I have spent the majority of my adult life working in youth ministry, only recently stepping away for another position at a secular non-profit. About 4 months ago, my family and I started attending a local church. I was itching to help out the youth ministry, and volunteered. I was stepping into an area where I was a trained expert, and doing it of my own volition. Which made the sudden feelings of fear I was experiencing completely surprising.
It made me wonder, "If I was feeling this, how do 'normal' volunteers feel?" You know, the ones who've never worked with teens before, or those who are new to your church, or the parents whose only experience is with their own kids. They each likely walk into your youth room with strong feelings of fear, inadequacy, and trepidation. What do we do to make it easier on them to get involved with our ministry and students?
It’s like I’ve been granted a look behind the curtain, to see what the other side experiences, and I want to share some wisdom to my youth ministry brothers and sisters on how best to welcome in a new volunteer, and how to keep them coming back!
1. Get to know them beforehand.
This should be a no brainier, but in our quest to find help we often skip this crucial step. Obviously, you need to find out if a person is a criminal or not. But you also should find out about them as a person. Discover their passions, their skills, and their motivations. That way, you can see if they fit and how to best plug them in to the ministry. This can't be done in an email or a brief meeting after church. Spend a few hours with them, ask tough questions, and share your heart.
2. Explain what will go on.
Have you ever gone somewhere and have no idea what to expect? It's terrifying. In your ministry, it's even worse because you spend most of your first few meetings trying to find your footing and not on building relationships with students. Students are forgiving, but it's difficult when you start out so awkwardly. Help your new volunteers out by explaining how everything works. In detail. Talk about the students, especially some of the ones that the volunteer might best connect with. Explain the rhythm of your meetings so that they can get into the flow. The more knowledge they have, the better.
3. Welcome them at the door.
The scariest moment is opening that front door to the youth room and stepping into the abyss. Even I paused for a minute, thinking “What am I doing here?!?” If you completed #1 and got to know them, then seeing your friendly face waiting for them will be a huge relief. At least they'll know one person.
4. Link them with another volunteer to “shadow.”
The first two weeks I volunteered, I stood around the edge of the gym like I was a middle schooler at a school dance. I just looked, trying to find a place I could fit in. Help out your volunteer by linking them with another volunteer for a few weeks. This gives them another connection and friendly face, and it helps alleviate the burden of having to figure out their place all by themselves. They will get introduced to the students by the other volunteer, they'll not feel like they're awkward or out of place (too much), and they can learn more about the ministry from a volunteer's perspective.
5. Give them something to do.
A task gives people something to orient themselves around. Too often we bring people in and say, “Just build relationships with students!” While that is vital, its not something you can tangibly identify. A task - taking care of the food, running the game, writing down prayer requests - gives someone a feeling of accomplishment and value. And, it also orients them into a role where they can then build relationships from. It gives them an anchor to hold onto.
6. Introduce them to students.
Don't expect a new volunteer to feel comfortable going up to students right away. Even extreme extroverts get shy in a hurry when walking into a room full of teens. Introduce them to the group, and to individual teens you think they'd connect with. Use your knowledge of the students and the new volunteer to begin building those relationships.
7. Debrief afterwards.
This is perhaps the most missed step: talking about how things went afterwards. They have a lot to process, and they need help to work through what they've experienced. Processing also helps them realize what they did well, and how best they can contribute to the ministry. Finally, a debrief lets you know if this is a good fit for both of you. It can be bad for both you and the ministry if the volunteer discovers early on they're not a good fit, but keeps coming out of a sense of obligation or guilt. Debriefing lets you work through any and all issues that might have come up.
If you want to build a strong and successful team, you need to think about how best to plug new volunteers into your ministry. Doing these seven things will help to them on the best foot going forward.