Caring for Our Volunteers

Recent reports about one church’s alleged treatment of interns are alarming but while extreme, such poor treatment is sadly not unusual. Over the years I’ve seen and heard of some disturbing mistreatment of young people who have undertaken internships in churches and for Christian organisations.

Most recently, some of our own church’s interns came back from a block course shocked at the stories they heard from other interns. Some had even told them they would never work for a church after their internship was over. Rarely if ever has such mistreatment been intentional. In most cases, the hurt inflicted has been due to two factors: unrealistic expectations and a lack of support.

Internship aside, these reports in the news remind us how important it is that we treat all our volunteers well. It seems that most youth leaders are young adults and as such, they are more vulnerable to poor treatment than older volunteers because they often lack the discernment to determine what expectations are reasonable and acceptable and what are not.

We can unintentionally harm them with true but dangerous statements like, “You are doing this for God… He deserves our best… one day you will give account… God can accomplish amazing things through you”, and so on. Given the zeal and enthusiasm of youth, these statements can easily motivate them in the short term, but they can just as easily lead to a sense of failure and self-condemnation when (inevitably) their efforts at times fall short.

Whether we intend it or not, such motivation is more extrinsic than intrinsic. In the mind of the young volunteer leader, our words can become a punishment/reward style of motivation. Instead, build in them a motivation to serve based on the truth that God loves them unconditionally and is extending to them the privilege of serving alongside Him as He builds His kingdom. Such motivation is based on the understanding that “we love others because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

When they grasp this, it takes away the fear of failure and the sense of condemnation that arises when they falter in their efforts to faithfully serve God. Instead, they experience His reassuring love even when they fall short and are motivated to get up and try again (see Jesus’ treatment of Peter post-resurrection in John 21:15-17).

Another lesson from the current allegations is that our volunteers need support. They need to know God loves them unconditionally, but they also need to know that you love them unconditionally. If ever they suspect they are just a convenient cog in your youth ministry wheel, you’ve lost them.

Count how many times you say thank you to your volunteers over the course of a week. Aim for “frequent, specific and genuine” and do the same when it comes to affirmation. As you no doubt know, youth ministry can be discouraging at times so ensure your volunteer leaders get to hear how much you appreciate all they do.

Finally, don’t limit your contact with volunteer leaders to the youth programme. Regularly take them out for a coffee either one-to-one or in twos or threes if you feel more comfortable doing so. Listen to them talk about their joys and challenges. Show genuine and individual interest and concern. And again of course, “appreciate and affirm”.

I’ve often wondered what my walk with God would look like if I had never become a volunteer youth leader. Those early years of youth ministry were hugely formative in my growth – and perhaps they were for you too.  

If so, how much more important is it that we nurture and care for our volunteers. Who knows what impact for the Kingdom they may go on to have over the course of their lives? Let’s ensure we give new leaders the best possible start to what might be a lifetime of Christian service.

For guidelines on how to run a successful internship programme, see the resources page on our website.