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How to Choose which Students to Mentor

This is a question one of the subscribers to my weekly newsletter asked me: how do you choose which students to mentor or disciple? It’s an excellent question, because it can feel like giving preferential treatment to some students over others. Let’s dig into this.

Mentoring or Discipling?

First of all, we need to make clear what we mean by mentoring or discipling, since the two aren’t completely the same. And there’s also a third option: counseling.

Discipling means the focus is on spiritual development of the student. Examples of activities are doing Bible study together, having prayer time, talking about faith, teaching and practicing spiritual habits, etc.

Mentoring means fulfilling the role of role model to a student. Of course there’s a spiritual component, but the emphasis can be on relational development, social skills, or practical skills as well. An example is a student leader you mentor in leadership specifically, or a student from a single parent family where you fulfill the role of ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ or older brother or sister if that’s more appropriate.

Counseling means helping the students with emotional or psychological issues, which can range from breaking up with a boyfriend to getting through severe trauma. It can mean one or two conversations, or a longer process where you meet on a regular basis to talk through these problems. The focus here is on emotional well-being, although obviously the spiritual is always intertwined.

Who Needs Mentoring?

Students who need counseling, often ‘announce’ themselves by opening up about their problems. But good candidates for mentoring or discipling can be harder to identify.

Students who are interested in spiritual matters are prime candidates for discipling. These are the students who attend loyally, ask questions, are engaged—even if they haven’t made a commitment to Jesus yet.

Students who needs mentoring are the ones where you identify specific issues in their lives. It could be that they have a hard time making friends, or that you see them lacking a father figure. Maybe they come from a disadvantaged background and need help with practical matters. Your small group leaders have the best ‘position’ to identify those students who could really benefit from doing life with a mentor for a while.

Which Student to Choose?

The criteria for the choice of the right student depend on the goal: mentoring, counseling, or discipling. But in all three situations, you need to ask yourself this crucial question first:

Am I the right and the best person to help this student?

If the student is involved in a small group, the small group leaders would be the first choice for all three situations. Even if you know you’d maybe do a better job in guiding a student, you’ll need to train and mentor your leaders to grow in this area. As a youth pastor, your first job is to mentor your leaders, not your students!

In certain situations, the small group leaders are not the right choice. This could be because there’s a lack of personal ‘click’, because the issues are outside of their expertise, or too complex. In counseling situations especially, I’d tend to be extremely careful and seek professional help as well. It’s easy to overestimate what we can do here.

If the student doesn’t have small group leaders, that doesn’t mean it makes you the right candidate. Try to gauge the student’s needs. Can you meet these? Are you a good fit in expertise, gifts, and character? And do you have the time to take on an extra responsibility?

If the answer to any of these is ‘no’, you’ll need to find someone else. I’ve been lucky to always have an excellent relationship with the pastoral counseling team in our church. One more than one occasion I’ve asked them for names of adults who could disciple, mentor, or counsel a student because I was not a good fit.

The Right Fit

So the short and sweet answer to the question which students to mentor is this: those students where you are the right fit. It can help to make your reasoning explicit before formally starting the process with the student. This will prevent emotional decisions based on spur-of-the-moment feelings. It will also help you explain your reasoning and decision to others, if necessary.

Sometimes other students or leaders will ask you why you chose that particular student to mentor or disciple. If you can rationally explain why you are the best fit, no one will have a problem with it.

I hope this answers your question! If you have a youth ministry question you’d like to see answered, drop a comment!

Do you use these criteria when selecting a student to mentor? Or do you use other reasons?

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