Barry Sweeny, © 2010
- Background Information
- It’s a Hell of a Life for Some
- Who Could and Would Take on “Hell”?
- What’s Already Out There?
- 1. The Faith-Based Program Content Model
- 2. The Structural Model
It’s not that the faith-based mentoring programs I see or read about are wrong, and so I am proposing a “better” model for them to use. Every mentoring program is involved in a developmental learning process, just like the people that those programs serve. But, perhaps I have had opportunities to see and experience things that they have not, and so, I hope they may benefit from that experience.
It’s not that I have so much experience in faith-based mentoring – I actually have had only one in this specific sector. But I am a Christian with some level of understanding about the journey of faith. As a Christian, I volunteer in several service projects to help others. I do have 22 years of experience in mentoring in many other settings, and I have written hundreds of articles, numerous book chapters, and seven books about mentoring (Sweeny, B.W. 2007).
In all those other settings, I see very little uniqueness in programs due to setting. Of course there are some differences. Examples of this are programs which focus on mentoring an individual, and those which target families that struggle, such as the Equip Program of Dallas Texas. Instead of great differences, I see a huge amount of common ground across mentoring fields. So, I think I have a perspective to offer faith-based mentoring programs, or people wanting to start or improve such a program. Hence, I propose a best practice
model, actually two models, to help structure dialogue and development around this aspect of mentoring. In fact, I believe that these two models have elements which are useful for mentoring in all other settings and for all other purposes.
- Probably the best use of these models is as a self-assessment – the program could:
- Ccompare its content and structures to those in the best practice models;
- Identify which content or program elements are missing in your program;
- Read about the needs that missing piece is intended to address;
- Decide if such needs exist in your program, mentors, or proteges;
- Use the best practice model to design what you will do if the needs or goals in your program warrent the change.
Sometimes the people needed mentoring assistance have made a mistake and need only temporary help. However, more often than not, such mistakes are a life pattern and are rooted in deeper issues, and require more long-term, comprehensive forms of help, and many years of careful work.
Once at an IMA conference, a keynote speaker described mentoring at-risk youth as a process of “loving the hell out of them”. That play on words really has stuck with me, because it’s funny and because it seems to capture the essence of some of the hardest mentoring relationships I can imagine – convicts and ex convicts, the homeless, delinquents, the mentally ill, drug, alcohol, and sex addicts. Who would want to invest in these types of persons to the extent necessary to make a difference in their lives? Who could sustain the long-term commitment needed to actually make that difference?
It could only be people whose personal journey of faith is defined as trying to become more Christ-like every day. For only such a person has the deep, consistent, long-term, never give up, love to sustain such a one way investment as is needed to save persons in such deep personal hell holes. “Love the hell out of them” is exactly what is needed.
When I look at examples of faith-based mentoring (FBM), I am pleased to find it every where I look. There are people of faith everywhere, giving of themselves to help others in a wide variety of ways. It’s often not the case that they feel so well prepared to help others, or that they have so much extra time and resources to give to others in need. It’s much more that these people are very aware of the blessings they enjoy in their own lives, of the gifts God has given them: their education and skills, their good supportive families, and the resources they have gained – resources for which they realize they must be good stewards.
It is out of this understanding that they choose to help others less fortunate than themselves. They choose an overwhelming task of working with and investing in people with very complex and interrelated issues, lifelong disadvantages or negative patterns, self destructive behaviors, few or no personal resources or strengths, and often many barriers to change. They do so because they think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
So, what do FBM programs do for their protégés? As I study the field, I see two mentoring program models emerge – a content model and a structural model. Both of these are presented here and are focused only on the protege’s experience. Therefore, these do not include some necessary program components on the mentor’s side, such as mentor recruitment, training, or support.
The content of FBM programs is driven by the needs of the people the program decides to serve. Hence the content model consists of the target population and the needs of that population.
They typically choose one specific population to serve and they choose to tackle one or two key problems at a time. An example of this is Faith Based Mentoring Ministries of Allen County, Indiana. They are focused just on helping ex-offenders gain hope and a chance of finding success through long-term employment, mentoring to change thinking and living patterns, and spiritual mentoring. Their goals are to reduce the number of people who are sent back to prison and to save lives, and they do it, one person at a time.
