Recently, a youth pastor in my area met me for lunch in order to ask me one simple question.
“How in the world do you get your volunteers to commit to 4 or sometimes even 7 years?”
This is a really good and important question.
I would argue that almost nothing we do in student ministry is as important as connecting students to a long-term relationship with a caring adult who will teach and model them how to follow Jesus.
When it comes to student ministry…and really any ministry, longevity matters.
Here are some thoughts on how to build longevity in volunteers.
1. Give Them Vision
Everyone wants to do something meaningful.
We tap into this longing by providing volunteers with a vision of how amazing mentoring students can be.
We share with them that in our ministry structure,
“You are the primary spiritual shepherd of our students!”
We share stories of how past small group leaders have deeply impacted students.
Vision captivates and motivates.
Repeatedly share your vision of discipleship with your volunteers. Let the vision act as fuel.
2. Give Them Community
Even mature followers of Jesus are often longing for community.
Open and meaningful relationships are rare in our culture. One of our values is to provide our volunteers great community.
We place each volunteer in a team of 8-10 people to serve with during their small group leading experience.
Each group of 8 also has 2 mentor-volunteers whose primary role is to care and mentor our small group leaders.
These teams serve together on a weekly basis.
This community structure has provided so much longevity for us because our volunteers simply love serving with their friends.
3. Give Them A Meaningful Role
One of the biggest mistakes churches and student ministries often make is underutilizing volunteers.
Without a meaningful role, people will often look elsewhere.
In a typical situation, our volunteers are responsible for mentoring and leading 5-8 students on a weekly basis for all 3 years of middle school or 4 years of high school.
There is no co-leader. It’s just them owning the role.
We occasionally lose a leader because the role is too much responsibility but we rarely ever lose leaders because they are bored or underutilized.
4. Never Make Them Guess
Everyone wants to do good work. We all want to be effective and successful.
Never make your volunteers guess on whether or not they are doing a good job.
In my experience, most new volunteers will assume they are doing terribly – I’m not exactly sure why that is but it’s true!
Be clear on your expectations.
Put them on paper and give them to your volunteers as you launch every student ministry season.
Remind them throughout the year and meet with your leaders one-on-one and give them real feedback.
Always do your best to tell them what they are doing well and offer a few suggestions on how to improve.
5. Give Them The Summer Off
Our philosophy is to ask for a big commitment from September to May and then let volunteers rest.
People need breaks.
A big part of why we are able to retain volunteers for all four years of high school is that they know they can have their Sunday nights back over the summer.
6. Never Stop Equipping Them
When you’re good at something, you tend to enjoy doing it.
Never stop training your volunteers.
Never quit providing them with tools to do ministry better.
In our context, we train our volunteers for 30 minutes every other week.
Skilled volunteers tend to stick around because people enjoy being effective.
7. Never Make Them Pay
Sometimes it’s the little things.
We have a policy that our volunteers never have to pay for a student ministry event or program.
Our leaders go to snow camp, summer camp and on mission trips for free.
Making it free allows younger volunteers to come and also communicates value to more established volunteers who have to take vacation time to serve on a mission trip.
8. Listen To Them
Nothing communicates value like listening.
Free stuff, training and cool t-shirts won’t get you far if you don’t listen well when a volunteer is struggling in some way.
Good listening takes time, space and intention.
Most leaders don’t believe they have that kind of time because of other responsibilities and focuses.
Here’s my advice: if your student ministry is larger than one small group, you should start investing in your volunteers more than your students.
Volunteers are very likely your most valuable resource. Treat them as such!
9. Love Them
“Do you care about me as a person or are you only interested in me filling a role?”
Volunteers who understand that they are more than a ratio of adults to students will be happier and more effective volunteers.
Don’t make the mistake of treating your volunteers like commodities.
They are people and they have lives outside of your ministry.
What’s going on in their lives?
Make it a point to know and do your best to pastor them through life’s difficult moments.
Let me summarize. It’s my belief that we experience fantastic longevity with our volunteers because of how we value and invest in them.
Why do we do this?
Well, because we understand that they are our most valuable resource. Without them, we are dead in the water.
How do you fight for longevity with your volunteers?
We’d love to hear your ideas.