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Let’s face it: college students are not the most dependable volunteer pool on the face of the planet.
The problem goes both ways. Sometimes, college students only show up at youth group for a semester before moving on. And as a result, sometimes youth leaders come to expect that, so they don’t bother investing much time in equipping or training their college students. And, as a result, college students often don’t feel very connected to the ministry. And, as a result….
You get the idea. Vicious cycle. I understand that there’s really no simple way to solve this. College students are in a time where they’re figuring out what God wants them to do with their lives. They’re often busy, distracted, and, well, a little immature (I completely put myself in all of those categories, by the way). They might have overcommitted and genuinely need to cut back, or maybe practical concerns like study abroad get in the way.
So, what’s a youth pastor to do? Well, you could rely on guilt-inducing speeches, or force volunteers to sign a four-year contract. If that’s not your style, here are three simple resources you can provide to encourage college student leaders to get more involved in their students’ lives on a regular basis.
It meant a lot when I showed up at various theater, music, or sports events that my girls participated in. But I know a lot of leaders who only found out about an event a week after it was over when it came up in the “praise” time of prayer requests and felt bad that they hadn’t been there. (“Oh, you won the district soccer tournament? That…cool. Wow. I didn’t even know you played soccer.”) Sometimes, it just doesn’t come up.
That’s why it’s a great idea have school calendars for the leaders and tell them to ask the students in their group at the beginning of every month if there’s a concert or game coming up for them. This is also helpful so leaders know, for example, when the students have a day off school so they can plan a party or hang-out time.
Some school websites have a link to their calendar, but for others, you might need to contact the school to get one, then make photocopies. Make sure you get calendars from all the schools that are represented, even the one that two kids go to, so no one feels left out. (And mention to leaders to check with the homeschoolers and write down anything they might be involved in. Poor homeschoolers sometimes get left out.)
If you have college student leaders, they probably have a ton of things going on. I get that. I was involved in at least three other activities, had a full course load and a campus job, and didn’t own a car. That meant that I only went to a few events per year. But I did what I could. Make sure you emphasize to your leaders that this is not meant to put pressure on them to do everything. It just gives them options for connecting with their students outside of youth group.
List of Names
No matter how often people told me how important it was to pray for the students in my group every day, I would forget. Let’s face it: I am a disorganized, scatterbrained person who does not work well with consistent routine, until I actually wrote down the girls’ names and put the list somewhere where I saw it frequently. That triggered my brain to say, “Oh! You’re supposed to be praying for these girls. Do it now, before you forget.”
For visual people like me, it can help if you print out a list of student names for your leaders and ask them to use it as a prayer reminder. They can highlight the names of students in their groups and just pray for them, if they want. Or, chances are, you’ll have at least a few super-motivated prayer warriors whose spiritual gift is lifting people before the Lord, and they’ll tackle the whole list. Whatever the case, sometimes it’s nice to have a simple reminder.
On a totally non-spiritual note, it helps to have a list of first and last names so you can find students on Facebook. Just sayin’.
Parallel Teaching Schedule
I really had no idea what to call this, but let me explain what I mean. Something that’s really good for college leaders (probably any leaders) to know is what the students are learning in Sunday School, in Wednesday night Bible study, in any programming where they aren’t present.
That might just mean sending an email to leaders with a sentence or two saying, “Hey, just FYI, Sunday mornings the high schoolers are working their way through the miracles of Jesus and talking about whether it makes sense to believe in miracles when we have modern science. If you get a chance, ask them what they think about this.”
If you want honest feedback from your students, this is a good way to get it (they’ll tell their college student leader things that they wouldn’t tell you). It also just helps youth group workers make connections to other things the students are learning.
Because I knew the Bible quizzing team (half my group participated) was studying the epistles, I knew they loved it when I used examples from those books, because they were really familiar with the context. Because I knew that several of my group members were in the weekday morning evangelism training, I could ask how they were feeling about talking to their unsaved friends. It’s great to have that cross-over knowledge.