Other FBM programs may choose different populations – at-risk or delinquent teens, the homeless, or pregnant single moms. Each of these populations have different needs to some extent, and, to some extent, they all have common needs. When we look across these programs, what patterns emerge? What over all does it look like?
• Helping people overcome their past disadvantages or negative life patterns
• Helping people find and sustain productive lives (employment, etc.)
• Helping people transition from negative to positive relationships
• Helping people accept responsibility for their own choices and consequences
• Helping people find self esteem and worth, practically and as a child of God
• Helping people who have given up on life & given up all hope
• Helping people develop self control and overcome addictions
• Evangelism – Helping people discover God’s love and Lordship
• Discipleship – Helping people develop and mature spiritually
• Helping people discover the blessing of helping others along this same journey.
Each of these topics are what I call an area of content. It is the content of the day-to-day mentoring conversations because it is the content of the personal needs of the protégés. It is the content of the program planning and the trainings, the friendship circles and support groups, and it is the content of the progress these programs watch for and measure (when they do).
When these topics are organized, I think they fall into a sequence to some extent. Some topics must be dealt with and learned or overcome before others can be undertaken. Some topics cannot be dealt with until others are no longer obstacles. And some topics seem to carry across all stages of the mentoring process because they are common to all human development at all stages, not just to those at a specific level of growth.
The chart above is how I perceive this “content sequence” looks as a whole. I solicit readers’ responses to these ideas to help me test the models against the reality of practice and to refine them.
A quick review of the listed program components below will reveal that, in the best practice development model, mentoring is one among eleven developmental strategies. Right away, this clarifies that the title “mentoring program” is really a misnomer. Mentoring certainly is the core, and probably most essential strategy of the eleven, but the program is not just about “mentoring”. In fact, a key realization is that “mentoring is not the answer to every problem.” This is the case because mentors are usually not trained counselors or psychologists – so mentors need to be a part of a larger team of assistance. Also, mentors have limited time they can offer to mentor. Finally, there are efficiencies that can be gained by using carefully designed group activities rather than the individualized help of the mentor.
With these factors in mind, I suggest that a more accurate title for your program might be “development”, “transition”, or “growth”. I will use development from here on to describe this comprehensive set of program components.
To clarify the concepts presented, I will use examples of various components from two faith-based development programs, the Faith Based Mentoring Ministries (FBMM) example discussed earlier, and the South Jersey Faith-Based Mentoring Coalition. This will help us look at how they structure their work to deliver their services and address protégé needs. Together, these will help us assemble a best practice development program structure and to understand why each of these program elements are needed to increase the program’s impact on the protégés. The best practice program should include:
A. Initial Communication and Matching
B. Assessment of Needs
C. Plan an Individualized Program
D. Partnerships with Stake Holders
E. Initial and Ongoing Orientation
F. Training for Skills Development
G. Peer Support Group Activities
H. Connection With and Observation of Expert Peers
I. Self-Assessment, Goal Setting
K. Build Synergy Among the Program Components
Typically, a protégé states an interest in being mentored prior to the time when they even can be mentored. For example, if your program mentors ex offenders, this interest may become known while the potential protégé is still in prison. That interest in mentoring may surface in a letter, w-mail, or phone call, based on the convict seeing your program poster in the prison, an announcement about the opportunity by prison staff like a counselor, or even from word of mouth in the prison “grapevine”.
Once interest is stated, a defined process should begin so that assessment of needs and collection of information for mentor-protege matching can be done. In the SJFBMC program, a candidate and the mentoring programs available will “exchange letters of introduction – The ex-offender will send each
community of faith or group a letter containing personal history, ranging from reason for incarceration to his or her goals and plans for the future. In return, each mentoring group contacted should send the inmate a letter describing its community, its program, how much the group is looking forward to this new relationship, and the initial assessment form.” Another option is to send the candidate a link to an online form for assessment.
If the program fits the needs of the candidate and the candidate wants to be mentored by the program, letters of commitment or agreement should be exchanged. These letters clarify for the candidate exactly what is expected
of them, the details of the next steps in the process, and what the mentoring program and its partners will or will not do. Two copies of this statement should be signed by the program leader, sent to the candidate, and one copy should be signed and returned by the candidate.
