A few years ago, reverse mentoring was a hot new trend in the business world. It was an initiative in which older executives are paired with and mentored by younger employees. It is seen as a way to bring older employees up to speed in areas that they might be lacking knowledge in, such as new technology, current trends and social media. This turned the idea of mentoring on its head, by allowing younger employees to feel empowered, and to help change the corporate culture.
Freemasonry, in almost all circumstances uses the traditional model of mentoring. Recently, I’ve read a fantastic series of articles by the Midnight Freemasons founder, Todd Creason. In his latest article in the series, Freemasonry's Future Pt. 2, Todd asks the following question: “How do you think future generations of Freemasons are going to act if we don't teach them to be Freemasons, serve as examples, and correct them gently and compassionately when they need it?” While I agree mentoring is important, I view the best approach as a hybrid of reverse mentoring and traditional mentoring known as reciprocal mentoring.
Let’s face some hard facts. What we’ve been doing in Freemasonry isn’t working. Todd is absolutely correct in stating that one of your responsibilities as a Freemason is to be an example for and to teach the new ones. However, by the same logic, I think the new ones can teach the experienced ones as well, they can serve as examples, and they should also be able to correct the experienced ones gently and compassionately when they need it. Instead of creating a dialogue between the inexperienced and experienced, traditional mentoring in Freemasonry is applying a paradigm that is flawed because it’s only allowing one idea, which is the idea that the older experienced Freemasons “know” what the younger or inexperienced ones want or need. This is a primary factor in why we’re not having any great success in retaining new or younger members.
As mentioned above, the paradigm where older or experienced Masons assume that they “know” what the younger or inexperienced members need, is flawed. The flaw is present because the older Masons are using themselves and what they needed at that age and applying it to the younger Masons. It is the equivalent idea to the old Past Master who objects to every new idea brought up during a stated meeting, because “We’ve always done it this way.” Times have changed. The world has changed. Technology has changed. So I’m going to suggest a radical idea. Freemasonry needs to change. We need to change the idea of mentorship. Mentorship needs to work not only from the top down, but also from the bottom up.
This past April, Todd Creason invited Greg Knott and myself to join him at Vitruvian Lodge in Indianapolis, where he had been invited to speak. Todd spoke about how he recently joined a new church. The pastor of the church had an uncanny ability to figure out his congregations individual talents and to use them for the betterment of the congregation as a whole. In Todd’s case, the pastor discovered that he could play piano. It wasn’t too much longer after that, that Todd found himself playing the organ at his church services. Todd’s point was that in order for Masonry to succeed, we needed to make sure that everyone was given a role. That everyone has unique talents which if utilized could better the fraternity, but that we need to seek out those talents. This is exactly what we should be doing as part of our intender or mentoring programs.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with the term, the intender program is a mentoring program that the Grand Lodge of Illinois set up to assign a new candidate an experienced Freemason to guide him through his degrees, teach him the catechism and how to be a Freemason. I’m certain that it probably exists in every Grand Lodge even if it is known by a different name. It is during this time that the intender should be learning what skills the new candidate might possess or lack. It is also the time where the intender should be looking at helping the new candidate with skills in the areas where he lacks them, but also giving them a purpose in teaching others in areas where he possesses skill or knowledge. This is also the time where expectations of both parties are defined and the rules of the mentoring relationship are agreed upon.
For example, if a younger Master Mason has no desire to immediately be placed in a chair, then is it fair to him to put him into a chair immediately? By the same token, would you make the oldest member of your lodge the chairman of the social media committee when he’s barely able to work a PC? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the younger Master Mason take on that role, but maybe help teach the oldest member social media and have the oldest member sit in the chair and help teach the younger Master Mason his role in that chair? The mentoring process should be reciprocal.
Furthermore, the intender should be gathering an idea of what the candidate wants out of Freemasonry instead of assuming that they “know what they need” as alluded to above. If the new Freemason wants to know about some of the more esoteric interpretations of the symbols and ritual, and his intender doesn’t know much in that area, then we need to be able to have another brother with more understanding of the subject mentor him in that particular area. By the same token, you wouldn’t want a brother who doesn’t know ritual very well to serve as a mentor to a younger brother who is really interested in learning the ritual. We need to be flexible in our approach to mentoring. While a candidate may be assigned to one intender, that intender needs to be flexible enough to bring in other brothers to mentor that candidate in those areas where the intender lacks expertise but the candidate desires knowledge.
