He was young—about 16, wiry and full of energy, but not in a frenetic way. As soon as he stepped out, the kids’ eyes were glued to him. He had prepped well; it was obvious he was used to speaking in public and that he knew the story and how to use the props to full advantage. When he put the wig and boa on, cocked out a hip, and spoke in “Esther’s” high voice, my third graders giggled. When he put the droopy “evil” mustache on and growled “Haman’s” lines, they all booed and hissed. I discovered later that Rod was on the debate team at school and had been recruited as a storyteller a few weeks back. His new role was a natural fit: he loved presenting the story, and our kids loved listening to him.

Alex was a natural fit, too. A high school freshman and a good listener with an easy smile, she was an engaging small group leader of fourth-grade girls. They hung on her every word in part, I think, because she didn’t talk down to them. She spoke to them like they were peers but without the drama. She also had a knack for saying enough about the lesson without lecturing or over-explaining.

If you’ve ever seen a teenager plugged in to the right ministry role, enjoying it, and doing a bang-up job, you know it’s one of the most exciting things about volunteering at church. And if you’ve had the privilege of mentoring one, you know there are few things more satisfying. (There may also be few things more frustrating. Because let’s face it: sometimes teenagers will show up late, show up unprepared, NOT show up, ignore all forms of communication except maybe texts … Oh, wait, adults do those things, too. Huh. So let me rephrase: mentoring anyone, regardless of age, is going to have its highs and lows.)

Still, mentoring a teen at church is satisfying and worth our while. When young people lead a small group, for instance, they learn. (Anytime we prepare and teach, we learn just as much, if not more, than the “learner.” Read more about that here.) It helps them succeed. (They are less likely to engage in risky behavior; more likely to feel connected with their communities, including their volunteer teams; and tend to do better in school. You can read more here.) It prepares them as the next generation of leaders. (Doing ministry is much more engaging and has longer-lasting effects than just hearing about it.) Plus, most kids adore having a teenager pay attention to them. With a teen co-leader you’ve got a built-in “on switch” that almost guarantees a higher level of engagement from the group.

Now, if you’ve mentored teenagers before, you probably have a long list of how-to’s. (Maybe even a list of don’t-do’s). But if you haven’t, here are some things that can make a big difference, for you and them:

  1. Equip them. Tell them what’s expected and train them to do it. Be sure to model it for them. Give them the resources (curriculum, etc.) needed to do their job.
  2. Thank them. Say it, text it, send a card. Pass along positive comments about them. Help them understand how they’re making a difference.
  3. Recognize them. Show them your appreciation with gift cards, movie tickets, books—whatever. Brag on them in public and in private.
  4. Get to know them. Ask what’s going on with them and their friends and families.
  5. Listen to them. REALLY listen. Include them in decision-making. Ask them if they feel successful in their role, if they’re happy doing it, and if they’d like more training. If this role isn’t a good fit, don’t take it personally. Help them find one that is.
  6. Give and take feedback. Tell them at least three positive things they’re doing. Do this immediately and on a regular basis. If they need to improve anything, tell them afterwards and in private. Make sure the positives greatly outweigh the improvements. Regularly ask for feedback on how you’re doing, too.
  7. Have fun. Make Sunday morning (or whenever you meet) enjoyable. Plan fun beyond Sunday morning too, especially if you’re working with a team of teens. Figure out a way to let them socialize with each other and with both sexes; don’t let Sunday morning become “all work and no play.”

When I think about Alex and Rod and other teenagers who step out and take on roles in ministry, I wonder why they do it. Research in the last couple years suggests some interesting reasons. One is friendship. They volunteer because their friends do and because they want to make new friends. One is a sense of belonging. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves and to matter to the group. They also want to make a difference, especially in something they care about—and they want to have a good time doing it. Frankly, those reasons sound pretty good to me too.

Have you ever mentored a young person? What are some do’s and don’ts on your list?

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Melanie Williams

Melanie has taught kids at church for a looong time, has a master's degree in early childhood education, and designed and edited children's curriculum for 20+ years. She now edits books.

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