A mentor match can be arranged based on the strengths of the mentor compared to the information about the candidate and his needs. As soon as this is done, the mentor should contact the protégé and begin to establish a mentoring relationship. The protégé should be sent a letter from the program stating acceptance into the program and describing the mentor and how to contact him or her. It must also be clarified at that point that the match is tentative and based on the information currently available, so that the mentor’s strengths can be fit to the protege’s needs. Further, it’s best to identify a date a month or two off, at which point ALL mentor relationships are checked for the effectiveness of the match. Finally, it should be stated that if a mismatch is determined, it is the program’s lack of information and so, the program’s fault, not the participants. This allows for a more graceful exit from non functional relationships that cannot be repaired.
Needs are the obstacles that exist to the individual’s growth, so knowing (and next, meeting) those needs is essential to realizing the program and organizations intentions. The whole point of mentoring is to individualize the support, challenges, and guidance provided to the protégés to address theses needs. If this individualization is not done, you don’t need a mentoring program. Our example, the FBMM program, says that they, “work with the Indiana Department of Corrections as early as possible prior to release to determine the post release needs of each individual participating in our program.” Even better is to allow the future participant to do a self-assessment of the same items and allow for an open-ended comment as well. This adds a third set of data to consider. All of this allows the next step to be very likely to work.
This step ensures that all subsequent decisions will honor and build on the existing knowledge, skills and strengths of the person, and it ensures that this person will view the support and guidance provided as helpful
to them individually. The example program says, “FBMM, in conjunction with the Indiana Department of Corrections, will create a transition plan for each participant in our program.” Designing such a plan seems obvious and pretty straight forward, but there are a few things needed to make the plan most effective.
Compare the identified needs of the person, and that person’s own sense of what they need, against what your program generally does for similar persons. These three sets of data allow for many more discoveries and a more accurate picture of what really IS needed. However, keep in mind that the person’s perception of their own needs is based on what they already know, and only that. For example, they may never have had a trusted advisor or mentor, so they may have never had the opportunity to learn to value and feel the need for such
a person. That doesn’t make them right or wrong, but knowing what your participant does and does not know or feel the need for can be a big help in designing an effective program for them AND planning how to best deliver that support.
It is extremely desirable for the program to establish and utilize partnerships with those outside of the program who have an interest in the goals of the program and the success of the people in it. In addition to the work done between FBMM and the Indiana Department of Corrections, the FBMM also uses “partnerships with employers”, apparently to ensure that the employers of the program participants are working hand-in-hand with the mentoring program, so they both are consistently approaching at least some of the protege’s needs and challenges. A “partnership” also implies mutual benefits in which both parties have their own reasons for involvement because of what they expect or hope to gain.
When we check the above Content Model we see “employment” is an early step in the mentoring process, so it is critical for protégé success. From the FBMM viewpoint, a partnership with employers is important because, if employers can support the mentoring concept and help the protégé in ways that align with the mentoring program. that support extends the reach of the development program beyond what the program can do by itself.
A third kind of partnership is used by FBMM. “Other needs of the individuals being released include issues such as transportation, clothing, food, housing, and medical care.” Partnerships with area service agencies and government offices help to address these needs.
In summary on this issue, FBMM says, “The goal of the FBMM is to establish a best practices continuum of care for each participant.” That is a best practice that every mentoring program should adopt and follow. The lesson for all of us in this is, if your protégés have needs beyond the scope of mentoring, and are effected by other organizations, consider a partnership with those organizations to ensure that support for your protégés is seamless, not duplicative, and that your protégés are successful in those other settings too.
When participants first join a program, it is very helpful for them and for the mentoring program to provide an orientation (initial) at the point they arrive. While this is often done in longer term programs, it is frequently
not done in programs that are shorter than a year. This is a huge mistake, especially when early protégé success is critical. Care is taken not to provide anything more than what is needed in the next month or so, so as to avoid overwhelming the individual with too much information.
By my definition, orientation is what a program does to ensure participant success the very first time anything of significance is started. According to this understanding, orientation could then be done by both a program
and a mentor – which is the best case scenario. What is needed for such initial orientation to be powerful are four concepts:
- Assess the needs of the protégé against what your program believes their needs are likely to be, and then allow for an open-ended comment as well. (sound familiar?)
- Focus only on what is needed for success during the first two to three weeks. Do not “front-load” more information than a new participant can retain.
