Building a Youth Ministry Team

By D. Robbins

Three weeks before I was scheduled to speak at a winter retreat for the youth group at Halverson Fields United Methodist Church, a suburban church in a large Ohio city, I received a letter from the youth minister telling me about his group. I wanted to learn about the group so I could tailor my ministry to the specific needs of his group, but I found out more than I wanted to know.

When I came to Halverson Fields, the youth group was about one hundred strong and had a group of twelve leaders. During a four-month interim between my arrival and my predecessor’s leaving, the youth leaders formed a very close bond with each other and ran the program themselves—and they did it very well. They gave me the impression that they expected me to be responsible for the program and to take on much of the responsibility myself because they had jobs and families of their own. But when I did things my way—not theirs—we had constant conflict. If I planned a program they didn’t like, they expected me to drop it. They were not aware that when there was a conflict it was almost always all of them against me—I was an outsider!

These volunteer leaders were very dedicated Christians, but they were not supportive of the church as a whole. The youth group had become a sanctuary for disgruntled adults; they did their own thing in the youth group, and weren’t real happy with the church, which, in fact, supported the youth group strongly. The senior pastor wasn’t very happy with these leaders because of their lack of support for the church, so there was some open antagonism between himself and our volunteer leaders. In times past, former leaders had even tried to continue as youth group leaders even though they had left our church to attend elsewhere. I was asked to make the youth group part of the church again—not a satellite on its own. I worked to that end.

My first year and a half was one of conflict. The conflict became open and obvious in February when I had a program that several of the leaders opposed. Those leaders moved to organize a counter-meeting in one of their homes where we were already having a midweek group meeting sponsored by the church. We were able to resolve the conflict before the counter- meeting so that it never happened, but the stage was set for an exit.

One of the volunteer leaders decided to leave the church, which meant that he would no longer be able to serve as a youth leader—my rule and the church’s. When he insisted on continuing to be involved in our weeknight program as a leader, I asked him to stop. The Pastor-Parish Relations Committee backed me up on this. If he did not stop, we were going to cause the group to cease meeting.

In August/September we had a mass resignation of ten leaders and college students in protest against our not allowing this one person who left the church to continue serving as a youth leader. The whole group went to another United Methodist church a mile from us and set up shop, involving that minister in their planning, beginning a Sunday night youth program, and setting plans for a fall retreat that would take place two weeks before ours. They actively recruited youths from our youth pro gram, sometimes coming into our own church to do so. It has caused a great deal of heartache and stress in the church, with the youths, the youth group, and for me personally.

It has been a time of rebuilding for the youth group, and right now we have about seventy attending on Sunday evenings. Some of the youths who left the church are starting to come back to our youth group. Many who were persuaded to leave go nowhere now—they have been lost. Presently those who left are starting to resurface with themes of reconciliation, but not really making any steps in that direction. We are not healed yet; it appears that they want to keep the wound open. Only two of the original volunteer youth leaders v were here when I came are still with the program, but they are both supportive and extremely hard working. This is a long way of telling you that things haven’t been real rosy this fall.

Needless to say, as a veteran youth minister I knew exactly what to do in response to that letter. I quickly typed a note explaining that I thought I might have to be at a funeral or something that weekend and that it didn’t look like I wasn’t going to make it for the retreat after all.

Actually, I did the retreat as planned, but I have never forgotten the hurt and confusion I read in that letter. It remains in my files as a reminder of the vital importance of a volunteer ministry team— calling the right people and keeping the right people.

No doubt the author of the above letter often asked himself if it wouldn’t be much easier to lead the youth program without any ministry team. Unanimity and team harmony are easier to maintain when there is only one person on the team! The sailor on a solo voyage seldom has to deal with mutiny. Frustrations are normally part of any team effort: miscommunication, hurt feelings, botched plans, lack of dependability, lack of coordination, and too many coaches.

On the other hand, team ministry, with all its pitfalls and pains, is still the most common biblical pattern for ministry—Moses and Aaron, Elijah and Elisha, Jesus and the disciples, Paul and Silas, Paul and Luke, Paul and Barnabas, Paul and everybody. In fact, team ministry was one of the major themes of Paul’s letters (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:1-7; Rom. 12:3-8).

Not only is team ministry biblical, it’s just plain practical. Because each of us has different abilities and gifts, we can accomplish with a team what we cannot accomplish alone. A team ministry has varied personality types as well, giving our students opportunities to see what Christian commitment looks like on different types of personalities.

