Handling volunteers who are too busy for kids

Another great question showed up in my Inbox last week. The author wishes to remain anonymous, but would love to have your feedback.

I am in my first year of Youth Ministry…. My biggest headache has been that all of my volunteers including my wife are super busy and they don’t have much time to really invest in these kids. We don’t have a huge youth group (20 or so) but I can’t invest in them all or I’ll just be another statistic. Some have said, “If your volunteers don’t have time then they shouldn’t be youth leaders.” But if I do that then I won’t have anybody. I have kids that are excited about the Lord and ready to go, but my people don’t have the time to do that well. I can do it with some but not all. Do you have some thoughts?

You have a couple options:

1. You can try to do it all yourself and burn out faster than belly button lint in a forest fire.
2. You can continue trying to suck more time out of your volunteers.
3. You can invest into a couple kids on your own knowing that it’s better to impact a few than none at all.

Your message indicates that you’re wise enough not to do #1 and you’ve already figured out that #2 doesn’t work, so it sounds like #3 is the best option you have left. If you don’t have enough leaders to be able to invest into every student individually, then you’ll have to start with a couple yourself and pour your life into them. Don’t worry about the critics who accuse you of playing favorites. Read about that here.

As you set the example and invest into a couple students on your own, here are some suggestions that might help the other adults come on board with their priorities and commitments:

1. Share stories with the other leaders about your time with the students.
Tell them about the life-change you see taking place, show them how excited you are, talk about the ways God has rewarded you and stretched you through it. In essence, make them feel like they’re missing out on a HUGE opportunity — because they are. The opportunity to change lives for Christ.

2. Hold the standard high for your volunteers.
Nothing communicates to a student “you’re not that important to me” more than showing them that “I don’t have time for you.” For the sake of your kids, don’t let adults do that to them if you have the authority to prevent it. For adults who commit to the higher standard, hold them to it. It’s better to have one or two committed adults than 10 half-committed ones.

3. Pray for God to raise adult leaders in your community.
And don’t just pray with the same passion most people equate with standing in line at the DMV. Beg God for leaders, plead with Him. Present your case in prayer and desperately ask God to supply role models to partner with you. But in the meantime, be willing to accept His answer of, “Right now I just want to use you in this community of students even though you’re outnumbered like Gideon.”

4. Lovingly challenge their priorities.
Only you know if you have a relationship with the adults that will permit you to do that, and even if you do, make sure you talk with your Sr. Pastor or supervisor first. Seek their advice on how to best approach this.

Posted on March 4, 2008

  • #3 would be the best way, but to add to it. . .you can train youth to reach youth. This would take time to develop, but you could be using the time of students and in the long run you’re only investing in those you’re training to reach the others even more.

  • Tim, I’d suggest a 5th alternative…create the space for volunteers to hang with students.

    Plan ‘hang time’ every week as a part of your weekly schedule. 15 minutes at the start or at the end, plan “random lunches” where adults can eat lunch with students at a Wendy’s or something.

    The point is if relational hang time is important to you (and it is) then make it a part of every time you get your crew together.

  • @ Terry: I like this idea! However, I wouldn't entrust this to students on their own because one of the biggest advantages of adults doing it is that they have the maturity and life experience to help teens make better decisions and steer them toward Christ. Most students don't often have that kind of spiritual maturity or life experience yet to give that kind of input into a kid's life. Or are you just recommending that the youth leaders to DO invest into kids just take other kids along to train them to do the same when they're older?

    @ Grant: We actually do this with our jr. high after our meeting every week, but I really don't want to under-estimate the power of a student being contacted outside of church each week by their small group leader just to hear, "Hey, a couple days ago at church you asked that we pray for your mom. I've been praying for you guys. How are you doing with all that?"

    @ Jeremy: Have you seen many kids do this in your ministry? I'd be interested in hearing more about it. In my teen years I would've never invited an adult into my life, not even if I was encouraged to do so. I think it subconsciously communicates something powerful to a student when an adult takes the initiative to connect with them individually. It says, "Hey, I notice you and think you're worth something that's valuable to me — my time."

