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Volunteers – How to Know When it’s Time for Them to Go

There are going to be many opinions and approaches to this topic.  Welcome to mine!  The purpose of this post is to give you permission, nay, the freedom to let go of a volunteer who is just not a good fit for your ministry.  Of course I recognize that they aren’t getting paid.  They are there because they choose to be.  I also have had my fair share of experiences with volunteers who are there to fulfill their own needs and agenda, and not to walk alongside you with the vision that God has given for your youth ministry.  Some may just not be gifted in the role you have placed them.  I also recognize that each situation has its own factors and nuances.  Hopefully this just gives you a helpful perspective to draw from for your own situation.

The purpose of this post is to give you two tools.  First, criteria to judge your volunteers by that will tell you if there is a problem or poor fit.  Second, some simple steps on how to let a volunteer go in the best way possible.  So without further ado…

If you are wondering whether a volunteer is helping or hurting your mission, just consider them in light of the following two lists: Continue Reading…

Volunteer Training: Position, Processes, and Practice

I like to use an American football analogy when it comes to guiding those we call “volunteers,” or “support staff,”  in youth ministry.  (If you knew me you would find this in itself hilarious.)  Still it works.  Imagine your team has shown up for their first game.  You have never practiced together; still you know that you can WIN!  So the team Captain says,  “Alright, the goal today is to make a touch down.   Get the ball from the other team and meet me in end zone as quickly as you can.”    You take your place on the field, wondering why only about one person on your team has followed.   Everyone else looks confused.   “What game is this again?”  one asks.  “We are wearing yellow and they are wearing red, does that matter?”  another chimes in.   “How fast should I run?   Do I knock people down if they get in the way?  I know I am supposed to have a position on the field do I just pick one?”  The questions keep coming.   Those of us who lead the vision are usually in the game because it is intuitive. For the rest of our “team”  his is not always true.    That is why position, processes,  and practice are vital to the growth of our youth ministry.

It isn’t that they don’t want to play,  they are excited to be there.   They want to win the game and simply need some coaching on how to make that happen.

1.   Position:  Not everyone wants to teach a Bible study.  There are those that are relational,  some are administrative,  others like to organize details or make meals.  Yes, yes and yes as far as who you need.   It is  easiest to assess the needs of your ministry and tell people where you will put them.   This is not the most beneficial for everyone involved.    We had a gentleman once who came into our ministry wanting to serve the youth.  Our greatest need at the time was a small group leader.  That is where we “stuck” him.  This lasted about 3 months until he came into my office one day and told me he was going to need to quit.   I could have let him walk out the door,  instead I sat with him and asked “Why” he was leaving.  Had I done something?  He went on to explain that teaching a small group Bible study was just “not for him.”  “I love what you are doing here, I would guess there isn’t anything else you might have?”   Continue Reading…

Recruiting Volunteers: You Need A Job Description… So Do They!

You Need a Job Description….So Do They.

Job descriptions.  Ugh.  That’s how I really feel about them.  They just seem like a waste of good trees and ink.  And they’re tedious.  Have you ever tried to write your own?  I was helping develop my own job description (along with descriptions for a few other staff members) and it felt like all the books in all the world could not contain all the crap that had to go in those documents.

So why bother?

It boils down simply to this – expectations.  Clearly defined expectations are a win-win.  Those doing the expecting win, because they know what they’re asking of you.  You win because you know what you need to do.  Clearly defined parameters.  Easily evaluated performance.  Everyone goes home happy.  (Yes, I know it doesn’t always work that way for staff people – but that’s another blog post for another day.)

So if clearly defined expectation equals a win-win relationship, why don’t we do this for volunteers within our ministry?

It’s a lot of work.  #truth   But it’s work that yields long-term results.  It’s much more productive than, say, driving all over the city trying to find shaving cream that doesn’t contain menthol. Continue Reading…

Youth Ministry Leadership: Friend or Leader?

Students don’t need youth workers to be their friends, they need adults who will lead them to God and invest in their lives. Unfortunately, many of us have bought the lie that we need to be ‘friends’ with our students in order to have influence in their lives. Some of us have even allowed our need for acceptance from students to cloud our need to lead them effectively.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love doing youth ministry and I love investing in students. I love spending hours talking with them,  laughing with them, and getting to know their heart. But I do this as someone who is leading them and is invested in their lives as their pastor and youth leader... not their friend…

Besides, students don’t see us as their friends. They see us in a distinct role as youth leader, youth director, youth pastor, (or whatever your title is). Even though we might try to gain acceptance as their friend, they will never see us that way, so why keep trying? God has called us to be their leaders. They already have a bunch of friends, why would they need more?