- Design the mentor’s work to include initial orientation follow up, to help the protégé individualize, adapt, and apply in practice what was learned during the orientation program.
- Design mentor work to pick up the task I call “ongoing orientation”, when the initial two to three weeks are ending.
Ongoing orientation is that which is done at any time during the mentoring relationship when the protégé is about to do something new for the first time. Recall the definition of orientation – we want the protégé
to be prepared for every first time experience of significance, because we want the protégé to succeed the very first time with those experiences.
F. Training for Skills Development – When the needs of individual participants are the same, providing training for them together as a group can still fit the best practice of treating individuals individually. In many cases, the need to develop specific skills is somewhat predictable and should be assessed and planned. The point here is to do together in a group what can best be done efficiently and effectively that way and still meet individual needs.
The trick in doing so is to realize that a group of persons may need to develop a specific skill, but not everyone will be at the lowest level of that skill. Prior experiences and training, level of education, even individual strengths and weaknesses will place a group of persons at diverse points along a continuum for that one skill. Assessment should be designed to both tell you the needed skills and the level of experience each person has
with that skill. Some, therefore, will need training in the skill, but still others may feel bored by that training if they already have developed it. In that case, these more skillful people may have a greater need for individual
help from their mentor to understand and plan how to adapt their skills to the new situation, or to know when it is and is not appropriate to use that skill.
What training model does our example use? They provide an intense training program that they call a “Character Building Workshop”. These are held three times a week for four weeks, a total of a dozen sessions.
The workshops are held at a retreat center to create the focus needed, and they provide classes and support group activities to “encourage radical emotional, social, and character change.”
We all know the power of the peer group. It is a very influential source of ideas, encouragement, support, and guidance, especially if the activities of the peer support group are carefully planned and facilitated by someone more experienced. In other words, while many program participants may enjoy meeting with their peers, the actual learning from the experience is not likely to happen if it’s just a “chat” time. That is because, counter to the saying, experience is NOT the best teacher. Learning from experience requires reflecting on it and processing it, and that often requires a facilitator to be most effective.
I recommend the use of a peer support group for protégés and a separate peer support group for mentors. These might meet weekly in an intensive, full time program, or monthly or even quarterly for less intense
approaches. When teachers, corrections people, employers, or other persons external to the program have an influence on the protégés, these other groups can benefit from a peer support group too, perhaps once a year.
Especially in recent years and with younger protégés, I have found that they are often more likely to seek support and guidance from their equally inexperienced peers and ignore the guidance of the mentors our programs assign to them. This factor makes use of the peer support group all the more critical – They will seek out their peers anyway. Better that we structure the interaction to increase the benefits. Given the reliance on peers, we can use this strategy in several ways and often accomplish things that may be much harder or even impossible other ways. Peer support activities can be planned as separate from other events, or can be integrated into other activities.
One example method is to listen during a protégé peer support activity for those protégés who seem to most understand and learn from their mistakes. Use these individuals as a panel at a different peer support group. Structure their sharing by asking the panel questions that remind them of the lessons they have learned and benefits of making good choices. Use the panel to provide the others testimonies you want all the others to hear.
That the participants’ peers offer the advice is much more powerful and credible for participants than if you should do it.
The South Jersey Faith Based Mentoring Coalition calls this element of their program, “circles of support”. In this case, mentors are supported by concentric circles, consisting of their mentoring peers, the mentor’s church congregational “mentoring team” or committee, and the program leadership. Each of these circles of support provide a different kind of support.
- The mentoring peer group and program leaders can provide problem solving, technical support and coaching in development of better mentoring skills. When one mentor has learned something, the others can learn it vicariously from them.
- The mentor’s congregation can provide spiritual support to the mentor and guidance for the spiritual aspects of the mentoring process.
- They all can provide emotional support to the mentor.
It is very hard to become something that we have never previously experienced ourselves. To become excellent we need to know what “excellent” looks like. This is why, for example, an ex offender development program often uses a very successful program graduate to lead trainings, facilitate support groups, and serve as mentors. They have amazing credibility as “peers” yet they now can serve as role models of what an ex offender can accomplish and be like.
- Another example might be the use of successful college students to mentor high school aged protégés, or using those college students to lead tours of a local college or university for those high school protégés.
