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Think. Discuss. Act. Mentoring

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Mentoring in Faith Formation


Harvard psychologist Sharon Parks (1986) suggests that one-on-one mentoring, while perhaps helpful, is not adequate for teenagers at this stage of their faith development. The community process is vital to developing genuine faith. Unfortunately most mentoring programs in youth work are designed as one-on-one mentorships, yet mentoring students at this time in their life is most powerful when found in the form of a mentoring community.

A mentoring community supports the level of faith that students bring with them, while also challenging students to consider new and deeper ways of understanding and expressing their faith. This mirrors the mentoring community Jesus established with the twelve disciples. More often than not, teenagers flourish when they join a small social group which allows them to break from the customs of their childhood and create a community in which they are challenged to negotiate their own acceptance.

Parks (1986) maintains that a mentoring environment, into which a teenager has access, may be the most important factor in the development of a student’s faith. The research of Larry Daloz (1986, 1996) confirms that young people who attempt to work out their faith alone rarely maintain their commitment. They need to know that other teenagers and adults are also working to develop a genuine faith. Daloz (1996, p. 175) says that “young people need to know that if they choose the road less travelled, they will not be alone.”

While mentors serve a variety of roles in a mentoring community, they must remain faithful to their student’s spiritual development. To accomplish this, Larry Daloz (1986) suggests that a mentor must offer support, challenge, and vision.

Supporting teenagers who are in the midst of change, growth, and transition is essential. Validate students by proclaiming that they are of immeasurable value. Elements of support include relationship building, caring, nurturing, encouraging, listening, and self disclosure.

Mentors challenge the complacent student who has all the “pat” answers to life’s most complex issues. Toss fresh facts, insights, perceptions, and world views into the student’s path; invite them to entertain new possibilities. Hopefully, students will come to see a different world than they have in the past and gain the valuable experience of learning from someone else’s point of view. Set tasks, enter into engaging discussion, set high standards, and move students out of their comfort zones.

Support and challenge cooperatively produce healthy spiritual growth in students. When both support and challenge are low, growth is unlikely and life will usually remain status quo.

When support is strong and challenge is weak, some growth may occur; yet, it is a growth which emerges from the needs of self-centered students. In this case students are affirmed and may feel good about themselves, but usually they are deficient in their ability to constructively handle the pressures of the outside world. Unfortunately, far too many mentoring programs and youth programs in general fall into this quadrant.

When challenge is high and support is low, students will retreat to their comfort zone. This can destroy the hope of a mature faith which is integrated into all the facets of a complex life. Students leave with a compartmentalized faith.

Support and challenge must be blended in order to provide the greatest opportunity for spiritual growth. The art of mentoring lies in the mentor’s ability to lure students into deeper, less comfortable waters, while recognizing when students are sinking instead of swimming. Mentoring communities provide a unique environment meshing muliple gifts, talents, personalities, and perspectives; there is a much greater chance that a student will find the balance of support and challenge in such a community than with a single mentor.

Vision is the field on which support and challenge are played. Provide vision so that students can make healthy decisions about their spiritual journey and leap toward spiritual maturity. By providing vision, mentors instill a climate of expectations upon which students may reflect. This influence remains during and after the mentoring relationship.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. How can you develop mentoring communities in your work?
  2. How can your program become more challenging to students?
  3. What peer leadership principles can you apply to mentoring communities?


  1. While social mobility has devastated traditional, long-term mentoring programs, communities can survive the turnover of its members.
  2. Recruiting mentors is often a difficult task. However, developing mentoring communities reduces the cumbersome task of organizing mentoring pairs. In his research on the common characteristics of successful youth programs, Chuck Rosemeyer found that the most effective youth work maintained a ratio of one leader for every five students. If a mentoring community is comprised of five teenagers and one adult, a youth group of twenty students only needs four mentors instead of twenty.
  3. Mentors are unable to hold students accountable all day, everyday. However, using peer leadership principles, students in mentoring communities can be charged with the responsibility of holding each other accountable for their actions on a daily basis.


Cannister, M. (1997). Mentoring that matters. Youthworker Journal, 13(5).

Daloz, L., et al. (1996). Common fire: Lives of commitment in a complex world. Boston: Beacon Press.

Daloz, L. (1986). Effective teaching and mentoring. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Parks, S. (1986). The critical years: The young adult search for a faith to live by. New York: Harper and Row.

Mark W. Cannister

© 2019 CYS

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