A look at the United Church of Christ's community service programs at its 2009 General Synod provides tips and suggestions for launching programs of your own.
Sometimes you look out into the world and see something that ends up changing your life. That's what happened one day 17 years ago when the Rev. Mary Schaller Blaufuss stood looking out a window watching Bishop Desmond Tutu sandbag the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown St. Louis, Mo.
The river was rising and threatening to flood the city. Bishop Tutu, who was the guest speaker at the United Church of Christ's 1993 General Synod in St. Louis, was working with a team of volunteers participating in the UCC's first-ever community service project held during a synod. (The project was a joint one between the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the UCC).
“I was a delegate, watching from the window because I was seven months pregnant at the time,” Blaufuss recalls with a laugh. “It was really something to see Bishop Tutu joining in this kind of hands-on service. He definitely walks the talk.”
Twelve years later, Blaufuss became the executive director of UCCMinistries/Wider Church Ministries. The office facilitates mission trips and full-time volunteer placements nationally, and also coordinates service projects held during the church's biennial General Synod.
“It's part of the expectation that we will have service opportunities at the synod,” Blaufuss says. “People look forward to it, and we don't have to make a big effort to get them to sign up.” Service opportunities at the synod are limited to the number that the host site can accommodate, she says. At the 2009 General Synod, held in Grand Rapids, Mich., some 150 delegates filled slots for a day of service during the conference, in addition to about 250 youth volunteers. (Total attendance at the conference was 3,500.)
The UCC is among a growing core of religious groups that offer community service opportunities during their national conferences. Part of what is fueling that growth is a difficult economic climate that has caused the nation's poverty rate to skyrocket, creating more opportunities than ever for faith groups to set up volunteer services during their conventions.
“Religious groups are eager to demonstrate their core beliefs through this kind of action at their meetings,” Blaufuss says.
Here's a look at how the UCC has evolved its on-site volunteer programs over the years, how it deals with some of the challenges, and what the manifold goals are of providing community service opportunities at its national meetings.
Youth and Adults Working Together
For its 2009 General Synod, held in Grand Rapids last summer, delegates could choose one of four community service opportunities when they registered for the meeting. (See sidebar below.) All four programs ran during one half-day of the conference and were integral program offerings. Participants paid $25 to participate, which helped cover some of the material costs for the project, transportation fees, and as a box lunch and T-shirt.
Having four options for service is one way the UCC program has evolved over the years. “Participants can choose to serve in an area where they feel connected or where they hope to challenge themselves,” Blaufuss says. “Multiple projects allow people of different gifts and abilities to participate fully.”
Another evolution is the effort to get more youth involvement in the General Synod, particularly through community service. (UCC holds a national youth conference every four years, where youth can participate in community service as well.) With that goal in mind, three days before the adult community service day, hundreds of UCC youth participated in the same four community service projects, plus a few others.
“We wanted youth volunteers to be the leaders, paving the way for the adults doing the same programs three days later,” explains Blaufuss. The youth then joined the adults at the General Synod for the rest of the meeting. “Our goal was for adults and youth to have shared experiences of working in community service,” she says. “We like this model and are going to keep it for future General Synods.”
How does UCC decide on which community service projects to offer during General Synod? Blaufuss says that choice of projects very much depends on the host city. In the case of Grand Rapids, where the UCC has especially strong institutional ties, the project choices were largely driven by that factor. (UCC has a retirement home in Grand Rapids, for example, and that's where two of the service programs were conducted.)
However, institutional ties don't always factor in, she says. Generally speaking, the best resources for project ideas are the local churches in the host city, she says. “One thing you really want to do is work with the local community in ongoing work that they are doing. You don't want to be outsiders coming in and trying to create something on your own.”
She has also used the Web site handsonnetwork.org to find worthy local community projects in the host city. She's also worked with the United Way. In Tampa, where next year's synod will be held, the convention and visitors bureau has reached out to UCC to be a resource for community project ideas.
