Decide up front what age group you will allow into your ministry. If you have a lot of youth (6th grade and up) that want to participate, you probably won't want to use kids younger than the 6th grade. We started our ministry with 4th grade and up. 4th graders were basically used to do props and help behind the scenes. We rarely let first year puppeteers use puppets in live performances. The first year was used to train them and get them comfortable with how things worked. We did tryouts one year because we had too many kids trying to come in at once. You may want to set limits to the size of your team so that it remains manageable. If there are too many puppeteers, there won't be enough parts to go around and you'll have more of a control problem for those that aren't doing anything during practices.
We also put together a Puppet Team Agreement which set expectations for what it means to be a member of the team. Include things such as behavior expectations, practice schedules (including extra practice sessions outside the normal sessions before performances), attendance requirements, and any consequences of not following the agreement. We had both the parents and the kids read and sign the agreement.
If you plan to record your own scripts sometime in the future, you will also want to have each parent sign a release form so that you own the recordings. I get into this in more detail in the section "Writing and recording your own scripts".
The best place to start is to find a One Way Street puppet festival in your area. You will get a ton of ideas there plus they have beginning and advanced puppetry sessions that will get your puppeteers up and running pretty quickly. Your puppeteers will learn all of the techniques I have listed below. You will also get to see a lot of performances in both the skit and song competitions. This will give you and your team ideas for songs or skits that you can perform. There are also sessions for leaders that cover many of the aspects of leading a puppet ministry.
Expect to see some good and not so good puppetry in these competitions. Some teams have been doing this for a while and some may be pretty new to it. Allow these performances to give you an idea of what you should and should not do in a performance. Good technique is critical to a good performance.
We performed in the song and skit competition every time we went to a One Way Street festival. This gave our team a goal, something to shoot for. We performed our own original pre-recorded scripts and received gold medals in all but one of our performances. Practice, practice, practice. The song competition is much tougher. There are a lot more entries and most teams are really good at this. But, it does give you experience, challenges your team to become better, and gets you noticed. We received a lot of invitations to perform at other churches because of these performances.
One Way Street's festival website is: http://www.onewaystreet.com/events/fest/location.html
Work on your techniques. One of the keys to a good performance is perfecting your techniques. A skit or a song should have two purposes: entertain and educate. Your message will be lost if the audience is spending more time critiquing your puppetry skills rather than listening to your message. When your puppets behave with believable action, they will come to life for the audience and you will be able to get your message across.
Here are a list of techniques you should work on:
There are always exceptions to these rules. Using elevator or escalator entrances may be appropriate in rare occasions and can be comical. Puppet movement tends to be exaggerated anyway to emphasize emotion or action. Don't be silly unless the script calls for it. Comedy is very appropriate for teaching; it prevents boredom and surprises your audience. But, use it wisely so that it doesn't detract from the message.
Practices should produce professional looking performances and you should insist on this. Make them do it until they get it right. Record your practices on video and then let the puppeteers critique the practice and point out errors and unnatural puppet movements in a non-critical way. This helps the puppeteer to focus on the areas that need the most work. And never forget to do a dress rehearsal. This will ensure that you have all the props, costumes, and transitions practiced and ready for the real performance.
One technique I didn't list above, buy long black socks and cut finger and thumb holes in them. Use them on the arm you place in your puppet so that your arms are not visible. Black does not attract much attention, arms do. Technically, your arm shouldn't be high enough to be seen but these things happen and the black sock will cover you on this one.
When performing in a competition, always strive to meet audience expectations. Our performances usually included surprises and, sometimes, we held the audience in suspense rather than meeting their expectations right away. For example, in a story of Jonah, what does your audience expect to see at some point? A whale of course. Our script Jonah included a sequence where music resembling the Jaws theme played setting the audiences expectations. We used the snout along the top of the curtain to look like a shark fin as it approached Jonah to create anticipation (and a few giggles) and then all of the sudden it leaped out of the water revealing the recognizable shape of a whale and swallowed Jonah, followed by a surprise belch and lots of laughs. Click the picture below to watch the video.