by Bob Schmitt

I was invited to present a workshop at “Nurturing the Nurturers”, an FGC regional gathering at Penn Center on St. Helena’s Island, South Carolina in March of 1999. I was asked to present something on elders and offered a 2-day workshop called “Midwives of Ministry: Reclaiming the Role of Elder”. This felt very much a like continuation of my work the previous summer in giving the Bible Half Hours at FGC summer gathering. I learned much in that experience with my elders and spoke in the Bible Half Hours about the minister/elder dynamic as well. The Penn Center experiences also felt connected to the work coming this fall on the west coast, at Ben Lomond with Jan Hoffman and Kenneth Sutton, experimenting with the same minister and elder dynamic.

Seeking Elders

After receiving the invitation to present at this gathering I first consulted with the two Friends from my home meeting who for eight years have served as my elders. Feeling clear to proceed, I sought out elders to be with me on this trip. Jan and Kenneth did not feel led to serve as such, nor did Christopher Sammond. But shortly after, I received an unsolicited offer from Marty Grundy to serve in that role. Marty had been one of my elders for the Bible Half Hours at the FGC gathering. I also got an invitation from Peg Pearson in her role on the FGC Ministry and Nurture committee to be my “buddy” at the gathering. I wrote back that I didn’t need a “buddy” but I could use an elder. I wrote more on what I expected from someone in that role.

I wrote, “First of all, prayers are always welcome. What this means is that I need your prayerful support between now and then. If there is any chance of our spending even an hour or so in the same physical place that would be nice. But what I suspect I will really need is your presence during the two workshop sessions holding me in prayer, and an hour or so each day to sit with me as I prepare for the next day….

“Your prayers would be especially helpful at these times when I am on retreat: December 10-14 and again January 28-February 3. The first is more for my own rest and recovery from a very busy fall in my work life as a designer, but also to begin to clear the way for the messages I will carry to St Helena’s.

“On the second retreat I expect to do the work of preparation. My sense based on my experience last year at Pendle Hill (mystics- retreat) and last summer at FGC gathering (Bible Half Hours) is that I will be given precious little ahead of time–most likely just the first piece

“This may be more than you thought you signed on for, and if it is let me know. I want to believe that it is an opportunity for us to work together after all this time observing each other from across the Yearly Meeting. Also I would hope that it might provide you with an experience that’s at the core of what I am presenting– which is what does it mean to be an elder, and what is the dynamic of minister and elder?”

Peg didn’t get scared off and agreed to serve with me in that role.

Pre-Gathering Presenters Retreat

The gathering began with a day retreat for the presenters. I arrived late to the opening session with the presenters in quite a scattered state. The dozen or so of us were gathered in a circle and asked to introduce ourselves and tell a bit about the workshop each was presenting. I was toward the end of the circle and gave my piece. After me, Deborah Saunders began, shakily, putting her hand up and saying, “Give God the glory, give God the glory!” And through a tearful voice, told us how although no one here knew the condition she had arrived in, that each and every one who had spoken had spoken directly to her condition and that it was a miracle of God’s presence here. Knowing that Deborah was speaking in two nights, I’d made note to keep an eye on her and to ask if she had any elders working with her this weekend.

Now I must mention the condition I arrived in. For the previous several months I had been in a state of deep depression. This began during holidays. I was advised by my physician to increase the dosage of antidepressants I had been on for 4 years. For January and February I struggled with dancing between depression and the numbness of over medication. In coming to this gathering I felt stable, but for months had not been able to feel what I can best describe as my spiritual root–the deep grounding that I know to be contact with the Divine and the place where I can test the truth of my leadings. Needless to say, it was a terrifying experience to come to a gathering, presenting a workshop without any sense of being able to discern my faithfulness. Through the winter I had been in communication with my elders around this reality. Those working close to me knew my condition.

The next morning, still on the presenters’ retreat, we had a small group discussion, then rejoined the whole group and moved into a Meeting for Worship. Toward the end of Worship I felt led to a piece of vocal ministry in the form of a song by Patricia McKernon.

