Society is anxious. We all sense it.

The question is: What are we going to do with it?

Here is the challenge: If we mentors sense the stress, we can be confident that our mentees also feel it as they navigate new schools, friendships, and trials this school year. A recent article by Drs. Saray Myruski and Kristin Buss, from Pennsylvania State University, confirms this hunch. The article, entitled Teens and Anxiety during Covid-19, makes the following conclusion.

Preliminary data from our own Penn State teen anxiety study reinforces this striking pattern of growing anxiety. Compared to pre-COVID-19, anxiety severity among our respondents has increased 29%, largely driven by significantly heightened generalized anxiety (up 45%) and school anxiety (up 143%).[1]

Since school anxiety is up more than 100% among our teen population, I reached out to an excellent school-based mentoring network located in south-central Texas and asked their leader how mentoring practitioners could help ease the anxiety load for their mentees during this chaotic season. Here are some suggestions from Mandy Benedix, Mentoring Specialist for Pearland ISD and founder of Rise Mentoring. Mandy highlights two important ways we mentors can help our mentees adjust to new situations and new school contexts.[2]

One of the best gifts we can give to our mentees as they work to adjust to new school environments is to normalize what they are feeling. The best way to normalize what they are feeling is to share how you are feeling the same. This non-judgmental approach creates a common space from which the two of you can start.

Secondly, remind your mentees that they can do hard things. Point to things they have overcome in the past and remind them that they can also overcome this hard thing. Most importantly, remind them that they don’t have to do it alone!

The late Murray Bowen, a key leader in the establishment of Family Systems Theory, supports Mandy’s thinking with his research. Bowen taught that any system, including societal systems, settle down when an outside calming presence (person) enters the system. Roberta Gilbert writes that the “coach’s [mentor’s] calm presence” is one of the two “invaluable opportunities to be of use” within anxious situations.[3] When the mentor responds calmly and consistently during stressful days, this helps the mentee to do the same.

I cannot help but think of how Jesus calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee many years ago. In doing so, he also calmed the storm raging within the fear-ridden hearts of his disciples. Mentors, you can do the same. Your words and your life, during stormy seasons, will calm both storms and fearful hearts within the mentees you have grown to love and respect.

[1] https://covid19.ssri.psu.edu/articles/teens-and-anxiety-during-covid-19

[2] https://www.pearlandisd.org/mentoring

[3] Roberta Gilbert, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, 24. (2006)

From Dark to Radiant

Brett’s dad left years ago and had little contact with him. That didn’t dull the pain when his father died a few years later as a result of alcoholism. Brett’s life turned dark in his thoughts, activities and attire. He contemplated ending his life as he withdrew to his basement to self-medicate through excessively playing video games.

One of Brett’s teachers convinced him to get a mentor through Kalamazoo Youth for Christ’s mentoring program. Through YFC’s Merge Mentoring Ministry, he was matched with Jerry – an average guy who loved God and was willing to walk with Brett in a one-on-one relationship.

Slowly Brett began to open up. Eventually he decided to show up at a YFC Bible study. Every once in a while, he would actually engage in the discussions. Soon he let an occasional smile pass his lips. It turned out Brett had an incredible sense of humor and an even better laugh.

Brett came to know Jesus as his personal savior during his freshman year. The next summer he served on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. What?! This formerly dark and depressed young man signed up to get on a plane, live in uncomfortable surroundings, and serve children he didn’t know. He was playing with the kids, laughing with them, pushing them on the merry-go-round and carrying them on his shoulders.

During the trip, everyone on the team had the chance to share their testimony. Brett spoke some unforgettable words. He said, “If I hadn’t met Youth for Christ, I’d either be in a mental hospital, in jail, or dead.” Later in his time of sharing he said, “So I smashed my bong and decided to give my life to God.”

Jerry is a mentor with Kalamazoo YFC. Their Executive Director attended CAYM’s training in 2005.

The Importance of Humility in Leadership

“Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.”[1]

If you lead a mentoring program, then you are a zealot. What else could motivate you to give up your life for young people who view life quite differently than you do? I was a zealot once and probably still am. The world needs Christian zealots. The world needs humble, Christian zealots, to be specific.

