by Jan Hoffman & Kenneth Sutton
Brethren we have met to worship,
and adore the Lord our God.
Will you pray with all your power
while we try and preach the word?
All is vain unless the Spirit
of the Holy Ones comes down.
Brethren, Pray! And Holy Manna
will be scattered all around.
This early American hymn, “Holy Manna” (obviously not Quaker, since early American Quakers did not sing in meeting), expresses well the interdependent roles of minister and elder: some to preach, some to pray, and all waiting on the necessity of the Spirit. This hymn articulates a reality apparent to every traveling minister. It is good to have company, and if the company is especially gifted to nurture ministry, by opening way to the Spirit, offering protection, and assuring sustenance both physical and spiritual, then goodness will surely follow, and sometimes glory.
In the practice of the so-called liberal Friends tradition of which we are a part, there are few recorded ministers and fewer acknowledged elders. Without the guidance of a living tradition, contemporary Friends have had to rediscover through experience the benefit of affirming and supporting public ministry and how the traditional roles of minister and elder inform this.
Liberal Friends are, of course, well acquainted with social action, with teaching, and with public speaking. These public activities may be experienced as ministry arising directly from God’s leading, even when not formally acknowledged as such. These ministries need the nurture and guidance of elders just as surely as traditional vocal ministry ever has. This need calls up gifts of eldering. The ensuing relationships between ministers and elders are often visible and relatively easy to describe. As Friends rediscover the power in this minister‑elder relationship, they are finding that elders have gifts of their own to exercise within the meeting community. These gifts may be less visible and harder to describe, but they include praying for the meeting and for the meeting for worship, discerning and encouraging gifts among the members, and conveying the Quaker tradition through example or teaching.
By “minister” we mean one who is giving prophetic expression to God’s movement in and toward the world, whether acknowledged or not. Our understanding of prophecy is well expressed by Thomas Merton: “To prophesy is not to predict, but to seize upon reality in its moment of highest expectation and tension toward the new. This tension is discovered not in hypnotic elation but in the light of everyday experience” (Merton, Raids on the Unspeakable, p. 159). The ministry may or may not be vocal in nature, and may or may not occur in the context of worship.
By “elder” we mean one who is exercising the gift of discernment in support of a minister and the ministry. Again, the individual may or may not be an acknowledged elder. Historically, the primary role of the elder has been support of the spiritual life of a community. In this essay, however, we will focus largely on the minister‑elder relationship. We do not intend that either of these words be understood to name definitively or immutably the gifts or character of an individual.
While eldering may be conceived of as a particular kind of ministry, it is our experience that the relationship between a minister and an elder is different from the relationship between two ministers or between two elders. This comes about in part because the two parties are exercising different gifts and the focus of the gifts differs. The minister’s focus on the ministry is largely internal, while the elder’s focus on the ministry is largely external. The minister attends to the message arising within him or her, while the elder looks to the spiritual condition of the minister, praying for and upholding the Spirit that will release the ministry. This relationship may be conscious and named, or it may be discovered already in action. As with the roles themselves, sometimes the relationship is acknowledged, and it may be the result of careful planning and discernment. It may also arise in the moment, in response to the need of a minister or the ministry.
Writing this essay together is part of a continuing unfolding of our relationship. First there is the primary ground of our long, informal spiritual friendship. This spiritual friendship has intertwined with our deepening understanding of our relationship as between a minister (usually Jan) and an elder (usually Kenneth). One of the fruits of our experience was the opportunity to travel in the ministry together for three weeks under the auspices of Ben Lomond (California) Quaker Center. The ground from which we write about Public Friends is our faith experience of the minister‑elder relationship and our belief in its importance to any public ministry.
