Program Corner: The Power of Engaging Local Churches in Mentoring

Screen Shot 2013-06-24 at 9.12.08 PMDave Van Patten (Program Editor): I have known Peter Vanacore for 30 years.  We both worked together in Long Island Youth Guidance, a faith-based mentoring program serving juvenile offenders.  In the early 80’s, nearly 100 churches formed five coalitions that underwrote the costs of running an intensive one-on-one mentoring program in each of their respective towns.  Peter ran one of those coalitions in some of the most difficult areas of Nassau County.  He has since gone on to write, publish and consult with church-based mentoring programs nationwide.  In this post, he talks about how to engage local churches in mentoring. 

The Power of Engaging Local Churches in Mentoring by Peter Vancore

How do you engage local churches in mentoring?  For many, it is a paradox.  They are a great source of mentors, as clearly evidenced by the fact that forty-three percent of mentors come from religious institutions (The Mentor’s Field Guide, Manza and Patrick, 2012). The flip side is that with some churches, it can be difficult. The challenge for mentoring programs lies in determining how to mobilize the people in the pew while mitigating the problems that may arise with involving a religious organization. In over three decades of involvement in mentoring, I have seen program facilitators learn through trial and error. Their efforts point to some of the best practices related to motivating churches, how to keep them involved over the long haul, and how to partner with churches so as to drastically lower the cost per match.

The first challenge in successfully engaging a church is to find out what motivates a particular pastor and congregation to become actively involved. To put it in church-speak, you need to find their “calling.” This may seem like an ambiguous term, conjuring up images of lights shining down from the heavens or hearing voices in the middle of the night. For many churches their “calling” starts with the source of their inspiration and direction:  The Bible. The Scriptures are loaded with verses that exhort men and women to become mentors. In the Old Testament, God is described as a “father to the fatherless” and that He longs to “defend the fatherless.” In the New Testament, there are many messages including, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress”.  These passages and others help people to move beyond the church walls and into the lives of youth.

Churches are motivated by community involvement. Some churches make a clear commitment to connect to their community, as evidenced by their participation in local activities. Other churches seek means of involvement but struggle to find opportunities to effectively motivate their members. A small percentage of churches are isolated. Some of them like it that way, refraining from involvement.  Some of these churches have trouble seeing how they can relate to their community. Many of these congregations may be enticed by putting mentoring in the context of a calling to help the church engage their community.

A third motivating factor is church “ownership”.  Most churches want to promote programs that have a direct connection to their church.  This can be as simple as forging a partnership that empowers them to endorse mentoring as a ministry of their church, an opportunity for their members.  Formal partnerships in which churches select liaisons to serve on advisory council of mentoring organizations can promote a true sense of ownership and significantly improve volunteer recruitment.  Additionally, churches may be helped to implement their own mentoring management teams in which they apply best practices under the training and guidance of a professional mentoring program.

As with any community group, challenges can arise. One of the most common challenges occurs when the pastor says, “I can’t find enough people to fill the positions in our own programs.” What we have found, and often tell pastors, is that mentoring will draw out individuals who may not normally be motivated by standard church ministries. They may either feel a calling to work with at-risk youth, or they may find one-on-one relationship-building to be a manageable task where more broad-based, highly structured church ministry opportunities may not fit with their work or home life. In the early nineties, I surveyed mentors from sixty New York churches involved in mentoring. The results were astonishing. More than half of the mentors kept the same church involvement that they had prior to mentoring. Only one percent lowered involvement. The rest increased their church involvement.

Another concern of mentoring program leaders is that church members will proselytize; that is, they will attempt to convert a child to their faith.  In fact, this rarely occurs.  As a matter of fact, most clergy find it almost impossible to get their congregants involved in evangelism. Many Christians adhere to the words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” One of my standard training lines is, “If you want to preach to a kid, go to seminary. If you want to befriend a youth, become a mentor.” Good screening and training can eliminate spiritually aggressive or manipulative people.

Keeping churches involved is a matter of communication. Pastors and their congregations want to know that they are making a difference. Always inform them on the progress of the mentoring relationships. In some denominations and churches, annual year-end award banquets involving the whole congregation prove helpful both for recognition and for recruiting purposes.

The hidden benefit in church-based mentoring programs is cost reduction.  Church-based mentoring programs can reduce the cost per match – sometimes dramatically. At the Christian Association of Youth Mentoring (CAYM), we train churches to run their own mentoring programs. We teach teams to implement evidence-based best practices, provide them with all the materials and coach them through the process.   What we have found is that churches are filled with caring people – some who may serve as mentors, and other who are willing to step up and serve as part-time or even full-time case managers.  Even others who are skilled as doctors, psychologists, plumbers, attorneys, electricians, etc., may offer their services pro bono for mentees and their families.  Additionally, many churches will financially support their human capital investment in a mentoring program.  Such was the case in the organization I worked with nearly a quarter century ago – Long Island Youth Mentoring, Inc.  ( – where a majority of the funds necessary to underwrite full time case managers were provided by local church coalitions.

Mentoring programs involving churches can be worth the effort when such programs understand how to motivate congregations and keep them involved. Not only are churches a dynamic source of quality mentors, but with a small change in strategy, church involvement can drastically reduce program costs while maintaining the highest standard of program practices.

Peter Vanacore is the executive Director of the Christian Association of Youth Mentoring ( CAYM helps hundreds of churches and nonprofit agencies across the country. They recently released a highly praised mentoring supervision manual: Supervising Mentoring Relationships: Coaching Guidelines for Churches and Ministries.