Volunteer training. I wonder how many of us hear these words and the first thing that pops into our minds is a feeling of inadequacy in this area of our ministry. For a lot of us, it probably feels daunting enough just to find an appropriate number of volunteers to make a Sunday morning or Wednesday night function. But to then add on top of that the need to train up our volunteers to be an extension of us to our students – the task may seem great, but that’s because it is. We are not just searching for warm bodies to fill space in our ministries but men and women who love the Lord with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength, and who love students. Having volunteers who take ownership of their roles is crucial to a well-functioning and productive student ministry. There are few worse feelings for a student minister than to feel undermanned going into an event, but on the other side of that coin is the great feeling of having a team of volunteers who are well-equipped and take seriously their role to invest in the lives of students. To be able to take hold of that latter feeling, we must first effectively train them to be the volunteers we need to serve, reach and disciple students.
Jim Burns, author of Uncommon Youth Ministry: Your Onramp to Launching an Extraordinary Youth Ministry (p. 150), points out that developing a dynamic youth ministry team is one of the most important (and often most overlooked) aspects of youth ministry. We all know that this statement is true, but the question remains whether or not we are willing to take the steps necessary to effectively equip and inspire our volunteers for ministry. Therefore, I have organized six important things to consider when training volunteers. This list is a vision for how our team strives to recruit, equip and encourage our volunteers to lead well. The goal of this list is not about the specifics of training but rather general principles we can implement when training volunteers.
1. Make the Vision Clear
We need to give something to our leaders that they can latch onto, and that thing needs to be the vision for our ministry. If our volunteers can take hold of our vision and have even half the passion that we do for accomplishing that vision, then you are gaining an effective volunteer. Just like any sports team needs to know what the vision and goals are for the season so they can keep their eyes on the prize and know what they are working for, volunteers on our ministry team need to know the “why” behind what they are doing. If we can grab their hearts with the vision, we will get their hands and feet to do the work.
2. Give Them Tools to Succeed
Volunteers should never feel like they are empty-handed. If they are going to be on the battlefield with us fighting for the hearts and minds of students, we must equip them with what they need to succeed. Recently, one of our small group leaders mentioned that her students were asking questions about prayer and needing some guidance on how to pray. We quickly went to work on providing this leader with a prayer booklet and guide to distribute to her students to help them in this area. This is a small example, but it is a way that we want to provide our leaders with what they need to help disciple students. Providing them with tools to succeed can also be seen in the small group or discipleship curriculum we choose, making sure they have a schedule of upcoming events, having ice-breaker questions ready for discipleship meetings, guest cards to keep track of new students, effective communication about their role at an event or on a weekly basis, or anything else that makes our leaders feel well-equipped for the task at hand. We never want to leave them feeling like they are on an island.
3. Set a Standard
In 1 Timothy 3, Paul reminds Timothy that those in leadership positions must live lives that are “above reproach.” When adults in your ministry step into volunteer roles, they have stepped into a leadership role. This means that the calling on their lives is to live above reproach so that their students may be able to look into their lives and see someone who lives out what they say they believe. Therefore, as youth ministers we must set clear expectations for our volunteers and encourage them to live within the guardrails we have established. (This may also involve having your volunteers go through background checks and MinistrySafe training or another platform like it. For more info, go to ministrysafe.com.
4. Be Consistent and Intentional
One of the greatest struggles for our youth ministry has been maintaining consistent leadership training meetings for our volunteers. But in the years that we have prioritized this, it has been an extremely effective way of keeping our vision and goals in front of our leaders. Having regular meetings is also a good way of keeping an open line of communication with your volunteers. We like to have four volunteer trainings throughout the year where either we speak to our leaders or we have someone with some “expertise” in student ministry speak to them. Maybe four meetings works for you and your team, but find what works best for your situation and stick to it. Putting on trainings like this takes intentionality because it is much easier to cancel a training or move it to a different date than to actually hold the training. But if we want our leaders to be intentional in investing in our students, we must be intentional to invest in our leaders.
5. Learn from Your Volunteers
One thing we may often miss out on because we are so focused on leading and teaching our volunteers is the opportunity to learn from them. Because our volunteers are on the frontlines of our ministry, they will often have insight into things that we may never see or hear from our students. But even more than that, they are also people with ideas and a passion for students that we can utilize to help us expand our capacity for creativity in our ministry. They may at times come with problems, but don’t brush these aside as pestering and complaining (though sometimes you can brush them aside graciously). Instead, listen to them and use the constructive things to help improve your ministry. They are in the fight with you, so let them have a word.
6. Celebrate Your Volunteers
What we celebrate is what determines our culture. It’s that simple. If we want our volunteers to do certain things, then we need to celebrate when they do those certain things. Write them thank you letters, take them to lunch or just simply shoot them a text about how a student in their care is flourishing in their walk with the Lord. Everyone likes to be celebrated, so make sure to celebrate those that have given their time, energy and effort to invest in the lives of your students.
Add to this list what you see fit, but I hope this helps you equip and inspire your volunteers to lead well this year!
Matt Dickey serves as minister to middle school students at First Baptist Church, Trussville.