Published February 25, 2020
If you want to be successful recruiting and retaining quality volunteers, there is a good chance you need to shift your perspective on your role in student ministry. I’m guessing that you got into youth ministry to work with students. What if I told you that your ministry is with adult volunteers, just as much as it is with students? Volunteers can multiply your ministry’s effectiveness. But, where do you start? How do you recruit volunteers? How do you utilize them? Once you have volunteers, how do you keep them? These are all questions worth asking, and worth answering.


The first change of perspective is where you start with volunteers. Anytime that you talk about your ministry with another person, you have the opportunity to cast vision. If your ministry doesn’t have a stated vision or mission statement, it is worth spending time on this. Know where you’re going, the steps you’re taking to get there, and what it will look like. Volunteers want to be part of something bigger than themselves that is making a difference in the world. That is part of our call as disciples of Christ. So, always be ready to talk about how your ministry is making a difference. Stories are a great way to cast this vision. What has happened in your ministry recently that exemplifies your vision? It doesn’t have to be a huge story. Always be on the lookout for things happening in your ministry that you can share with others to show how your ministry is making a difference. Then, when you talk with anyone about your ministry, have a short version of that story to share.
For example, at a church I served, part of our vision included every student in our ministry being connected to at least one adult to show that student what it looks like to love Jesus and live for Jesus. Then, one Sunday, a student showed up at church who was overwhelmed by something going on in their life. I saw that student seek out one of our adult volunteers to talk with them about what was going on. I watched as that adult volunteer listened to the student, offered comfort and wisdom, and then prayed with the student. THAT was our vision coming to life! The next time I talked with someone about our ministry, I took the opportunity to say, “One of our goals is for every student in our ministry to be connected to at least one adult who shows the student what it looks like to love Jesus and live for Jesus. Just this past Sunday, I saw a student show up to church who was overwhelmed by something going on in their life. I saw them seek out one of our adult volunteers, who listened to them, cared for them, and prayed with them. I know our ministry is making a difference in both of their lives, and I am thankful!”


Another way you might shift your perspective is in how you recruit volunteers. Casting vision is the best place to start. Always tell potential volunteers why you need them, and connect this “why” to your vision. Let’s say that you need a male volunteer for your upcoming middle school retreat. You could reach out to a potential volunteer and say, “We have a middle school retreat in six weeks, and really need a male adult volunteer. I think you’d be great! Would you consider serving in this way?” Or, with a perspective shift, and a focus on recruiting to a vision (not just a need), you could say, “I’ve noticed how you always say hi to our students at church events. They respond well to you and I’m wondering if God may be doing something special here. We have a middle school retreat in six weeks, and I’d love it if you would consider coming with us. I think the best way for our students to know Jesus is to know someone who knows Jesus. It seems clear to me that you know Jesus and care about our students. Would you consider coming on the retreat with us?” Recruiting to a vision is much more impactful than just recruiting to a need (filling a spot). Keep in mind that the personal ask is much more effective than mass communication. Sending out mass communication is fine, but don’t end there. When you ask someone personally to volunteer, you communicate that there is a need that they (with their gifts) can uniquely fill and you can convey what you want for them, not just what you want from them. This perspective requires you to see volunteer roles as opportunities for people to live into their calling. It’s your job to connect them to the opportunity.
Also, make sure you clearly define what you expect from volunteers. Let them know exactly what you’re asking of them. If you aren’t sure who to ask to volunteer, ask the students and volunteers currently in your ministry for suggestions.


A third perceptive shift involves how you utilize volunteers. You can’t be all things to all people, but you can put the right volunteers in the right places. Do what only you can do. Recruit volunteers to do everything else. Work in your strengths. Build your volunteer team to cover your weaker areas. With that in mind, you can only pour into a handful of students. The more volunteers you have, the more students your ministry can pour into. I want to acknowledge that recruiting volunteers can be hard. It takes time. With this new perspective shift, if you don’t recruit a lot of new volunteers right away, don’t be discouraged. Keep the perspective change, keep praying, and keep working the process. When you do have a new volunteer, one of the most effective ways to utilize them is by equipping them to build relationships with students. To do this, you need to spend a significant amount of your time pouring into and equipping your volunteers. Think about how many more students you can reach if you have additional caring adults equipped to pour into students.


Finally, once you have volunteers, you may need to shift your perspective in order to keep them. First, you need to have an initial orientation with your volunteers. Cast vision and give them all of the information they need to do what you’re asking them to do. Be clear about what their connection will be with you, with other volunteers, and with the students. Let them know that you’ll be offering them feedback, and will be asking for their feedback and questions as well. Consider the “I Do, We Do, You Do” training strategy to ease them in: you (or one of your high quality volunteers) model the role while they watch, then you serve in the role side-by-side, then they step into the role while you watch and support them, then they fulfill the role on their own.
After the initial orientation, offer ongoing training. In these trainings, focus on empowering more than educating. These trainings are about volunteers having ownership and buy-in about where you are trying to go (vision). Give them opportunities to problem-solve. Have a solid feedback loop for them to follow, helping them use their voice in the ministry.
Along with ongoing training, continue to cast vision with volunteers once you have them. Say thank you along the way, such as offering appreciation at strategic times. Watch for stories in your ministry that reflect your vision. Share these stories often and regularly with your volunteers (and anyone else who will listen!).
Sometimes we are quick to talk about how hard it is to get and keep good volunteers. The truth is, it does take a lot of time and effort on our part, and may very well require us to shift our perspective. We do need to spend a significant amount of time and energy with adults, even though we are in student ministry. Doing this well, will have an exponential impact on the students we are able to reach.