Best Practices for Recruiting Youth Leaders

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One of the key roles of a youth minister is recruiting a team of youth leaders to serve teenagers together in the church. Even in the smallest of church settings, finding others to join you in the work is essential. If we truly believe the Church is the people of God (not a program, not a pastor in an office), then we will take seriously the call to equip God’s people for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11-13). This means you must work to build a youth ministry that is bigger than you.

Winsomely inviting caring adults to join you in shepherding teenagers will be a never-ending project. There’s always someone who’s moving away (particularly the college students and young adults we all love to have on our teams!) or moving on to a different ministry calling in the church. Even with a number of committed, veteran leaders in your corner, teams are rarely static. We always need to have our eyes on whom else God might be calling to join us in sharing “not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (Thess. 2:8). Here are five best practices to implement as you recruit a ministry team.

Focus on Safety

Before you make a single phone call to recruit a new lay leader, it’s essential to consider your church’s plan for keeping students safe in your ministry. Most likely your church will already have an insurance plan of some sort that protects the church financially in the event of injuries or other issues, and the insurance company may request a written child protection policy. Even if they don’t, every youth ministry needs one. You may want to work with an attorney specializing in church law in your state to put such a policy together or to revisit an older policy.

Considering how you vet potential youth leaders is a critical part of any child safety policy. At a minimum, you should run both national and state background checks, conduct an in-person interview, and check references. I would also recommend facilitating some sort of abuse awareness training like those provided by Ministry Safe or Protect My Ministry. These trainings help all members of the youth team to be on the same page about appropriate contact with students, as well as to be aware of what potential abuse looks like.

Heeding Jesus’ words about not causing “little ones” in the faith to stumble (Matt. 18:6), we must work to safeguard our ministries from potential abusers. This is not to say we need to be on a witch-hunt, nor that we should live in fear—after all, Jesus is the Good Shepherd of his church, and the only one who can perfectly protect our students. Still, we should prayerfully seek to learn and to follow the best practices for preventing abuse in our ministries.

Take Your Time

We all feel the pull to get people into positions pronto in order to keep our programs running, but this is rarely best. Instead, we want to get to know the people we’re recruiting, taking time to learn their stories with the Lord and their unique gifts for ministry. Take them out for coffee or lunch. Spend time getting to know one another.

As part of the child protection plan mentioned above, most insurance companies and legal services recommend what is known as the Six-Month Policy, in which any potential youth or children’s ministry leader must attend the church for a minimum of six months before serving with minors. Some churches even require that potential youth and children’s workers become members before serving. Deepak Reju offers a helpful explanation of this principle in his book On Guard: Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse at Church, which is a wonderful resource on these matters of recruiting and safety.

Don’t be discouraged if someone you’ve identified as a potential dynamo needs a little coaxing. Some of the most gifted and committed leaders on the youth ministry teams at my church have been those I had to slowly “woo” over time. (And conversely, when I’ve rushed things, I’ve sometimes regretted it for one reason or another.) One high-capacity leader initially told me he could serve on the team for six weeks, just to give me time to find someone more permanent. I had a sense that he was God’s man for the job and engaged a couple of other leaders to help me convince him. After six weeks he was so excited about what we were doing and the relationships he was building that he stayed on and eventually became the leader of leaders on that particular team.

Share the Vision

It’s no secret that even the most well-meaning people in our churches can have some pretty big misconceptions about youth ministry. They may chalk up our roles to nothing more than glorified babysitters. Or they miss the importance of intergenerational integration, imagining we’re only looking for 20-somethings to serve with teenagers. We therefore have our work cut out for us to share the vision of gospel-centered youth ministry that includes relationships across the generations.

Take some time to work on your elevator pitch for youth ministry. What’s the vision you long to see God accomplish in students’ lives by His grace? What are some of the exciting things you’ve seen God doing along these lines? Why do you think this would be a great ministry area in which to serve as a lay leader?

I’ve often shared the book Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry with potential new youth leaders as a way to begin sharing the vision of youth ministry as so much more than chaperoning events. Similarly, I frequently use a one-liner to communicate the goal of relational discipleship: “We’re looking for adults who are growing in Jesus themselves and are willing to come alongside students to help them do the same.” Depending on my audience, I might also add, “it doesn’t matter how old you are or how cool you are, if you love both Jesus and students, God can use you!”

You might also want to consider how to communicate the vision more broadly in your church. Generally I’ve steered away from making public, widespread calls for new leaders—from the pulpit for example—for the safety issues mentioned above. (While I believe every Christian is called to serve the Body in some way, not everyone needs to serve with youth and children.) But opportunities still abound for sharing the beauty of what God is doing in and through students’ lives and community together. Write a blurb for the church newsletter. Post some photos (with parents’ permission) of a recent youth event on all-church bulletin boards. Invite students themselves to share a testimony or an announcement about youth group from the pulpit or on social media. All of these efforts will help the church see how God is at work, perhaps prompting some to say yes when you ask them to get involved.

Clarify Expectations

As with any paid job, lay leaders will rightly want to know the parameters of the role for which they’re signing on. As you work to recruit a new leader, share with her the general role on the team you see her fulfilling, including the weekly time commitment, any extra events in which you’d like her to participate (trips, retreats, etc.), and what you’d recommend she do to connect with students outside of programmed time. This is a good opportunity to go over appropriate boundaries and the purpose of any expected contact work, such as taking students to coffee or attending their games.

New youth leaders may grow discouraged when discipling students doesn’t happen easily, so I find it helpful to define up front what I see as faithful ministry, in as simple terms as possible. For example, the leaders of middle school boys’ small groups can easily be frustrated when a group of rowdy boys doesn’t want to answer discussion questions. I will often tell both new and seasoned leaders that if they’ve shown up, if they’ve shown they care about their students, and if they’ve shown that they’re eager to have a conversation about the gospel, then the night has been a win no matter how many off-the-wall comments or random outbursts may have seemed to derail things. Work to set realistic expectations and to define ministry “success,” reminding them that we can plant the seeds of spiritual conversation, but God gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6).

Plan for Retention

Even as you’re recruiting, you’ll want to be thinking about retention. How will you help this person thrive in the role in which you’ve invited him or her to serve? An elder at a church in which I served previously told me once, “If you want to hang onto good people, you’ve got to love them or you’ve got to pay them.” Obviously in the church, we’re not often paying our ministry leaders. Knowing they’re giving of their time as a matter of stewardship, we as paid staff ought to be especially motivated to love and to serve them well. As we do, we’re modeling the way we hope they will love and serve students.

This means, for example, that we send a thank-you note when someone goes above and beyond, and maybe as a matter of practice once a year or more for regular service. If our ministry or personal budget allows, maybe we treat a leader for coffee or breakfast when we meet to catch up. We look for opportunities to affirm the way we see God using each person on our teams, both privately and publicly when appropriate. We build a caring team culture by encouraging youth leaders to share personal prayer requests as well as the ways they’re seeing God at work in students’ lives.

As we prioritize caring for the leaders who join us in ministering to students, we can pray that youth ministry would be the most exciting, collaborative, and engaging place to serve in the church—and that as a result other faithful men and women will be eager to join the team!

One of my former seminary professors is fond of saying, “Don’t do ministry alone.” As we prioritize building a team of godly adults to care for students in our church, we live out the reality of our dependence upon Jesus through the gospel of his grace, and therefore our dependence upon one another in his body, the Church. May you serve students together with others for his glory!

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