13 Ways to Prevent SGL Burnout In Your Student Ministry

We’ve all had ‘the talk.’ No, not that talk. I’m talking about the one that is prompted by a volunteer catching you on a Sunday and asking if you have time to chat this week. You say yes, but you don’t want to because you know what they want to talk about: They’re done.

Sometimes volunteers stop serving for valid, unavoidable reasons, like moving away.

Often, the reasons are circumstantial: busy season of life, trouble balancing their schedule, overwhelmed by the amount of time that the role is taking. Regardless of the reason, volunteer burnout is no joke. And in most circumstances, it’s avoidable.

Whatever the reason, as a church leader, it’s difficult for us not to take a resignation personally. Our immediate response might be something like, “WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?!” Not too long after that it might be, “How could you do this to me?! Now I have to find someone else to do this!”

There’s a balance when it comes to recruiting and retaining volunteers. On one hand we’re encouraged to set the bar high, cast a big vision for how important a volunteer’s role is in fulfilling the mission, and create expectations that match. On the other hand, some of us have volunteers dropping like flies because these high expectations aren’t fitting into the busy schedules of volunteers week after week. So we’re tempted to soften “the ask” to make it more likely we’ll get someone to say yes and stick around.

Though keeping volunteers from burning out is often specific to the kind of role someone is volunteering for, today we’re mainly focusing on your small group leaders.

When it comes to serving or volunteering, I’m guessing we can all agree on these things:

  • it’s a huge catalyst of growth for someone’s faith
  • what we get out of serving is often more than what we give
  • it’s a huge investment of time, energy, and emotions (especially small group leaders)

In ministry, I would often wrestle with all of these tensions. It usually meant hesitations when recruiting because I knew that, if they said yes, it would interrupt the routine of their life as the currently knew it. However, I also knew that if they said yes, it would be a great, life-changing experience for them. At some point, I realized that watering down the ask—what is really needed of a volunteer—wasn’t helpful for anyone. I also realized that, because the investment is so big, I was going to have to do a better job of making that investment more fun, more rewarding, and more realistic long-term.

Here are a few things I’ve seen done—and probably done myself—to try to keep volunteers from burning out that don’t seem to work. These often emerge out of a sense of urgency to find warm bodies and make programs happen, not necessarily to be strategic:

  • lower expectations
  • smaller roles
  • intermittent serving rotations

While I sure don’t have all the answers and have struggled through some of these before, here are some ideas I’ve tried, read, or heard about that go a long way in avoiding volunteer burnout.

1) Make sure each small group leader knows when they’re done.

Open-ended volunteering gets overwhelming in difficult seasons. While I would encourage asking small group leaders to sign up for seasons of time (such as four years of HS or three years of MS), even giving a one-year timeline can feel better for volunteers (as long as your conversations indicate that the one-year mark is a time to re-evaluate, not just clock out). Asking a leader to stick with a group for four years through high school is a big ask. Yes, they might move away before those four years are up. Yes, they will go through some seasons where they’re not quite as engaged, but when they get the bigger picture of what they’re accomplishing in their group, they’re better able to cope with challenging months.

2) Make sure each group has at least two capable leaders.

When there are two or more capable and equipped leaders connected to each group, this gives leaders breathing room and the ability to share the weight of leading. Swamped this week and can’t make it? There is someone else who can lead the group. This isn’t meant to be an excuse for someone not to have to show up, but when you are leading with someone, it makes the whole experience better. The camaraderie that I’ve seen develop among leaders who are walking through a big chunk of a student’s life is stunning. They’re learning to practice grace with each other. They’re asking tough questions with each other. They’re praying for their few together. They’re wrestling through crisis together. We weren’t meant to live life alone. And on every level—practical, spiritual, emotional, physical, mental—we weren’t meant to lead teenagers in small groups alone!

3) Value and appreciate your leaders.

Do your small group leaders truly understand the impact they’re having? Do they feel appreciated for the number of hours that they pour into the mission of the church and the Kingdom? It seems like churches have gotten better at this, but—when we’re not careful—we still tend to do this in ‘churchy’ ways if I’m being honest (about myself at least). By ‘churchy’ I sort of just meant cheap.

One Orange Conference I was challenged to dedicate 20% of my budget toward my volunteers: equipping them, celebrating them, appreciating them. It seemed nuts and took a few years to get to that 20%, but it was so much fun spending that money on them! When it’s clear to volunteers how much we appreciate them—not just with our words, but by how we invest in them—it affects how they feel about their investment in their few and our church.

4) Give your leaders time off.

