by Hank Hilliard
I was one day graduated from college when I started my first youth ministry job. I was confident but clueless. There were several committed volunteers, but less than a week after I started, they all quit. They thought the church had hired me to replace them. I didn’t know enough to tell them this was not the case, so I let them go. And there I was—a 22-year-old rookie with no experience, no training, and no team.
Hebrews 12:1 says, “So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.”
This passage lays out a wonderful picture of youth ministry. As young people run the race of becoming and being disciples, the youth ministry should seek to surround young people with a cloud of witnesses.

Choosing Your Volunteer Model

Many youth ministries subscribe to “The Expert and the Helpers” model of youth ministry. In this model, volunteers are recruited to help the youth minister do his job. The youth minister does ministry, while the volunteers help him or her. The tag line of helpers in this model is “Just call me if you need me!” The youth minister thinks the helpers will help him feel less tired and minister more effectively. However, the initiative falls on the youth minister to determine the needs, call the helpers, and get supplies and plans together. It ends up leaving the youth minister saying, “It would be easier if I just did it myself.” And so many youth ministers do just that.
A more effective model is “The Partner Ministry.” In this model a core team of volunteers serves as partners in ministry with each partner owning a piece of the ministry. Partners take initiative for organizing and leading their pieces of the ministry. The youth minister’s role is to support the partners. Partner ministries reach wide. More youth feel connected because there are multiple adults and ministry opportunities. Partner ministries reach deeper because the ministry is not solely dependent on one person—there are multiple wells of energy and love from which to draw.
I was meeting with a mentor once when I began complaining that I never had enough volunteers. With my whining complete, he sat his coffee mug down and said calmly but intently, “Hank, being stuck is a choice.” I was stuck in a pattern of lacking volunteers and I was choosing to be stuck. So I stopped believing that our church would rather pay me to do everything than to be involved in the youth ministry. I started believing that God had already placed the volunteers the ministry needed in our congregation and community, I just had to find them.

Redesigning the Systems

Building a volunteer team is as simple and as hard as this: Invest in working a process toward a very clear target and you’ll have all the volunteers you need. Andy Stanley says, “Eighty percent of your problems are not people problems, they are system problems. Your ministry is perfectly designed to get the results it’s getting.”
My favorite television show is Restaurant Impossible. Professional chef Robert Irvine has $10,000 and three days to turn a struggling business into a thriving success. The reason the restaurant is failing is usually a combination of bad food, poor service, and sub-par staff. However, what Robert usually finds is that all of the problems are the results of a lack of effective systems needed to run a successful business. Chef Irvine knows new paint and better food will not make a difference if the restaurant does not first install the proper systems.
In order to build an effective volunteer team, the youth ministry needs to have a system for recruiting and placing volunteers. This six-step process was introduced to me by Mark Devries of Ministry Architects and I have found it to be extremely effective, and I know it will help you! This is not a quick fix or a silver bullet. It is an investment. Like any investment, it takes time, energy, and commitment. But also like a good investment, it will pay off.

STEP 1: Create a list of all your ministry needs.

Before filling positions, you need to clearly define what needs exist. Focus first on your Partner Positions, the jobs that require the most commitment and where the volunteer owns a piece of the ministry. Examples of these positions are Sunday School teachers, small group leaders, and event coordinators.

STEP 2: Create a pool of recruits.

Work with clergy, staff, parents, and current volunteers to build a large list of people you think might have gifts to serve in the youth ministry. Ideally this list would be three to four times larger than your needs list. Notice that you have not made a single invitation yet. Keep working the process!

STEP 3: Grade or rank each of the people on your list.

Rank according to each person’s possible fit, not on how much you like the person. Consider using a simple A-B-C grading system (A – great, B – good, C – use in a pinch.) You should note in your rankings whether each person would be better working directly with kids or behind the scenes.

STEP 4: Match your ranked pool with your needs list.

Drop each name into the slots for each open position in the order you want to invite people to serve.

STEP 5: Make the Ask

This is it! It’s time to invite people to serve on the team. I prefer sending an email because I can word the invitation exactly how I want and the other person is not put on the spot as in a phone call or face-to-face invitation. Remember your invitation is not some desperate plea from the pulpit or impersonal call to action in the bulletin.

  1. Invite with PASSION: If you are not genuinely passionate about the ministry, those you invite will not be quick to sign on. Invite new recruits into what is going on and into being part of something important, bigger than themselves, and centered on God and serving young people.
  2. Invite PERSONALLY: Personal invitations are powerful and are taken seriously. General pleas are lost in the shuffle of busyness.
  3. PRESENT the vision: Explain why the ministry exists and where the ministry is going. Tell the person how he or she will be contributing to the mission of the ministry.
  4. PLUG into a role. Invite each person to serve in a specific role. Be clear about the expectations and length of commitment. If you have a job description for the role, include this with your invitation.
  5. PRAYER: Pray throughout the process. Invite the recruit to pray about this opportunity.
  6. PROMISE to follow up. The person may not be ready to make a decision right away. Tell each recruit you will follow up within a certain time period. Let him or her know you are available to discuss the position more or answer any questions.

STEP 6: Follow up and keep following up.

Do not be surprised if most people do not respond after the first contact. It may take several times to get an answer. Be diligent and timely in your follow up communications. If a person says “yes,” write them in ink and follow up with training materials and any needed paperwork. If you get a “no,” thank the person for considering the opportunity and ask if you can contact them next year. Be sure to invite all recruits to pray for the ministry.
Stop choosing to be stuck. The struggling restaurants Chef Robert Irvine works with often turn into thriving businesses. The systems give opportunity for success, improve communication, and build quality relationships between employees and with the business and the community. The same can be true for your youth ministry.
Imagine a youth ministry with every volunteer position filled with a loving, caring, committed volunteer. Imagine a ministry where each young person is surrounded by a cloud of witnesses cheering for her, supporting him, and encouraging her as she runs the race of discipleship. I believe this image can be true for your church. Remember that God cares for the young people in your church even more than you do. God has placed the cloud of witnesses in your congregation. Go find them!