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Why You Should Encourage Reverse Shoulder Tapping

Do you ever have those moments where you think, “I can’t believe I’ve been doing it for this long, and I just now learned that!” This happens to me often. I’ve learned to resist the shame or guilt of my ineptitude…and lean into the new discovery.

It happened to me again today during an interview with Matt Engel on our ULC podcast Lead Time. While we were talking about the intense need to disciple young adults within the Church, Matt blew my mind.

We’ve all heard of “shoulder tapping”…or at least I hope you have. Shoulder tapping is when you identify the gifts in another and “shoulder tap” them into a corresponding position. It could be for any role within or outside the church. Learning to shoulder tap is essential for being a developer of other people. We get it at the ULC. We’ve been teaching it for years.

I was talking with Matt about how I’m mentoring a handful of young men and prayerfully connecting them to other mature men in the church who could possibly serve as their mentors. Something told me as I was passionately proclaiming my “shoulder tapping” approach, that I was missing something. Matt politely pointed it out.

He said something like, “Tim, that is good and all, but it is not scalable.” Ouch. I resisted reacting with pride and kept listening, putting on a happy face, even though inside I was slightly offended. “What do you mean?” I questioned.

“Well, you need to reverse shoulder tap.” I’d never heard this phrase before. I think Matt just made it up on the spot, but I was intrigued. “You should create a space and culture where you’re giving the young men an opportunity to personally identify and request their own mentor from their own network, not yours. You could then organize training sessions for both the young mentee and their chosen mentor.”

It was brilliant. Here is why.

Pastor, most of the time when young people come to you for counsel they are at their wit's end. You’re close to the last option, not the first. The young person is in some sort of crisis, so they’re willing to give the “old Jesus dude from church” a try. Sorry, but this has been mostly true from my experience. When this occurs, it is wonderful for you to serve as a connector to other godly men.

My approach wasn’t bad. It was simply reactive, not proactive.

Matt’s approach is proactively designed for the average young person who is not in crisis but would love to set up an embedded mentoring relationship. The young person doesn’t need me (the pastor) to do the shoulder tapping. They need to be given the expectation to shoulder tap for themselves. This is reverse shoulder tapping. They need to be given permission and expectation and TOOLS to ask someone they already know, in a season directly ahead of them, and let them into their lives. Having the proper tools through training helps the mentee frame up a vulnerable, humble conversation, one that can be communicated with clarity on what the mentee needs from the mentor.

The mentor may only be a year or two older than the mentee. Imagine how honored the mentor will be when asked for a mentorship relationship by the mentee. I’ve had it happen to me. It is humbling.

Here is what young people need in a mentor:

  • They need a mentor who will let them observe how they lead their business team at work, and then debrief with them.

  • They need a mentor who will let them observe how they function as a godly husband and father, wife and mother, and then debrief with them.

  • They need a mentor who will let them observe their personal rhythms with the Lord, sharing their personal and private best practices for functioning as a healthy human.

  • They need a mentor who will ask challenging questions without fear of offending, since the relationship is already so well established, and trust has deepened.

I can’t find this type of mentor for the average young adult. But I bet the young person can. They are already in some sort of relationship with someone they look up to. They simply need church leadership to offer it to them as an invitation.

Here is the one thing the church could do—provide a rhythm of training for mentors and mentees. The training doesn’t have to be six weeks. It could be two weeks, simply giving training on what “embedded mentoring” looks like.

Finally, this principle can be applied to starting small groups. It actually is how we’ve been functioning for quite some time. We train church members to identify two or three friends for a group, and we’ll provide training and curriculum options. The church isn’t in the “small group” dating game. We’re here to train and empower members of the body of Christ to engage those whom they already know where they work, live, and play.

There you go. I learned something new today. I hope you did, too.

Full transparency, much of what I just shared, is already utilized by our youth ministry. Our youth leaders learned reverse shoulder tapping before I did. Yet I believe it has the potential to radically change our discipleship approach for all ages.

Go, learn and practice reverse shoulder tapping today!


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