I’ve been leading the youth ministry at my home church for the past 18 months. It’s been going pretty well – we’ve managed to foster an increased sense of community and belonging among our groups; young people are bringing friends, and we’re seeing spiritual growth too, with a number of baptisms scheduled in a few weeks time. If I wanted to, I could probably spin this to make myself look really good. With the help of a few false-humility-infused social media posts, I could probably even convince you I was a Great Youth Worker. But to be totally honest, it’s barely about me at all.
When I took on the work from the previous, dearly-loved youth worker, I didn’t just inherit a pretty healthy youth ministry, I got an instant team. There were already some fabulous volunteers in place, who graciously agreed to carry on giving up one or more nights of every week to serve our young people. And then if I got one thing right, it was that I decided to go looking for some more to join them. By the grace of God and some very persuasive begging, I managed to put together a great team of volunteers – some of them long-term youth leaders, others complete newbies - and focussed on growing and keeping that team together.
Now 18 months in, I am absolutely convinced that growing a great volunteer leadership team is the most vital investment that any youth worker can make.I might oversee the work, but 95% of the actual youth ministry at our church is being delivered by these brilliant people. Now – I realise how privileged I am, and that it’s unusual to have so many people who are prepared to give up their time like this.
There’s almost certainly another article to be written about how on earth you build such a team when there’s apparently no-one available to help. But putting that aside for a moment, I thought it might be helpful to share the journey which I think every youth volunteer can go on, if they’re going to become a long-term part of your ministry team. It’s a journey that you as the main youth leader will need to intentionally direct.
I like to think of youth ministry volunteering in three stages:
Stage one: Duty
We’ve all been in one of those church-service pitches for volunteers.. and just occasionally, they actually work. Perhaps the youth minister is particularly charismatic; perhaps it’s just a good day; perhaps even the Spirit of God is moving… but for whatever reason, someone steps forward to offer to help. Now it may be that they’re someone with a natural passion for working with teenagers, but more usually they’re just a kind person who wants to help. They’re prepared to pick up some extra ‘duties’ alongside their monthly stewarding and tea and coffee rota appearances. They love God, and they want to serve. These volunteers are brilliant, wonderful people who often help us to get the gears of youth work moving… but our vision for them needs to be greater than it just being another duty. As youth ministers, and advocates for young people, we want them to fall in love with this ministry.
Stage two: Joy
When we help our volunteers to share the joys of youth ministry, we often see this joy blossom in them too. We don’t just want them to feel like they’re on a rota, but like a vital part of a team. The best ways to do this in my experience: give them responsibilities, and involve them in both planning and debriefs.
Don’t see your volunteers as an unskilled workforce, but as a richly-experienced group of peers whom you’ve been given the privilege of leading. Create opportunities for them to lead aspects of your work – to facilitate discussions, run a game or mentor an individual. Don’t limit your weekly contact with them to the time they’re ‘on site’ with young people. Check in at other times, and invite them to pray and reflect with you after a session has been tidied away. Do this, and you’ll find that their time with you moves from a duty to a joy – one of the highlights of their week. And joyful volunteers tend to be long-term volunteers too…
Stage three: Mission
Once youth ministry is a joy, then the final stage often naturally follows. Ultimately, a strong volunteer team takes co-ownership of the work with their leader. This is no longer just another rota, but a ministry for them; they get to see their unfolding part in God’s mission among young people. To cultivate this idea, give your volunteers opportunities to train and develop their skills and understanding. Give them books to read; offer them a chance to attend a training day or some sort of national youth ministry weekend ;-) . Allow your volunteers to feel like their views and feelings about your work and how it develops are important (because they are); invite them to regularly share their ideas about what you could do differently or better. And as an absolute priority, make sure you celebrate, thank and meet up with your volunteers at least a couple of times a year outside of the usual context of your youth work. Volunteering is often its own reward - but it’s also hard work and deserves recognition!
In my experience, the more you invest in your volunteers, the better your team AND your youth work. I know that we couldn’t have achieved any of what we have in my church context over the last couple of years without a dedicated team who are journeying together towards a greater sense of joyful ownership of our mission together. I encourage you to aim for something similar if you can. For a while they’ll make you look and feel like a Great Youth Worker… and then eventually thanks to them, you’ll realise this isn’t about you at all.
Martin Saunders is Youthscape’s Director of Innovation, and Youth Team Leader at St Mary’s Reigate.