Five Ways to Help Volunteers Win

Matthew McNutt
April 8th, 2021

Volunteers are an amazing gift! One of the critical responsibilities of a leader is to help them win; to create an environment that fosters longevity and sets them up for success. For me, over the last twenty years, that has boiled down to five critical things:

1. Communicate Clear Expectations.

I am an enneagram 9, which means I hate asking people to do things – I want people to like me, and communicating direct expectations is challenging! In my early years, my vague communication resulted in a lot of confusion on both sides; I was frustrated that volunteers didn’t intuitively know what I expected of them, while volunteers felt underutilized and wondered if they were even actually needed. The solution for me? I wrote up a clear ministry position description and listed everything I expect a volunteer to do; how often they should be present, which events were a must, which were optional, how and when I expected them to communicate with students and parents – you get the idea. Now when I recruit, I get to give the pitch on why they would be amazing for the team, sell them on all the ways I love youth ministry – the things I love communicating. Then I hand them the description, ask them to read over it, pray, and get back to me if they are willing to make the commitment.

2. Plan Breaks in the Program

Intentionally plan seasons and events where regular volunteers are not expected to show up. For example, I recruit others to help with our summer programming so our regulars can have the summer off. We take three weeks off for Christmas, as well as other holiday breaks throughout the year. Building these breathing spaces into the calendar has translated to many of my volunteers serving for decades! Rather than getting burnt out over time, these breaks – which they welcome – fuel their excitement to get back to the students.

3. Training

Ongoing training is critical for everyone on the team, whether it’s the leader, the new recruit, or the volunteer who has been serving 25 years. We schedule four meetings a year where we use one of the short training videos from DYM and discuss it as a group. Other ways to provide training is through books, buying audio from events like NYWC, sharing blog posts from Youth Specialties – all of these send the message that you believe in the volunteer and you want to see them grow.

4. Fun Fellowship Times

Friends love doing ministry together! Doing ministry with friends translates to long-term service because of the joy it brings. Yes, leaders connect at student ministry programs and events, but where the real relational magic happens is at kid-free fellowship times! It can be as simple as getting all the leaders and their spouses together for a cookout in the summer, a Christmas get-together, or even just a large meal after church. Keep the agenda light and prioritize sharing and laughing. My volunteers look forward to these events – and others want in on our team because of them.

5. Share the Spotlight

I am convinced that this might be the most important lesson I’ve learned over the last two decades. Let’s be honest; there are parts of youth ministry that are just more fun. The spotlight moments. Times where someone gets to be the speaker, the leader, the one getting the attention. If volunteers are willing to do the hard, behind-the-scenes work of youth ministry, then it is a disservice to them to not share the best moments with them as well! The reality is, I love to teach, and my preference (or is it my ego?) would rather be the one speaking every week, leading every game, and giving away every cool prize.

But here’s the thing, volunteers who get to share the spotlight feel affirmed, valued, and fulfilled in what they are doing! They feel invested and invested in, and they stay around for the long haul, which means a healthier youth ministry for the teens. I teach less than half the time; any volunteer that wants to teach can be a part of the rotation. I let volunteers lead service projects, lead mission trips, be the speakers at our retreats, lead the games – you name it. If someone has an interest, I let them do it. What if they are not great? No one is a great teacher out of the gate! A while back I stumbled across an old video of me speaking in the late 90’s. I could only watch it for a minute or two; I was so horrified! Unfortunately, I had hit play with my wife in the room, so she was wildly entertained at 23-year-old me’s efforts. In my church, the student ministry has the reputation for producing strong teachers; it is because we let them keep trying, we affirm what they do right, give them materials to help, and they grow through experience. 
It’s easy to be tempted to hog the spotlight or feel threatened when others have it – and may even be better. But here’s the truth: When we share the spotlight and it reveals stronger leaders, we all win. I want to be the leader who recognizes and encourages gifting, the leader who makes others feel seen and valued.  When this happens, the students win because they have many voices pouring into them. Sharing the spotlight does not weaken your role, it strengthens it – and it fulfills Ephesians 4:12’s call to equip others for the work of the ministry.

Matthew McNutt

Youth pastor, coach, author, speaker, and Star Trek nerd. Matthew and his wife Heather have four sons and have been in full time student ministry for 20 years.

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