The Corps: Working with Youth Ministry Volunteers

When I started my ministry as a DCE, the youth group at the congregation I was serving had about 15 active youth. Over the next couple of years, the group grew until we had about 40 attending pretty regularly.  On one particular retreat we had over 40 in attendance.  After the retreat ended, I was meeting with my core adult counselors for an evaluation of the retreat. I shared my concerns about the experience. I compared the retreat with the previous one that had about 35 in attendance. I said I thought the earlier retreat was better because I was able to “connect” with every participant at least once. At the most recent retreat, I failed to have any significant discussion time with four of the participants, all of whom were guests of some of our members.  I wondered aloud as to whether we should restrict the numbers allowed at our retreats so that all of the participants could have the best chance of achieving the overall goals that we had set for the retreat.

The counselors met my comments with stunned silence.  Finally, one of the counselors said, “Mark, what do you think we’re here for?  Do you think you’re the only one capable of making connections with these kids?”  The counselors then went on to give me example after example of how each of them had taken specific time to talk with the four youth (and several others) who I had thought were “overlooked.” Their interactions were decidedly more significant and had helped to achieve the retreat goals much more effectively than even the programmed efforts that I had made to the group as a whole. They were appropriately indignant that I had failed to see the level of their contribution–and that I had thought more highly of my importance in the whole process than I ought.

That was a key learning experience for me (I wish I could learn as well without having my ego battered so mercilessly). I had actually considered restricting the numerical growth of the group to better accommodate my leadership style!  I had failed to plan and take advantage of the gifts and abilities of the whole youth ministry leadership team and was watching instead for how things could be designed to better fit my style and methodology.  As the years went on, I watched the incredible contributions made by the lay leaders volunteering time and effort to my youth ministry program. I began to realize how much the ministry was enhanced by these people–and how one of my key ministry goals should be to help them in their efforts.

I believe that a core group of competent youth ministry volunteers is central to the development of an effective congregational youth ministry. I also know that this doesn’t always happen. Many solo youth group leaders make efforts to have the group fit their leadership styles rather than using other leaders to best accommodate their groups’ needs. I think that the lack of intentionality is often the root problem. The more intentional we are with our volunteers, the better the results will be.

Choose your adult leaders carefully – It is important for youth to have some say in whom they will have serving as their counselors. Have the group identify congregational members the youth feel fit their idea of what a youth counselor should be–based partly on the qualities that the group’s leadership has identified as necessary.  The congregational leaders should also put some names onto the list.  Have the youth vote on the names generated–but have the results kept confidential.  Explain to the group that the top vote-getters need to be approved by the leadership, contacted to see if they are interested, and be willing to complete a background check with the local police. If adults who have children in the group are nominated, their children should have the right to eliminate that parent from consideration if the youth think it would decrease their interest in attending youth activities.  I found that I always had a better receptivity in my recruiting efforts when I started by saying, “The youth voted for counselors they would like to have and you were one of their top choices.”

Clearly state expectations – Unfortunately, one of the key frustrations for youth volunteers is the fact that the youth leader does not always tell them what is expected of them.  I believe that some of this is due to the fact that too many youth ministry leaders don’t know themselves what they will be doing until the last minute–which is one reason why even professional youth leaders don’t use volunteers effectively; they don’t have their own acts together. Having clear job descriptions for your volunteers can solve a lot of this. Job descriptions should contain a minimum of four things: necessary qualifications, responsibilities, to whom volunteers are to be responsible, and how will they be evaluated. A clearly written job description can provide some direction for volunteers even when planning by the leader may be less than timely.

Support with resources – Volunteers need to know they have access to resources that can help them do their job well. “Resources” for volunteers almost always includes covering costs for volunteers at activities and retreats as well as reimbursements for any out-of-pocket expenses. It should also include access to office equipment, secretarial support (when available), congregational facilities and easy access to the time of the professional church workers. Considering all that the volunteers will be contributing of their own time and energy, access to congregational resources seems the least we can do.

Give recognition – While most volunteers will shy away from public recognition of their efforts, there are many things, public and private, that should be done to show that their efforts are appreciated.  Words and notes of thanks are a private and necessary form of recognition. It is important to regularly speak highly of your counselors to the rest of the youth group (in addition to the well-meaning sarcastic jabs that you may occasionally take at them.) If your budget allows, it is also nice to give a specially chosen gift on occasion.  If the budget isn’t there for such gifts, try to solicit the youth for ideas. Maybe a youth will volunteer to baby-sit the counselor’s children while he or she has a night out. Perhaps an artistic youth would be willing to produce an art piece for them. Give the youth the opportunity to say “thanks” also!

Provide growth opportunities – Your core leaders should have the opportunity to enhance their skills. If your budget allows, this could include outside training events or even a retreat for counselors on a subject of interest. If your budget is tight, you want to keep your eyes open for articles and publications that might be of interest, as well as encouraging and even coordinating Bible study opportunities in which your counselors can participate.

Evaluate – As much as we hate to use the word, evaluation is key to helping counselors achieve their full potential–and it is easy to do. If you have a well-written job description for your core counselors, merely have them write a personal evaluation on how well they feel they have been achieving the main job qualifications and responsibilities. This can happen once or twice a year. Following their personal evaluation, sit down with your volunteers and review what they have written and see if you have any additional insights. Be prepared to provide any resources to help enhance those areas they see a deficiency.

Pray – We need to constantly lift up our volunteers in prayer. Include prayers of thanks for their service as well as prayers for their well-being and ability to contribute at their fullest level.

A core group of lay leaders can greatly enhance your ability to provide a competent and comprehensive youth ministry within your congregation–as well as giving more adults the chance to experience the joy that it is to work with young people as they grow in their knowledge and love of their Lord.

Professor Mark Blanke serves as the DCE program director at Concordia University, Nebraska. Mark has been involved in the DCE ministry field for over twenty years and has been working within the Concordia University System to train students as DCEs for over ten years. Mark and his wife Chris live in Seward, NE.

Published June 1, 2004

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