeply grateful.