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13 Ways to Help New Volunteers Plug In

Jumping head first into a new youth ministry has been tough to say the least.  After 12 years of doing youth ministry as a paid youth pastor and now being on ‘the other side’ of it all as a volunteer, I have learned a ton.  One of the things I have learned is how difficult it is to get plugged in as a volunteer!  So I crafted this little list of 13 things I’d do if I was ever back in the church as a youth pastor.

  1. After three or four weeks of consistent attendance, I’d make sure I introduced them to the students at the large and small gatherings — in a talk show host kind of way.  I think I’d wait the couple of weeks to minimize the revolving door.
  2. I’d highlight the new volunteer in an e-newsletter, e-blast, Facebook group, or any other way possible.  I’d do this in cooperation with # 1.
  3. I’d introduce them to students just as if I was introducing a new student to the group.  “Hey Rob!  Come here for a sec.  Have you met Chris yet?  He’s new to the group.”
  4. Give the new volunteers some sort of mechanism that the students expect might lead to conversation with the new volunteer.  Something like a survey of sorts or even a tag (a non-verbal invitation) on one of the student’s shirts that gives permission for the new volunteer to ask them a question or two.  A verbal one is totally cool, too.  It would be great if we could invite our students to be the one to start the conversations.
  5. I think I might work to introduce them to a small group first.  Having the names of at least three or four students would really help to get to know the students in a larger setting.  Knowing a person’s name is a great way to say hello at the very least.  Something like, “Your name is Rob, right?”  And go on from there…
  6. It might also help to allow for there to be a mechanism aligned with the talk or message or lesson that gives permission for a new volunteer to ask a student or two what they thought about X, Y, or Z from the talk.  This could be during the gathering or after it is all over.
  7. I’d make sure that the newest volunteers are the ones getting the most face time with the students.  Opportunities like serving food, receiving the offering, sitting at the registration tables, passing out information, etc. can lead to some great conversation.
  8. I’d work hard to do a two- to three-minute video interview intro that could be on the screen before worship or after or some other time.  I probably wouldn’t overkill it, so if I did this, I wouldn’t do #1, but I’d still do #2.  Although I think a “live” intro is always the best, there are some folks who might be better represented on a video.
  9. If the new volunteer had a specific talent or gift and they felt comfortable, I’d have them perform their magic show, sing a song, read their poetry, paint, teach, juggle, etc. very early in the process of engaging with the group.  This might more immediately draw students who share an affinity into a conversation.  This is a hard one because a lot of youth pastors I know don’t want to give the stage up to anyone, especially a volunteer.
  10. I think I would assign a veteran volunteer to show them the ropes for a few weeks in a row.  There is nothing like the feeling of standing in a room all by yourself.  Crazy awkward.  Remember how you felt as a teenager when that happened to you?  Yep.  It still feels the same.
  11. Name badges on lanyards work great to identify volunteers.  Visitor lanyards can even look different to help them stand out.  BTW – this is a great security mechanism, too.  Especially if you have a large group and the number of adults can make it hard to know everybody.  I think if I were a youth pastor again, I’d have the volunteers wear a shirt or a lanyard.  Something.  Anything.  Without some kind of designation, new volunteers just look like the weird uncle everyone has.
  12. I know I’d do a better job following up with new volunteers.  An e-mail or a phone call asking, “How can we make your time better or make you feel more comfortable?” can go a long way with a newbie.
  13. I think I would be much more vocal with the students about the value of incarnational ministry than I ever was as a youth pastor before.  I would probably say something like, “All of you know that we are all about community, about relationships.  You may have an adult or two you don’t know approach you and try to engage you in a conversation.  Don’t be wigged out.  This is part of what we do.  We care about you, and we want to get to know you better.”  Whatever…I am sure you can think of something better or something that better reflects your ministry context.  Either way, say something.  It’ll cast some vision (think: Hybels’ well-known phrase, “vision leaks”) to your already established volunteers and students.

Can you think of any more?  I am sure you can think of a ton more.  I’d love to know how some of you are engaging new volunteers.  Share your wisdom!

I should mention that much of this list above is what I know “works” — it is what our youth ministry does with new volunteers, and I have appreciated it. Our context might be very different than yours so take the above 13 with a grain of salt.  Regardless, reflect on how well you are doing in this area.  If you feel like your volunteers will tell you the truth and not just what they know you want to hear, ask them what their experience was like.

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Chris is the chief ministries officer at YouthFront, a ministry designed to bring youth into a growing relationship with Jesus. He's the author of A New Kind of Youth Ministry and the upcoming books Clear: Bringing Your Faith into Focus and Story Signs and Sacred Rhythms: A Narrative Approach to Youth Ministry. Chris also has a regular column in the The Journal of Student Ministries and speaks to and trains youth workers and students throughout North America. He's been involved in youth work for more than 13 years as a youth pastor, coach, and high school teacher. Chris lives with his wife, Gina, and their three children in Kansas City, Kansas.