Take a second and picture some of your closest friends.
Now think of people who have served as your most influential mentors.
I’d be willing to bet that with few exceptions, the same faces didn’t appear as both “friends” and “mentors.” In all likelihood, most of your friends shared experiences with you in the same season of life. And more than likely, the mentors you pictured were older—perhaps even by a generation or two.
That same dichotomy doesn’t exist for me with Linda and Barry Rowan.
I met Linda and Barry during business school, albeit graduating about three decades apart. Barry is an alumnus of my MBA program, and together he and Linda led a micro finance trip to Central America every year for students.
In the years since I joined them on one of these trips, their example and their willingness to share their lives with me have helped me make professional decisions, navigate through relationships, and grow spiritually.
Many would call this “mentorship,” but to classify them as mentors wouldn’t quite capture the nature of our relationship. Barry, Linda, and I would describe each other as friends, and our friendship has forced me to rethink the traditional mentorship model. Rather than a transfer of wisdom from an august elder to an unseasoned youth, mentorship should be supplemented with the idea of intergenerational friendship, a relationship that flourishes across an age gap, to the mutual enrichment of the younger and the older.
If ideas have a distinct a tipping point, mentorship might have among the most delayed, clocking in at 2,700 years. “Mentorship” as a term did not fully enter the common vocabulary until the 1970s and 1980s, but its roots are in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, written in the 8th century B.C. In The Odyssey, Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, is given to the care of Mentor, a friend of Odysseus, while Odysseus is away at war. Telemachus, fortuitously, has the benefit not merely of Mentor but also of the goddess Athena herself, who appears to Telemachus in the form of Mentor to provide him with guidance.
Although mentorship in its current form is associated more with bosses and teachers than with the gods, the limitations of modern mentorship can, in some ways, be traced to the Homeric associations of mentorship with divine guidance, insight, and wisdom.
Mentorship is often marked by a sense of hierarchy and mono-directional exchange — the older imparting wisdom to the younger. Related, the high expectations surrounding mentorship (a bar set by Athena, the goddess of wisdom) create a sense of pressure that often deters people from mentoring out of a sense of inadequacy. And in place of the one practice from The Odyssey that we could have beneficially adopted — the integration of the relationship of Telemachus and Mentor into the day-to-day of life — we have instead today imposed on mentorship a stiff formality and artificiality. Interactions are confined to a set “coffee chats” or lunches when all of sudden the mentee is supposed to open up about the deep stuff of life and the mentor is conveniently graced with otherworldly wisdom in real time.
Mentors and mentees alike would benefit from moving beyond mere mentorship into intergenerational friendship. Most friendships involve some level of difference that makes the relationship fresh and interesting: differences in where friends grew up, their family structures, their professions, their ethnicities, their hobbies. Intergenerational friendship is simply the same principle applied to age, with the difference being the years when friends were born: the same football games, spa days, board games, whiskey flights, restaurants, and hikes that we do with our intragenerational friends shared with intergenerational friends.
Out of those daily interactions and shared life experiences come a deep knowing of each other from which insights and encouragement can be shared in both directions. These insights go beyond the tired stereotypes of older people sharing wisdom and young people challenging convention. No, the rich mutuality is rooted simply in different experiences that, as with any other relationship, allow friends to provide a fresh, unanticipated perspective or new ways of having fun.
This mutuality is the hallmark of my intergenerational friendship with Barry and Linda. We go snowshoeing, attend each other’s dinner parties, travel, meet each other’s friends, and exchange non-glutinous brownie recipes—the very things I do with my twenty- and thirtysomething friends.
From that time together emerge meaningful conversations that are mutually enriching and fun. I share reflections on Scripture from my quiet times, and Barry talks about his silent retreat. Linda shoots me a text with a verse that was put on her heart for me, and I’ll send her a note letting her know that I was praying for her that morning. We partner and bring different approaches to shared endeavors like DIFW and our business school Christian alumni association. We learn from each other different expressions of the Church. We make each other aware of new restaurants, hikes, breweries, and things to do in Denver. More than mentorship, it’s a friendship; the blessing flows both ways.
For this friendship we have a model of Jesus himself. As he explained to his disciples, “I no longer call you servants…Instead, I have called you friends” (John 15:15).
If Jesus, the ultimate Mentor, could frame our relationship with Him as friends, how much more so should we do the same with others? The reciprocity at the core of the Trinity and the surprising reciprocity that marks our relationship with God is the same reciprocity we should bring to all our relationships—even those across generations.
We should also take encouragement from the role of the Holy Spirit in making intergenerational friendship thrive. The fear of not having anything to bring to the table, which often keeps mentors from mentoring or mentees from “imposing” on a mentor, can be overcome when we remember that God Himself works in and speaks through us in surprising ways by the gift of the Holy Spirit. In this, Homer might have had inadvertently had it right. Just as Athena speaks through Mentor, so too, does God speak by the Holy Spirit through us. But unlike in The Odyssey, each of us, mentor or mentee, Telemachus or Mentor, has that same Sprit working, speaking, and encouraging others through us. As we are transformed into His likeness, we can, young or old, share with each other the ministering work of God.
Steven Strott moved to Denver after earning an MBA from Harvard and serving a successful stint with the prestigious Boston Consulting Group. His success and growth is due in part to a mentor, Barry Rowan of Cool Planet Energy Systems. Through their friendship, Steven says, “I began to see the way business contributes to Shalom. I now see work as a means to draw out the potential in creation as well as people.”