Adults need faith mentors too

Photo by Digimist, available for download under a Creative Commons license

One of the great tragedies in the way confirmation has been done in many of the faith traditions I have been a part of is that confirmation has been seen as “the last chance we have” to jam in all the Christian formation we can. This is problematic in many ways, but the one I want to focus on now is what that means for the adults in our congregations.

What I have seen, and I have been as guilty of this as anyone, is that after confirmation, any spiritual formation for adults is provided on an as-requested basis. Yes, we offer Lenten programs and Bible studies and devotional materials until the cows come home. Then we advertise and promote and register. Then people come or not. Then they leave and it’s done for the week or the season.

It’s also, in my experience, the formation groupies who show up time and time again. And I’m one of them. I suspect most of us in professional formation work are. So I know that I’ve found myself thinking, “Why can’t we get more people to come to this great program I’m offering? What can we do to entice people who would just love it if they only came?”

I’ve changed my perspective on that over the years as I’ve realized a few things:

First of all, a lot of people have been scarred by their confirmation class experiences. Going to confirmation classes for many was (and sadly still is) a misery, full of tedious drudgery of things they don’t care about that have nothing to do with their lives. When adults who have been through something like that are invited to go to a class, the visceral response in some makes it very difficult for them to overcome their reluctance.

Secondly, sorry to say, their reluctance may not be misplaced. We in the professional formation class often offer stuff that we find fascinating but that many, and perhaps most people have very little use for. We offer endless talking heads, heavy-duty book work, uncomfortable small group discussions, often on highly specialized topics.

And we assume a level of understanding, based on the fact that people are regular church attenders, that may be completely unwarranted. We assume that people know the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. We assume they know what Easter is. We offer advanced-level courses because that’s what we ourselves would want without ever knowing the basic questions people feel ashamed to ask because they feel they should know that already. These are smart, faithful people, many of whom actually do come to our formation programs because they are hungry to know, but what we offer may not hit the mark.

Finally, based on all of these things, it’s clear that there is no way we can offer programs that will meet the needs, the backgrounds, the information level, the time availability, and the current level of faith development of everyone in our congregation.

What would happen if instead of the usual “come to this class” formation program, we started a formal mentoring program for adults in our churches? What might this look like?

What would happen if, instead of a “come if you’re interested” program, we discerned those people in our congregations we think would make good mentors in faith and asked them specifically if they would be trained to undertake this ministry?

What if, instead of creating a constant stream of formation classes, we offer ongoing support and training for mentors where they could learn more about guiding others in faith?

What if we offered the people in our congregations the opportunity to be paired with one of these mentors, explaining that mentoring was not about being instructed so much as having a companion, sounding board, and experienced friend?

What if we ensured that those who are newly confirmed got paired with mentors? Or parents who have just seen their child baptized?

What if those who were mentored could then become mentors themselves?

What would it be like to have a community of faith that trains and encourages one another, that reaches out through the week to be companions to each other in faith? That even if they didn’t know the answers felt safe enough with one another to ask the questions?

I know it’s easy for me to say this from the safety of my computer, but wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing? If you do have an adult mentoring program, I’d love to hear about it. And if you try one out, please let me know how it goes!