When the financial recession began, I had been working as the Chicago/Milwaukee City Coordinator for the Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC) for almost two years. My colleagues and I didn’t know what to expect for the upcoming years. Would we have to downsize? Would our partner nonprofits and social ministries be able to afford LVC volunteers? Would potential volunteers be more concerned with finding a job and not volunteering? With more people out of work, would LVC be a viable option to employment? Would people be more attracted to getting a foot in the door of a nonprofit rather than believe in the core practices of LVC: intentional community, social justice, and living simply and sustainably? We had so many questions.
For those of you who have not heard of LVC (or just need a reminder), Lutheran Volunteer Corps is a year-long domestic volunteer program. Our LVC volunteers live in communities of three to seven people; these communities are in sixteen different cities. LVC started in Washington, DC, in 1979 and came to Chicago in 1985. Although LVC has been in Chicago for over 25 years, when the recession started, there was real concern that LVC would not be able to recruit enough nonprofit organizations for our volunteers to be placed.
Our nonprofit and social ministry partners, called placement organizations or placements, can be lovingly described as Jesus described the widow giving in the temple from Mark 12:41-44. Our placements tend to give everything they have for the communities they serve. There is usually no surplus, and if they are financially blessed in one quarter, that money only pays for more programming and reaching more people.
During this same time, then-Senator Barack Obama tapped into “the youth vote” by utilizing 18-30 year olds as volunteers, empowering them to organize through neighborhood relationships and social media. Between then and when President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, some research shows that 61% of 13-25 year olds indicated that “they feel personally responsible for making a difference in the world.”1 In LVC, we felt the spirit of enthusiasm and idealism through a steady increase in volunteer applications, and in 2010, LVC opened three more cities to LVC volunteers — Atlanta, Georgia; Detroit, Michigan; and Port Huron, Michigan.
Over the past year and a half, the inevitable has occurred. Our placements who relied on state funding are no longer able to afford LVC volunteers. In cities like Chicago that have many volunteer programs, there have been fewer placement options. It’s become increasingly important to develop long-term relationships with placements. Also placement organizations that share LVC’s commitment to teaching our volunteers to have our Reconciling in Christ (RIC) beliefs and to do anti-racism work tend to be the more popular placements among volunteers.
If LVC staff are building stronger relationships with our partners, it would seem that the recession could pass by without much stress; however, with RIC and anti-racism work becoming more and more a larger part of programming and institutional structure at LVC, the staff, Board of Directors, and local community leaders have had to take a hard look at our mission statement: a community of faith uniting people to work for peace with justice. Is LVC fulfilling our mission statement? This is where LVC is today.
Isn’t that just like God to work that way? The challenge for ministries today is not the budget or filling the roster (or the pews): it’s our mission. What are we called by God to do, and how do we do that? If we lose sight of our mission, we risk losing sight of Christ.
For the past two years, many of us at LVC were concerned about issues which were difficult, but the major struggle was what we were not expecting. Most of our volunteers and placements are definitely doing the work for peace with justice. But is LVC? Is LVC agile and flexible enough to restructure and be on the same level of justice work as our nimble nonprofit and social ministry partners? As with churches, LVC is trying to figure out how to strive for a vision of God’s Kingdom of peace with justice while some are not yet on board. While LVC doesn’t have answers yet, we’ve at least identified the problem.
Throughout this whole journey during a recession, I have been challenged but also remain hopeful. I know that LVC is not the only ministry wrestling with its mission. My prayers go out to all ministries who are working to bring God’s Kingdom on earth.
usatoday.com – Nation needs youthful idealism more than ever, 4/13/2009.