The words of the eighteenth century Public Friends, Joseph Hoag and Job Scott, illustrate two conditions necessary to a vital Quaker ministry. Ministers can lose their own sense of call and need elders to bring them back to a sense of focus on God. This is well illustrated by the following experience of Joseph Hoag:
Having got through these parts, looking over my labors I greatly feared that I was wrong. The enemy took the advantage and brought a dark cloud over me so that I believed all was wrong; that I had done hurt, wounded the innocent, and was bringing reproach on my Friends at home. I concluded to tell Friends my prospect had closed up, and I felt best to go home. I had slept but little for two nights; the last, scarcely at all. I got up in the morning with a resolution to return home. I had not yet mentioned it, as I was waiting for the Friends who were with me, to go away, thinking then to get on my horse and go home. While thus musing, in stepped Joseph Meader, an Elder, and asked me to go into another room. He then said, “I parted with thee, not expecting to see thee again; but after riding several miles my mind was weightily arrested and impressed with a sense that thou wast sinking under discouragements, thinking that things could not be as they had appeared to thee. Thou mayest be assured that it is all so, thou hast not been mistaken in one instance where I have been with thee, as I have heard of.” This interview so relieved my mind as to renew my courage to pursue my journey. But entering into a solemn consideration and enquiry, why it was, if all was right, that I was left to fall into such distress, and was led to see in the clear light of the Lord, that I had reasoned with flesh and blood, and had not gone to Him for counsel and knowledge; thereby leaving the way open for the old serpent to present his false and deceiving representations to my mind. It was an humbling, contriting season to me, and I was made willing to enter into renewed covenant, let what would come, if the Lord would be my guide and helper, I would serve Him faithfully. Blessed be the adorable goodness of the Most High God!
– Joseph Hoag (1762-1846),
from Journal of the Life of Joseph Hoag p.83-84
Watching for “the spring to be opened in the hearer” is as important as the minister’s words, as the following text from Job Scott shows:
...We had a good open meeting at Longford, and on 16th, another at Uxbridge. 17th, one at Brentford, and in the evening one at Hammersmith all favoured meetings; though many of the people’s views and expectations being too much outward, caused the spring to be long shut up in several of them. This may be strange doctrine to some; but some others know that the spring must be opened in the hearers, or else there can be but little profitably done by the speaker. And he that speaks only in the ability that God immediately gives, must feel a door of entrance in the people’s minds, or it is very difficult to get safely and relievingly forward. But when the spring is livingly opened in Him that speaketh, and in those that hear, then it is that “deep calleth unto deep at the sound of the waterspouts” of life, and here instruction is sealed. (quotes from Psalm 42:7)
– Job Scott (1751-1793) from The Journal of Job Scott, pp. 430-1
Job Scott attributes to God the opening of the “door of entrance in the people’s minds,” but we believe elders have a role in opening the hearers to the “living spring.”
We need to hear stories of others’ experience, including those who have gone before us. While such historic examples are useful as we have taught and traveled in the ministry, we have found such descriptions of ministry and eldering to be insufficient. Friends need to observe ministry and eldering in action or have the ministry and eldering they are seeing named as such. Friends are hungry to have their gifts named and used. It is with the power of stories in mind that our essay will focus predominantly on sharing our experiences of ministry and eldering.
Context from Which We Write
Kenneth: I came to deal with being a Public Friend in 1997 when I became clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Interim Meeting, was senior editor of Friends Journal, and was leading workshops and courses for monthly meetings and larger Quaker gatherings. I had been teaching and leading workshops for some time as well as being clerk or recording clerk in other contexts and acting as an elder on occasion. At this time I asked my meeting to appoint an oversight committee to help ground my ministry in my monthly meeting and to provide spiritual support and accountability.
I experience my public ministry largely as an elder. As such, it is often responsive rather than original. It is relational and contextual. It is more concerned with uncovering what is already there than with sharing a prophetic message. It operates from a foundational faith that God is already present, at work. In fact, operating out of that faith is one indicator that I am living out of my gifts, since I am often impatient and judgmental when in my own abilities. My public and private ministry tends to be concerned with nurturing and drawing out the ministry of others.
