Editor’s Note: I met Jeanne Mayo more than a decade ago on a flight to the Canadian boondocks, where we were both speaking at a conference for youth leaders. She saw me walking back to the restroom on the plane, introduced herself, and asked if I’d like to hang with her. An hour or two later, I said something like, “Jeanne, you have so much in your treasure box of youth ministry wisdom. We’ve got to find a way for even more people to learn what you know.” Now, many moons later, Jeanne’s a regular columnist for GROUP and a mainstay as a track leader at our Simply Youth Ministry Conference. She’s an anomaly in youth ministry—a national-level speaker and a ministry pioneer who’s still leading a local-church ministry nearly 40 years after she got started. Do yourself a favor and check out her goldmine of a website at youthleaderscoach.com. Doug Fields talked with Jeanne at her home in Atlanta.
Doug Fields: Jeanne, one of the number-one questions that people like you and I are asked is: “How do I get more help?” So what do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions youth pastors have about recruiting and training adult volunteers?
Jeanne Mayo: Well, Doug, you can take that 15 ways. The first misconception that comes to mind is that a good volunteer team is constructed through pulpit announcements and bulletin inserts. Very few people who will become strong leaders are recruited through those two leads. I think the most powerful way to recruit volunteers is one person at a time. The other misconception is that there is a certain stereotype for youth leaders—that a great youth leader has to be cool, a certain age, trendy, athletic, and sharp looking. Some of the greatest leaders I’ve ever worked with have not fit that description at all. They’ve just been people who sincerely cared about teenagers and could care about a few teenagers at a time.
Fields: Well, those types of people are more representative of the body of Christ anyway. What you described is sort of the cute, fun, popular jock—that’s a very small slice within the body.
Mayo: (laughs) I certainly wouldn’t fit into that slice.
Fields: You’ve been doing this a long time—so, is youth ministry more about investing in teenagers’ lives or is it more about investing in adults’ lives who then invest in kids?
Mayo: From my vantage point, a couple of things come into play. First of all, I always have to have—even if it’s a small number—contact with kids at a grassroots level. The moment I’m no longer connecting with normal teenagers who have normal challenges, I get out of touch. But having said that, I’ve learned I need to put my primary focus on recruiting and working with my leaders. An old leadership principle says we’re either leaders of addition or leaders of multiplication. And leadership addition—recruitment and training and coaching—is time-intensive. But I know that if I do that, I’m multiplying my efforts many, many times over.
I love this little quote: “Not everybody loves a hero, but everybody loves someone who makes them a hero.” All of us in the church world have an internal longing that God’s given us to have purpose in our lives. So if I can come alongside some adults or young adults and help them put some real handles on that—give them the simple platform and training to make them a hero in a few teenagers’ lives—I think I’ve changed their life.
Fields: There’s a little bit of a bait and switch with that leadership model. Many of us are called into youth ministry because we want to spend time with teenagers and point them to Jesus, but when we get in there, we realize that in order to do it effectively we’re going to have to have more help.
Mayo: That bait and switch has been a constant tension for me. I’m among the million youth leaders who say, “Gosh, there’s not enough of me to go around!” But I have these little one-liners that kind of frame my life—one that’s been so helpful to me on leadership stuff is this: “None of us decide our own future; instead we decide our habits and then our habits decide our future.” For me, one of the habits of youth ministry has been to spend a hunk of time every week toward recruiting and working with my leaders. Eventually it pays me big dividends.
Fields: I know you love to talk about the training and the coaching, and we’ll get to that in a moment, but let’s talk about the recruiting piece first. Is there a “secret sauce” for your success in recruiting people?
