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You Wanna Volunteer? Take a Number!

Think you'll never say those words in your ministry? It's possible! Lenny La Guardia has a waiting list for volunteers at his church in Rockford, Illinois. Find out his passionate secrets to success.

Saturday night, you're lying in bed staring at the ceiling because you can't sleep. You're not counting sheep; instead you're counting the holes you have to fill in your children's ministry! Sound familiar?

Children's Ministry Magazine recently caught up with a well-rested children's pastor in Rockford, Illinois. He has few holes to fill because he has a plan that works and a system that keeps volunteers in place for the long haul. To top it all off, he even has a waiting list of people he can plug into a ministry position. To learn his secret, we sent veteran children's pastor Keith Johnson to interview Lenny La Guardia, children's pastor and director of Sunday education at First Assembly of God in Rockford, Illinois.

Lenny and Tracy La Guardia have been married for 21 years and have four children. Lenny and Tracy have devoted their life call to seeing children walk in pursuit of the living God. With passion and heart, they desire to see that same passion in church leaders and teachers everywhere, especially at their church in Rockford.

What have been your biggest challenges in recruiting volunteers?

Getting the church congregation to embrace the vision we have for kids. We want people with a minister's heart. Here at First Assembly of God, we're not a volunteer organization. We're shepherds meeting the needs of children. I believe that I'm not the only children's pastor on a Sunday. Every volunteer has the anointing, but I have to teach that. I realized early in my ministry that if I don't spell out my vision early, clearly, and continuously, then other people will fill in the blanks. So I've created a leadership development course that's required of everyone interested in pastoring children.

How was this course first received here at your church?

I came here three years ago from Crossroads Church in Denver. Crossroads was the church where I first received Christ under Tom Stipe's ministry. I started with eight teachers and more than 850 kids. After five years we had more than 400 volunteers reaching 1,700 children weekly. I pioneered in Denver everything it took to grow a very effective ministry. Here in Rockford, it's very different. I inherited a ministry in a church that's 65 years old and steeped in tradition. I've taught the leadership course every six weeks when no one has shown up or when 30 have shown up. I won't let up in my passion for kids. I'm called to give kids an adult who's their pastor!

You sound passionate about this!

I am! We have a saying in our nursery, "Not just a diaper being changed, but a life!" Now how can I promise that if I don't have volunteers who also believe it? Our Sunday school classes are designed to "ensure Bible literacy among a generation of children growing up in today's world!" How can I say this to parents if I don't have qualified volunteers who are growing themselves? Our children's church has the task of helping kids "experience the celebration of the Lord!" How can kids do this if they don't have Christlike leaders who also live a life of worship?

What caused you to become such an enthusiastic supporter of children?

I was on my way to pursue a music scholarship at Berkeley School of Music in Boston when I became a Christian at a Benny Hester concert. My wife and I began to attend Crossroads Church, and she was teaching in the fourth-grade department. One day my wife said, "I feel led to the nursery. Can you take my fourth-grade class?" I said, "Sure," and the leader handed me this big box of curriculum, and I went at it. I had no idea what to do with the box. I began teaching the best I could, but I had no clue if I was being effective or not.

Then a little boy named Matt came up to me one day and said that he had a "pain in his heart" when he heard the word "divorce" in our class that day. Evidently his parents were fighting a lot and they routinely used that word. In the back of my mind, I always thought teachers didn't get involved with their students' personal lives, but I felt drawn to this little child. The little boy and I started to connect and I began listening and leading him. Then one day, during one of his parents' fights, Matt stopped his folks and said that they needed Jesus to forgive them. Well they both got on their knees that day and God healed their marriage through the boldness of Matt! His boldness was a direct result of my involvement in his life -- not just the content of my lessons! I saw the power of a teacher in a new light.

I couldn't speak well, but my pastor saw the results of my passion. He then asked me to lead what I call a misunderstood ministry. I believe the biggest obstacle in a child's life is the church and religion -- not Jesus. I want to pass on the Luke 18:15-17 baton of Jesus to kids.

Now you have this awesome passion and vision, how do you get the message out?

First, I developed a relationship with my senior pastor. We must serve that pastor's vision. Children's ministry is not a program of the church; it's part of the overall vision of the church. I asked him, "Wherever you are going with the church, how can I help?" Tap into that, get a "corporate connection" so the leadership isn't the enemy to the vision of children's ministry. When I came here to Rockford, it took me three months to develop my vision. I had to articulate my vision through my entry point of training and development. I also developed a Parent Resource Guide early on. My pastor told me once, "If you don't write your vision down and tell people what you're about, they'll write it down for you."

You talk a lot about your senior pastor! Are you just being politically correct, or is he truly supportive of what you do?

My pastor is our biggest recruiter. I can honestly say that Tracy and I love Sam and Jeanne Mayo! When I first came to Rockford, people in the children's ministry told me, "The youth ministry has all the focus. They have a huge program and a huge budget." Many children's pastors and workers have a huge problem with youth ministry.

When I arrived, I made it a point to build bridges to the youth and let them know I support their success. Well my senior pastor saw that and is now my biggest fan. He realized that I'm part of a team in word and deed.

But I can't stop there with my pastor. I have to constantly keep him informed of my support and vision. Once my pastor had seen what I developed, the training involved, and the vision for the ministry, he trusted me with presenting the vision. If I were to leave today, my staff would not follow me; I have nurtured them to have a heart for the senior pastor.

How else do you get your message out?

Everywhere in our ministry area, I have posters that tell people what our passion and vision are. I have glossy application forms that are excellent in quality and highly informative. You know how many churches have Youth Sunday where the high school youth group leads the service? Well we have our fifth- and sixth-grade praise and worship team (we call our fifth- and sixth-grade program Rocket Church) lead all the adults in worship one day a year during Family Sunday! It's great visibility for our ministry, and it shows the church as a whole the quality of what we do. We don't want to rely on the bulletin! My volunteer directors recruit for their own ministries as well, but everyone must attend the leadership course!

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