by Jason Sansbury
After having been involved in youth ministry for over 20 years, I have a theory that says if you don’t occasionally get accused of having favorites in your youth ministry, then you probably aren’t discipling and mentoring many teenagers individually. And as important as our large group gatherings are, God calls us to go deeper into relationship and mentoring with students as well.
On my post-retreat to do list is always try to meet with every kid who had an especially meaningful or powerful experience. Early on in my ministry, those follow-up conversations waited too long with the consequence of not being able to help students grow deeper in their faith and commitments at the exact moment when they are most open to it. So in those moments, it’s a great idea to help students connect to things that are going to grow their faith. So out of those conversations, having a book or devotional that you can read together and check in on is a great framework for further conversations.
The second time I find students to be especially open to going deeper with a mentor is when they are in a moment of crisis or trauma. The truth is that being a teenager can be hard when difficult life circumstances happen. When young people make terrible mistakes with self inflicted consequences, there is an opportunity to help and be a mentor in their lives. In those moments, it would be easy to move away from those students; if we can lean in with them, extending grace and mercy, as well as mentorship, youth will be much more interested in what we have to say.
Being a great mentor to a young person takes time to meet them, to work with them, and to be engaged with them. And if you have a youth group of more than a handful of students, you can’t do it by yourself. It is why we need to engage other adults in mentoring young people. Most of the time these people are going to be actively involved in the youth ministry, but sometimes other people in the congregation may be great mentors for specific kids.
At my current church, we have a great team of adults who are working their way through our church roll to ensure that every student has an adult who is checking in on him, encouraging her, and who would be a potential mentor. This approach also means that we have a wider net in reaching kids. While I love hanging out with nerdy chess club types and talking about Dungeons and Dragons, I also recognize that the jocks of the world need adults who can relate to them and be mentors to them.
1. Be flexible to their schedules but meet regularly. Some of my overachieving, maxed out high school kids can only meet at 6 a.m. before school. So get a good alarm and Starbucks card and meet them in a public place location. Some of my best mentoring experiences have been at odd hours or in odd places like the Frisbee golf course.
2. Discover what they want to learn and in how they want to grow, and help them make a plan to achieve those goals. Sometimes they won’t know initially but continue to ask them to lend their voices to the process. Some students will want to grow in their devotional life, developing a prayer life. Others will want to work on serving. Nearly all older students should go through a discernment process of learning their spiritual gifts and understanding their passions and calling.
3. Be intentional. While sharing life and hanging out should be part of the process, make sure you are being intentional about spiritual growth, not just hanging out together. Work to have a healthy balance. If every week all you are doing is talking about life, it is a missed opportunity. Help students go deeper by gently encouraging and pushing them forward.
4. Make sure it is about them and their growth, not your program. I recently had a conversation with a college student who talked about the mentors he had in his high school youth group who went away when he had to step away from a youth leadership team he was on. He was clearly hurt and felt like a cog in a machine instead of someone who was loved and encouraged to grow in his faith. One of the mentoring relationships I have right now is with a student who has never been to our youth group but who has family ties to our church. (We met because he was undergoing a personal crisis.) In the past, I would have missed this opportunity because I would have seen this as pulling time away from my youth group kids and I certainly wouldn’t have pursued it. Now, I recognize that I have a tremendous opportunity to mentor students, to take them deeper in their faith, even if they never come to youth group.
5. Be smart about boundaries and follow your church’s child and youth protection policies. In general, I try and meet with youth in public places like Starbucks. Be thoughtful about how you interact with them and keep appropriate boundaries, especially with students of the opposite gender.
For students first engaging in spiritual disciplines, I love to work with them through Ty Saltzgiver’s My First Thirty Quiet Times.
If a student is at a deeper place, reading through passages of scripture together is really helpful. The Serendipity Bible has great questions for discussion included.
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