In Praise of Elderhood

Getting older is inevitable, becoming an elder is a skill. – Stephen Jenkinson

 

I’ve been reading Stephen Jenkinson’s clarion call for elderhood, Come of Age. It’s a compelling plea for us to embrace the training and preparation needed to become elders.  And I’m feeling the call myself.

It’s Jenkinson’s contention that years on the planet alone don’t constitute the basis for elderhood. It takes intention and focus to become an elder. He writes,

“It used to be that age was held in some esteem, considerable esteem even, as the concentration of life experience. Life experience and its many lessons were once the fundament of personal and cultural wisdom…You’d think that this is an inevitable result of an aging population in a civilized place. We should be smarter, deeper, wiser. Especially wiser…”

If that was true the world would be awash with elders. We’re living longer than ever. Our retirement villages are full. The aged are all around us. But I am regularly being told by younger people that they can’t find elders they look up to, women and men who can pass on their wisdom and insight.

Stephen Jenkinson agrees, “They aren’t out there, waiting on our invitation. They just aren’t out there.”

I posted a Jenkinson quote on social media and confessed my desire to grow into elderhood in the years ahead. A pastor responded, “My vocation is impossible without the wisdom of skillful Elders. They have been refined by fire and it has produced amazing strength, compassion and grace.”

“So true. And yet they can be so hard to find,” I replied.

“Yes they can. I wonder why and all my wondering make me sad,” she responded.

Me too.

I’m sad about it. I’ve looked for elders to help me chart the course ahead, but they’re rare.

Jenkinson says, “Young people are, often involuntarily, looking for them, and they can’t find them. How about this: old people are looking for them too.”

Some time ago I wrote a piece about men in their 60s.  I told the stories of several well-known men who had lived vital and productive lives as younger men, but who had been unable to find purpose in older age. I concluded this way:

“[In my 60s and beyond] I hope I’m humble enough to open myself to God’s ongoing work in me – to embrace serenity, peace, gentleness, to see the work of my late years to be a blessing to others in their contribution to God’s kingdom. So, aging men do well to see that growth can still occur, but the growing we undertake in our later years is the humble, expansive work of mentoring, coaching, championing, and celebrating others.”

I was expressing my hope that in older age I’d grow into elderhood, even though I hadn’t come across that term until reading Jenkinson.

Some older men pushed back aggressively on my post. They thought I was saying you’re all washed up in your 60s. Several people were aghast that I was suggesting older men should see themselves as mentors/elders rather than front men and alpha male leaders.

One particularly energized commenter said I was relegating the aged to be “like the Bedouin elders that sit in their tent and dispense wisdom when asked.”

He clearly wasn’t keen on that idea.

But elderhood is not simply about sitting around waiting to be asked for advice. It is concerned with being poised and willing to be true stewards of the planet and its species, to provide emerging generations with wisdom and models for how to traverse the challenges that confront us.

As the planet bakes, and public discourse breaks down, the younger generation rightly swings between anger and confusion over being left with an environment and a sociopolitical landscape so deeply scarred and broken.

 

Where will they find the wisdom to traverse the future?

One of the elders I’ve looked to for inspiration is Ann Morisy, a British community theologian and lecturer. In her brilliant book, Bothered and Bewildered, she says there are nine aptitudes that wise people need to develop:

  1. To be a non-anxious presence in stressful times.
  2. To practise systemic thinking in order to resist the temptation to blame others when things go wrong.
  3. To practise gratitude — even in difficult circumstances.
  4. To engage in courageous micro-actions that counter the incli­nation towards neo-tribalism and fragmentation rather than social cohesion (e.g. the conversation that Jesus has with the Samaritan woman at the well).
  5. To imagine ways of breaking out of the constraints of circum­stances and have the motivation and discipline to persist with intentional behaviour.
  6. To gain confidence in the viability of the economy of abundance and generosity that Jesus inducts us into, rather than being beholden to the economy of scarcity.
  7. To practise sitting more lightly on the globe in recognition of our thoughtless abuse of the creation.
  8. To practise compassion, conviviality and harness the imagination to ward off the dangers of gnosticism.
  9. To draw on the enriching memories of eras past in order to affirm the human capacity to correct its own errors or in more theological language, ‘to repent’ or ‘turn about’.

That’s a pretty decent set of objectives for elders to embrace. And it jives with New Testament teaching on wisdom: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere” (Jas 3:17).

The Bible teaches that wisdom is a gift, rooted in a healthy sense of awe for God. But it also says, “Wisdom belongs to the aged, and understanding to the old.” (Job 12:12)

But such wisdom and understanding isn’t automatically conferred by drifting into some easy agedness. It takes intention. As comedian Matt Black once quipped, “We always romanticize that our elders are wise because of their years of experience, but you know what? Stupid people get old too.”

