In my junior high ministry, we started a fun tradition a few years ago. Many of my adult leaders were long-termers. So at our team’s Christmas party that year, six volunteers who’d served for five years or more received an elegant and practical gift—an engraved leather Bible.
A few years later I realized that some of these same volunteers were about to celebrate their 10th anniversary as junior high volunteers. Another gift was in order. I think they deserved trips to Hawaii or new cars—they had to settle for nice watches.
We didn’t realize it at the time, but we’d created a tradition that’s now the highlight of our annual Christmas party. Volunteering in the same youth ministry for five years is amazing; staying committed for 10 years is almost unheard of. Yet each year I celebrate with men and women who’ve done just that.
What’s the secret?
You’re a youth leader like me, so that means you’re always looking for more adult leaders,(1) and you’re always looking for ways to keep them longer. Here’s what I’ve learned: The better I care for my existing volunteers, the longer they stay with me and the more new leaders I attract to my ministry. I call this TLC—Training, Leadership, and Care.
Never assume your volunteers know what’s expected of them or feel equipped to do it once they know! Most adults get involved in youth ministry because they have a heart for teenagers. They have no training—that’s what they’re expecting you to do.
We train our volunteers in the basics: our youth ministry’s purpose statement, core values, disciplinary procedures, safety expectations, and integrity requirements.(2) Also, most volunteers want to know how to talk with teenagers and better understand their world. When you raise your volunteers’ competence, they feel more confident. And confident volunteers stick around longer.
Here’s the framework I use for volunteer training:
- Create a “volunteer notebook” that includes your purpose statement, policies, relational ministry tips, and a place to record training notes.
- Create a theme for each volunteer training meeting. At the beginning of the school year, your theme might be “The ABC’s of Youth Ministry.” Cover the building blocks of effective youth ministry and decorate the room with pencils, chalkboards, old lunch boxes, and so on.
- Match your volunteer training to each recruit’s strengths and experience. For example, if you recruit someone who’s been a small-group leader for adults, train that person to adapt his or her skills to lead a cell group in your ministry.
- Invite other pastors and leaders in your church to do the training occasionally. If you have trained counselors in your congregation who work with kids, ask one of them to do a “Counseling Do’s and Don’ts” training time for your new recruits.
- Be on the lookout for spontaneous training moments. The best training happens in the midst of ministry, not in a meeting.
Your volunteers may be community leaders, project leaders at work, or even former youth ministry leaders. But if you’re the point person in your ministry, they’re looking to follow your lead.
Here are the core leadership practices in our ministry.
- Point the way. Where are we heading? What are our goals? What do we want to see accomplished in the lives of our middle schoolers? Why does our ministry exist? Every youth ministry must ask these essential questions—the leaders need to have answers to them.
- Cast the vision. Your job is to get others on board with your ministry’s mission—to convince them of a needed change or to excite them about a new opportunity. People will align their hearts with a well-cast vision.
- Make the decisions. You don’t need to make every decision, but certain decisions are your responsibility, and it would be unfair and unwise to let others make them for you. For example, if you have a disruptive student who’s been warned before, it’s your job to ask that student to take a break from your ministry activities for a time.
- Take the blame. Anyone can drink in the praise, but good leaders know how to take the blame, too. When you take the hit from your church leaders for a volunteer’s mistake, you earn your adult leaders’ trust and loyalty.
- Pass the praise. Look for opportunities to publicly encourage and affirm your volunteers’ efforts. You can’t afford to pay them what they’re worth, and most of them wouldn’t take the money, but a well-timed word of praise is priceless.
In addition, I encourage youth ministry leaders to:
- Subscribe to publications such as Group Magazine, Leadership journal, and Youthworker journal. Christian leadership guru John Maxwell says that all good leaders are readers. Determine that you’ll be a lifelong learner.
- Ask an older, wiser leader to mentor you. I meet with Don Thompson, a 20-year veteran youth ministry volunteer, twice a week. During this time his prays for me, encourages me, and pours wisdom into my life.
- Check your pride at the door. Follow Christ’s servant leadership example.
Here’s my hunch: Volunteers will stay on your team for a couple of years if you give them proper training and leadership. They will stay on much longer if you give them proper care. If you asked the five- and 10-year veterans on my ministry team why they’ve stuck around, I’m sure you’d get a variety of responses. I’m also certain that you’d discover one common denominator—they feel cared for.
Youth ministry is draining! Teenagers are high-maintenance people. They’re needy, they don’t always say thanks, and they probably aren’t spending their free time praying for your volunteers. This is just where you can make a big impact. Be a constant source of encouragement to your leaders. Invest your time in their lives by showing up at their 30th birthday party or taking them to a movie. Put them on your prayer list, then pray for them.
Think about what you want them to be doing in the lives of your group members—that’s exactly what you need to be doing in their lives. If you have more than 25 or 30 kids in your group, chances are your leaders are “trench-weary.” You are their first aid.
Because our church is large, people often feel disconnected. It’s easy to get lost in the crowd. Our adult volunteers have come to view the youth ministry as their church-within-a-church. Our ministry team provides accountability, encouragement, and support. I’m the one who dedicates their newborn children. And it’s my volunteers who show up to help landscape the backyard.
Don’t assume your volunteers are getting the care they need from other areas in your church. Earn some points with your senior pastor by giving back to the people who are giving so much to you.
Now, I’ve been in youth ministry for almost 15 years, and I’ve lost lots of volunteers! Some moved away, some moved into another area of ministry, some had moral failures, some didn’t feel well-trained and equipped, some felt I wasn’t a strong leader, and some felt I was too strong. I’ve lost lots of volunteers for lots of reasons. But I’ve never lost a volunteer because he or she got sick of being cared for. No one’s ever said to me, “Kurt, I think it’s time to move on in ministry because you guys just love me too much, and I don’t like it.”
Some of my best volunteer-care tips:
- Send birthday and anniversary cards to each of them.
- Create an Overachievers Award to recognize those volunteers who’ve gone the extra mile.
- Ask your students to provide free baby-sitting once a month so married volunteers can have a date night. Offer to pay for their date night.
- Make your ministry family-friendly by allowing volunteers to bring their young children to appropriate events.
- Provide meals for volunteers who are sick or have recently given birth.
- Charge your teenagers a little extra for an event so volunteers can go for free.
- Give your volunteers permission to take a day off once in a while.
- Cancel your training meeting and have a fun day instead.
- Say “thank you” as often as you can.
When you’ve cared well for your team members, believe me, they’ll tell other prospective volunteers. I do my fair share of trolling for new leaders. I’m pretty good at it. But my current volunteers are much better at it because they’re satisfied customers—they make up the best sales staff that never got a paycheck.In Firefox or Chrome browsers, right-click the link and select "Save Link As." In Internet Explore select "Save target as." In Safari right-click or ctrl+click and select "Download Linked File As."