I think we all realize how important service is to any ministry in the Catholic Church. Unless we serve, we are not being faithful to what Jesus asked when he said “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” I’m kind of high maintenance in this regard; if I go more than a few days without serving others, I start to feel like something is missing.
However, service projects can be a disaster. After seeing both success and failure, I want to suggest 5 characteristics I’ve seen in every successful service project or apostolate (and every failure lacked at least one). I focus on youth ministry but I think these can apply for any Church ministry.
- It’s Challenging Yet Realistic
I know two different middle-school groups who raised money to rent billboard space and offer a pro-life message: one near downtown Cincinnati, one on I-95 in Florida. That’s a big project! Yet it’s actually realizable because it’s only a few thousand dollars of fundraising.
When we ask something of teens, they’re much more like to step up to the plate than if we never ask them. Our service needs to push their comfort zone.
At the same time, don’t go so big you discourage them. Nothing is worse than going rock climbing for your first time and being given a cliff that only experts can climb. Since each group (and each person) have different experiences, what is challenging yet realistic varies a lot.
- It actually Helps People
There was a protestant church that decided it would help people in Haiti so they decided to offer free eggs to a certain town. Nice idea, right? They felt good about helping. Then, a year later they pulled out. Here’s unfortunately what happened: one man was raising chickens and selling eggs in town but with free eggs he couldn’t compete (it wasn’t clear if he moved or killed his chickens). When the church pulled out, the town had no eggs even though they had had eggs beforehand.
It is good that the group feels like they are helping – this is the next point – but that must always be subordinated to actually helping people. Otherwise, we will develop cynical or narcissistic teens.
We need to be relatively certain that we will be helping people not just making ourselves feel good. Often this means collaborating with something already existing rather than creating something new.
In The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry there is an extensive argument against turning a foreign mission into “poverty tourism” which I don’t have space elaborate here but I think is true. My one line summary is: we can’t put the missionary teens’ feelings above actual help to those in need.
- Teens realize they help people
Some things that need to be done can seem tedious and pointless. Once I was sorting clothes donated to a homeless shelter into types and sizes so they could properly distribute them. The connection isn’t obvious so I needed to help explain it to those sorting – fortunately, the lady there also showed us a video of all the organization does.
If we want teens to commit to serve again, if we want to develop a pattern of service in our youth groups, teens need to realize how they are helping people.
In general service projects where they meet those they’re helping should be preferred (although not necessarily exclusive) since teens see concretely how their actions helped.
- It’s Organized
Maybe it’s my engineering background, but nothing bothers me more than showing up and having nothing organized. It irks me. Basic organization is needed for you to achieve the first 3 traits: a chaotic gang (a) rarely reaches up for challenges, (b) helps less than one that’s organized, and (c) may not provide the reason to each teen.
However, organization need not be exhaustive. For example, I know a group that helps out underprivileged kids with their homework – their plan is carpool, show up at this time, 3 minutes of prayer, fan out and help kids, 90 minutes later get back in cars and go home. During the 90 minutes, the scene will inevitably look a little chaotic. However, the chaos is managed.
- It goes beyond pure Material Support
So many people need material help – food, clothes, and shelter – but the greatest two poverties today are loneliness and moral poverty. Some projects – especially those that are separated from the people being helped – will tend to be just material aid. This is fine in a project here or there but if it is our modus operandi, we run 2 risks. We risk losing the sense of why we are doing it. More importantly, we risk leaving these people ultimately no better off; a lonely billionaire is worse off than a happy nun living in destitute poverty, a playboy is worse off than a poor farming family.
This begins with simple things like smiling when serve a meal at the homeless shelter or saying a kind word as we pass out blankets. Often this must go deeper to visit those who are cast off from society and have no one to visit them.
Hopefully these ideas will help you organize service projects or apostolates that are successful on all levels.