when service goes aright

This week, I’ve been urging us to shepherd our students’ service, not simply encourage it. If you haven’t gotten to check it out, you might wanna read the intro here and then yesterday’s post on how service can go awry.

But no need to end on a negative! Today, ways service can go “aright,” still using an annual service project I get to be a part of.

When service is purpose-based

I would argue that organizing and practicing our service around the outcomes most needed is imperative. If we’re helping lower income 5th-graders, is the help they need dictating HOW we help? If we’re trying to slow the spread of AIDS in Africa, is the form of our service based on actually producing that outcome? And if we’re cheering on runners, do we know what “encouraging a marathoner” really looks like? Offering only Gatorade may seem “better” and “more excellent” to the uninitiated… but some marathoners prefer water. Likewise, our students need to learn that there’s no such thing as a “good service project” that doesn’t accomplish what’s actually needed.

When service looks foolish

And when we start talking about good service, we’d better prepare our students for the fact that the best service won’t always have a direct relationship with dignity. In the case of cheering on the marathon, I fully recognize that many of the volunteers around me don’t understand the… um, vigor with which I encourage the runners. I’m yelling loudly (enough to get through headphones) and personally, calling individuals’ names and often pointing or otherwise gesturing wildly. But this seems to be what’s needed, at least for many of the runners. So despite looking foolish (frightening?) to those around me, I’m cheering for the runners, so I’ll offer whatever seems to help them most.

When service feels foolish

But… the truth is, that kind of “vigor” isn’t natural for me. At a basketball game, I would only rarely yell like that; at the marathon, it’s 3 hours straight. I’m not particularly great with strangers, but during the marathon I get fairly personal with strangers in Mile 25 of their really crazy mid-morning adventure. Are we training our students not only to set aside their dignity (when needed) to serve effectively, but even to set aside their personalities (when needed) to serve effectively?

When service is delegated

A fellow volunteer offered me a cup of Gatorade to share with the runners, but I declined. Why? While passing out Gatorade to these flagging marathoners is actually pretty thrilling, I recognize that it interferes with the “vigorous cheering” I mentioned above. Plenty of other volunteers passed out Gatorade and water. Some people filled water & Gatorade cups so they could be passed out by others. Some volunteers cooked breakfast for the rest of us. And still others needed to focus on overseeing our large task, keeping everything running smoothly. Many service projects will be best handled through delegation – but, lo and behold, that means not every student will get to do everything (and not even everything they want to do).

When service is focused

A big rule of thumb for cheering the marathon is to focus on individuals. While some level of general rah-rah cheering is exciting, the runners are often most excited when you call their first name (which is included on their placard) or otherwise identify them (“Go Longhorn!,” “You’ve got this, Orange!”). The same principle holds for other service opportunities, too: If our service doesn’t aim to help actual people (whether individuals or groups), then who’s it really helping?

When service is “servee-centric”

So when it comes down to it, we’ve got to help our students be “servee-centric” at every step of their service endeavors. While focusing on people’s actual needs seems like common sense, it’s not necessarily common practice. In the marathon, servee-centeredness is why only filling cups halfway matters, why yelling loud enough to be heard through headphones matters, and why knowing what we’re aiming for matters – because the people we’re serving matter.

Written from The Woodlands, Texas, during Refresh 2009

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