I know your ability to do this one will often be handcuffed by your church calendar. Some of you give your leaders the summer off. Some of you are pretty much forced to do three programs a week for 53 out of 52 weeks per year (however that works). Regardless, fight for days off for your group. If your group meets all year, find times within that year to schedule programming where SGLs don’t need to come. For those big fundraisers or non-small group focused events, find other volunteers and encourage your small group leaders to take that time off.

5) Consistently equip your leaders.

This is another Youth Ministry 101 kind of answer, but for real…invest actual money and time in helping your leaders develop and grow. Take them to conferences. Buy them books. Send them articles. Have trainings that don’t have them leaving feeling like they wasted their time. Yes, some won’t read the books and some won’t come to the training. But you do what you need to do in order to help them be the best leaders that they can be. Trust me, when someone feels competent and prepared for something, they’re going enjoy it WAY more.

How many of us have quit something because we didn’t feel prepared or equipped to do it? I don’t blame any leaders who walk away from those sorts of situations. So, ABET…Always Be Equipping Them. Acronyms are helpful, right? Even if they’re nonsense?

6) Make it fun for your leaders by creating an irresistible culture.

Yes, SGLs will face some heavy and challenging times as a leader. However, you can still create an environment & culture where it’s fun to be a leader. The goal is for a potential leader to walk into your space during a program and think, “Holy smokes…this looks like something I want to be a part of.”

  • Here are a few specific ideas:
  • Give them perks. Free donuts, coffee, t-shirts. If you have the space, give them their own lounge.
  • Help them build relationships with other leaders. When you know and have fun with those that you are serving with, you are far more likely to stick with it in the midst of challenging seasons.
  • Show them grace. When they can’t make it to something, don’t guilt trip them.Don’t make the ministry a place where they’re anxious to show up.
  • Include them in the fun! When you’re playing games, include your leaders. Some might fight it, but deep down they love it (at least that’s what I tell myself).

7) Recruit better.

Who are you recruiting? When are you recruiting? How are you recruiting? Finding the right people from the beginning will help keep volunteers from burning out. Sometimes the burnout is really less about being overcommitted and more about someone being recruited to an area that they’re not particularly gifted in or passionate about.

Recruit via relationships. Back to the irresistible culture part. Your best strategy for recruiting is your invested volunteers talking to their friends about joining them in impacting the next generation. Volunteers have a better chance of sticking around if their first (and main) connection is another leader, not the main youth leader.

8) Communicate more clearly.

Sometimes people stop volunteering, not because they’re burned out, but because they feel ineffective or unaware of what is going on. Great leaders need to be led well. If they’re not, they’ll find something else to invest their time in. Be sure to lead your leaders well. A big part of that just boils down to communicating clearly in areas such as expectations, responsibilities, and the calendar.

9) Give achievable wins and goals…and remind your leaders of them.

Be clear with your small group leaders on what a win in your ministry looks like. Help them understand that the week their group would hardly talk laid the foundation that made that night at camp possible when everyone opened up. Help them recognize even the smallest wins. Create some seasonal goals to give them some guidance and direction.

10) Cast vision. Then cast it again.

Vision leaks. You have to keep casting vision as to why what they’re doing matters. It’ll sound like white noise if you keep using the same language, so find different ways to say it. Do your absolute best to collect stories of wins from different groups and share them with others. Celebrating stories casts vision.

11) Create an evaluation process.

Find a way to help your leaders do some self-evaluation a couple times per year. Create an online survey to help them think through how they’re connecting with students and parents…how their group is growing spiritually…how they’re connecting relationally…how they’re investing in their own family/spiritual life. This can also give you some key insight on areas to help them develop.

12) Let them lead…with a long leash.

Recruit and equip your leaders to be the pastors of their groups. Then, just let them do it! Obviously, oversight and follow-up is important, but try to find a healthy balance of accountability and freedom for your leaders.

13) You be the bad guy.

In EVERY situation where someone has to be the bad guy, you (the ministry leader) need to be the bad guy. Take that bullet for your small group leaders…Every. Single. Time. Whether that is with parents or with the youth themselves. Unless, of course, we’re talking about some serious issues where boundaries have been broken.

The more we retain our volunteer leaders, specifically small group leaders, the more growth we’ll see in those groups.

The more we retain our volunteer leaders, the less we’ll have to worry about recruiting.

To dive deeper into this topic, I would suggest reading a book by my friend Darren Kizer called The Volunteer Project: Stop Recruiting. Start Retaining.

We’d love to learn from your experience, too! Good or bad. Let us know ways you’ve seen volunteers burnout too quick or ways you’ve tried to keep them from it!