10 Ways to Train & Appreciate Your Volunteers
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Student pastors have more than enough to keep them busy 24/7. Sermon prep, counseling students, visiting schools, budgeting, and event planning can take up a chunk of your time. The list seemingly never ends, yet most student ministries only have one full-time staffer. Even the rare student pastor that can perform all these duties excellently with no issues wouldn’t choose to do it alone. Volunteers are the muscle of the local church, and that is especially true in student ministry.
Student ministry volunteers are a welcome blessing to any student pastor. In many cases, lay leaders who choose to spend time volunteering in student ministry are the busiest kind of volunteers in the congregation. Think about the duties and obligations that might pile up on these volunteers. These are adults that have their own life duties, from jobs to families, yet they still take a significant portion of time to pour into students, which we know is not isolated to just a weekly service.
A great student ministry volunteer is a gift that student pastors should thank the Lord for, yet any seasoned student pastor could tell you about struggles with volunteer turnover and burnout. From my time serving adult volunteers, I have seen plenty of qualified and caring adult volunteers end their time in student ministry frustrated and exhausted. Performing post-mortems on burnt-out volunteers has revealed two major sources of frustration: feeling ill-equipped and underappreciated. The good news is that we, as student pastors, can fight these two struggles.
No one likes to feel or look dumb. One of the quickest ways to frustrate and lose quality volunteers is by making them feel ill-prepared for what they might face in student ministry. Remember that you are actively training leaders over time. Use a weekly huddle, a monthly breakfast, semester break meetups, or one-on-one conversations to make an impact. As your team grows, you might have to get more and more creative on how you approach training. Here are several ideas for how you could train volunteers.
- Address Current Issues
Students pay attention to the world’s problems and the world’s messages, and they bring this thinking into student ministry settings. Help your volunteers by preparing them to hear and respond to current issues - elections, local troubles, major world events, gender and sexuality, pornography, drugs…the list goes on. If they talk about it at school, the chances are high that it will be brought up at church.
- Help Them Stay Informed about Student Culture
Culture changes can cause adult volunteers to feel distant from students. I remember once overhearing a volunteer innocently using student slang that they didn’t know and had to pull him aside to let him know that he had said something inappropriate. Help your volunteers by taking time to keep them acquainted with slang, styles, or trends (like certain TikTok trends) that might be disruptive. Even if you are not an active social media user, you can still hop on TikTok, YouTube, or Snapchat to see what students are seeing.
- Train Them to Read Their Bibles
The healthiest student ministries train their students to read their Bibles, and adult volunteers modeling that skill will go a long way in creating a Biblically literate ministry. You could offer some help on reading the particular book you are teaching through, share your message days before it’s given, supply them with commentary and questions, or create reading plans and note-taking guides.
- Teach Theology
Students ask big questions, and they can handle big answers. They learn trigonometry, physics, world history, and chemistry at school. They can handle theology. Help your lay leaders grow as theologians so they feel equipped to answer students. Discussing theological topics that might arise during a sermon series with volunteers will allow them to teach and lead students with excellence.
- Show Them Practical Skills
Sometimes you might have a volunteer that has been around the Church for years, reads their Bible every day, and can discuss theology with the best of them, but has zero people skills with students. I have seen many loving and excited volunteers grow frustrated by difficulties leading groups or accomplishing tasks. Help your volunteers out by offering practical training in whatever area they serve. Help them to become the expert that you are.
We can easily overlook the importance of communication in equipping volunteers. Imagine how frustrating it is as a volunteer not to have answers to questions that students might have, especially time-sensitive ones. For instance, I have seen student small group leaders not know when camp registration was opening. The frustration is immediately evident. Student pastors cannot over-communicate with their volunteers. Ask your volunteers how they like to be communicated with and adjust accordingly. Open several means of communication. We have many tools at our disposal - GroupMe or texts, email, printouts, and announcements, so use everything available to you.
Celebrating volunteers should be a regular part of our roles as student pastors. Volunteers give a lot of time and energy, often with little thanks from students or their families. When volunteers begin to burn out and contemplate moving on, they often ask, ‘Is what I’m doing even making a difference?’ Encourage your volunteers by showing appreciation. Here are some ideas:
- Share Stories
In most student ministries, at any given time, some volunteers will be experiencing a sweet time of growth with students while other volunteers feel like they are stuck in the mud. When volunteers share stories of how God is working in students’ lives, the entire team can feel motivated and encouraged. I have often seen that volunteers working exclusively with junior high students can be greatly encouraged by the stories of high school students closely following Christ. There’s a reminder that they are doing some of the groundwork that may pay off later.
- Birthday and Thank You Cards
While the idea of writing birthday or thank you cards seems simple, sometimes the simplest gifts have huge impacts. Writing cards not only shows appreciation but is a tangible encouragement that you appreciate their work. Take the time to make a list of all your volunteers’ birthdays so that you can send out cards on time. You may even involve other volunteers to create a deeper bond and comradery between your servant leaders. Outside of birthdays, try to take note of leaders who are thriving and leaders who are struggling. Send thank you notes to both of them. This helps communicate that you don’t just appreciate your volunteers when they’re doing great things for your ministry.
- Date Nights or Family Events
Volunteers are not the only ones making sacrifices to serve in your ministries; their spouses and families are also making sacrifices. Show that you care about volunteers’ families by giving the gift of date nights or family gatherings. Depending on your budget, you might have to be creative with what you can do, but making an effort demonstrates that you care.
- Annual Celebrations and Monthly Gatherings
Student ministry follows the rhythm of the school calendar, so it makes sense to celebrate volunteers following the school year - the beginning of the year, the end of the year, and holidays to be specific. Around holidays like Christmas, host parties for your team without overscheduling. It’s also a good idea to meet with your entire volunteer team at regularly scheduled times. For example, our church hosts monthly student volunteer breakfasts to celebrate and train.
Pastors are to be stewards of the Lord's resources, and wise student pastors will recognize their volunteers as incredible God-given resources. If we are to be good stewards of what is provided, we will make sure to retain our volunteers by training and celebrating them.
Share your thoughts with others in our YM360 community:
- What do you currently do to appreciate your ministry’s volunteers?
- How have you gone about training volunteers? Do you have any systems set in place that have been more effective than others?
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