The following report was published in Third Month of 1992 by Baltimore Monthly Meeting of Friends, Stony Run, in Baltimore, MD.
Second Month, Eight, 1992 (Seventh Day) was a snow-brushed morning, but Stony Run’s Ministry and Worship members braved country roads to “retreat” at the clerk’s woodland estate. Extended worshipful discussion – interspersed with frequent laughter and stories – centered around eldering.
Elders – in a Quaker context – are those individuals “seasoned” in the ways of Friends: that is, familiar, through experience, with worship as a personal and corporate decision-making process and cognizant of Quaker tradition. Although age is not a prerequisite, attainment of middle adulthood usually occurs before life experience, familiarity with Monthly Meeting business and committee procedure, and personal religious journeying lead one to such status. Many Friends are – in this sense – elders: the Meeting designates certain committees (such as Overseers and Ministry and Worship) to exercise some of the traditional functions of elders.
Church Government (London Yearly Meeting) states, “The essential purpose of eldership and oversight is to help in the building of a true Christian community, of a fellowship in which all are united by a shared spiritual life and from which all in the meeting may draw inspiration and strength for God’s service in the world.
“Within this common purpose there is a division of function. Elders are primarily concerned with the nurture of the spiritual life of the group as a whole and of its individual members, that all may be brought closer to God and therefore to one another, and may become more sensitive and obedient to God’s will.”
Although everyone in the Meeting has a responsibility to welcome newcomers and invite them into the life of the Meeting, Overseers, Nominating, and Ministry and Worship consciously and regularly try to identify and assist individuals in finding a place in the community and pursuing their spiritual journeys. Here are some identifiable people to turn to with questions, concerns, or needs.
Religious education and training in Quaker ways are also part of eldering. Classes in Quakerism, opportunities to learn about worship based on silence, vocal ministry, and Friends’ peculiarities are a few of such educational opportunities.
Eldering, however, is commonly thought of as going beyond teaching to correcting behavior. Ministry and Worship Committee affirmed, in the retreat discussion, that the Committee has not only the responsibility but the obligation to ensure that Divine Worship can occur. If the behavior of some – or many – such as excessive lateness, frequent speaking without space between messages (“popcorn meetings”), or prolonged absence of vocal ministry from Meeting for Worship, prevents worship, the Committee must act. Likewise, if worship is compromised – or unduly flavored – by the actions or words of any individual, the Committee may take action.
Eldering, in the name of the Meeting or of Quakerism, is, in this sense, undertaken only by a committee (or occasionally, an individual) designated by the Monthly Meeting. No one among us can speak to another for the Meeting. Ministry and Worship is always guided by two considerations: (1) Is the Spirit telling you (individual or committee) to do something, and (2) Over time, will the proposed action do good or harm? Sometimes, a third query is helpful: (3) Is there any hurry?
Usually, corporate discernment (a committee clearness process) serves not only to clarify the problem and the rightness of any proposed action, but also serves to assuage the problem. Years of collective experience teach us that the prayerful attention to a concern (whether someone’s too frequent or “way-out” messages, or the hurt feelings of members who clashed over opinions in Meeting for Business) often helps resolve the situation without further action. Sometimes a conversation, a visiting committee, or a note or phone call will be warranted. Always, however, a group has prayerfully sought Divine guidance before such an action.
Our retreat conversation clarified another aspect of “feedback” on vocal ministry. Anyone who has been led to speak in Meeting can testify that the experience is one of vulnerability. That is, opening oneself to the Spirit to the extent that one can be compelled to rise from the bench and speak is also opening oneself (usually unwittingly) to the opinions of listeners, and any subsequent comments (whether during or after Meeting) are heard with an intensity – and may be given an import – far beyond the intention of the commentator. The message I speak may trigger thee to elaborate, but I may hear thy comments as chastisement. (“Thee didn’t get the whole picture: Thee should have said….”) Consequently, casual comments and conversations about messages in Meeting need to be tempered with loving sensitivity (“tenderness,” in Quaker-ese).
Friends are encouraged to speak with one another about vocal ministry, and, particularly, to speak after Meeting with any whose messages were helpful or stimulating to you. Such conversations encourage rich ministry and nourish our sense of spiritual fellowship. Let us be extremely careful, however, lest our personal opinions about what Friends do or believe be perceived by the hearer as a message from the Meeting or “a committee.”