In 1991 I announced to our church that I was leaving my position as Youth Pastor to go to Romania as a missionary to this recently opened communist nation. Lilly opposed.[2] She stood up and said publicly that I “should not be abandoning our youth to go and help communists.” Many years later, upon returning from a decade’s worth of ministry in Romania, I had the privilege of pastoring Lilly again as her Sr. Pastor. Lilly is my friend. She and her husband, who by the way never had kids in my youth program, have been life-long supporters of our ministry.

Humility is important for many reasons. One is that longevity in ministry and relationships never happens when the leader is proud and offensive. While Moses was treated offensively and misunderstood multiple times by the Israelites, his humility kept his relationships intact and sustained his calling to lead them towards Canaan. Here are a couple of other reasons humility remains crucial in current day Christian leadership.

God loves humility and expects Christian mentoring programs to be led with humility just as His son led with humility. “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”[3] This text reminds us that we all have a mission. We can see that part of the verse clearly. There is, however, more to this verse than just a calling to mission. A clear translation would be, in the same way that the Father sent Jesus, He also sends us. In the way of the stable. In the way of rejection. In the way of the cross. In the way of the Humble Servant.

The Scriptures teach clearly that God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble.[4] Leader, it is never easy to hear others malign your efforts to better the lives of our youth or your zealous efforts to make a difference through mentoring. When this happens – and it will happen if you lead long enough – respond in humility as did our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Finally, as you lead your mentoring program, remember that your leadership provides an important role model for the youth of our nation. Regardless of your political persuasion, you probably recognize the trend in national leadership over the past few decades has moved away from humility and selflessness in favor of pride and selfish idealism. Many are disillusioned by this trend. The youth who are matched in your program, more than ever, need to see a different type of leadership model. They need to see Christ embodied not only in our words, but in our leadership and behavior as well. Christ accomplished the Father’s will through humble obedience. You can do the same. Christ, in humility, suffered rejection. You may suffer as well. Christ’s humility and love changed the world. My dear zealot, you will do the same!

-Ken Merrifield

[1] Numbers 12:3 – NASB

[2] Lilly is a pseudonym.

[3] John 20:19 – NASB

[4] 1 Peter 5:5 – NASB

Jesus Was a What?!

Image from Common Sense Media

We tend to see Jesus through our own lenses — even when looking at his words and actions through the scripture. One young woman’s description of our Savior took our small group by surprise. Did she really just say that?

The words came out innocently with exhilaration. Our Zoom Bible study doesn’t give us many opportunities to see what makes people tick. Bethany, a scientist in the nanotechnology industry, let us into her spirit in one quick phrase.

We were studying the Gospel of Mark where Jesus cleared the temple and called out the hypocrisy of religious leaders. Her spontaneous reaction gave me a moment to pause before I broke out in laughter to her comment, “Jesus was a badass!” Bethany asks the kind of questions that you’re “not supposed to” inquire in Sunday school. She is disturbed at some of Jesus’ teaching, puzzled by others, and mostly un-churchy even though she grew up in a church. She does all this with a sincere faith and commitment to follow our Lord.

“Bethany, that sounds like the title of your upcoming bestselling book,” I responded as the group’s surprised laughter subsided.

I’m sure that not everyone can appreciate her interpretation of Jesus’ character. Serah, an African grad student in Boston, was somewhat shocked. “Isn’t that a bad thing?” We explained how this colloquialism could be used as a compliment as well as a pejorative description. She caught on, but she didn’t seem impressed.

Bethany looked at the scripture much like the kids I’ve worked with in mentoring ministry over the years: unfettered and unfiltered by established religious norms. One girl who read through the Old Testament for the first time exclaimed to me, “There’s a lot of sex in the Bible.” A very true statement which I’ve never heard expressed so plainly. Somehow, I want to read through the Bible in the same way.

