Teamwork Isn’t Everything…It’s the Only Thing: A Conversation with Ridge Burns

October 9th, 2009


Ridge Burns has been a regular in the pages of Youthworker—as a Youth Culture Watch contributor, Roundtable participant, and reporter for Report From The Front Lines. Which is just as well, as Ridge is one of the most innovative and committed youth workers in the country.

When you get to know Ridge, you quickly discover that he’s also one of the most enthusiastic youth workers in the country. So when he first called to tell me of the new direction he’s taken his volunteer ministry, I took it with a grain. But the more I heard, the more enthusiastic I got—both for what is happening in his ministry at the Wheaton Bible Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and for what his new volunteer team model could mean to other youth workers.

But let Ridge tell you about it. I think you’ll find it downright exciting.—Ed.


Youthworker: You’ve gone in a new direction with your volunteer team.
BURNS: When I started out in youth ministry, I recruited volunteers based on appearance, personality, and ability to communicate—the qualities I considered to be attractive to high school kids. Now I recruit teams, not just individuals.

Youthworker: What motivated the change? 
BURNS: Each summer we run a program called Project Serve. We take approximately one hundred high school kids to at least seven different mission sites all over the world. Each one of those sites has to be supervised by a team of adults. I can’t be at all seven sites, so I had to train capable volunteer staff. I learned that I could have three or four great people on a staff, but if they couldn’t learn to work together, the team didn’t go anywhere. Two years ago, I took that principle and applied it to my approach to volunteer staff.

Youthworker: How do you organize your staff? 
BURNS: Each volunteer leads a “core group,” a small group Bible study of anywhere from five to ten kids. We have many facets to our program—Sunday school, ministry projects, retreats, and so on—but these core groups are the guts of our youth ministry.

Youthworker: What role do you want your volunteers to play in the lives of their core group kids? 
BURNS: I want them to pastor those kids. It is a compliment to me that when a girl breaks up with her boyfriend and needs an adult to talk to, she doesn’t call me. She calls her core group leader.

Youthworker: Often, volunteers help with logistics—driving, preparing meals, etc. Do your volunteers help with logistics? 
BURNS: They do, but that’s not their prime task. They’re here to pastor kids. I cannot overemphasize that. Often, volunteers are restricted to mechanical tasks because we youth workers are threatened by their gifts. It took me a long time to accept that it could be okay for a student struggling with suicidal impulses to call his core group leader instead of me.

Youthworker: You now recruit people whose major qualification is their willingness to work as a team. Are you saying that your volunteer team doesn’t necessarily exhibit the types of skills and gifts you would typically look for? 
BURNS: Let me tell you about my team. I have an unwed mother who has learned what it means to go through a lot of pain. She wants to make a statement to high school kids about living with mistakes. Her life’s been her training.

I’ve got a seminarian, a construction worker, and a girl who two years ago was in a mental hospital. God has worked in her life and brought her through some terrible pain.

I’ve got a sixty-year-old man with a beard who looks like everybody’s grandfather. He’s hard of hearing, but the kids love him because he cares about them. I’ve got a lawyer, a mother, and a young couple that just got married.

They’re not perfect people. They’re not all “relevant” college kids. I could look at my “grandfather” and say he’s not going to be relevant to high school students, but he is because he’s got a servant’s heart. Some of my volunteers need care, and my job has changed. I now spend a lot of my time discipling and caring for those people.

Youthworker: How do you do that? 
BURNS: I spend regular time with them, and that’s what many youth pastors just don’t want to do. I spend every Tuesday night from 6:30 to 10:00 o’clock with my staff.

At one of our first meetings, we were sitting around one night talking about what we ate the night before. One couple had split a peanut butter and jelly sandwich between them; another guy had a TV dinner; another went out to McDonald’s. We realized that none of us ate right because we were too busy. So we decided to have a potluck meal together before our Tuesday meetings; at least we’d all get one good meal a week! Eating together every week has changed our group dynamic. We’ve become relationship-centered rather than task-centered.

Youthworker: What do you try to accomplish in those meetings? 
BURNS: There’s no agenda. We eat, we talk—and the next thing you know, we’re praying together or we’re caring for each other. One person will share about a kid who’s struggling with his dad. Another leader will respond, and we’ll begin to discuss together how to tackle the problem. The agenda is set by the needs of the group, except for one meeting a month that I set aside as a structured planning time.

