Recruiting leaders

New ideas from old pros

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Sep 1, 2008

Photo by Quino Al

If you haven’t asked God to bring you more volunteers, you probably haven’t been in youth ministry very long.

As a companion resource to Deep Leadership: Training Onramps for Your Youth Ministry Team, we at the Fuller Youth Institute asked the following four youth ministry professionals for their best ideas about recruiting leaders:

  • April Diaz, the Next Generation Pastor at New Song Church in Irvine, California
  • John Lewis, the National Training Director for the Urban Youth Workers Institute
  • Ginny Olson, the co-director of the Center for Youth Ministry Studies at North Park University, and
  • Lars Rood, the Lead Director for Stream Youth Ministries at Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas.

Combined, these four youth ministry veterans offer 70 years of experience. But more than that, they give glimpses into the good, the bad and the ugly (sometimes the very ugly) of recruiting leaders.

How has your own approach to recruiting leaders evolved in the last five to ten years?

April Diaz: I used to feel one of two ways in my early days of recruiting volunteers: overwhelmingly grateful that they decided to serve or apologetic for asking them to give up their time and money. Now I approach recruiting and serving as an incredible privilege, which gives me both confidence and passion as I recruit other team members.

Lars Rood: I used to feel that the big announcements at church and putting notices in the bulletin were helpful ways to find leaders. What I realized over the last ten years is that leaders come from relationships. Many of our greatest volunteers have come because they were seeking a place in the church that was like a family. What I’ve tried to do is create a healthy place for leaders to come, grow, and be in relationship with each other. Usually out of those relationships great ministry happens.

What theological principles or Scripture passages have most shaped the way you recruit leaders?

April: I believe that it’s through serving that we encounter a “bigger” Jesus. There’s an incredible paradox that exists in serving. It’s in giving up our life for Jesus that we find it (Matthew 10:39). Jesus even said, “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work” (John 4:34). I deeply believe that somehow in the process of serving, we come to know our Creator so much more and are transformed far more than we ever give.

I also keep Matthew 18:5-6 in the back of my mind when looking for new leaders. I will not take any ole’ person who wants to work with kids. Jesus was very explicit when he talked about the consequences of someone who would lead kids astray—tying a millstone around their neck and drowning them in the depths of the sea!

Ginny Olson: It becomes easier to recruit when we see the ministry as part of God’s larger plan to redeem humanity rather than simply trying to get people to help babysit the church kids. Youth workers need to paint a picture that serving in ministry is an opportunity for people to participate in God’s call not just for adolescents’ lives, but God’s call for their own lives as well. That means that youth workers need to spend time investing in the development of other leaders so that those leaders can lead out of an overflow, rather than a sense of duty or obligation.

Lars: The only way I know how to recruit leaders is to follow Paul’s example of sharing not just the gospel but his “life” with the people of Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 2:8). I typically recruit leaders who model this passage. If they are willing to “share their lives” with other leaders and students, then they have a great start at being a phenomenal leader.

What mistakes do youth workers tend to make in the ways they recruit potential leaders, or in the types of leaders they tend to recruit?

John Lewis: The biggest mistake is not making sure that the leaders actually desire to build relationships with kids. Recently I’ve been visiting several churches at various camps. I’m amazed at how many times it looks like the leaders are not even remotely interested in hanging out with kids. They separate themselves from all of the kids. Team leaders can prevent this through modeling and making sure they recruit adults who understand (or at least can be taught) that youth ministry means building relationships with kids.

Ginny: It seems that sometimes young youth workers will recruit others to do the chores in ministry that they don’t want to do without exploring those new leaders’ gifts. For example, they’ll recruit a parent to make treats for a Bible study but they won’t notice that the parent has gifts in intercessory prayer or teaching. Or they’ll recruit someone to enter names into a database or drive the van, but they don’t see that he or she is gifted in counseling. While delegating is usually a good thing, it could also be an excuse to pawn off the undesirable jobs of youth ministry on others without discerning their true gifts.

Also, I’ve noticed that youth workers will recruit someone of the other gender to pastor students of the other gender. While it’s crucial to have healthy boundaries with students no matter what their gender, this can sometimes be 1) an excuse not to stretch and learn what it takes to minister to someone of the other gender, or 2) a lack of pastoral identity that is rooted in a fear of donning the role of “pastor” to students. If one is called to be a youth pastor, he or she is called to minister to all the students, not just the ones with the same chromosomes as themselves.

Lars: Youth workers often try to recruit leaders before they really know how they are going to take care of those leaders. They think that they need help but neglect to think through all the ramifications of what it means to add leaders to the ministry and the ongoing training and nurture that is required.

What are some of the most effective ways to recruit youth ministry leaders?

April: Our best leaders are always gained from our current volunteers. Our current volunteers know our vision, how we care for and develop our leaders, and they know the expectations. Plus, when a veteran leader recruits someone he or she knows, we have someone who is “vouching” for them. Another advantage of this process is that once that new leader joins our team, they instantly are assimilated into the community because of that pre-existing relationship. It’s a no-brainer for us to recruit this way!

Ginny: When people hear stories about adolescent lives being changed from a variety of committed volunteers who are passionate about youth and youth ministry, it almost seems like the recruiting takes care of itself. People desire to spend their time making a difference in the world and in their church and they are more likely to respond when they hear the request for help from someone who’s in a similar season of life. Suddenly, volunteering seems not just plausible, but intriguing and compelling.

John: It’s best to recruit by giving volunteers a first experience that is both memorable and positive. I was a volunteer at a church for a few years and all they would let me do was stack chairs. I had to prove that I was faithful before I was given an opportunity to do anything else. The only reason I stuck around was because I spent so much time with the kids outside of the church.

