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Nation's largest Lutheran congregation marshals army of volunteers

Emily Nelson cradles a young Lutheran in her arms

Emily Nelson cradles a young Lutheran in her arms

Mega-church has 4,000 ministry helpers annually

With hearts, hands and voices, more than 4,000 members of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, Minneapolis (ELCA), volunteer their time and talent, fulfilling Jeremiah 24:7, “ … They shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.” Mount Olivet congregation has 13,500 baptized members.
Carol Nault, the church’s full-time coordinator of volunteer services, matches member volunteers with some 250 programs. As in most congregations, these include facets of worship, music, education, pastoral care and family ministry.
Particular to Mount Olivet are additional service opportunities at its own Camp, Cathedral of the Pines, Lutsen, Minnesota; at Mount Olivet Home; at the Mount Olivet Retreat Center in Farmington, Minnesota; Mount Olivet Day Services; Mount Olivet Rolling Acres; and in the Adopt-a-School ministry in South Minneapolis.
“Volunteers are what keep Mount Olivet alive and in-volved,” Nault says. “If we didn’t have the volunteers we do, this congregation couldn’t function.” Nault has held her position for twelve years. “It’s gone fast,” she says. “It’s the best job you could have.”
Counselors at Cathedral of the Pines are volunteers, along with the medical staff and kitchen helpers. Health professionals who are RNs, LPNs, EMTs or MDs may volunteer for a week at a time or a weekend. Volunteers in the kitchen, also for up to a week, help prepare and serve food to the campers as part of an eight-person team.
“Children begin camping at Cathedral of the Pines going into third grade,” Nault says. “They see older kids and adults volunteering and this steers them toward volunteering themselves when they reach their teens. This helps keep our youth program vital.
“Children also have the opportunity to serve through our music programs, starting with our Cherub (preschool age) Choir.” Other vocal groups are the Alleluia Choir (Kinder-garten through first grade); Hosanna Choir (grades 2-3); Chapel Choir (4-6); Chancel Choir (7-8); Cathedral Choir (9-12); and the Senior Choir.
Junior high youth join Mount Olivet Home/Careview Nursing Home residents for games, crafts, talent night and worship through the church’s Adopt-a-Grandparent program. Adult volunteers assist and supervise. Youth in grades nine through twelve may volunteer as King’s Kids at Mount Olivet Retreat Center, Farmington, escorting and supervising campers, providing support and friendship. Adult volunteer opportunities at the retreat center range from receptionist to gardener and trail manager.
“I see volunteers at all ages participating in our program,” Nault says. “I’m dealing with wonderful people, excited about their church, wanting to give of their time. I really see the enthusiasm in new members, but also in those who have been members for years. It’s catching.”
Evelyn Young, a legend among Mount Olivet volunteers at 89, has been going strong since joining the church in 1963. “I volunteer as much as I possibly can. I love it. Having been in the food service profession for 32 years, I tend to gravitate toward that area,” Young says, describing church smorgas-bords, stewardship dinners and Christmas desserts. From 1949 to 1981 she was director of the college food service at Gustavus Adolphus, St. Peter, commuting daily from her Edina home.
“We do a lutefisk smorgasbord dinner every fall. This year we served over 2,000 people, some of them arriving by the busload.” Young and her age group were involved until a couple years ago, when a younger circle took over. “Eileen Scott [Mount Olivet staff home economist] is so beautifully organized that it goes like clockwork, with four serving lines from shortly before 3:00 in the afternoon until 7:00 p.m. sharp.”
Each fall Mount Olivet holds three weeks of stewardship dinners, Monday through Friday, with crowds varying between 200 to 400 and a traditional menu of meatballs and scalloped potatoes. Does Young help? “Always!” She continues, “I’ve helped with a Christmas dessert at our retreat center the past few years. We serve every kind of Christmas cookie that you can think of. This year we served over 200 people on the first afternoon and 125 the second.
“Each spring the church has an appreciation day when we serve goodies in the parking lot to all of our volunteers. It’s great. It’s a chance for everyone, pastors included, to be together,” Young says.
Nathan Slinde, a fourth grade teacher at Chas-ka’s Clover Ridge Elementary School, and a 1998 graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College, is a lifelong member of Mount Olivet who caught the spirit of volunteering in his teens. He volunteered as a camp counselor and food service helper at Cathedral of the Pines while in high school and now is in his fourth year of teaching seventh and eighth grade Confirmation.
“Mount Olivet’s junior and senior high youth program is strong,” Slinde says. “Confirmation was the time when I started enjoying going to church. It can be a swing age. A program that made a difference in my life during high school was called Faithful Friends. We worked with inner-city youth once a week, providing mentorship and role modeling to elementary school kids.
“At a church as large as Mount Olivet there are many volunteer opportunities. Whether you’re good at building houses or working with kids, you can find a way to contribute to your church beyond financial giving.”
Slinde also mentions a Mount Olivet group called “Twenty Something,” led by Billy Johnson of the church’s youth staff and Pastor Grady St. Dennis. It helps keep 18-25-year-olds involved through twice-monthly meetings and an annual summer mission trip — for example, to a Native American location in South Dakota.
“We have a strong community concern outreach,” Nault says. This includes well-known programs like Habitat for Humanity and Meals on Wheels. Unique to Mount Olivet, and deserving wider recognition, is the Adopt-a-School ministry in South Minneapolis. Mount Olivet volunteers work one-on-one with students at Burroughs Elementary School, Ramsey Inter-national Fine Arts, and Lake Harriet Community School (formerly Fulton).
Mount Olivet members join Pastor Linton Scott in his Inner-City Ministry, donating and sorting food, clothing and furniture, helping deliver them to inner-city homes. “Families volunteer, bringing them together in serving,” Nault says.
The congregation communicates with its members through a weekly newsletter, The Visitor, and through Mount Olivet Magazine, edited by Pastor Stephen Cornils, published in winter, spring and summer, with volunteers as writers and photographers. Lay shepherds, a program of direct care, keeps trained lay volunteers in touch with members in an assigned neighborhood or with new members.
Four thousand Mount Olivet volunteers, a healthy-sized congregation in themselves, live the Mount Olivet mission statement, which describes a people “believing in Jesus Christ through the gifts of the Holy Spirit; belonging to the community of Jesus Christ; and becoming like Jesus Christ through servanthood.”