Pour Yourself Out: 4 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Volunteering

By Jessica Wolstenholm

What does it look like to be the hands and feet of Jesus today? What are appropriate ways for children to start serving their community? How can you serve together as a family? These are some questions I’ve journeyed with the past two years. In this 2015 blog series, Raising Micah 6:8 Kids, we’ll follow the scriptural road map to raising a generation of world-changers: “The Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” This month we look at the motivations behind and implications of our service toward others.

When my 7-year-old found out I would be teaching the preschool class at church, she leaped at the chance to help me. She spent an afternoon organizing lesson plans and craft ideas for the class. Me, on the other hand? I started sweating. I volunteered out of obligation — I knew they needed the help, and I have a preschooler in the class. The problem was that I am not wired to be a teacher or to handle children in numbers greater than three of four.

This past Sunday was third month in the classroom, and it nearly ended in a nervous breakdown. My husband, Jeff, stopped by to check on me (thank the Lord!), and I begged him to stay and help. A couple others sensed my panic mode and lent a hand as well.

My husband has 13 years of professional education experience and a natural knack for communicating with kids — especially those with special needs. That morning, he worked one-on-one with a boy with autism. This student went from crying and experiencing high anxiety (probably feeding off mine!) to spelling words with blocks and celebrating each accomplishment with Jeff.

My daughter happily helped the other students with their kite craft, and I nervously paced the floor until it was time to shuffle kids out the door so I could turn in my resignation.

Whew. What a difference it makes to be suited for the task at hand.

If you’ve been feeling a tug toward getting more involved as a family in volunteer work, whether it be at church, your school or homeless shelter, here are a few things to keep in mind from families who have been there. These four questions to ask yourself before volunteering to lend a hand in service will help posture your heart to the biblical challenge of Micah 6:8: to do right, love mercy and walk humbly. Sometimes our best intentions can lead to misunderstandings or negative experiences when we approach them with naivete instead of intentionality.

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4 Questions to Ask Before You Lend a Hand and Serve Your Community


1. What’s in your hand?

When it comes to serving, use what you have and what you can already do.

I’ve learned that using the skills God has given you is invaluable when it comes to volunteering. A local pastor, who helps many families in our community, has taught me a lot about being resourceful with what you’ve been given.

Twenty-five years ago Glenda Sutton escaped an abusive husband in Florida and moved to Nashville with two sons to start a ministry. She was homeless and stayed with friends until she was granted housing in the projects. From there she built her ministry.

She said she did it by using whatever she had in her hands. She began hosting Bible studies, tithing with food stamps by preparing meals for the elderly and teaching young mothers how to budget. Her two children served with her, helping to teach neighborhood kids how to read.

It was the beginning of Family Affair Ministries, which has served thousands of families from three locations in the heart of East Nashville. She runs the church and a nonprofit with several employees, a preschool, summer camps, school programs, job training, clothes closet and a food pantry. In this interview, she talks about how she broke the cycle of poverty, and how not only do her children serve and give back but her grandchildren as well.

I stopped by by Glenda’s church one day recently and found her in the kitchen preparing lunch plates for a visiting organization. She said, “I always work with what I have in my hands.” With what she found in the fridge (roasted chicken, pasta, broccoli) she made a delicious meal with a side of salad and fruit. She said she never asks for more until she’s used what she’s been given.

Where has God planted you? Do you have existing connections and resources that you could easily begin serving through and with?

Begin orienting your children’s hearts toward helping others by talking about the first and second greatest commandments (Matthew 22:36-40, Galatians 5:13-14) and how God has designed each of us with unique gifts so that we can use it to serve each other (1 Peter 4:10).

2. Can you gather others toward the cause?

Compound your efforts by combining it with others.

World-renowned photographer Jeremy Cowart found a way to not only use what he literally had in his hand (a camera) to give back, but he brought along his family (his wife, children and the photography community worldwide) to do it with him. He’s the founder of Help-Portrait, an international movement to take, print and deliver professional portraits to people who wouldn’t otherwise have them.

Help-Portrait has given hope, dignity, encouragement and love to thousands of people who have never had an opportunity to have their portrait made, or who have had pictures destroyed by fire, or who are savoring final moments in life before the passing of a loved one. Jeremy’s wife Shannon organizes the annual Nashville event (there are events worldwide) and his children and extended family serve each year as well. “It’s an honor to see unexpected transformations happen right before us as some of the men, women and families find a new sense of self and dignity restored,” Shannon said. “To share that moment with them is everything.”

What passions does your family have, and who can join you in bringing those to light?

Share these verses with your children and talk about what it means to serve with love and to serve others as if they were serving Jesus Himself.

    • “Let all that you do be done in love.” (1 Corinthians 16:14, ESV)
    • “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” (Colossians 3:23-24, ESV)


3. Is your gift of service wanted?

Don’t approach volunteering as an opportunity to teach your children a lesson in gratitude. Before offering a service, ask what is needed and wanted.

