In seven years as Volunteers in Mission coordinator for the Western PA Conference, what has fed Diane Miller’s spirit the most are the many people who call to tell her about something extraordinary that happened on their mission trips.
“I have not only my own stories of God-moments, but other people’s,” she said. “Many are about how much the experience changed them and helped somebody else.”
Miller officially retired on August 31 from the full-time job that was created, in a sense, by popular demand as part of the Believe Again Plan for Ministry. However, she remains on the job on a part-time basis until a successor is in place.
In the post, she connected Volunteers in Mission with mission opportunities locally, regionally and globally. She regularly spoke to groups or congregations telling the stories of mission, responded to requests for information or assistance and produced a weekly e-newsletter full of information to encourage volunteers and interest others in being VIM “pray-ers, players, or payer.”
Miller also conducted or arranged regular training events for VIM team leaders. She worked with the Conference Global Ministries Team, Zimbabwe Partnership Team, the Disaster Response Team and the Mission Barn director, as well as leaders of the Cooperative School of Christian Mission, now known as Mission u, each July. She also served as a teacher at regional schools of mission throughout the U.S.
Volunteers in Mission, Miller said, can be a unifying force in a church that remains divided over human sexuality and other issues.
“I try to resource everybody equally,” Miller added. “I don’t use the position as a pulpit for promoting anything but love and service.
“Everyone has a different experience and different philosphy, but Christ connects the dots,” Miller said. “(On VIM teams), people of all different views can work together. It has connected liberals and conservatives alike.”
As an example, she mentioned two men who were on the first volunteer team she organized. One, she said, is “about as far left as you can get, and the other is as far right.” Over the years, on several projects, they have had some lengthly and pointed discussions. Like many people who volunteer over and over again, the two have become good friends. Both, Miller said, are “extraordinary volunteers and great organizers.”
Miller’s background in mission before being hired as VIM coordinator can only be described as eclectic, she said. But it appears that God may have been preparing her for the job all along.
“I had only been involved in one VIM experience with Mt. Lebanon Church (where her husband John D. Miller served as pastor), but I had been volunteering all my life with Schools of Mission, mission committees and UMW. So I knew the Conference and had built relationships. Additionally she learned a lot serving alongside her husband and working with groups at Olmsted Manor, where he was executive director for 22 years.
Diane also served twice as a Mission Ambassador. In 1980 the program took her to five Latin American countries and she did 120 presentations the following year about what she learned. Later she and Ruth Higginbotham traveled to Pakistan and served as a speaker form at churches and events for two years afterward. “It’s a great way to get to know the churches and areas of the Conference,” she said.
Miller said she was a local mission-minded person before I was a Mission Ambassador, but that and School of Mission “catapulted me into being a global Christian and looking at mission beyond the local church.”
While living at Olmsted Manor, Miller worked as an itinerant teacher of gifted students in a four-county area. There she learned that youth “aren’t always motiviated, but once you get them on board, they do incredible things. Organizing things like the Model UN, competitions and field trips taught her how to set up experiences for how to get people grow, she said.
“It’s important to get people to admit their giftedness. Sometimes people don’t see themselves as being gifted in a servant ministry, but if you can get them to say yes and use their gifts, they can figure out where they fit,” she said.
Also while teaching Miller applied for a teacher exchange that the U.S. State Dept. was setting up in which 22 teachers were sent to old Soviet Khazakstan. Then two Russian teachers and nine students came to Kane area for three weeks. As part of the program, she also took 10 students to Russia for three weeks where they connected with students learning English.
Some of the Russian visitors stayed at the home of Michael Airgood, now a young adult United Methodist missionary who served most recently with a student ministry in L’viv, Ukraine.
One of Miller’s goals has always been to involve youth and young adults as volunteers on mission teams. Through the years she has served as a mentor for Airgood and other young adults.
While her husband was serving at Mt. Lebanon UMC, Diane responded to a request from some mothers of teenagers and launched Dames in Action, a United Methodist Women circle for teens. She worked with the group and the moms provided food and support. The group continued when the Millers moved to New Castle First UMC. One who participated was Grace Killian, who was commissioned in August as General Board of Global Ministries Mission Intern. She heads to Bethlehem this month to work with an organization working for peace in Palestine.
One method Miller has used to connect Volunteers in Mission has been to send out a weekly e-newsletter. It evolved from one of the first big projects she was involved with—the Habitat Blitz-Build during annual conference.
“When I got back from General Conference in May of that year, there were 500 people who wanted to volunteer and some of them were professional level, but the deadline had passed,” she said. Rather than turn them away, she found 14 projects. There were three different Habitat houses, roofing in Shippenville; drywalling in Sheakleyville… and that was when ramp ministry got started.
“I was sending out so many emails – that’s when I decided to just do it once a week,” she said.
As it evolved, the Mission News has served to expand understanding of what a VIM experience is and build support for mission work.
“People define VIM very narrowly, but it is not that anymore: You are doing volunteers in mission-- whether you have been trained or not,” she explained. “Church teams who do an Appalachia Service Project ASP or a Habitat build or ramp project are VIM teams.”
When she began listing those sorts of teams in the prayer section of the Mission News once a month, Miller began to get requests from more groups seeking prayer. She also added reports from some teams “because they are poignant and powerful stories,” and others started to send in their reports. “There is not a week that I don’t get somebody shooting back an email asking a question or adding someone to list,” she said.
Miller encourages team leaders to report how many people were involved, how many hours and what was donated to the project. “The numbers provide a really interesting witness to how much volunteers are doing,” she explained.
Miller said she includes the information “to give other people ideas and to enable them to talk to others about what our church is doing. It is information they can share outside the church to explain what United Methodists do.”
Miller said she is retiring because “in the last few years, I have been consumed by the job. I’ve taken the computer on vacation -- and that’s not a good thing. It’s time for me to be a little bit more available to my family.
“There has been a wonderful feeding of the flames that are part of the Mission/ VIM coordinator position,” she said. But the time has come for her to move to a different role.