I know that volunteering with students is a “hit the ground running” type of experience. It is busy, intense, and tiring. I appreciate that you have dedicated your time and energy to our students. With all of the craziness, I want to press pause for a minute and let you know some things that you definitely need to know in order to maximize your ministry with these students.
1. The times before and after events and programs are extremely important ministry times. Some of the best conversations that I have had with students occurred while they are waiting for their parents to come and get them. There is tremendous value in the downtime. We are geared to think that our task begins with the opening prayer or when the clock hits the start time, but the truth is that our task begins the minute that we come into contact with a student. In fact, it might begin as we prepare our hearts the moments before we arrive at a program or event.
2. Never show that you are disappointed in attendance. I want to set a record in attendance every time we meet. Unfortunately, this is just not always a reasonable goal. Inevitably we will have nights where only half of the regular crowd shows up. We will have events where half of the registered students fail to show up. The challenge is to push for every kid to come and then be excited about the ones who do show up. Showing disappointment in attendance is a killer, and the students will shut down if they don’t think that you are excited that they came. If I hear a student saying that the group seems small, I quickly let them know how excited I am that I will be able to spend more quality time getting to know the students in the smaller group. The key is for you to also believe that and be happy about it.
3. Engage. Engage. Engage. There are two types of youth workers. One type gets the job done, keeps the peace, and assists with all necessary tasks. The other type does all of the things above and stays engaged with the students. We really want our volunteers to be the second type. To become this, you need to know what engaging students looks like. It means sitting with students around the table rather than congregating with the other adult leaders. It means asking students questions about their week or what they are learning. It means shooting basketball with them in the gym rather than watching from the sidelines. It means participating with abandon during activities and games. It does not mean always having to be the life of the party or having something cool to say. You see, it is much easier to just be a chaperone, but we are looking for mentors. We need volunteers to demonstrate love and concern for our students. We need students to know that you are there for them and not there to make the program work. The good news is that you can stay engaged with the students and still maintain crowd control or facilitate an activity. In fact, the better the relationship you have with the students, the more likely they are to work with you rather than against you. Sure, it’s draining to discuss the appeal of Justin Bieber or why the Clone Wars is awesome. It is also incredibly rewarding to know that you have made an impact on a student’s life simply because you sat with them and were interested in their day. Do you want to know the secret of my popularity with the students? The secret is that I have invested my time in getting to really know them, and, because of that, they know that I care. Use this secret and you too will be one of their heroes. It’s actually amazing at how easy that can happen.
4. You are doing incredibly important work. How can cleaning up spilled Sprite for the tenth time be incredible work? How can playing capture the flag with students be important? Sometimes volunteers feel like they are just filling space. You are not filling a need, you are literally changing lives and drawing students closer to Christ. In my mind there is no greater task. As there are many parts of the body, there are many parts or roles that must be filled to meet the needs of our students. Relish your role and the opportunities that God has given you to minister. On a side note, when I begin to feel like I am simply making things happen and not ministering, I actually stop what I am doing and ask a student how their relationship with God is developing. This allows me to gain focus on why I am doing these things in the first place.
5. You will have significant impact if you see yourself as a youth worker on our “off days”. Go back to your high school days. For some of you it might take a while. Just kidding. Now imagine that it is Saturday and you are sitting around watching a movie on TV and the phone rings. It’s your Sunday School teacher just checking in with you and asking you how the game went last night. How does that make you feel? Loved? Important? Here’s the thing, if you want to really demonstrate investment in the lives of the students that you are mentoring, you will be more effective if you see the calling as something organic rather than something scheduled for Wednesday nights at 6:30pm.