Hello and welcome back to this little Cabin in the Woods series! If you’ve stumbled on this post mid-series, you probably want to check out this introduction from last week so you know what’s happening around here.

In the last week, you’ve been eavesdropping on the conversations that happened at this year’s Middle School Summit in Forest Falls, CA. We’ve already recapped our conversations about parent ministryrites of passage, and developing “mission-minded” teenagers. And each topic has been packed with wisdom, insightful questions, and super practical ideas from a handful of insanely talented and innovative Youth Pastors.

So let’s keep it going with a look at our next topic of conversation:


  • SEAN | At Calvary, they’re trying to balance and space out different types of gatherings with their volunteers (training meetings, social hangouts, etc.). Simply Youth Ministry had a system for online volunteer training where you could see who watched each training video, but it was pricy and included a background checking system that they didn’t want. They landed on quarterly physical meetings, supplemented by different types of gatherings.
  • NATE | How often do you do one-on-one meetings with newbies?
  • ELLE | At The Chapel, they do one large training/orientation meeting for all Middle School Ministry volunteers just before the school year starts. Then, throughout the year, as new volunteers sign on, they do one-on-one training meetings where they run through their volunteer handbook and do role-specific training.
  • MARK | Canada requires some initial training on safety and boundaries, so at Willingdon they do 2.5 hours training for every new person, followed by periodic training throughout the year. They take on new volunteers year-round. He feels like he should be doing something more.
  • ALAN | At Fellowship, they do monthly gatherings for their team, but trying to maximize those and make them effective is difficult for ongoing training. They’ve recruited some people to be volunteer coaches to help with the one-on-one training in specific situations, or for people who need a little extra guidance.
  • SEAN | They’re moving to “grade leaders” instead of volunteer coaches. Their strategy for volunteers is “hard to get in, easy to get out” – they’re very selective about who they allow to volunteer, but they’ll make it easy if someone needs to step down. He’s told lots of people no who wanted to serve, if he felt they weren’t the right fit. They do a fall kick-off, a spring recap, then meetings with their grade leaders in between. For the ongoing training, they make a training video, give it to the grade leaders, and the grade leaders organize and facilitate a conversation with the people they oversee. So far it’s been great.
  • DAN | How do you create community with leaders? They try to offer childcare for parents, provide less official training, and make room for more bonding and hang-out with their team.
  • SCOTT | He and his wife purposely bought a house to facilitate hangouts for their team and his wife cooks meals for their volunteers. They have had their adult small groups pastor comes in to do training on small groups and discipleship, which they then adjusted to fit the middle school context.
  • DAN | He used to do retreats for volunteers, but they were really hard to plan and maintain. How do you create and keep community during the year?
  • KATIE | They do some training videos and keep in mind that training needs to go hand-in-hand with volunteer care. Like Sean, they also have grade leaders who oversee a handful of other volunteers. They gather 3 times a year with all volunteers. At those events, they always talk middle school development, encourage relationships with the team, and come back to their ministry’s core vision and strategy. Safety/boundaries/policy training happens on time, when the volunteer first signs up, after their initial interview and at their second meeting with the staff. Katie no longer does all the volunteer interviews and initial training herself (the videos they make streamline that process, instead). Training is boring, so they also do self-directed training every month with 3 minute videos. Grade leaders do the majority of the felt-need coaching of volunteers (relational ministry, chatting about what’s working, having dessert together). The hard part is that as your ministry grows, you as a leader become more disconnected from your volunteers – this seems to happen once you pass the 30-volunteer mark. Remember that you don’t have to cultivate community with everyone. As you grow, it becomes more important to pour into the higher level volunteers and let them pour into others. 
  • DAN | How do you balance having a vision for the ministry but also letting your volunteers have vision of their own?
  • NATE | Part of leading well is helping your volunteers feel like they are shaping vision, while already having a structure and vision of your own. Know where you’re going, but still give them ownership.
  • KATIE | It’s giving them freedom to work within your framework and overall vision. You need to know the outcome, then help them figure out how they want to get there.
  • NATE | Vision sets the parameters for your volunteers. Then as a team, you can set realistic goals together. Dream with your people, let them have a say. What are some specific resources you are using for this?
  • ELLE | Agrees that volunteers need a say and you need their buy-in. They do this with coffee talks – meetings with smaller groups of volunteers where they talk about what’s working and what’s not, and volunteers brainstorm and trouble-shoot together. They also use a goal sheet for their Small Group Leaders, which spells out a handful of goals they want each Small Group Leader to complete each semester (if they do, they get a gift card) – these goals each reinforce a core value, philosophy, or strategy of the ministry. They also use YouLead from reThink as a resource for pulling topics and ideas for training.

And by the way, if you’re looking for a place to start with your volunteer training plan, Kenny and I have tried to make it easy by sharing our entire 1-year Volunteer Training Plan on Stuff You Can Use. And it’s free. It comes with a complete 1-year overview, Event Guides for 3 different types of volunteer training events, and all the editable stuff you’ll need to pull it off. Everything is editable in Pages or Word.

So what did you think of today’s eavesdropping session? Pick up any cool ideas or strategies you think you’ll try? Have anything you want to add to the conversation about developing volunteers? Go for it!