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Mentoring youth, making disciples.

They were all a little curious about the relationships they were about to develop as they gathered in a small room at Westmount Church in London, Ont. The mentoring program for youth becoming members of the church was about to begin.

Eight months later, they would be introduced by their mentors and welcomed by the congregation as confirmands and graduates of the confirmation program.

The mentors are men and women who have shown commitment to and involvement in the life of the church, according to Rev. Michael Stol, minister of the congregation since 2000. The young people embarking on the new program begin not only new friendships but also six months of learning that demonstrates faith can be taught as well as "caught." They are matched with adults whose faith is apparent and whose lifestyle is exemplary. And all the mentors are young enough to keep up with the youth!

The pre-confirmation program helps young people look at their personal faith experience and establish a relationship with another Christian beyond their family. Each confirmand receives a journal containing guidelines for the program and a dozen learning modules.

The mentors admit to being a bit apprehensive when the role was first discussed. "If they [Mr. Stol and the congregation's youth minister, Rev. Mavis Currie] thought I could do it, well, I'd give it a shot," says Liz Adair, when she was asked to replace another woman from the congregation who moved out of the province and was unable to continue as a mentor. The young people in the program and the mentors are all very open and friendly, she discovered, and her earlier concerns never materialized.

"I hadn't expected to be asked," says Rick Diasmore. "I wondered what it was all about and just what was involved." There has been no problem with the relationship and breaking the ice with a young person was not at all difficult for the young father. That he is also a Sunday school teacher helps him relate to the youth with whom he is paired.

"I was curious about how it would work," says another mentor, Peter Downey, a recently ordained elder in the congregation. The program is not regimented and the discussions go "all over the map," he says.

The program at Westmount is adapted from Making Disciples developed by William Willimon of Duke University and Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. It is widely used, with adaptations to suit local needs in Canada and the United States. "We were able to change and adapt the program to suit our own needs," says Mr. Stol.

While frequent informal get-togethers between mentor and confirmand are encouraged and important to the relationship, it is often difficult for the pairs to schedule these discussion times. The professional lives of the mentors and the busy school schedules of the young people frequently conflict. Such sessions are often squeezed in during the hour before the more formal monthly gatherings -- in a coffee shop at the end of busy days or on a walk in a nearby park.

Too many adults assume the Christian education of young people is complete when they end their Sunday school involvement, and too many youth do not continue any future connection with the life of their church. "We seldom saw them again;' says Mr. Stol. Some new and innovative approach had to be developed to encourage them to make church commitment an ongoing part of their lives.

Stephen Palmer, who is 16 and has another year of high school to complete, says he is learning a lot more "stuff' through his involvement in the mentoring program. It is vastly different from his Sunday school experience, and the study group with the ministers, other confirmands and the mentors is always open to questions and discussion. "We talk about everything that comes up," he says. Even the mentors learn new things about their church, its teachings and their own lives.

"There are very few pauses in our discussions," says Mr. Downey. "If there is a pause, it is usually because one of the young people is thinking up a dandy question to throw at us."

The success of the program is making it easier to recruit mentors for the future. They are not expected to be perfect, just committed, says Mr. Stol. Group meetings are held monthly from fall to early summer, with informal discussions taking place at any time and in any place where the two individuals can arrange to meet.

Some of the mentors feared the start of the program might be intimidating, but Mr. Stol urged them to trust him to find a compatible match. While guaranteeing nothing, the program gives young people a better opportunity for a rewarding church involvement and encourages a long-term relationship with the congregation. At this stage, the program has involved only young people joining Westmount; eventually, it might be a good idea for adults joining the church to be teamed up with members from the congregation.

One of the final questions to be addressed in the program deals with the confirmands' growth in their knowledge of God and their relationship with God at this time in their lives. There is no guarantee, of course, except that a greater understanding will be developed.

Ivor Williams is a member of Westmount Church, London, Ont., and a contributing editor to the Record.

Making Disciples by William Willimon is available from The Book Room, 50 Wynford Dr., Toronto, ON M3C 1J7;416-441-1111; 1-800-619-7301;
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Author:Williams, Ivor
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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