Developing essential leaders: Part one

Plus an interview with Mark DeVries

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Jan 4, 2010

What’s essential to effective youth ministry?

That’s a great question.

It’s a question Young Life has recently used research to tackle. Started in 1941 in Texas by Jim Rayburn, the mission of Young Life is to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith. Young Life is one of the largest U.S. parachurch youth ministries with active ministries on 3,700 middle school and high school campuses and over 104,000 teenagers involved every week.

Inspired by the work of Jim Collins’ study of organizations that moved from “good” to “great”, in 2005 Young Life launched Project X. [[See Jim Collins, Good to Great (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001).]] The first step in Project X was to identify the 30 Young Life areas in the United States that were most effective in terms of the number of kids involved in weekly club, summer camp, and discipleship groups (called Campaigners) per paid Young Life staff member. In other words, they didn’t merely identify the 30 “biggest” U.S. clubs but rather the 30 clubs that were reaching the most kids per paid Young Life adult.

Having identified these 30 high performing ministries, the purposes of Project X were to discover why those ministries were more effective and to share those findings so that every Young Life area could have even greater impact. At FYI, we think Young Life’s findings are relevant even to non-Young Life ministries. In fact, they might help you unearth what’s most essential to effectiveness in your own setting.

What is the essential component of these best areas?

The central finding of Project X is that the most important factor driving area effectiveness is volunteers; more specifically, it’s the number of volunteers per paid adult staff. This is true in all four of Young Life’s U.S. regions, and it’s true in suburban, urban, rural/small town, and mixed contexts.

In fact, to the surprise of many, the number of volunteers is more important than the financial health of the area or the number of paid staff. There’s some evidence that the most effective areas may even have smaller staffs, but they have more volunteers, and more volunteers per staff.

So does this mean we don’t need paid youth leaders?

Absolutely not, but it does mean that team leaders, whether they be paid or not, likely need to focus their energy and attention more in the direction of volunteer development. One of the recommendations Young Life shares out of its own research is that increasing the number of volunteers should be a top priority for every area director and staff member.

But that’s easier said than done. How do we recruit youth leaders?

That’s the logical next question, and in order to try to get at some answers, FYI recently interviewed Mark DeVries, the author of Sustainable Youth Ministry and the founder of Ministry Architects, a consulting team that helps churches build sustainable youth ministries. For the past 23 years, Mark has served as the youth pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee.

What Scriptural principles have guided your recruitment of leaders?

My work as a youth pastor is not primarily to DO the ministry but to “equip others for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4). I’m afraid that many youth pastors are nervous about kids being more deeply connected to a volunteer (a small group leader, for example) than they are to themselves. I count it as a marker of success if my volunteers know what’s going on in the lives of my students more than I do.

How do you recruit volunteers differently now than you did five or ten years ago?

The biggest difference now is that I am absolutely anchored to working a recruitment plan. When I first started out, I would recruit willy-nilly, trying to get anyone to do anything, based on the most urgent need of the moment. The result would be that I had A Players filling roles that only required a C+ Player’s investment. In other words, I would ask the person who could organize our entire summer mission trip to bring a half-dozen cookies for this week’s youth group, with no other forethought than the fact that I was pretty sure she would say yes.

What mistakes do youth workers make in recruiting leaders?

The biggest mistake we have seen in youth ministries around the country is the failure to recruit intentionally. As a result, most ministries complain about not having enough volunteers and about their volunteers not doing the jobs they have been recruited to do.

The second biggest mistake is not investing the time needed to recruit and cultivate a team of volunteers. When we throw our leftover time at recruiting and training, it shows. When we talk to youth workers who are frustrated about a lack of volunteers, we always ask, “How much time did you spend last week in recruiting?” The typical answer is less than 30 minutes, often exactly zero minutes!