Jan: I learned the term Public Friend from Kenneth when he asked for an oversight committee from his meeting to support his role as a Public Friend. I understood this simply as one who was active outside his/her home meeting. At that time I had done extensive speaking, clerking, leading workshops, and teaching courses on Quakerism within my home New England Yearly Meeting and throughout North America and England, but had no name for what I was doing except being faithful to God’s particular calls.
I experienced two rhythms necessary to the faithful release of God’s message. The minister’s rhythm was that of “rising up.” When I was the minister, I needed to pay close attention to what was in me, the seed of what God wanted me to say or do, and pay attention to whatever was necessary to bring it to fruition. I knew from instinct and experience that this process of releasing a message benefited from elders who could help draw out what was inside the speaker. Thus one of the elder’s rhythms was that of “drawing out.” In addition, elders help liberate my message by grounding me, holding a space where I could return when I let my spirit out with the words God intended.
For many years I resisted labels of “minister” or “elder” and described them as separate disciplines anyone could follow. Thus I sometimes served as minister and sometimes as elder and was content in either service. In recent years I have come to see that I am primarily a minister, albeit one with a particular concern for calling out and describing eldering. I share the foundational faith on which Kenneth’s work is based — God is already present and at work – but have come to feel God operating in a particular way in me. Deep within me from time to time I hear God giving me specific words to be spoken–sometimes to individuals, sometimes to a community — for the purpose of building up that community of faith. I experience these messages and seeds of longer messages both as a great gift and sometimes as a burden.
Kenneth’s Growth as an Elder
Elder as conduit.
In July 1987, Jan gave a plenary address to the Friends General Conference Gathering. For reasons that we can’t remember (and perhaps never knew), Jan asked me to sit with another Friend behind her on the stage as she spoke. We three met before the plenary and sat outside on some steps, talking about how Jan was approaching the speech and what she needed from us. The notable thing about my experience was the feeling of being a conduit for Jan’s message. Yes, Jan was given the message and was delivering it. But I, too, felt I was part of the passage of the message from the Infinite to the particular. After the talk, I couldn’t remember a lot of what Jan said. I realized I hadn’t been listening; I was literally and metaphorically sitting in a place behind the spoken words.
Elder as rock.
I was first identified as an elder during a weekend workshop Jan led. When I went, Jan and I both named what I was doing as eldering. One piece of what that meant became clear during the preparation time on Friday. As we talked about the structure of the weekend, its rhythm and content, Jan described a clerking exercise that she intended to lead, asking that I act as recording clerk. I had misgivings about the exercise, and we struggled with its place in the weekend until we realized that I had been acting like a co‑leader rather than an elder. As an elder, I was to listen to what God had planted in Jan and help liberate it, not offer my opinions. Thus, if I felt clarity in Jan about doing the exercise, she should proceed with it.
At that same weekend, I verbalized for the first time an important image of what I was doing: it felt like being a rock. My role in meeting for worship or while Jan was leading a session was like being a large, smooth stone, just emerging from the ground, soaking up the sunlight and radiating heat, big enough to lie on, level enough to stand on comfortably, passive but not unseen.
Elder as adolescent.
Samuel Bownas’ A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister characterizes growth in ministry as a progression from infancy to adulthood. As an adolescent elder I experienced an extended weekend called “A Gathering of Quaker Ministers and Elders,” From the first meeting for worship, some felt vocal ministers had run amok. A cohort of six adolescent elders stepped forth in response. Meeting together in worship, we were led to begin worshiping thirty minutes before the scheduled time and to move from the perimeter of the room to benches near the leaders. It was tremendously affirming when one leader spoke out of worship to say “I am glad to see elders have assumed their station.”
Ministers have laid upon them messages for, or service to, the meeting or the world, and elders have laid upon them the nurture necessary to draw forth that ministry, giving attention to both the minister and the meeting. While many Friends have inappropriately and negatively narrowed the word “eldering,” sometimes elders do nurture the ministry by cautioning the ministers. The purpose of all ministry and all eldering is to direct attention towards the Inward Teacher, who ultimately inspires, corrects, and empowers.