While I have no interest in engaging in heresy or disrespecting our Lord, seeing the scripture without all the filters I’ve put in place through the years helps me find Jesus and God the Father in more penetrating ways. In one manner, I need to let Jesus’ words and actions call out my own hypocrisy, whether that be in the way I judge others or the manner in which I treat those who disagree with me.

So, I might not be exclaiming at church, “Jesus was a &%#@!*,” but seeing the scripture with fresh eyes will bring me closer to him.

-Peter Vanacore

When Things Take a Turn for the Best

When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. (Mark 16:9 NIV)

We have an old saying that “things sometimes take a turn for the worst” … but sometimes things, even bad things, can take a turn for the best.

Mary of Magdalene was looking at the cross, weeping. Her closest friend who rescued her from more than one bad situation was hanging on a cross dying before her very own eyes. The man on that cross may have been the only kind person in Mary’s life. She suffered abuse from many in her life of prostitution prior to meeting this Jesus of Nazareth. He showed her kindness and respect. He showed her love when everyone else in her village scorned her. He freed her from her demons – literally. And now, he was dying in front of her.

Mary, along with a few other women, lingered in horror-stricken sadness before the cross. The others who followed him all fled away in fear for their lives. Mary wasn’t going anywhere; there was no place for her to go anyhow. Life had taken a turn for the worst, and the devastation was almost unbearable as she, along with Jesus’ mother and one faithful disciple named John, sat in silent tears. Hope drained away with the life of their beloved Rabbi dying before them. “How could this be happening?” she wondered.

The Bible tells us that early on the first day of the week Mary went to the tomb with embalming supplies in her hand. She would care for her beloved Rabbi as he had cared for her during his lifetime. It was her turn to give back. As she headed to the tomb, she wondered who would open it for her – the rock closing his cave was far too large for a couple of women to move. To her surprise, the tomb was open and an angel of God was sitting on the right side of where Jesus had been laid just prior to Sabbath! “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16:6 NIV)

Could it be? Could He actually be alive? Could the horror of the weekend be taking a turn for the best? Just then, Jesus appeared and showed himself FIRST to Mary Magdalene. It’s True! He’s Alive! She clung on to him so tightly he finally told her to let go of the bear hug, for he had much to do before heading up to his Heavenly Father.

Mentors, your protégé’s life may have taken a turn for the worst multiple times. They may be having some of the same questions that Mary had at the cross. They may be wondering how life could become so hard so fast. Be reminded today that what was true for Mary is also true for them. Jesus loves them equally as much. He freed them too. He is filled with love, kindness and respect towards both of you. You are some of his favorites…. Most importantly, He is alive and ready to show himself through you to your protégé. As a mentor, there may be times when you feel like you are the one hanging on a cross suffering. Be encouraged! It was through Christ’s suffering that things took a turn for the best! Let Jesus give you a bear hug today.

By Ken Merrifield

Difficult Conversations

If you lead a mentoring program for any period of time, you will have some difficult conversations. No one likes conflict, but if we are going to work with people on behalf of people, we will need to have difficult conversations from time to time. While it may be tempting to avoid these conversations, healthy leaders choose to deal with conflict as it arises, knowing that conflict, like disease, worsens over time. Here are some clues to handling conflict in a positive way.

First, avoid texting when dealing with conflict. Texting is a good tool for positive feedback but is not good for hard conversations. Because texting is both written and fast, it usually compounds the problem. Written dialogue lacks the verbal and facial cues needed for good communication. A speedy response to a difficult, and often complicated issue, rarely leads to good outcomes.

Second, read and remember before replying. Remind yourself what the Bible says about conflict in Matthew 18:15-17. Remind yourself about Christ’s patience with people who opposed him. Pray and ask the Lord to remind you how He sees this person with whom you are struggling. Once you have his loving perspective, you will be able to approach this person properly. Remember, the person is not the problem. The issue raised can actually lead to positive dialogue needed for growth together.

