In 1988 I was a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. Like many of the “mature” volunteers I lived in a flat in downtown Americus, Georgia, downstairs from a married couple who owned the stately southern home, complete with rocking chair on the front porch. Then one day I got a call from the volunteer coordinator, he asked if I would consider moving in to one of the dorms where the “young” undergraduate students were housed. Millard Fuller, then CEO and founder of Habitat would go all over the United States speaking at university campuses and asking students to give up their summer to volunteer at the headquarters in Americus. Fuller’s request was well heeded, they came in the hundreds to help. Habitat would house them in these dorms, each student with their own small room, sharing a common space for living.

Habitat’s message, to offer home ownership to those who otherwise could not afford it, was popular with a variety of people. Conservatives liked it because it confirmed to their message of self-reliance and liberals liked it since it was helping the poor. In basic terms the working poor could finally afford to buy a home because Habitat offered their homes interest-free. They could do that because the homes were built on volunteer labour, often with a lot of donated materials. Homeowners were also expected to contribute “sweat equity” on their own homes and on the next house built in their community for another person in need.

When the summer ended and the students returned to their campuses the manager who had asked me to move in with the students in the dorm told me I could return to my flat. I asked him why he had suggested I move in with the students. I shall not forget his answer. “The evangelical conservative Christians and the agnostic liberal do-gooders were at each other’s throats. We could not pull the dorm together, it was getting out of hand. We needed someone, an animator, to bring the people together. Since you were the only person we knew who got along with volunteers on both sides of the argument we thought you might help bring people together.” I think it worked as there were no big disputes when I lived in that dorm.

That experience was a revelation to me. Up till then I had begun to question what gifts I had, what skills I possessed. I had no “handy” skills, I was not smart enough to join academia, I was not an entrepreneur, working my way up in a company was not my idea of fulfillment, and when it came to media almost all journalism schools wanted language skills. But it occurred to me then that being an animator, someone who could bring people together, a story-teller who listened to others and drew out of them things that would be interesting to the larger group, well I could do that. I am smart academically, but not driven to pursue knowledge for knowledge sake. Pure research is not my passion. I loved people and I love ideas and I love action and I especially love putting diverse peoples, big ideas and concrete action together into one organic entity.

I share all of this to highlight the importance of animators in our institutions. I remember a church leader telling me that in her office at a private company she deliberately kept on the payroll an employee with less than acceptable skills and a very low efficiency rate because he kept a fractured workplace fun and happy. He was the glue that kept people together and working, not separate and cranky. The latter qualities are not what you need to keep things running at an optimum level. Churches need animators and seldom do churches recognize or value this skill. Often the one who performs this role is taken for granted but when s/he is gone there is a sudden feeling that something is missing, friction is getting high and conflict is now moving further along than it was.

I have made it a point in each and every church I serve to spot the animators and celebrate them along with the “doers” and the very spiritual ones. The animators make fun, attract joy and create memories that institutions can draw on when people need a reason to remember why they are there. These animators are a gift.