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Recruiting Volunteers: Lessons from One Church’s Journey

“Sounds great! Now all we need is a ton of volunteers.”

January 2008. I had just pitched my plan to reinstall small groups into our high school ministry. My supervisor loved the framework. Next step: triple our volunteer roster.


Finding mature followers of Jesus to invest in students and families is as difficult as it is necessary. And it is extraordinarily necessary. Students navigate adult-sized experiences with kid-sized resources. That is to say, the joys and pains they encounter in their school years are fully grown; their ability to process those things and make healthy decisions is still developing. Caring adults in partnership with parents can be game-changers for a student. But how do we find them?

Over time, we found enough people to get us off the ground. Here are some things we learned:

COVER THE FUNDAMENTALS. I have two things in mind here, and the first is prayer. Praying for more volunteers must be a high prayer priority. This goes not just for key leaders, but for everyone. Ask everyone you know—and maybe even a few you don’t—to join you in prayer. A consistent, widespread prayerful community is a must-have.

The second fundamental is legwork, or “time spent recruiting.” We simply must put in the time doing things like: making phone calls and sending emails; getting your face in front of the congregation and your words in newsletters and Web sites; visiting Sunday school classes. It is tough sledding. As with prayer, consistency is key. For a while, I set a recurring reminder in my phone to sit down, review my week, and add up the time I spent recruiting. More time invested led to more success recruiting.

FROM “JOB DESCRIPTION” TO “GOAL & STORY.” With prayer and legwork, we received opportunities to sit with people and talk about serving on staff. I learned that the best way to impede excitement and interest is to sell a job description. In my head, it made sense to share enthusiastically about youth ministry theory, programs, events, resources, strategic outcomes, and so forth. A few people liked this approach. Most people looked like I was answering a question they had not asked.

I changed my approach from “job description” to “goal & story.” A job description speaks to logistics and expectations. A goal & story meets people at the level of their passion and interest.

If you have asked someone who likes her job, “why do you like your job?” the answer you have received is probably not a job description, but a goal and then a story or two. Morale, momentum, and especially teamwork thrive when there is a clear, unifying goal that drives activity (Carl E. Larson and Frank M. J. LaFasto, Teamwork: What Must Go Right, What Can Go Wrong (Newbury Park: Sage, 1989), 27-38). For instance, when I asked my CPA brother what he likes about being an accountant, he does not rave about 1098s and the Internal Revenue Code. Instead, he shares how solving clients’ problems helps them provide for their families and employees. One time, during a review for a real estate firm, he found a major error. It would have cost the client well over five figures, and some people might have had to be laid off. He helped them avoid disaster and stay financially healthy.

When it comes to sharing our ministry goal with a potential volunteer, I try to quote Mark Yaconelli verbatim: youth ministry is about holding a young person’s deepest identity until he or she is able to see it too. We hold onto the knowledge that these young people are the beloved of God, that the gifts they have enrich the world, and that their presence is cause for celebration. We hold this understanding of young people until they can hold it for themselves. We seek to reveal their beauty back to them until they see it, until they believe it, until they can live from it grounded in God’s love (Mark Yaconelli, Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 121).

Next, I tell them a story or two from some of my most memorable youth ministry moments. I have yet to meet someone who was not moved by what God has done!

GET BY WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM YOUR FRIENDS. Our current volunteers always found great people. Sure, we found some great people through ads in the worship folder and announcements in church services, but nearly every person recommended by a current staff member was fantastic. Consistently encourage your team to invite people they know to join them in serving students. Remind them with stories of how much it means to a kid like Johnny or Susie to have caring adults in their lives.

Additionally, have parents, other staff workers, and even students recommend people. I was surprised at how many quality people were already rubbing shoulders with students and parents. Serving on a staff team gives them a chance to take their investment and compassion to the next level.

REJECTION IS NORMAL. Rejection is a just part of the gig. Recruiting is tough sledding! For every volunteer we have, two or three more folks said no, or said maybe (which pretty much always means no), or never got back to me at all. And that’s OK! Oftentimes when someone is not ready to jump in with both feet, they are at least willing to be on a weekly prayer email list. Keep them caring about students and families, and good things will happen. They may even send a few names your way down the line!


FINAL THOUGHT. Recruiting volunteers, like almost all of youth ministry, is as much art as it is science. “Hitting a moving target” does not even scratch the surface. However, God is, as always, faithful. And hopefully hearing our story can give you some new ideas and fresh momentum!

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Recruiting Volunteers: Lessons from O...

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