Third, listen before you speak. When you begin the conversation, begin it with a question. The word “dialogue” comes from two Greek words: dia (through) and logos (word). Good dialogue requires you to allow the words of the other person to flow through you before you respond. Try to listen without forming a response. Remember, there is no hurry. You may need to have a listening session and then schedule another meeting to express your opinion. Once you are clear on what the other person’s motives, hopes, and struggles are, you will be able to respond with kindness and respect. (See Douglas Stone’s chapter on Listening Sessions in his excellent work entitled Difficult Conversations.)

Fourth, realize that conflict has multiple levels.[1] The first level is the “What” level. This level asks, “What is the real issue here?” or “What are the facts?” The second level is the “Emotional” level. This addresses how the conflict makes me feel. Does this make me angry, sad, frustrated? The third level is the “Identity” level. This addresses how the conflict impacts my sense of identity. Does this make me feel worthless, used, overlooked? We often try to deal with the “what” level without addressing the other two levels – and that is always a bad idea. More often than not, the “what” issue is not really the issue. The problem behind the problem is that this conflict triggers emotions and identity sensors in both the one causing the conflict and the one responding to it. We should pay attention to these triggers in both parties as we address the conflict. Good questions and good listening help to identify them.

Finally, once you have worked through conflict with someone, don’t forget to check in with them from time to time to make sure that all is well. On the rare occasion that conflict persists, a third-party can be brought in to help the two of you work it out over time. Remember, conflict is inevitable when we work with people. The real question is: “Will we work through conflict well or poorly?”

-Ken Merrifield

[1] Douglas Stone, Difficult Conversations, Kindle version location 430.

Too Young to be Without Hope

Please enjoy this success story from one ministry CAYM helped train.

A four-year-old boy was about to get kicked out of preschool. Without parents in his life, Chris was out of control. The school was running out of options. Then a teacher suggested mentoring through the Appalachia Mentoring Project.

For four straight weeks, Ken showed up at the school to meet with his little protégé, but the boy refused. The school told Ken he was wasting his time, and he should give up. Ken said that CAYM trained him to stick to his commitment, no matter what. Ken’s persistence paid off. Slowly, the boy began to warm up to this mentor.

Eight months later, the district social worker asked the teachers how Chris turned around so dramatically. They pointed to Ken, who they said made all the difference. Ken had continued to show up until the boy became his friend. The social worker cried and said that she thought this boy was a lost cause. She couldn’t find a reason that he completely turned around during the school year until she learned about a mentor who wouldn’t give up.

CAYM helped develop the Appalachia Mentoring Project, where churches joined together to reach the most vulnerable youth in their communities. Sam is part of the Bell County School system, where we started the first mentoring ministry. Our second mentoring ministry is in Clay County, which The New York Times reports is the most difficult place to live in the United States. High poverty, a lack of jobs, and drug addiction plague the region. Sixty percent of the children in this region live in homes where there are no biological parents, due to drug addiction and abandonment. The churches are looking to bring hope to an area that is seen as hopeless.

Chris is one child. The AMP team wants to mentor hundreds of youth in the Appalachian region. Residents of Clay County feel that the New York Times labels them as hopeless. The churches believe that with Christ there is always hope!

AMP has since expanded their work to three counties in the region.

Changing Families

Island Christian Church in New York knew they needed mentors for youth of single moms who attended their church. It’s hard enough to keep kids faithful to the Lord under the best of circumstances, but moms raising children on their own face enormous challenges.

Raymond’s parent divorced when he was too young to understand what was happening to his family. While his mother regularly attended church, his dad couldn’t be bothered. Soon after the divorce, this father also became disinterested in his son. That’s when Steve became Ray’s mentor. They quickly bonded as this young man saw the sincerity and faithfulness of a Christian man who gave his time to a boy he hardly knew. Ray’s life began to change, and his mother’s burden was lifted.

But a weight was put on his father’s heart. Who was this man befriending his son? Whether it was guilt, jealousy, or a renewed passion of fatherhood, Ray’s dad started to show interest in him. As father and son were reunited, mom and dad were as well. Through counseling at the church, this formerly-disconnected father become connected to Christ, and the couple retied the knot of marriage. Ray had a reunited family with a foundation based on our savior. It took a church, visionary mentoring leaders, and a faithful mentor to bring hope back to a family.

