The student ministry volunteer shortage magnifies other issues in the church. If this continues, we can expect several undesirable outcomes.
By Ben Trueblood
This summer is one of the most important summers in the last twenty years of student ministry. Post-COVID spiritual apathy, needed conversations related to issues in our culture, and the decline of volunteer leaders have created this unique environment in our churches with the latter putting pressure on the first two.
A student ministry is most effective when it’s able to recruit and train volunteers. This is not a new thing. What is new is the increased difficulty of finding these key leaders to step into the trenches of student ministry. We know from the Greatest Needs of Pastors study from Lifeway Research that 77% of pastors say developing leaders and volunteers is an issue they need to address in their churches. While that data point refers to the church at large, student pastors are feeling this same crunch.
The shortage of volunteers isn’t an isolated issue but one that magnifies other issues we’re experiencing in the church. If this trend continues, we can expect several undesirable outcomes. Here are three consequences of a volunteer shortage in student ministry:
1. A deepening apathy among teenagers
Student ministry volunteer leaders are on the front lines of discipleship in our churches. Research shows having spiritual mentors during a student’s high school years is the primary indicator of that student staying connected to the church after graduation.Volunteer leaders give students a vision of what following Jesus for a lifetime can be. — @BenTrueblood Click To Tweet
A shortage of volunteer leaders leads to a shortage of possible spiritual mentors. And this leaves teenagers with fewer examples of what it means to follow Jesus as adults. The output of this equation is simple and devastating. If a teenager doesn’t see the result of a life with Jesus, why invest in it now? Volunteer leaders give students a vision of what following Jesus for a lifetime can be.
2. A deepening apathy among adults
You might be surprised by this, but as adults stop serving, their faith suffers. God created the body of Christ to be active, operating together in a beautiful mix of talents and gifts to make a kingdom impact in our world. As parts of the body become less active, or begin to atrophy, it has a negative impact on the body’s effectiveness as a whole.If we rightly see serving in the church as a part of discipleship, then we must conclude that a lack of volunteers means there’s a lack of discipleship in our churches. — @BenTrueblood Click To Tweet
Most often, we see the current volunteer shortage as a problem because we can’t accomplish what we want to see in our student ministries. It comes down to us not being able to accomplish our task or our task becoming much more difficult. However, the problem is much deeper. If we rightly see serving in the church as a part of discipleship, then we must conclude that a lack of volunteers means there’s a lack of discipleship in our churches. This ultimately leads to a deepening apathy of the entire church—not just our own ministry area.
3. An erosion of important conversations
Healthy student ministries provide opportunities for teenagers to process how the Bible speaks to the everyday issues of life. Our teenagers need to know the Bible does speak to the issues of our culture: gender identity, sexuality, racism, etc. This doesn’t happen in a large group setting, because it often involves the voicing of difficult and meaningful questions.If we ignore issues of our culture—gender identity, sexuality, racism, etc.— in our churches, we reinforce the false compartmentalization of “spiritual life” from “real life.” — @BenTrueblood Click To Tweet
An adult leader who’s worked hard to build relationships with teenagers in their group provides the emotional space for students to raise these questions without fear of judgment. Students are wrestling with these questions outside our churches. And if we ignore them within our churches, we reinforce the false compartmentalization of “spiritual life” from “real life.”
3 practical steps toward a solution
The current volunteer shortage isn’t a bump in the road. It’s a roadblock, and if left unchecked it will have generational consequences on the effectiveness of our churches. Yes, the consequences are significant, but all is not lost if action is taken. Here are three practical steps you can take:
1. Evaluate discipleship practices before evaluating recruiting and training practices
I’m convinced the volunteer shortage has primarily revealed a discipleship problem in our churches, not a process problem. If the church is truly discipling and growing people in maturity with Jesus, serving is a natural outflow.
2. Shift from seasonal recruiting to year-round recruiting
In student ministry, the tendency is to recruit in the summer for the positions needed to operate ministry from next August to July. This short timeline makes it difficult to spend the time needed to accurately portray the importance of the role to the leader. And it doesn’t give the student pastor or potential volunteer adequate time to discover if serving in student ministry is a good fit. It also makes student pastors lower their standards or expectations of volunteers because they just need to fill positions, which is never a good approach. Lastly, recruiting only in summer puts the most impactful ministry need when people are less available than at other times.
3. Provide training throughout the year
People want to be good at the job you asked them to do. And few people are naturally excellent at serving in student ministry. It can be an intimidating place, because sometimes teenagers can be difficult and there’s always the chance they’ll ask a question that takes you completely by surprise. It’s an environment where you need to be ready for anything and have thick skin. It takes a leader who understands the potential impact they can have and who can skillfully work through difficulty, weirdness, awkwardness, and relational dynamics within a group to be able to point students to the truth of God’s Word. Volunteer leaders can and should develop these skills. And ministries with effective training for their leaders are ministries with effective and long-term leaders.
This is one of the most important summers in the last 20 years of student ministry. And the actions taken (or not taken) will have a ripple effect for years to come. To prepare for this moment, our minds tend to go to the practical—to the ministry action steps that can be put in place to break through the roadblock. But we also need to recognize those action steps are unstable structures if not built upon a foundation of prayer. We need to change some things within our churches to address the volunteer shortage. But intervention from God is our biggest need.