COVID-19: A Case for Reverse Mentorship in Church Organizations
MSIS, The University of Texas at Austin
INF 380 E
May 7, 2020
In November of 2019 I took a position in a rural, faith-based community organization with 600+ members where I was responsible for building the Digital Communications Department. What I did not know was that I was about to step into a communications department during a global pandemic. This paper written for a class at UT Austin, was born out of a desire to facilitate understanding between the generations existing within that organization.
The technology divide between generations is undeniable in 2020 and the current coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has highlighted this issue in a strong way especially in the realm of church communications. Research questions centered around the discovery that the current six generations living in this era learn and take in information in many different ways. The question of how to bridge this divide sparked the discovery of the use of reverse mentorship by companies and organizations. Reverse mentorship is not just the younger more tech savvy generation teaching aging generations about technology. It is also a way for digital natives to learn from the wise generations by everyone listening to each other and sharing knowledge with each other for the good of the organization, community, and themselves.
Keywords: COVID-19, coronavirus, generations, Baby Boomers, Millennials, communications, church, reverse mentorship
COVID-19: A Case for Reverse Mentorship in Church Organizations
In a recent meeting with the aging population of women in the church where I am the communications director, we were discussing the technology gap between generations. We discussed the growth of the organization’s YouTube channel and one woman asked, “What happens when I hit the subscribe button on YouTube? How much do I get charged?” I asked her to explain further and she stated, “Well, in my day when I subscribed to something I was then charged for a subscription.” This was a light bulb moment. As someone from the cusp of the tech enabled generation I had never thought of that from her perspective before. I was able to then clear this up to allow for our channel to grow. In the world of communications there is a gap between the wise and the learning. The learned are not talking to the learning and the learning are not listening to the learned. Particularly in the realm of church communications there is a microcosm of social interactions between the Silent Generation, Baby Boomer Generation, Generation X, Millennial, and Gen Z onward to study in relation to the technology gap and sharing of information. Implementing the utilization of a reverse mentoring program is a great way to move forward with better communications throughout organizations and companies.
When research for this paper began it was a few months before the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic had taken hold of our communities, the country, and the world. There is no other time like the present to witness the technology gap in churches and to be able to design for those challenges. In order for there to be a welcoming and cohesive organization we must learn to bridge the technology gap so communications can be unfiltered and miscommunication does not occur. Floridi (2010) makes a distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants stating that, “once the e-migration will become complete future generations will increasingly feel deprived, excluded, handicapped, or poor whenever they are disconnected from the infosphere, like a fish out of water.” Within the world of information, the ways generations interact with the concept of being online and offline is very telling. For instance, Floridi (2010) states, “older generations still consider the space of information as something one logs-in to and logs-out from.” While for digital natives, “the very distinction between online and offline will disappear” (Floridi, 2010). He also asserts that we are moving into an infosphere where “the digital divide will become a chasm, generating new forms of discrimination” and that “we are preparing the ground for tomorrow’s digital slums” (Floridi, 2010). Outreach and community togetherness in a world where we are supposed to remain six feet apart is moving our organization into all online communications and we should not be leaving people behind in the“digital slums.”
Millennials and Generation Z are huge targets for church organizations because of the sheer number of people in their age group and also because there has been a steady decline in children and young adult attendance for decades in churches. One reason that there is a decline in numbers of younger generations is that churches do not fit the mold for them due to economic reasons. The coronavirus only helped to highlight this issue when the gig economy began to dwindle and unemployment rates soared. For instance, Clemmer (2020) states, “nearly half of all U. S. millennials (those born between the early 1980s and mid '90s) participate in some way in the gig economy.” The gig economy consists of platforms like AirBnb, Lyft, Uber, and Postmates. The National Association of Counties (NACO) states, “app-based technology platforms are replacing people as middlemen to connect consumers and producers quickly and easily, allowing individuals to perform a variety of tasks for complete strangers based on real-time demand”(“What is the Gig,” n.d.). Yet with all of the technological advances and flexibility this affords the working generation, it makes attending church on the weekend very difficult because that is one of the peak days for gig work. Having more online options helps these fast-paced workers stay connected, but do they need more? They need to have deeper connections with others in the organization and to be forming relationships in order to stay invested in their spiritual growth.
While Millennials struggle with their given lot in the ever changing landscape of work, having children, and starting families in an uncertain economic era the Baby Boomers are adjusting to the challenges of transitioning into retirement and the end of life. Add into the mix a feeling of disconnectedness due to a technology gap and we have a great opportunity to learn from each other. During the initial coronavirus pandemic there was a steep learning curve for Baby Boomers with getting online and watching online worship services on our new church website and YouTube. As the communications director for the church I was tasked with creating how-to tip sheets and videos to navigate the new website, Zoom meetings, and YouTube. I took on a mentor role with the older generation in the church. During these discussions, phone calls, emails, and texts with the elders of the church I have learned a lot about how the structure of information is received and disseminated throughout our organization. Many organizations who have age gaps in their workforce are putting reverse mentoring programs in place so younger more tech savvy people can teach older generations what they need to know to navigate systems and hardware. When we have an open exchange of knowledge everyone benefits. Reverse mentoring programs come with unique challenges. Kulesza and Smith (2013) note that when we use the word mentor the mentee finds it difficult because it “connotes they have something to learn.” Branding this program with a unique name by leaving out the word mentor is a suggestion. However, reverse mentoring does not mean that the tech savvy are just imparting knowledge about tech the whole time. Typically, “Millennials, in particular, will receive greater insight into the organization from both macro and micromanagement perspectives” (Kulesza and Smith, 2013). As with most teaching experiences teachers often learn more from their students than they anticipated.
