The following post was written by Ben Trueblood, Director of Lifeway Students. Ben is passionate about investing in student ministry leaders like you. You can find more encouragement from Ben on his YouTube Channel, Student Ministry That Matters.
I was recently asked “what is the most crucial component of student ministry after God?” The question is an important one that we all should consider, and I think the wording here is significant. First, the assumption in the formation of the question is that God is the centerpiece of the student ministry. I think we would all be on the same page there. In answering this question, I also took this assumption to mean that the student ministry would also be centered on Scripture because you can’t have God as the centerpiece of your student ministry if God’s Word is absent.
With that as the baseline understanding, I answered the question in the following way: “recruiting, training, and vision casting with volunteer leaders.” Student ministry cannot be done effectively as a solo endeavor. You need people to join you in ministry, and according to Ephesians 4:11, the training of people to do ministry is actually an essential part of the calling of a pastor. We also know from research that when a teenager can identify three or more spiritual mentors during their high school years, they are three times more likely to stay connected to the church throughout their college years. Many of you are probably already convinced that you need other leaders to join you in ministry, but how do you get them to stay? As I’ve talked to student pastors over the years, this issue has consistently risen to the top, and I believe the problem is solved through your role in expressing gratitude and appreciation for them and the role they play in the ministry.
Say thank you, and mean it.
When we work with people, it is easy to slip into the pattern of just saying the words “thank you” or adding them at the end of a weekly leader update email. True gratitude for someone needs to be more than a tagline. When you say thank you, take the time to identify a specific reason or action that the leader has taken and if possible connect it to the mission or values of your ministry. For example, “I saw you do this thing that is a perfect representation of this value in our ministry and I wanted to thank you for that.” Notice here that this is a personal conversation. Sometimes, true gratitude will require a few extra steps on our part. The group “thank you” has its’ place, but it should still be specific and only one part of how you use thank you’s in your ministry.
Fellowship and fun.
You are in the habit of planning moments of fellowship and fun with your students, but what about your leaders? They need this from you as well. My recommendation for this is on a quarterly basis so that you have some built in relational time with your leaders where they can see you in a different environment from the church. The calendar naturally gives you some opportunities to do this: Christmas season, July 4th, and back to school. So much time in student ministry is spent trying to reinforce the importance of leaders spending time with their students outside the church walls, yet very little time is spent by student pastors taking the same approach with volunteer leaders. Your leaders have a desire to know you personally beyond the vision caster and leader and the degree to which you know them will influence the degree to which they trust you and buy into the vision of the ministry long-term. Remember, we are interested in leaders serving year after year in student ministry and building real relationships with them shows your gratitude and appreciation because you are willing to share one of your most precious resources: time.
Communicate purposely and frequently.
Leaders hate the feeling of being left in the dark and if that feeling is left to linger, eventually it will lead to leaders beginning to think that they are an afterthought. This directly impacts their desire to continue serving in student ministry. You show your appreciation of their role through the frequency and purposefulness of your communication. You should be on a cadence of weekly communication with your leaders through email already. If not, don’t beat yourself up about it, but do get it started. From there, plan out how you will have a face-to-face connection with leaders on a consistent basis. Lunch meetings, as you see them at church, or on school campuses are some of the options here. This should be more than a passing hello, but doesn’t have to be long. Keep track of the leaders that you’ve connected with and make an effort to connect with ones that are dropping toward the bottom of the list. Just as it is with students, you will naturally begin to drift toward leaders that you are more comfortable with while leaving out ones that you aren’t. As a leader, you need to be connecting with all of them at some level.
Outside of God and His word, your volunteer leaders are the most crucial component of your student ministry. Enlisting someone to serve with you is a great victory, but once enlisted you have a year to convince them to stay. Your gratefulness and appreciation for them can be the final piece that moves them from giving student ministry a try to being a student ministry leader for the long-term.