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The Volunteer Cycle #4: EMPOWER

In case you missed 1-3 of The Volunteer Cycle, check them out here: It Never Ends!, Enlist & Equip.

In this series, we are working our way through what I like to call the Volunteer Cycle; one way to think about the process of building a healthy youth ministry team.

Today, we are going to talk about my favorite part of the cycle, the EMPOWER phase. If you are the leader of your youth ministry, you have a fundamental decision to make, which is whether you will use volunteers or empower volunteers.  What sounds like semantics is actually a very important philosophical distinction. Let me explain.

To use volunteers means that they are a means to a previously determined end; they are pegs being used to fill holes. In this case, your youth ministry has a bunch of needs, or roles to be played, and volunteers are “used” to meet those needs and fulfill those roles. There’s not a lot of room for creativity or customization. Volunteers are simply used to get the job done.  Nothing terribly wrong with that.

To empower volunteers means that they are viewed as men and women who can help expand, stretch and grow the ministry in new ways. Yes, your ministry has a bunch of needs, or roles to be played, but volunteers are seen as much more than simply pegs to fill the holes. There is a ton or room for creativity and customization because each volunteer is seen as having a unique set of gifts, talents, experience, etc. Nothing terrible wrong with that, either.

Because this phase in the cycle is the “empower” phase and not the “use” phase, you already know which approach I prefer.  But because using volunteers isn’t inherently bad, here’s how I’d phrase it: You should always be empowering your volunteers, and using them from time to time along the way.


Here are some random thoughts about empowering your volunteers:

  • You empower your volunteers when they are given ownership of ministry and a voice at the table.
  • Empowering volunteers is risky and takes a lot of work!
  • Empowering volunteers requires you to pay closer attention to what they are doing because freedom will breed intentional and unintentional violations of policies, best practices, etc.
  • When leaders feel empowered, they will stick around longer.
  • The numerical growth of your ministry is largely impacted by how freely you give ministry away.

When asked to define what empowerment looks like I always use this phrase: Empowerment works best when you put people in a box, then expand the box!

Let me explain.

Everybody on my youth ministry team is in the same “box”; we are all surrounded by certain barriers; walls or lines we simply cannot cross. Pretend the lines that create our box are our ministry strategy, our theological beliefs, our safety and security policies and our values. Nobody on our team, myself included, is allowed to do youth ministry outside those lines….we are all in the same box! But, the longer you are on our team, the more trust has been earned etc. the bigger the box becomes for you. In other words, the more empowerment and freedom to roam around, try new things, and lead new ministries you are given. A volunteer who has been on our team for 10 years has WAY more freedom than one who just joined a few months ago.

Empowerment is the space in the box.  As trust is gained, the space (or size of box) is increased, if trust is lost it is decreased. In our ministry, everybody is empowered, but everybody is not empowered to the same degree.

Next week, we’ll take a look at the part of the volunteer cycle that is the most fun; encouraging our team!

Thanks for loving students and volunteers,


– Kurt


P.S. – Need resources for equipping volunteers? Simply Youth Ministry has a great selection! The Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry: Guide for Volunteers by Rick Lawrence is a great place to start.

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The Volunteer Cycle #4: EMPOWER

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