Dear Youth Worker...
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After college, I spent over ten years working in a para-church organization. For most of those years, I helped recruit, train, and maintain a volunteer staff. I loved it, but there were moments when the volunteers drove me crazy (Let’s be honest, I probably drove them crazy too!) Sometimes they would arrive late or forget and just not show up. They didn’t say things I wanted them to say or do the things I wanted them to do. I mean, why couldn’t they do it the way I wanted them to?
Ha! Boy, was I naïve. Looking back, I am shook (appalled for the over 30 crowd). I want to tell my younger self to chill out a little bit. My youthfulness was partly responsible, but goodness, I had some weird expectations.
Now that I’m on the other side of the spectrum (aka, a volunteer), I cringe at some things I wanted our volunteers to do! Don’t get me wrong. There were some things I got right, but I’ve thought of a few things I would tell my younger self. Especially when I catch myself doing something now that would have driven my younger self crazy. Here’s what I would say.
Dear younger me,
First off, take a deep breath. You’re doing great! No matter what happens, God’s still in control,
and you can’t mess these students up. Praise Jesus! Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, can you remember a few things for me?
Volunteers are just that, volunteers. They are individuals who think differently than you (shocker!). Give them the space to be unique. God has them here for a reason. If He wanted more of you, He would have given you a twin.
The volunteers that show up every week? They worked really hard to get here. Some came straight from work, and it wasn’t an easy day. They could have gone home, but they showed up here instead. Have a little grace if they avoid the awkward kid tonight.
Oh, that one volunteer’s out of town again? It’s okay. Her students are learning the value of family and how to prioritize a work/life balance. Unlike you, volunteers don’t get paid to show up at every event. Please don’t hold it against them. (100% me – my small group knows I like to visit family!)
The volunteer who doesn’t think he is equipped? Encourage him to show up and be a part of the ministry. Encourage him to have a one-on-one conversation with the quiet student in the back of the room. Often, it’s consistently showing up that earns the right to have a hard conversation.
Give your volunteers room to share harder parts of their stories. They are balancing life/work/family
and how to live the Great Commission daily. Let them talk about how hard it is to share Jesus with a co-worker. The difficulties or “realness” of life will become clearer to you as they share, and they could prepare your students for life after high school in ways a message never will. (I’m figuring this one out right now!)
When a volunteer steps over a boundary you’ve established, take a step back, look at the big picture, and get a second opinion before having a hard conversation. Have you clearly articulated your expectations, and did they intentionally step over them? Is the conversation worth it? Your responsibility is to both parties, students and volunteers. How can you leave the volunteer better than when you started the conversation? (This is not referring to crossing physical, abusive, or theological boundaries. Just things that may seem like big ideas at the moment, but in the long run, they are not).
You know all the information you’ve learned about what’s important to today’s teens? Volunteers don’t have the opportunity to learn stuff like that. Find ways to give them small pieces of info to help them serve your students well, whether it be an email, meeting, or simple text. Maybe all three, because we all receive information differently. I know, it’s more work on your end, but it will be worth it. (As someone who doesn’t get the chance to go to conferences anymore, I love it when I hear stats/numbers/info from our student leadership team).
Do you want all of your volunteers to be on the same page? Communicate clearly and often, but not every day. Don’t expect them to read your mind or remember all the dates. Give them a calendar at the beginning of the year and tell them again. Clarity is kindness!
Finally, say thank you. A lot. Because volunteers are just that—volunteers. They aren’t paid to be there and can walk away anytime. Make sure they know you appreciate them. You can’t do your job without them.
And don’t forget, you’re doing a great job!
Future, volunteer me
Share your thoughts with others in our YM360 community:
- In your time as a youth worker, what lessons have you learned about the value of volunteers and how to treat them well?
- What ways do you celebrate your volunteers that might be helpful to other youth workers?
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