Voluntary Service

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1959 Article

Voluntary Service, the name given to a program of practical service "In the name of Christ" for young people, primarily in Mennonite and affiliated groups, which arose in the latter part of World War II and was sponsored and administered largely by the Mennonite Central Committee and several of the larger Mennonite groups, especially the Mennonite Church (MC) and the General Conference Mennonite Church. Voluntary Service arose initially early in 1943 in the Mennonite Church (MC) as the result of a request from the Virginia Conference to the Peace Problems Committee in late 1942 to provide some type of service as an alternative to civil defense work which was at that time being pressed upon Virginia Mennonites by the Government Civil Defense Agency. The Peace Problems Committee in turn requested the Relief Committee at a conjoint meeting 12 February 1943 to undertake setting up a program for Mennonite service units. The proposal was described in a memorandum of that date as follows: (1) We believe that in addition to meeting the present emergency situation, we should think in terms of a long-range program of Christian testimony through our units. (2) We believe it will be practical to organize Mennonite service units which shall be distinctly Mennonite in their personnel, work, and practice. (3) The service should be put on a voluntary and nonremunerative basis. (4) The service units should be a particular avenue for youth expression of our Christian faith and Mennonite practice. (5) The service units should be initiated through our church schools and through other church organizations where there is sufficient interest and personnel to undertake it. (6) The service units should include the particular skills existing within our Mennonite constituency as well as the trained abilities of those who are preparing for the work of teaching and evangelism in the church. (7) The service units should be integrated into our whole church and missionary program.

Voluntary Service was first undertaken as a summer service program. The first unit of four worked in Chicago 2 May to 2 July 1944 in connection with the Mennonite (MC) Mission work there, doing a religious survey, conducting a summer Bible school, and renovating mission buildings. In 1945 three units were set up in connection with the Canton and Detroit city missions, the West Liberty (Ohio) Children's Home, and the rural mission work at Culp, Arkansas. The program of summer service units developed rapidly thereafter. The Peace Problems Committee brought to the Mennonite General Conference session of August 1946 a proposal for a permanent long-range service program under the Mennonite Relief Committee including year-round service, which was approved by the Conference. A General Council (MC General Conference) policy resolution adopted 18 October 1950 urged vigorous development of a broad Voluntary Service program. A full-time director of VS under the MRC was appointed, beginning 1 June 1949, and a year-round VS program in addition to the summer program was set up beginning 1 September 1949. This program grew until on 1 February 1958, the year-round service had 165 workers in 28 projects on the continental United States, Puerto Rico, Alberta and Ontario, Canada, and Algeria, while the summer service program in 1958 had 150 workers in 17 widely scattered units. Meanwhile the Lancaster Conference had established a vigorous summer service program and several other conferences had started limited programs. In all of these programs the original connection of church- and mission-related projects was maintained.

Meanwhile the Mennonite Central Committee had inaugurated a VS program, which arose in part out of the summer service projects established during World War II for girls in connection with Civilian Public Service (CPS, 1944, 1945, 1946), and in part under the influence of the example of the Quaker summer work camps which had been operated as early as 1935. The first regular MCC summer service units (6), including one at Cuauhtémoc, Mexico, were operated in 1947 after CPS had closed. Year-round VS was inaugurated in 1947-1948 at Gulfport, Mississippi. The MCC program developed rapidly and by 1957-1958 had 193 workers in summer service units and 112 in year-round service. The General Conference Mennonite Church has operated a program since 1946 including both summer units and year-round service projects. In 1958 it had 35 participants in 8 year-round units and 81 in 16 summer units. MCC summer service began in Canada in 1948, and year-round service in 1953. In the early 1950s Canadian Summer Service had 80-90 workers each summer. The year-round program was concentrated in Newfoundland, where there were 33 workers in 1958.