Marketing and communications between the generations is increasingly different for each generation. The United Methodist Church has a communications podcast called MyCom and they offer that, “If you want to communicate to a generation that is not your own then you’ve got to learn how to speak their language and because of your own generational bias there are things that you can do accidentally that get people to turn off, disengage, and also things that you don’t know to do” (Steele, 2020). The podcast host goes on to say that if you do not understand the new forms of communication you can come off as implying that those forms of communication are unimportant (Steele, 2020). If I as a 39-year-old cannot understand why the older generation in my church does not value the growth of our YouTube channel then how does it make Gen Z (ages 8-23) feel when my age group devalues communication platforms like TikTok? Different groups receive information and knowledge in vastly different ways right now. The Silent Generation (1928-1945) for example, prefer pre-internet communication and still “read newspapers, listen to talk radio and watch late-night television” (Jones, 2020). During the coronavirus pandemic we as a church have discussed ways we are reaching the disconnected and unplugged while we simultaneously install higher capacity wifi using a Ubiquity system, text to give, livestream, and build a new tech savvy website. As a rural church we did not have those higher tech options because of budget constraints and also because of a lack of communication between the aging population and the younger more tech savvy ones. Having online worship services is not a new thing, but moving all gatherings in a church setting to an online platform is a “new normal” at least for the time being during the pandemic. Gallup states, “The abrupt cessation of in-person worship in churches, synagogues, and mosques around the country is one of the most significant sudden disruptions in the practice of religion in U.S. history” (Newport, 2020). All of these discussions have involved the division of how each of the generations involved need to receive knowledge and information. The Youth Ministry moved into TikTok, Zoom bible studies, and Zoom family game nights. Our meal ministry served the unplugged aging population and Millenials/Gen X ushered in a new website and online worship services. Gallup is also reporting, “The combined total of 31% who have worshipped within the past seven days either virtually or in person is roughly in line with recent, pre-virus trends” meaning the virus has not hampered worship attendance (Newport, 2020).
On a personal level I can say that reverse mentoring in the tech realm at my organization has benefitted me and my younger generational peers in ways that are immeasurable for the profound impact they have on us spiritually, emotionally, and professionally. Canyon Lake, Texas where I live and work is a large retirement community and the majority of the population of our organization is above 60 years old. For the most part the elders in the church are receptive to moving to a more internet-based learning platform like YouTube where we host in-house curriculum and worship that began before the coronavirus pandemic and has ramped up to completely online right now. It has always seemed easier for me to be able to navigate the teaching of tech systems to different generations because I was born in 1980 and I ride the line between not growing up with tech and getting into tech in my 20s so I can empathize with the older generations. Of course, in discussing the aging population this paper is very general and does not account for the numerous tech savvy Baby Boomers I know, but presently working in a rural church my current organization has had some challenges navigating being forced into tech base learning and worship during the “Great Pause.” Kulesza and Smith (2013) state, “knowledge is best measured by experience rather than years” and that “time alone doesn't make someone more knowledgeable; learning does.” The statements apply to all generations and allow for us to be on a more even playing field by giving and taking in wisdom and knowledge in all sorts of areas at the same time. When we all come together for the common good we can avoid miscommunication and deepen the relationships we have both personally and professionally. Steel noted that, “Communication is not just a mirror of what is happening in our community, but it is also a molder” (Steele, 2020). As we move into the “new normal” for the initial coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak era it is imperative to design for a multigenerational information tech user in the church and using a reverse mentoring program even virtually is a great start to bridging the tech divide.
Clemmer, D. (2020). How Economic Uncertainty isTaking a Spiritual Toll on Today’s Young Adults. America, 222 (1),1–11. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/2333931248/
Floridi, L. (2010). Information: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jones, Darby. Adjust your marketing plan for each generation. Resource UMC.Retrieved May 3, 2020, from https://www.resourceumc.org/en/content/adjust-your-marketing-plan-for-each-generation?fbclid=IwAR2cx-sNK5VrgGsVoBN1EXbEmaonSy-lDSihir5HMJfLNF2i-zU7DzDS98I
Kulesza, C. S. "., & Smith,Daniel,C.M.A., C.P.A. (2013). Reverse mentoring- something for everyone! Strategic Finance, 94(10), 21-23,63. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/docview/1365175603?accountid=7118
Newport, Frank. (2020, April 6). Religion and the COVID-19 Virus in the U.S. Gallup.https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/307619/religion-covid-virus.aspx
Newport, Frank. (2020, May 1). Update on Virtual Worship in the U.S. During COVID-19.Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/307619/religion-covid-virus.aspx
Steele, Jeremy (Host). (2020, April 27). Reaching Gen Z with Jeremy Steele Part 1[Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from
TheNational Association of Counties. The Future of Work: The rise of the Gig Economy. Retrieved May 3, 2020, from https://www.naco.org/featured-resources/future-work-rise-gig-economy