Chances are, not all of your leaders will make full use out of all three of these resources. But they’re easy to provide, and I think they challenge college students to take their role in the ministry seriously. If you let them know that you expect them to do more than just show up and play dodgeball, maybe they’ll actually exceed your expectations.
Amy Green is an amazing “all-in” volunteer, just graduated from Taylor University and has worked with one group of Junior-high students her whole career in college. You can check out Amy’s blog here: http://justthefiction.blogspot.com/
Lessons Learned as a Volunteer
By Amy Green
Admit it: we all secretly miss being in youth group. Okay, so maybe we could do without the drama, the awkwardness, or the hormonal-charged confusion of how to interact with the opposite gender. But there’s something special about singing to worship songs with simple chords, sharing testimonies at summer camp, starting to ask questions about faith, and eating insane amounts of pizza without worrying about the calorie count.
Maybe that’s why college students tend to volunteer as leaders in youth groups. As a newly graduated college student, I don’t have deep theological musings to share. But I do know the six most important lessons I learned as a college student volunteer. Here they are.
- Being there long-term matters.
I put this first because it’s the single most important thing I could say to college students considering working with a youth group. If you know you can only help out for one semester, that’s fine. But make sure the students in your group know that.
And, if you can, stay. When you’re invested in a ministry long-term, you develop better relationships. The students know they can trust you and talk to you, because you’ll be there for them.
2. It’s important to learn names.
To be honest, I am terrible with names. It took me two months and lots of mistakes to get everyone’s names, but I was determined to do it, and that made a big difference. When you use students’ names, they know you care about them. They are people, not just anonymous sugar-crazed packages of hormones. Learn those names and use them. It matters.
3. You’re not always going to feel like going to youth group.
No, seriously, you’re not. Some days, you will be stressed and tired and have a million things to get done before tomorrow. Some days, you think you just cannot handle being around people even more immature that the obnoxious sophomore down the hall. Some days you will just feel burnt out.
Because part of becoming an adult is doing things that you don’t really feel like doing. You won’t always feel like going to work or dealing with a discipline problem with your child, or even loving your spouse. But you do it regardless. That’s discipline, and starting to develop it now is going to make the rest of your life a whole lot easier.
4. There is not a “youth leader” stereotype you need to fit.
Listen, if anyone should be labeled, “not cool enough to be a youth group leader,” it would be me. My athletic ability is nonexistent—I can’t even throw a Frisbee. I hate public speaking. I’m not an education or Bible major. I’ve never had a boyfriend and absolutely hate Justin Bieber and One Direction (if you don’t know why those are anti-qualifications for being a youth group leader, you’ve clearly never been around jr. high girls).
But guess what? I love God, and I love teens. There you go.
There is no one way to serve and get to know the students in your group. I’m a writer. I wrote each of them a note of four or five line every week on scrapbook paper. Sometimes it was a favorite verse, sometimes something I appreciated about them, sometimes just what I did that weekend. Most never wrote back, but I heard from several parents who told me that their girls kept every note and put them in a folder or arranged them in a pattern on their wall.
Show love in whatever way you know how. It makes a difference.
5. Watch what you do during the week.
I write a blog, and let me tell you, there’s nothing for accountability like knowing the students in your small group are reading every post (and sometimes their parents). Same thing with Facebook posts and pictures. Every once in a while, I go through my closet and ask, “Would I wear this in front of my jr. high guys?” If the answer is no, I get rid of it. More than one short-ish dresses and skits have found their way to Goodwill through this process.
I’m not saying you should become paranoid about how every action could be perceived. But if you’d be ashamed if one of your students grabbed your Ipod to listen to on the bus, or if you blush when you find out that they saw that dance routine you put on YouTube, then maybe something’s wrong.
6. Set the example.
Trash is full? Go empty it. Someone needs to get snacks ready instead of playing soccer? Volunteer. Really shy kid always sits by himself? Talk to him. Do the stuff that no one else wants to do. Trust me, your students notice. When I was in high school, I still remember when my leader collected everyone’s empty plates after lunch. Now, that’s what I do, because I learned what it meant to be a servant from her.
