Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Ministry, humility and community

The ministers we plead for are such as, being holy and humble, contend not for precedency and priority, but rather strive to prefer one another and serve one another in love; neither desire to be distinguished from the rest by their garments and large phylacteries, nor seek the greetings in the marketplaces, nor uppermost rooms at feasts, nor the chief seats in the synagogues; nor yet to be called of men Master, &c. Such were the holy prophets and apostles, as appears from Matt. 23:8-10, and 20:25-27.
[Barclay's Apology, Proposition 10, section XXXIII]

Even in their plain garments, it seems clear that there were some ministers in the history of Quakerism who indeed sought the chief seats on the facing bench and the greetings in the market place. The fear that this will happen again is often used as an argument for not recognizing minsters. This is interesting for two reasons. First of all, not many Friends alive today in the liberal tradition, has any direct personal experience of sitting in a meeting for worship and having the recorded ministers and elders sitting in the facing benches overlooking the congregation. It has been my experience that even in meetings that have facing benches in their meetinghouses, it is rare that anyone sits in the upper rows of the facing benches unless space is an issue. The second reason is that refusing to record ministers does not remove the temptation to pride that comes from being recognized as a weighty Friend. What we have removed is the system of accountability that could provide a check for that tendency towards pride.

As I have discussed earlier, a faithful minister will be provided by God many opportunities to work on their pride. A minister such as Barclay describes is one who will strive to be faithful to their Guide and to their gifts. The problem comes from those who may not be so faithful or who, in the course of time, begin to put too much faith in their own powers and not rely wholly on the Lord. Or there are some who might seek to be respected in the meeting, or who feel that the meeting is in great need of their wisdom, and so speak more often or at greater length than they should. In business meetings I often think of these Friends as “Hallmark Friends.” They have a message for every occasion. The problem is that by no longer naming ministers and elders, we have removed the structures that would have provided a check or a guide to those who, for whatever reason, are not being sensitive to their inward guide.

Since we have, for most practical purposes, given up providing outward discipline for those who might not have sufficient inner discipline, Friends from time to time are faced with people who are going off, with no guidance or oversight, speaking for Friends on one subject or another. This is most often seen with Friends with some burning concern. When this happens, Friends on Ministry and Counsel or in a similar position of responsibility are often in a bit of a quandary as to how to proceed. They are often reluctant to say anything except in the most egregious cases because they do not feel that they have the proper authority or standing to speak. This timidness extends as far as an unwillingness or inability to provide guidance to Friends who speak frequently and inappropriately in Meeting for Worship.

The root cause of this problem is that we have lost sight of the fact that one of the principal features of Quakerism is that it is a communal exercise. We respond to an inner prompting to speak or act, but we are also speaking and acting in the context of a community. A message in meeting may be inspired by the Spirit but at the same time it is also drawn out by the quality of the listening for the Friends assembled and worshiping together. When Stephen Grellet spoke in the wilderness there were three parties involved, although Stephen only knew of two. He was there and the Spirit was there. But the other key person was the logger who was listening unseen. His listening ears were also an indispensable part of the story. Elias Hicks notes a number of times when he was unable to speak or unable to speak as well or as fully as he was called to because the listeners, what he called the auditory, was not prepared to hear the message he was carrying.

This idea of a communal spiritual practice is strongly counter-cultural in American society which places an inordinate emphasis on individualism. It stands against the social, economic and political trends which seeks to privatize as much of civic life as possible. But the communal nature of Quaker spirituality also pushes towards humility. It reminds us that we are not the only judge of our spiritual life. It recognizes that we may be wrong and that others may see some things more clearly than we can. It recognizes that we hold our gifts, not as treasures for ourselves, but as stewards for the community. This also puts a burden on the community to receive the gifts that have been given to individuals on behalf of the community. This means recognizing gifts that have been given, drawing them forth, nurturing them and providing guidance and support for the people exercising them. This is true as much for the person whose gift is teaching First Day School or sending get well cards to Friends who are ill as it is for those who are led to become public Friends in one form or another.

Blessings to all,

Will T


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Will T., for these words of comfort! I feel like my large and old meeting is now quite ill - the words "a failed meeting" have been running through my mind hauntingly, as if in warning - with some of our weightiest Friends staying away because it makes them feel worse to come on First Day. You've given me words that express my sense of what the problem is, and I bless you for it.

