Developing essential leaders: Part two

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Feb 1, 2010

What separates good youth ministries from great youth ministries?

According to recent research conducted by Young Life and described in part one of this two-part series, the more ministries build into volunteer adult leaders, the greater their impact on kids.

In order to understand how to train, nurture, keep (and sometimes let go of) volunteers, we interviewed four leaders from diverse youth ministry settings, all of whom have a demonstrated commitment to loving and equipping volunteers. Lyn Ten Brink is the Area Director for Young Life in West Grand Rapids. Hal Hamilton is a 25 year youth ministry veteran currently serving as the Youth and College Team Leader at First United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Kurt Johnston is the Pastor to Students at Saddleback Church in Orange County, and spends the vast majority of his time with junior highers. A Fuller alum, Mindy Coates Smith and her husband, R.O. serve as Co-Directors of Youth Discipleship at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. The combined experience and insights of these four leaders can help you develop leaders who are essential to great youth ministry.

What Scriptural principles have influenced the way you train and nurture volunteers?

Lyn: In Young Life, we try to follow Jesus model as much as possible. First, Jesus went to people and spent time with them on their own turf, so I visit volunteers at their office, in their dorm rooms, etc. Second, Jesus had a pattern of blessing before making demands, so we point out our volunteers gifts, strengths, and fruit weve noticed in their lives before we set high expectations for them. Third, just as Jesus modeled with His disciples, we want our volunteers to be part of a community. We view our volunteers as part of a team of people who pray, eat, vision, and dream together.

Kurt: I think scripture makes a pretty good case for empowering and equipping people to do kingdom work. Jesus spent so much of his time empowering his disciples to carry on the work of the kingdom in his absence that those same disciples were able to continue what they had started together. In addition to Jesus’ model, Ephesians 4:11-13 and 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9 have helped me to empower and equip volunteers in a “sharing life together” kind of way.

Hal: I would say that there are probably four passages that guide me the most. In no particular order, they are Philippians 2:3-11, Ephesians 4, especially verses 10-12, Psalm 78, and 2 Timothy 2:2. The ancient Christ hymn in Philippians 2 reminds me that my posture and attitude are to be ones of humility and service, considering others as better than myself. This has all kinds of implications. What if I ordered my world to value my volunteers input, time, contributions, and needs as more valuable than my own? What if I poured myself out for others, trusting God for any needed recognition, recreation and identity?

Ephesians 4 reminds me that my call as a pastor and teacher is to equip God’s people for works of service. Other ideas from this passage such as “truthing in love” and “building in love” flesh out the context in which this is to be done. Psalm 78 talks about the role of the whole community of faith in passing the faith to the next generation and 2 Timothy 2:2 is a potent little verse that is packed with principles of intentional mentoring methodology.

What type of initial training do you provide for volunteers?

Mindy: We have a training day (or weekend) every year in August that we use for initial training for all volunteers for the next school year. We train everyone on topics like volunteer expectations, lifestyle commitments, the child protection policy, program and event protocol, and emergency response policies. We also have training times for specific types of volunteers based either on their role in the ministry and/or their experience in the ministry. For example, brand new volunteers would be trained on “Adolescent Development 101” and “How to Lead a Small Group,” while more seasoned volunteers might be trained on subjects such as “Current Trends in Youth Ministry” or “Shared Best Practices.”

Lyn: First we meet with a potential volunteer one on one to hear their story and describe the Scriptural principles that undergird our ministry. Next we partner up that potential new volunteer with a seasoned leader and have them attend at least one school event together. After that, we meet one on one again to see if they are still feeling called to join our team. If so, they submit an application and legal forms such as a criminal background check and a drivers questionnaire.

Shortly after that, we have three days of formal training in which we explain the history of Young Life, more details about the Scriptures that guide our ministry, and how we want our team to care for students and each other. We also continue to meet one on one with new leaders every month for a semester to check in and continue their training process.

Kurt: Our initial training is wrapped up in our application and interview process. During the interview we spend a fairly significant amount of time leading a potential volunteer through our purpose statement, our programs, our values, etc. We let them know on the front end what they are getting themselves into! We also give them a 20 minute “Junior High Ministry 101” DVD that we ask them to watch before they begin serving.

What type of ongoing training do you give your volunteers?