Over the years, here are some observations I have made when I see youth leaders trying to be a friend instead of a leader.

friend to students can easily get caught up in popularity of students but unknowingly take away from the person of Jesus. A leader to students will do everything they can to point them to Jesus and ensure that He gets the glory. A leader to students also recognizes the need for team and looks to applaud fellow youth leaders

A friend to students can easily get sucked into unhealthy need for acceptance by students. When a student rejects that leader, it can feel devastating. Whereas a leader to students feels totally accepted by God and is focused on helping students discover the same acceptance. If we are devastated by a students rejection, we must consider if we are getting sucked into an unhealthy need for acceptance. Unfortunately, I have met many youth leaders who are fueled and ruled by the need for acceptance from their students. This is a very dangerous path to walk down.

Continue Reading…

How To Answer Teenagers Tough Questions

This week I announced a new book that I have written in collaboration with some brilliant minds in youth ministry. is a rapid fire response manual for youth workers who are in need of solid biblical answer to present students.

When I began the project, I surveyed hundreds of youth workers all over the country and gathered over 250 common questions that they have been asked or have struggled to answer. From that list we got down to the top 50 most challenging questions. Since we couldn’t cover every tough question out there, it’s important to realize that there is a healthy process to learn when it comes to answering challenging questions. There are many challenging questions that students ask us, but there is a healthy process that every youth worker can walk through when helping their students: 

YOU DON’T NEED TO KNOW IT ALL: It’s OK to admit to students that you need time to research or pray through an answer. Students don’t expect you to know everything, so don’t expect this for yourself!

WORK THROUGH THE ANSWER WITH YOUR STUDENT:  Give them some of the “work” and help them own the answer more effectively. When students go through a process of digging for the answer, it will more likely stick with them. Continue Reading…

Protecting Volunteer Leaders from Burnout

Volunteers are perhaps the most valuable people in youth ministry! Great volunteers who hang in for long haul will make a lasting and impacting difference in the lives of students.

Sadly, the most common reason that I have seen volunteers cease to work with students is not their lack of passion and calling –  it is rate of burnout and being tired out…

In my previous post I talked about the importance of protecting volunteers in general. Today I want to focus on one area I mentioned briefly:

How can I help protect my volunteers from burnout and exhaustion?

1. Create a Healthy Ministry Schedule: Asking most volunteers to serve on a weekly basis is already a challenge for many in their busy lives. For many parent volunteers in particular, making youth group once a week and staying in contact with their small group is a big deal. Therefore I try to commit to scheduling our ministry with healthy breaks and bear in mind my volunteers schedules. a) During Christmas break we do not meet. b) We do not meet for Spring Break. c) Summer is changed up significantly and we have a “come if you can” policy. We need significantly less leaders with our summer schedule, so this works for us. c) We schedule events in a way that they are spread out significantly.  We would rather do a few ‘big” events well, rather than many “poor” events that can tire out volunteers (and students).

2. Insist That Family Comes First: This often can take a while to sink in for my volunteers. Again and again I need to remind them that ministry needs to be a win for their family. Anytime they call me to miss a program or event because of family, I insist that “family always comes first…” In their minds they are often feeling guilty for “calling in”, but it’s my job to affirm healthy family. I have also found that when I take this approach with my volunteers, it actually creates greater loyalty since they I know care about them and their family first. It’s not just about “getting ministry done…” Continue Reading…

Protecting Volunteer Youth Leaders

Just last week we had our yearly White Elephant Christmas Party with my volunteers and their spouses. I am so blessed to have some brilliant volunteers who I love doing ministry with! They are fun, diverse, and integral to reaching and connecting with our students. Therefore, it’s imperative that I make a personal investment to train and invest these great people!

Not only is it my goal to invest in leaders and equip them for ministry, it’s also paramount that I protect them from many of the “joy stealer’s” that often come up in our ministries. Here are some of the “joy stealer’s” we often see:

- Church politics:  It happens in most churches, let’s face it. Don’t allow your volunteers to get sucked into this. When volunteers get involved with politics, remind them the example we need to be to students and remind them to rise above gossip and negative discussions. Most of all, remind yourself…

- Mistakes: Mistakes will happen. Anytime a leader makes an honest mistake it is my job to take the hit, not them. After all, they lead under my leadership. Anytime they make a mistake, I have to make sure I have a teachable moment with the leader, but make sure I emphasize my ownership of the mishap. Continue Reading…