Mayo: Well, first of all, let me say that I’ve recruited lots of leaders but I’ve probably had more leaders quit on me than anybody reading this article. Somebody once said that success comes according to the amount of failure it takes to significantly discourage a person. So I’ve had plenty of people quit, as recently as two days ago. But having said that, my recruiting strategy is really just ripped off from the World Vision model. I saw how excellent World Vision was at recruiting people to sponsor children all over the world. They did not ask me to just sponsor children—they gave me a name and a picture and a story. Their mantra is: “Change a child’s life forever and your own while doing it.” So rather than just asking people to consider volunteering, I do two things. First, I give prospective recruits a little index card and ask them to read the story of three students—I ask them to consider just being a friend to these kids. I give them names and phone numbers and a little bit of their story. Second, I ask people when they come on with me to give it a three-month try. I really believe that in the church world a lot of people are not willing to give volunteering a try because they feel as though they’re going to be trapped, even if they’re miserable, for a least a year. And so I’ve said to people: “Let’s give this a try for three months—I’ll be in contact with you throughout that time. At the end of the three months it’s fine to simply say, ‘This is not my thing.’ ” I give them my word, and if it doesn’t work out, I release them to find a position in the body of Christ that they’d be fulfilled doing.
I’ve got to throw in a third thing—I really don’t leave encouragement to chance. I know that nobody wants to keep doing something they don’t feel good at. And so when I’m trying to raise up a leadership team encouragement has got to be front and center for me. I’m not talking about flattering them—there’s nothing fake about this. I watch for simple things that I can say to encourage them.
Fields: So when you give them the World-Vision-type card, what exactly are you inviting them to do? Mayo: I’m inviting them for three months to make a telephone call to that person once a week, even if it’s just very quick. And I introduce them to those three people one-on-one in the youth service, just to begin to build a friendship. The point is to give them a youth ministry experience that’s not merely about moving chairs or being a policeman.
Fields: That’s practical and helpful. So let’s say that leader lasts more than three months—do you switch them into a care role at that point? I mean, encouragement comes natural to you. You’re the most encouraging human alive. Do you literally train your new leaders on how to be an encourager?
Mayo: (laughs) Well, my dirty little secret is that I give away to other people what I secretly want myself. I’m so wired to hear the negative about myself that I really do need encouraging people to come alongside of me.
Fields: Yeah, so that’s your love language. We tend to be leaders who lead with what we need. But we’re talking about something more than just encouragement; there’s something about caretaking here. Once they’re on your team, what do you do?
Mayo: First of all the person who’s the ministry leader has to realize that it’s unfair to ask volunteers to care about your students’ lives until you take time to care about theirs. So we model Jesus with his 12 adult volunteers—he really hung out with them and cared about them as individuals. I know we don’t have a lot of time for this, but first and foremost your key volunteers need to feel like they’re more than just hirelings. That means that you care about their kids, that you call and check on them when they’re sick, that you can say, occasionally, “I prayed for you today.” You have to care for them.
Secondly, coaching has to be defined by what they’re going through with the students they’re reaching out to. In my leadership meetings I always do basic coaching, especially in the beginning when my leaders are new. I’m asking: “How’s it going with your kids? Anything I can help with?” For example, a lot of new volunteers need to know what to do on a typical telephone call with a kid on the other end who just grunts and says nothing. Most new volunteers tend to take that personally. Or how do you handle it when the kid is having problems with her parents? So in the early days I lean in and ask questions about how it’s going. And they begin to build self-confidence. As self-confidence grows, they need me less and less to be a coach up close. That’s the pattern with Jesus and his disciples. He was up-close at the beginning, then he sent them out on their own, and eventually he left for heaven and said, basically, “Fellas, I’m still here if anything comes up that you can’t handle.”
Fields: That’s really good. You know, when I think about the issues volunteers have, they’re issues of placement—like, where do they fit? That’s when remembering my three P’s really helps me: placement, problems, and passion. The more time I spend with them, the more we talk about their problems, which sometimes result from their placement. And the more I’m with them, the more they catch my passion. So much of youth ministry is about doing life with people. Mayo: When you spend time with your people, I call it time with a price tag. You’re not going to get a lot of my private time unless you really are coming into the ministry trenches with me. The people I hang with are people who are in the trenches with me.
Fields: Let me ask you one last question: If you had to condense your best advice about developing leaders into a bumper-sticker slogan, what would it be? It could be a big bumper sticker! Mayo: (laughs) That’s a great question. I think I’d say this. “Heroes are just ordinary people who chose to place their dreams above their fears.”