Post by John Keim
A big part of the youth pastor role is building a volunteer team. Recruiting, vetting, training and coaching volunteers is an ongoing aspect of what it takes to lead a healthy, vibrant student ministry. Volunteers help take the ministry to unbelievable levels as we multiply our impact through a team of caring adults investing in the lives of students. And when it comes to connecting new volunteers into the ministry there is often a well-intentioned question that comes up that I believe is THE worst question to answer when it comes to volunteers. Does this sound familiar?
You: “We’re excited to have you joining the student ministry team as an adult volunteer and I’d love to know what part of the ministry most excites or interests you?”
New Volunteer: “I’m just happy to be involved in what God is doing here, where do you need me?”
Where do you need me? A seemingly harmless question that almost always comes out of a well-meaning place of humility and service. Those are two great traits to have in a new volunteer, so what is the problem with this question?
As youth pastors, we constantly have all the needs of the ministry at the forefront of our minds and sometimes it can feel like we’re just putting out fires. So, when a new volunteer asks where you need them it can be easy to just put them on the most urgent area you need to fix. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t pay any attention to that volunteer’s spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personality or experiences.
- By focusing on the needs, you can end up putting a dynamic relational leader in charge of behind the scenes details, or a creative, expressional leader in an area of data collection or a technically skilled leader in charge of a small group of students.
- By focusing on the needs, you may put out some ministry fires in the short term but it typically leads to burning out that volunteer. Serving week in and week out in a role that doesn’t fit how they are shaped will wear them out and cause a loss of passion for the ministry.
- By focusing on the needs, it can shift our view of volunteers to an unhealthy place. When we plug volunteers into roles to fix the needs, we can begin to view our volunteers as interchangeable cogs in the ministry rather than amazing image bearers of God with unique gifts and talents to minister to students.
I have been guilty of all of those things with volunteers and I’ve had to learn this lesson the hard way. I’ve had to re-program how I bring new volunteers onto the team and I’ve had to train myself to never answer the needs based question. Here’s a couple ways that have helped me make this shift in my ministry.
- Examine the opportunities you have in your ministry and make sure you have different roles for different types of leaders. Sometimes this means you actually create more roles and more vacancies in order to make space for future volunteers.
- Take time onboarding a new volunteer. As part of the “get to know you” time, have the new volunteer shadow current volunteers in each key area of the ministry. This almost always helps the new recruit find an area that sparks their passion while also creating an appreciation in them for the volunteers that serve in ways different than them.
- Personally refuse to ever answer the “where do you need me?” question. When volunteers ask that of me I stop and tell them that’s the wrong question, which sometimes startles them. I follow up by asking them “what did you see in the ministry that made you most come alive and gets you fired up?”. This not only honors who God has made them to be and sets them up for a great fit in the ministry but it also puts you in a posture to see them for who they are rather than what they can do.
Sure, there are times when something comes up or there is a unique serve that requires “all hands-on deck.” But by focusing on fit over need, I’ve seen a drastic change in volunteer engagement, joy and longevity in the ministry. Take charge of the volunteer culture in your ministry today, start reframing how volunteers engage and refuse to answer the worst question!