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Heart Matters: The Stamp of Gratitude

Christy Olson

The Stamp of Gratitude
After 30 years in ministry, I've gained immense respect for volunteers. Curriculum and room setup aren't nearly as important as the people who are willing to step into the classroom and share their faith story with children.

The many gifted volunteers I've worked with inspire me daily-I learned how to teach and minister from these sage volunteers. Margaret, who was in her 60s, still took on those tough preteen kids and knew them by name. Sue, a mom with elementary-age children of her own, had a passion for handbells and taught child after child the skill of ringing. Carol and Paul worked as a couple for years to bring the Bible alive to third-graders. These are the volunteers who stamp the heart of children's ministry with joy.

Occasionally, though, a volunteer joins the ranks with an attitude that can only be described as challenging. The volunteer may work harder at promoting negative energy than ministering to kids. Or he may strive to use "I" language to take credit for community efforts. Or she may have the ability to push an entire Sunday school staff into a polarized and unhappy direction. A volunteer such as this stamps the heart of children's ministry with negativity.

After several issues with one particularly negative and vocal volunteer, I decided it was time to approach her and work for real change. First, I put her on every prayer list in the church-staff, prayer chain, and my personal list. I asked colleagues to pray for her without giving too many details. And after several weeks of prayer, I made an appointment to meet with her.

Using kind and grace-filled words, I told my volunteer how her negativity conflicted with the message and mission of our church. I explained how her behavior hurt children and the other volunteers. Finally, I read the mission statement to her and asked whether she felt able to teach without negative and critical statements.

The volunteer remained silent the entire time I talked. When I finished, she seemed to melt before me. She wept, clearly anguished. As I sat there handing her tissues, I began to feel that God was talking to this volunteer right there before me.

When her tears finally subsided and she spoke, she told me about a mother and grandmother who constantly criticized her. She confessed that she knew she was negative, but said she didn't know how to be positive. And she said she dearly loved teaching Sunday school and asked if I could help her become more positive. That I felt I could do.

On my office wall I've always kept a copy of "Attitudes," an essay by Charles Swindoll. In it, Swindoll says our lives are 10 percent words and 90 percent attitude. For me, the biggest gift of this essay has been that it places responsibility for my attitude squarely on me.

I took the essay off the wall and read it to my volunteer. She smiled through tears and said she'd love to get a copy. Right there I handed her my framed copy, and we agreed to work together to help her be successful. Then we prayed together before she left.

Over time I watched this woman-who had potential to be a truly "bad apple"-transform into a more loving, willing volunteer. And I learned from her. Now my life and ministry are stamped with gratitude-to God, who transforms us through love, grace, and honesty. cm

Christy Olson is an associate in ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and an adjunct professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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