Mobilising the village
As youth workers how can we pass on our experience, skills and knowledge to young people, and help others do the same? Youth worker Fraser Keay has started mentoring programs in two churches, and presents a practical guide to doing the same, as well as explaining why this should be a key priority in your youth ministry.
I briefly met Jonnie, 14, at our church but got to hear more of his story through his mother. She tragically
lost her husband - Jonnie’s father - some months earlier through cancer, and as we chatted over the telephone one day she told me how not one of the men who had promised they’d be there for Jonnie after his father died had actually kept their promise. ‘Who will teach him all those manly things like shaving and stuff?’ she pondered aloud. Deeply moved I resolved to match Jonnie up with an older man from our church, someone who could perhaps become like an uncle figure for him. To me Jonnie was like a lost sheep I had to help.
Western individualism has robbed many of us of the wealth of experience available in others who are a little ‘further up the road’. Too often we go it alone, don’t ask for help, and it can be reflected in our youth work practice. Consider these powerful comments from some older youth workers in the United States, where given the sheer size and number of churches and youth groups they’ve tried every type of youth work model imaginable! ‘There is no such thing as successful youth ministry that isolates teenagers from the community of faith.’ ‘The church is one of the few places left in the (western) world where young people can have a true intergenerational experience’. ‘I am now convinced that the dominant modus operandi of youth ministry, which continues to separate youth from the significant adults in their lives, has got to go’. (all from Miles McPherson and Wayne Rice, One kid at a time: How mentoring can transform your youth ministry, David C. Cook, 1995).
An old concept
Fortunately mentoring was not invented by Dragon’s Den or The Apprentice. In ancient Africa prior to the time of the Greek and Roman invasions, when a child was born, the whole village shared the responsibility for raising and educating the child. During the Middle Ages, mentoring was practised via trade apprenticeships, and still is today. But we owe our modern idea of mentoring more to the educationalist François Fénelon who instructed King Louis’ XIVs grandson about wise leadership through his book Le Adventures de Télémaque.
Some other definitions include, ‘A relationship between mentor and protégé that makes available to the protégé the requisite knowledge, expertise and other support necessary to accomplish an identified objective’ (from www.mentorsphere.com), ‘A relational experience in which one person empowers another by sharing God-given resources’ (from Connecting by Paul Stanley and J. Robert Clinton), and ‘Being a stepping stone for someone else ‘ (an old mentor of mine). Note however that all these quotes assume mentoring is a one-to-one affair. The ‘village’ theme better reflects biblical teaching. There are examples of one-to-one mentoring in Scripture but most people were discipled or mentored in community. We’ll come back to that shortly.
One youth worker cannot meet the needs of all the young people; some will not relate to us as much. Mentoring encourages more ‘ministry to youth’, not just ‘organised’ youth work or ministry. A mentor can become a key link-relationship for young people who become disconnected from our youth work or community. It helps facilitate informal education. It releases other adults to share their God-given resources and the young people get the benefit. Mobilise that village! To use the language of orienteering, mentors can
become ‘significant markers’ for young people. Even if they have been given a good idea of ‘true north’ by family etc, young people still need others points of reference to help them navigate life. Youth work is not done in a vacuum - the biological family is central, and if your work is in a church setting then so too is the Church family! Older mentors can help complement a team of young youth leaders, and of course, mentors can find the experience rewarding.
Keeping child protection disclosure guidelines firmly in mind, it gives the teenager a safe place to talk without a parent having to necessarily know all the details. Why would we not want to encourage young people to have several people who are wiser than them speaking into their lives? One theory of gang culture is that the oldest gang member essentially fills a parent/father gap; so mentoring individuals and families can literally be life-saving here.
