by Katharine Jacobsen

“What comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘eldership’ and/or ‘elder’ among Friends?” was the opening query of the fourth “Quaker Camp” evening session led by members of Ohio Yearly Meeting. Ken and Katharine Jacobsen put forth this query because in their travels among Friends they have found disappointingly little interest in and much misunderstanding about the spiritual gift and function of elders. At the same time Ken and Katharine see that many friends have gifts of eldership without knowing it. These gifts are under-used, and Friends organizations everywhere suffer from the lack of members who prayerfully work to keep the channels of God’s love open. The goals of the session, Katharine noted, were 1) to promote and understanding of eldership as the true spiritual gift that it is, and 2) to suggest that effective eldering is as instrumental to the Quaker ideal of sacred community as vocal ministry and/or the meeting of practical needs by overseers.

Friends’ concept of eldership focuses on the spiritual health, the interior Way to and with God, of individuals and faith communities. Elders have gifts of spiritual discernment and nurture, which are strengthened by learning, practice, and collective discernment with other seasoned members of the meeting. Their means is prayerful listening, deep listening to what is being said by another, by others, or within gatherings for worship, business, clearness, etc. where the intention is to seek the Will of God. Whereas the vocal minister gives birth to a message from God, the elder seeks to maintain the right conditions for birth.

A brief look at the history of Friends, Ken said, reveals that eldership originated among early Friends when traveling ministers asked a seasoned Friend to accompany them to discern when and how their vocal ministry was “of God” and when and how it was not. The gift of this kind of discernment could be found in Friends of all ages. A few Friends today ask others to accompany them when they travel among Friends or when they teach a course or lead a workshop, but this is true of only a few.

Why is the gift of eldership ignored if not avoided? Occasional abuse and general distrust are why, but this is a loss for Friends. All spiritual gifts can be abused. This occurs when Friends try to exercise their gifts in their own strength, not under “the hand of the Lord.” Our history shows cases of spiritual self-righteousness among ministers, overseers and elders; that abuse by elders was deeply injurious.
Eldership is a real gift, however, and if performed faithfully by those who have discerned and practiced their gifts together, it truly keeps the channel of Love to and from God open. Always, the “how” of eldering, the way of nurturing and guiding, must be Love.
The Jacobsens concluded their session by suggesting clues to true eldership:

  • deep, nonjudgmental listening;
  • prayerful use of intuitions;
  • strivings to nurture;
  • questions before opinions;
  • trust of God’s leading;
  • willingness to pray;
  • patience;
  • a concern and feeling for the quality of worship;

Katherine Jacobsen is a member of Ohio Yearly Meeting who lives in the Chicago area. This talk appeared in The Conservative Friend in Eighth Month 2007