Team ministry also builds longevity into a youth program. Volunteers Mick and Caryn had been working with their church’s senior high group for two years when the paid youth minister announced that he had accepted a call to a new position. Because Mick and Caryn had been equipped as part of a team ministry—trained to plan retreats, do Bible studies, and work closely with students—they ably sustained the work during the year-long search for a replacement. The paid youth minister could leave without taking the ministry with him.

Finally, team ministry is simply more reasonable. Anyone who has been doing youth ministry for more than three weeks knows that the quickest route to burnout is doing it all alone. Bob, a young youth worker with remarkable natural gifts and personal charisma, was ideally suited to a ministry with teenagers. But because he was unable or unwilling to nurture a ministry team, he survived in youth ministry for just under one year.
Through almost two decades of youth ministry, I have observed that the greatest guarantor of one’s longevity in youth work is the ability to effectively recruit, equip, and keep a good team of co workers. “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Eccl. 4:9-12).

How do we persuade normal, well-adjusted, contented adults that their lives will be more rewarding and pleasant if they agree to spend several hours a week with teenagers listening to music that is too loud, driving vans that break down too often, taking part in retreats on which they will get too little sleep, and working with teenagers who too often act as if they are totally ungrateful? Good question.

Calling the right people seems simple enough. The trick is getting them to answer. Most of the time they respond with an obvious “busy” signal. Mark Senter lists some of the reasons why it’s so difficult to recruit good volunteer leaders.’

The movement away from volunteerism. The parents evaluating the last junior high ski retreat all nodded their heads and voiced their support of more adult supervision on the next such trip. But when I passed around a sign-up sheet for those who would be willing to work with the group (even though their own children were the direct recipients of the group’s ministry), this strong gale of enthusiasm deteriorated into a small cloud of hot air. From the entire room we were able to muster only one name. Like Isaiah of old, the adults spoke with one voice, “Lord, here am I. Please, send someone else.”

The ‘Me” orientation. We have huge Sunday school classes studying gifts of the Spirit like healing, prophecy, and speaking in tongues, but the group praying for the gift of helps can probably fit in the broom closet. In the church today, we lack a theology of service. Our culture has brainwashed us into thinking that we need and deserve long hours of leisure, lots of “space,” time to “get our heads together.” The fact that youth ministry isn’t always rewarding, that kids and parents will be ungrateful, and that we will face lack of sleep, lack of decent vans, and lack of quiet music confirms to many that they simply can’t fit service to others into their schedules. But Christ calls us to service. In the words of Francis Xavier, the gospel challenges us to “give up our small ambitions.”

The social isolation of youth volunteers. The youth ministry is so demanding that we discover our commitment requires us to be voluntarily quarantined from the mainstream of adult fellowship in the congregation. We may not notice it until our first adult dinner party when we turn to the group and say, “Hey—let’s shoot Cheerios out of our noses!” To counteract isolation, we need to create on our ministry team an atmosphere of fellowship and comradery, making the leadership team a nurturing community for the volunteers involved.

That has been the genius of Young Life through the years. They are able to recruit and retain volunteers because they typically have a Sunday night “Leadership” meeting in which they bring only the volunteer leaders together—no kids—for nurture, sharing, singing, and fellowship.

Working women. With more and more women working — by necessity and by choice—the pool of female volunteers is shrinking.

Apathy. Most of us don’t even care about apathy any more, but judging from Ezekiel 22:30 it has been and always will be a problem.

Short-term orientation. Because we live such busy lives, most of us are unwilling to make any long-term volunteer commitments. We don’t want to be “tied down.” Research done by the YMCA found that people were more willing to work fifty hours over a four-week period than they were to work that same number of hours spread over a four or five month period. One youth minister, asking for parents to help out in Sunday school, found that the longest commitment the parents would generally agree to was six weeks.

That means that we need to find ways to use volunteers for short- term service. Obviously, in youth ministry, there will always be a need for a long-term commitment by some leaders. Short-term commitment simply is not the kind of soil that breeds a ministry of nurture and trust. But a wise youth leader will think of ways to use short-term leaders in such a way that their brief stints of service take some of the pressure off the long-term volunteers.

