When the young become the teachers, pastors not only get a chance to learn about culture, they also get a healthy dose of humility. I
never suspected that I was about to go to school when my friend Joe called me. Knowing that I had two dead iPods, he handed the cell phone to Jody, his 15-year-old daughter, who began to explain how to reboot these devices in a way that might bring them back to life. Being 38 years older than Jody, I could have balked at the idea of taking instruction from a teenager, but the mental image of the iPod boneyard in my study meant that she had my full attention. I couldn't wait to get home to press the buttons that would resuscitate my only source of portable music.
Jody put on a clinic in reverse mentoring with me that afternoon—where the junior person is the teacher, not the learner. While reverse mentoring can be applied to virtually any issue, it's most common use is in bringing together old and young in an instructional relationship that simply stands ordinary mentoring on its head. In other words, people like Jody become the experts, teaching me things they know instinctively that I may never grasp without their help.
Having spent years under the tutelage of dozens of young people, I believe that reverse mentoring may be one of the most important and under-used forms of learning available to leaders today. My mentors have stimulated both personal and professional transformation in me that could have come no other way. Let's examine the value of reverse mentoring in developing ourselves as leaders and offer some practical suggestions for implementing this underrated practice in your own ministry.
My father wrote all his sermons in longhand on white legal tablets. He depended on paper, a medium of communication inherited from the ancient Egyptians. I call this time the pWorld, and while advanced office devices such as typewriters could improve the speed of the pWorld, it was still just the world of paper. The legacy of this time in my own ministry took the form of steel file cabinets filled with dark green hanging folders housing all stuffed with files of various kinds. When I heaved many boxes of these old documents into a dumpster a few months ago, I felt like I was attending a friend's funeral.
As I approached adulthood, the kind of electronic devices that I had only seen in movies became available at the mall. The eWorld had arrived. I now had more computing power on my person than existed on earth at the time of my birth.
The next world arrived the day I sent my first email to Bruce, our youth pastor at the time, whose office was just across the hall in the church we both served. Using a dial-up version of Juno, I was so excited to think that a message could reach him in nanoseconds after being routed through a city in Alaska (which is what I thought Juno did). Many thousands of emails later, I now realize that my first tentative message was a personal announcement of the arrival of iWorld.
While we all knew that the pWorld was about paper, and the eWorld was about electronics, the identity of the iWorld is much more fluid.
Depending on whom you ask, this prefix seems to imply some reference to the Internet, imagination, information, intelligence or a person, among other things. The critical feature of my iPod, for example, is not that it houses electronics, but that it can connect with online audio libraries, allowing me to listen to music and podcasts on demand.
Citizens of iWorld are replacing institutional control of information with tools like Google or by simply creating their own information. As a pWorld native, sometimes I still think of the Internet as just a very fast electric post office, while iWorld natives don't think about it—they just assume it.
Citizens of all three existing worlds will face a huge challenge as whatever comes next (I call it xWorld) begins to emerge. The early signs are that it will be dominated by 80 million Millennials, the largest generation in American history, and will be known for things like virtual reality worlds, wearable computers and biotechnology. No doubt, some citizens of the other worlds will interpret xWorld as just an extension of their own and others will deny that it represents anything important. But all of us will have to discover how to reach it with the gospel.
How are we to make the Christian story stand out when experts estimate that a college graduate today has been exposed to more information in a year than their grandparents were in a lifetime? How can we ever hope for unity in our ministries when the church houses representatives of all four worlds simultaneously, with many aspects of each overlapping and many of us holding dual citizenship? Reverse mentoring offers an important way both to connect with culture and with each other.
From Teacher to Student
All my ministry training implied that the major compensation for growing old in this calling was the fact that I finally got to be in charge. In one sense that happened: the Baby Boomers—my tribe—now represent about 60 percent of American senior pastors. It is our watch, our time to be the experts and the authority figures. But authorities on what?
