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Finding Your First Youth Leaders

[This is the seventh post in our series on Building a Youth Ministry from Scratch]

Maybe you are okay starting by yourself, or with your spouse or another trusted partner. But every youth ministry that wants to grow needs a team. Finding volunteers to help you build the ministry is a big step—and not an easy one.

Your Role

The first thing you need to figure out is your own role and status. If you are the pioneer, what exactly is your position, for instance towards the pastor or church board? Clear guidelines on where your responsibility starts and ends are crucial, especially when more people become involved.

This is not about formally acknowledging your position or anything like that. It’s about managing expectations. For instance: are you authorized to ‘select’ people as volunteers or do you need someone’s approval for that? Having clarity here will prevent frustrations, for instance caused by unintentional overstepping.

Background Checks

A second crucial step is to set up a process of recruiting and selecting volunteers. And this process has to somehow involve background checks. Depending on where you live, there may be legal requirements to vet people working with underage students. Even is that’s not the case, you want to set up some sort of safeguard to prevent unsuitable volunteers from entering the ministry.

Everyone who works in your youth ministry needs to be vetted. In the US, this is relatively easy as there are companies who do this. In other countries, authorities can provide you with a ‘proof of good behavior’ (The Netherlands for instance) or suitability for working with minors. What you want is to make sure the leaders you recruit have no history of violence and especially no sexual offenses.

Here’s the thing: in many start up situations, you’ll know the first volunteers on your team. They may be your friends for instance, or even family. Still, you need to set up a procedure and follow it. Even your friends need to be background checked, because they may have a history you don’t know about. Let’s be honest: how many times has it happened that a person was able to commit serious crimes with minors because everyone trusted him (or her!) and never bothered to do a thorough check. “He would never do that” is not good enough. Take this seriously, no matter where you live.

The process of recruiting volunteers is about more than just background checks, obviously. You need to develop a clear vision for the type of leaders you want and need, how to find them, and how to go through a selection process with them.

Requirements

If you already have a team of leaders to start with, start a conversation about the ‘requirements’ you have for new leaders. What character traits, skills, spiritual aspects are important to you?

In my youth ministry in The Netherlands, we had two main requirements: new volunteers had to love Jesus and love students. Because we were a growing youth ministry that was very open to new ideas, we weren’t only looking for specific skills (like being able to lead a small group). We figured that if people loved Jesus and wanted to make a difference in students’ lives, we could always find a spot or an area where they could serve.

If your ministry is small, you may want to limit yourself to specific roles in the first phase, for instance small group leaders, prayer warriors, pastoral counselors, or leaders who are able to assist in practical tasks. What you are looking for specifically really depends on where you will start and what your first programs and activities will look like.

You may also make spiritual maturity an important requirement. We were able to ‘take’ spiritually younger Christians as well, because we had enough mature leaders to disciple and mentor them. If you’re low on volunteers and you’re just starting out, this may be too much of a stretch however. For the growth of the ministry it may be best if your leaders can focus on discipling and mentoring students, not new leaders.

That being said, sometimes you have little choice. In church plants especially, or in really small churches you may not have the luxury of ‘accepting’ mature leaders only. In that case, make sure you set up a solid mentoring system for your ‘young’ youth leaders so they get adequate support, mentoring, and especially spiritual guidance. If not, they are an easy prey for the enemy for spiritual attacks.

Selection Process

It’s also good to think about the selection process. In the beginning, it’s tempting to ‘accept’ any volunteer who applies but that’s not what’s best for your youth ministry. You want those leaders that God has prepared and called to serve in that specific role. That means that a process of discerning prayer is necessary, for both parties.

Another important step is to discuss expectations, also on both sides. Make sure to communicate clearly what you expect from your new leaders (my tip: make their roles doable—nobody wants to serve in a role where they’re expected to do everything and anything!), especially in time investment and the period of their commitment. I’ve served in a ministry where middle school small group leaders were committing themselves for four years. A lot can happen in that time, especially since most of the leaders were young adults who were just starting families. Don’t ask for more than is absolutely necessary and than is reasonable. And let the new leaders know what they can expect from you, for instance in availability, training, mentoring, etc.

Volunteer contract

Do you want volunteers to sign anything? A formal volunteer contract perhaps? I’m not saying it’s necessary or even advisable in every circumstance (it depends greatly in the culture you’re doing ministry in), but it is something to consider. You can let them sign and commit to a values statement for instance, or a formal code of conduct. The advantage is that you have a baseline, an agreed upon conduct you can expect from your leaders. If they (or you!) do something that’s not in line with the values or the code of conduct, you have a base for discussion.

This doesn’t all have to be in place before you can start doing ministry—on the contrary. I would never put paperwork above serving students. However, it’s easy to forget about these things or give them the lowest priority and that would be a mistake as well. Put them on your to do list and start working on these from day one, so you keep making progress. Believe me when I say that having formal ‘guidelines’ in place creates clarity, manages expectations for everyone involved, and also prevents issues.

What was your biggest takeaway from this post? What do you need to start working on right now?

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