March 27, 2008 12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd agree in general with Will T. Some Friends sometimes might benefit from gentle suggestions about when to follow a leading into vocal ministry and when to take a leading under advisement for further personal consideration. Some Friends are clearly Elders whether named so or not, they're just heavier when they (rarely) speak in or out of meeting. I'd be happy having those from my meeting back on the elder's bench again.

Mike H

March 27, 2008 2:38 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...

Thanks again, Will, for keeping this issue alive among liberal Friends. Liberal Friends have kept to the traditional form of waiting worship without hiring pastors to program and organize the worship, but at times a spirit of individualism replaces communal waiting on the spirit. This individualism is a carry-over of the Enlightenment. The hyper-individualism of the Enlightenment is one thing we have to get over in this Postmodern age.

I know you know this but I'll mention for your readers that the traditions of naming elders and ministers continues unbroken in our conservative Yearly Meeting here in North Carolina. If any of these readers ever travel down to worship with Lloyd Lee Wilson in Rich Square MM they will find him, along with any other ministers or elders present that day, on the facing bench.

As you note there are difficulties in doing anything right and traditions of eldering and ministry are carried on by less than perfect people. But despite human fallibility these traditions really work and I urge other Friends to give them a try.

March 27, 2008 3:14 PM  
Anonymous Allison said...

Lacking a minister, I just zoomed in on the Clerk and his wife. But that might just be because I'm annoying. :)

March 27, 2008 6:31 PM  
Anonymous Allison said...

PS - One of my Friends said that he had a Friend who wanted to be a minister but was a Liberal Friend. So he went to a Unitarian Universalist church instead.

March 27, 2008 6:37 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Thank you all for your comments. I am sorry that your meeting is in such distress, Anonymous #1. I am glad that my words have helped you clarify the problem. Of course that is the easy part. The hard part is actually working with your meeting to change things.

Richard M,
Yes I know that the traditions of ministers and elders is alive and well in the Conservative yearly meetings which is why I was so careful with my wording. While the hyper-individualism of today may have it's roots in the Enlightenment I don't think that it is the major reason today. Much of the agenda of the right wing of American politics is to make individuals responsible for things that used to be social responsibilities. Every time user fees replace tax money as a funding source, it is a triumph of individualism over community. The replacement of corporate pension plans with 401-Ks is a victory of individualism over community. Libertarianism is all about putting individuals before community. Liberal religion is all about the individual experience of God and a relativism that also corrodes community. We build religious communities that are afraid to discuss religious beliefs because we do not want to infringe on anyones individualism. In this regard, I think Quakerism is counter-cultural to both the left and the right.

It is too bad your friend's friend could not find a place among Friends. I will talk about the paid ministry in my next posting. Then I will be done with this series on ministry. I think.


Will T


Will T

March 27, 2008 10:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've had the distressing experience of having gone through clearness about a leading that was affirmed in the clearness process as a ministry (not a paid pastoral one) and then having my Meeting take no interest in it from then on. Quite frankly, it was embraced by the church of a friend of mine almost immediately and is being supported there.

I have no desire to switch over to my friend's church, but I do feel the indifference of my own Meeting quite profoundly. I wonder how Friends on my Clearness Committee could have been so supportive, insightful, and gracious during the time the committee was meeting and then become so distant in relating to it afterwards.

It has led me to reconsider my commitment to this particular Meeting.

Granted, the Clearness Committee had two people who were not from the Meeting, so perhaps the Meeting doesn't consider the committee "official" and therefore doesn't see itself obligated to continue nurturing the outcome of the committee.

At any rate, I am happy to report that I *am* feeling a continuing sense of support elsewhere, and that is a good thing.

March 27, 2008 11:47 PM  
Blogger RichardM said...


i was puzzled by your disagreeing with me about the way liberal religion of today is influenced by the Enlightenment. The examples you gave all seemed to reinforce my point instead of undercutting it. Yes, we see the hyperindividualism in both economics and religion and we see it on both the left and the right in American politics. That's because the picture of the world that was painted in the Enlightenment dominates Western culture. Quakerism began before the Enlightenment and does represent an alternative to it that transcends the typical left/right of American politics. We've been like a voice in the wilderness for the past 300 years but in the 21st century people are starting to see that the flaws in the Enlightenment world view. Quakerism is a tradition for the future.