The third mistake we see is starting the recruitment process too late in the season. If I start recruiting volunteers for the fall in May, I can be pretty sure that almost all the A Players have already made their commitments for the fall. When I ask too late, my “yes” rate decreases dramatically, sending me into a negative spiral, saying things like “This church just doesn’t care about kids!”

The last common mistake we see is one I call the Pedophile Invitation—simply putting an announcement in the bulletin and expecting strong leaders to respond. More often than not, this type of recruiting results in exactly the kind of people you don’t want working with students saying “yes”.

What are the handful of qualities that are most needed in volunteers?

The key quality I’m looking for is the ability to effectively play the position they have agreed to play.

If the volunteer is a small group leader, we’re looking for someone whose care for kids shows up on his or her face, who is willing to learn to lead a group well, who loves Jesus authentically, and who is resilient enough to fail repeatedly and still get up again.

If the volunteer is an event coordinator, we’re looking for someone who can juggle all the details of an event in a joyfully non-anxious way, who can coordinate other volunteers in a way that makes those volunteers more likely to want to play again, and is able to quickly recover when things don’t go as planned.

In your first meeting with a potential volunteer, what are your goals? What do you try to do?

I want to know a little about the heart of the person who might be working with our students. I want to learn what roles stir his or her cocoa, what kinds of things naturally energize him or her. I want to be able to lay out what our needs are and talk together about whether or not there might be a match.

What do you do when someone wants to volunteer and you don’t think they are a good fit for your ministry?

I’ve had to do this a few times. It’s never been easy. But it’s a whole lot easier than the alternative, which is getting the wrong person on the team who creates chaos and havoc for the rest of the team. Early in my ministry, I had someone very enthusiastic about working with our kids. I was desperate for leaders and so excited to meet with this man. But after hearing him describe his interest in going skinny dipping with the boys and discussing delicate topics with them, I had to say no. He was a third or fourth generation member of our church. It was not a popular decision. In fact, it was one I doubted, until a few years ago when I visited him in prison, where he was serving time for molesting dozens of children.

There are ways to say no that are more compassionate than others, but the bottom line is that it is much easier to say no on the front end than to remove a deeply invested leader or to lead your ministry through the aftermath of abuse that could come from such a leader.

How do you mobilize your own volunteers to recruit their friends or family?

When a ministry has a healthy climate, people want to be involved and they tell their friends (they actually tell their friends more when the climate of a ministry is toxic). I tend to do very little in the way of getting volunteers to recruit for me. I focus first on the climate of the ministry, creating a place where kids love to come, where adults love to serve, knowing that when those foundational components are in place, people will recommend our ministry to their family and friends.

How about involving students’ parents as volunteers?

We love having students’ parents involved in leadership, though not all of them are good candidates for working hands-on with students (any more than every 20 year-old is a good candidate). Nobody has the investment in kids like their parents do—that’s a plus. At the same time, nobody is more anxious about their kids than the parents are—that can make things challenging. As a result, we like to be very deliberate and clear with parents about our expectations and the direction of our ministry to make sure our philosophies are a fit. Many parents of church kids grew up in youth ministries themselves and are crystal clear about how youth ministry should be done, based on their own selective memory. It is important for parent volunteers to be aligned with the overall vision of the youth ministry before they sign on as a load-bearing volunteer.

What surprises have you experienced in the midst of recruiting volunteers?

When we work the plan, the plan almost always works.

By now you probably have one major question: What do I do after I have recruited some volunteers? You can check out part two of this “Developing Essential Leaders” series in the next FYI E-Journal for practical ideas on training, placing, nurturing, and retaining your volunteers.

Action Steps:

  1. Would you agree in your setting that the most important factor behind your effectiveness is your volunteers? Why or why not?
  2. Mark DeVries points out the importance of developing a plan for recruiting volunteers, and to implement that plan early on. What is your plan? Are you starting to implement the plan soon enough?
  3. How much time and energy do you devote during an average week to recruiting volunteers? Having read this article, what do you think about your answer?

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Photo by Joel Muniz

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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