Editor’s Note: An incomplete version of this article was published here on April 2, 2018. The full article was published on April 10, 2018.
Don, a jovial man in his 50s, called me to announce, “I quit.” As a congregational mentor, his frustration with the 14-year-old youth with whom he was paired had reached a tipping point. “He shows up late to our meetings, grunts in response to my questions, and doesn’t respect me,” Don complained.
In my role as mentoring coordinator, I verbally released Don from his obligations, but inside I was seething. It was Don who needed a serious attitude adjustment. I wish I would have said to him, “Guess what, Don, mentoring is not about you. It’s about going the second mile, it’s about being present for the quirky, and supporting the sometimes raunchy.” I was especially disappointed because this young man, already considered an “at-risk” kid, now had one more adult who appeared not to care about him.
Mentoring is not all warm fuzzies. It might be heartwarming, but it may be gut wrenching and tearful. It is frustrating when a youth acts as though he or she is not invested in the relationship. However, as adults who have consented to walk alongside youth, we are covenanting to be their companion and support. We are not their parents, but that does not guard us from feeling strong connection and sadness when wrong decisions are made.
Being one-on-one with a youth has great potential, but it carries risk. Here are some best practices: be together with other mentor pairs in public places, check in regularly with parents, and communicate all details for your meetings with the parents or guardians. Check your own motivation for being a mentor. Receive training on personal boundaries and appropriate language. Make sure you have your mentee’s best interests in mind, and design your time together for healthy interaction.
Each of the five young women I have mentored have chosen paths vastly different from their parents’ in terms of faith walk, vocation, and lifestyle. Chalk that up to paying attention to their own personal spark, listening to God’s Spirit, and honoring their own voices. I have mentored a girl with physical challenges, a girl with academic excellence, and a girl whose parents were in the midst of a breakup. I cherished each relationship, but found myself needing to be quite nimble in the way I connected with them.
Their needs were vastly different, and so was what I could offer. I was clearly not a social worker nor a family member. I was there to offer compassionate listening and model mature Christian faith.
Our conversations centered on things from roadkill to Barbie dolls to family therapy. Our outings ranged from cookie baking to service experiences such as packing school kits for distribution around the world. We spoke of stilettos and college applications. We had amazing, ridiculously fun times, and moments of quiet awe. I was disappointed in some choices that were made but was very grateful for being a part of their lives. I am a richer person because of these relationships and have greater awareness of the struggles and desires of youth.
At the heart of my mentoring experience was my availability. Amid my own full career and family life, I said yes to being a mentor because our youth desperately need the presence of someone older and wiser, and nonjudgmental, in their lives. Even if they are not able to articulate it, they need a mature friend in whom they can confide. Untold benefits come from different generations befriending each other. Congregational-based mentoring continues to be one of the best ministries a church can offer.
Previously published in Purpose, March 2018. ©2018 by MennoMedia, Harrisonburg, VA 22803. Used with permission.