Jan  2018 30
The Need for Wisdom

NOTE: When I told the story below about a feeling-discounted, retired friend at the Remind & Renew dinner last week, I was subsequently told I upset a cohort of younger clergy in the room. For that I’m very sorry. Clearly, I did not communicate what I intended to communicate, so I’m writing this blog as a fuller statement on why I think a conversation about clergy wisdom is fitting for our time.

Wisdom does not automatically come with age, and wisdom is not barred from the young.

Look at the research done at the Center for Practical Wisdom. Research shows that growing in wisdom requires varied experiences. One can grow immensely through experiencing traumatic experiences (think of Malala). But experience requires consideration and deep reflection in order for experience to contribute to wisdom. An experience without reflection yields no learning and no wisdom.

Wisdom does not come automatically with years of experience, whether one year or 40 years. We all know the great difference between a professional with 40 years of experience and a professional who repeated one year 40 times.

There are wise younger people and foolish old people. About myself, I’d say I have become wiser in some ways during my professional life, and I stupidly have been unable to learn from my experiences in other ways. Maybe the line is not between some people being wise and others being foolish, but how a particular person is more or less wise.

Where and from whom should churches and their leaders seek pastoral wisdom? This is a particularly important question as churches and leaders navigate the powerful, era-changing turmoil of contemporary religion and society.

A clergy friend of mine retired a few years earlier than she once thought she might. She said she was tired of hearing messages from the denomination’s leaders that discounted the skill and wisdom of senior clergy such as herself. “All the leadership talks about is how young clergy leaders are going to save the church. It is as if all of us who have contributed, led well, learned and changed, have nothing more to give to good ministry.”

I shared that story with someone who responded, “Yeah, well, clergy who are in the middle of their potential years of service feel overlooked.”

Younger clergy are often told—by word, by deed, and by resistance—by congregations of persons their parents’ and grandparents’ ages that they don’t know (fill in the blank). Their ideas are dismissed, their energies sapped.

Systemically, younger clergy in formerly mainline congregations are facing a daunting set of challenges: a collapsing economy of support; fewer established congregations in which to serve; fewer congregations that can pay a middle class salary; the thinning of a congregational model of Christianity that has been around since the Reformation; a society at war with its own diversity; lots of dollars tied up in buildings that don’t serve well as homes for present congregations; interesting emerging models of Christian community that will not be built on core assumptions of congregational Christianity; uneven support in forming new communities.

When models of church are changing as rapidly and profoundly as we’re seeing today, one might fairly question whether or not, in the words of the hymn, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.”

In the transition from buggies to automobiles, the skills and wisdom of crafting a buggy whip were not transferable. In a similar manner, I would bet the skills for leading a relatively robust mainline Christian congregation in the 1980s represent a different skillset than leading the same congregation with a fraction of the membership today.

However, wisdom is different from skill, know-how, or how to.

Practical wisdom is deliberation and beneficial action concerning matters that could be different from what they are. Such matters involve morals, ethics, spirituality, community formation, conflict management, and all the ways human beings relate to one another and to our habitats.

Answering questions about “how to” involve knowledge and skills. Addressing questions of why, of when to, of when not to—these are questions answered better with wisdom.

At the Remind & Renew dinner, I told the story of Will Harris III, owner of White Oak Pastures. Mr. Harris owns a profitable family farm that used “modern” industrial methods of agriculture (take oil from the ground, turn it into chemicals to grow more crops faster and with better yield) and meat production (with animals treated as a product rather than as creatures).

After 20 years of operating the farm this way, Harris sunk the farm into $7.5 million of debt in order to change the whole operation. Open grazing, with the animals all mixed together in the pastures. Organic. On-site slaughter of animals.

His outcomes? Well, the farm is profitable again. But he says he is not primarily looking for yield, in terms of crops and animals. What he wants to see is healthy soil, full of the billions of microbes that soil needs in order to sustain life on the planet. For without live, healthy soil, life on earth is doomed.

When Harris took over the farm, he followed the “wisdom” of the day: grow more crops more quickly by blanketing the soil with industrial nitrogen. Then he turned his attention to the health of the soil. Now, his wisdom is: “I want to contribute to the health of the planet. I want to show that humankind can be a better steward of the earth. I want to encourage others to ask themselves why they can’t make the shift, too.”

Well, I wonder if church as we’ve done church since World War II is another by-product of an industrial mindset. Church plants. Sunday school wings laid out like public schools, which often resembled factories. Lots and lots of “how to” books that tended to reduce ministry to following recipes and instruction books. But what of the soil for ministry, the soil for following the way of Jesus?

What would it mean for clergy leaders—of every generation, and of all generations coming together—to attend to the soil? What is the equivalent in church life, in ministry, of attending to the micro-life of the soil?

I don’t know. But in answering these kinds of question, I can’t imagine we’d want to leave anyone’s wisdom off the table, regardless of age or years in ministry.

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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