Youthworker: What kind of impact have you seen on kids since you have changed your approach with volunteer staff? 
BURNS: Each year we do what we call a senior chapel. The last Sunday school class of the year is given to the seniors to run. They’ll usually talk about what’s been meaningful to them about their time in youth group. Iwant them to say that Ridge Burns has been the most meaningful person to them; but they don’t say that. They name their core group leaders, because they’re the ones who were there when they needed them. The sad thing is that most youth pastors will rob their volunteer staff of the joy of seeing a student’s life change, because when the issues get really tough, the kid is supposed to talk only to us.

Youthworker: When you decided to make the change, how did you recruit these new people? 
BURNS: I asked the volunteers I already had who they might feel comfortable with. Some of the people they named I didn’t feel comfortable with, but I knew that they did. So I let the present staff recruit their team members. I did less phone calling, less hitting up someone in the church bathroom—asking the poor guy in the next urinal if he wanted to be an adult sponsor.

Youthworker: Have you had to unrecruit some volunteers under your new system? 
BURNS: Yes. I do not have a problem with evaluating my volunteers each year. Every summer I call up each of the staff that worked the previous year and go over how they feel about their work, how I can better work with them, what we can do to improve. I’ll then either ask them to stay with us for another year or suggest that it may be a good time to re-evaluate their effectiveness.

Youthworker: What do you do with the people that you unrecruit? 
BURNS: Just like with refugees, we’ve got to relocate displaced people. We’ve got to put them in other ministries. They may not be good at high school ministry, but they may be great working with old people or with single adults.

Too often, the way we unrecruit in youth ministry is to ignore. I’ve done that, and devastated some people—all because I was too afraid to call someone up and say, “Hey, I don’t think it’s working.”

Youthworker: When you assembled your new team, what vision did your articulate to them? 
BURNS: That we’re a team more than we are assistants. We were not going to meet together once a month to plan events. We were going to get together every week to eat together and to be together.

They ran with this vision. They said, “We have retreats for everybody else. Let’s go on our own retreat!” So we went up to a camp and repaired buildings. Then they said, “Let’s get shirts!” So we all got T-shirts that say Wheaton Bible Church High School Staff. They wanted to look alike.

Youthworker: It sounds like you’ve touched a nerve in your adults. What needs are being met in their lives by working as volunteers on your team? 
BURNS: The need for fellowship, for friends. My wife Robanne and I don’t have friends in the church. We’re isolated from our peers because we’re the youth pastors, the people who work with the kids. What we’ve found is that all of us on the volunteer staff felt this need for friendship. We have become our own support group.

Youthworker: So your primary vision is the opportunity to be part of a team. At the same time, these people are small group Bible study leaders. How do you train a fellowship-centered volunteer team? 
BURNS: We have an all-day meeting at the beginning of the year where we train them how to lead small group Bible studies. We use resources such as InterVarsity Press’s booklet How to Lead a Small Group Bible Study, and we’ll model small groups by role playing and things like that.

But the best training we do is what happens on Tuesday nights. I remember when one of our volunteers came into the potluck and told us that her dad just had been diagnosed with cancer. She began to cry and said, “I need you guys to support me.” That’s what we want our core groups to be. We live out our model in our volunteer group.

Youthworker: Have you run into problems with your new approach that you didn’t have to face before? 
BURNS: It’s hard to break into our volunteer team. You’ve got to be the right kind of person. We’ve got some very talented people in our church that we’re not using, and some of those talented people don’t like that. In a gentle, loving way, I have to tell them that they don’t fit. They want to dominate, and we need people who are willing to be part of a team.

Youthworker: How has being relationship-centered affected your volunteers’ ability to follow through on logistical responsibilities? 
BURNS: I can get my volunteer staff to do a lot more than I used to because they’re working through their kids.

Youthworker: What do you mean when you say working through their kids? 
BURNS: A good example are the all-group Wednesday night suppers held prior to our core group Bible studies. If I just asked a volunteer to cook a given supper, they might get sick or might not feel like doing it. But if I ask them to facilitate their core group to cook that supper, then, like our own support group, the task is built on relationships. Suddenly, cooking spaghetti becomes part of the fellowship of that small group.