I left the weekend with a sense of two obligations: to assume the responsibilities of my gifts, and to learn how to initiate a one‑on‑one conversation with a stranger (or even a friend!) about their ministry.
Ben Lomond on the Road
In the fall of 1999, we were led to travel in the ministry with a concern for nurturing ministry and eldering and minister‑elder relationships. Sponsored and supported logistically by Ben Lomond Quaker Center, in California, we spent three weeks traveling to five monthly meetings for evening or afternoon visits, and did two Saturday workshops in two different quarterly meetings, ending with a weekend conference at Ben Lomond. It was our intention to share leadership as minister or elder, as led, with Bob Schmitt supporting us from Minneapolis during the time prior to the Ben Lomond weekend, when he joined us to become a third leader.
As we began this trip, we were aware of our differing sensibilities about shared leadership. Kenneth was sure of his basic identification and gifts being those of an elder. Jan struggled with her own identification as a minister. Were ministry and eldering separate roles that could be adopted at will, or were there particular gifts associated with each of us?
We hope to convey some of the questions that arise in living out the minister‑elder relationship, mostly through excerpts from Jan’s prayer journal and Kenneth’s journal, and add some of what we’ve learned.
We note that our writing reflects a pattern found in the historic record. From the evidence of what was published, ministers kept extensive journals, while elders did not, with few exceptions. In our case, Jan wrote extensively, so most journal entries here are hers. However, we both see ourselves and our work reflected in both sets of journal entries. Jan’s journal is devotional in nature so in her entries the “you” is addressed to God.
Jan. October 8, Amherst, MA (at home): Joshua 1:5 (AV) “I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.” Good promise to remember for this upcoming trip west. . . . and this one too:
Luke 12:35 “Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning.” (KJV)
Jan. October 16: Awakened at 4:00 A.M. with words from you given for Claremont (Southern California Quarterly Meeting). Wrote them down, then went back to sleep.
[Here was a time when eldering from a distance came into play. Bob had promised to pray for us during our travels, to try and sense our condition and hold us in God. This proved to be more exhausting than he thought it would be. For instance, at the moment recorded above when I was awakened at 4:00 A.M., in Minneapolis Bob also awakened, thinking, “Oh, no! Jan is up getting a message. I wonder how long this will last (i.e. how long I’ll have to stay awake holding her as she receives it)?” ]
Up early to leave for Claremont and our first workshop, which seemed full of your Presence. Thirty‑four people were there, eager to deepen their spiritual lives — good questions at the outset testified to this. At one point, Kenneth and I sat in front of the group and modeled how we interacted, first with me as minister and him as elder. Then Kenneth became the minister and Steve Smith the elder in a second demonstration. Things arose which will arise again for us in this trip, I’m sure.
Kenneth is coming more and more to name himself as elder– not a noun describing what he is but what he does — and while Steve drew him out to show that some of the motions he considers ministry are also part of what he does, he still feels himself to be an elder. In his interactions with Steve in the demonstration, he also acknowledged an observation of Steve’s that because he (Kenneth) has such deep respect for me, he hesitates to claim “elder” more fully because of its effect on me. (To hear that respect named was moving.) This effect is my own ambivalence: if Kenneth is elder, must I then claim “minister” as a noun and “ministry” as what I mainly do? And I still grunge around not knowing what I am, not knowing a general call except to faithfulness and feeling what I do only in particular calls to ministry or eldering. What would it mean to see/ claim myself as minister? I don’t know, but I don’t like the sense of being pushed by Kenneth’s sureness about his own identification as elder. I do realize this is my stuff and not his–that he sees himself as elder should not at all affect how I see myself.
At this moment, watching the sun touch the mountains outside the window, I have a deep sense of the breathtaking beauty and variety of your creation, and am at ease just being faithful together with Kenneth to make this trip. And part of this for both of us is probably wrestling more with what the minister‑elder relationship is, living it and describing it in a variety of ways.