Mindy: We have monthly volunteer meetings that are comprised of both training and discussions of ministry logistics. The training topic is usually dictated by what is going on in the ministry. For example, if we have heard that leaders have been having trouble in small groups, we might go through something like “Leading an Age-Effective Small Group.” We also offer to buy each volunteer leader a resource of their choice, so that might be a book, a DVD, or a biblical commentary. We hope this empowers them to continue to take ownership of the ministry God has called them to.

Kurt: Our ongoing training falls into what we call “TLC” (Training, Leadership and Care). While we have 3-4 formal training meetings a year, most of our ongoing interaction with our volunteers is done through our coaching structure in which each volunteer is assigned a seasoned “coach” who provides training, leadership and care at a more personal level over lunches or at Starbucks. The more time I spend sharing life with our volunteers, the longer they stick around…and the longer they stick around, the more informal training opportunities arise.

Lyn: We meet weekly in September and January for training, and then the rest of the year we meet two times a month for training meetings. We have also started a blog so we can post articles, books, statistics, and best practices that we are hearing from our leaders, or other leaders outside of our ministry. All of our leaders also receive a bi-weekly e.mail just for them that offers spiritual encouragement and other important information about the ministry.

During the summer, we ask each leader to set two goals related to their spiritual development or self-care, one of which is set by that individual volunteer and the other of which is set by the entire team. We do this because we always want our volunteers ministry to flow out of their own spiritual overflow.

How do you match volunteers time availability, skills, and ministry gifts with the opportunities in your ministry?

Mindy: We take into consideration the current needs of the ministry, along with the desire or calling the volunteer has, and then cover all of that in prayer. We have an observation period of about four weeks in which the potential volunteer will observe the ministry, which also gives us a chance to observe the potential volunteer. This allows us to see where the volunteer might fit best. For example, if a volunteer wants to be a small group leader, but we notice he has a hard time connecting with kids, we may suggest another opportunity in which he could grow into becoming a small group leader. There is also a lot of intuition involved in placing volunteers and it is more of an art than a science.

Hal: I will say that I used to create the job descriptions for the programming I envisioned and then went after people who seemed to have the gifts to make the programs go. About 20 years ago, I had a real paradigm shift. If this really was God’s ministry and I was joining Him at work, then I needed to recruit as if I believed that. From that point forward, I have sought to recruit those who were passionate about living godly, authentic lives and joining Him at work - whatever their gifts - and create the program around the gifts the Lord had brought together in community. Our ministry then comes out of the overflow of real lives and not out of perpetuating a system or structure.

How often do you try to meet one on one with each volunteer? What are your goals in those meetings?

Kurt: We try to have every volunteer get one on one attention through their relationship with their “coach”. This looks different for every coach, but our goal is that our volunteers would have weekly contact either through a phone call, a lunch or coffee, or an email (although we try to discourage too much email contact because we want to be face to face as much as possible). Our goals are to encourage them in their role and to provide the TLC I mentioned earlier. Because we have such a tough front-end process of background checks and interviews, we want our ongoing relationship with our volunteers to be authentic and informal.

Mindy: Our goal is to meet one on one with each volunteer leader about once every 6-8 weeks. This is an opportunity to connect outside of programs and events. We talk about life, their friends and families, our spiritual journeys, etc. I’ve found that just asking “how are you?” can sometimes take about three hours to answer!

Lyn: We meet monthly with our team leaders, and each of our team leaders meets monthly with their volunteers. The goal is not just to focus on what they do for Young Life but also who they are as a person. So we try to encourage them, ask intentional questions around self-care and spiritual development, and listen carefully to their answers. We also set goals for the next few months and ask how we can help that volunteer meet their goals.

What have you done to try to prevent burnout in your volunteers?

Mindy: We have at least two volunteers assigned to each area so that when a volunteer can’t make it to a program or event, the ministry will continue. This really helps in making sure volunteers don’t feel the weight of the entire ministry on their shoulders. We have given many of our long-term volunteers the option of taking a “sabbatical,” like a summer off, or helping only for monthly events for a while. Finally, we ask for a one year commitment from each volunteer (June to June) and have a reapplication process in which we meet with each volunteer to check-in and figure out placement for the following year.

Hal: I have attempted to honor them in every way. To keep from hoarding information. To use written job descriptions. To inspect what I expect. To learn and speak their love languages. To keep the vision fresh. To be proactive and not reactive in my correction and in my affirmation. To thank them personally and celebrate them publically. To provide a regular opportunity for community, eating together and “telling the stories.”