Mentoring is Biblical
Aged just 12, Jesus was seemingly left for the entire day in the hands of other members of the faith community (Luke 2 v 44). Jesus mentored a group of men, with some triplet and one-to-one stuff along the way. Paul brought Timothy onto his apostolic team and also sent Titus to the Corinthian church to be a father to them (1 Corinthians 4 v 15). Timothy was strongly influenced by his mother and grandmother. Elijah had Elisha but there also existed at the same time a company of prophets. Moredecai became like a father to his young cousin Esther. We have many pieces of wisdom literature such as the proverb, ‘A wise man listens to advice’ (12 v 15). And finally the general tone of Scripture puts people in the context of relationships and family, not individual detached units.
One size does not fit all
Do mentors come in an ideal shape and size? No more than you or me! A few years ago authors Stanley and Clinton published Connecting. Despite being biased towards one-to-one mentoring it gives a superb conceptual grid to work with; I know of no clearer book on the subject. From their research of more than 600 leaders they came up with eight types grouped into three categories. Why not grab a drink and take some time to reflect a little? Who helped you in these areas (and how)? Where (and how) do you tend to sit in this
list? Allow for some combinations.
GROUP 1: Intensive
Discipler: Enablement in basics of following Christ.
Spiritual Guide: Accountability, direction, and insight for questions, commitments, and decisions affecting spirituality and maturity.
Coach: Motivation, skills, and application needed to meet a task, challenge.
GROUP 2: Occasional
Counsellor: Timely advice and correct perspective on viewing self, others, circumstances and ministry.
Teacher: Knowledge and understanding of a particular subject.
Sponsor: Career guidance and protection as a leader moves within an organisation.
GROUP 3: Passive
Contemporary: A living personal, model for life, ministry or profession who is not only an example but also inspires emulation.
Historical: A past life that teaches dynamic principles and values for life, ministry and/or profession.
Whatever the type of mentoring, relationship is foundational. Think of a plug with three essential wires that must connect at both ends for things to work. Between mentor and young people (mentees) there must be chemistry, motivation, and accountability. Chemistry: they must actually like each other . Motivation: the potential mentor must see potential in the mentees, and the mentee see something in the mentor they want to learn from. Accountability: some sort of clear mutual arrangement whereby time, place, and frequency is agreed on and clearly understood by all.
Good vs. bad
Good mentoring is releasing and empowering. A healthy mentoring relationship should lead to empowerment to the extent that the mentee/s can move to ‘standing on their own two feet’. Mentors should know their strengths and weaknesses, and aspire toward a generous, encouraging spirit (like the biblical Barnabas) . Good mentoring involves having an open door policy - an open door that stays open for the mentee even after they’ve moved on.
Bad mentoring on the other hand can involve a dominating or exclusive relationship (as if one mentor is an all-sufficient guru). Yet we should think gardening, not wrestling; cultivate, don’t dominate. Like youth workers, mentors must not use relationships to feed their ego or alleviate their insecurities; people lacking sufficient emotional or spiritual maturity are more likely to fall into this trap. Poor mentoring consists of a lack of clear goal, time-frame or reason for meeting. This doesn’t have to be set at the first time of meeting, but someone is going to end up frustrated if no clarity is ever brought to the relationship. Other poor traits are a critical spirit on the part of the mentor (avoid recruiting such people) or making unrealistic promises and not keeping those made.
Developing a mentoring programme in your youth work
The following may feel a little prescriptive; feel free to take the best bits – it’s just one approach that has worked for me.
If this feels like something you’d like to do, I’d start a conversation with your supervisor or church leaders, because if they are truly interested then the organisation/church is more likely to be. If you want to introduce a process that encourages something you need a culture shift first; people need convincing about why mentoring is important. Since I can speak quite confidently upfront I managed to speak on the subject to a group of 200 adults for half an hour; of that 200 people, 25 said they were interested. By the time I’d done the training with them only 10 were left. But I had 10! If a discipling/mentoring culture has been developed a little already then you’re on to a winner. Thank God and get going! You may not need such a formal programme if it’s already culturally promoted.
At the same time I would read up some more on mentoring and find another youth worker who is already doing it. Not so organised or have a lot of youth to oversee? Find someone who loves administration and ask them to help you, along with a willing parent; have the three of you to sit down and think through the whole process from start to finish. How you are going to teach, promote, train, launch, match, administer, review?