Kenneth. October 16: Yesterday was a long day with a lot of hard work. When we were tired the work didn’t have much joy for me. We don’t know yet what our rhythm and harmony will be, but we will need worship in the mornings, and it feels quite important to invite our hosts to join us (all through the trip). We’ll also need time alone each morning. Yesterday, 1/2 hour between breakfast and beginning our worship and work wasn’t enough.
Jan. October 18, 7:00 A.M.: In our preparation time for yesterday’s program, Kenneth and I realized that each of us thinks he/she is receiving more from the other than he/ she is giving.
It was clear to both of us that I would hold the whole afternoon and Kenneth would elder (though it was Kenneth who first stated his clarity that I was to do it and that seemed right to me). So we’ll see how this unfolds in my self‑understanding as a minister.
This arrangement (me being minister) did not mean Kenneth didn’t speak. There were moments when he did, and moments when I asked him if he had some words and he said, “No.” One of these was in the reflection time when after a couple of people spoke, I felt there was no more to come, so asked Kenneth if he had words. When he said “No,” I waited longer and more people had messages to offer.
In our meeting with Bob once we reached Ben Lomond, we described the preparation for our October 20 program in Seattle. Kenneth was utterly amazed when he suggested ten minutes of worship in the meeting room before we took off for our hosts’ home and Jan refused. “Jan refusing worship?! Unbelievable!” She then said, “Well, OK, if you think so.”
Jan: The minute we sat down, Kenneth had a vocal prayer for me rise up. He said later this was very surprising to him. My sense is how right it was to worship, despite my initial objection, and what an encouragement Kenneth’s prayer was.
Jan. October 23, 10:00 P.M.: Our second Saturday program finished. Last night’s planning meeting with three folks from Multnomah Meeting once again changed Kenneth’s and my plans for today. They decided on a demonstration of an elder drawing something out of a minister, a process Kenneth had been ambivalent about. But we felt a keen sense of involvement, commitment, and discernment from the three Multnomah people.
After meeting with them, Kenneth and I had a good session coming to clarity on final plans, plus a lot of eldering from him about my piece of the teaching part. I’d already been clear that since he spoke much about eldering, I needed to speak more about the ministry part, but then Kenneth helped me see that the reason I’d felt clear and true at Claremont and not since is that I was speaking too much from my head, based on our reflections about what was needed. I wondered about the effect on me of speaking second at Olympia Meeting in Washington state, so that I felt I needed to balance Kenneth in some way and didn’t speak from my own integrity.
We decided to ask for silence after the initial questions at the workshop and see who felt led to speak first, and it might be me. Kenneth also encouraged concrete stories to illustrate abstract points.
So before bed I began to write some words articulating the beginnings of my understanding of the minister‑elder dynamic in big events and then take it down to my own monthly meeting level. I also would clarify that I do not sense a strong identity as one or the other permanently, but sense a need to be clear whether I’m ministering or eldering in a given situation. Many wonderful insights.
Then I went to bed with pen and paper handy, and woke early this morning to write/ be given more. So today in the teaching part, I went first and spoke as led–and it felt like ministry. When Kenneth rose to speak, he first looked at me and smiled and said, “Yes!” — affirming what I’d acted on since last night.
A moving time with Kenneth in the church at the Retreat Center while the small group exercise was going on. He shared a sense of grief in himself — didn’t know from where — and needing just to go on with it, not rejecting it, but just proceeding anyway. He felt unfaithful, too, about his teaching in the morning, and we wondered if that was a hazard of going second. But on to deeper sharing. What came up as I sat with him in his grief was that I loved him. It was true I had great respect for him, valued his gifts and his integrity, but I also loved him. So he wept as he felt his grief and also that he is loved – by me and others. I said I thought that was pretty good — feeling grief and receiving love. These were gifts of feeling I hadn’t been given in awhile. . . .
Quote to remember from Kenneth: “I have been known to tell Jan that sometimes she goes on too long. If she does this when it’s just Jan my friend, I get impatient, but if she does it when she is delivering ministry, I never feel impatient.”