Wise elders must commit themselves to the task. We need a plan for developing elders to embrace the things Ann Morisy lists. We need the wisdom that comes from heaven. We need training programs in elderhood.

And we need them now!

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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18 thoughts on “In Praise of Elderhood

  1. If this is your way of asking, then my response is, “yes, write the book Mike!”

    I recall a man, an older, uneducated farmer at the first church my wife & attended after getting married. “John” it turns out, had been the mentor to a succession of pastors at that church over the years. Talking & listening to them through crises and conflicts. He was a secret store of stability there through changes. That is is kind of person I had in my.mind’s eye as I read you piece.
    Such people are too rare, but your twist of intentionally developing them is not something I thought of previously. I suppose in my mind “elderhood” was a natural consequence of Christian maturity and time.

    1. Good thoughts, especially the illustration of the old farmer. But, no, I wasn’t angling for affirmation that I write a book about elderhood. I’m still trying to learn it myself.

      1. Thank you so very much for sharing this! I somehow knew that God would use my years of searching, seeking, failing and experience but this gives the motivation to keep growing in the senior years and coach and mentor those coming behind. So well said!

  2. Being a younger pastor I in no way consider myself to be full to brim with wisdom. I do yearn for more of it though, and often seek wisdom through these elder types. The issue is many older men in particular are either indifferent to passing on wisdom or simply have a tendency to be boyish when it comes to dealing with the deeper things of life.
    Not everyone though- occasionally there are those who take the value of knowledge seriously and are really generous with imparting Godly wisdom. Not just in passing conversation but with purpose. These are the people who I’ll remember and seek to imitate in the future.

    1. I think a lot of people share your experience. What were the practices or characteristics of those occasional elders who did it right?

      1. Unhurried care to sit and listen to your experience. Genuine desire to inform your current life stage situation through their life experience (which they have pondered on and been self-reflective about). Vulnerability about weakness. A real hope that you (the one being mentored) can actually alter our future world, and so there is a sense that they see their time with you as crucial, not obligatory.

        1. Great list.

        2. So true. Very few people are truly listened to. We need to value busyness less and attentive awareness more.
          As a primary school chaplain, my daily goal is the listen better than I did yesterday. Now in my sixth year of applying this rule, I have amazing conversations with studentsmand parents almost daily.
          I see the role of listening deeply as an honour and a joy!

  3. Hi Mike, as someone older than you (yes, it is possible!) I have been pondering some of these things too. I believe part of the answer is that we live in a society that tends to trivialise things (because of materialism, social media, and political tribalism and simplification) and I don’t think the church has escaped this.

    Kohlberg says that maturity requires us to embrace new experiences and resolve dilemmas, but I think modern western Protestant christianity tends to dumb people down and reduce diverse experiences and dilemmas. Jesus posed dilemmas by telling parables, using cryptic sayings and not always answering questions directly, but modern day discipleship seems to more about sitting passively, listening to sermons that explain everything if you end up actually listening and concentrating. Pastors tell congregations how they should behave and what they should believe. Yet pastors live often in a rarefied ecclesiastical world where they can experience life differently to us plebs, and their answers aren’t always relevant or practical to daily life.

    On the other side of the equation, laypeople (hate that term!) have mortgages to pay, competitive jobs that suck their time and energy and these days pastoral staff teams that will do all the thinking and ministry for them. As long as bums are on seats and dollars in the plate, they have done their bit, and now they can be consumers. It seems that sacrifice of time or comfort are less part of modern christian living.

    An example. Recently someone I know (a new parent) asked a bunch of older parents how to bring up a child to believe, and he was told that they should bring the child to church and Sunday School. No advice, and apparently no thought, on the crucial role of parents in a child’s spiritual growth and how to blossom in this role! They were apparently willing to outsource their children’s spiritual education. Is it likely those parents will be elders one day?

    I think both pastors and laypeople need to get out more, mix more with non-believers, go to different churches, hear speakers that aren’t approved by their denominational tribe, have new and challenging experiences. I think we need to build each other up as disciples in more active, transformational learning situations, we need to be encouraged to take initiative, break the mould, be active. We need to encourage and teach each other to learn from life, and cast our experience net as widely as possible,

    I think if we did some of this, we might get a little more wisdom by the time we are older.

  4. Very wise thoughts from a fellow greybeard. I think what you’ve shared is really worth thinking about. Thank you.

  5. This is really good Mike. A subject I have also been pondering.

    I have struggled to find people whose older lives inspire me, so the challenge to me is to grow into one of those people.

    I get the sense that much of eldership has to do with maturity into humility and selflessness.

    The less I need to be seen / prove something the more content I will be and I imagine the more attractive my life will look.

