4 Tips for Planning Youth Service Projects

May 31, 2024 Julianna Shults and Mark Kiessling

There are endless possibilities when it comes to service projects. Some are as quick as sharpening pencils in the sanctuary for ten minutes during confirmation class. Others involve weeks-long trips to foreign countries. One of the more challenging questions for youth leaders is how to choose service opportunities. As valuable as service opportunities are, they have to be provided in a thoughtful and deliberate way. There are four rules we suggest for finding appropriate service opportunities.

1. Creating Thoughtful Service Opportunities

First, service should include appropriate instructions and support. Everyone can understand the fear of taking an important test and realizing you didn’t study the right material. No one wants to go into a project without the information needed to be successful. This is especially true of young people who may be coming into the service opportunity with a lot less skill and experience than adults.

Youth may enjoy tackling the outdoor landscaping work of your congregations, but if they don’t know flowers from weeds or the right way to use clippers, they could end up causing more damage than assistance. Many teens are equipped to work with small children and love to serve in this way. However, they may not have experience in classroom management, they may not know what activities or snacks are age appropriate, and they may not know how to watch multiple children at one time. Instruction and support for youth who are serving is vital to their success.

Before youth are engaged in service opportunities, the adults in charge should consider how they can set them up for success. This can include training or setting them up with mentors. As youth learn, adults should expect to give them regular feedback on what they are doing well and what they need to do differently. If possible, adults can model the service first, do that service together with the youth, then give observational feedback as the youth do it themselves. This provides them with plenty of time to learn and feel confident.

2. Don't Stick Youth with Undesirable Tasks

Second, service should not be what adult volunteers simply don’t want to do. In the work of youth leaders, there are always undesirable tasks—things that drop to the bottom of the to-do lists for as long as possible before they have to be completed. We will not always love all the ways we are called to serve our congregation, family, and neighbors. However, imagine if those above you at your workplace consistently and only asked you to handle the tasks that no one else wanted to do. What if your family always left you with the most difficult and disgusting housework? You might become understandably frustrated. You might start to question how much other people valued you and if they were ignoring your unique gifts and skills. No one wants to be relegated to only performing the tasks no one else wants.

Every youth leader has had the experience of someone in the congregation coming up to them with a need around the congregation and asking, “Why can’t the youth do this?” The problem here is that these service opportunities are often last minute, at inconvenient times, or are undesirable tasks for adults. These requests may be presented because no adults have stepped up to a task. Youth leaders need to be clear about what opportunities they will encourage youth to do. Sometimes this means there are difficult conversations that must take place with other leaders.

There are absolutely things that teens are more capable of doing than older adults. Youth have incredible energy, enthusiasm, and endurance that adults might lose as they get older. There is nothing wrong with asking youth to serve at tasks that might be more difficult for those who are older. In fact, it might be a great joy for them to take on tasks that their age and vitality make them uniquely qualified to do.

The key here is that tasks should be given to youth with a clear purpose and with intentionality, not just because it was the last option. Helping youth understand why certain service work is necessary, even if it is unpopular or difficult, can help engage them. It can also help to have adults who are willing to do the task with the youth’s help, letting them know we are all in the same service together.

3. Ask, Don’t Assume

Third, service should always be an ask rather than an assumption. This perhaps applies most to youth who are already highly active and engaged in your youth ministry. Sometimes ministry requires a volunteer, and since the youth are around, it is assumed they can help. Over time, this can build animosity and actually deter youth from wanting to be at church. While it may be necessary to simply tell a youth to help in emergencies, you do not want that to be the norm. Instead, youth leaders should practice asking youth to be involved in service. It is even better if that ask can be personalized based on their gifts and skills.

Youth leaders may be in a situation where youth are being “volun-told” rather than acting as volunteers. When this happens, it is helpful for the adult leaders to advocate for youth to be asked to serve based on their skills. For example, if there is a need for childcare at an event and a teen is planning to be present, an adult at the event cannot assume the teen wants to serve in that way. Instead, some youth leaders choose to have a list of youth and their contact numbers handy so the adult asking can reach out himself or herself. When adults have to directly ask youth for help, the adult can direct the service opportunity to young people who may be a good fit.

4. Bring Long-Term Benefits to Those Being Served

Fourth, service should be something that works with and brings long-term benefits to those who are being served. In our desire to shine the light of Christ and to serve others, we often treat those we serve as objects rather than individuals created by God. Looking for service opportunities means doing our due diligence and seeking out opportunities that treat others with dignity and compassion. One of the ways we can do this well is by seeking out long-term partnerships rather than one-time opportunities. This allows us to build relationships, learn, and work alongside people in our community. It is also important to be reasonable about what work youth are capable of doing well. If your young people do not have the painting, repair, or relationship skills for a particular service, it is better to pass on the opportunity rather than do it poorly.

It is not always as glamorous to find the kinds of opportunities that require less specialized skills. When you do, youth might not view what they did as having as much of a dramatic impact, or they might not come away with stories of how they “helped” as they imagine they would have had with more visible and specialized service work. Yet, by recognizing how service impacts others, you can avoid increasing injury to communities already in need for your own benefit. There is certainly more to unpack here than we have time to discuss, but in all ways, youth leaders should seek to help and not harm when encouraging youth to serve.

Blog post adapted from Seven Practices of Healthy Youth Ministry, pp. 102–4, copyright © 2023 LCMS Office of National Mission—Youth Ministry, published by Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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