Kenneth remembers finding himself crying that day with a sense of unfaithfulness in what he had spoken, which was a new experience. Jan listened, asked questions, and affirmed his experience, while at the same time affirming the value of what participants had heard. How often he had been on the other side of that conversation, loving Jan, commiserating with her, reflecting back what he could see of her faithfulness or her falling short, while also describing the value of what she had said. It is his experience that God uses unfaithful, flawed individuals.
Jan remembers him giving her a charge the night before, and she spoke with great effect this day, then he spoke without this feeling. On a previous occasion, he had spoken well and she hadn’t. It seemed we weren’t necessarily both going to be able to speak in ministry in a session. The second person to speak usually felt unfaithful. In this instance, Kenneth felt like he was both not attending to the words God had for him, and attending too much to what Jan had said or not said.
Jan: October 24: Galatians 6:9 (NAV): “.,,and let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart..” Help us not lose heart as we travel tomorrow.
Jan. October 25, 10:15 P.M. Patrick Creek Lodge, Gasquet, CA: One thing I was grateful for with Kenneth at supper was that on this trip we had changed constantly and improved, gotten better without saying, “Well, that program was bad when we made a mistake.” We’ve just known some things weren’t right and moved on, learning. I am grateful to be doing this work with Kenneth and glad we’re enabled to do it, aware that Kenneth is doing lots of work eldering. (Last night when Marge asked me to pray vocally, he said he’s never gone so deep so fast to enable me to do that.) And I’m getting an increased sense of being a minister, though I’m still not sure what that means. Give me some understanding of my resistance to claiming that term or of what it might mean to claim it.
Kenneth. October 26, 7:55 A.M. Gasquet, CA, Patrick Creek Lodge: I finally got worn thin by Jan’s company yesterday. Our work has been going very well, but the long car trip yesterday was hard. Last night we had a delightful salmon dinner here, and then a long talk about how our minister‑elder relationship isn’t reciprocal. I need to find ways to renew myself and avoid being used up on trips like this.
Things I’m learning:
We can do a good one‑hour, after‑meeting program.
Personal stories are best.
Some people really need a definition of some sort.
Traveling together isn’t a day off.
The demonstration of a minister-elder interaction is better with an unexpecting, unprepared participant.
Don’t eat a big lunch late, when you’re being taken to dinner early.
Be careful about questions–some people take requests for information as requests for action. You ask “Does that door open?” and zip! It’s opened.
Pat McBee’s messages from a distance were incredibly moving. Everywhere except Arcata someone came up to me to say “Pat McBee e-mailed me to remind you that she’s praying for you.”
We need to keep to our own story more and fill in information less when we go second in the teaching part.
Kenneth. October 28, 5:45 A.M. Ben Lomond, CA: I’ve been waking up at 6:00 most every morning this week, and I’ve wondered if it was God speaking to me, as has happened to other Friends I know, since I know I was usually tired enough to keep sleeping. I decided to just get out my journal and see what happens.
I can feel an emotional unsettledness just below the surface. I don’t think it needs to be stirred, just the opposite. I think it will benefit from rest and quiet, allowing the muck to settle out and clarity to rise to the surface. We have until noon free! Jan and Bob will bring their lunches here to the little house. After lunch we’ll worship and go to Santa Cruz and the beach. After dinner we’ll reflect on the trip in an orderly fashion.
This after‑dinner session with Bob to reflect on the trip was an opportunity for Bob to be an elder to both of us. He asked us, “What did you learn?”
— Eldering may be a particular form of ministry. Jan asked: does this help resolve the tension I feel in naming myself minister or elder?
— Being faithful to a call carried us through certain points when we annoyed each other, had to face things that were difficult for us, stretched ourselves perhaps too far, or were too demanding personally, we but didn’t need to take care of each other in this. We weren’t building a friendship, we just needed to do the thing that would forward the ministry–like the conversation we had at Patrick Creek about how we could drive together so Kenneth would be less stressed.
— Maybe Jan’s being emotionally shut down for most of this trip was a gift of God. It enabled her to focus on the ministry she was called to.
