How to Equip Your Teen Volunteers to Take the Lead in Children’s Ministry
Published: March 16, 2022
Looking to expand your children’s ministry volunteer team? Learn how teen volunteers can take your ministry to the next level.
When kids finally graduate to a church’s junior or senior high program, the last thing they want to do is associate with children’s ministry, right?
Teenagers and young adults are playing key roles in children’s ministries — and not just as assistants. Many programs use teenagers in leadership roles, even putting them in charge of adult volunteers.
Read on to discover how several churches successfully incorporate teenagers into their ministries.
Supply and Demand
Some churches began or ramped up their teen volunteer programs quickly out of sheer necessity. Eagle Brook Church, which has three locations near Minneapolis, began growing faster than its support systems could keep up. That led to “a significant volunteer deficit,” according to then early childhood pastor Kristine Wendt. Teenagers’ availability, combined with their energy, offered a win-win solution.
When Houston’s Lakewood Church recently moved into larger facilities, its children’s ministry grew by 1,400 — in one weekend.
“One of our greatest resources was all our excited teenagers,” says Craig Johnson, associate pastor. “We knew we could help our program and develop our young people at the same time.” These volunteers have “revolutionized” Lakewood’s children’s ministry, which would struggle without them, he says.
Kingdom Life Christian Church in Milford, Connecticut, has always used young volunteers. But several years ago, Mike Bulkley and Marco Palumbo started entrusting them with more responsibilities and tracking their performance.
“We wanted teenagers to have a place to put into practice what they were learning in youth group, to be able to enter into our church’s volunteer culture now and not wait until adulthood,” says Bulkley, an associate pastor.
Taking Stock of the Benefits of Teen Volunteers
No matter how teen volunteer programs start, experts agree they have tremendous advantages for everyone involved.
Good for Young People
“Teenagers have unlimited potential,” says Marc Bullion, then children’s pastor at Timberline Church in Fort Collins, Colorado. “They’re just trying to figure out who they are and what they’re good at.” Kids who’ve finished sixth grade are at an awkward age, Bullion adds. “They’ve outgrown the children’s ministry, but they’re not quite ready for the junior high program.” That’s a perfect time to start training them for ministry.
Volunteering has been a springboard into ministry careers for many teenagers. Randy Short says serving in his church’s junior high program “challenged me to push my faith to a new level.” In the process, he felt God calling him to full-time ministry.
Nicole Wight began volunteering in children’s ministry at 13 and was leading her own class by 16. In addition to learning responsibility, patience, and unconditional love, the experience taught her to make Scripture lessons practical for young minds. “To this day, a few children from my first class still run to me whenever they see me,” Wight says. “I can’t tell you what that does to my heart.”
Good for Children
Children definitely respond to teenage volunteers, says Selma Rivas, family minister at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas. “They look up to teenagers as heroes, develop close friendships with them, and look for them by name when they come to class.”
The role modeling that occurs between teen volunteers and children is invaluable. “Teenagers are like movie stars to children,” says Wendt, “so it’s fabulous to have kids who are positively influencing and living out the faith lifestyle for children.”
Good for Families
Oak Hills has always encouraged families to serve together, Rivas says, and a teen volunteer program is a great way for parents and their kids to work side by side.
Scott Harris, retired family ministries pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona, says parents notice positive changes in teenagers who volunteer. Parents also are grateful that church leaders are willing to mentor and invest time in their kids.
Good for Churches
“If people are expected to serve as adults, then you need to get them serving as youth,” says Harris, who adds that adolescence is the ideal time to “put serving into kids’ DNA.”
At Timberline, all teenage volunteers wear lime-green shirts, which lets the congregation see that kids are willing to give of themselves. “That spurs adults into helping out more at church,” Bullion says.
Teen Volunteers Are Taking Charge
Teen involvement in children’s ministry clearly benefits everyone, but what does it look like in action? Common areas where young volunteers excel include classrooms, children’s worship services, and other duties throughout the church.
At Oak Hills, a pair of teenagers, together with a mentor teacher, plan lessons for one month at a time. Teens are responsible for Bible lessons and all activities, arrival and pick-up times, and interacting with parents.
Kingdom Life’s young assistants help with everything from crafts to cleanup. Once they’re 16, kids can advance to “classroom facilitators” (lead teachers). In this role, they lead a team of two to three adults by making reminder calls, distributing curriculum, leading pre-class prayer, and setting the general course for the classroom.
“Some of our best classroom facilitators are teenagers who’ve grown up in our church and are now able to bring their knowledge to the children following them,” Bulkley says.
Children’s services are packed with fun, meaningful volunteer opportunities. Teenagers can perform drama and puppet shows, run audio-visuals, and lead songs, games, and prayers.
At Eagle Brook, teenage apprentices “volunteer in virtually the same capacity as grown-ups, but with a few limitations,” Wendt says. For example, kids under 18 don’t do bathroom or diaper-changing duty, and safety rules limit who can hold or carry babies.
