It’s September. You’ve decided that if you’re ever going to be able to breathe again, you should probably bite the bullet and involve some volunteers in your programming. Aside from being crucial and integral to your ministry, volunteer leaders can also be crucial and integral to your sanity. But like any good ministry, working alongside volunteers necessitates commitments.
Let’s say you’ve finally made the 25 phone calls it takes to get 2 or 3 good people in the room and committed to some aspect of shared youth ministry with you, their leader. Now what? Here are 3 commitments to help you wrap your head and your heart around the idea of cultivating fellow leaders:
1) Commit to loving your volunteers. In order to do youth ministry well, we need to do adult ministry well. We need to think about doing for our volunteers the kinds of things we do for our youth group kids…things like: grabbing coffee with them, learning their stories, praying with and for them and studying God’s word alongside them. These kinds of relational investments tie us together as Christian community, and open doors for us to know deeply the gifts and needs surrounding us. This gives us tools to see where and how to place our volunteers in the life of the youth ministry, and grace enough to spot when we should encourage volunteers to take a mental or spiritual sabbath.
2) Commit to training your volunteers. Every time I try to recruit a volunteer for youth ministry, I hear the same things. Would-be leaders say things like, “I’m not young enough” or “I don’t have the training/personality/experience necessary for youth ministry.” Welcome to the club. Most youth ministers find themselves in their role NOT because they’re a 20 year-old extrovert with a PhD in youth ministry, but because someone pointed out their gifts and begged them to give it a try. The catch is, once you’ve recruited someone, you cannot leave them how you found them. You must commit to training the leaders you recruit, and there are endless books, resources, events and blog series out there that can help you do just that. I used to take my leaders on a retreat once per year to do the bulk of our visioning and training all at once. Much like a mission trip does for your youth group, it bonded us together in new ways and created space for new and innovative ideas to take root in our shared ministry.
3) Commit to giving stuff up. To cultivate volunteer ministers you’ll need to give up two things: A) Time spent on less sustainable forms of ministry and B) Some creative control.
A) Give up time spent on less sustainable forms of ministry: If right now you’re the only person in your congregation spending time with young people, you’re in trouble. The first step to cultivating volunteer leaders who will also spend time with young people is modeling to adults what that time should look like. Think about it this way: How much time do you spend with youth during one month? Most youth ministers make it a point to take kids out to coffee, to show up at sporting events and make time to meet with kids one-on-one. I like the 1/3 rule. Take the amount of time you normally spend in a month with youth and protect 1/3 of that time to spend with adult volunteers instead. So if you normally spend 18 hours per month at coffee/in your office/on the sports field with youth, you’ll slash that to 12 hours and start dedicating 6 hours per month to one-on-one time with volunteers. This requires you to actually sit down and calculate (on average) how you spend your face-to-face time, and then to make a decision about re-framing how that time is spent. As you invest in this way in your leaders, you will not only be investing in your relationship with them, but modeling the kind of ministry with them that you hope to see them do. What might look at first like a decrease in youth ministry will eventually yield a team of adults who are capable of increasing the personal and interpersonal support system for youth in your congregation.
B) Give up creative control: Think of the best mentors and leaders you’ve known in your life. Why were they so good at mentoring you? At leading? I’d wager a guess that one of their best qualities is a willingness to let others try and fail. The same thing goes with cultivating volunteers. If you never give them leadership opportunities because you’re too worried about how un-polished, not theologically sound or un-organized they will be, you’re not actually giving them a chance to learn anything. Someone probably let you preach or lead a Bible study before you were fully comfortable in your theological skin (is one ever?), and now is your chance to do the same. My guess is you’ve had your own fair share of screw-ups, and needed someone to help re-shape and re-mold your thoughts and work from time to time. Doing ministry alongside others means giving others the chance to lead, to learn and to grow. Should this be done haphazardly? No. Should you have them preach to middle school-ers their first night on the volunteer job? No. Leadership roles and responsibilities should be well-planned, well-resourced and prayed over before they’re assigned…but you’ll never see your volunteers grow if you never give them anything more than a cookie baking role.
Some of the best volunteers with whom I’ve worked have been in their fifties (read: enough life experience to not freak out about most things) and haven’t studied theology beyond church and Bible study. The last thing youth need is another person in their lives who is trying to impress them with their social status. Youth need leaders who love them, love Jesus and are passionate about the idea that faith grows and reconstructs over time.
You want volunteers who are comfortable working in the construction zone that is a teenager’s faith journey.
My best warning is that if you put these commitments into practice, you will grow the kind of ministry that will be very hard to leave. Loving, training and giving things up for the sake of God’s work in the lives of your volunteers will be transformative for your life as well. What’s more- it will be transformative in the lives of the young people at your church, because it will show them that they belong to so much more than you, their youth pastor. It will put many faces to their community of belonging. And the last time I checked, God was much bigger than any one of us.
Abigail Visco Rusert is the Assistant Director of the Institute for Youth Ministry. Since starting her journey in youth ministry as a summer camp counselor, Abigail has had the chance to work with youth on three continents and in six churches. Ordained in the PC (USA) and a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, she served most recently as the Associate Pastor at Carmel Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. When she’s not chasing after her toddler, Abigail enjoys drinking strong coffee and affirming her Lutheran husband’s excellent cooking skills.