A Helpful Reality for Youth Workers to Understand

Have you watched those newscasts where someone who has been saved gets to be reunited with the person or persons who saved them? The TV crews somehow manage to capture that moment, hours, days, or weeks after the saving event took place. The saved person gets to tearfully express their sincere thanks to the one who saved them. During the saving event however, there is much going on as emergency crews frantically work to revive someone or get them to safety. There is usually not a good opportunity at the time to express thanks…

In some ways, this is a reality for us in youth ministry. Hold on for a moment and let me explain… Our students are walking through a time of life where they are navigating through challenging decisions, painful consequences, and times of extreme anxiety. Yes, there are many laughs and smiles and many hilarious moments we share with them, but we can’t forget that students are in the middle of one of the most challenging times of life. They are moving from being concrete thinkers where they saw the world as a simple place, to abstract abstract thinkers who see the complexity in life and the reality of the challenges. They see the complexity of relationships and they are pained by the messiness of broken marriages and friendships that once looked simple from the outside. They feel the need to succeed in a world that is more competitiveness than ever, and a world that is less forgiving than ever… It’s these storms of life that every teenager has to navigate through and we are the ones who partner with parents and come into students lives to support, encourage, and equip them as they get tossed and battered by the winds and waves of adolescence…

In some sense, we as youth workers, are the emergency crew who come in just at the right time to help these students pull through and get to the other side of their adolescent journey. During this time, there is much going on, and much drama, and confusion as they face one issue from another. As teenagers they are also fully consumed with who they are and are trying to discover their unique identity and purpose in this journey through life.

The Helpful Reality for Youth Workers

As someone who has been working with students for a long time, I have noted that students will rarely thank us fully during their time of struggle or during their time in my youth ministries. They either forget to thank us, or are too consumed with teenage survival to realize who is helping them in that moment… It’s not to say that we don’t get some “thank you” moments. But, it’s important to realize that students don’t mean anything by it, they just don’t consider it fully at the time. Just like the person who is being pulled out of the water by life guards and being rushed to the hospital, these students are crisis mode as they navigate through the dangers and new realities of young adulthood.

If we are in youth ministry looking for affirmation from students and receiving continuous thanks for our efforts, we could become disappointed very quickly… It is usually way after they graduation that I begin to hear back from students and get hear their stories of young adulthood. It is often these times when I hear of an action or a conversation that the student remembers which made all the difference to them. It is then I am reminded that what I do is worth it… 

Today, as you minister to students, realize that they might not thank you for it at that moment, but like that person who has been saved from the treacherous seas, they will often seek you out later on to express their sincere thanks. Don’t be holding onto affirmation from them today as you might become disappointed and despondent that your efforts are meaningless… But do know, that you ARE making the difference!

For now, I want to say thank you to you! Thank you for ministering to students and investing in their lives. Thank you for giving up your time, talent, and treasure to make an eternal impact. One day you and I will have a joyful reunion with our students in Heaven and will have many incredible stories to share. Be a part of those stories today and don’t give up. Your reward is in Heaven and your thanks will be given in full…

Phil <><

Are Kids Fighting to Come To Youth Group?

I’ll never forget my friend Rick telling me about the night students were “fighting” to come to his midweek program! One evening, just before youth group started, he looked outside to see more students than he had ever seen at his church. He quickly thanked God for the gigantic turn-out and then went outside to greet many new faces… That’s when he discovered the sobering reality: One of his students was in conflict with another student at their local high school, and both had shown up to his youth group to “settle the matter”. Apparently a large number of students had come to watch the main event too!  Rick tells of how he “settled the matter” with the students in a more Christian way, but yet many of the students stayed for youth group.

As I talked to him about this incident, I will never forget thinking this: How can we get that many students to passionately show up for youth group and bring their friends every week? (Without the fights of course).

In the first few months of the Fall we have seen a big jump in numbers and have actually struggled to keep up with much of the growth we are seeing. If I am honest, I can point to some factors that have helped us grow numerically, but I don’t know that I am wise enough understand the full picture. However, below I  mention what I consider to be the greatest factors that have helped us grow in depth and numbers. Caution: This has taken nearly two years of prayer and hard work and there has been no quick fix to create growth…

Pray Earnestly! I know this should be a given, but it’s easy to get into the habit of depending on our skills and programs and forget to partner with the Holy Spirit. We cannot expect great things to happen unless we are depending on the One who is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.

