By: Toby Chastian
Several years ago, a volunteer walked into my office and told me that he wasn’t going to be working with my students on Wednesday nights anymore. This young man (let’s call him Doug) was young, energetic, strong in his faith, and had made connections with several of my students. I was excited when he had come on board just a year earlier. A few weeks after this encounter, I took an older retired gentleman (let’s call him Ted) on his fifth senior high mission trip. The average observer might have said he was past his prime for working with students. Yet he was a favorite among our teens; he could handle roller coasters, sleeping on the floor, and was the first to sign up to go every year.
When I asked the younger man, Doug, why he was quitting he said, “Because I don’t feel like I’m being useful. I don’t think I’m making a difference.” When I asked Ted why he kept going on these trips, he said, “Because I love helping people, and I love to see these kids accomplish something and learn new skills. I feel like I’m making a difference.”
Two volunteers. One younger. One older.
Did you notice their responses? Both men wanted to make a difference. That’s why they volunteered to be in the youth ministry. Time is precious for the people in our congregations, and if we are going to attract them to and keep them in our student ministry, then our job is to help them see and experience the significance of what they are doing. After my experience with Doug, I set out to never let that happen again. Here are a few things I have learned.
Serving in a ministry is discipleship
This one was a game changer for me. The goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ permeates my entire ministry. Before we begin a new endeavor, I’m asking the question, How will this help students grow in their faith? What I didn’t realize was that for my long-term, highly committed volunteers, they had inadvertently applied this to their service to our ministry. When I began making this an explicit part of my process, I saw a greater success in both recruitment and retention. Dale Hudson says, “Inviting people to serve shouldn’t be about what you want from people, it should be about what you want for people.” Now from the onset, I try to help them frame their service as a part of their discipleship growth plan.
Have a job description
It’s important to let volunteers know what the expectations are up front. Too often, volunteers don’t know what is expected and just as often, youth leaders don’t know how to effectively use volunteers. This means more than just having raw numbers to fit the quotas on your child-safety policy. At an in-house retreat, we have adult table leaders along with high school leaders. However, while our students were great at putting their phones away and interacting with our junior highers, it was the adults who constantly had their phone out. It got so bad that we now address it at our adult training so that adults understand that their primary role is relationship building, not crowd control. Taking the time to put on paper what volunteers are supposed to do (and not do) will help them feel more confident in their role for your ministry. This also becomes a helpful tool when it is time to evaluate your volunteers on their effectiveness or when it’s time to ask a volunteer to consider moving on to a new ministry opportunity.
Have some way to evaluate their gifts/strengths
We need to recognize how our volunteers are wired. There was a couple who approached me eager and ready to serve. The husband jumped right in with both feet and was an instant asset to our team. His wife (Mary) on the other hand had a hard time finding her niche. We tried her in a small group, and while the girls really liked her, she backed out after six months. Then we tried her on the mission trip team. She loved the work but hated the late nights and sleeping arrangements. There are assessments out there that focus on a wide range of measurements. Some of these include Myers-Briggs, CliftonStrengths, Enneagram, and various spiritual gifts tests. By using these, you will be able to place your volunteers in a setting that will allow them to flourish rather than be frustrated. I found that most of Mary’s strengths were in execution and not in relationship building. Now that I have her helping me recruit parents, manage meals, and maintain fundraiser data, she couldn’t be happier.
Train them and help them see the big picture
The roles that Doug filled weren’t insignificant, I just failed to help him see how it was an important part of our ministry. Consider the person taking attendance at the front door. If the perception is that they are just making sure students sign in, then the job feels insignificant. However, if they can see that along with learning students’ names and faces, they are also setting the tone for how the student is received within the ministry. Mark DeVries suggests that we take it a step further by seeing volunteers as partners rather than helpers. Rather than dictating jobs for volunteers to accomplish, we enable them to take ownership of the ministry. Every detail will seem more critical to success, when volunteers are invested from the beginning. Ted had construction knowledge and skills. He sat in on the conference calls we had with mission agencies so that he could be prepared for the projects we were considering.
Forming students in the faith is an important responsibility. Those with the personality and gifts to fill this role are exceptional treasures that shouldn’t be wasted. Our job is to ensure that they are well equipped and empowered to live out God’s call upon their lives. I won’t tell you that I’ve never had another Doug. Sometimes even with a great plan you can’t find the right fit. However, I will say that I’ve had many more like Ted, volunteers who found their calling and place in our ministry and flourished as a result. It is these volunteers who pour into the lives of students and give me encouragement by their commitment to making a difference.
Starting in February, Toby will serve as a youth minister at First United Methodist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He is also currently the chairperson of the Order of Deacons for the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. An over 20-year youth ministry veteran, Toby holds a B.A. in Christian Education and an M.A. in Youth Ministry. He is also a CYMT graduate and currently serves as a coach for CYMT. His hobbies include watching Duke Basketball, sitting around a campfire, cooking, and spending time with his wife, Ragan.