Engaging Volunteers: Is It a Generation Thing?

February 10, 2022  •   LPi

group of volunteers of all ages

As much as we may not want to admit it, sometimes age is more than just a number. Generational differences shape our worldview, and we bring those characteristics with us to church. They can manifest in how we worship, how we serve and how we interact with the people and entities around us.

So, when building and activating an effective parish volunteer base, it’s important to take note of the different experiences and priorities inherent in each generational experience. A lifelong parishioner who still remembers the pre-Vatican II days will not have the same gifts and aspirations as a college student who loves devotional podcasts. Both volunteers bring their own charism to the job, equally important to your parish — but the act of engaging them in the work could look very different.

Baby Boomers (Born approximately 1946 to 1964)

It may be the case that this generation represents your parish’s “church elders,” but the chances are they don’t see themselves that way. For decades, the Baby Boomers represented the newness and youth of the “post-conciliar” liturgical and social movements, and that designation is a source of pride for many. Baby Boomers came of age during a time when lay involvement in parish administration was still controversial, and they want their contributions to matter. Boomers are either at or approaching retirement age, so they may find themselves with more free time to fill. They also represent a wealth of professional knowledge and expertise that can be useful to your parish. Boomers are also more financially well-off than their counterparts of previous generations so may be more open to financial stewardship than younger parishioners.

Gen X (Born approximately 1965 to 1980)

Gen X is often called “the forgotten generation,” sandwiched between the larger and more notorious Boomers and Millennials — but you definitely don’t want to forget about the Gen Xers at your parish. These folks are technologically literate, more likely to be college-educated than their parents, and are ascending to the peak of their professional careers. They are more likely than millennials to be religious and more likely to make room in their life for daily prayer, though the vast majority do not report being involved in any kind of regular religious study or education group. Chances are the Gen Xers in your parish are resourceful and well-connected, used to getting the job done without much supervision (they were the ones to give rise to the famous term “latchkey kid,” after all), and able to give more freely of their time and treasure than millennials.

Millennials (Born approximately 1980 to 1995)

Within Catholic circles, millennials often have the reputation of being more “traditionally minded” — but if that is true, it’s because millennials’ experience of the modern church and the world at large is often vastly different than their parents’ was. Millennials came of age in the wake of 9/11, as the economy crumbled, and the church was splashed across headlines in scandal after scandal. Churchgoing millennials are the exception to the rule, so they are unique among their friends or fellow Catholic school graduates in remaining observant. They are currently the biggest part of the American workforce so their time is often limited to the weekends and after work; at the same time, the majority of millennials learn less and carry more debt than previous generations, so they may see giving of their time as more feasible than giving monetarily.

Generation Z (Born approximately 1997-2012)

Despite being “digital natives” who likely don’t remember the days before the world was connected via social media, Gen Z-ers have a unique appreciation for the importance of meaningful human interaction. And while this generation may account for low church attendance rates, that doesn’t mean religion has no place in their lives. This group views the world through the lens of relationships. “If you ask any young person what they enjoy…their answer will be time spent with their peers, time doing things ‘that matter,’” said a priest involved in youth ministry. Research reports a low confidence in traditional institutions (including organized religions) but a high degree of confidence in those people and groups who make them feel heard. “One thing I heard for sure from Gen Z volunteers was: give us more responsibility,” said one parish leader. “Consult us. Don’t just tell us what you need. Let us be a part of the process.”

Volunteers are at the heart of our parishes, knowing a little about how the people of your church might approach volunteering will help you harness their power and build a more vibrant community. Check out New Ways to Recruit Parish Volunteers for some more valuable tips.

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