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Why the Church Needs Less Volunteers and More Mentors

I’ve been a huge advocate for mentoring for about 10 years and have been blessed to experience being both a mentor and a mentee for the last several. Concurrently, I’ve been working in children’s ministry in the local church and now oversee an elementary ministry that consists of about 300 first-fifth graders and nearly 100 volunteers on Sunday mornings.

Believe it or not, I used to keep these two worlds separate from one another.

The work I did in the mentoring community was about developing ongoing, long-term relationships between caring adults and at-risk youth.

Some might say managing volunteers in children’s ministry is less about relationship and more about Bible trivia and goldfish. If we’re really honest, others might even say it’s more about keeping kids in control for an hour while their parents attend church, giving them a much needed break from a busy weekend of soccer games and sleepovers.

The investment is different too.

Mentoring oftentimes happens several times a month for a couple hours at a time. Teaching a Sunday school class happens for one hour, once a week (given the volunteer shows). For decades, teaching Sunday school has been seen as information transfer, while mentoring has been about forming authentic relationships.

One is transactional. The other is transformational.

But, as many of today’s children’s and student ministry leaders know, times have drastically changed. In recent years, the landscape of next generation ministry has slowly begun to evolve, mainly in response to the rising number of kids who are growing up in church and walking away from their faith after high school. (Click here to check out the latest research conducted by the Fuller Youth Institute).

Children’s ministries across the nation are realizing that they have to be about so much more . . .

More than packing forty kids in a classroom with a couple well-meaning adults.
More than a drop-off ministry for parents or silly games.
More than random volunteers rotating in and out every week.
And, yes, even more than the creative reimagining of Bible stories and the memorization of Scripture.

These things certainly have their place, but if not presented within the appropriate context, there is simply less of a chance a child’s church experience will be meaningful in the long term. Their faith will be less sticky.

Upon discovering this truth, I was forced to realize that my two worlds, which used to be kept at a safe, comfortable distance, must collide in a big way.

The key is relationship.

And not just any kind of relationship.

The kind that stays alive.
The kind that doesn’t just show up for an hour once a week, but whose presence lingers during math tests, custody battles and faith crises.
The kind of relationships that will see kids who will attend college one day with a fistful of phone numbers from real people they can count on when life gets hard.
The kind of relationship that leads to transformation.

More and more churches are realizing the need for every child growing up in their ministries to have a mentor. A buddy. A small group leader.

No matter the title they are given, this person needs to be someone who is willing to show up time after time, Sunday after Sunday, year after year even, for the same small group of kids. Sure they might lead an activity, sing along to a worship song, or teach a verse from Scripture, but this person’s primary goal would be that, over time, they would build real relationships with these children and be their advocates.

In the ministry I lead, in particular, our mentors are called Small Group Leaders (SGLs). They’re not just volunteers. They are mentors who say “yes” to the task of helping every child feel known and giving them a place to belong.

Of course, many ask, “How exactly do you do this?”

In short, it’s a ton of work. A lot must change, including attitudes, language and expectations. Some might say it’s too much work. But if this way of doing church has the potential to strengthen and solidify our kids’ relationship with Jesus for the long term; connect the next generation to a community that truly knows and values them; change, and in some cases, save lives; then it’s worth every minute.

Our small group ministry has received its share of raised eyebrows because we’ve been known to prioritize relationship over content. But we believe relationship amplifies the message rather than detracts from it.

This is the difference between a Sunday school model and a Small Group model. When relationships are actually the priority, church is going to look and feel much different than many would expect.

Here’s my point: The rising children’s/student ministry small group culture is built on principles not so different from mentoring. In order to thrive . . .

Both require showing up.

Many kids today are struggling with abandonment. They need loving adults to be present in their lives. Not just physically, but mentally and even sometimes when they least expect it.

Both require speaking in.

Many kids today are struggling to discover who they are in light of the way God sees them. They need loving adults to speak love, truth, and affirmation over them. They need to be reminded who they are and whose they are.

Both require living out.

Many kids today are trying to live up to false expectations set by parents or celebrities and have no idea what it means to live out an authentic faith. They need loving adults to model it for them.

For the sake of this generation, kids and student ministries need to begin moving away from simply recruiting volunteers with limited expectations and instead move toward inviting servants into mentor relationships.

Diana Garland said it best when she wrote, “To be a volunteer means being free to give service—or not. It implies an optional role—something we can choose to do, and when we’re tired, choose not to do. But service is not ‘optional’ in the life of a Christian. We are called to care for one another, not invited to volunteer when it’s convenient for us.”

When life throws its curveballs, it is a thriving mentor relationship that will give our kids something to tangible to hold onto before they are lovingly pointed back to their Heavenly Father.

How are we helping kids and student ministry leaders understand their role as mentors in the lives of whom they have the most influence?

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