by Clinton Rabb
From the time Jesus said to Simon and Andrew, "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Mark 1:17 [NIV]), people have been called from the activities of their daily lives to serve Christ.
The ministry of the laity has always been at the core of the Wesleyan movement. From its beginnings in the late 18th century, as today, the laity of the predecessors of The United Methodist Church (UMC) have been active in ministries with the poor, higher education, church planting, health care, advocating for the rights of women and children, organizing against slavery, advocating for those in prison, and seeking justice. Laypeople have taken the lead in building hospitals, institutions of higher learning, and community centers.
United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) emerged out of a tradition of lay ministry epitomized by campground meetings, church raisings, youth caravans, work camps, and lay-witness missions. UMVIM is a grassroots movement that officially organized in 1976 through collaboration between leaders of the Southeastern Jurisdiction of The UMC and the General Board of Global Ministries. Each jurisdiction of The UMC now has a Volunteers-in-Mission office. The Mission Volunteer office of the General Board of Global Ministries networks with jurisdiction volunteer offices, which in turn coordinate with annual conference UMVIM offices. The challenge for the UMVIM network is to remain a grassroots movement while, at the same time, offering guidance and training for more than 125,000 volunteers serving the poor, building churches, and assisting in disaster response, community health, and leadership training each year.
The number of people participating in UMVIM has increased from just under 20,000 in 1992 to more than 124,000 in 2007. As the numbers have grown, the need to understand the movement has grown. Research on short-term missions was the topic of a special section of the October 2006 edition of Missiology-An International Review. Edited by Robert J. Priest, a supporter of and participant in the short-term mission movement and professor of Mission and Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Seminary, it presented some of the first available academic research on the short-term mission movement. While generally supportive of short-term mission, the research suggests the need for growth in a number of areas.
Greater Cultural Understanding
Some of the research suggests that short-term mission trips can contribute to the strengthening of cultural stereotypes rather than the hoped-for softening of stereotypes. If the mission is too short, there is not enough time to get past the "They’re just like us!" phase to the "They are nothing like us!" phase and on to the place where we can say, "I can see how we can work together!"
Partnerships and Collaborative Enterprises
For short-term missions to bear fruit, there must be true partnership. This requires allocating the time and effort needed to achieve deep conversations across language and cultural barriers. It requires a large investment in community building and consultation. So often, the efforts of a UMVIM team are so focused on its work project that there is little time and space for building relationships into partnerships that can bear fruit for years to come. The need for collaboration also calls for volunteer coordinators at mission sites to go beyond the traditional role of work project management-coordinating food, housing, and transportation. It is important for local volunteer coordinators to be adept at orienting UMVIM teams, leading discussions on mission development, and laying the framework for the development of partnerships that become ongoing.
Strategic Use of Mission Volunteers
Short-term mission can be powerful when volunteer teams are engaged in critical areas of God’s mission. While at the same time offering a wide array of mission opportunities for UMVIM teams and individual volunteers, the church is calling all of us to be more strategic in the mission work that we do. As we go forward over the coming quadrennium, it will be important to focus on strategic areas of ministry that are at the heart of The UMC.
Four Focus Areas of Ministry
The Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table, and the General Conference have done a service to The UMC and the UMVIM movement by offering the Four Focus Areas of Ministry. The General Board of Global Ministries has adopted these areas of focus for the new quadrennium, 2009 to 2012. The role of Mission Volunteers in the new quadrennium will be to engage and deploy United Methodist volunteers in the mission of The UMC as outlined in the four focus areas of ministry.
Mission Volunteers can assist in leadership development by increasing mission-service opportunities and placing and training young people in mission-volunteer settings. Volunteer service provides leadership training for individuals of all ages in central conference settings to enable them to provide support for the coordination of mission volunteer programs.
Mission Volunteers can enhance the support and development of new churches and faith communities in the United States and around the world by sending individual volunteers as preachers, teachers, and administrators; developing strategic church building projects; creating opportunities for teaching teams; and establishing church partnership teams.