Things are changing so quickly that some futurists estimate a typical member of the 21st century workforce will need to accumulate knowledge roughly equivalent to a Masters degree every seven years just to keep up. Similarly, the instincts that made us effective in pWorld and eWorld settings may have little to do with how the natives of iWorld and xWorld hear the gospel. A 20-year-old who thinks in the visual terms of YouTube videos may be unimpressed with the sermon outlines that impressed pWorld audiences.
The corporate world recognized years ago that its leaders were slowly losing touch both with technology and the markets they wanted to reach. Former General Electric CEO Jack Welch noted that "e-business knowledge is generally inversely proportional to both age and rank in the organization." The solution of companies like GE and Proctor and Gamble was not to fire these seasoned professionals but to pair them with much younger employees who could instruct them on the customs of the new worlds.
Welch implemented this strategy by assigning 1,000 GE executives to 1,000 younger workers not as their mentors, but as their mentees.
The corporate example parallels the experience of the American church in some important ways. Middle-aged leaders like me naturally tend to drift away from the front edge of the culture we want to reach, because we are simply citizens of another time.
In private, many Christian leaders have confessed to me how obsolete they feel. It's as if someone changed all the rules without telling them. When they look over the crowd on Sunday morning, they may see a lot of people, but the absence of the younger ones—and the lost ones—haunts them.
Reverse mentoring offers a way to reconnect ministry with culture (and subcultures) for several specific reasons:
1. It will break me. The first time I go to a much younger person and say the four dreaded words, "I don't get it," something inside me changes. This exercise, which I think of as a spiritual discipline, is both the cause and the effect of a kind of humility that serves Christian leaders well (see 1 Peter 5:5-6). The sense of entitlement that comes with thinking of ourselves as an authority figure can put us on a trajectory to irrelevance.
Being tutored by someone like Jody is a powerful therapy for this affliction. I still remember the laughter that erupted when I asked a group of young pastors why they would want to send text messages. God used them to humble me as they taught what was so natural for them. Reverse-mentoring relationships can offer an opportunity to practice a lifelong discipline of cultivated humility.
2. It will change me. The young are ready to teach us much more than how to repair broken MP3 players. Technology is only an example of the kind of influence they can have. In fact, they may not know how much they know until our questions begin to bring it out of them.
I frequently ask young adults what kind of music they like. These days their response is often, "I like everything." When I press for details they describe an iPod packed with the two or three best songs by a variety of artists. These choices could be dismissed as just the result of having an iPod. But further inquiry reveals that they have a "highlight reel" view of life that assumes the ability to skim off the best and leave the rest.
Asking them about this preference forces pastors to ask some tough questions. How do we design a worship experience for people who demand absolute excellence in everything, but whose musical preferences are a moving target? The only thing more uncomfortable than facing issues like these is the consequence of not facing them.
3. It will energize me. Being the student of younger leaders has been the best and happiest part of my ministry over the last half decade. They have proven themselves to be available, honest and respectful. In fact, the more ignorance I confess, the more respectful they become, because they have seen so few older leaders willing to admit any type of need. Involvement in this form of relationship often leads to mutual mentoring. In fact, I have done more conventional mentoring out of reverse mentoring than any other way.
From Broken i Pod to Changed Heart
Even Jody's best advice did not revive my iPods. One flickered briefly but still refused to take a battery charge and the other just lay there like a stone. But the point of the exercise is not whether I recover my ability to listen to music through white wires, just as the point of reverse mentoring isn't really learning new technology or jargon. I'm in relationships with younger people because I respect them and because they change me without even knowing it.
Our unspoken agreement is something like this: they never ask that I become one of them, and I do not pretend to be. At the same time, I do not require that they become like me or that they listen to the speeches I am so fond of making (sometimes I break that one). If everyone involved approaches the relationship with a soft heart, we can learn things that will help us bring the gospel to all of our worlds while enjoying a kind of fellowship that is available in no other way. n
Earl Creps, Ph.D., is director of the Doctor of Ministry Program in Pentecostal Leadership at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Miss. (www.agts.edu)