The Mennonite Brethren Church did not operate a VS program of its own in 1958, although some district conferences did so in the early 1950s. A number of its young people served in the VS program of the MCC. The Mennonite Brethren General Conference of 1957 approved VS in the following resolution: (a) "That we stand in approval of Voluntary Service whenever and wherever it remains in line with the evangelical policies of the church. (b) That mature young people from our churches who are members in good standing, are well established in faith, and who have a missionary motive for service be encouraged to enter voluntary service."

It has been agreed that MCC operate VS for those Mennonite bodies which do not operate their own programs and in addition operate pioneer and experimental types of projects and furnish general leadership. A Voluntary Service section was set up in MCC administration at Akron in 1947; Elmer Ediger served as first director until 1951. In 1957 this section was combined with the I-W Service section.

The Voluntary Service concept has spread to Europe and South America through Mennonite Central Committee. In 1952 European VS was established as "Mennonitischer freiwilliger Dienst," under the direction of a board composed of representatives of the European Mennonite churches of Holland, Switzerland, France, and Germany, and the MCC. The MFD operated only summer service projects, with headquarters in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Already in 1948-1951, American Mennonite college students who came in summer tours to Europe had spent several weeks each summer in VS in summer work camps under MCC sponsorship. In 1957 a Mennonite VS program was begun in South America under MCC sponsorship, with Martin Durksen of Buenos Aires as director, called Christlicher Dienst.

Related to Voluntary Service but actually an alternative to I-W Service was Pax Service, a program for overseas service by young men serving as conscientious objectors under the United States Selective Service Act (draft), who volunteered for service abroad under MCC. Pax (i.e., Peace) was begun in 1950 and operated largely in Germany, although also in Greece, Korea, Peru, and Paraguay. The Pax period of service was two years, the terms were the same as for VS, i.e., maintenance and $10.00 per month pocket money, and the cost was borne largely by the church. In 1958, 110 men were serving in Pax.

In the short space of twelve years the VS idea became widely accepted throughout American Mennonitism, particularly for mature young people. It promoted the spirit of Christian service in the name of Christ, and particularly in those cases where it was kept in close connection with the missonary and evangelistic outreach of the church it brought an added new approach to evangelism. It has also opened up an avenue for dedicated and sacrificial short-term service for many who might not be able or qualified to do regular full-time Christian work on a lifetime basis. -- HSB

1989 Update

Voluntary Service describes the programs of the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in which, for a limited period of time, people live and work sacrificially in the name of Christ in a needy location, often a place other than their home community. The concept of voluntary service (VS) originated in Verdun, France, in 1920 when Pierre Ceresole organized a voluntary work group to rebuild houses in an area damaged by World War I. As early as 1934 the Society of Friends (Quakers) sponsored the first recorded work camp in the United States near Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. Three years later at Quaker Bridge, New York, Mennonites participated in a Friends work camp. These activities contributed to the emerging Mennonite vision.

Mennonites, who found themselves heirs to a heritage of suffering and understood their human relationships in a way that led to service, remembered the tragedy of war and efforts of famine relief. Those who served in Civilian Public Service (CPS) or Alternative Service projects during World War II found human need in unsuspecting dimensions. The rediscovery that Christian love in action is indeed giving to your neighbor in the name of Christ moved people to dream new dreams.

Early in World War II the Virginia Mennonites living in the area of Hampton Roads were being pressured to participate in the civil defense program. At about the same time the churches in Indiana were confronted with a similar problem in the form of the High School Victory Corps. On the one hand stood the growing hostility of non-Mennonite neighbors calling for involvement in the military and civil defense programs. Pulling from the other direction was an awakened conscience about human need and the real possibilities of giving help with limited resources. These stimuli precipitated several kindred voluntary service programs.

Mennonite Church

The recommendation that some form of Mennonite voluntary service be formed was adopted by committees of the Mennonite Church (MC) on 12 February 1943. The first voluntary service unit was organized during the summer of 1944 and was administered in connection with the Mennonite missions in Chicago. Long-term voluntary service, in which workers served for at least a year, was initiated by the Mennonite Church in Sept. 1948, when four volunteers were assigned to the Kansas City, Mo., General Hospital. A significant development in the VS program of the Mennonite Church was the beginning of overseas VS in Dhamtari, India, in 1952, the year the national draft of conscientious objectors began. The program in the US continued at various levels throughout the 1960s and 1970s -- in 1986 MC volunteers in the United States numbered 69.

