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Anglicans wrestle with volunteer scarcity

Volunteer numbers have been dropping since the start of the COVID pandemic. Picture: Anglicare Victoria.

Jenan Taylor

28 May 2022

Declining volunteer numbers are continuing to challenge Anglican organisations amid surging COVID and influenza cases.

All Saints’ Preston, Holy Trinity Hampton Park, and Anglicare Victoria were among those who told TMA the situation caused continued disruption to programs while some initiatives had even faced closure.

Their experiences mirror much of what had been reported in the State of Volunteering’s 2020 survey, which found that there had been a 50 per cent drop in volunteer participation across most sectors of the community when the pandemic began.

All Saints’ Preston vicar the Reverend Michael Hopkins said the absence of volunteers was being felt across a number of projects.

One was the “Keep the Door Open” program, which had been set up to reach out to the local community, he said.

The idea was to enable people to visit the church throughout the week and to have it manned by parishioners, Mr Hopkins said.

“Because of COVID restrictions it’s been problematic trying to get people to commit. Five people volunteered but it’s hard to get consistency,” he said.

Read more: Food drive volunteers evoke community generosity

“It’s more just disappointing that we can’t be open because we’re in a community where people actually focus on the church. It’s a bit like St Paul’s cathedral… It’s beautiful inside and people just come in and sit and pray,” Mr Hopkins said.

The initiative was positive and the response to do it was positive, he said. “But there’s the challenge of how we implement it on a regular basis to reach the community.”

Mr Hopkins said the drop in available volunteers reflected the church’s congregation numbers.

They had fallen from 75 to 40 people, he said, and there would be a fair way to go before they got back to pre-COVID attendance levels.

Holy Trinity Hampton Park vicar the Reverend Argho Biswas said COVID presented a huge problem for the church, but that getting enough volunteers had always been hard.

Mr Biswas said Holy Trinity was a very small church with a largely elderly congregation.

He said there were a few young people, but they were not as active or as committed to being involved with church happenings as the older parishioners.

“So, those who put their names down to help out are usually elderly,” Mr Biswas said. “Now since COVID, many have had to take a back step because of their health conditions, so it’s quite a challenge.”

Some of the parishioners also didn’t use mobile phones or weren’t used to accessing the internet, which gave rise to communication difficulties especially amid COVID restrictions, he said. 

Mr Biswas said that frustrated fund-raising efforts that involved the preparation and serving of food in the community because some required volunteers to be able to do food handling courses online.

As volunteers were required to complete Safe Ministry training courses online, Mr Biswas said he held concerns about the continued viability of a range the church’s programs and services.

To get around it, however, he was considering conducting a group training session for those with little or no technical skills.

Read more: Truth of Jesus an anchor for children at St John’s

Anglicare Victoria’s parish partnerships manager Chris de Paiva said volunteers played a critical role in the organisation’s emergency relief services, in particular, but that their numbers were down by 40 per cent.

Mr de Paiva said there were 17 emergency relief programs and that they were run almost wholly by volunteers, many of whom were an aging cohort.

He said the services included supporting people with pharmacy vouchers, food packages and financial counselling.

“On the odd occasion we may advocate by helping with housing costs, if someone’s about to be put on the streets, as well,” he said.

But many people were hesitant to participate in those programs, because of fears of getting COVID, Mr de Paiva said.

As a result, at least one site, at Craigieburn, had to be shuttered for a few days earlier this year.

The organisation’s emergency relief coordinator had even filled in the gaps herself, whenever helpers called in sick, Mr de Paiva said. However, things got particularly difficult when she then became ill with the virus.

To work with their constraints, they had offered phone services, and had even handed food through windows and doors to recipients. “It wasn’t always dignified, but at least we were still providing the food,” Mr de Paiva said.

He said the organisation had started a volunteer recruitment campaign through online employment sites and was advertising through social media.

It was likely to reach younger people, he said, and there were already promising results.

So far, Mr de Paiva said, they’d received applications from 20 individuals.

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