- A third example might be to use trained and successful high school students as mentors of at-risk elementary students, or as a panel at a program for those elementary kids.
- If the program goal is to encourage college students to enter the ministry, missions, or youth ministry, people just like the protégés who are in those roles are exactly the persons that the protégés need to interact with, observe at work, and learn from.
This component is especially powerful because “seeing is believing” and belief is the start of hope for persons who may have decided earlier that their life is hope-less.
Another reason this component is so powerful is that people can be motivated by others when they see that the others were once just like them, and that these others overcame the obstacles and redefined themselves to become more capable and successful. It’s the old saying, “If she can do it, so can I.”
The least that can happen in such observations is that the participant learns WHAT is needed. The problem is that unskilled and inexperienced people may not also know HOW to actually DO what they see others doing. This is especially true if what is “excellent” involves internal processes such as making better choices or reflecting on experience and learning from mistakes.
In this case especially, but generally in ALL observations it is best practice for both the protégé and the mentor to do it together. This common experience positions the mentor to ask the reflective questions that the protégé may not yet ask himself. It allows the mentor to help the protégé “unpack” what was observed so that the protégé gets the maximum benefit from the experience. In fact I would say, unless time is unlimited, it’s better for the mentoring team to do these observations together, or I would not have the protégé do them at all.
At the core of becoming a productive person and a lifelong learner are the skills of reflection and self- monitoring. Essentially, this means that a person has internalized:
- accepting responsibility for one’s own choices;
- accepting the consequences of one’s choices;
- a clear idea (a goal) of what they want to achieve;
- asking, “Is what I am doing getting me where I want to go?”
- asking, “What skills do I need to learn or improve?”
- asking after an experience, “what have I learned that I should do differently next time?”
I find that more k-12, higher education, and business development programs teach and expect protégés to learn and use these kind of skills. Our Content Model (above) clearly implies developing mastery of these reflective skills is needed. However, in my review of faith-based mentoring program materials and presentations, I have found little evidence of this program component. This may be because development of such thoughtfulness is more of an ideal toward which to work for many programs. Never-the-less, these skills are essential for independent personal success and should be incorporated in all development programs.
How exactly does a program teach these internal reflective skills?
A. A training program can teach the concepts, but that does not ensure actual learning and application in life of the skills.
B. Part of what is needed is practice of the skills and mentors are best positioned to provide this. The easiest way for mentors to do this is for them to talk out loud about what they are thinking as they process choices, set goals, self-assess, and monitor their own progress, in work, as a student, in mentoring, in any aspect of their lives.
The best model of this would include both the mentor asking
out loud the question they are considering, and the process of weighing and making choices, setting goals, etc. This speaking about their thinking models exactly what the protégé needs to learn, and it does so over and over again, each time the mentor does it. It invites the protégé into the mentor’s thinking process, and it helps the protégé begin to gradually understand, learn, and internalize those key questions.
C. Another part of what is needed to learn reflective skills is practice, feed back, and correction. How would a mentor actually do that?
After some time during which the mentor has done the above voicing of their thinking process, it’s time to provide the protégé practice, feed back on the practice, and gentle but unrelenting correction to be sure that what is practiced is helpful. To start, the mentor prompts this practice by asking the protégé the same questions the mentor would ask herself if the problem was hers to solve or the question was hers to answer.
A general rule of thumb is that most of these questions should be open-ended and not have simple “yes / no” answers. This is important because open-ended questions require protégé analysis and develop decision making skills. For example, “Is X an option?” is a pretty closed question and the mentor has done the thinking and made the choice to suggest. “What might be your best option?”, is more open and gives the protégé the practice. At this point, asking these questions and discussing the answers is probably all that’s appropriate. Later, when more trust is established, feed back and correction are more likely to be received without defensiveness.
Repetition of this process will some day lead the protégé to offer that they “see” what the mentor is doing, or even can predict what the next mentor’s question will be. This is the sign that a teachable moment has arrived. At this point, the mentor should reveal the full set of questions that he has asked over and over, or together they should try to build that list of questions and write them down. These should be discussed as ONE set of questions for which there are innumerable variations, but important reflective questions never-the-less. Also, the mentor should reinforce and praise the protégé for the insights, which are a sign of development and ownership of the problem solving process. This is one kind of feed back. Unstated is that this stage is the beginning of transition from a “victim” mentality to an empowered, self confident attitude, a very significant sign indeed.