After giving this vocal ministry, I had no clue as to whether I had been faithful or had been inappropriate. The worship was closed very quickly after I had spoken, which felt very jarring to me. And the facilitator for the morning immediately went into a cerebral mode of asking us to evaluate the experience of the retreat. After a few had spoken, Marty Grundy observed that the retreat had been good but she thought that the worship just now had been closed too soon. I felt a relief and said that not only had it been closed too soon but that we needed to return to it. The facilitator ignored my request and continued on with the task. I sat there in a muddled state wondering if I had misspoken in worship, and now again. However, when she had completed her process of evaluation, she invited us to return to worship. The silence went quickly deep and Connie McPeak spoke a prayer during which I felt a small opening in me, a connection to that spiritual root. Worship was then closed for a second time. If miracles can be small, this was a small miracle for me to again feel my connection to the Divine.

The Stranger in Our Midst

That afternoon the attenders began to arrive and the gathering was begun. The first evening opened with a welcome by Alan Oliver, followed by his talk on “The Stranger in Our Midst”. After the talk I felt need to approach Deborah, even though I very much wanted to return to my room. I felt tired and wanted to ground myself for the opening of my workshop the next morning. But my feet wouldn’t let me leave. For some time she was surrounded by other friends. So I stood to the side waiting.

Finally she broke from the group and I asked if we could walk together back to our dorm. She agreed. And before I could say anything, she began to tell me this story of what had just happened to her moments earlier in the meeting room. At the rise of the meeting, a man had approached her., looked at her nametag and said, “Oh. So you’re Deborah Saunders. You’re that smart n——.” And touching his finger to her nose, “And you’ve got a funny looking nose.” Deborah described her experience as devastating and quickly responded by shaking her finger to his chest and saying, “Don’t you ever call me that again. I am not a n—–.” “Oh no,” said the stranger, “I’m a n—– too!” Deborah responded with “I am not a n—– and I know that you are not a n—–, for you are my brother.” Then she hugged him.

She then told me that while she had a deep respect for Martin Luther King, she had always doubted that she could respond in nonviolence and love as he did if ever confronted. She said that during the incident, she could feel Martin’s presence at her side., but was still in disbelief in how she had been able to respond in love.

We arrived at our dorm. I was more concerned for Deborah than before and asked if she had any elders for this weekend. She said no. I offered to assist in setting that up for her, knowing that the next night she would be addressing the gathering. She asked for a group to meet at 7pm before her talk. I offered the addition of an afternoon meeting. She stammered, saying that she didn’t know if the people she wanted would be available, and it might be an imposition on them. I replied that this wasn’t about their needs, but about what she needed. Did she want to meet twice with her elders? She did. I assured her that I would set it up.

I went to bed.

Deborah stayed in the dorm lounge for a time of worship sharing with the other gathering residents. She told later how she felt like she had been shot in the chest from the earlier incident, but because of the weight of the fabric of her dress, the blood wasn’t showing through. The group went around sharing and Deborah said nothing. Though she felt the gaze of an attender, Charlie Layman, on her and felt he could see the wound. When all but Deborah had shared, Charlie spoke to say, “Deborah, you haven’t said anything. Is there something you would like to share?” Deborah then shared the story of the incident that evening. Later she went to her room and the full weight of the incident finally set in. Wounded and alone, she wished for the company of her African American sisters at the gathering. But they had all gone to their rooms for the night. There was a knock at the door, and there stood 3 sisters of European descent who came to comfort her.

The Workshop Begins

The next morning was Friday and the first morning of workshops. I began the morning with introductions, asking Friends to share what brought them to this workshop or what questions they were carrying. The sharing that unfolded was rich, particularly because of the several stories of individuals who had been hurt deeply by what they referred to as “eldering”. I was overwhelmed with the power and pain released there.

Coming into this weekend I arrived with a clear plan for the first day and a sketchy one for the next. What I knew was that I had experiences over the last ten years with both having elders and being an elder that were rich, powerful and faith filled. However, I found little in Quaker literature, journals, or Faith and Practices that reflected this experience. This is what drove me to want to present on this topic: a desire to recast the role of elder from a negative, punitive one to a nurturing one that is essential in the delivery of true ministry.

From Crawling to Walking and Midwives, too

I used the analogy of how a child learns to crawl and to walk, crawling being something that I believe one could learn by watching and experimenting. Walking, however, requires the assistance of someone who is experienced. It requires someone taking you by the hands, pulling you to your feet, and stepping forward with you. It takes someone who knows how to slowly remove their support so you can stand and walk on your own. I demonstrated with the assistance of a participant, noting that at some point the teacher has to let go, and more likely than not, the person will fall. Falling is an essential part of the experience. This is how I experience the dynamic between a minister and an elder.

