Some years ago, while my family and I were vacationing in another city, we stopped along our route to worship with another congregation. Naturally, because pastors are curious sorts who like to compare attendance numbers, budgets and ministries, I spent several minutes during the sermon attending to the long list of staff names and descriptions listed on the back of the worship bulletin. The pastors (associates and senior) were listed along with a children’s ministry director, musical directors and a wide assortment of staff dedicated to youth and recreational ministries.
One staff member in particular, caught my eye. This congregation had a Sage in Residence. Holy cow! A sage! I had to meet this guru.
After the worship service, I approached the speaker of the day, who was greeting the congregation at the doors, and I asked about this staff member. “Oh…” she said, “Yes, that would be our former senior pastor, now retired. Instead of calling him emeritus, we call him the sage in residence.”
The sage-in-residence…now there’s a title that will turn the cogs.
Since that visit, I’ve reflected on the notion that pastors possess special knowledge—that we may, indeed, be regarded as sages. Many pastors might not see themselves in this light, but there is merit here. We should not be surprised that others are looking to us for wisdom or understanding. Perhaps it always has been so for spiritual leaders.
There is, after all, a deep wisdom theme in the Bible. In fact, the Hebrew scriptures (in Jewish understanding and tradition) is divided into three parts: the Torah, the prophets and the writings. The latter primarily is composed of wisdom literature. Sure, there’s some apocalyptic (Daniel) and some history (Ezra, Nehemiah, etc.) in there, too; but a great deal of this third portion, such as Job, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs is wisdom.
The people of God always have looked to the wise for guidance; as far as pastors are concerned, there is far more sage wisdom here than often is realized. Take, for instance, a congregation’s history. This history is more than just dates and key events. A history of a church also is retold in terms of the people: decisions made, steps of faith taken, moments in people’s lives when grace was evident and God’s purposes were realized. Often the pastor is the one who has knowledge of the people, the one who can stand atop the hill and see the panorama as it unfolds, as people move forward in a common vision. The longer a pastor leads a congregation, the deeper this knowledge and wisdom becomes.
Pastoral wisdom also is found in the intricacies and intimacies of a congregation. Often the pastor is the only one who knows the secrets harbored in other people’s lives. Pastors are graced with the honor of being invited into other people’s joys and sorrows, their triumphs and tragedies. We often know the secrets other people in the congregation do not know. Our wisdom is the product of history and human experience.
A great deal of pastoral wisdom is born from these secrets, secrets that never are shared, never discussed with anyone else. In priestly fashion, we often absolve others of their sins, suggest ways people can make restitution or set out on a new path. At times, we also celebrate the high moments of people’s lives: births, weddings, new jobs, life changes; these moments are not always known in the wider circle of the church. We know more about the congregation that we can say; but in the secrets we cherish and hold, and through these confessions and celebrations, we gather a body of wisdom.
The pastor as sage in residence is not a new suggestion. The rabbinical tradition is squarely centered in the sage. So is pastor when understood as the keeper of the sheepfold, the wise one who tends to God’s flock. It takes wisdom to be a shepherd: to know where the pitfalls are, where the flock can find sustenance and water. A pastor, a shepherd, is a sage who knows the flock and the terrain. The flock depends on the pastor to make wise decisions.
Naturally, being sage in residence is hard work. It requires humility and grace to possess wisdom, to use it well, to know when to speak and when to remain silent. It takes a wise person to lead people through the labyrinth of this world, to lead with decisiveness and passion, to lead in such a way that others will not rebel from the call, but hearken to it.
The pastor who is sage in residence is a leader. Leaders are regarded as sages. Sometimes people want answers to complex problems. They look to a leader, to one who is wiser and more experienced. The pastor can be this sage to the young, to those who still are trying to figure out who they are or where God is leading. The pastor can be a sage to those who have marital difficulties, to those who struggle with addictions, to those who are looking for a deeper meaning in their careers or their parenting. The pastor can be a sage to the elderly, to those who are nearing the end of life and facing complex decisions regarding healthcare. Pastors are the wise ones who can counsel through grief and loss and call forth the promise of hope.
This is not to say sages always have the right answers, the best answers, the only answers. Sometimes the sage only knows the questions. This also is wisdom. Sages in residence don’t have to dispense knowledge in order to be wise. Much wisdom is offered through example, through the long trajectory of a life of service, through friendships. The pastor is one who deepens wisdom through relationships instead of programs, who finds meaning in real conversations. The sage in residence is one who listens deeply, who is able to receive far more than one gives.
The pastor as sage in residence is the one who tells the story time and again, who reminds the people of God’s grace and guidance. The pastor-sage lives as storyteller, priest and healer. The pastor-sage finds wisdom from this ancient story of the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”): The Baal Shem Tov used to go into the forest to pray at a certain place. Here he would light a fire and offer his petitions to God. After the Baal Shem Tov died, his successor followed the same pattern—going into the forest to pray at this place. However, he did not light a fire, as he said, “I do not know how the master lit the fire. But we can still pray.”
A generation later, another successor went to the forest to pray, but he said, “We do not know how to light the fire, and we don’t know the prayer that was offered; but we know this place in the forest, and that is enough.”
A generation after this the successor said to his followers, “The fire we cannot light. The prayer we no longer know. The place where the master prayed is lost to us. All we can do now is tell the story.”