For example, one very effective way of doing this in the Sunday school is by dividing each quarter of the year into two segments: one segment for teaching a standard curriculum in which students are divided into age-graded classes. Then, a second four-week segment in which short-term volunteers are recruited to teach special elective courses. These courses can be based on student interest and can be offered in such a way that each elective is open to any junior or senior high student, regardless of age. That gives the long-term Sunday school teacher the option of attending the elective course or taking off the four-week segment. By using the short-term commitment of some volunteers, we are able to offer our long-term workers four four-week breaks each year.

The success of adult Sunday school classes. Twenty years ago adults were only too happy to bail on curricula they perceived to be outdated and irrelevant. Now, an adult volunteer may be passing up anything from a creative class on Christian financial management to a video by one of Christendom’s greatest teachers. A growing number of adults are unwilling to forego the nurture and care of their own Sunday school classes to work with youths on Sunday mornings.

One way to assure them that we, too, want adult volunteers to grow in Christ is to use a staggered teaching schedule or elective format. At the very least, we can take the trouble to check out copies of video tapes for leaders to take home and view on their own time.

Lack of prayer Jesus started his recruiting drive not with potshots of guilt or rapid-fire pleading, but with prayer to the Lord of the harvest. “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Luke 10:2).

Our own insecurity Recruiting can rub our noses into some very uncomfortable questions: What if people see all of these volunteers and think I’m not doing my job? What if they’re thinking “Aren’t we paying you to do youth ministry?” What if people turn me down? Will that affect our relationship? What if my volunteers are better at youth work than I am? Can I effectively lead a group of adult peers in ministry? Will those volunteers who are ten years older than me accept my leadership?

Our volunteers’ insecurities. The average adult generally manifests one of three clinical fears about doing youth ministry:

• Intelligentsius snobus nerdus—fearing that the kids will know more about the Bible than we do and we’ll end up looking stupid when we can’t answer one of their questions.

Antidote: —We are working with students not because we’re theological experts, but because we love students and Jesus.

—Teenagers don’t respond to Christ by listening for knowledge from our heads but by experiencing care and friendship from our hearts.

• Nonterminus phobias—fearing that if we volunteer for this position we’ll never be able to quit without being considered AWOL. (Frankly, we all know there’s truth to this fear.)

Antidote: —Write into the job description a set length of tenure, assuring people they can dismiss themselves gracefully. This will also protect youth workers from being interminably teamed with volunteers who aren’t working out. The only thing harder than get ting workers on the team is gracefully getting them off the team.

Delinquitus barbarus phobias—fearing that all teenagers are barbarians, incorrigible, and just a step above lower primates, and that going into a room or meeting alone with them is to risk being taken hostage.

Antidote—Experience. Invite prospective leaders to tag along for a weekend retreat or to sit in for a few weeks of youth group. They will gain a more realistic picture of both the challenges and the joys of minis try with students.

Calling the right people for the right positions is perhaps the one area of youth ministry that causes the most frustration and headache. How do we find the people we want? How do we decide what kind of people we want to find? How do we avoid finding people we don’t want?

Create a climate for recruiting. To raise up a crop of volunteers, we have to provide a climate of general congregational enthusiasm for the youth ministry. Showcase the youth group by encouraging student testimonies following retreats and by liberally using slides and videotapes to report to the congregation the momentum of the youth ministry.

Ask tough questions. In the average recruiting situation, we are so desperate for someone to take the job that we will settle for any person with a pulse. Whether recruiting for a paid position or a volunteer position, we simply cannot afford to cut any corners on the prescribed biblical guidelines for those in leadership. (Check out just these few samples: Lev. 21; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Acts 6:3; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Peter 5:1-4.)

Any group of people responsible for recruiting youth-ministry workers should confront some of these tough questions:
• Will we allow divorced people to serve on the team?
• Do team members have to be active members of our church?
• Do our team leaders exhibit the evidence of spiritual leadership?
• What kind of standards will we have with regard to theological beliefs?
• What will be our stance toward team members who become pregnant outside of marriage?
• Do we want to establish any guidelines relative to age?
• Will we have any special expectations about team members’ personal habits (smoking, using alcohol, etc.)?
These are not rhetorical questions with assumed answers. The major channel through which teenagers receive spiritual truth is the adult models they observe.