Conservative Mennonite Conference

The Conservative Mennonite Conference began voluntary service in Espelkamp, Germany, in 1950. In 1958 the conference opened its first long-term VS unit at a state mental hospital in Meridian, Miss. An overseas program was launched in the Cohuita area of Costa Rica in 1963. In 1984, 41 volunteers served with the Conservative Mennonite Conference in nine locations in the United States. 

Lancaster Mennonite Conference

A distinct Lancaster Conference (MC) VS program was officially launched in 1952. In 1986, 51 volunteers served in 11 program locations. They worked with local Mennonite congregations to strengthen the relationship between the volunteers' work assignments and the outreach goals of the congregations.

Mennonite Central Committee

The first of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) inter-Mennonite voluntary service units emerged as a parallel to MCC-administered Civilian Public Service (CPS) projects. Summer service units for women, who were not part of the CPS program, were begun in 1944 at the Ypsilanti (Mich.) State Hospital and the State Hospital for Mental Diseases at Howard, Rhode Island. MCC officially began a VS program on 1 January 1947, with a builders unit on the island of Walcheren, Holland. The first international short-term work camps were conducted in 1948 in Hamburg and Frankfurt; that year the first Canadian service units were opened. in 1949 MCC opened a long-term unit in Topeka, Kansas, that was designed to expose youth to the best in the field of mental health care as a prelude to a Mennonite mental health effort. That year 10 long-term VSers were sent to Europe and two to Paraguay; they were forerunners of the MCC Pax program. Teaching and nursing assignments were made in Newfoundland in 1956. In 1986 103 volunteers served in 13 MCC program locations in the USA.

Mennonite Central Committee Canada

Mennonite Central Committee Canada (MCCC) was organized in 1963; by 1965, it assumed direction of the summer voluntary service program in Canada. A long-term VS program was begun in Toronto in 1966. In 1974, MCCC assumed full responsibility for the MCC program in Canada. In 1986 there were 143 VSers in service with MCC. Fifty-two of those were involved in local voluntary service -- serving in a sacrificial way in their home communities.

General Conference Mennonite Church

The General Conference Mennonite Church (GCM) created a voluntary service program on Feb. 20, 1946. Nine volunteers were assigned for a period of summer service in the Woodlawn area of Chicago in a community service project providing Bible school teachers and youth activity leaders. The first overseas summer service assignment began in 1950 with the sending of four short-term workers to the Mennonite mission in Cachipay, Colombia. The first of the long-term GCM projects was launched in 1955 with the assignment of two missions Pax volunteers to the Congo (Zaire) to work with the Congo Inland Mission, (later renamed Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission). Long-term volunteers in North America were not assigned until 1957, the same year that the conference initiated summer high school VS. At the end of 1986 there were 98 persons in the GCM program in 30 program locations in North America.

Brethren in Christ Church

Voluntary service was initiated in the Brethren in Christ Church in 1947 with the assignment of a person for a short term of service at the Navajo mission in New Mexico, which until 1954 was the only Brethren in Christ project using volunteers. That year volunteers were assigned to Rhodesia (Zambia, Zimbabwe). Over the years volunteers in such diverse locations as San Francisco, Timber Bay, Sask., and the Bronx, N.Y., worked with local congregational activities. Eighty-five people participated in the Brethren in Christ VS program in 1986. They were located in nine program units in North America, staffing community service organizations and camps as well as providing administrative support to the program.

Mennonitischer Freiwilligendienst

In the fall of 1950 MCC asked the Mennonite churches in Europe to choose youth representatives who would be responsible to plan and operate a voluntary service program in Europe. At their first meeting in December 1950, the representatives assumed the name of Mennonitischer Freiwilligendienst (MFD, Mennonite Voluntary Service). The first activity was to create an international Mennonite youth team to help in the resettlement of several Mennonite families in south Germany at the close of 1951. The following year MFD involved 154 volunteers in summer work camps and a winter caravan contributed some 20,000 hours of labor to help refugees, displaced persons, Mennonites, and others in need, and to help build a youth center, three church buildings, and five housing projects in Germany and Austria.