When it comes to volunteering, being equipped to meet the need is just as important as being willing to meet it. On the other hand, just because you’re able to serve using your gifts doesn’t mean that’s how a need should be met. My friend and neighbor Rowena shared some particularly valuable insight regarding this during our children’s karate class last week.

Rowena Aldridge grew up in the Appalachian Mountains and the Philippines and knew several recipients of charity work during her childhood. The thing that left the greatest impression from these events was that the service was offered without asking if it was wanted. It was as if the volunteers, especially those who brought children to serve with them, were doing it for the lessons that they could teach their children through it and not to meet actual needs of the individual or community. This is a misstep, she says. “It is important for people who want to do this to understand the hidden impact their teaching agenda has on the people they intend to help,” she said.

Rowena, her husband and her daughter Ella regularly volunteer at a homeless shelter and serve other ways in their community, but, “If I ever find myself thinking, ‘What will Ella learn from this’?, I’ll cut it off right there,” Rowena said. She names Ella a “full partner” in the family’s volunteer activities. “We don’t ‘teach’ her to serve,” she said. “This is just part of our family culture. If one of us sees a need that we want to address, we do it, and whomever in the family can help pitches in.”

Make serving a regular, natural, integrated part of your lifestyle as a family. Doing good may feel good, but it shouldn’t make us feel special. Talk about your experiences, welcome questions and try discussing these verses:

    • “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” (Galatians 6:10, ESV)


    • “Do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great.” (Luke 6:35, ESV)

4. Are you ready to pour yourself out?

Be willing to be inconvenienced on behalf of others.

My best friend Liz Eskridge is one of the most passion-filled, warm and friendliest people you’ll ever meet. She’s a single mom with two kids and manages a yoga studio. If you want to hang out with her, you’d better be willing to get in line. Her downtime is filled with meeting needs in the community.

Her passion? Helping feed hungry kids. When she learned through her kids’ schools that many families in our area depend on school breakfast and lunch for sustenance, she began to wonder how school breaks affected their ability to access food. She and her kids began to help bridge those needs by giving, collecting and distributing food before those breaks through a nonprofit she founded called Give Me 10.

She jumps first and believes the ground will follow. She knows very little about setting up a nonprofit or any of the business side that comes with it, but she knows the need and she’ll do whatever it takes to fill it.

After a particularly busy weekend of volunteer work, I had to cancel an activity I was looking forward to doing and instead slept for what felt like an entire day. I texted Liz and told her I had overstretched myself and joked that now I know how she feels 24-7. She texted back:

Liz: Here’s the thing. there’s something about spending a ton of time doing useless, meaningless things that fill up your schedule. But there’s something life-giving when you’re pouring yourself and your time into things that actually matter.

Cara: YES!

Liz: The exhaustion and the tired is different. It helps you pull through sadness and grief and heaviness. It’s different than the busy that we put ourselves through in order to avoid those things.

Cara: oh man. that will preach.

Liz: those things are all still there. But they seem smaller. and less heavy.

The sacrifices she makes is not lost on her kids. When her middle schooler won an iPod during a pep rally, she immediately turned and gave it to someone else whom she knew didn’t have one. Like her mama, her heart is inclined toward giving.

No matter the emotional and financial hardships they’ve endured as a family, their first response is to pour themselves out on the behalf of others: “If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday” (Isaiah 58:10, ESV).

It comes as little surprise science has confirmed this biblical truth. Research shows people who volunteer are happier and have higher self-esteem and psychological well-being, and studies have linked youth volunteering to higher quality of life as an adult (US News & World Report).

You don’t have to start a nonprofit or move to Tanzania to being serving. Chances are you’re already serving your children and family and teaching them to serve in the home. Begin turning that focus outward more often. Having a servant’s heart means you hold the door open for the person behind you. You lend a tool to a neighbor or cut the yard for friend who’s had surgery. You invite singles in your church to your home for Sunday dinner. You put others before self.

Community is your best connection to needs and serving opportunities. Are you part of a mom’s group, church group or school? Do you have a blogging circle or alumni network? If your passion is for living a Micah 6:8 life, you’ll begin to pray for and see opportunities all around. And your kids will want to be part of it, too, because they see you doing it.

When my daughter saw a stack of magazines outside her younger sister’s preschool school door recently, she asked the director if she could carry them in for her. I realized then that I don’t always have to prompt her to lend a hand. She’s got the idea.

Good News In Action!

Through Paul’s letters, we learn what it means to live as a follower of Jesus! Learn more about the 13 letters that Paul wrote to churches all over the Roman world in the DVD Letters From Paul.

Cara Davis is a content consultant and co-founder of the soon-to-launch church’d.com. The former editorial director for Relevant Media Group, her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post and CNN, and she’s been quoted in USA Today and The New York Times. She lives with her husband and two girls in East Nashville where she has co-founded a nonprofit called Community PTO to support the success of local community schools.