Adult volunteers are vital to successful youth ministry. What happens when volunteers let you down? Here are some suggestions for addressing this important challenge.

Let them know how valuable they are.

Don’t take your volunteer leaders for granted. They’re not robots toiling in a factory. They need to feel valued and encouraged. A utilitarian approach to ministry will come back to haunt you. Volunteers must know how important they are to you, to the ministry, to the church and to God’s kingdom.

Youth ministry is our full-time job. As a result, we can sometimes forget our volunteers have other demands and obligations.

Unless they know how much we appreciate the time they give, they either will give the minimum or head out the door at the first available moment. You can head off a lot of problems if you are committed to honoring them and making them feel like a valuable part of the team.

For example, after every retreat, I send each leader a personal note and a $10 gift card to a local restaurant. That can be costly to your budget, but it’s a small investment if you want those leaders to feel good about the weekend they gave up to serve students and if you want them to serve on the next retreat, too.

If you are committed to praising leaders for the times they excel, they are more likely to see how valuable they truly are and will want to do everything in their power to do a good job.

Set clear expectations.

Don’t be afraid to raise the bar to an appropriate level. Everyone will do better when expectations are clear. At our first meeting of the year, I hand out “Leader Expectations,” explaining my non-negotiables. There is nothing wrong with making things clear. If a leader falls short on a character issue, it must be addressed as quickly as possible.

When they don’t follow through…

When a leader fails to follow through on a commitment, take time between the failure and when you address it. If you try to address the situation in the moment, you are likely to be more emotional and angry than you need to be.

Let’s say your volunteer worship leader calls an hour before rehearsal and says: “I forgot I was scheduled to work tonight; I can’t lead worship.” You are frustrated and want to say: “Why didn’t you figure this out sooner? What am I supposed to do now?!”

If you count to 10, you instead can say: “That’s OK, Mark. We’ll figure something out. Thanks for letting me know.” Then say a quick prayer and begin brainstorming about other possibilities.

Afterward, you may decide to let this scheduling failure drop. If it only happens once, let it go. Everyone deserves one free pass. If Mark’s lack of follow-through becomes an ongoing issue, then you need to sit down and share your heart with him, like this:

“Mark, I’m so grateful for your ministry with the youth; but you’ve missed two meetings when you said you were going to be here. It’s putting us in a difficult situation. Do you think this is going to continue to be a problem?” This way, he’ll understand the predicament he’s put you in and can see things from your perspective.

Working with flawed, imperfect, human volunteers is time-consuming and draining; but it’s essential that it be handled with care and grace in order for efforts to pay off in the long run.

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About The Author

Syler Thomas is a native Texan who has worked as a pastor at Christ Church Lake Forest in Illinois since 1998. He writes a column for Youthworker Journal, has had articles published in Leadership Journal and the Chicago Tribune, and enjoys acting in the occasional play. He believes with all of his heart that the Cubs will one day win the World Series, and he and his wife Heidi have four kids.

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