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Elders - Commentary
Holly N. -
4 / 13 / 2002

What are the Functions of an Elder?

Eldering — the work carried out by elders — is a pressing concern for us. The craft in particular is top-heavy with beginners, and teachers are scarce. Diligent and committed would-be teachers often scramble to learn as they go, making up likely solutions and testing them on the fly, constantly having to re-invent the wheel. These younger, valuable people often burn out, coping with their chosen tasks and at the same time often struggling with common political and interpersonal problems which elders have long ago mastered (or at least, learned to sidestep!).

Only now are significant numbers of us entering our senior years, with 50+ years of life and a decade or more of experience in the craft. How can this experience be passed along? And how can needed eldering practices, if we don't already have them, be acquired elsewhere and added to our current resources? What IS needed? How can we deepen our traditions and strengthen our communities?

What are the functions i.e. actions of an elder? First, we might divide their activities into categories: central, peripheral, adventitious, pernicious, and unrelated.

In central functions, we might find:

  • Point of Contact — that is, the elder senses, touches, is in conversation with the divine. It is the single necessary function of an elder in a religious context that he have and maintain contact with the divine, as deeply as is in his power, and works to keep and deepen that contact. The fact that this contact is present in the elder is sufficient in itself to nourish his community.
  • Transmission — the elder can, directly and indirectly, assist others in attaining and deepening such contact in themselves
  • Modeling — the elder can serve as an example of what eldering "looks like", for modeling. (Ooo! Posh frock!)
  • Care giving — the elder can support people around them in other ways, counseling, feeding, whatever is needed to remove difficulties in the persons' path (do not confuse this function with co-dependency, or the endless propping up of porridge-people)
  • Advocacy — the elder can speak on behalf of others
  • Resource — the elder can teach things they know
  • Perspective — the elder has been around the block a few times, and can tell others what they found. The elder, through experience and wisdom, should be able to see long range in time, space and action.
  • Recognition — the elder can reflect people back to themselves, usually to encourage and endorse them, or keep silent in cases where the other is messing up or, very rarely, to admonish them
  • Referral — the elder can recognize what people may need, and send people on to other resources which match that need

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