Christlicher Dienst

The challenge to develop a Christian voluntary service program among the churches in Paraguay came from MCC which resulted in the creation of Christlicher Dienst (CD; Christian Service). In 1951 the first workers were placed at Kilometer 81, a clinic for victims of Hansen's Disease (leprosy), to help patients and to introduce the concept of voluntary service to the churches. In 1957 two volunteers began serving in the government psychiatric hospital in Asunción -- the location which, in 1987, had the most CD workers. Other CD volunteers helped to construct the Trans-Chaco Road and worked in children's homes, at a home for the aged, in a radio station, and at a school for children of Paraguayan ranchers in the Chaco. The first project outside Paraguay was in Chile, following the earthquake and tidal wave in May 1960, where they worked in reconstruction and distributed material aid donated by the Paraguayan churches. In 1976 CD sent workers to Guatemala following an earthquake there. As of 1987, 15 people had served abroad with CD. During the period 1980-85, 507 people participated in work camps in Paraguayan activity which promoted voluntary service and challenged the spiritual life of the congregations in Paraguay. The first volunteers from abroad came from Brazil in 1958 and later from Canada, West Germany, Holland, and Switzerland.

Mennonite Brethren

The Mennonite Brethren General Conference (North America) approved the creation of a Christian Service Program in 1960 to provide opportunities for short-term service for members of the conference as an expression of Christian discipleship and an opportunity to serve conference outreach in a needy world. In 1963, 38 workers were in Christian Service assignments in the United States, Colombia, Paraguay, Zaire, and India. In 1986, 27 volunteers served people to help build the church in 12 locations in the United States.

Associação Menonita de Assistência Social

The Associação Menonita de Assistência Social (AMAS; Mennonite Association for Social Assistance) is the Christian service organization of the Mennonite churches in Brazil. Applications by Brazilian young people participating in the International Visitor Exchange Program of MCC since 1966 have been processed by AMAS. Since 1983 AMAS administers a program called Serving and Learning Together (SALT), in which youth from North America live and work for a year in Brazil. Under the sponsorship of the International Mennonite Organization (IMO), German volunteers serve with AMAS in Brazil in a program which began in 1972. In 1987 AMAS assigned the first Brazilian volunteers to Germany and Paraguay. Each year AMAS volunteers serve with the love of Christ in the interior of Brazil.

Although there are other Mennonite voluntary service activities around the world and relatively modest numbers of people have participated in voluntary service over the years, the concept has gained wide acceptance in the churches as a way for persons, especially youth, to commit their lives voluntarily and sacrificially for a period of Christian service in situations of human need. As a result, significant learning about the world, the meaning of Christian discipleship and servanthood has ensued -- a process both enlightening and enriching the churches around the world.


Agape, a monthly VS periodical published by the Mennonite Relief and Service Committee, Elkhart, 1955-1979.

Unruh, J. D. In the Name of Christ. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1952: 294-309.

Unruh, Wilfred J. "Study of Mennonite Service Programs." Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1965.

VS 1958. Relief and Service Office of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, Elkhart, IN.

Archival Records

Files of the voluntary service directors' meetings, Archives of the Mennonite Church (Goshen, Indiana)

Additional Information

Mennonite Central Committee

Mennonite Voluntary Service

Mennonite Voluntary Service Canada

Author(s) Harold S. Bender
Harold A. Penner
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Bender, Harold S. and Harold A. Penner. "Voluntary Service." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 5 Dec 2023. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Voluntary_Service&oldid=177274.

APA style

Bender, Harold S. and Harold A. Penner. (1989). Voluntary Service. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 5 December 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Voluntary_Service&oldid=177274.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 848-850; vol. 5, pp. 917-918. All rights reserved.

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