Mutual Mentoring:
A New Paradigm Of An Old Tradition

Mutual Mentoring Inside a Monastic Community

Relationship of community leaders and members

Most of the times when I have mentored others, I know that they have mentored me, too. Rather than thinking of the old idea of mentoring--that one person has the wisdom, usually the older person, and imparts it to the other--I encourage us to think of a new paradigm: that all of us have some wisdom, and none of us has it all, and we all need each other to become more complete and whole in our thinking and living. I want to speak about two kinds of mutual mentoring: that which takes place inside a monastic community and that which occurs between a community and those outside the lifestyle.

When I speak of the mutual mentoring that happens within a community, I want to cover three types of mentoring relationships. Probably the most important mutual mentoring relationship in a Benedictine community is between the abbot or prioress and the individual community members. Next, I would like to discuss the mutual mentoring that happens between the old and the young, the different generations. And finally, I will describe the various kinds of mutual mentoring that are possible between any two community members.

Benedict proposes a special type of mutual mentoring when he talks about the role of the monastic leader. We hear in chapter 5 of the Rule, about obedience, that monastics are to carry out the superior's order as promptly as if the command came from God.4 However, we also hear that: "As often as anything important is to be done in the monastery, the prioress or abbot shall call the whole community together, and explain what the business is; and after hearing the advice of the members let them ponder it and follow what they judge the wiser course. The reason why we have said all should be called for counsel is that the Spirit often reveals what is better to the younger."5 So the abbot or prioress should be open to being mentored by the members of the community. This sounds like mutual mentoring to me.

I admire my present prioress, how she constantly seeks the wisdom of others and does not try to make decisions on her own. She calls the deans together and listens to them and asks them at each meeting "What are the concerns or issues out there that I need to be aware of now?" She has house meetings, and council meetings, and chapter meetings, and administrative staff meetings, and so forth. . . . At the end of these meetings she always takes time to debrief--what went well, what could we have done better. She never assumes that she runs a perfect meeting. I was very touched by her humility in her first two years as prioress. She did not assume she knew what her role or tasks were as prioress. Her humility and honesty helped me to be OK with not knowing exactly what I was doing after moving from eleven years of vocation ministry into the position of director of mission advancement.

When I asked her about mutual mentoring, she talked about various community members and how they have mentored her by their example. She spoke first about a sister in our community who named her alcoholism and asked for treatment years ago, when those secrets were not openly discussed in a community. This sister tries daily to be honest with herself and to call others to their own honesty. I believe that this sister has mentored not only the prioress in honesty and freedom, but our entire community. In turn, this sister marvels at the understanding, acceptance, and encouragement she has received over the years to be the Benedictine woman she is today.

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4Joan Chissiter, O.S.B., The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad 1995) 56-57. return

5Chissiter, The Rule of Benedict 48. return

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