    @ Jeff: Thanks for the encouragement! Glad you like the site. :)

    @ Chuck: I also have some expectations for my adult small group leaders that are similar to yours:

    1. While at youth group, hang out with the kids. From the time the first one arrives to when the last one leaves, everything is about the kids. Planning and talking with other adults can happen later during the week.

    2. Contact every student in your small group outside of church at least once a week. Can be via phone call, txt message, email, Facebook, whatever.

    3. Once a semester, take each student in your small group out for one-on-one time. OR, once a semester go to an extra-curricular event of each student.

    4. Make sure your own spiritual development is your top priority. You cannot lead where you have not been.

  • Dave Carter

    We've employed many of the comments alredy stated and found positive results. I too face the problem posed. Many want to help and are willing, but don't have any burden to take responsibility for truly connecting or reaching students; my wife included. I've found that having regular communication via email, mouth and text keeps the "idea" of the students in front of my volunteer leaders. That helps some. I've gotten the most results from working closely with those students who make real commitments to the youth ministry. If it can be done by a student I prefer he/she do it rather than an adult. It seems to be teaching responsibility, how to deal with life issues, it gives them some ownership in the ministry and in others' lives, and many other benefits. They have to make a solid commitment though. It's not a verbal agreement but a written commitment to living a righteous life, to personal spiritual and practical development, as well as time, fundraising, and attendance commitments. It's not pefect but seems to be working well. In addition, the other students seem to respond well.

    As a note I am also 100% volunteer as the youth pastor. I have a full time job and family commitments like my other volunteers so I don't let them use the "I'm too busy" on me. If they continually do that, I ask them to not be in our volunteer leadership team anymore. It's tough, but when I've been able to handle it lovingly it's always been met positively. At least to my face.

    I want studetns and adult volunteers who put God absolutely #1 in their lives and then have a real burdent to reach youth people. I don't really care if they've got talents. Someone who loves God intensely and then wants to share that love with young people is the one I want around me. More gets done that way, and lives get changed.

    Just my $.02.

    Dave Carter

  • Great post! I’m in the midst of a similar process, and modeling to my volunteer staff my expectations and priorities of spending time with the students has started a healthy shift in the staff culture. So to the email writer: I’ve been there!

  • My thought would actually be to flip the senario around. We believe that Youth need to be reached at all costs. Sometimes, as I am learning our adults need to be reached as well. I would encourage your kids to take the time to personally invite that adult into their life. Just as we do in growing the program via kids (kids reaching out to kids) sometimes the most effective tool can be the very one you are trying to grow.

    I know that as a volunteer I feel INCREDIBLY excited and willing to invest when I have been personally invited by a youth.

    You could try the simple approach by asking the kids which adults you might want to chaperone ( or role model) for an event and then have the youth personally seek that person out. Start small and gradually grow your volunteer base with people that become deeply committed to reaching these students.

    Thought provoking

  • I agree with Terry. We find that if we raise up the youth as leaders and hold them accountable, that they are great, especially once they are ready to graduate to do the evangelism, that the limited adult staff can.

    Tim, on a side note, you do a great job with this site. Thanks for your work.

    Jeff Lutz

  • Tim,

    I agree with Jeff. Great site.

    I’ve had to learn to value my volunteers’ limited time and energy. Most of my voluntees want to pour into kids, but they have limits and other huge responsibilities(like family, work, homelife, their own issues, etc.)

    What worked for us is defining specifically what we want them to accomplish. We made our volunteers into small group leaders with the only expectations that they…
    1. Lead a small group for 1.5 hours a week.
    2. Pray for their kids weekly
    3. Write their kids a note each month – or build some kind of outside contact (email, going to a kids’ activity, etc).

    That’s all we expect from their time, and they appreciate the clear expectation – and most of them now go way beyond our expectations.

  • These are great comments and questions! These are things that have to be figured out if longevity and impact are going to be made. Here are a few things that we’ve done.