March 28, 2008 12:13 PM  
Blogger John K. said...

"Libertarianism is all about putting individuals before community."

With all due respect, Will T., that's not true. Libertarianism is all about reducing the amount of unjustified coercion, violence, and coercive threats of violence in society, which I would think is an ideal that Quakers should get behind. It hold governments to the same moral standards as individuals, recognizing that if it would be wrong for an individual or a small group of people to do something it would also be wrong for a larger group of people calling themselves a government to do it. Libertarianism simply doesn't say or prescribe anything about whether an individual should voluntarily join a community or stay in a community he's found himself in, or anything about whether he should put that community before himself, or anything about what weight he should give that community in his own estimation of right and wrong.

March 28, 2008 12:24 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

I am sorry to hear about the lack of support you have felt from your meeting. I would suggest talking to your clerk of Ministry and Counsel (or whatever it is called in your meeting) about your feelings. One thing that might help is to ask for an ongoing oversight and support committee be appointed by M&C and made up of members of the meeting. That would be a vehicle for bringing your concerns and work into the fold of the meeting as it were.

Richard M,
I was not disagreeing with the idea that individualism arose from the Enlightenment. However that does not seem so interesting to me as we deal with the hyper-individualism of today as looking at what the current forces are that are driving this trend. I am also reluctant to chuck the Enlightenment. Maybe that is because I am a software engineer. I happen to put great store in rationality and the scientific method. Much of the distrust of the Enlightenment that I see appears to be coming from the Creationist, Biblical Literalist side and I certainly don't see that as an improvement. Besides, while I haven't read the history on this, I suspect that one could present a reasonable PhD thesis on the Quaker roots of the Enlightenment.

John K,
Maybe I haven't been speaking to the right Libertarians. What I see are people who are arguing for things like user fees for roads rather than paying for them out of general tax funds. This strikes me as saying I should only pay for the roads I use and not recognizing that having a good road and highway system benefits the entire community.

In general I am not opposed to the coercive power of the government to collect taxes, enforce laws and undertake public works projects for the common good. I do disagree with some of the things that governments do with the power that they have but I am not philosophically opposed to them having the power. Civil governments are a necessity for modern society and they can never be voluntary associations. They have to include everyone, even the people no one wants to include and the ones that don't want to be included.

None of this means that I do not think that governments should be held to a higher moral standard. After all the role of the prophet has always been to hold up to the society and the government their moral shortcomings.

Will T

March 28, 2008 8:58 PM  
Blogger Judy Brutz said...

Thanks Will for your comments.

You have helped me to identify the role of elder that I have taken on as we moved from the midwest to Idaho where Friends are isolated.

I feel the need for the practice and discipline of eldering and recording of ministers to return to unprogrammed Fiends - as long as discernment and a gentelness of spirit are present.

The question that came to me and won't leave me alone is:

Don't I, as an experienced Friend have a responsibility and obligation to support those who are interested in learning and practicing Friends ways, as well as giving support for them to seek clearness in their daily lives and for becoming members?

I remember a conversation I had with Bill Taber years ago. At the time he had just retruned from Erlham School of Religion to Barnesville, Ohio. Ohio Conservative had stopped recording many years before. Bill commented that when the gifts are not recognized, they die on the vine. It was not too much longer after that visit, Ohio did record him and have continued to record. We didn't talk about eldering.

My husband and I moved to Pocatello, Idaho. We found a Friends Worship Group, four people attending, one of whom was a member of the Religious Society of Friends. The group met twice a month, worship was totally silent, more like a "dead silence."

I asked the group if we could meet every week, and there was agreement. I didn't realize at the time that I was moving into the role of elder. I was asked to lead worship sharing for two of the "extra" meetings for worship each month. And I did, explaining what the process is and how we are to share with the group. The silence continued. The feel was of a group of unconnected people sitting in a room together and meditating on their own. I was puzzled and asked further questions about how decisions were made, if they had thought of becomeing affiliated with the Socity of Friends.

I personally struggled with the role I was taking. It did not occur to me that I was functioning as an elder. I felt I was being pushing, that maybe I was bringing about confilict. Many times I wanted to recede into the background. Yet, I kept being moved to be active.

