Dear Isaac, Zoe, Tatum, Linus, and Iona,
Five years ago I went on sabbatical – a three-month break from working here at St. Dunstan’s – with a special project of learning more about ways to involve kids and youth in church worship, and church life in general. One of my best sources was a friend who was in leadership in a chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism in northern California. My friend – James, or Sir Beorn – offered a lot of great ideas and tools for helping kids and youth feel seen, valued, and meaningfully involved.
One of the ideas he shared that really stuck with me was cultivating a culture of mentorship. There are a few building blocks of that:
- There should be lots of ways kids and youth can be involved, depending on age, skill, interest, etc.;
- You (kids & youth) should be able to move on to new roles, or add on to a role you already have, and not be stuck with something that’s gotten boring; AND
- You should have the chance to teach or pass on your skills to others.
That last one is the part that really caught my attention – and that’s what I mean by a culture of mentorship. Not just adults mentoring kids, though that’s important too, but giving kids and youth a chance to mentor each other. Teaching, leading, skill-sharing is fun and exciting and affirming (and also, yes, sometimes very hard and quite exhausting). And younger kids love learning from older kids; it’s a lot more interesting than learning from adults, and it shows them how they can move into helper and leader roles themselves in time.
I carried this vision for a culture of mentorship for years without knowing how to implement it. We were busy with a big renovation, and then Covid, and I just couldn’t see what this could look like here, and didn’t have time to reflect on it deeply.
Then – as we started to plan Drama Camp this year – it just didn’t feel right to invite you all to be participants. I knew you had relevant skills, and even leadership experience, equal or beyond that of many adults involved. So, we asked our older youth: Would you like to be helpers – or even co-leaders – with Drama Camp this year? And you five stepped up and said, Yes. Isaac offered to stage manage our older kids’ play, an adapted version of Androcles and the Lion. Zoe offered to work on props; Tatum said they would work on costumes. Linus and Iona were both willing to be helpers with the younger group, for the week.
Isaac, Zoe, and Tatum: When we named you as “co-leaders” for the camp, I think we envisioned adults still running things, as usual, with you three stepping in or managing your particular aspects of the production. But then you three really formed a team and started running the whole thing, with the older group – and the adults involved saw that happening and stepped back, joyfully. I didn’t get to see you in action much, since I was working with the younger group, but I did see your intense conversations, before and after each evening of camp, about how things were going and how to handle the next night. I heard from the adults that they didn’t have that much to do, because you all were handling things so well. And I saw the result: a genuinely outstanding performance on Friday evening, after a mad rush of a week. You did wonders and I am so impressed. And I am positive that there are kids who were part of that cast who now have a vision of getting to lead stuff – not just help or even co-lead, but lead – in a few years’ time.
Linus and Iona: I feel like I owe you an apology; I wish we’d managed to give you more authority, and more to do. In bringing you in as helpers with the kindergarten through 3rd grade group, I think we envisioned you as cat herders, to help manage the group, round up stray goats, and so on. And you are both really good with younger kids, but you’ve got more to offer than that. Over the course of the week – leading games, supporting young actors, eventually running the dress rehearsal – there were many moments when I got to see your skills and your capacity for leadership. You did a LOT last week – the grownups couldn’t have done it without you – but I know you could do much more.
Having youth in these roles was all new, so of course we learned a lot! The big, overarching thing I learned was that your collective capacity, skill, and readiness to step up far exceeded what we grownups had imagined or planned for. I am amazed and grateful.
What’s the next step with growing our culture of mentorship, here at St. Dunstan’s? That’s a question I want to keep asking myself. This is something much more nuanced than just “get the youth to do stuff.” Kids and youth are busy, and you all need balance and freedom to choose when and how to be involved, just as much as anybody else. And Drama Camp worked the way it did because you all have interest and skill in that area; it was an effective match.
I want to be on the lookout for other places where an opportunity or need in the church and its ministries could be a good fit for a youth or kid’s skills and interests. A big learning of last week for me is that when those moments arise, I and other grown-ups involved need to be ready to step back and let the young folks run with something. Because even if that might sometimes mean a change of plan or direction, the many benefits of giving you that authority and space to use your gifts so far outweigh sticking to some grownup’s preconceived plan.
I’m interested in your thoughts, too. What did you learn, last week? How did it feel? Are there other things you’d like to do, or directions you’d like to explore, in our common life as a church – things that would let you share your gifts and skills, and exercise leadership in ways that feel good and help you grow? I hope others will think about those questions too, as I share this letter with the wider parish.
Thank you for everything that you poured into Drama Camp, and thank you for being such a vivid example of the words of 1 Timothy in the Bible: “Don’t let anybody look down on you because you are young!”