First Third Conversations

Where have all the mentors gone?

By Derek Tronsgard

Luke Skywalker had Yoda.  Harry Potter had Dumbledore.  Batman had Alfred and Morgan Freeman.

Mentors are important.  And I'm sure all of us can name teachers, coaches, pastors, music directors, and other adults who made a significant impact in our own lives.  Study after study has shown the importance of positive adult mentors in the lives of teens.  As the adolescent brain continues to develop, a mentor relationship has a significant and irreplaceable impact in the journey to adulthood.  This one's a no-brainer.

But at the risk generalizing,  many churches struggle to provide mentors for their teens.  And to make matters worse, parents and pastors in these churches may not even see a need for adults mentors in the first place.

After all, the youth director is making $25,000 + benefits.  Why can't she be their kids' faith mentor?  Why can't he be their Yoda or Dumbledore or Morgan Freeman?  If the parents are supposed to do all of the youth work, why even hire a youth pastor in the first place?

In Tim's blog post, he points out that the magic number is 5.  That is, there needs to be one mentor for each 5 kids in the program.

But year after year, hundreds of youth workers burn out, resign, or leave ministry altogether because  the responsibility of mentoring has been put on their shoulders alone.  They have been tasked with the impossible job of making significant mentor relationships with 40-50 kids when, in reality, they can only handle 4-5 on their own.  Kids disconnect, parents get angry, senior pastors get calls, and the cycle continues.

So why has recruiting committed adult mentors been so hard for the Church when it's been so easy for soccer teams, scouts, and the PTA?

I think it's because we've confused mentors with experts.

While the parent baseball coach can certainly be a mentor, his main job is being an expert.  When a kid asks, “How do I make a hit?”, the coach tells him to “swing with your hips and keep your eye on the ball”.  And when a boy-scout asks, “How do I tie a square-knot?”, the parent scout master can answer “right-over-left and left-over-right.”

But when a high school kid asks a ministry volunteer, “Why would God let my dad get cancer and die?” there's no expert answer.  Not even the theologically-trained pastors and staff can answer these ones.  And to try to do so would be disingenuous and inappropriate.

And at this point – in the face of brokenness – experts can't do much.  But mentors can.

Mentors may not be able to answer the tough questions or fix the tough situations, but they can walk with kids through the messiness of life.  Adult mentors don't know everything about God, the Bible, or doctrine.  But they do know what it feels like to be a teenager. 

They know what it's like to navigate through high school and to ask dates to homecoming and to fight with their parents.  They know what seems like a big deal now will be pretty minor in the grand-scale of life.  And they know that other things stay with you the rest of your life.

My hunch is that most adults are terrified to volunteer in youth ministry because they've confused being a mentor with being an expert with all the answers.

And my other more troubling hunch is that we, the Church, have done a poor job differentiating the two.  We've done a poor job of training and equipping our congregations to be mentors who walk alongside kids and not experts who have all the answers.

So what can be done?  How do we change this culture?  That's the million-dollar question, and, to be honest, I don't have the answer. 

After all, I'm not an expert!

Join the conversation on Facebook.com/FirstThird!

Derek Tronsgard is the Pastor of Youth and Family Ministry at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Mound, MN where he lives with his wife and Golden Retriever.  He is also a semi-pro nerd who loves fantasy sports and comic books.  You can follow him on Twitter (@derektronsgard).

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