The Missing Puzzle Piece: The Role of Adult Mentors in Student Leadership

By David R Smit Posted on February 21 2012

On that Thursday night, I had a roomful of eager teenagers vying for student leadership opportunities within our youth ministry. I also had a short-but-engaging Bible study on the importance of serving others. I even had Dunkin Donuts’ donuts and Starbucks’ coffee available.

But I was still missing one crucial piece of the puzzle: a 72-year-old man confined to a wheelchair.

I don’t want to be assumptive or rude, but as a youth worker, you’d skip over Gerry when putting together your dream team of adult mentors.

I did.

He didn’t own a lake house, or a ski boat, or a stitch of cool clothes. In fact, I’m certain that all his clothes were literally older than me. Oh, and he trembled constantly in his wheelchair because the polio infection from childhood bled into full-blown Parkinson’s during adulthood.

So you can probably imagine my surprise when Gerry first showed up at our youth ministry (equipped with ear plugs to counter the volume of the bands). But I soon learned that this guy would help me turn teenagers into Christ-like student leaders!

Though he tipped the scales at a mere 145lbs (with the wheelchair!), Gerry was a heavyweight when it came to mentoring our student leaders. Our ministry depended on him in a number of important ways. He was our resident theologian – it was like having access to the Apostle Paul via email! He was also our most committed intercessor; every Friday morning, just hours before our weekly outreach event, Gerry and his wife would go to the sanctuary and pray on behalf of hundreds of students who would attend later that night. He also routinely injected love and wisdom into the lives of our student leaders, giving hugs and life-changing counsel, as needed.

Let me say it like this: When I found Gerry, I found the missing piece of my puzzle.

During those years together, our youth ministry cranked out dozens of deeply committed student leaders, as well as a handful of young people who went on to full-time ministry. And it was due, in large part, to a small-framed septuagenarian who invested his life into kids.

So, let me ask you: Do you have a Gerry, or two?

If you’re serious about building a team of student leaders in your youth ministry, consider putting together a team of dedicated men and women to work alongside you, first. Here are a few reasons why you’ll need them.

1. Today’s teenagers are desperately short on godly role models. Pause and think about what you see in our culture…because kids see it, too. High profile politicians and business personas cave to moral failure and scandal. Prideful celebrities unceasingly clamor for headlines and attention. Toss in a staggering divorce rate and it’s easy to see a landscape filled with brokenness. While you can’t change the culture, you can personally impact teenagers through the lives of adult mentors.

2. Matching young people with spiritually mature adults is a biblical principle. Let the list begin: Moses mentored Joshua, Eli developed Samuel, Mordecai challenged Esther, Barnabas bet on Mark, Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos, and of course, Paul trained Timothy. Shall I continue? I could; after all, I haven’t yet mentioned Jesus’ work with the disciples, Elijah’s tutelage of Elisha, or the countless young men sitting under nameless rabbis. If you want a youth ministry led by competent and Christ-like teenagers, you’re gonna have to give your students access to great mentors in the faith.

3. You can’t do it all. To think so is the height of naivety (or arrogance). Even if you’re a really great youth worker, imagine how much more effective you’d be for God’s Kingdom if you multiplied your leadership. And I’m not just talking about surrounding yourself with men and women who are relegated to picking up snacks or driving mini vans. Nope…I’m talking about charging trustworthy men and women with serious leadership roles such as teaching, prayer, preaching, counseling, and so on. As the leader, you don’t have to do it all…you just have to make sure it all gets done correctly. Adult mentors really help with this.

There are many other reasons for assembling a topnotch team of adult mentors to help you build student leaders, but you probably see that by now. What you may not know is how to do it.

Where do I find adult mentors, and how do I select them?

Will they need to be trained, and if so, how do I do that?

How do I keep them on the team (once they’ve met the students)?

My friend Jonathan McKee helped me write a book that answers all those questions and more. In Ministry by Teenagers, you’ll find practical answers to the problems you’ll face as you build a team of student leaders.

Having godly, wise, and mature adult mentors is a prerequisite for having Christ-like student leaders. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be worth the effort.

So even if you have a solid group of kids eager to make a difference, and a great curriculum through which to guide them, if your teenagers don’t have access to godly mentors, you’re still missing a big piece of the puzzle.

Go find that missing piece.


Written by David R Smith


Picture of Rich

From Rich on February 22, 2012

Thanks for the encouragement. At age 64, I experience times of doubt to the validity of still working with teens and trying to connect with them on a meaningful basis.

Picture of Leta

From Leta on February 23, 2012

I recently declared a youth ministry major at my undergrad Christian college, and one of my visions for my calling in the Kingdom of God is to be that role model, no matter where I am in life. Growing up in a small town with a very elderly congregation, there wasn’t a substantial youth leader for many of my high school years. I think many of them were apprehensive that they weren’t “young enough” or “capable enough.” Thank you for reminding me to not only be like Gerry, but also to encourage those around me to do the same. Whether they’re a hip young guy or an old guy with a hip replacement, youth are starving for role models that will teach them discipleship!

Picture of Bongole Patrick

From Bongole Patrick on April 11, 2012

David this is solid sound counsel for all of us who are engaged in the Youth Ministry. I have personally benefited with good nurturing from adult mentors most of whom am now exposing to my team. I believe the High point in the youth ministry is when my ministry produces fully flegged Christ centred youth leaders. this can only be achieved through the work of the Spirit using Godly men and women of Christlike Character.

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