Another kind of feed back could be perceived as more negative, but does not have to be so. For example, saying., “That didn’t work too well, did it?” could be received as criticism, even if that is true. A better way to get the same message across might be to ask, “What was the goal for that activity?” and then, “How well do you think that worked?” The responsibility for making the choice is given to the protégé, answering it requires more careful analysis, and the learning that results are more likely to lead to protégé commitment to change and improve.
This approach should be taken whenever the mentor feels the protégé can successfully handle the process. If such is not the case, or the protégé is given the responsibility to do the thinking but ends up struggling, the mentor can easily revert to participating in the thinking by again discussing out loud what he wonders about, or what he asks himself. In this situation, the mentor can offer correction to improve what is practiced, such as by saying, “What might work better is…”, or, “I’ve found that X works even better.”
Finally, other program parts such as observation of expert peers and peer support groups can also be facilitated to reveal these reflective questioning skills when others do them, and to reinforce them and practice them. The more the whole program teaches, models, reinforces, and provides practice in the desired skills, the more sure you can be that your protégés will learn and eventually independently use these essential practices. And that leads us back to our FBMM example and the last best practice.
Of course, mentoring is where the major individualization of support, guidance, and challenging all occur for a protégé. The mentor does not have the constraints of program level support, training, etc., all of which must be designed to some extent to target the average participant. Very well designed, research-based programs usually know how to treat individuals individually, even when they are in groups. But nothing can beat the ability of an effective mentor who assesses the protege’s specific needs and designing interventions and support to help the protégé grow through and beyond those needs to higher levels of performance. As critical and typical as this understanding of mentoring is, this is really only about half of the mentor’s work.
Even a very effective training component cannot ensure that the new skills learned will be implemented in the person’s daily work
as improvement. Support for implementation in the work of the person’s learning is where an experienced mentor component works best, so the mentor’s roles and tasks must be defined to include this work and they must be trained in how to do it. The mentor is placed in the center of the model to show mentoring’s function of helping the protégé to integrate and make sense of the other program level support activities. The arrows pointing in toward the mentor reflect this role and relationship to other program components.
As we can see, what FBMM is doing all across it’s program is really more than just orientation, training support groups, and other components. It is a thoughtfully designed integrated program with several components, all of which by themselves use best practices. That these are planned and delivered as an integrated system means that the effects attained by each component are multiplied and reinforced by all the components. So, the best practices exist at two levels – within each program component and among the components.
The multiplying effect this achieves is what we call a “synergy” and it is achieved by thinking of the diverse components as one interactive system in which each part is designed and delivered with all the other parts in mind. For example, design of the orientation component includes asking and answering the questions, “How can orientation better prepare participants for our trainings, the support group activities, observations, goal setting/action planning, and work with mentors? How can each of these other components reinforce and help participants apply what they have learned during orientation?”
On the right above is a visualization of one way to organize and communicate the program components and the relationships among them. Again, I invite reader response and suggestions to improve this model.
The outer most circle represents the partners which are external to the program. This is often when the referral of the candidate protégé originates, so it is also often the setting for the early assessment of protégé needs and exchange of agreements. Also, the protégé can be assigned a mentor match before being considered “in” the program.
The next circle in is the program level activity to support protégé development. Best practice states that each program component’s activities are followed up and supported by the work of the mentor, who guides the protégé to adapt and implement in practice what was learned in the program and who provides individualized support.
When all these components function at the best practice level, and when each supports the work of the others, that is when you can begin to expect to have what I call a “high impact” on the life of that protégé. That is when, “the whole equals more than the sum of the parts.”
- Equip Program of Dallas Texas, retrieved July 2, 2010 at <http://www.interfaithhousingcoalition.org/pages/equip_mentor>
- Faith Based Mentoring Ministries (FBMM) of Allen County Indiana, retrieved July 2, 2010 at <http://www.faithbasedmentoring.org>
- South Jersey Faith-Based Mentoring Coalition (SJFBMC), retrieved July 2, 2010 at <http://www.sjfbmc.org>
- Sweeny, B.W. 2007. Leading the Teacher Mentoring and Induction Program. Corwin Press. Thousand Oaks, Ca.