While we have always seen mentoring as an important part of our faith, its value is especially highlighted by the statistics released in the “Hemorrhaging Faith” document. We were surprised to note that one of the most common times for youth to disengage from faith is during the transition into their Jr High years. I really had to mull this one over, but it does make sense. One contributing factor is that our Children’s Ministry only goes to Grade 5, which leaves some of our kids–at 11 years old–needing to grow up quickly and join adult church. Many of these kids are ready to engage as volunteers, but are considered too young. Initially, we started introducing them in classes on Sundays as extra helpers, but they needed more guidance and training.
Liz, a leader in our church, was inspired by a challenge from our pastor to our board members to mentor and a few years ago she felt directed by the Holy Spirit to lead a Mentorship Program specifically for our Jr High youth. This was perfect and I was on board right away. The resulting Jr High Mentorship Program,called LEADS (Learning, Enthusiastic, Active Disciples guided by the Spirit), provides enthusiastic youth with intentional leadership training and a dedicated person investing in them.
LEADS works in tandem with our midweek program. We realized that 11-year-old children have limitations as far as our safety policy goes, so they work alongside our leaders and they also have Liz available for input and guidance. The leaders-in-training (LIT’s) rotate to different positions through the year to see what it’s like working with various leaders and in different positions. They worked with the youngest children and the older children, they ran the projection, and they helped with games, snacks and with crafts. There was always an older leader there who could show them how to learn the role and mentor leadership so that the LIT’s themselves eventually lead.
LEAD also includes scheduled meetings or retreats where the LIT’s have discussions and Bible studies about “the biblical qualities of a good leader, who we are serving, and why we serve in church setting and in our community, the importance of a strong commitment to Christ, as well as key leadership skills.”ii They also learned about our safety policy and participated in leadership activities. Of course most meetings involve pizza!
We learned a lot in our first year. Moving into year 2, we realized the need to better define the expectations of both the youth and the leaders. We needed to sort through who addresses concerns that arise when teaching our young LIT’s We learned that there are some volunteer positions that are not helpful opportunities, such as volunteering with the older kids where there’s a tendency for the LIT’s to want to be participants rather than leaders. We also gave fewer leadership opportunities than we hoped to and they tended to be assistant roles rather than leader roles. We recognize that sometimes it’s difficult to give up leadership roles even when the LIT’s are ready to take on leadership. Other times the LIT’s were not ready.
LEADS, which started as a 1-year program, morphed into a 2-year program as we saw the benefits of continuing to mentor young leaders. After the first year, most LIT’s continued in the program, some new kids joined, and they all continued to have Liz and other leaders build into them. In the second year, we were intentional in allowing our year-two LIT’s to have more leadership opportunities. They started doing some teaching with an adult ready to assist as needed, and we gave feedback following their teaching. Our LIT’s began learning where they fit best, and realized and developed their gifts. They continued to attend retreats and meet with Liz who carried on training them, helped them talk through needs and concerns, and advocated for them when needed.
LEADS continues to be a positive program and we still want to invest in the Jr High kids, so the program morphed into a third year. The LIT’s were given even more leadership where they were sometimes the group leader on their own. They were even able to mentor some of the year-one LIT’s.
This spring our first participants graduated from the 3-year program. They have come a long way and learned a great deal. Just as we are learning new things every day, we realize that they will still be learning from us in future years and we will continue to mentor them as they grow in their faith and serve the Lord.
By Tina Rae
Christian Education Pastor at Westview Baptist Church