Recognize spiritual vitality. Paul writes to the church of Corinth that his life is an incarnation of the gospel, that he seeks to live his life as a living letter (2 Cor. 3:1-3). He encourages the Corinthians to imitate him as he seeks to imitate Christ (1 Cor. 11:1). The writer of Hebrews echoes the same idea: “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). The number-one criterion for selecting prospects for a role on the youth-ministry team should be their competence as Christians.

Be aware of other pluses for youth ministry—things like an under standing of youth culture, interpersonal skills, the ability to communicate, a sense of humor, and, of course, patience. No research suggests that a volunteer must be young to be effective. Perhaps the best rule of thumb is that leaders need to be “old enough to be respected and young enough to keep up.”

Make recruiting everyone’s job. Although we are called to “fish for men,” most of us spend a lot of our time fishing for fishermen. However, one person alone simply doesn’t have adequate contacts or adequate knowledge of the congregation to do thorough scouting. If everyone assumes some responsibility for recruitment, however, the prospect pool can be significantly increased. When recruiting is everyone’s job, we can tap several networks of relationships and avoid recruiting the same people over and over again. Instead, the standard creed of volunteer recruitment in most churches seems to be, “If they’re breathing, recruit ‘em; if they’re willing, run ‘em into the ground.”

To sum it all up, the three essential qualities of any youth worker are these: a love for Christ, a love for students, and a love for the church. No matter how skilled or charismatic or cool or likeable an individual might be, if we are recruiting leaders who are weak in one of those three areas, we are recruiting trouble.

There are four basic approaches to recruiting youth volunteers, all of them helpful at times.

The public appeal method. The most common method for finding the necessary volunteers for a youth program is the public appeal method. Typically the way this approach works is that the pastor or youth pastor stands in front of the congregation on Sunday morning and publicly pleads and bleeds until some poor, unknowing soul is driven by guilt to respond. Usually it sounds something like this: “Maybe you folks don’t care if our youths are getting pregnant or using drugs, but if you do, we have a wonderful opportunity for you downstairs with our junior high Sunday school program.”

For obvious reasons, this is the least effective means of recruitment. To begin with, it is the precise opposite of the approach Jesus took. Nowhere are we given any record that Jesus went into Jericho and announced, “If anyone is willing to be a fisher of men, please sign up over near the well or see me after the service.” Nor do we have any record of Jesus putting an ad in the synagogue bulletin asking for “volunteers to help perform miracles and cast out demons.” The root problem of this approach is that it often recruits people we do not want. Recruiting should be specific rather than general.

Kids recruiting leaders. Think of how the following invitation would melt some of the initial resistance of a potential volunteer youth worker: “You know, we asked the kids whom they would like to have working with them in their youth group, and sure enough, with one voice they began chanting your name.” Granted, students will not always be attracted to volunteer leaders for reasons that might actually make someone a strong leader, but presumably any adult recommended by the students will possess basic interpersonal skills and at least some ability to relate to students. That’s a major hurdle.

Volunteers recruiting volunteers. Volunteers recruiting volunteers are much more believable than youth pastors recruiting volunteers. I’m more likely to invest in my broker’s recommended stock when I know he has already invested in that same stock. Active volunteers can pass on a realistic idea of the challenges and rewards of answering the call of youth work plus being a mom or dad, working full time, not having seminary training, and so on.

The one-to-one call. Jesus assembled his team by praying thoroughly, seeking the people he wanted, and then calling them individually by name. The strength of this method is that it allows us personally to meet and get to know each person who is considering joining the ministry team. And, just as important, it affords them the opportunity to meet and get to know us as well.

The recruitment of volunteers doesn’t end when they accept the call to youth work. Marlene Wilson (Effective Management of Church Volunteers) describes recruitment as a process beginning with the initial contact and continuing through our efforts toward retention of volunteers. Let’s take a closer look.

Mark and Carolyn were both working at Rhode Island State Library when I met them. As members of our congregation, they had recently taken part in a church-wide survey of gifts and interests. Among other things, they had expressed their interest in youth ministry. We followed up on their response with a personal interview. Eager to impress them with a foretaste of what they might expect in youth ministry I invited them both to lunch at a fast food restaurant across from the capitol in downtown Providence. (If possible, it is best to talk to both spouses if the interested volunteer is a married couple.)

During the course of our lunch, they were interviewed carefully thoroughly and intentionally. One of the mistakes that we make in recruitment is that we seem to feel a sense of shame at interviewing candidates for the position of volunteer youth leader. We should not. An interview is neither a friendly chat, a sales pitch, an indoctrination, nor an inquisition. It is an honest attempt to discern what God is doing in people’s lives, and to think together about how they might be best used in the work of his kingdom. There’s nothing shameful or devious about that.

