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Aug 05

5 lessons from being a volunteer youth leader

I left my position of Youth Minister at St Stephen’s Church, East Twickenham, back in 2009. I have been working across churches ever since,  first with CPAS, and for the last five years with Thrive. Since moving to Leamington, I have volunteered as a youth leader every week on a Tuesday night at the church we worship at.

volunteer youth leaderOver the last six months, our youth minister has been on maternity leave and so I have been overseeing the older teens youth group. It has been really interesting to remind myself of what the unique demands there are to being a volunteer leader. It is a tough role, and one that can so easily be overlooked. Trying to lead a weekly discipleship group, alongside working in a very full time job is not an easy balancing act.

Our youth minister is returning soon and I have been reflecting on what I might have learnt over this period. I think if I were to do it again, I would do things quite differently.

Here are 5 lessons I have learnt:

1. communication is essential

Being a volunteer, you don’t necessarily know too much about what is going on in the wider church life. It is easy for the youth work to be an isolated section of the church, especially as it often happens mid week, in the evening, when the rest of the church is elsewhere.

One of the implications of this is that no one really knows what happens at youth group. We need to make sure that there is good, regular communication and contact with the church leader so that we can keep them posted on what is happening: the good and the bad, so that we are accountable and also so that they can offer us that much-needed encouragement.

2. It can be isolating

Isolation is a massive issue for many leaders involved with young people, and it seems to be especially true for volunteers. The temptation for church leaders is to only talk about youth work with the youth leaders when there is a problem. If we work on this basis, the likelihood is that our discussions will always be too late. It can feel that there is little affirmation for our ministry, little encouragement and not much support. Of course, this is not true, just ask anyone on a Sunday morning if they appreciate the youth work and you’ll no doubt struggle to find someone who doesn’t. But it is how it can feel.

I think church leaders need to go out of their way to encourage leaders, to check in with them (not check up on them) and to pass on any encouragements that they hear from parents and others in the wider church.

We youth leaders are a fickle bunch and we need to know that we are appreciated and loved!

3. Vision is essential for motivation

It is very easy to get stuck on the treadmill of youth ministry, doing the same old things in the same old way. Taking time to develop vision for what we do is essential to stop us losing enthusiasm and to keep expecting God to do great things through us. The challenging question to ask is are we trying to keep things ticking over or are we hoping for more than that, and if so, what would that look like?

I want to spend more time on this area, creating a bigger vision and hope for our youth ministry, to get more excited by what God is doing and what he might do in the future.

By spending time on vision (both short and longer term), we create a unity amongst the youth leaders. It provides us with goals to work towards, measures to see what progression is taking place with the young people and helps keep us all passionate about what we are trying to do together.

4. Don’t leave preparation to the last minute

Being busy is no excuse for poor preparation but how easy it is to leave it to the day or the night before, to plan. This inevitably leaves that feeling of getting away with another session, rather than doing all you possibly can to make the session be fruitful and creative.

By a bit of forward planning, you create space to buy props or gadgets needed for a game or meditation, find just the right video clip to illustrate a teaching point and it also allows you time to properly reflect on what you are trying to teach.

Being a volunteer leader is more complicated when it comes to equipment because it is not easy to find out whether the church already has something or not. If you can plan a bit more in advance, it does create the opportunity to look for that hula hoop or ball pump on the Sunday when you are there, or even the youth group session prior.

5. Admin help can make a big difference

If your church has a good administrator, ask them if they could help you occasionally. Trips and social events are great to keep the young people connected with each other and offer a simple way of inviting fringe friends along. However the admin behind these trips can sometimes deter the busy leaders from hosting them. If an administrator could create the necessary paperwork, it would be much easier. If there isn’t an administrator, there is likely to be someone with the skills and time in the church; someone who loves the youth work but would never want to be involved directly. Asking them to create these forms etc is a good way of involving them in the ministry.

If I was to go through this period again, I would want to work more on each of these five areas. If you are a volunteer leader with oversight of a youth group, I would encourage you to chat these areas through with your church leader and see what you can put in place to make sure that you don’t have to do it all alone. It will make a world of difference to the quality of your youth ministry.