Young people make great small group leaders, security personnel, and greeters. Some churches encourage kids to venture out and serve as ushers, parking lot guides, communion assistants, praise-and-worship leaders, nursing home visitors, and more. Some roles require minimal or no preparation time, making them ideal for busy kids who want to get their feet wet as volunteers.
Behind the scenes of successful programs, you’ll find plenty of adult guidance. Like all volunteers, teenagers need to be trained and nurtured. In other words, if you want kids to take their participation seriously, you must do the same.
Before launching your program, decide the areas in which teenagers will serve and what specific responsibilities they’ll have. Then set clear expectations not only for young volunteers but also for the adults working with them.
Even if you’re desperate for volunteers, you don’t have to accept everyone who’s interested. Most churches we spoke to make teenagers go through the same application and screening processes as adults.
Young volunteers at Christ’s Church of the Valley fill out a three-page confidential application regarding their spiritual background and beliefs, lifestyle choices, and ministry preferences. Kids are asked point-blank if they drink alcohol, have been accused of sexual crimes, or have any painful childhood experiences that may affect their ministry with children. Applicants have the option of discussing these questions privately with a pastoral staff member.
All applicants must agree to a written list of qualifications ranging from having a “teachable” heart and faithfully attending church to dressing appropriately and not chewing gum or talking on cell phones while volunteering.
Rigorous training ensures that your ministry’s children are well-served and that young volunteers will develop as leaders, too. And it guarantees that teenagers will stick with your program for the long-haul.
“If you train teenagers in a ministry where their heart is vested and they feel needed,” says Rivas, “they’ll always want to be part of it.”
At Oak Hills, teenage apprentices work through a curriculum to discover how and what to teach, as well as how children learn.
Lakewood Church designed its own leadership-development curriculum to build teenagers as people. In J-Life, junior high kids take leadership classes and are mentored in a specific ministry area. Senior high kids who are accepted into the Teen-Life program then work in a children’s ministry department, attend monthly leadership training, perform service projects, and go on mission trips.
At Timberline, the training process is purposefully tough to weed out some kids, Bullion says. Teenagers go through a six-month Foundations for Faith discipleship-training program, followed by six months of hands-on training.
“It’s intense, and they must be committed,” Bullion says. But after the yearlong program, kids have incredible knowledge about their faith, as well as practical knowledge needed for volunteering.
Bulkley recommends that the children’s and youth ministers work together to coordinate all training. “As the children’s pastor, I set the bar,” he says, “and the youth pastor trains teenagers to reach it.”
Building relationships and building people are key to any volunteer program, Johnson says. “Leaders need to build a team because team members will then become builders,” he notes.
Mentoring ensures that young people keep growing in their faith and acquire the confidence to pass it on. Abigail Wells says her 10-year-old daughter, Ariana, has become a “bold, mighty warrior” through Lakewood’s J-Life program. Ariana even shared her faith with her grandfather, who became a Christian as a result.
Teen-Life participant Jasmine Banks, 13, says, “I love to lead children so I can let them see God more.”
Valuable relationships form among teenagers and children, among teenagers and adult teammates, and among teenagers themselves. Bullion meets weekly with 14 teenage “captains,” or overseers, to touch base. “We train the captains to pour into team members’ lives, which trickles down to all participants,” he says.
Evaluate and Follow-Up
Children’s ministers must be aware of what’s working and what isn’t. Teenagers may need to be moved to a different area, may need to be disciplined, or may even need to leave the program.
At Kingdom Life, coordinators regularly check in with kids. In addition, a pastor visits each service to provide feedback, and lead teachers provide input about any teenagers who need more training or repositioning.
“We try to recognize every teenager’s accomplishments and help them correct any negative patterns on a case-by-case basis,” Bulkley says.
Using teenage volunteers comes with built-in challenges. But in some ways, teen challenges aren’t much different from adult challenges.
“Teenagers go through cycles, like all of us,” Bullion says. “They’re super-excited when they come out of the gate, and then they get lackluster as they realize how much work is involved.” You can address that by “reminding teenagers daily of their ministry to the children they serve,” he says.
“Walk kids through the difficult times,” Harris says, but realize that not every teenager is going to like children’s ministry. If that happens, help teens find their niche in another part of the church.
Harris also warns children’s ministers against speeding things along. “Don’t throw kids into a slot just because they’re good kids,” he warns. “You have to prepare them, develop their social and emotional skills, and give them responsibility gradually.”
Remember that “serving is a privilege, and eternity is at stake” in children’s ministries, Wendt says. “So if teenagers don’t meet the program’s expectations or hinder God’s work, take the appropriate steps to make things right.”
Taking the Next Step With Teen Volunteers
Our experts say that the benefits of using teenagers far outweigh obstacles. With guidance, teenagers can do amazing things in your ministry while being transformed into ministers themselves.
“We really underestimated what young people can do,” Johnson says. “They aren’t just our future leaders; they’re making a huge impact right now.”
Churches of all sizes should give teens a chance to serve, Rivas says. “Disciple, encourage, and equip them. Kids derive their passion, inspiration, and motivation for service from people they serve with,” she says. “In turn, they’ll be the inspiration for the next generation of servants.”
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