Mark 10:45: Service or Serving Time?

I don’t like Mark 10:45. Before you start worrying about the state of my immortal soul, I’ll go ahead and tell you I don’t mean the Bible verse. I’m talking about the program at Covenant College that requires freshmen and sophomores to complete fifteen hours of volunteer service per semester.

I’m not arguing that the school should discard the Mark 10:45 program. Requiring service is beneficial to students, most of whom are unlikely to regularly participate in service unless they’re told to. I know this from personal experience—my high school required me to complete 100 hours of community service, so I volunteered at my local library. I wouldn’t have gotten involved in community service if I wasn’t required to, but I ended up being grateful for the opportunity to get to know my community better and spend time serving. So my main problem with Mark 10:45 is not the program itself, but instead the policy requiring freshmen to work in assigned positions.

While sophomores can choose where to serve, the college assigns freshmen to various tasks on campus, mostly related to the facilities or athletics departments. I understand the rationale for this: these jobs on campus need to be done, and assigning them as mandatory service helps get those jobs done while simultaneously simplifying matters for new students.

Freshmen are trying to settle into a new place and likely don’t know what needs to be done. And the policy gives them service work on campus so transportation off campus won’t be an issue. Hopefully it also gives students an appreciation for the work that goes into maintaining the school.

However, these reasons fail to hold up against the problems of assigning service to freshmen, such as the lack of necessity for the assigned jobs, the resulting cynicism students feel about those jobs, and the missed opportunity of giving freshmen a sense of the value in serving as they are called to by God. Requiring students to volunteer in areas like campus facilities or athletics would be reasonable if the school actually needed additional workers to make sure everything gets done.

In many cases, however, the work on campus that freshmen are assigned to is unnecessary. A friend of mine told me recently that when she shows up to do her Mark 10:45 facilities work, the facilities work study students sit around and let the volunteers do all the work. There is already an over-saturation of student employees in the facilities department, so placing freshmen in facilities to fulfill their service requirements is superfluous and impractical.

Rather than giving students the valuable, rewarding experience of contributing service where it is needed, placing students in over-staffed areas on campus makes service seem like busy work. The burden of taking time out of a busy schedule seems even heavier when the burden isn’t even necessary.

The needlessness of the work frequently leads students to become disillusioned, working against what Mark 10:45 is trying to achieve. One of the best reasons for requiring students to volunteer is the hope that they will form continuing habits of service, realizing they have the time for it and seeing the benefits of volunteering their time and labor.

The lack of necessity for the Mark 10:45 work many freshmen have to do is unlikely to encourage long-term servants’ mentalities, let alone even an appreciation for the work it takes to maintain the campus. Mark 10:45 service becomes a redundant chore that needs to be checked off the list.

Requiring students to serve is inescapably problematic because this kind of “volunteering” isn’t true service at all. Service is making some kind of sacrifice and offering help to someone without expecting a return. The ultimate example of this is Jesus’s sacrifice for us on the cross. Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” But the work students have to do for Covenant College’s Mark 10:45 program can’t reasonably be compared with Jesus’s selfless sacrifice for us.

Really, this “service” is technically just another kind of paid labor, since students do the work to fulfill a graduation requirement. This is an unavoidable fact if a school is going to require volunteering. However, this problem can be overcome if students have the chance to choose where they will serve and thereby take greater ownership of the work they are doing.

The biggest drawback of the Mark 10:45 program is that assigning freshmen to specific positions decreases the chance that the problems with requiring service in the first place will be overcome. With no personal decision involved, freshmen’s involvement in Mark 10:45 is even less likely to resemble actual service.

In order to accomplish the goals of the Mark 10:45 program without specifically assigning freshmen to work positions, the college should allow freshmen to choose where they would like to complete their service requirements. There should be a clear list of opportunities to pick from, including on-campus opportunities that actually need to be done.

The program should also encourage students to become involved and serve in local churches. Volunteering at a local church helps build relationships with people besides other college students, and it also develops responsibility and commitment. Without a doubt, this would be far more practical and beneficial to students than sweeping an over-swept floor in Carter Hall.

Discovering where there is a need and where we can best help is an important part of service in everyday life, so Covenant should facilitate those discoveries by allowing freshmen to explore for themselves where they are called to serve.