The key in an interview like this is not that I get all the vital statistics on Mark and Carolyn. In fact, to some degree, I’m not really concerned about their history—where they went to school, how much experience they’ve had in youth ministry or what their denominational background is. If I am interviewing someone for this kind of ministry, lam less interested in history and more interested in “his (or her) story.” I am going to ask questions that will give me more than information about them. I want to find out who they are.

Instead of asking how long they’ve been married, I might simply say, “Tell me about your family” Instead of asking what they think their gifts are, I’m going to ask, “What do you most enjoy doing? Describe for me what would be your ideal role in a youth ministry program like ours.” Rather than ask about specific prior experience, I am going to ask Mark and Carolyn to tell me what gets them most excited about the prospect of working with students: “What gets you most worried?” “What were some of the high points and low points of your own teenage years?”

Rather than asking them to give me their testimony, I might say, “Describe for me your relationship with Jesus in terms that you feel a teenager would understand.” Or, “Tell me about some of the people who have been significant in your own walk with Christ.” It is in the course of this one-on-one interview that we can seek together to hear God’s call in their lives.

I already knew that Mark and Carolyn were interested in youth work because of their responses to the gift survey. The best way to help them further define their interest was to invite them to sit in on our activities. Being with the kids is the fun part, anyway Although they would have no responsibilities at this point, this observation time would let both parties see if God blows on the spark and fans it into a flame.

As Mark and Carolyn became familiar with our program and sensed where they perhaps would like to fit in, we offered them specific, written job descriptions based partly on what we needed and partly on who they were.
The following is a sample job description:
Position Description: Youth Ministry
Barrington Baptist Church—Barrington, Rhode Island

Sunday school teacher
The Sunday school teachers are integral to the overall youth- ministry strategy at BBC. The task of the Sunday school teacher is unique in that Sunday school is the one time during the week that there are few schedule conflicts interrupting a teen’s opportunity for consistent input; and Sunday school provides an opportunity to minister to some youths who have no other contact with the youth ministry.

The Sunday school teacher leads students to observe, reflect upon, and apply the Word of God, with the goal of discipling teenage guys and girls. While the bulk of this ministry is in the formal context of the Sunday school hour on Sunday morning, the teacher’s ministry extends to in-depth discipleship beyond the classroom setting.

The BBC Sunday school department expects the following of any persons serving as Sunday school teachers:
• Basic accord with our stated philosophy of youth ministry (see attached).
• Willingness to attempt to extend their ministries beyond the Sunday school hour into a less formal life situation (not necessarily by means of a class party at someone’s home, but through one-to-one contacts—having a Coke together, mailing a note to absentees, sending a birthday card, making a phone call, and so on).
• Willingness to actively participate in occasional training and planning meetings.
• Solid commitment to the values of learner-centered teaching, a style of teaching that seeks to emphasize mutual discovery as opposed to a teaching style that emphasizes “telling” and “spoon-feeding.”
• Commitment to accountability for students.
• Commitment to spend two to three hours a week in the ministry, including preparation time, class time, and times of personal contact. Someone who is too busy for this time commitment is too busy to teach Sunday school.
• Willingness to commit oneself to the ministry for one full year on a consistent, dependable basis. At the end of the year, the teaching covenant may be renewed by both parties.

(To be signed and returned to Duffy Robbins; the signed sheet will be copied and returned to the teacher for his or her reference.)
I have read and fully understand the expectations and philosophy of the Youth-Ministry Sunday School Department and will work within these guidelines as God enables me.


After Mark and Carolyn received specific information about the position for which we were recruiting them, they were invited to sign up. Give recruits a definite span of time to think through (and discuss with their spouse) the decision—a week is about enough time. If we leave the propositions too open-ended, we start playing cat and mouse. They duck behind the baptistry when they see us coming because they know we want an answer, We start to feel self- conscious because these otherwise nice people have developed a gestapo-like fear of us. Just make it clear that by a certain date, within a week or two, they will answer yes or no about the opportunity.

Calling youth volunteers is only the beginning of building the team. Next we turn our attention to three other elements of team ministry that enable us to retain the volunteers. Our challenge at this point is to court them, counsel them, and cover them.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”