The network of mission agencies, institutions, and conferences of The UMC can address the conditions of poverty, while volunteers can supplement the capacity of local churches to address its causes. Volunteers can participate in building a global community that makes a place for all, especially those who most often find themselves on the fringes. They can also engage in ministries for justice and mercy. Volunteers can help to develop relationships between community groups and organizations that work with "the least of these" through UMVIM. The Mission Volunteers office can support opportunities for persons to serve as volunteers with local community organizations that engage in advocacy and organizing for systematic change.
Mission volunteers can enhance and strengthen existing ministries that address the prevention and treatment of the killer diseases of poverty. A network of medical mission volunteers can be used to supplement the capacity of hospitals and clinics to address medical needs. Disaster hurts the poor disproportionately harder than anyone else. The poor do not have the capital reserves to regain their footing. After natural disasters, UMVIM teams collaborate with annual conference disasterresponse leaders, volunteer coordinators, and UMCOR staff to get the right kind of help to places where it is most needed.
UMVIM teams are collaborating in Colombia with UMCOR staff, Global Ministries health-care missionaries, the leaders of the Colombia Methodist Church, and the leaders of the Sincelejo village to serve the needs of a small village named Brisas del Mar. The poor people of this small village were brutalized by a Colombian paramilitary group that was encamped a kilometer away. With the contributions of UMVIM teams, clean water has been supplied to the village from a new well, a village leadership team has been trained and equipped to oversee the well, a community health-care plan has been established, and a clinic is under construction.
In Mission Together church partnerships exist to support and sustain emerging churches in Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central America. UMVIM has played an important part in such partnerships by sending teams to renovate church buildings, establish Vacation Bible Schools, develop church camps, and teach church administration.
Global Ministries Health and Welfare office and UMVIM are working closely to develop new volunteer mission opportunities related to the United Methodist hospitals in Africa as they focus on the killer diseases of poverty: HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis. A new resource for health-care volunteers can be found online at:
Volunteer Opportunities for Young Adults
Young adults can develop their leadership skills, explore the meaning of mission, and build relationships with other communities through the Global Justice Volunteers program. Mission Volunteers also offers young adults individual volunteer opportunities. Volunteers have been placed in an amazing array of assignments in a variety of places. These include developing microcredit business opportunities for women living with HIV & AIDS at the West Africa Aids Foundation in Accra, Ghana; assisting migrant workers at Bethune House in Hong Kong with court proceedings; and providing support for people still struggling to recover from Katrina. These cross-cultural experiences are grounded in biblical principles of service, justice, and advocacy. They provide the framework for developing new leaders with a life-long commitment to God’s mission.
In the mainstream media there is talk of "compassion fatigue," as disasters, war, and poverty dominate the news but donations to these causes seems to be decreasing. Media pundits suggest that people are tired of giving. Yet compassion fatigue is a secular term, suggesting that people have given too much and cannot give any more. Christians are called to give of their time and money as they are able out of gifts that God has bestowed-nothing more and nothing less.
When we serve from a place of our own will or emotion, we may eventually burn out and suffer compassion fatigue. Yet those who perform acts of service and justice in remembrance of Christ will be lifted up and energized. As Jesus served the poor, the broken, and the broken-hearted, United Methodist Volunteers in Mission serve to restore the broken Body of Christ. Similarly, Jesus anticipated the giving of his body on the cross at the Last Supper and symbolically offered his body and blood to the disciples. When he did this, he said, "Remember me."
The Rev. Clinton Rabb is an assistant general secretary and director of the Mission Volunteers Office of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Update (4/5/11): Since this article was published, the Rev. Clinton Rabb passed away as a result of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Heather Wilson's email address is now: firstname.lastname@example.org. Paulette West moved the SEJ office to Birmingham:
Paulette West, Southeast Jurisdiction
Date posted: Nov 01, 2008