The volunteer program at the Tampa meeting is still being developed, but one component will be in conjunction with the Church World Service, which accompanies people in disaster relief, recovery, and international development. UCC will be asking delegates to bring contents for “Gift of the Heart” packages.
These are health, school, and disaster cleanup kits with carefully prescribed contents to be distributed through Church World Service networks around the world and in the United States.
The main challenge in running the community service programs at national meetings is getting people to and from the service sites, since most people attending the national meetings fly in and don't have cars. In the case of the youth community service at the General Synod, school buses are used. (The youth stayed at a nearby university during the 2009 General Synod.) For the adult program, shuttle buses are used, and this can be a financial burden.
“It's very important to get the buy-in overall of the event's meeting planner,” Blaufuss says. “Having service projects as an integral part of the event and not considered an add-on reinforces the centrality of direct service and justice advocacy in the overall life of the church,” she adds. “We get to demonstrate in action the preaching and business decisions we make during the meeting.”
Logistic challenges aside, the guiding light for the UCC community service programs has been twofold: to give something back to the local community, but also to give delegates and youth ideas for how they can go back to their own communities and provide service. This educational objective is pivotal to the UCC community service programs at meetings, Blaufuss says.
“Exposing participants to the realities of social injustice and giving them, through the community service experience, strategies and vision and new ideas for dealing with these problems in their own communities is a very important educational goal of the program,” Blaufuss says. “It's part of our social justice mission.”
Sidebar #1: UCC Service Projects at 2009 General Synod
HERE'S A SNAPSHOT OF THE FOUR COMMUNITY SERVICE PROJECTS OFFERED AT THE CONFERENCE:
PRESENCE WITH ELDERS: Volunteers visited Pilgrim Manor, a retirement home managed by the UCC in the Grand Rapids area. One of the projects was the creation of a cloth banner, which volunteers and residents worked on together.
ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARDSHIP: Volunteers built a rain garden that utilized Pilgrim Manor's storm-water collection system.
COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: Working with a local UCC-affiliated organization called United Church Outreach Ministry, volunteers assisted with food pantry projects, as well as tutoring children.
AFFORDABLE HOUSING: Volunteers joined in an area project helping to build a house with Habitat for Humanity. The group did some cleanup, finishing work, and painting.
Sidebar #2: Ideas and Resources to Get Started
- Local churches and affiliated organizations at the host site are very often the best place to start when looking for ideas and inspiration for launching a community service program at your meeting.
- Other religious groups can be another great resource for creative ideas. The United Methodist Church, for example, ran a “sweet potato” program at its 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. On a hot afternoon two summers ago, delegates, bishops, staffers, and visitors at the conference left the air-conditioned convention center to help load 40,000 pounds of sweet potatoes into trucks, vans, and trailers for distribution to area social service agencies that feed the hungry.
- Religious groups are not alone in wanting to create service and opportunities for giving back at meetings. Corporate groups in recent years have begun to integrate “social responsibility” activities at their meetings. To meet this demand, Odyssey Teams, a philanthropic odysseyteams.com. company, has developed a number of highly successful programs, including Helping Hands, where a team from Odyssey comes to the meeting and works with attendees to build prosthetic limbs for needy amputees around the globe. Realizing that not everybody has the budget to hire an on-site team for this activity, Odyssey recently launched the Build-Hand kit, a step-by-step program that details how to set up and run a build-a-hand project on-site at your meeting, as well as the pieces to each prosthetic limb. For details, visit
- One of the best Web sites for service opportunities is handsonnetwork.org. HandOn Network is the volunteer-focused arm of Points of Light Institute, the largest volunteer network in the nation, including more than 70,000 corporate, faith, and nonprofit organizations. Annually, the network delivers about 30 million hours of volunteer service.
- Local United Way offices are another resource to consider, as well as the CVB at the host destination.
- You will find an entire section devoted to giving-back projects, ideas, and tips at this link on http://meetingsnet.com/give-back/index.html. 's Web site: