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What is an Elder?

History of Eldership

There is renewed interest today in the idea of eldership. Eldership refers to a role a person takes within a group or larger community. This person is called an elder and is someone who exhibits certain qualities and traits that help another individual, group or larger community in time of need. The Hebrew zah-kehn, the Greek presbuteros and the Latin senex mean the same as the English senior, elder, or aged. The English word Sir or Sire, the Spanish Senor, the Italian Senior are derived from senex and show the respect the elder was attributed.

The Greek word presbuteros, from which is derived the word Presbyterian, refers in the Old Testament to age and experience translated to English as ‘elder’. Some biblical scholar contend that the word bishop, from the Greek episkopos, overseer, is used interchangeably with the word ‘elder’.

Eldership as a role and position within a human community started within the tribal traditions. There we find an emphasis on elders as guides and leaders. Among the Australian Aborigines men slowly move into the status of eldership once they show signs of age, such as gray hair. This indicates that they are experienced and wise and are fit to lead the tribe and teach the young. Elders in the tribe also guide the young with issues such as the selection of jobs for which they see them fit, whether someone has the ability and talent to be a good teacher or the skills to be a hunter. They also resolve tribal concerns and are expected to make final decisions about the direction the tribe will take on various issues.

In the Native American tradition, elders are placed in the highest position of honor and respect a tribe can offer its members. The traits generally associated with elders in this tradition are √1. knowledge 2. wisdom 3. counseling skills 4. loving heart 5. compassion 6. willingness to teach 7. even temperedness 8. patience 9. and willingness to take on responsibility.

More recently, the term eldership is also found within the Old and New Testament. Within this religious context an elder was thought of as a helper, someone who assisted the priest with communal tasks and responsibilities. The traits of eldership were outlined quite specifically in this tradition.  Elders were to be:

  1. gentle, not violent
  2. not greedy for money
  3. respectable
  4. loyal to their partner
  5. temperate and self-controlled
  6. hospitable
  7. moderate with alcohol
  8. parents who raise their children a believers
  9. willing to lead others
  10. willing to oversee others
  11. not recently converted
  12. those with a reputation with outsiders
  13. those who love what is good
  14. disciplined
  15. those who held steady against false beliefs
  16. those who led an exemplary life.[i]

In the New Testament the concept of ‘elder’ was sometimes used interchangeably with bishop, overseer and pastor and shows the status an elder held in this tradition. Elders are described as teacher, leader, shepherd and ruler with qualities such as wisdom, maturity, knowledge, honor and balance. They were considered representatives of the people because they were ‘called by God’. The necessity of desire and joy in being an elder is stressed in biblical scripture. It emphasized that elders were elders not only because they were appointed but also because they themselves desired and enjoyed being an elder.

Another important aspect of eldership was that elders, though entrusted with the welfare of God’s people, were seen as humans. This meant that they were prone to errors and frailties as all other humans. They were not infallible. Additionally, scripture makes a distinction between elders who ‘rule’ and elders who ‘teach’.[ii] Though scholars have different opinions on this matter, some argue that this distinction was made because of the recognition that some elders were more qualified to rule whereas others were better teachers and preachers. The ability to rule and the ability to teach were seen as distinct qualities, that is they were not understood as complementary. Whereas little is mentioned about how ‘ruling’ elders were to practice for their task, ‘teaching’ elders were definitely called upon to prepare for their role:

“The one elder who, by the force of circumstances, is obliged to pass through a process of preparation to fit himself for his work, finds himself in a position different from the other elders; he has been subjected to a long course of intellectual and moral training; he adopts the pastoral work as the business and pleasure of his life. [7]”

This a very brief synopsis of the role elders held and in some important traditions and what qualities were generally associated with them.  Even though there are expected differences within different cultures, the overall role and qualities of elders seems to transcend time and space.

 

Women and Eldership

Given that recorded human history principally has been a history dominated by a patriarchal system of leadership, there is comparatively speaking less record of the role women have played in eldership. The last decades have seen important research and publications, though, highlighting this omission and outlining how women have helped guide individuals and communities throughout human history. These researches have shown that the wisdom of women and their eldership was once revered very highly within human societies. Etymologically, to give just one example, many of the words describing older women today have a derogatory meaning. Whereas ‘hag’ today it refers to an old and decrepit woman, its root meaning is ‘holy’. Crone, a word that meant crown, was once used to refer to a wise woman. Today the word is used to refer to an old, ugly, wrinkled and dependent woman. Another example is the word witch, derived from wit meaning wise. It once referred to young and old women healers. Today the word is filled with negative connotations, applied to women who are suspicious and cannot be trusted, exhibit magical, mostly evil powers. Gregory summarizes this shift as follows:

“The old woman was defined in negative archetypal terms that encompassed body, mind, and spirit and overlapped frequently. She was the hag, the crone, the witch. As hag, the focus was on her decaying body, no longer sexually appealing and now an object of scorn and ridicule. As crone, the wisdom of her mind and life experience were dismissed as cunning and treachery. As witch, in her most intimidating aspect, her aspect of spiritual power, she was condemned as evil incarnate.”[iii]