— Learning to let go of things once they’re over, not chewing on what happened for so long (something Jan told Kenneth she was learning from him).Kenneth read the list of “Things I’m Learning” from his October 26 journal. Jan agreed with him.
Bob then asked, “What questions are you left with?”
Kenneth responded: How did those old ministers do it without burning out the elder? We had both said publicly that the satisfaction in the work is enough, but for me, on a trip this long, the work itself done well isn’t enough.
Jan responded: Why does God give me calls like this when it’s so hard to stay connected and present? Am I a minister? Is this a self‑identification that could be helpful to me, as it is helpful for Kenneth to identify as an elder? Because of Kenneth’s statement that my intensity makes me demanding to work with I ask myself (as I asked Kenneth earlier): Is there anything I can do to moderate my intensity?
Kenneth. October 28, 10:50 P.M.: . . . . good meeting with Jan and Bob. It is clear to me that I would travel in the future as an elder with a minister under concern. In fact, I think I’d like to do that. But I’d have second thoughts about traveling as an elder/co‑leader. I feel right now like not being a “co‑leader” for the weekend but being an elder, straight and simple.
Kenneth. October 30, 12:13 A.M. Ben Lomond, CA: Planning with Bob and Jan this morning was painful. I was clear that I should just elder this weekend but didn’t express it right off. But it was still true, even if I wasn’t acting on it. So nearly everything I said sowed confusion instead of clarity. It felt like Jan didn’t hear anything I said. It’s still an effort to move out of that active planning mode.
Jan. October 30: Saturday night, after a full day of the Ben Lomond weekend – I’m exhausted, unsure of myself (again!) Bob did a wonderful demonstration this morning of the minister‑elder relationship by crawling around on the floor, then asking Tracy to help him walk. However, he took the whole half hour allotted for each of us to say some words, so the message I was prepared to offer couldn’t happen–which at the time was very right. I thought of Brian’s “Nothing is ever wasted” — and this message did not seem very urgent in the morning session.
Good conversation with Kenneth and Bob reflecting on the morning and looking toward the afternoon. Then more reflections during which I wept when speaking of my message not delivered. Kenneth named it grief, which it was, and they had me speak some of it to them. I felt fairly clear it wouldn’t find a place in this weekend.
The undelivered message mentioned above was one which had awakened me at 4:00 A.M. that morning. After it had germinated awhile, I turned on the light and wrote down some of what had come. I believe it was a message typical of Quaker ministry–strong and prophetic. Typical also for a minister is my grief described above when such a message cannot come forth (even when conditions are not right for it to emerge). In writing this chapter, it is clear that now is the time for this message to emerge, with the help of Kenneth’s eldering. While the seeds of this message came clear at Ben Lomond, I realize now that it arises out of the two previous weeks of travel in the ministry, and is addressed as much to those we had encountered in our travels as to those attending the weekend.
In a paper he wrote for New England Yearly Meeting Ministry and Counsel in 1988, Brian Drayton said that unprogrammed Friends feel we follow earlier Friends since our worship is on the basis of silence, yet “the overt spirituality in most of our meetings is strikingly different.” Following such misconceptions, unprogrammed Friends have “found it very difficult to articulate or to nurture without words a robust corporate spirituality; we tend to think that if each of us was more faithful, the meetings would thrive, and that’s hard to contradict, but it is also the case that the life in our meetings is nourishing only to a degree, since in groups we are much less daring about dwelling deeply than we are about acting on testimonies.”
I believe that Brian is right about our lack of daring in “dwelling deeply” in groups and that this is the source of the lack of spiritual power and vitality some of us experience in our meetings. To “articulate or to nurture without words a robust corporate spirituality” is difficult. Kenneth and I have tried to do this in these last two weeks and can affirm this truth from our experience. We have been both minister (historically the one with a gift for articulating the how the Source from which power and guidance come might move among the group) and elder (historically the one whose gifts of discernment were frequently exercised without words). We have prayed for people as they have engaged in small group exercises designed to reveal God’s work among them and listened deeply to many. We have also spoken many words these last two weeks, trying to nurture a “robust corporate spirituality.” Sometimes those words had life, and sometimes not. But whether as minister or as elder, we know we have planted some seeds about the truth we have experienced: we need each other to be most faithful, to hear God’s voice most clearly, and to be held accountable to that voice. We also need to learn to nurture our meetings both with and without words.
