Ask Big: How to Recruit, Develop, and Retain Quality Volunteers

This week, our team is at the Urban Youth Workers Institute (UYWI) National Conference talking about how to recruit, develop, and retain quality volunteers. Here’s a recap of our workshop!

You got into youth ministry because you love teenagers, but by now, you’ve probably figured out . . .

  • Youth ministry is not just about teenagers.
  • It’s also about the adults who make ministry happen: your volunteers!

If you want an effective youth ministry, you need great volunteers. But HOW? How do you recruit, develop, and retain a team of committed volunteers?

We’ve learned a lot — sometimes by making big mistakes. When we were really hurting for volunteers, it was easy to think that our volunteers were the problem. But they weren’t.

We were the problem.

It wasn’t that we needed new volunteers. We just needed to take better care of the volunteers we already had.

Our volunteer culture was broken, so we got to work on solving it. Step one was developing new strategies and resources. Next, we scheduled one-on-one meetings. Then, we rolled out big changes.

After a few months, we saw shifts. Our volunteers started showing up and were more engaged and excited. They started inviting their friends to serve with them. Two years later, we had a waiting list. What we discovered was a simple and repeatable system and strategy for that worked.

The secret to growing a volunteer team isn’t a quick fix, a great recruitment campaign, or a series of guilt trips.


Here are the three most important things you can do to make this happen:


When I started volunteering, I wasn’t a “consistent” volunteer. I was seventeen, leading 5th-grade girls. 30 of them. I showed up most of the time, but I often went home frustrated. Our youth pastor said something that changed everything for me.

“Small group leaders, you are the pastors of your small group.”

I wasn’t just another volunteer. I was a pastor. 

So what was it about that moment that helped me finally get it? 


When we’re desperate for more volunteers, we tend to ask for less. Just show up, just for an hour, just once a month, just, just, just.” We need warm bodies in the roo

m, so we talk about volunteering as if it’s easy, simple, and low-commitment.

But you don’t need just anyone to serve. You need people who want to make a difference.

And people who want to make a difference don’t want to do what’s easy or simple. They want to do something that matters.

So if you want volunteers to be more engaged, don’t tell them their job is easy.
Tell them their job matters.
Make bigger asks.


It’s not our job todo everything. It’s our job to give ministry away. I’m not just talking about letting volunteers push buttons on the soundboard or stack chairs. I’m talking about real ministry opportunities, real influence, and real authority. Let’s give away so much ministry that it puts a strain on our egos.

Because [spoiler alert] someday, you’re going to move on, or get fired, or die.  And when you do, what will happen to your ministry?

If you want our ministry to outlive you, it can’t depend on you. Because:


We have a limited capacity. We can only invest in 5-10 people at any given time. We’ve already reached our capacity. Multiply your influence by empowering and releasing volunteers.


Maybe we can pull it off for a while. We’ll burn ourselves out. We’ll grow to the point where teenagers are no longer receiving quality ministry. We’ll leave, and the ministry we’ll leave behind will crumble.


Don’t perpetuate the idea that ministry is best left with professionals. That is not what Jesus intended. Give away big, meaningful ministry to your volunteers. The Church is bigger than us, and our ministries need to outlive us.


When we decided to fix our volunteer culture, it took forethought. We completely rethought our annual calendar. We finally landed on a simple and repeatable system and strategy that worked. It was a year-round strategy that onboarded, trained, inspired, celebrated, created community for volunteers.

Don’t rely just on once-a-year in-person meetings. Combine a variety of methods to reach a variety of volunteers, all year long. There are seven kinds of volunteer training methods we should build a strategy around:

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If your ministry is like most youth ministries, you’ve probably got plenty of events on your calendar already. But, again, if you’re like most youth ministries, the vast majority of those events are probably designed for students. That makes sense, of course, but here’s the thing: just like events are effective tools for mobilizing and inspiring teenagers, the right event can mobilize and inspire your volunteers in new ways, too

At the beginning of each year, we recommend planning a training event to kick off a new year of ministry with your volunteers. This kick-off event should be fun, inspiring, and helpful. But, most importantly, it should remind your volunteers of the core values of your church and youth ministry because every year, your volunteers need to be reminded of the big picture


Sharing vision and inspiration with your volunteers is probably pretty important to you as a ministry leader, but volunteers need more than just inspiration. Your volunteers need practical training all year long! They need resources to help them do their specific jobs better. They need help navigating the specific issues they’re facing with kids and teenagers right now. That’s why it’s so important to schedule meetings with your volunteers throughout the year that train them on specific topics. We recommend having these meetings three times per year.


When we think about training and leading volunteers, we probably picture environments where we (the youth pastor or staff member) are doing the training and leading. Sure, you’ve got a lot of wisdom to share with your volunteers, but have you ever considered that your volunteers have a lot of wisdom to share with each other, too? The premise of a Discussion Group is pretty simple: invite a small group of volunteers (about ten people) in a similar area of ministry to join you for coffee and dessert (or chicken wings and soda) so they can share some of their biggest wins, struggles, and lessons learned. We recommend hosting a discussion group every other month (at most).


We’re big believers that meeting regularly with your volunteers one-on-one is pretty important — not just for your volunteers, but for you and your ministry, too. It’s important for your volunteers because they need to know you care about them . . . and spending time building relationships is a great way to communicate how much you value them. It’s important for your ministry because it will give you an opportunity to evaluate how well your volunteers are doing in their roles. And it’s important for you because it will give you an opportunity to hear how you and your ministry can better help and equip your volunteers to do their jobs better. We recommend making time to connect one-on-one with every volunteer AT LEAST once per school year. This will vary depending on how many volunteers you have.


Sometimes, in order to do their jobs well, your volunteers need more than just words. They need a physical, practical, tangible tool they can take and use. A tool is any resource you provide to help your volunteers make their jobs happen. This might include a volunteer handbook, volunteer business cards, an annual volunteer survey, a volunteer goal sheet, team t-shirts, or tip videos. When it comes to the tools you give your volunteers, you’ll be most effective in equipping volunteers when you establish a predictable annual rhythm


If we want to keep our vision in front of our volunteers all year long, we have to think about training in a different(and more consistent) way. That’s where communication comes in. Whether you prefer to communicate with your volunteers through email, text messages, social media posts, or phone calls, the point is that you stay in touch with them every week.


We don’t always think about celebrating or appreciating our volunteers as a form of training, but maybe we should! Because here’s the thing: what we celebrate gets repeated. So when we celebrate our volunteers for being awesome and following through on the vision and expectations we’ve set for them, we’re reminding our whole team about what matters most. We recommend celebrating an individual volunteer every week, celebrating a quirky holiday and sending birthday cards every month, and throwing an annual Christmas party and end-of-the-school-year party.

The exact rhythm and timing of each of these methods is up to you! Choose what works best for you and your context. In this workshop, we created two different annual calendars, with two different groups of ministry leaders. Check them both out to see how this could look different based on your ministry’s needs and culture. Here’s what we came up with.


It doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Our time each week was limited, just like yours is. Do the least amount of work for the biggest impact.

A great volunteer culture doesn’t happen by accident. It takes a strategy. So . . .

  • ASK BIG. Because there are people in your church waiting for a challenge worth taking.
  • EMPOWER. Because the Church is bigger than you and me.
  • GET A STRATEGY. Because you can’t accidentally create a culture where volunteers love to serve. That only happens on purpose.