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.
To explore the innovative service and growth opportunities available for young people, Children’s Ministry Magazine spoke to leaders at six dynamic churches across the United States: Kristine Wendt at Eagle Brook Church in White Bear Lake, Minnesota; Craig Johnson at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas; Michael Bulkley and Marco Palumbo at Kingdom Life Christian Church in Milford, Connecticut; Marc Bullion at Timberline Church in Fort Collins, Colorado; Selma Rivas at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas; and Scott Harris at Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona. Read on to discover how these churches are successfully incorporating 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 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, senior director of family ministries. “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 eight years ago, Michael 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
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, 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, 21, 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, which he’s now studying at a Christian college.
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, children’s 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, 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 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.
• Classrooms-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.
• Worship Services-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.
• Other Duties-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.
• Plan-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.
• Recruit and Screen-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.
• Train-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.”
• Mentor-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 (see “Clearing the Hurdles” on page 64). 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 kids 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
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.”
Clearing the Hurdles
Like adolescence itself, using teenage volunteers has its share of hurdles. By being aware of potential pitfalls, you can work to prevent or overcome them.
Hurdle: Teenagers can be unreliable.
Clear it: Craig Johnson requires parents and kids to attend orientation together so everyone understands the commitment involved. Marc Bullion says his program “doesn’t expect perfect attendance, but we expect perfect communication.”
Hurdle: Teenagers can’t work together because all they do is talk and flirt.
Clear it: Because most young people enjoy “fellowshipping,” Michael Bulkley says you’ll have to set clear expectations about on-the-job behavior.
Hurdle: Teenagers need too much supervision.
Clear it: You have to oversee all volunteers, regardless of age. Most young people can handle responsibility, and many even can become leaders themselves.
Hurdle: Teenagers aren’t spiritually mature enough to teach children.
Clear it: With proper training, teenagers can be champions of the faith-and may even be able to reach children better than adults can.
Hurdle: Teenagers can’t distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate behavior.
Clear it: Again, clear expectations help ensure that young people effectively represent your ministry and Jesus. Regularly remind teenagers that they’re role models-for better or worse.
Hurdle: Adults may fail to empower young teammates.
Clear it: Let older volunteers know that teenagers are more than just “juice pourers and scissor handlers,” Bulkley says.
Hurdle: Parents are hesitant to leave their little ones with teenagers.
Clear it: It may take awhile for parents to get comfortable with the idea. “But they always return excited when they see their kids wanting to come back to church and talking about what they’ve learned in class,” Bulkley says.
Stephanie Martin is the editor of Parenting Christian Kids newsletter.