Then teach the young people about mentoring and tell them you’re going to start a mentoring program,
giving them some details. Get them excited! I’ve often used the story of King Rehoboam on how not to do life as a teenager, i.e. only listen to your mates. Spin it round and add in your own experience; tell them about the adults you had in your life as a teenager (or didn’t and wish you had). Unless you are reaching totally disaffected youth I’d suggest you encourage them to firstly connect with your youth group or community first – or join the group and you help them find a mentor simultaneously.
Set a date to speak on the subject ‘up front’ – whatever your context - and launch the programme. Synchronise any flyers, webpage, information and consent forms, and launch on the same day as you give your talk. During it be sure to inform the adults that you’re looking for those willing to mentor a young person and that you (or person X) will give all necessary training.
People will be wondering how this is going to work practically. Some ‘matching-process’ ideas include inviting adults to come to your youth club or group one or two at a time and have a ‘hot seat’ where they have 5 10 minutes to tell their story. Or you may prefer the video clip route where you or someone else meets with prospective mentor alone, interviews them and plays the clip at your group/club later. Make sure you’ve told them why you’ve invited them, and do get them to share about who has mentored them; even if no young person is ‘attracted’ to them you’ve still had them underline the importance of mentoring. If you have a good ratio of adults already engaged with the young people then the young people will naturally tend to want those people as mentors. Do give the young people a clear way of asking for a mentor.
Now gather prospective mentors and give them the training, with any necessary child protection embedded. Such is our western poverty in this regard some adults actually don’t think they have much to offer, don’t know how to pass on their experience, or wonder how you talk to a teenager. Help them. Unless already covered in your child protection procedures I would then get the parent/guardian to complete a simple form stating that they are happy with that specific named adult meeting up with their child; they may wish to meet them first. Post or email the young person and parent a letter briefly clarifying the possible duration of the mentoring relationship (see point below) and the all-important matter of confidentiality and disclosure procedures that should be covered in your child protection training anyway. Rather than rattle off the entire policy training I prefer to tell the young people that pretty much anything stays confidential unless it involves one of three things: self-abuse, abuse of others, or if they have been or are in danger of abuse from someone else.
I ask mentors/mentees to meet once, then if they hit it off meet three more times before reviewing it and carrying on for e.g. one year if they are both agreed. Why? It gives each party two initial ‘exit points’ where they can end the mentoring relationship if they want to, without any questions asked. If they are uncomfortable telling the mentor/mentee direct they can inform the co-ordinator that they do not want to carry on. No questions need be asked; if the relationship did not ‘click’ (chemistry) then no one should be blamed. Some relationships may well be short-term because the aim is passing on a particular skill, so be sure to explain this is fine, but agree a clear time-frame and purpose whatever the type of relationship as this will help the mentor or mentee avoid feeling unnecessarily negative for various reasons. You or the trainer will want to equip mentors with ideas about how to use their mentoring time well.
This is crucial as there’s little worse for a young person than being let down by an adult. You or the co ordinator should do this, and during training inform the mentors that you will be following up to encourage. If you have loads of youth with a mentor then I’d do a ‘sweep’ every two months to check how things are going. Do it by telephone and not email as it is less easy to ignore a phone call; a mentor or mentee might get too busy elsewhere or run into personal problems and not want to meet up anymore. Periodically highlight the programme. If it’s a hit with some, then other young people will be curious anyway.
Go for it, mobilise that village!
Fraser Keay is a full time church youth worker based near Cardiff and is married with two teenage children.
Connecting by Stanley & Clinton, Navpress, 1992.
The Cry for Spiritual Fathers and Mothers by Larry Kreider, House to House Publications, 2000.
Discipling, Coaching, Mentoring by Bryn Hughes, Kingsway, 2003.
Family in the Bible by Hess and Carroll, Baker Academic, 2003.