by Bob Schmitt, Jan Hoffman & Kenneth Sutton

“In his Journal John Rutty asks: `Lord, if I be not a knife among the utensils of the spiritual house, make me a whetstone!’ (Journal, 1796, p.242) A whetstone could be compared to the function of an elder and a knife to that of a minister.”

– from Howard Brinton, Quaker Journals: Varieties of Religious Experience, chapter 6 on “The Spoken Ministry” (p.41)

Bearing in mind that the treasure is in earthen vessels, beware of laying stress on your ministry, the baptizing power of the Spirit of Truth accompanying the Word being the true evidence.

– North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), an excerpt from Advices to the Meeting of Ministry & Oversight, Faith & Practice of 1983.

Beatrice Saxon Snell relates a story from her own experience, which reminds us that we all are potentially the instruments of God:

I had a salutary lesson in sober thinking when I was first asked to become an elder. The invitation appalled me; I felt I was not old enough, had not been in the Society long enough; I suspected strongly that my monthly meeting had asked me on the inadequate grounds of vocal ministry; I read up the appropriate passages in Church government and felt still more appalled. Nevertheless I had been in the Society just long enough to know that the group often has a wisdom which can seldom be justified on logical grounds but which is, nevertheless, superior to the wisdom of the individual.

I therefore went to consult a much respected elder of my acquaintance. She and her house were late Victorian; she sat on her ugly sofa with the poker up her spine, her feet set neatly together and her hands folded in her lap; and she let me talk myself out. When I had quite finished she inclined herself slightly towards me and said: “My dear, we have to take what we can get.” I have since been convinced that this is a text which ought to be framed and hung over the bed of every elder in the Society: it ought to be hung over the bed of every Friend who is tempted to refer to the elders as ‘they’.

– Britain Yearly Meeting, Quaker Faith and Practice 1995, #12.08

One of the outcomes of the history of eldership and ministry among friends is that elders, unlike ministers, felt no mandate to leave their own spiritual auto-biographies (with a few exceptions, such as Dr. John Rutty of Dublin) – a last act of testimony. Thus the internal dynamics, the calling and growth of an elder, are not documented in anything like the detail we have for ministers. Note that, unlike ministry, the gift of eldership, rarer than that of ministry, is most likely to be noticed and first called out by the community, rather than the person herself; it does not often present itself as a specific task arising within. Most often, it takes the form of an invitation: Would you be willing to serve on a clearness committee? Could you come with me when I visit the neighboring meeting? Would you be on the committee of Ministry and Counsel? Could you lead a discussion on this issue? Maybe you could speak to Friend X sometime…

– excerpt from “A Historical Note about Elders in the Society of Friends” by Brian Drayton, 1993

One image for a spiritual nurturer in the meeting, perhaps the first one used among Friends and a favorite of George Fox, is that of mothers and fathers in Israel. Fox develops it as a tender, nurturing image of spiritual parenting, a homely image attributing the same tenderness to both fathers and mothers, as in this selection from one of his epistles:

“And so, all that be called fathers in the truth, or mothers, their tenderness should be the same to all little children in the truth, that can hardly go without leading, that sometimes may fall into the dirt and ditch, and slip aside, and then be troubled, and cry. To such there should be tenderness shown, and to wash them, and help them, and love to such should be manifest.” (Works, v.7, page 320, Ep. 262).

– excerpt from “Applying and Adapting the Tradition of Eldering for Today.” Frances Taber. The Conservative Friend, Fall 1996

It being known that I was expected there, the meeting was full. I felt my mind uncommonly shut up, and much composed in stillness. Musing, why is it that I am so shut up, and feel so easy, a language ran through my mind, “There are a number of members here who would not have been present, had they not expected thee; they are waiting for and looking to thee, and not to Me, the Giver of all good.” I became satisfied, and passed the meeting in silence, feeling great peace of mind in doing so.

– from  the Journal of Joseph Hoag (1762-1846) (from 1909 edition, but no page given)

Ann Branson quotes William Penn to her Monthly Meeting when returning a travel minute: “And again, in reference to the ministry, he says, ‘Ever so little without the life is too much; but much is not too much with the life.’ I exhorted elders to get down deep where they could discern what was of and from the Lord, and what was not, that they might know what to encourage and what to discourage.”

– from the Journal of Ann Branson (1887)

“The natural man loveth eloquence, and many love to hear eloquent orations, and if there be not a careful attention to the gift, men who have once labored in the pure gospel ministry, growing weary of suffering, and ashamed of appearing weak, may kindle a fire, compass themselves about with sparks, and walk in the light, not of Christ, who is under suffering, but of that fire which they in departing from the gift have kindled, in order that those hearers who have left the meek, suffering state for worldly wisdom may be warmed with this fire and speak highly of their labors. That which is of God gathers to God, and that which is of the world is owned by the world.”

– from The Journal of John Woolman, the 1871 John Greenleaf Whittier Edition text. (Corinth Books, 1961, pp 223).

. . . . 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 hearer, 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 difficulty 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)

– from Journal of Job Scott (1751-1793)

One night I dreamed that I saw a large, spacious building, in an unfinished state; and the master builder, who appeared an excellent person, came to me as I stood at a distance, and desired me to go and take a view of it; to which I agreed; and as we were surveying it and examining the particular parts I observed that among the many pillars, erected for the support of the building, there was one lacking. I queried of him, what was the cause of that vacancy. He replied, it was left for me; and that I was specially designed and prepared for the place, and showed me how I fitted it, like a mortise is fitted to its tenon. So that I saw in my dream that all he said was true. But, notwithstanding all this, I objected to my capacity and fitness to fill the vacancy, and was therefore unwilling to occupy it. He endeavored, by the most convincing reasons, to remove all my objections, and to demonstrate that I was fitted for the place. He further told me that they had not another prepared for it; and that the building would be retarded if I did not comply with the design. After he had reasoned with me a long time, and I still refused, he appeared to be grieved, and told me it was a great pity that I should be rendered useless in the house by my own obstinancy; and then added, “But it must not be so; for if thou wilt not be a pillar, thou shalt be a plank for the floor.” He then showed me how I might be flattened and prepared for that purpose. But I refused that place also, on the ground that it looked too diminutive to be a plank to be trod upon by all that came into this house.

– from The Journal of David Ferris (1855)

Prepared for a retreat on “Bringing Our Messages & Witness to Birth: Mothers, Midwives, and the Minister/Elder Relationship”, held at Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, California in Fall 1999.