On Becoming Wise Elders
Getting Old doesn’t Automatically Make You Wise
Searching for Wisdom
Michael Frost wonders where the wise ones are.
Have you ever wondered why, if our churches are so full of old people, we often have so much difficulty finding the wisdom of elders? You would think all that life experience and Christian living would make us smarter, deeper, wiser.
If that were true, the world would be awash with wise elders. We’re living longer than ever. Our retirement villages and nursing homes are full. The aged are all around us.
I’ve concluded that becoming an elder in our society doesn’t happen automatically.
But younger people regularly tell me they can’t find elders they look up to, women and men who can pass on their wisdom and insight. Many older Christians come off as narrowminded, fearful, and suspicious of change.
I’ve concluded that becoming an elder in our society doesn’t happen automatically. It takes intention and focus to become one.
Growing in wisdom
Sure, the Bible teaches us that, “Wisdom belongs to the aged, and understanding to the old” (Job 12:12). But such wisdom and understanding aren’t automatically conferred by drifting into some easy agedness.
It takes a plan.
As comedian Matt Black once quipped, “We always romanticise that our elders are wise because of their years of experience, but you know what? Stupid people get old too.”
We need older women and men to be humble enough to remain open to God’s ongoing work in our lives – to embrace courage, serenity, peace, gentleness, and to see the work of our late years to be a blessing to others in their contribution to God’s kingdom.
As we age, we 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.
Moving into the future
True elderhood is concerned with being poised and willing to be better stewards of what God has taught us and to provide emerging generations with wisdom and models for how to traverse the challenges that confront them.
As the planet bakes, and nations clash, and public discourse breaks down, younger generations rightly swing between anger and confusion over being left with a world that is so deeply scarred and broken.
Where will they find the wisdom to traverse the future?
Intentionally becoming wise elders
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, Enacting Hope in Troubled Times (March 2010), she says there are nine aptitudes that wise people need to develop:
- NON-ANXIOUS: To be a non-anxious presence in stressful times.
- SYSTEMIC THINKING: To practice systemic thinking in order to resist the temptation to blame others when things go wrong.
- GRATITUDE: To practice gratitude — even in difficult circumstances.
- COURAGEOUS: 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).
- IMAGINATION: To imagine ways of breaking out of the constraints of circumstances and have the motivation and discipline to persist with intentional behaviour.
- CONFIDENCE: 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.
- GOING LIGHTLY: To practice sitting more lightly on the planet in recognition of our thoughtless abuse of the creation.
- FRIENDLY: To practice compassion and conviviality.
- AFFIRMING: To draw on the enriching memories of eras past in order to affirm the human capacity to repent and correct our errors.
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).
It’s a skill!
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. And we need training programs in elderhood.
As Stephen Jenkinson writes, “Getting older is inevitable, becoming an elder is a skill.”
Michael Frost is the founding director of the Tinsley Institute, a mission study centre located at Morling College in Sydney. He is an internationally recognised missiologist and one of the leading voices in the missional church movement.
He is the author or editor of 19 theological books, the best known of which are the popular and award-winning, The Shaping of Things to Come (2003), Exiles (2006), The Road to Missional (2011) and Surprise the World! (2016). His latest book is ReJesus: Remaking the Church in Our Founder’s Image (2022).
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