Sure, as a college student, it’s easy to help with youth group to get that sense of being a teenager again. But what made that a great experience for you? Probably the people who cared about you and took the time to invest in your life. So be that person for someone else.
Amy Green is an amazing “all-in” volunteer and just graduated last month from Taylor University. She has worked with one group of Junior-high students her whole career in college. You can check out Amy’s blog here: http://justthefiction.blogspot.com/
To give someone responsibility without authority is despotism. To give authority without support is negligence. I have been a negligent despot in my dealings with volunteers. And then I wondered why my volunteers looked bored or were hard to recruit.
Because people work for free they work for a cause. “This also creates a tremendous responsibility for the institution to keep the flame alive, not to allow work to become just a “job.”” Peter Drucker is right. Our volunteers do not need another job, especially one without pay. So how do we motivate volunteers and use them in significant ways. If we discover the answer to this question we will never be short on volunteers.
Michael Csikszentmihalyi (yes, he is Russian) discovered the concept of flow, in which skill and challenge are both high, and a person becomes fully engaged in a significant endeavor. Flow is when the activity brings immense satisfaction and “carries” the person through the experience.
Volunteers Need Challenge
Flow teaches us that volunteers need significant challenge in order to feel strong motivation and pursue a task or relationship. I know what you are thinking: “Youth ministry is inherently hard, no lack of challenge here. Why can’t I find more volunteers?” Certainly, middle school boys Sunday school is often one of the most challenging tasks in the perception of people.
Why would a parent, professional, business owner and board member (all in one person) want to come to a ministry to stand against the wall and make sure teens don’t misbehave? It is not meaningful, not challenging and not using or developing their skills.
He is s a list of a few important ways to provide challenge:
Hand off the football and follow up
Give regular feedback. Most all ministries have no formal or non-formal mode for feedback. See this great article for a quick evaluation tool.
Volunteers Need Skill
Challenge is essential yet a true challenge can kill motivation if the volunteer cannot meet the challenge. The requisite skill set must be available in order to inspire and drive the person through challenge toward making a significant contribution. When people have skills and challenges to apply those challenges toward, they perceive their work to be meaningful and will work free. A task without competence only leads to anxiety and fear. The apostle Paul clearly outlines the requirements of those who are pastor/teachers in Eph 4:11-13. It is common to think that the teacher simply teaches, yet it is clear that our true role in the church is to equip the saints for the work. One of the most dangerous pitfalls we face then is to use people to develop programs. Ministry is the equipping and developing of people to do the works of service. How do you develop a skill in an adult?
Break it into pieces. The sub-component parts are learned then put together into a whole.
Modeling is vital. They must be able to see a picture of the desired end.
Provide specific training for various skills (in house and outside conferences). Train people on how to visit a sick teen, lead a small group, organize a message, etc.
Volunteers Need Support
Ever done a trust fall? For some they are terrifying. Imagine taking the leap without assurance that someone will catch you. To ask a student or an adult to form creative outreaches for hurting teens requires the ability to fail and the permission to do so. Yet people will only act, if failure is possible, when they know that there is a reasonable safety net to catch them. A final area (not addressed by flow theory) is support. We cannot challenge without offering support. Support is offered in order to challenge. Telling people to lead small groups without training or discussion questions signals no support. They will be unwilling to risk and thus the group and the leader will not grow.
Challenge skill and support work wonderfully together. They not only motivate but they reinforce growth and in turn increase motivation—which I believe makes disciples.
Videos on Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi :
People are not assets. Assets are used for a purpose. The problem is that once you spend them they are gone. We all have those people on our list we are saving for the really big favor: Middle school boys Sunday school. They will say yes but we know we can’t ask every year and we don’t want to use that commodity until it’s a last resort.
Seeing people as a resource is a very different approach. The idea is that people are capable of development. Instead of using them up doing tasks we should view the tasks as serving the growth and gifts of people. The organization that wastes its greatest resource solely on projects and programs will find it runs out assets. Proper care, development and management of people as resources will see an increase that will continue to bear fruit.