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Subverting assumptions about age, experience and wisdom

A team of people keeps me healthy in ministry. Spiritual director, colleague group, friends inside and outside the church, therapist — each of these companions plays a part.

But it had been a while since I had a mentor.

In my 40s, having been ordained for several years, I became that person less experienced colleagues sought out for guidance on navigating the ordination process and leading a parish. I knew how “the system” worked. I had witnessed enough conflicts, made enough mistakes, midwifed enough new ministries to feel qualified in offering encouragement, coaching and timely cautions.

Then about a year ago, I found myself in my 50s, contemplating what I expect to be my final decade of active, full-time ministry. Newly vaccinated against COVID-19, aware that it was impossible to predict all the ways this pandemic would reshape the church, and seeing glimmers of hope in coalitions forming to seek justice and offer mutual aid, I knew I needed a different kind of companion. I needed someone to help me navigate the new landscape. Someone less invested in shoring up what had been and more open to imagining what could be than was the tendency for “experienced” people like me.

I needed a mentor. Specifically, a mentor younger than myself.

What is sometimes called “reverse mentoring” has been around the business world since the 1990s. First introduced so that younger workers could bring older executives up to speed on the internet, the practice is now valued for less technical reasons. Younger mentors are now sought out for their perspectives and insights, not just their technical expertise.

That was the case for me. I wasn’t looking to be coached on optimizing social media or setting up breakout rooms on Zoom. I wanted a conversation partner to help me imagine sustainable ways to pastor and encourage disciples of Jesus at a time when the relationships at the heart of the church, wounded by pandemic separations, were more precious than ever.

My mentor, Caleb, is a person I mentored about a decade ago, before he was ordained. We both like to wonder out loud; we are fond of asking, “Why?” “What if …?” and even, “Why not?”

In addition to being separated by a generation in age, we have enough differences in gender expression, ethnicity and class background that our perspectives vary in fruitful ways.

We live close enough that it’s easy to meet once a month for coffee, although we’ve used Zoom when inclement weather and COVID restrictions have required it. Usually, I have something in mind I want to discuss; often, I’ll start thinking about a topic a week or so before we meet.

Sometimes I ask about his ministry with young adults. Learning what they’re doing is instructive for me as the interim priest-in-charge of a medium-sized parish of mostly older adults. Like our 20-something friends, we’re also facing a new stage of life.

Caleb emphasizes practices, like teaching mindfulness and contemplative prayer, rather than institutionalized “programs” that may not be sustainable. And he consciously sets aside time for his ministry partners to ask open-ended questions about faith, the Christian tradition, and how Jesus and the communion of saints can be their daily companions.

My parishioners are just as hungry as his to reconnect with God and each other; if they weren’t pondering deep and challenging questions before the spring of 2020, they certainly are now. So my mentor reminds me to open up spaces to pray together and to offer our grief, hopes and questions to God and each other.

He also reminds me to make time for fellowship, simply to enjoy each other’s company. A remark Caleb made early in our relationship, “Consider the lilies,” has become a refrain for me. It’s a reminder not to let anxiety dominate my ministry but to rest and trust in God, who creates beauty and delights in it.

We know that our arrangement is still relatively unusual. As Caleb has said, “It is often our culture’s approach (especially in the church and government) to presume that the world belongs to those who have accumulated the most of something, whether degrees, dollars or years of experience” — and further, to presume that these same people have “all the best insights regarding how to be in that world.” In subverting these assumptions, we believe we’re being faithful.

Caleb has reminded me that “overturning unhelpful cultural norms in the pursuit of Christ’s community and wisdom” is actually a part of our faith. Having entered adulthood during the Great Recession, he learned early that the quest for material security can be pointless and that our relationships are often our greatest wealth. Jesus teaches the same thing, and we keep having to relearn the lesson.

Our conversations move me to question assumptions. When I tell him my parish is aging — as are many churches — my mentor reminds me that a congregation filled with people in their 50s and older can be dynamic and that local retirement communities are a mission field.

When I share my congregation’s desire to incorporate younger adults, he asks how far they’re willing to go to be in community with 20- and 30-somethings. Is anyone talking about helping younger siblings in Christ retire their student debt?

If we typically think of a mentor as someone who helps you learn a system, mine does the opposite. He helps me get comfortable with the reality that some systems are breaking down, see the potential in the newness, and get real about what kinds of changes I’m willing to propose and guide.

That our relationship isn’t focused on him has brought my mentor some unexpected benefits. “Exploring the questions and concerns of a person with a longer career than me,” he has said, “gives me a fuller picture of what it means for a person to be in that stage of life and vocation.”

Engaging in conversations where we’re both vulnerable is more valuable for him than receiving whatever pieces of advice I think to dole out. Our conversations bless us both, in ways we hoped for and in ways we couldn’t have imagined. That sounds like the Holy Spirit on the move; that sounds like church.

He helps me get comfortable with the reality that some systems are breaking down, see the potential in the newness, and get real about what kinds of changes I’m willing to propose and guide.