Taking Volunteers to the Next Level

Youth Specialties
October 10th, 2009

It starts with loving God and liking teenagers. That was my original strategy when I first started inviting adult volunteers to work in our youth ministry. Since our congregation primarily consisted of new believers, I tried to make it easy for interested people to become involved.

  • “You don’t have to have a seminary degree and know all the answers, just listen.”
  • “No, you don’t have to watch MTV every week to love on teenagers—just be consistent.”
  • “Of course you don’t have to be perfect. We just expect you to love Jesus and like students.”

Slowly our adult team grew. I was thrilled! We got Leanne and Rob, young parents who nervously volunteered to host a Bible study and be small group leaders. Don joined after a few months. He was a fairly new believer, but passionately desired to invest in kids. Nancy was older and a bit hesitant, but thought she would give it a try. As our team grew, I soon realized the diversity of our volunteers’ needs, gifts, spiritual journeys, and potential.

And as I stretched my mind to figure out better ways to care for students in our growing ministry, my thoughts kept coming back to those volunteers…


  • How do I help them grow spiritually?
  • How can they be more effective?
  • How do I move volunteers to the next level in this ministry?

The majority of volunteers start as “program-directed”—looking to you and the program for assigned roles and tasks. But our goal as ministers is to help them be “self-directed”—to catch a vision and take initiative in caring for students beyond the program. These kinds of volunteers show up to football practices, send birthday cards, follow-up on prayer requests, and even minister to families in crisis.

I didn’t have a plan for taking volunteers to the next level when I started, so I attempted many things, implemented a variety of tools, and made plenty of mistakes in the process. But I’ve found a few things that seemed to move the adult helpers along in their ministry journeys:

Empower Them with the Truth: “You are the Ministers.”
When meeting potential volunteers, I tell them that the youth ministry revolves around them. They are the youth ministers to students. I don’t need chaperones to serve punch; I need adults who’ll listen to kids’ stories and have encouraging words for them. In our monthly meetings, we affirm a volunteer or two whose care for students has stood out.

  • Tom and Marla invited their small group over to their house to cook and eat dinner together.
  • Dave is in front of his house meeting parents before and after Bible study.
  • Cynthia faithfully sends cards and makes phone calls to missing students.
  • Jeff drove 60 miles to a hospital with a car full of boys to visit a student waiting for a heart transplant.

That’s great youth ministry! As volunteers catch the vision to minister to students, I’ve seen their effectiveness grow—their passion explodes as they live out their ministry.

Another example is Dan and Kathleen. They’ve opened their home and lives to students, and they love God. But they also have chronically ill children whose medical needs revolve around hospital stays and doctor visits. Instead of keeping their battles secret, Dan and Kathleen invite students into their struggles. And to their surprise, students have loved them back by showing up at the hospital and caring about their kids.

Let’s face it. God has brought a variety of people into our ministries to care for a variety of students. And these volunteers need to know that they are the ministers.

Build Up the Team with Longevity in Mind.
It takes time to grow a healthy volunteer team. In our youth ministry, for example, there has been tension around the nurture of our volunteers’ spiritual growth. On one hand, I had a group of volunteers who were new believers—their kids often knew more about the Bible than they did. On the other hand, I had parents as volunteers who’d been walking with the Lord longer than I’d been alive.

So how in the world could I help nurture the spiritual growth of all these volunteers who were at different points in their spiritual walks?

1. Nurture a heart for God. You can’t force people’s spiritual growth, but you can ask for a commitment to it and nurture it in your leadership:

  • Have volunteers sign commitments that they’ll work toward growth in their personal relationships with Christ (as well as other ministry expectations).
  • Talk about it in your meetings. Discuss heart issues as much—or more—than you do practical youth ministry training.
  • Send monthly E-mails or letters with enclosed reading suggestions on spiritual growth.
  • Share from your own devotional life on what God’s teaching you.
  • Hold a yearly retreat.

2. Create community. Use words, provide activities, and develop relationships that make your ministry team a family. Whether your ministry has three volunteers or 300, you can build community. People feel valued and thrive in that.

Recently a couple asked to hold their baby dedication during part of our volunteer meeting because “we are their family.” We pray together, eat together, play together, and share life’s journeys together. Show your volunteers the same care you hope they have for students.

3. Accept people in process. We seek spiritually grounded and emotionally healthy people to work with our students—but seeing the potential in volunteers is just as important. Some of the most unlikely turn out to have the most impact.

Kelly joined our team as a 21 year old. She was a bit impetuous and verbally bumped into other volunteers. It would have been easy to blow her off as high maintenance, but the Holy Spirit helped me see potential in her. She had a desire to grow, and that was reinforced by her willingness to hear truth and make small changes in her life. God’s power is at work in her now, and it shows up in her ministry. She cares for students, reaches out to those who’re struggling, and shares from some pretty fresh experiences in her own life. Her small group loves her.

A culture of nurture will create a sense of acceptance with your volunteers—and that will translate to students.

Evaluate Volunteers Frequently
Are my new volunteers showing up consistently? Are they growing in their abilities to take initiative? What fruit do I see in their lives? I often informally look at the names on my volunteer team list and think through how they’re doing in ministry.

  • How’s their attitude? Are they speaking well of the ministry, responding to direction, positively dealing with conflict, and affirming the ministry purpose?
  • How are they doing? In their ministry to students, are they moving from being program-directed to being self-directed?
  • How is their ministry “fit”? Are they feeling passionate and having good interactions with students?

Rosanne faithfully showed up to our Sunday morning program for almost eight months. She was a great lady who loved God, and I trained her for relational ministry in that program. But within months her excitement waned, and she struggled to connect with students. Rosanne and I discussed her ministry, and she told me about her struggle and desire to quit. We talked about her true passions and experiences. Rosanne had been through recovery and sober for 10 years. I asked her to consider starting a recovery ministry for teens. That was it! Within moments her mind and words were flooded with ideas and concepts. A plan emerged. Five years later, Rosanne has ministered to hundreds of teenagers who struggle with substance abuse. This was a much better fit for her passions and gifts and opened a door for a whole new ministry area.

Evaluating our volunteers is a measure of our own leadership effectiveness. Evaluating within a safe community leads to personal growth and greater ministry impact.

Be Willing to Tell the Truth
Most of us run from anything confrontational—it’s uncomfortable, draining, and takes a lot of work. But in 15 years of ministry, I’ve learned that people can’t grow without hearing truth. I’ve had painful moments and hard conversations. Almost every time I’ve had to deal with a difficult situation, it creates tension and self-doubt in me. But I’ve seen the hand of God take those very hard things and build good things out of them. When I feel the urge to avoid difficult situations, I have to ask, “Am I willing to wear the complete mantle of leadership?” That question has pushed me to say some difficult things to volunteers:

  • “How’s your physical relationship with your boyfriend?”
  • “A student told me you said something inappropriate in your small group.”
  • “You’ve been late a lot and missed our volunteer meeting. What’s happening in your life right now?”
  • “Because of this crisis in your life, I want you to take time to rest. Let’s reevaluate your commitment again next month.”
  • “I’ve noticed your behavior toward the girls lately, and it seems flirtatious. This behavior is a problem.”

These statements—however difficult—have been couched in relationships of care and mutual respect. I want my volunteers to win in ministry—to be effective because of their growing relationships with Christ. Hard questions are often the tools that God uses.

A couple of months after Lisa started leading her small group, I asked her how she was feeling about her ministry. Her response stuck with me:

“I never knew how strong passion could be until I got where God wanted me.”

May all our volunteers discover the depths of that passion.

Youth Specialties

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.