More on Mentoring: Some Practical Suggestions

In my previous post I talked about some of the myths that mentors and youth hold about what being a mentor is or isn’t. Today, I want to share some of the things I’ve learned about how to have an effective mentor program – and offer an idea about how to improve mentoring in church in general.

There are three groups you need to consider when thinking about mentoring youth: the kids, the mentors, and the parents. 

Parents respond differently when they learn that their kid is going to be paired up with another adult. I had one parent tell me how worried they were that another adult would play an important part in their kid’s spiritual growth. I reminded them it takes a village. Another time with another kid, the parents didn’t feel they needed to hear from me at all. But I always speak to the parents first about stuff I want to do with the youth, and that includes explaining the whole mentoring plan. Parents, youth, and mentors all have a gathering at church to meet. I also talk with parents at church about what’s going on and how the process works. 

Here’s how I match mentors and youth: I ask for suggestions from kids and also go through the church directory to consider who I think might be a good match. And I pray! Then I send out letters to folks that I think will be great and follow up with a phone call. 

I try to match same sex, but it’s not a requirement. I often will match same orientation too- as it is important for a LBGTQ or divorced families, two mom parents, or single parent families to hear about the faith journey for someone else in similar situations. 

The way we do the CnC program, the youth don’t know who they’re matched with until the session when they meet their mentor and have a guided exercise. That’s worked well for us, but lots of people do different things, including having youth pick out their own mentors, and ask them to be their mentors. 

Once mentors have agreed to take on the responsibility, they usually have lots of questions about how it’s going to go (that’s mostly what I discussed in the Myths and Realities blog post). Mentors need to know, first of all, that each relationship will take on its own form. There is no one right way to be a mentor. 

That being said, training mentors is really important. The Confirm not Conform Mentor Parent Handbook offers lots of helpful information including laying out expectations, tips on communicating with youth, suggestions on meeting activities, and more. (You can find an excerpt from the handbook here: Let mentors know what’s expected of them: how often they need to meet, for how long, and if there are any particular meetings or classes they need to attend. (St. John’s offers different times for the mentors and youth to meet at church throughout the year, plus mentors are often involved in the classes and field trips.) 

Make sure you know your church’s guidelines for safe practices in working with youth – and make sure your mentors know them too. If background checks are required for all who work with youth, get them done as soon as people agree to mentor! 

Mentors often can get frustrated when they don’t feel connected to the kids right away. But they can make connections without even meeting in person. We asked the mentors to send cards throughout the year as most kids do not get snail mail. It can be as simple as that. Prepare mentors for the fact that they may get rejected (or at least feel rejected) a lot but their constant openness and cards can mean a lot to the kids even if they don’t tell you. 

It’s also sometimes hard for mentors to have that first face-to-face meeting. Humor and honesty worked for us. One of our mentors broke through that barrier when “I told the youth that I was nervous too.” She explained to the youth, “I am here to walk the walk with you. I know I will learn from you and with you, I don’t know all the answers either.” That’s the role of the mentor in a nutshell.

Mostly the mentor relationship is about spending time together. It doesn’t have to be focused on spiritual things. It’s about having that meaningful relationship with an adult who’s not a parent and not a teacher.       

Here’s what some of the kids have told me have been meaningful meetings with their mentors:

  • My mentor took me to a basketball game with other kids from our CnC class
  • We got mani pedis together while we talked – so fun
  • We hiked with another mentor and kid who I did not know- so I made a new friend my age too
  • They showed up at my team game/musical recital
  • I taught them how to Text - so we stayed in touch throughout the week
  • We met before youth group for a drink at Starbucks and to review my Bible passages. In public! Who knew I would think it was fun! 

We also asked the mentors to pick and memorize a passage. They have to do it front of the kids, not the congregation, but it’s another activity that shows they’re in it together, not someone who’s an expert and someone who doesn’t know anything. 

You can also offer some family/mentor events like advent wreath pancake dinners, or an outreach project like making sandwiches for a lunch give-away. 

Another thing that sometimes disappoints mentors is that often youth are not as open to being in touch once the CnC program is over. Youth are on to the next thing. But encourage mentors to stay connected. It is a simple as sending a few cards throughout the year, saying hi when you see them, or maybe inviting them to meet - but be ready for a no. 

Mentoring doesn’t need to be limited to youth or to your confirmation program. For most of us, we don’t have mentors till we are in college or at work. We rarely have a spiritual mentor at any age. 

I suggest that mentoring starts a lot earlier. What if we started mentoring in first grade – not a church school program, but a chance simply to hang out with older baptized Christians and talk about life and faith, pray together, and simply connect. (It’s best if staff are not mentors.) 

As I said in the other blog post, this is about reclaiming the role of the godparent, the person whose role it is “to help the new Christians grow in the knowledge and love of God, and in their responsibilities as members of his Church.”  Maybe include mentor training in your baptismal preparation with a specific focus on the godparents, or on godparent stand-ins in the congregation. Although the same person may not be around when the kids start CnC, still they – both adults and kids – will have seen the benefits of having a mentor.

The highlight for me is when my teen finished CnC and told me that the best part (besides the party) was getting to know her mentor. They are still in touch. “Mom, who knew I would laugh, pray with, and learn from some one that was not my teacher or parent?" She told her mentor she learned a lot from me too!