I offered an analogy of how I see the minister-elder dynamic working as that of the midwife and the pregnant person. The midwife did not conceive the baby, The midwife is not carrying the baby. The midwife will not deliver the baby. But the midwife is there to insure the safe delivery of the baby, to care for the pregnant person before, during and after the birth. It is a caring relationship, a relationship that is based on trust, and a relationship where the pregnant person/minister often submits to the insight of the midwife/elder. It is also a relationship where the pregnant person is freed from a host of extraneous details, so she can focus on the delivery of the baby/ministry.

A Demonstration of Minister & Elder

At this point in the workshop, I asked Marty Grundy, one of my elders, to sit with me in the middle of the circle and be an elder to my ministry. Marty asked a couple of fairly simple questions focused on my fretting about tomorrow and not knowing what I was going to do in the workshop. In a matter of minutes I felt like my vulnerability was visible not only to Marty but to the group as well. With another question from Marty I was able to shift from my frets and fears to what I knew–that I would be provided for. This was no simulation. It was scary for me in my role as facilitator of the workshop to be so open and vulnerable.

I then told the group that I was going to switch hats and become the elder and invited Deborah to be the minister to my elder. She agreed. (I had not told either Marty or Deborah that I was going to call on them ahead of time, though I had been clear for a week that it was Deborah that I would be asking at this point.) So Deborah and I sat in the middle of the circle and I asked a few simple questions (like, “what can you tell me about your condition this morning?”) Deborah opened up quickly, crying of her fear that this evening she would be asked to bare her soul to the gathering. She went on to share the incident with the stranger the night before. Again we were quickly out of simulation into reality. I was aware both of my presence to Deborah and also that there was this circle of people watching us. At some point I realized that this was not a circle of participants but that we were in the middle of a circle of elders; they were supporting us. At the point I became aware of this, Deborah spoke of how we were sitting in the middle of a circle of elders. We were deep, far from shore. Again I was scared, knowing this was deeper than I had gone before, feeling a responsibility to get Deborah safely to shore and also that I was still a workshop facilitator and had to bring the group to shore and to wrap up this morning session. We were brought safely to shore.

My plan had been that after such a demonstration we would discuss as a group things we saw and analyze the experience. But in the moment I knew that we had just been provided a powerful experience that would be diminished if we moved quickly into discussing it. So I invited the group to form one circle and we ended our time with a full hour of deep and powerful worship.

It should be noted that at this time in the weekend, we still were unclear about whether the stranger from the night before was a gathering attender or from the local community. We were also aware that the handful of Friends of Color who were having a workshop to nurture their connectedness were being confronted by white Friends who were demanding to be in that workshop.

Deborah and her Elders

In this context a small group of us met with Deborah on Friday afternoon as her elders. With a little prompting she shared with us her preparations for the evening talk. Deborah is not one who writes out a talk ahead of time but has themes swirling in her head before. She shared as she had in the morning workshop her fears in sensing she would be asked to bare her soul to the gathering that evening. The subject of the identity of the stranger came up and two of our group went off to talk to FGC organizers to determine who this was and to be clear that he not be present that evening so that Deborah could feel safe in delivering her ministry. We agreed to reconvene that evening an hour before her talk.

Deborah went off to her room to rest and prepare. I went to mine to sleep. After an hour or so, I sat up with a bolt out of my sleep with a panicked feeling. I had forgotten one of Jan Hoffman’s advices for being a good elder, which is to be mindful of preparing the meeting space for the minister, both physically–chairs for speaker and elders, sound check, any other physical details. And to spiritually prepare the space–cleansing and invoking the Spirit to be there. Once realizing this, I laid back down and slept for another hour. Then I got up and walked across the campus to go check the meeting space. On the way I crossed paths with Deborah who was just finishing a conversation. I told her what I was up to and she joined me. We checked out the space, rearranged chairs for those she wanted sitting up with her, tested the mike. Then I stood quietly in the middle of the room while she began to pace back and forth between most every row of chairs, murmuring “I can do this, I can do this, I can do this,” much like a chant or a mantra. I stood focused on encircling the room and the building with protection, praying that this space be sacred for that evening so that Deborah could be faithful in her call.

We then went off to dinner.

We elders gathered again with Deborah before the talk that evening, generally checking in with her and clarifying who would sit where. Someone reported on the stranger. It had been determined that he was not a registered attender but had traveled with a registered attender to the gathering. He was also someone on the edge of normal functioning and we were assured that he would not be in attendance that evening. We raised concerns about Deborah’s possible condition afterwards and were clear to surround her after the talk to discern what she would need at that moment.