    Peace and contentment are qualities I hope to embody as I age and my intuition is that these are integral to what I sense eldership means.

  6. Excellent observation of a tremendous need and one I’ve dedicated my time and energy to on a larger scale. The most difficult part I have uncovered is in forming the relationship … their is a distrust issue on both sides which keep such relationships from taking root. You have stated a big part of the problem fairly well, people do not understand the tools of being a fruitful elder. My current role affords me the time and opportunity to serve others in such a capacity.

  7. This is a timely discussion. I have just read Richard Rhor ‘Falling Upward’ It this very thoughtful and honest book ( *code for you will be offended by some views but other wise brilliant) His typical deep internal navigation of the first half of life being a preparation for the second half of life. The problem he highlights with genuine humor is that there is 2nd halfer’s still living in the 1st half and don’t want to move ( code again , to grow up into all maturity)

    1. Yes, I read Falling Upwards a few years ago. Some helpful stuff there.

  8. Mike,

    Thank you so much for this post! Something I have been wrestling with for the last four years. I am 62. For so many years I was the alpha male. I led a vibrant church and have helped plant several churches from that alpha position. Now I coach and train and develop others in their dreams. To be honest, it is still very difficult as I find I miss that alpha influence. I try to think of it as a sports figure. How does Peyton Manning feel watching football? Does he miss it? Recently I began to see a counselor over some of these issues. Dealing with who I was to who I am. Where do I fit? I am apostolic (AE on APEST) in my nature and am embracing those ideas. Like Paul who came along the side of so many to help them achieve so much. Most of the time I feel lonely. I wonder if Paul felt that way.

    I am letting go of who I was to find who I am and how the Lord wants to use me.

    I have told people in the past that they should find someone 10-20 years older than them and ask them what they should be thinking about in the next 20 years. I wish I had someone to talk with on these matters.

    It’s hard sometimes being in a room of many leaders and remembering when most people wanted to talk to me because of what I was doing. Now you get a nod or greeting while they run to the hot hand of the day.

    The Lord is helping me process this as I age. He reminded me of my children who are in their 40s that It is about them now and not about me. So I do all I can to join them where they are in life and cheer them on.

    My life verse is Deut 34:7 Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died. His eyes were not dim nor his natural vigor diminished.

    I still have vision and strength and will always want that. How it applies is quite different.

    I have read through Leighton Ford’s book – The Attentive Life he is very transparent with some of these aging thoughts.

    I will order the book you mentioned. Thanks again!

  9. Good thoughts there Mike.

    I’m 56. I had an excellent understanding of mentoring at the age of 25 with both a cultural perspective on it and a theological understanding of the commands to mentor.

    I refer to myself as a listener. I listen carefully to culture, sub-culture, institutions, corporations. I try and rest my thumbs on the pulses of these systems we all have connection with at various levels, and I practice letting scripture throw light onto how how me must live in these systems. Locking for patterns in people and especially people of faith.

    When it comes to Elders and Mentoring, I’m shocked at how wide the road is full of people over 50 who are reaching for the rocking chair, RV, or active lifestyle for their own personal pleasure and monuments of personal arrival. Cashing in their life chips for entertainment and one of a kind experiences or better known as Bucket list.

    Inside this huge group of people are many who have the combination of Eldership and Mentoring gifting. To think that Men and Women finally arrive to the top of the mountain at age 50 or 60 and are mentally at the top of their game . . . ?? —— and they unplug from real life and as many demands on them as possible in order to live a life out of Magazine photos?

    What happen to the idea and the fiery passion to burn bright and hard in the last decades of one’s life? To pitch your ride sideways at the end of life with the doors off, smoke pouring from all corners, completely used up and nothing left? Spending every once of who you are before you leave this place? Jim Elliot called it, “ Living with wreckless abandon.” I think he wrote that in his journals at age 22.

    We have a crisis going on with men over 50 in how to live a meaningful life. Eldership vs. Bucket List. Eldership vs. RVs. Eldership vs. Travel. Eldership vs. Property w/Tractors.

  10. In my experience, I moved into “eldership” when I stopped moving up and stepped sideways. Fell, actually. And landed in a place where people need to be heard. That place is everywhere. But, in my case, those people are children. Perhaps this is why Jesus said we need to be like children – wanting and willing to be heard.
    Primary school chaplaincy has shaped me into a deep listening slow talker. And I love it. I’m too young (46) to be an elder at church. I’m getting there! But here, among Australia’s children and their parents, I am loved and needed.

  11. Perhaps we need to start “Ecclesia Clubs” in the foyers of our churches. Men and women who sit at the crossroads of religious busyness and keep the gate hinges oiled through deep listening and slow conversation.

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