So now when I recruit volunteers, I make sure they have a ministry opportunity that really touches their heart. I want them to walk away from that first ministry event with a taste that leaves them wanting more. That means that I let them interact with kids while I myself show up early to set up chairs. I’ve even taken new or potential volunteers along on camps or mission trips. After these volunteers spend a handful of days building deep relationships with kids, their hearts end up connected and they ask to be a part of the team when we return.

Often youth workers fall on one of two ends of a spectrum; on the one end are youth workers who are afraid to ask people to serve as volunteers because they don’t want to be too pushy, and on the other end are those youth workers who constantly ask people to serve, sometimes to the point of pestering them. How do you find the balance between being too passive or too pushy in asking people to serve as youth ministry volunteers?

April: I probably err in being too pushy in asking people to serve in our ministry! Who cares about the balance here? I don’t believe there’s another area of the church more important than building a love for God into the next generation. I pester people because it’s not only the future of our world that we are held responsible for shaping, but because I know that leaders will be transformed from head to toe by giving their life away to another. I know that my continual invitation for people to serve in this area of ministry really benefits everyone—the church, the kingdom, and leaders’ own spiritual formation.

Ginny: Our quest to find others to serve with us needs to flow from a realization that it is a privilege to serve, not a duty. I believe we become passive when we don’t have a vision for what ministry could be with the adolescents and their families in our community. I think we become pushy when we either sense the success of the ministry rides on our shoulders or we fail to see that God’s kingdom is larger than just our ministry.

John: It is a fine balance. It is all about being creative in the process and having multiple ways for volunteers to be asked. One of the greatest ways to ask is to let kids who believe someone would be a great volunteer go ask them. It carries a different amount of weight when kids ask someone than if it is you always asking.

Lars: I think balance brings balance. When the youth ministry leaders are shown to have balanced lives and priorities, then people are attracted to that. We don’t ever want to recruit via guilt or shame because bringing leaders in under those circumstances is not healthy. One great way of finding balance between being afraid and being pushy is to provide opportunities for people to get involved on a limited time frame. Specific needs and short time frames give people a chance to get involved without a huge commitment. Often those people tend to want to be involved more after that initial commitment but we’ve also had some who serve in a specific way each year and that becomes their niche.

Imagine that a potential volunteer wants to meet with you for coffee to hear more about your ministry. Please describe what a “successful” meeting with that potential volunteer looks like. Specifically, what materials do you bring? What questions do you ask? What do you try to explain?

Lars: I think a successful meeting is one in which I am able to share my heart for the ministry and also highlight the places we have for entry into service. If this was a first meeting I would want to make sure to have previously given the potential volunteer our website, our volunteer packet, and our schedule of events. I would ask questions about their relationship with Christ, their history of service in the church, and why they want to be involved in youth ministry. I try to explain everything about the ministry (good and bad) without ever feeling like I’m trying to “sell it”. Another goal I have for that meeting is to praise my team and talk about my love for them and how being a part of the youth ministry is a great way to be a part of a family.

Ginny: I try to give leaders a basic understanding of what they will be doing and the length of time I’m hoping they will commit to. In addition to that, I let potential leaders know about the type of training they can expect to receive as well as my plans to support them, affirm what they are doing well, and coach them when they need it.

April: We actually rarely meet one-on-one with a potential volunteer who hasn’t already jumped through one hoop—completing and submitting their five page application. It’s one of the litmus tests we use in seeing if a leader is really serious about serving.

When we do meet for coffee, we’ll bring their completed application, an interview form, and our recruiting packet. The bulk of the conversation will be spent asking them questions about their whole life—past and present. We’ll ask a barrage of questions about their spiritual journey, family of origin, career, hobbies, and current life responsibilities. We’ll also explore how they handle conflict, their experience in working with students, and their motivations and expectations for serving. The recruiting packet contains our vision description, serving opportunities, and a calendar. We will talk them through the packet and take time to answer any questions they have. Usually those coffee conversations last anywhere from 90 minutes to 2 hours. We take that first step seriously as a way to gauge if this person is a good fit in working with kids.

Please complete this sentence: youth workers would experience more success in recruiting leaders if they….

Ginny: ...saw youth ministry as an opportunity to develop a team of people who love God and enjoy each other and as an overflow of that, seek to minister to adolescents. Some of my sweetest memories are of working crazy long hours doing crazy wild things with crazy mixed-up adolescents and with a group of adult leaders who I absolutely loved being with. And then going out afterwards as a team to talk about what happened. As Madeline L’Engle once said, “The party’s not over until the stories have been told.” The sign of a healthy team is that they enjoy laughing together and telling the stories of the ministry to each other.

John: ...created more ways for youth workers to play a significant role in the lives of the youth they serve.

Lars: ...had a plan in place for how they would take care of those youth leaders and create a “team” that did ministry together. Youth workers need to allow volunteers to have real responsibility and the freedom to ask questions, dream big, and even fail without fear.

April: ...truly believed we were offering the best thing in town! High caliber leaders are naturally drawn to places of energy, passion, and effectiveness. And when youth pastors and their teams exude that kind of commitment to students, people will line up to serve in our ministries. I believe that because I’ve experienced it!

Action Steps:

  • The panelists mention several Scripture passages that have shaped the way they recruit other team members. Which of these passages of Scripture is most significant to you? What passages would you add to the list?
  • In what ways have you changed your own recruiting style since you entered youth ministry? What differences, if any, have those changes made?
  • One panelist suggests using your own students to recruit leaders. When, if ever, would this be a good idea in your setting?
  • Evaluate your goals for explaining your ministry to potential volunteers in light of the aims of the panelists. What did you learn from the panelists that can be helpful in your initial meeting(s) with potential volunteers?
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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