What is an elder?

What is an elder?

Author: Patricia Telesco 

This question lays heavy on our community’s heart. It seems simple on the surface, but is not so simple when we examine proverbial brass tacks.

I think most of us have grown very weary of people who misuse honored titles like elder and teacher, thinking that reading one book, attending a few lectures, or going to a few gatherings qualifies them to be at the forefront of the neo-pagan movement. In fact, such individuals are the ones who are setting us back decades. Why? Because they have not researched, they have not lived their faith in word and deed, they have not worked hard for their freedoms, or built those cornerstones necessary to responsible eldership (note the operative term: responsible).

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, we have taken a back seat approach to these situations. It seems we’re more content to complain than to try and change things. And those of us who aren’t complaining fall back on the excuse that neo-paganism as a non-conformist, vision-driven, tolerance based faith, doesn’t have the right to judge others or impose stricture. I personally think that is a huge load of hooey and a cop out. When a purported neo-pagan misrepresents the whole of our community, and specifically our elders who deserve respect, it is long past time for action, and long past the space in which we can coddle and handhold.

But let me back track for a moment… that still leaves us with the question of “if these ego driven prima-donnas aren’t elders then who qualifies? Ok, so that wasn’t overly politically correct, but sadly many people who thrust themselves into the public eye as “important” — aren’t. In fact, I would hazard to say that one of the most determining characteristics of an elder is that they need not say so. Instead, the true elder often prefers to work quietly in the background toward specific goals without flash and fanfare (flash and fanfare just distracts and puts schedules all out of kilter).

Elder implies maturity (be that maturity mental, spiritual or physical). I have seen teens in our community act with more maturity than those in their 40’s! So age cannot be the whole determining factor in Eldership.

Elder also implies wisdom: someone who has “been there, done that, has the t-shirt, and dozens of coffee mugs.” It is unreasonable and irresponsible to call anyone without a healthy portion of life experience under his or her belt an “elder.” A good example of this comes from the Bible wherein those associated with Moses in the government of the people were elders.

This brings us to a third intimation of eldership – namely involvement. To be a recognized elder of any community you have to be in touch with, and involved with that community on an intimate level. I would even hazard to take this definition one step further and say involved as a role model (be it teacher, healer, priest/ess, or whatever).

In the New England Churches at the turn of the century there were different sects of elders. Some taught, some were clergy, and some guided executive matters. I suspect considering our times that our true elders likely fulfill at least one (if not all) of these functions.

When one exhibits wisdom in the way they live their lives, it’s normal for others to be attracted by that unique approach. It’s inspiring, motivational, and thought-provoking. When one responds to the voice of Spirit with service, it’s normal for others to honor that service. When one guides gently, inspirationally, and cleverly, it’s normal for others to seek out that guidance.

In studying the world’s religious traditions, there seems to be some other guidelines to eldership that the neo-pagan movement might do well to adopt. They include:

  • Elders honor knowledge and tradition both in the way they live and in their interaction with others. This does not exclude creativity or innocent wonder, but instead embraces them.
  • Elders protect history, while always remaining aware of the now and the future
  • Elders accept responsibility for action (or inaction) according to their level of spiritual awareness and skill
  • Elders honor the earth as a sacred space and treat it accordingly Similarly, elders honor all living things and respect diversity (knowing there are many paths to enlightenment)
  • Elders see life as the act of worship, and everything else as “extras”
  • Elders strive for truthfulness and realness
  • Elders teach, offer aid, consult, and provide insights, without expectation of personal gain
  • Elders give back something to their art(s)
  • Elders know that they have only just begun to “master” spirituality (the process of learning never ends unless we close the doors)

Certainly this list is abbreviated and generalized, but it provides a good standard to which we could strive if we wished. Being powerful isn’t the focus of eldership, nor is waiving a title beneath someone’s nose, it’s doing the work that needs to be done with all the skill and knowledge available to you. It’s living your life in a truly unique way — one that never says “hey look at me, I’m an elder” but one that simply leaves that awareness on people’s spirit. I truly believe if your life has been touched by such a soul, that you may never remember their name but you will always remember the influence they left behind, which is an even greater legacy.

Eldership is sometimes thankless (not everyone wants to hear the truth; not everyone wants responsible use of power) but it also can be glorious. The difference is in how our community treats our true elders. Do we respect them? Do we uplift them? Do we hold and heal them? They are a TREASURE. If we do not carefully guard the real treasures and weed out those that are nothing more than fool’s gold, we do a terrible disservice to our whole community and it’s public image, not to mention those people who have served us diligently, tirelessly, and lovingly.

Let’s make our honored titles mean something. Let’s dare to stand up to puffed up “leaders” and express our concern, if not our appal. This isn’t about just you, or just me… it’s about our whole way of life and who we choose to guide our future by history’s example. When people look at the chronicles of the neo-pagan movement of this century my question to you is: who do you want to see as the movers and shakers? Who do you embrace as your elders. Make your choice wisely.

Patricia Telesco,