I probably should take it as a compliment. I certainly know I could do a better job at responding when asked. But the question never fails to cause a lump to form in my throat. It’s a question at this age in my life that’s posed to me a lot, in some form or another. “Will you mentor me?”
Mentoring. It’s a hot topic among professionals these days, and young women in particular seem eager to find mentors who can help them navigate their careers, get into school, complete a project, or guide them in successfully combining full-time careers with satisfying personal and family lives.
Here’s part of my problem: What’s called mentoring in the secular world of work is what in the religious world in which I also work called being prayer partners. “Will you be my prayer partner?” I understand. “Will you mentor me?” sounds ominously different.
The way mentoring used to work, a senior male would anoint a younger version of himself as his protege. Mentoring in the old model was all about chemistry between two people who had a lot in common. It was also about connections - the mentor, who was several rungs higher up the ladder, would guide his protege toward a successful career- offering advice, making introductions for him, steering plum assignments in his direction.
Leap to the present. Women have poured into graduate school, the world of work, and into leadership and they’ve found they aren’t welcome in the old boys’ club of mentoring. They can’t rely on men to pick female proteges. Not to mention the fact that women aren’t interested in the old style of mentoring - of meeting up on the golf course or over a cigar. So women have changed the rules and invented their own practices for mentoring.
Women’s mentoring is more about commitment than about chemistry. It’s about personal growth and development rather than about promotions and plums. And it’s more about learning than power. A lot of it has also to do with the insatiable need in many of us to be mothered.
One way the rules have changed for sure is that in the old paradigm, mentors chose proteges. Today young women feel perfectly comfortable seeking out mentors.
Stories of women mentoring women into professions, training their successors, deftly guiding acolytes through the maze of obligations and expectations, eagerly taking on female apprentices in the hopes of insuring continual female presence in the field and as a way of continuing our own influence in our professions — these sorts of stories are still being written. I can tell you this: in contrast to the bright, energetic, confident young women who come up asking me to mentor them, it would never have dawned on me when I was their age to track down Toni Morrison, my literary role model, or Pauli Murray, first black woman ordained a priest in the Episcopal church. I was content to read everything I could get my hands on about these women. Younger women today, however, insist upon real flesh-and-blood role models. They can’t understand older women’s ambivalence about mentoring and are likely to misinterpret our awkwardness for being stuck up or intimidated by the young. If you’re the older Elizabeth, how do you make young Mary understand that despite the awards lining our offices, ours is a fragile seniority, a seniority without acceptance. How do you in good conscience go about passing along tips to Mary on how to survive a game where the power is firmly in the hands of folks who are intent upon making sure she never gets a share of it?
I suppose I should admit that it doesn’t help that some of my worst experiences as an academic and as a minister have been with women. You heard me. Not men, but women. My experience is that men either hate you or love you when you are a woman with authority. If they love you, you couldn’t ask for a better friend or a better protege. If they hate you, they go out of their way to keep away from you. They don’t enroll in your classes and they don’t come out to hear you preach. But women who hate or are ambivalent about your authority as a woman are different. They enroll in your classes and show up on the front row of the church to hear you preach to make certain there are no doubts in your mind how they feel about you. Not to mention the fact that sometimes what women want when they say they want a mentor is a girlfriend with benefits. Thank God, however, all the memories aren’t as painful.
Despite my ambivalence, there’s no denying that mentoring can be rewarding. Mentoring reminds you of all the things you never knew you knew. By stepping back and talking about your own journey, retracing old wounds, relishing past victories, musing over quiet triumphs, pointing out the danger spots, revisiting the journey that brought you here, you remind yourself that you’re not an imposter after all. “Passing on to others that which was passed on to me” (as Miss Ella Baker once said) reminds you of the investment you and others have made in your accomplishments and the battles you fought and won, with God’s help, to get here. From time to time a Mary comes along, seeking advice or insight, who reminds you of a younger self. She offers you a chance to focus less on the hurts and disappointments dotting your path, and to remember and be grateful for all the good things and the good people God dispatched in your direction at the right moment to cheer you and nudge you on as you struggled breathlessly to figure out what your next step should be.