Donald Miller, author of To Own a Dragon, and John Sowers explain their amazing strategy to reach fatherless boys.
Churches know–and research confirms–that passionate faith won’t pass on to the next generation without a strong partnership with families. But how do we effectively reach and minister to families? That’s a question churches are grappling with-especially when the shape and makeup of families today is more varied and dynamic than ever before. Research organizations estimate that nearly 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, and more than 1 in 3 children live apart from their biological fathers.
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One faith-based organization is working hard to bolster churches’ efforts by helping them meet the specific needs of boys growing up without male role models. The Mentoring Project (TMP), which exists to inspire and equip the faith community to provide positive male role models to boys between the ages of 7 and 14, has developed an out-of-the-box approach to provide support for the sons of single moms. This nonprofit organization based in Portland, Oregon, works to provide 10,000 mentors for the sons of single moms nationwide. Children’s Ministry Magazine caught up with the founder of TMP-New York Times best-selling author Donald Miller-and John Sowers, TMP’s president, to find out about their unique vision for family ministry.
Q: Don, TMP seems to have been born out of writing your best-selling books To Own a Dragon and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. How did TMP come about?
Miller: When I was writing To Own a Dragon, which was about growing up without a father, I began to realize that the issue of fatherlessness needed more than a book. Out of that realization, The Mentoring Project was born.
Q: The TMP logo features-of all things-elephants. What do elephants have to do with mentoring?
Miller: I learned a great deal about myself while watching a documentary a few years ago about elephants in a wildlife trust in Africa. There were 25 elephants, all of them orphans, and they’d been brought to the trust 20 years earlier. They were becoming teenagers-in elephant years. The young females were well-adjusted, getting along with the other elephants, but there were a few young males who were causing a great deal of trouble because they’d gone into extended musth cycles, an annual phase of heightened aggressiveness.
The narrator in the documentary said the elephant musth cycle begins in adolescence, and normally lasts only a few days. But among these male orphans, the musth cycle was disrupted and had become unusually long. These elephants were taking out their aggression on rhinos that bathed at a local mud pool. A young male elephant would slowly lumber down to the pool, enter near a rhino, then spear it through the side with his tusks. The elephant would then lean his gargantuan forehead into the head of the rhino, holding the beast underwater until it drowned. The filmmakers followed these orphan elephants, who were always on their own, as they staggered about the wildlife refuge, fueled by pent-up and misplaced aggression.
Occasionally, two young elephants in musth would meet, and the encounter was always violent, going so far as to uproot trees in the fray of their brawl. When both beasts, bloodied, lumbered their separate ways alone-without a family, without a tribe-I couldn’t help but identify. I’ve never killed a rhino, or much of anything for that matter, but there have been times in my life when I didn’t know exactly how to be. I sometimes experienced feelings of anger, depression, or raging lust, and I was never sure what any of it was about. I just felt like killing somebody, or sleeping with some girl, or decking another guy, and I didn’t know what to do with any of those feelings. Life was a confusing series of emotions rubbing against events. I wasn’t sure how to manage myself, how to talk to a female, how to build a career, how to-well, how to be a man.
To me, life was something you had to stumble through alone. It wasn’t something you enjoyed or conquered, it was something that happened to you, and you didn’t have a whole lot of say about the way it turned out. You just acted out your feelings and hoped you never got caught.
Q: In terms of TMP, what is a mentor? What does a mentor do?
Miller: In the most basic form, a mentor is simply a friend or teacher. For TMP, a mentor is someone who loves, models, and teaches the love of Jesus to a mentee. A major part of mentoring is just faithfully showing up. But mentoring is more than just “hanging out”; it’s loving a boy unconditionally. It’s connecting with him, listening to him, laughing with him. It’s looking for teachable moments and engaging those moments with sensitivity and biblical intentionality.