This article was written by our friend Ryan Nelson of Faithlife Corporation. Posted with permission.
I recently met with a guy who just started his second year of volunteering in high school youth ministry with Young Life. He loves Jesus, he cares about kids, and he challenges himself to grow. But he was feeling discouraged about the impact of his personal ministry.
He doesn’t feel like the kids would notice if he stopped leading. They would move on without him.
He doesn’t know the kids that well yet.
He doesn’t have a small group of kids he meets with regularly.
He doesn’t feel like he’s been having meaningful conversations about Jesus yet.
He said, “I don’t feel like I’m leading kids like a leader is supposed to. I lead a game. I hang out and talk with them during club. But that’s it.”
And he’s exactly where he should be at the beginning of his second year of leading—he just didn’t know it yet.
I’ve been leading Young Life for seven years now. I meet with anywhere from 6-12 high school guys every couple weeks to talk about life and Jesus. Last weekend I was one of two friends who showed up for one of their birthday parties. I know their families. I play video games with them. I help them with their Eagle Scout projects.
And it took me seven years to get here.
Along the way I’ve made all kinds of mistakes. I’ve had conversations with parents that I should’ve had with kids. I’ve misspoke when I needed to just listen. I’ve made assumptions about where kids are at in their spiritual journey—and been totally wrong. I’ve had stretches of time where I only challenged myself to grow on the days when I was preparing to share something with my guys.
When you’re a new leader—especially an ambitious one—it’s easy to compare yourself to other leaders. It’s easy to look at people who are further along in the process and assume that you have the wrong combination of skills, the wrong personality, or that despite doing all the right things, you just don’t have God’s favor, or something.
It’s especially discouraging when you see a fellow new leader—maybe a friend, or someone you trained with—already seeing the fruit of their ministry or experiencing the meaningful relationships you desire.
After listening to him vent, I encouraged this new leader and affirmed that he is doing all of the things he should be doing at this stage.
For most Young Life leaders, it takes at least a year before their work starts to translate into new kids at club, meaningful one-on-one conversations, and small groups. This is the year where things will hopefully start coming together for this leader—not the year where he has to have everything figured out (if there is such a thing).
Whether you’re a new leader yourself, or you have a new leader on your team, here are nine things all new volunteer leaders need:
1. Realistic expectations
New leaders need to know that they are new leaders. If they jump into an experienced team that’s been doing ministry together for years, it can easily create unrealistic expectations for what their ministry should look like right away.
Experienced team members can help new leaders set realistic expectations by sharing what the first couple years were like for them. Your regular planning meetings may not be the appropriate context for these conversations, but your experienced leaders should make it a priority to check in with new leaders and share about their own ministry progression.
Unrealistic expectations will cause new leaders to burnout before they have a chance to get started. Address those expectations early—and if necessary, frequently.
If you give new leaders realistic expectations for the beginning of their ministry, it frees them from burdens they shouldn’t have, and it allows them to trust in the ministry template your team depends on. God isn’t limited to the ministry templates of Awana or Young Life, but he’s been working through them for decades.
2. Available mentors
It always helps to have a group of peers and fellow new leaders to talk to and learn with, but few things impact a new leader more than a mentor they can regularly meet with. Whether that’s a more experienced leader, someone on staff, or simply a devout Christian member of your community, a mentor gives leaders someone they can turn to when they have tough questions and new challenges.
If a mentor has experience within the ministry, then new leaders can look to him or her for more practical advice about how to navigate ministry challenges. But even if a mentor doesn’t have directly relevant ministry experience, the most important thing he or she can offer your new leaders is discipleship.
In order for your leaders to pour into the lives of kids, somebody has to pour into them.
3. Clear vision
Every leader on your team should know how your ministry program works and what their piece is within it. If you assign specific roles for them to carry out during club, they should know why that role matters to your team and how it contributes to the overall goals of your ministry (like kids meeting Jesus).
If they’re leading a game, show them how that type of game breaks down walls, lets kids feel more comfortable, helps create meaningful bonds, or makes a kid feel like the star of the show. If they’re putting together a presentation, taking attendance, leading songs, or greeting kids as they come in the door, give them a glimpse of how each of those little pieces help your ministry have a bigger impact on the lives of kids.
4. Solid training
A leader who doesn’t know what they’re doing may be too embarrassed to ask you for help. And it doesn’t take long for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing to feel like they don’t belong. Without down-to-earth volunteer training, new leaders struggle—and then leave.
It’s not enough to review a few forms and check some boxes. If you want your new leaders to succeed, your training strategy needs to account for a variety of learning styles and adapt to the people who actually show up.
5. Regular accountability
Every ministry depends on its leaders to perform certain tasks. If those things aren’t getting done, they need to be addressed. If you allow a new leader to develop bad habits or neglect important pieces of your ministry early on, it becomes that much harder to shape them into the kind of leader they need to be.
The ministry of Young Life completely depends on leaders going where the kids are. We call it “contact work” when a leader goes to the school or makes an intentional effort to be around kids in the community.
If a leader is not doing contact work, they aren’t really a Young Life leader. They’re essentially depending on the rest of the team to actually meet new kids and bring them to club.
Accountability should be about encouraging new leaders to reach their full potential—guilt and humiliation have no place in this process. But if a new leader is consistently not contributing to your ministry even after you address the areas they need to grow, you may have to let them go.
Accountability also obviously applies to personal conduct. Every member of your team should know what your ministry considers sin, and how they need to address it in their own lives.
6. Meaningful encouragement
Stepping into a new ministry is a big commitment. And it’s not always easy to plan your schedule around ministry. Your volunteer leaders have work, school, families, friends, emergencies. And somehow they still show up to help you share the love of Jesus with kids. Cheer them on!
The more you get to know them, the better equipped you’ll be to encourage your volunteers.
7. Open conversations
Your leaders are going to be frustrated sometimes. They’re going to have doubts about themselves, the effectiveness of your ministry, or maybe even you. If you create an environment where your team can openly (or perhaps, privately, in a one-on-one conversation) voice those frustrations and doubts, you can address them before they become serious problems. Take them seriously. Those frustrations and doubts can either lead to burnout or to personal growth—and which it becomes will often depend on how you react.
8. Achievable goals
Nobody likes to fail. Unachievable goals are completely demoralizing, whether your volunteers are new or not. New leaders especially will need to experience small successes before they can even begin to strive for a big goal. If you have some grandiose vision for what your team should accomplish this year, consider setting smaller, more personal goals for your new volunteers. Goals that show them that yes, they can do this, and yes, what they’re doing matters.
9. Opportunities to grow
When your leaders grow personally, your ministry becomes that much more effective. This might mean sending your leaders to a conference, or reading a book together. Or it might mean allowing them to be a mentor to another leader, or to learn a new role on the team. Wherever your leaders are at right now, they should know what the next step is for them to grow as a leader.
Want to build a volunteer team that lasts? I wrote Can Someone Please Volunteer? to help you find and keep more volunteers—and Proclaim Church Presentation Software is giving it away for free. Inside you’ll find practical insights to recruit, train, and retain more volunteers.
Sign up to get your free copy.