Reframing Youth Workers as Mentors
John’s post below is a great reminder of all we can learn from each other when we gather together. Join us at the National Youth Workers Convention this fall in Cincinnati, OH to connect with and learn from the full family of youth workers.
I had just begun typing a group e-mail that started with “Hey, Sunday school teachers!” when I stopped and stared at the greeting and the flashing cursor. I’ve spent more than 20 years investing into teenagers, and here I was making the same mistake we’ve all dealt with in youth ministry: I was emphasizing program over people. A minor example, I confess, but I was still reinforcing the categorization of these people by their weekly activity rather than by the overarching kingdom-building work we share.
So what’s a better term?
Youth workers? That one’s practical and common.
Volunteers? Yeah, let’s make sure to stress how nobody’s getting paid.
I found a term I like better, and I invite you to consider using it to refer to the adults who invest in your students: mentors. Yes, this word carries images of at-risk teens; scripted conversations over community-center pool tables; and weekly meetings that bridge social, racial, and economic boundaries. That’s usually what mentoring is—and it does a lot of good for both mentors and mentees. But here’s why I think it becomes an even more powerful identifier when we use it in our youth groups, churches, and communities and why I want the people I serve with to be known as mentors:
A mentor is defined by a relationship and not by a program.
The word already implies a pursuing of and pouring into the life of one who needs to be pursued and poured into. A mentor possesses abilities or knowledge he or she is willing to share. A mentor is a teacher and an example.
If I consider my adults to be volunteers, Sunday school teachers, camp sponsors, drivers, or small group leaders, I’m stressing the duty they perform within a program. This may be accurate—but it’s also confining. Why do I struggle to get some Sunday school teachers to invest more in our students outside of the Sunday morning hour? Well, they may feel (even subconsciously) that their job is done for the week when everybody stands up and walks over to Big Church at 10:40 a.m. Don’t we want them to see the Sunday school time and the lessons they share as an important part of a larger discipleship process?
A healthy shift in thinking may involve having our youth workers realize there are more opportunities to connect with and teach students outside of our weekly Sunday/Wednesday cycle. At a recent meeting, we encouraged our youth workers/small group leaders to view their students as mentees who need various forms of weekly connections. This may mean leaders send group texts with general encouragement and specific application of what was discussed in Sunday school. Leaders could also send invitations to have everybody over for a meal. Another great idea is that instead of leaders seeing their own kids’ sports schedules as a deterrent to ministry, it could actually be one of the best opportunities to see other students on the school campus and have some quality—even if brief—interaction. I encourage my adults to use that time to say hello, invite a kid to an event, or follow up on stuff they know is going on in students’ lives.
There are plenty of indicators in youth ministry to help us gauge whether or not we’re being effective. Sadly, sometimes the only needle people watch is attendance of weekly or special activities. This is certainly one of the indicators we need to be aware of, but it’s not the only one (even if it’s the only indicator that those outside our ministries and inside the church care about). Once we prioritize the equipping of our adults to be spiritual mentors for our youth, and we set them free to intentionally pursue students, we’ll hear more and more stories of how they’re seeing real ministry happen. Those are the stories that need to be shared among our youth mentors, with staff, and in newsletters! In Gabe Lyons’ book The Next Christians: Seven Ways You Can Live the Gospel and Restore the Word, he quotes Billy Graham:
Back when we did these big crusades in football stadiums and arenas, the Holy Spirit was really moving—and people were coming to Christ as we preached the Word of God. But today, I sense something different is happening. I see evidence that the Holy Spirit is working in a new way. God is moving through people and one-on-one relationships to accomplish great things. People are demonstrating God’s love to those around them, not just with words, but in deed.
So how do we take some stress off our programming and instead invest in our most important investors? Please don’t get on Amazon and purchase custom name badges with mentor written under the “Hello My Name Is” header, and don’t start correcting everyone who refers to your team as youth sponsors. Instead, start asking if there’s something to learn from the basic mentor-to-mentee relationship that would help prioritize the connections we want to see between our adult Christ-followers and the young disciples they lead and serve. Share the vision of a youth ministry that stresses one-on-one interaction with students. Try to build a group of committed adults so large that each one would only be responsible for mentoring five to seven students. Most importantly,
“pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:38 ESV)
John Barnard is a veteran youth pastor of 20+ years. He heads up a mentor development outreach ministry called Middleman Skateboard Ministries (middlemanskateboards.com) and lives in TX with his beautiful wife Mandi, loud kids Dylin, Levi and Evie, and fat bulldog Oscar. He likes to turn a wrench while listening to Junior Brown and has never turned down a taco.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.