Professional Amateur Volunteers


A blog by Philip Anderson about giving thanks for the many ministries God calls us to.

This week the Cathedral has been mulling over the ministry of Tabitha, ‘devoted to good works and charity’, described in the Acts of the Apostles, one of the first Christians, in our daily celebration of holy communion. She was raised from the dead by St Peter’s prayers, and was much loved for her work making clothes for the destitute in her city of Joppa (modern day Tel-Aviv). But the scene of her friends weeping around her lifeless body, holding up the clothes she had made, might bring to mind for you, as for me, visions of a particularly tragic jumble sale, a vision of the Church at its saddest and least effective in revealing the goodness of God. But that’s not the story.  

Tabitha was probably a widow, certainly some of those who worked with her were, and widows have always been at the heart of Christian ministry, but their work has too often been dismissed as amateur, volunteers taken for granted by the religious ‘professionals’. In other words, it has been dismissed as ineffective, well-meaning but ultimately irrelevant. There’s often a heavy dose of sexism in these assumptions.  

The word amateur derives from the Latin verb ‘amo, amas, amat’ – ‘amare’ to love. An amateur is someone who loves what they do with a passion. Volunteer also comes from a Latin word, the word ‘volo’ meaning ‘I will’, in other words, somebody who does something willingly, not under duress. And when we see these words in this light there shouldn’t be any conflict with the meaning of ‘professional’ – this word derives from the practice of monks and nuns professing their calling, by making vows, publicly identifying themselves as following a particular path with seriousness and all their skill, out of love, willingly, and not for personal financial reward. 

Tabitha was a professional amateur volunteer. And she reminds us to give thanks for the many ministries God calls us to, and of how God animates them all, by the life of the risen Christ. She obviously brings to mind the ministry of those who knit prayer shawls at the Cathedral for distribution among the housebound. But also all the work of our Cathedral’s charity, Micah, one of the largest in the city, and its army of paid staff and volunteers and supporters, relentless in feeding and offering new beginnings to literally thousands, all in the name of Jesus Christ. Tabitha is an encouragement to us to give generously of our money, gifts, skills of organisation, so that in our time as in hers Christ would be known and glorified through his saints.             

Canon Philip Anderson