Joe Stivers’ house is chaos. There are middle school boys everywhere. They’re making pancakes, telling jokes, setting out plastic forks and cups, and navigating his kitchen like they’re at home. Laughter seems to be coming from everywhere.
As new eighth-graders, most of them have been walking with this group and “Mr. Stivers” for two years already. In very real ways, his home, this group, and Mr. Stivers are their safest place.
It doesn’t take long to notice that Joe doesn’t talk with them like they’re boys. He gives them jobs, fully trusting in their abilities. He listens when they talk, drawing out their confidence. He’s comfortable with the chaos.
The tower of pancakes is consumed within minutes, and all the guys pile on the couches in the living room. This week, they’re tackling loss. One of the boys is moving away, and Joe wants to make sure they know that grief is normal. He starts by sharing a story of his own loss as a boy and how he denied himself the chance to feel anything about it. He opens up the floor to talk about it, leading naturally into a discussion about Jesus and the Last Supper. The boys listen, respectful. A few chime in. A few look away as they blink away tears. Joe offers them the chance to be men who feel, grieve, and offer support.
After the discussion, the students disperse. Some go fishing nearby, while others head to the basement to play air hockey. They’re back to feeling at home in this space Joe’s created for them. The chaos picks up right where they left it.
Joe got a taste for youth ministry as an intern at Southeast more than 15 years ago. During his internship, he spent a lot of time at schools with events hosted by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and giving saxophone lessons. He realized that he really loved spending intentional time with the students but that God was calling him to serve faithfully from inside the school, not inside the church. This launched him into a career as a middle school band teacher.
“I’m a Christian who happens to be a teacher, not a teacher who happens to be a Christian. I hope that’s clear in my interactions with the students,” Joe explained.
To him, obedience to Christ is everything, and it most directly comes through mentorship and discipleship.
As Joe reflected on the life and ministry of Jesus, he felt an urgency to walk with students the way that Jesus walked with His disciples. He knew real growth, safety, and community came in small fellowships and in everyday, intentional life.
Joe began praying for and engaging students as God led him. Through his existing connection to students and their parents, he began mentoring middle school boys. And then, when they reached high school, Joe stuck with them. Each year, he adds a new group of students and commits to walking with them regularly until they graduate.
Joe is currently discipling more than 120 young men.
Before school, Joe meets with a different group of guys at 6:00 a.m., one grade group per day. They talk, listen, pray, and grow together. Through this intentional time, he gets to help them navigate the hard parts of being a young man, like school decisions, friendships, pressure, family hardships, loss, and stress. In obedience to Christ, Joe provides wisdom, counsel, encouragement, and safety.
Though many of these boys have loving parents, teenage years can be full of hardship and conflict, and there’s something valuable about having an outside person who speaks truth and wisdom into the situation.
“Whenever one of us was going through something hard, he’d invite us over, help us think through what we were feeling and what could be done, and just encourage us. It was really helpful to have someone who wasn’t our parents who was giving us wisdom,” said Ryan Thompson, one of Joe’s students who began as a sixth-grader and is now a senior in high school.
Because of Joe’s intentional discipleship, Ryan has grown from an awkward, shy kid to a man on the brink of his next chapter. Ryan plans to be a band director and mentor, just like his friend, Mr. Stivers.
The Cost of Discipleship
Managing to fit one mentoring relationship into your life would be tricky enough for most people. Walking weekly with 120 young men while working full time and being a good husband and father should seem practically impossible. But after 15 years, mentoring is just a natural part of life for Joe and his family.
That’s not to say there aren’t costs. Because Joe meets with guys very early in the morning, he tends to go to bed earlier than his wife, missing out on time with her. And since Joe’s already out of the house, she’s the one who gets their boys ready in the mornings.
It could be easy for Joe’s family to feel resentful or bitter, if they didn’t recognize that this ministry is a calling for all of them. His wife loves to host and always hoped for a house full of community, and his young boys are consistently given the chance to learn from and grow with older guys. Joe and his family are also intentional to set aside protected time for one another.
Joe learned years ago how to ease the financial burden of walking with so many people. When gathering for special events, the boys’ families often chip in the food and supplies. Joe uses special scholarships and funding campaigns when specific, higher-cost needs arise, but he and his wife occasionally step in with their own gifts when they believe God is asking them to contribute personally.
Moving Forward with Discipleship
For Joe, the greatest difficulty is in knowing which students to serve.
“I look at public school and I see countless kids roaming the halls who just need light, who need guidance,” he said. “The biggest challenge is leaning on the Spirit to show me which students need that guidance.”
As he meets incoming sixth-grade students each year, Joe spends many hours in prayer, both for the ones he’ll invite to join a group and the many he’ll only be able to invest in during their three years at his school.
Of course, any time you are walking in the mess of life with other people, there are sacrifices, hard conversations, the weight of their burdens, and a front-row seat when those you love find themselves suffering from the consequences of a broken world. Joe can’t stop parents from divorcing, he can’t cure cancer, and he can’t prevent a teenage boy from making the decisions he’s determined to make. The cost of actively living life with others is often heartbreaking and heavy.
But the gift of walking with people far outweighs the burden. For 15 years, Joe has watched in awe as God has changed the lives of young men. He has seen them move from fear to courage, isolation to friendships, and doubt to faith. God has used Joe to point countless teenage boys toward a future of purpose, joy, and faith.
And that’s worth all the chaos.