Youthworker: How do the kids respond to that kind of responsibility? 
BURNS: They eat it up. Consider this. They’re fifteen years old and the church won’t trust them with a dollar to go down to the store to buy flour; but they can get a job at McDonald’s and be responsible for thousands of dollars in the cash drawer. Whose thinking is behind? Ours. We’ll give a core group one hundred dollars and let them decide how to spend it. All we ask is that they prepare enough food for everybody—and it would be great if it was edible!

Youthworker: What you’re saying is that we may have had things backward in youth ministry for a long time. Traditionally, we’ve said kids need to “belong” and adults need to have a ministry where they do things and have responsibilities. You’re saying that adults need to “belong” and kids need to have a ministry where they can do things and have responsibilities. 
BURNS: Look at the high school. Look at how student government runs, how the band is run: through student leadership. In the church, our tendency is to do it all through adults. It’s culturally unacceptable to the kids.

Recently we had a teacher’s strike in Wheaton that delayed school for two weeks. The school board and the teachers were stalemated—until the students decided to hold an “End the Strike” rally. Four hundred kids marched down Main Street, tied up traffic, got on the news, and made Wheaton look bad. The strike was settled that night.

Youthworker: How has your new approach affected your life and ministry? 
BURNS: It’s made my life easier. Suddenly I don’t worry as much whether or not everything’s going to be put together absolutely right, because our emphasis is on relationships, not events.

You know what I did last Sunday on the bus on our one-day retreat? I talked to the kids. I didn’t have a clipboard. I wasn’t counting the money. I wasn’t worried about whether or not the sound system was going to be set up. I talked to the kids.

Youthworker: How has your new approach affected your ability to keep your volunteers? 
BURNS: I have more people who want to work on my staff than I have room for. Last year, for the first time ever, I didn’t have to recruit a single new volunteer. With my old approach, I had to replace 50% of my volunteer staff every year.

Youthworker: What keeps them around? 
BURNS: The fact that we love each other. When I was more task-oriented, I had to put forth an image that my team had it all together, that every event was going to go just right. But things don’t go right. The bus breaks down. Some kid barfs in the truck. The speaker doesn’t show up. When I was task-oriented, breakdowns like those would put tremendous pressure on my staff. But now that I’ve got a group of adult leaders that are for me, not looking at me as a star but as a peer, it takes that pressure off. We could go on a retreat and have it rain for five days straight and God would still move because the staff loves each other.

Youthworker: What’s been hard for you about your new approach? 
BURNS: Feeling left out of kids’ lives. When one of my core group leaders works with the same kids for four years, he’s the central person in their lives. When I want to pour my life into them and they’re already committed to the core group, that’s a threat.

Youthworker: Is that the hardest part of it? 
BURNS: The hardest thing for me is when a kid who doesn’t like me talks to their core group leader about me. I’ve had more than one core group leader say, “Do you realize how this kid feels about you? This person hates you, Ridge.”

Just talking about it hurts. But at least they told somebody—a core group leader who can come to my rescue and helps the kid work through that struggle. But it’s still rough.

Youthworker: You have recruited a team of volunteers that’s complementary to your personality. The tendency in youth work is to recruit clones. You’re saying to recruit opposites? 
BURNS: We’ve got to recruit to our weaknesses, not to our strengths. I don’t need to recruit a bunch of dreamers. Our kids do not need any more ideas. People accuse me—and rightly so—of being insensitive. I’m thinking about the next miracle God wants to do, and a kid’s worried about how he’s going to get along with his dad. I’ve got to get him to somebody who’s going to listen to him about his dad, and I need to be open to having those kinds of people on my volunteer team.

Youthworker: So what does a youth worker need to have in place in their own life to successfully use this kind of approach? 
BURNS: First, access what your real gifts and strengths are. Second, recruit to your weaknesses. Third, have enough self-confidence to handle the implications of recruiting to your weaknesses.

Frankly, I don’t know if you could use this kind of approach your first few years of ministry. The first year, the church is expecting you to do everything. The second year, they’re evaluating whether you’re going to make it or not. The third year, you start getting the criticism: “We thought he was going to start a choir.” “We thought she was going to do mission trips.” The first few years, you’re just trying to survive and take the ministry as far as you yourself can take it. It’s usually not until the fourth year that you can begin to strategize how to take the ministry beyond where you’re at. So I’d advise caution in utilizing this approach. But if youare ready, go for it. You just won’t believe the difference it will make in your ministry and your life.


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.