Kurt: We give them a ton of freedom to minister within their gift mix, their schedule and their life stage, and we try not to make youth ministry an “all or nothing” experience. I think the primary reason youth ministries burn out their volunteers is because when we find a good one, we use him/her for everything! We have a silly little saying that we use a lot: “Be committed to what you have committed to”. Instead of pressuring our leaders to over-commit, we ask them to prayerfully consider where they want to plug in and to do their best to stay faithful to that area. Our commitment to them is that we won’t constantly press them for more.

Lyn: We check in with our volunteers to find out how they are really doing. Just last week I met with a volunteer who was doing great work but I was concerned that burnout was inevitable for her. I asked her questions about her social life, her spiritual life, and her volunteer schedule. She admitted that she was doing too much and so together we came up with a schedule that would give her the boundaries and rest that she needs.

How do you ask a volunteer to leave your ministry, even when they might not think its time for them to leave?

Hal: I think this is one of the hardest elements of working with volunteers. For me, the very first step is getting with God and owning any responsibility I might have in the situation. The times that the fault lies entirely at the door of the volunteer are rare to never. What our culture does really well is abandon and more often than not, some form of abandonment on my part as leader has played a role in the failure of the volunteer.

Once I have owned my responsibility and repented, I pray for the Lord to redeem the situation in the volunteers life. If I am more interested in what is best for me or the program than I am the volunteer, then I am not ready to discuss it with them.

When the time comes, I try to be concrete and specific, referring to the job description when possible. I try to be kind, honest, and concise, and then allow them to respond. I also try to offer alternative opportunities for ministry when possible. My goal is to start and end with affirmation, to grieve with them, and if they will allow it, to pray for one another.

Kurt: Face to face and honestly. Asking a volunteer to step down is one of the toughest things a leader has to do. It’s easy when they are clearly missing the point of youth ministry, or when they have done something that obviously warrants their removal, but it’s really tough when they are good people who just aren’t a youth ministry fit. I have found that being direct and honest and pointing them toward another ministry option or two is the least painful approach.

What do you do differently now in your relationships with your volunteers than you did five years ago?

Lyn: I ask more questions, and I ask more intentional questions.

Hal: Volunteers are people like you and I who are being impacted by our culture. Like you and I, they are more busy, fragmented, and compartmentalized than ever. And a rapidly decreasing number come from intact two-parent families. Fewer have had the experience of an adult who unconditionally loved them and invested in their lives. These things impact the way many of them understand and do ministry. I am still processing all the implications of this.

In terms of tools, five years ago I wasn’t texting or using Facebook. We didn’t have a youth website. We didn’t use google docs. I continue to experiment with ways to use technology as a tool for ongoing training, communication and affirmation.

Kurt: The longer I do this, the more I recognize that the heart of youth ministry is really about connecting caring adults who love Jesus with a student who may or may not. Five years ago, I was much more concerned with making sure volunteers could memorize our purpose-statement, understood why our ministry does the stuff it does, were in alignment with my vision, etc. That stuff is still important to me, but my main desire now is to empower and equip a team of volunteers who want to share life with students.

Action Steps:

  1. In the last five years, Lyn has learned to ask more questions, and to ask more intentional questions. What questions do you try to ask volunteers? What additional questions could you start asking them during your regular meetings with them that would aid their own personal growth, as well as the growth of your ministry?
  2. Kurt Johnston reports above, We have a silly little saying that we use a lot: Be committed to what you have committed to. Instead of pressuring our leaders to over-commit, we ask them to prayerfully consider where they want to plug in and to do their best to stay faithful to that area. Our commitment to them is that we won’t constantly press them for more. How do you feel about your volunteers level of commitment? How might the way you press them for more affect their ability to live up to what theyve already committed to?
  3. To cut down on burnout, Mindys philosophy is to have at least two volunteers assigned to each area so that when a volunteer can’t make it to a program or event, the ministry will continue. This really helps in making sure volunteers don’t feel the weight of the entire ministry on their shoulders. What can you do to help volunteers feel supported and avoid burnout?
  4. When its time to release a volunteer, Hal candidly admits above, For me, the very first step is getting with God and owning any responsibility I might have in the situation. The times that the fault lies entirely at the door of the volunteer are rare to never. What habits or attitudes have you adopted that might be hindering your volunteers? When can you spend some time with God to get Gods perspective on your role in volunteers failures?

Photo by Melanie Lim

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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