Our relationship to each other as minister and elder has been visible to those we visited, but whatever we have offered has depended also on the eldering of various planning committees and individuals who have drawn out of us what might best answer the needs of their faith community. They have done this by sharing the spiritual condition of the Friends we would be meeting in their location and by holding us as we led workshops, praying that we would be rightly guided. Participants in our sessions have also drawn us out through their questions and reflections both in worship and in general sessions.
Perhaps the way in which two Public Friends have traveled among Friends on the West Coast these last two weeks offers some sense of how a robust corporate spirituality might be nurtured, how we might learn to “dwell deeply” together. In this individualistic culture of ours where “self‑fulfillment” is seen as an important goal, one gift Friends may have to offer is how much more of God’s love and mercy and power can be released if we learn to nourish a corporate spirituality. We hope our work has been a witness to how the different rhythms and disciplines of ministry and eldering, newly understood for our day, are necessary in this effort.
Reflections on the Whole Trio
Traveling in the ministry for Ben Lomond was an exhausting and shattering experience for which we were only partially prepared. Almost a year passed before our relationship began to recover its equilibrium. Then we began to discover and integrate into our lives what God taught us, and we are learning still.
We learned that a style of teaching which stays close to spiritual leadings, and the disciplines upon which this style rests, is effective in a high‑content presentation and under demanding and extended conditions. Time for prayer and refreshment, meeting in prayer with planning committees, and responding on the spot to their needs and discernment powerfully added to the content of our teaching.
God was at work everywhere we went. What we drew out of, or named in, those we met strengthened the meetings we visited by making visible what was already present.
Putting ourselves in God’s way so clearly for three weeks was powerful. We were out of our daily routines and the regular demands on our time and energy. Instead, we had constantly to figure out what next, what now. All the demands on us — logistical, relational (with each other and with others), emotional, physical, spiritual — were centered around the work, which, to a greater or lesser degree, meant we were centered on God.
The example of putting our lives in service to God explicitly served as a model for those we met. Part of our modern condition seems to be that intention itself has a salutary effect on others. Accomplishment or attainment of the intention or ideal isn’t even really held up as an example–or at least not as an example for “ordinary” people. So there we were, ordinary, flawed people doing what seemed an extraordinary thing.
In our travels as minister and elder, we discover Friends eager to be faithful. Gifted Friends are empowered to exercise their gifts by hearing them described and seeing them modeled by others. We continue to feel a particular concern for the recovery of the gift of eldering among liberal Friends, both for the direct benefits of those gifts of prayer and discernment in our meetings and for their effect on the ministry. As New England Yearly Meeting’s 1930 Faith and Practice suggests, it may be that we need first to recognize and affirm the elders among us so that our ministers will be rightly grounded and boldly offer their ministry. A minister alone is not sufficient to sustain the deepest life in our faith communities. We need meetings who will nurture peoples’ relationship to God and hold them accountable for the right exercise of their gifts. The relationships between God, individuals, and the faith community can release again the transforming power of God discovered by early Friends.
Kenneth Sutton is a member of Beacon Monthly Meeting, New England Yearly Meeting and lives in the Boston area. He is the manuscript editor for UU World, the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Jan Hoffman is a member of Mount Toby Monthly Meeting, New England Yearly Meeting. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. A past clerk of NEYM, she is currently clerk of their Faith and Practice Revision Committee. Kenneth and Jan have served individually as speakers, retreat and workshop leaders, and writers, and have traveled together in the ministry on many occasions.
This is a chapter from Walk Worthy of Your Calling: Quakers and the Traveling Ministry, edited by Margery Post Abbott and Peggy Senger Parsons, published by Friends United Press, 2004.