AmeriCorps Chaplaincy: A Call to Clergy

Earlier last year I was sitting in a room full of clergy and lay leaders in Indianapolis discussing what's next for the church.

As I sat there, I realized I hardly knew anyone -- a sharp contrast from my experience over years of attending conferences on volunteerism, service learning and civic engagement.

For more than 20 years I worked in a secular community service program that had a faith component to it. I left that position to work with a faith-based organization that engaged in service -- I assumed it would be an obvious transition. I assumed that since there was a connection between faith and service with me, the connection had played itself out on the national scene.

Except for notable exceptions, it has not.

During the open mic session of the conference, I rose and introduced myself as an AmeriCorps Chaplain. I was pretty sure no such position existed. How would you get to be one? Who would give you permission?

Truth is, I made it up on the spot.

So why an AmeriCorps Chaplain?

There is a rich and powerful history of chaplains serving in the armed services. My dad served in World War II as a Navy Chaplain. A military chaplain's role is to attend to everyone enlisted -- and many of those who are serving are in their 20s and 30s.

This generation of young people serve their country in military service but in other ways, too. Each year, thousands of people in their twenties and thirties join AmeriCorps and other national service organizations.

There are obvious differences between soldiers and AmeriCorps volunteers, but there are also similarities. Both represent idealistic and committed individuals that have made a choice to serve and who are placed in challenging situations where much is expected of them physically and emotionally. So if the military recognizes the need for a chaplaincy program, why isn't there one for National Service?

The AmeriCorps Chaplaincy is an idea based on the realities of these experiences and the need to intentionally reach out to and be present for these volunteers. Like the military chaplaincy, AmeriCorps chaplains should not engage in proselytizing or converting, but rather be present and pastoral.

Unlike the military chaplaincy program, the proposed AmeriCorps Chaplaincy is not meant to be a division of the Corporation for National and Community Service or of AmeriCorps. Rather, we would work alongside them, being aware of the need to be separate and distinct.

So how do we do this?

Make a commitment. One clergy can make this happen by reaching out to four or five others. For those with a diverse circle of colleagues, it will be straightforward. For others, creating a local AmeriCorps Clergy team will provide the catalyst for reaching out to other faith traditions.

Find the national service members. The first question most people ask me is: "Where do I find these people?" They are our children, our children's friends, our friends' children. They work in the schools that we support and non-profits were we're involved. They are at the coffee shops and bars. They run and bike through our neighborhoods.

Additionally, you can find AmeriCorps members through the Corporation for National Service website, which lists the organizations that have members in your state. While AmeriCorps members are not the only individuals serving in your community, it is a good place to start.

The search will give you the names of sponsoring organizations. Go online to get the name of the directors. Reach out to them. If you go to them because you want something from them, you won't get very far. If you go to them because you have something you want to offer their members, you will be welcomed -- maybe not at first, but eventually.

Be present. My first thought was that when I went in front of an AmeriCorps group, they were going to be suspicious and even unwelcoming. Not true. It's amazing how receptive people are if you are open, vulnerable, genuine and there to do what you can. Many of these folks are having a hard time. They have left home, parents are sick, a relationship has ended and a new one may be beginning. Perhaps the most pressing issue on their minds is the challenge of their service life. Many are taking on some of the most challenging issues in our communities, and it's hard, if not discouraging. Isn't that where we are called to be? Isn't this what we call pastoral care?

Create meaningful programming. With few exceptions, these folks are not likely to seek out a traditional (or contemporary) worship service. Many are working when services are offered, and others are worn out. When they do come to our services, we rarely talk to them, serve bad coffee (you can live on a small stipend and still be a coffee snob) and expect them to put money that they don't have in the collection plate. Instead, let's create programs that bring them together at a time that works for them and have programming (meals, conversations, films) that respond to their needs, not ours.

A portal in the community. AmeriCorps members often move into town with no connection and few resources; they have a difficult time breaking in. Congregations are portals into the community. When a congregation invites and includes AmeriCorps members into the community, it gives us a chance to treat them as if they were our own, because they are.