For this idea to work, there needs to be the acceptance of the idea by older or experienced Freemasons, that the younger or inexperienced Freemasons can teach them things. There needs to be an understanding that the younger or inexperienced Freemasons have value even if they lack life experience, and the younger or inexperienced Freemason needs understand that there is value in the life experience that the older Freemason can share. There needs to be trust, transparency and a willingness to learn by both individuals in order for the relationship to be mutually beneficial.
To state that the younger generation of Freemasonry needs to be taught the fundamentals of Freemasonry is making the assumption that the older ones don’t also need this. In fact, I’d argue that the ideas of tolerance that our Fraternity teaches is more deeply ingrained in the younger generation of Freemasons than it is in the older generation. I believe this is an area where the younger Freemason can help the older generation. I think that the younger generation of Freemasons have a certain expectation of how the older Freemasons should behave outside of the lodge room. I personally think that being a Freemason doesn’t end when the stated meeting is closed. If we want the older Freemason to teach standards, principles and beliefs, then the older Freemason needs to be following those standards, principles and beliefs. If they haven’t been, the younger Freemason should be able to whisper wise counsel into their older brother’s ear, as much as that older brother should be able to do the same to the younger Freemason. The trowel that is spreading brotherly love should also be spreading civility.
We as an organization need to stop being afraid of change. Change is inevitable. Change is a good thing. Change is growth. For an organization that advertises taking good men and making them better, i.e. changing them for the better, we seem unable to make changes. As mentioned above, the inability of some of our members to accept change because we’ve always done something a certain way is our death knell. Our new or younger members can bring a perspective to the organization that older members might be unable to see. Unfortunately, too many times this can be followed by an unwillingness to accept. Many of our younger brethren have been in lodge and offered a suggestion for improvement only to be dismissed outright. When this occurs, what do you think happens to that brother? He probably never returns for another meeting. The irony being that the Brothers who object to change because of “always doing it this way” lament why no one is showing up for meetings. Men do not want to be a participant in an organization where any ideas they have are met with resistance every step of the way. Mentoring isn’t just teaching a new candidate or Freemason, it’s also listening to their ideas and not being afraid to help to implement ones that will benefit the Craft or the lodge.
Why is reciprocal mentoring the key to our future? First and most importantly, it closes the knowledge gap for both individuals. As a simplified example, while the new or younger Freemason is learning ritual, the catechisms and other areas where they have interest, the older Freemason can be learning about technology, current popular culture and social media. The younger Freemason learns what he needs to know in order to advance through the degrees, while the older Freemason possibly learns how to communicate better with their children or grandchildren by knowing who a certain singer is. My point is that life experiences and knowledge is shared, benefiting both parties by bringing them closer together.
When this happens, you have stronger relationships throughout the lodge. Instead of just knowing your brother as a “brother”, you form deeper bonds. There is genuine brotherly love that forms. You create mutually beneficial relationships between brethren that will last well after the mentoring process ends. In creating a greater understanding, you also create new channels of communication and trust between the brethren. Suddenly the mantra of “We’ve always done it this way”, can be replaced with “Let’s try something new.” This is because the Past Master who once saw the new ideas of a new or younger Freemason as being something that might potentially destroy the lodge, now sees the new ideas as a genuine attempt to breathe new life into the lodge because he has established a strong relationship with that individual.
When this happens, the new or younger Freemason is empowered. With empowerment, comes investment. Instead of feeling isolated and a voice that doesn’t matter, the new or younger Freemason is a stakeholder in the process. Because he was involved in the process, the younger or new Freemason is invested in the success of the idea and the lodge as a whole. People are more willing to go the extra mile for an idea that they are involved in. Once they are empowered, then their talents shine. They are allowed to lead if they want to be a leader, or educate if they want to be a lodge education officer, or to serve on the social media committee if that’s where their talent lies. But ultimately, they have an important role in the success of the lodge.
The more successful lodges that we have, the more secure we can feel about Freemasonry’s future. That is the key not only to our survival, but if the model is applied on a grand scale, I feel it can be the key to our growth. If you create passion in an individual for the Craft, the more likely they are to recommend it to their friends and neighbors. While we might not hit the numbers of our post WWII heyday, I feel that we have an opportunity to change by slightly altering the mentoring process. “We’ve always done it this way” just isn’t working.
WB Darin A. Lahners is the Worshipful Master of St. Joseph Lodge No.970 in St. Joseph and a plural member of Ogden Lodge No. 754 (IL), and Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL). He’s a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, a charter member of the new Illinois Royal Arch Chapter, Admiration Chapter No. 282, and is the current Secretary of the Illini High Twelve Club No. 768 in Champaign – Urbana (IL). He is also a member of the Eastern Illinois Council No. 356 Allied Masonic Degrees. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.