We walked across the campus to the meeting room and settled in. Attenders arrived and a deep rich silence grew in the room. Alan welcomed all as he did each evening. There was a brief but sweet children’s program as there was before each evening’s talk. Then we settled into silence for Deborah to begin. As this was happening, I opened my eyes and saw this same stranger’s face at the window in the back of the meeting room. I prayed deeply that Deborah had her eyes closed and hadn’t seen him, and wondered what we were in for this evening. In a few minutes he went away.

On Eagle’s Wings

Deborah began her talk. It was classic Deborah, opening with singing, pacing the space in front and giving us the word. She talked of her condition in coming to this gathering, of how in the previous weeks she had felt like she had lost her way, and God did not seem to be around to help her find it. She had come to this gathering in a state of despair. She then told of that first evening with the presenters telling of their workshops and how each one had spoken directly to her condition. As she told this she would point the person out in the crowd and say, “then so and so said this and that spoke to me” In the telling it felt like she was weaving a great tapestry, weaving us together. She then told of the incident with the stranger that first evening, of her shock and her amazement in being able to offer love. She told of the worship sharing back at the dorm and of the experience that morning in my workshop with the circle of elders around us.

Somewhere in all this, I noticed that the stranger had entered the rear of the meeting room. Alan Oliver, the clerk of this gathering, got up from next to me and walked over to him. Deborah at this point begins to speak over the audience directly to the man– acknowledging who he was and again calling him “my brother” and offering forgiveness and love. Shortly Deborah finished speaking and sat down. I then noticed that the stranger was coming forward and approaching the stage. He ended up sitting next to me. I sat there trying to discern what was going on: who was this sitting next to me? Did I need to be concerned or afraid? Was there something I should be doing? Was there nothing to do? I never got any sense from the man. Just stone coldness. After some time of closing worship, I was clear to close the meeting and did it by shaking the stranger’s hand. Deborah then got up and came over and shook his hand as well.

This whole experience felt biblical to me–the weaving of the story, the naming of names, the stranger in our midst, the demonstration of the power of love, of forgiveness. We were all part of the experience of forgiveness. And thus we mounted up on eagle’s wings.

Those of us who were Deborah’s elders surrounded her at the rise of meeting and one of her sisters of color took the lead and escorted Deborah from the room, to be with her and comfort her.

I went back to my room to prepare for the morning workshop , to ponder the power of the day and to attempt to sleep.

Saturday Begins

Saturday morning I was exhausted. In the workshop I could feel the weariness of the group. It was as if we had done the whitewater experience the first day and everyone just wanted to stay safely in the bay today. We did some sharing in the group of our experiences yesterday both in the group and in the gathering in general. We then broke into small groups to share experiences of being ministers and elders. We closed our time together with a full hour of worship–deep and powerful worship, with many well-led messages. When I closed the worship, though it was time for lunch, and we had been sitting for quite a while, no one moved. We sat there, some light conversation, some thanksgivings. But we weren’t quick to come out of those healing waters.

A Sense of Completion

My own experience at this point was one of feeling I had completed the work I came to do. I was done, though I had committed to do a “sampler” version of this workshop on Sunday morning. The schedules had already been printed up. But I was clear I was not led to do this. I was perturbed with this for a while and walked over to the main building where Marty Grundy was presenting her afternoon workshop, waiting for her to come out and help me discern what to do.

As I was waiting, Peg Pearson, my other elder came and sat with me. Up to this point Peg had been a very cautious elder, perhaps because we had no previous experience together in these roles. But she listened me into my truth and at my request escorted me to the table to tell Lyle that I wasn’t going to present on Sunday. This wasn’t a big deal for Lyle. It wasn’t a big deal period, except for the fact that I couldn’t find it within myself to back off from a commitment even though I was perfectly clear I was not led. And Peg was there as my elder to support me out of such foolishness.

Throughout this weekend, I felt the power of the spirit in ways I hadn’t ever felt before. I felt the presence of all of the memories on that island–all of the good that had occurred that and all that was not good. It was exhilarating and painful at the same time. I had never experienced a gathering where the collective group went to the lowest depths and to the heights as well. The gathering closed with a worship of great power. I felt well blessed and relieved to be able to go home.