One of the reasons given for such a reversal of meaning emphasizes that since the Great Inquisition in the Middle Ages the dominant church shored up their patriarchal power base through the gradual elimination of women’s status in society. States Gregory: “Pan-European evidence suggests that the lives of men and women during the Middle Ages diverged in terms of rights, opportunity, and power. Men were in control, and medieval authors, almost universally male, advanced fictional constructs of women to support their patriarchal social order. The issue was the perpetuation of male rule.”[iv]

Such overt domination of one gender over another is slowly giving way to a more balanced view of each gender. Emphasis now is placed more on integrating the diverse archetypal qualities of the masculine and feminine rather then on preferencing one over the other.

 

“Whoever doesn’t say what they know will find that it rots in their head.”

Native American proverb

Need for Elders

Elders have always initiated the young. Hillman phrases it as follows in an interview where he is being asked the following question: “Do you think that we stifle our societal growth and repeatedly make the same mistakes because we limit our contact with the most experienced group of the population?” He answers: “Yes, I do.  It does not mean that all old people are wise, or any old people are wise.  It only means that they have a stronger, firmer character.  And that strength is like a keel, or an anchor, or a strong root for the group.”[1]

Michael Meade, being asked about the qualities of an elder and the role they could play in society states the following: “One of the characteristics I see of an elder is found in the Latin word, gravitas, which means to have gravity. … grounded would be the contemporary word — grounded in one’s own life as well as being able to walk in the other world. …I think all the structures in our society will change if there is real change with regard to understanding what the last stage of life is about. The imagination of the elder is a radical change in attitude. An elder has resources that include the material but are not limited by the material. An elder is involved with practice but not the practical. The whole imagination of the elder is against the rational, productive, conceptual style of modern culture. He or she (as an elder) is living his or her own radical nature and then, when the opportunity is there, supporting the radical spirit of a younger person.”[2]

Elders need to help people with liberating the meaning already within them but also of the community’s obligation to bring out the unique gifts of each new person welcomed into the world

 

Absence of Elders

Today, however, elders are scarcely available to guide and initiate the young. There is an absence of elders also because the old have not been given the skills and ability to be elders. Moreover, in the last few centuries, especially in the industrialized countries, the status of the elderly as respected members of their societies has declined.

Paralleling this decline has been a diminution of the elders’ role in their respective communities. Whereas elders used to be teachers and guides, the rise of public education and market economies have, among many other factors, made the elderly much less central and important. This has reached a point within the last decades where the senior population in the United States, once at the helm of their communities, isolates themselves in ‘adult only’ retreat centers often located outside many of the major cities. As an elder summarizes this succinctly: “Do not expect much help from us elders. Most of us have been relegated to retirement enclosures, golf, bingo, tourism, and uncreative play, separating ourselves from the problems of the homeless, the untaught, the unfed.”[v]

This statement poignantly describes the sad state of affairs in which many of our elderly find themselves today. But is also indicates that it is time to re-integrate our elders back into our communities and lives.

 

Training of Elders

We need to train elders if we want to help individuals living in our communities and societies with the important tasks of supporting and guiding the younger in age and experience. For being older does not make an elder. As the history of eldership shows clearly, the qualities attributed to being an elder are quite universal. These traits must be acquired through much training, learning and practice. If we recall, for example, how monks in the various spiritual traditions are initiated over many years into becoming a respected member of their communities, then we have a glimpse of what it will take for an older person to grow into becoming an elder.

Michael Meade emphasizes this point as follows: “Elders, by tribal imagination, and by more recent definition, are those who have learned from their own lives, those who have extracted a knowledge of themselves and the world from their own lives. We know that a person can age and still be very infantile. This happens if a person doesn’t open and understand the nature of his or her own life and the kind of surprising spirit that inhabits him or her.”[3]

However, where do we learn anymore how to ‘extract knowledge’ from ourselves and the world? What places are left where those of us interested in eldership can learn? Where do we turn to allow our elder within to grow out of us?

[1] “The Beauty of Old Faces,” A Psychologist Reflects on Aging in America  June 23

[2]

[3] Michael Meade, Calling All Elders

[i] These criteria are listed in the books First Timothy and Titus. [eldership.doc]

[ii] “He who teaches” is distinct from “he who rules” (Rom. 12:7-8); and:

“To meet this higher state of intelligence [among the people], it became necessary to provide the populace with instruction of a higher type. It was found essential to the edification of the people that each congregation should have among its elders at least one man, who, by education, training, and a life devoted to the study of the Scriptures, should be qualified as a public instructor… .”

[iii] THE CRONE AS MISOGYNISTIC CONSTRUCT IN EARLY SPANISH NARRATIVE  Carolyn Bluestine Gregory Widener University

[iv] ibid.

[v] Elders on Love, 9-10.