Island Christian Church attended CAYM’s training in 2013

The Power of No

Photo via Creative Commons
licensed under CC BY-ND

Tony Blair once said, “The art of leadership is not saying yes; it is saying no.”[1] And yet, if you are anything like me, you find it hard to say no on occasion. As long as everything seems important and urgent, “no” remains a distant dream. Leaders, ministry is important, but your health and emotional well-being remains a foundational element to the success of your mentoring program. Your health and the health of your organization depend upon your ability to say no. Here are some concepts to keep in mind as you lead in the “Power of No.”

First, realize that every time a leader says yes to someone, he/she also says no to someone else. Notice that it is someone and not something to whom we respond. Leaders may think of tasks and projects, but all of these details have a someone behind them. This person may be you – your own sense of urgency, importance and self-worth. This person may be someone else – someone with an urgent need. It could be your staff or your board. No matter who brings the need, when a leader says yes to that person, he/she says no to someone else. If a match coordinator says yes to a mentor who is unprepared, the coordinator consequently says no to the matched child who ends up with an ill-prepared person for a mentor. If a mentor director says yes to a fundraiser, she consequently says no to other relationships during the time needed to set the fundraiser into motion. It is often healthier for a leader to say no outright than to say no consequently.  Leaders must say no to some things in order to say yes to the important things.

Secondly, one of the most important gifts we can give to employees, mentors, and mentees is “no.” Don’t misunderstand me here. We want programs that risk and develop cultures of innovation with freedom to fail and to grow. But, inherent to these programs, is the need for definite guidelines and the occasional no. Parents who never say no to their kids do more harm to them than good. Leaders may risk the same if they never say no. A key factor in tenacity and growth is the ability to receive a “no” and to grow in the context of that guideline. Youth who do not see adults modeling this in their own lives are certain to struggle in adulthood. Breakthroughs in mentoring occur as mentors travel life with mentees during the dark days of “no” and denial. Discipline is the fruit of a healthy root of yes and no —opportunity and denial — encouragement and discouragement.

Finally, the way a leader determines his/her yes and no is through a clear understanding of purpose and character. If an athlete wants to achieve success in college, she must say no to certain behaviors and yes to those behaviors which lead to athleticism. If a young person wants to become a professor, he must say yes to studies and no to certain other hobbies. If you want to lead with integrity, you must choose your yes and no carefully. The principle remains the same. We become the total sum of our choices – both our choices to say yes and our choices to say no.

Blessings to you as you walk in the “Power of No.”

–Ken Merrifield

[1] As quoted by Lance Witt, Replenish, p. 131, Baker Books, 2011.

Compassion Cleans a Community

We see over and over how mentoring relationships can impact communities! Please enjoy this success story from one ministry CAYM helped train.

Shepherd Christian Community sits in the middle of the poorest area of Indianapolis, a city where the poverty rate has nearly doubled since 2000. This Nazarene church has a congregation made up mostly of impoverished families in the area. Their innovative programs include an elementary school that helps youth who would otherwise attend underperforming schools served by an overwhelmed staff. They realized that the youth in the school and in the community needed more. Kids growing up without two healthy parents need mentors, especially when faced with the multi-generational poverty.

One of the critical factors in breaking the cycle of poverty is when people find they have something to give others. Before getting a mentor, Jayzon would frequently avoid any tasks beyond the basics needed to survive. After getting a mentor through Shepherd,  he set a goal to be more compassionate and more aware of the needs of his neighborhood. But what could one teenager do in a poor, decaying community?

Jayzon had an idea. Every Friday after school Jayzon walked his neighborhood, picked up trash, and got to know his neighbors. As time went on, he involved his siblings, cousins, and friends in his community improvement project. He was able to make an impact on his neighborhood, and many neighbors expressed their appreciation for his hard work and dedication to his neighborhood. His attitude towards his neighborhood changed because he was able to make an impact from something as simple as picking up trash. The more important change came in Jayzon’s view of himself and his future.

CAYM helped start and sustain Shepherd Christian Community in 2009 through training and consulting.