Fixate On Healthy Community: When I use the word “fixate”, I really mean that! Our students will tell you how much we have talked about, taught them, and created activities to build healthy community. We have students from over five different school systems and it is easy to have pockets of students who never get to know each other. If we don’t fixate on building healthy community we will default back for comfort and cliques. Therefore, it’s been imperative to create ice-breakers and activities that get new and established students talking, laughing, and working together. Students begin to realize that they have so much in common with people they did not know before. This in itself helps them to belong!

Listen and Give Ownership: Every year we survey our students to gain insights in a number of ways. It’s imperative that we listen to them! One question we ask them is, “What issues or struggles are students facing that we could talk about and help with?” From this question and ongoing conversations with our students, we gain incredible insights to their world as well as their spiritual and emotional needs. When we create a message series based on these needs you can bet they will show up! Next month we will also being doing a video series called “Slice of Life” where I video interview students about their faith, their struggles, and how God has helped them. We did this series last year and it had a huge impact. It all came from an idea one student gave us… Students show up when their questions are answered, their hurts are healed, and their ideas become reality…

Note: Obviously, we create messages and Bible studies based on what we know they need too. We can’t only respond to their felt needs. There has to be a good balance on “fire-fighting” the issues while also teaching many foundational “fire preventing” topics.

Invested Leaders: In my usual month I have many meetings and conversations with my youth leaders. In fact, I would say that my contact time with leaders has recently been higher than my contact time with students. It’s imperative that I realize how my investment in caring adults will pay off in the way they invest in students lives. I can either choose to be a shallow hero to every student, or I can choose to equip my leaders to become the fully invested youth leaders who make a greater difference on student at a time. Students will show up week after week when they know that a caring adult will be there to listen to their heart, celebrate life with them, and challenge them to grow spiritually.

There are many things I can add to this list, but I feel these are the “big ones” that have impacted our ministry over the last couple of years. What is working for you? What are you working towards? How are you helping students to fight to come to youth group?

Phil <><


Volunteers: Make it Difficult To Sign Up – Make It Easy For Them to Minister…

Just last week I was talking to a friend who is a volunteer youth worker at his new church. He loves students and is a gifted volunteer who I would recruit in a heartbeat if he lived nearby! As we talked, there was a statement he made about his experiences as a volunteer that really made me think about how I recruit and develop my volunteers:

“It was really easy for me to start as a volunteer, but since I have started it’s not been easy to minister to these kids. I don’t feel like I know what is going on, and I don’t have any important information about them to follow up…”

After I had spoken to him, I started to reflect and think about the experience my volunteers have under my leadership? Is it easy for them to get in the door, but hard to know how to do ministry once they are  there? As I reflected further I concluded that it should be the opposite experience: It should be difficult to sign up, but easy to minister…

1) We Should Make It Difficult To Sign Up: You might think this statement sounds crazy, but in my experience, it is better to have a diligent process that will have healthier long-term impact. Having some “hoops” to jump through and making potential volunteers work for it, is not always a bad thing:

  • Give them a few weeks to check out the youth program with “no strings” attached and allow them to see if it is for them
  • Take a few weeks to ask around about them and get to see how the students interact with them
  • Meet them at the end of the process for a coffee and lay out specifics and expectations
  • Have them sign an application AND a commitment sheet that all the other leaders have committed to
Again, this might seem like a lot to ask of a potential volunteer, but in my experience the ones who are committed and will be good for the long-haul will always be prepared to jump through my hoops if they truly love working with students. There have been times when I have been desperate for volunteers and have moved them into the ministry on a “fast-track” with disastrous results.
2) Make It Easy For Them To Minister: This should be a given, but unfortunately it is not always the case. Using the excuse that we are disorganized is simply not good enough. If we say that we care about students, we should be prepared to work hard to support the volunteers who are in the trenches with them. It should mean we consider their ministry needs as a priority. Right?
  • Weekly emails communicating that weeks programatic happenings
  • An easy to access online calendar that has youth events and meetings at least two months ahead
  • Regular youth leader meetings. (We meet every two months)
  • Regular one to one meetings. (When I say regular, this might depend on how many volunteers you have. I try to meet with my volunteers once a quarter)
  • Contact lists with students information and contact details is available in an easy way to access
  • Yearly training events (I take a number of my volunteers to the and have a yearly training day with them)
  • On going training tips, information, and youth ministry tools. (Includes articles, quick “training videos” from me, and the occasional book that gets passed around.
Recruiting, training, and keeping volunteers can be hard work, but the pay-off for students is massive! In my opinion, it is better take my time recruiting someone and take as much time afterward training them. What could your volunteers look like if you were to take more time recruiting and investing in them? What else would you add to this list? What experiences have you had in recruiting volunteers?
Phil <><
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