    I show my youth leaders that they are a priority. I put them in roles where they have a desire to serve. I don’t have them try to fill every role. I try to spend time with them, train them, figure out their needs and fears and try to help. Give the leaders a clear and biblical vision of what this is all about and give them the resources to put it into practice.

    Pray for the right people

    Play, hang out together and build relationships with your leaders

    Pursue, get people who have a commitment to what is happening. Have your youth leaders find people who have the same desire too.

    Peace, it is in God’s hands.

    We just finished a series where I would teach/preach and then we would split into groups for discussion (led by the volunteers). We kept the same groups for six weeks and I built in relationship questions. Maybe you could do something similar.

    One final, controversial, thought. I’m all about equipping and reaching the youth but they will rotate through every 6-8 years or so. Your youth leaders, hopefully, won’t!

    I hope this helps!

  • I have used three of your articles with our staff. It was such an encouragement. Keep writing, I’m reading.



  • @Jeremy: I love the idea of encouraging young people to reach out to the adults. I know (as Tim said) that it’s hard to get teens to do that, but I think with the popularity of things like Facebook, texting and IM, they could do it in a very non-threatening way.

    @Chuck: Outlining the time commitments is a very crucial step. We require an hour of outside ministry time from our adults EVERY week. It sounds like a lot, but you’d be surprised how quickly it goes by: emails, texts, phone calls, soccer games, after school icecream, lunch, etc.

    The other thing too add, is to encourage your adults that do take that extra step to share that with their peers. It’s one thing when your adults hear from the youth minister/pastor how rewarding it is (you’re supposed to say that), but it’s totally different to hear that from their peers.

    And Tim, awesome article.

  • Tim,

    We use this as a staple in the ministry we use here. I no longer allow parents to sign up. Instead as we are meeting we sit down and say…

    “Ok, who would you like to see come with?” Then, it’s their responsibility to ask. They get turned down sometimes frequently but at the same token the ones that do come are the ones most willing to serve.

    I am more then always surprised to hear that its someone that I would never have considered or thought would enjoy it. More often then not its someone that I don’t think is qualified. However God qualifies the chosen not choses the qualified.

    Sit down with your students and invite them to make a list of adults they would want to see involved. Then have them narrow it down to the top 3-5 and start asking them to invite those people to small events such as youth group or small events to start. Then it’s our job as youth leaders to equip, train, and encourage those people to step boldly into other roles. Keep encouraging those kids to pray for those leaders they invited and ask them to spend some time thanking them for coming along.

    This is our small approach to building new leaders. It’s not easy for me to do…in fact most days it makes things harder…but the end result is what we are hoping for.

  • @ Jeremy: Do you find that the kids start playing something like “who are your favorite youth leaders?” Also, what about new adults you’ve screened that the kids haven’t even met yet? How do you introduce new adults into this process?

    P.S. I also respectfully disagree about not allowing parents to sign-up, but that’s a different topic for a different discussion.

  • Great comments.

    I’d recommend modeling the value of spending time outside of the meetings by having the staff go to meet with the volunteers outside of the meetings. Since the biggest return you can get is from multiplication (see The Master Plan of Evangelism by Coleman), model for them what you are asking them to do, and make it fun (food/sports/shopping/hiking/whatever). Then start to work into your time going to where the kids are at.

    This would take a bigger commitment from you, but that is exactly what you are asking them to do too. Along the way you might end up ministering to their needs too, which is obviously one of the roles we’d all like to accomplish.

  • @Tim: I can understand why you disagree. Thats completely respectful in my mind. I work in a church that is THE SAME VOLUNTEERS for everything. How do you branch out if people are always signing up for the same thing. :-D

    That was the heart and soul of beginning this ministry was to lay an expectation that it become everyones ministry not just a ministry of the exuberant volunteers. (Sounds like a good blog topic :-D )

    I find that kids are willing to experiment. We don’t allow kids to pick the same person each time. Diversify! Qualify, and Build a ministry that has more volunteers than you know what to do with!

    I can definitly see your point about letting volunteers sign up. It’s a personal struggle with me. I go both ways almost every day. But it forces me to see beyond the willing volunteer and look for that person that is waiting to be asked all the time.

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