In one and a half years we have gone from the intial group of four to a group of ten. We were taken under the care of Logan MM, Utah. People experience an inner prompting to speak during meeting for worship. We are connected and caring of one another. And I am now leading Quakerism 101.

The one Friend who was with the worship group when we arrived has had difficulties with the changes. Her preferences are to be unaffiliated with the larger Society of Friends, to have silent worship and not to make decisions.
Yet, she is still with us.

I'm curious to how other Friends take on the role of eldering?


March 28, 2008 9:04 PM  
Blogger Babette said...

Will- Thanks for this post. We were blessed in the Asheville NC Meeting by the presence of lots of very weighty Friends who helped us grow with their subtle eldering. I think that those of us who value the tradition, need to elder a bit, somehow If we are not willing to do it, the Meeting will suffer. We once had a newcomer start a "welcoming committee" and put himself up as the "gatekeeper" for newbies - and he was not even a member. So I felt led to go to Ministry and Counsel and speak on it, therafter, they had the entire M$C committee stand up for the benefit of newcomers. And,,, when I went to Quaker school, in NYC, once, when we were seniors, we were asked to sit in the front benchs for Meeting. It was a tremendous honor......Elizabeth Roebling, Asheville Meeting, now in Santo Domingo

March 28, 2008 10:30 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

I want to follow up on my last reply to John K. There is room for a diversity of political beliefs in the Society of Friends. We may legitimately disagree on what is the best way to organize civil society for the benefit of all people.

Welcome Judy and Babette,
Thank you for your comments on eldering.


Will T

March 29, 2008 3:52 PM  
Blogger John K. said...

Will T. --

Thanks for your additional clarifications to your comment on libertarianism, although I already believed from reading your posts on various subjects and from engaging with discussions with you on comment threads that you possess a liberality of spirit that would recognize the legitimacy (or at least good faith and plausibility) of various opinions on the best way to "organize" civil society. ("Organize" is in quotes because I think society is so complex and opaque to full understanding that this very complexity favors a presumption in favor of freedom and trust in God and against central planning and coercion.)

Of course, I think there's a truth to the matter (as I presume you'd agree) that deserves to be examined more closely by Quakers. I didn't really feel up to debating it here, because I didn't see your observation about libertarianism to be central to your point. On the other hand, I've recently left lengthy comments on Quaker blog posts relating to the putative relationship between Quakerism and anarchism and to voting.

I agree with (what seems to me a central point of your post) that community (as distinct from coercively-imposed communities) is of such high value that we should be wary of corroding the unity underlying our voluntary communities by an undue tolerance of anything and everything and embrace of any and every opinion.

March 30, 2008 2:48 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

To speak to one of the Anonymous commenters, I had had the experience a few years ago of meeting with a discernment committee to help me understand the nature of my relationship with the monthly meeting.

At the time, no one could see that what was struggling to emerge in me was a concern for how we convey our faith to one another and how we sustain our identity as Friends. Instead, I ended up feeling more alienated and more misunderstood by this group of Friends and unclear how to proceed.

The clearest I could get was, "God does not release me from the meeting," and so I continued to worship there, painful as it was.

Now several more years have passed and I again met with another committee--this time for clearness around whether or not I was called to travel in the ministry.

Though the clearness committee felt the call I had received was indeed Spirit-led, the committee also was convicted that the only place I was to "travel" was within the meeting itself. It was an affirmation to me, much as I wanted to resist it, that the meeting perhaps was indeed stalled in its corporate spiritual growth and perhaps I had something to offer, by being faithful to God's guidance.

Thankfully a care-and-accountability committee was appointed for me afterward--apparently with a fair amount of resistance from one Friend in particular. (I'm glad I was out of town during that particular business session!)

This new committee has helped me look for and test just how I was to bring the concern I was carrying into the life of the meeting, and they've supported me when I've "gone off the handle," too. The whole process has kept me low, that's for sure.

The flip side of all this is, I have in fact seen Friends who have idolized the very ministry or concern they feel they were called to pursue. They have lost touch with being led by God and have never requested eldership or oversight to help them test how they might live into their measure of Light.

Putting our sense of ministry into the center of our life is in no way equivalent to putting God in the center, though we can confuse the two, simply because it's so easy to put what we love in the center: ourselves, our meeting, a service project.

Great post, Will.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

April 08, 2008 2:24 PM  

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