While bouncing on the balls of his feet, he said, “Can you believe we get to do this?” He was actually giddy with excitement. It was the first night of fall ministry and Bill, a just over fifty dad, was a brand new student ministry leader and he was giddy (there’s no better word for it) as students began to enter the building for a night of ministry.
As I watched him greet students, the side hugs and fist bumps, I couldn’t help but smile. He had discovered the privilege, wonder, and awe that comes with student ministry. Bill answered a simple plea for chaperones that I’d placed in the bulletin last spring. We were headed on a mission trip and I was short a few adults. Bill answered the call. From the first day of the trip to the last, it was clear that Bill had discovered his sweet spot. On the last night he leaned over and said, “I’m in.” He is not the first to be hooked by a mission trip; some of my best leaders have been discovered on mission trips (of course I’ve also lost leaders through week-long exposure too).
We need new leaders like Bill because they renew our excitement and remind us why we love it too. Yet, when Bill asked that question on the first night of ministry the faces of the others leaders around him reflected the same excitement to see kids. Some have served with students over 9 years, some 6, some 12, and others 1 – yet they were all excited to begin.
I’ve been around long enough to know that it’s not my amazing leadership or contagious personality that keeps them serving year after year (even for my husband). So, what creates longevity in volunteer youth leaders? Why do they stay at it when the average youth pastor only lasts a few years statistically? As I look at my team, and the teams of others who have long time volunteers, I can see a few reasons rise to the top.
Expect longevity. We see discipleship and relationships as a process that takes longer than 1 year, we acknowledge this and ask for commitment. For us, leaders commit to walking with students for all 4 years of high school. I realize life happens but it is rare that a leaders steps out before their 4 years are up, not because I make them but because their connection to students has deepened over the years and they are committed to them. Kids need leaders who stick around. I watch as senior leaders mentor freshmen leaders and encourage them to hang in there because it’s worth it.
Empowerment brings ownership and owners stay. A chaperone is a just a chaperone – but an empowered leader will step up and dive in. I can remember the first time I gave the main message to another leader. He was carefully chosen, we worked together on the message, and we laid out a plan yet when the time came for him to speak – I fretted. They are my kids, how do I trust someone else to teach them. Even writing this I can see how egotistical that sounds but it was really an ownership thing and I knew I had to share. I need to allow this leader become what he was called to be. As he began, I discovered the joy of empowering leaders to do the big things as well as the small. I know we’ve done it right when I hear a leader say “my kids” when referring to their students.
It needs to matter. If I am asking someone to give up their Sunday nights, a few weekends and a week of vacation for a mission trip – it needs to matter. It’s that moment of salvation, the change of behavior, the question that shows growth and the words of a story that keep a leader going. We all like to play and laugh, but there is nothing more solidifying in a volunteer than when they are used by God to make a difference in the life of as student. We need to help them notice those moments, acknowledge God’s work in them, and celebrate with each other.
Relationships, relationships, relationships. I’m sure this is no surprise for those of us in ministry but for me its three areas of relationship that help leaders stay for the long haul. Relationships with students is number one, it is why they are serving in the ministry in the first place. A relationship with other leaders is second. I believe leaders need teams, even if it’s a two person team, to help, support, encourage, and share the load. Over four years of serving together, I see deep friendships develop as leaders share a common call to love students. A relationship with me is third. We’re in this thing called ministry together and I want to live life as well as serve with these people who are volunteering time away from their families to invest in other people’s kids, to invest in my kid.
Yes, there is conflict. Yes, leaders drop out after a few weeks sometimes. Yes, some get it totally wrong. But when we get it more right than wrong, when we grow through the conflict, and we seek to love students in Jesus’ name week after week after week, something great happens.
Bill’s in for the long haul and he can’t wait, remember when you felt that way? Do you see those who serve with you as a team? Do they know they matter? Do you share the valuable work or just the grunt work? Do you trust them with making a difference or making copies?
If you don’t have a team, I encourage you to invite a few people to join you, empower them to do ministry, make it matter and let the relationships form. You may just discover a few life-long student ministry volunteers in the process.