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How not to lose a team of youth work volunteers

Martin Saunders

12 Jul, 2021


Volunteer youth workers are an essential part of youth ministry – but what do you do if they've had enough? How do you cultivate teams that last for the long run?


It's the phone call that every youth worker dreads.

"I've been praying through my different roles and responsibilities... and I think it's time for me to step back from the youth team."

Sometimes, this conversation takes place because the timing for someone to stop doing youth work is just right. Often though, there are a host of other factors which might lead someone to step down and get one of their evenings back, and many of them are preventable.

This feels particularly pertinent as we journey through what are – we pray – the later stages of an exhausting pandemic. Our volunteers are tired, concerned about an uncertain future, almost certainly juggling more complicated domestic circumstances, and possibly having to consider their own vulnerabilities. It's no wonder that many of them might be considering whether their commitment to youth work might be too much. Now, I'm not saying that we should force people to stay on our volunteer teams against their will or better judgement, but I do think that there are a few things that we can do which might help them to step back from the brink...


1. Get everyone connected with the vision

I wrote last year about how we grow long-term teams by helping our volunteers to move from seeing youth work as a duty, to experiencing it as a joy, and finally understanding and owning their vital role in a mission. The vision for your youth work must be shared and co-owned, otherwise your volunteers just become unpaid labour for your Great Endeavour - and under stress that becomes an easy thing to say goodbye to. Spend time investing in team, and use your time together to pray, to plan and to listen to each other's ideas. Share your vision for the youth ministry – because teams need to know that they have a North Star – but make it clear that they can also help to shape and reshape that vision as you serve God together.


2. Make sure your leaders actually have something to do (!)

Depending on your personality type, you might be the sort of leader who naturally knows how to delegate roles and responsibilities... or you might not. Particularly in times of stress, it can be easy for us to develop a small (if unintentional) 'messiah complex' where we make everything depend on us, or we might feel fearful of overloading our already-tired volunteers. Either way the net result is the same: a team of people standing around, fulfilling your safeguarding quota but wondering if their time could be put to better use. To avoid this, be intentional about allocating tasks and roles to your volunteers – in most cases they'll probably be delighted to feel like they're making a contribution.


3. Offer your volunteers a sabbatical

It doesn't have to be "goodbye", it can just be "see you later". If a volunteer approaches you to have the conversation about leaving, one option is to offer them the chance to take a break instead. A bit of time out will not only give them some breathing space, but also the chance to evaluate if they really do want to step out of youth ministry. It's a good idea to make this a time-limited, rather than open-ended agreement – for say, a term. You can then meet again, and see whether this period of absence has made their heart grow fonder for young people... or whether it really is time to stop.

A more proactive version of this – if your numbers allow – is to build this rhythm into your volunteering offer from the start. Perhaps when people sign up to help, you make it clear that they'll take one in every seven terms off; a step that could head potential volunteer burnout off at the pass.


4. Listen, and explore compromise

Finally, if a team member does tell you it's time to go, make sure that you really understand why they're leaving. Take the time to meet face-to-face if you can, and without making the conversation uncomfortable for them, really listen to what they're saying (and perhaps, not saying). Without putting pressure on, see whether there might be space for compromise that considers both their needs, and the opportunities to continue serving the youth ministry. This might look like changing the frequency of their volunteering (say, from weekly to fortnightly), or asking them to consider a different role in the wider youth setup – moving from helping as a group leader to offering to pray for young people, or mentor individuals. If someone has truly understood and caught the vision for youth ministry in your church, it's always great to find some way of keeping them involved, even if that means a change in how.

Ultimately, youth ministry volunteering is rarely forever. We need to respect the fact that our volunteers have busy lives, and are giving their time to something for which many others (perhaps including us) are paid a salary. We should never beg or guilt-trip leaders into staying on when really they've made their minds up to leave – just as in relationships and employment, this seldom ends well.

However... I know of many, many brilliant voluntary leaders who have given more than a decade of their lives and free time to serving on youth teams. If we ensure that we cultivate a healthy culture, and adopt a flexible approach to how and when volunteers are involved, there's no reason why we can't hope to see the same sort of longevity in the teams we lead too.

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