by Jan Hoffman
When a message is to be offered to a gathered people, there are two motions necessary to its faithful delivery. The first is the rising up of the message from deep within the speaker / minister. The second is the drawing out of that message by elders. These are people who nurture the place in the minister from which the message will arise and are attentive in preparing both the physical surroundings and the listening hearts in the attenders so that the minister’s message can be fully liberated.
This story tells of one experience I have had with these two motions.
Sometime in 1990, I was asked to give a series of three talks on corporate discernment to the 1991 sessions of New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM). When I asked God if he had a message for me to give to New York Yearly Meeting, the response was “Yes,” so I accepted. After I accept such service, I ask God for guidance about the “eldering function” for that occasion. What will help draw out my message most faithfully? I know that while some of the message will come up through my own efforts, I need eldering to draw out most faithfully what it is I am to say.
Established Relationships with Elders
In this case, I knew that substantial eldering would come from a group of elders from my own Yearly Meeting with whom I had worked before. Bill Kreidler, Fred Evans, Chuck McCorkle and myself had met often as a group, with three of us serving as elder for the one who was the “minister” (i.e. the one who had accepted a call to speak). So when I informed them of my decision to speak at NYYM, I knew their prayer support would began immediately – that I would be rightly led in my preparation and faithful in delivery. So as I prepared, I had a sense of the prayers of all three sustaining me.
As it happened, Bill was also speaking at NYYM that year, so the prayers of the group had a double focus, and I had a particular sense of relationship to Bill since we would each be both minister and elder at those sessions.
Another piece of eldering – of drawing out my message – was getting to know NYYM as much as I could, taking them into prayer, and allowing this heart knowledge of the Yearly Meeting to draw out what I might say. So I asked to receive the minute books from 1989 and 1990 and a subscription to Spark, the YM newsletter. I also asked that the state of society reports for 1989 be sent, as well as the state of society reports for 1990 as came in. Thus my own preparation began, both taking New York’s “condition” into my heart and prayers after reading these materials, and allowing texts relevant to corporate discernment to rise up in me – which I then put in a folder to await further discernment. Much of this guidance happened in my prayer time, recorded in my prayer journal.
The Message Arrives Early
Quite early on in my prayers, I asked God what message he had for me to offer NYYM. The response: “Tell them to repent.” “Well, you can forget about my giving that message,” said I. The second message God gave me was, “Tell them God loves every single one of them.” I immediately expressed my willingness to deliver that one.
As the work of letting a message rise up continued, I felt sustained by the prayers of my elders, though I rarely spoke with them. The following description submitted earlier for the May issue of Spark shows the clarity I had reached by that point:
A Gathered People: Corporate Discernment Among Friends
As Friends, we have chosen not only to affirm and live out our individual integrity according to the faith we have been given through our life experience. We have also chosen to live out our truth in a community of faith which seeks to affirm and live out a corporate integrity which is not the sum of the individual truths of its constituent parts, but a truth revealed to the corporate body gathered in worship.
These three sessions will focus on the image of a gathered people seeking truth together. The first session will be reflections on Quaker history, some dynamics of meetings for worship with attention to business as I have experienced them, an exploration of the grounding necessary for corporate discernment, and disciplines which can help us find corporate truth. I leave the second and third sessions to continuing revelation, though my sense at this moment is that they will be based on the experience of the actual sessions of the Yearly Meeting. My hope is that we will all be seeking truth together as we try to better perceive who we are as a gathered people and see more clearly our corporate call.
In May, Bill and Chuck and Fred and I met all day for an eldering session, first focusing on Bill, and then on me. Fred would be accompanying Bill to NYYM, and would elder for both of us until he left with Bill, which would be after two of my three talks. At this meeting, I received clarity about taking some handouts to accompany my talks. My elders also affirmed the sense given in my description that I would only be given a clear sense of the first talk, and the other two would come out of the NYYM sessions themselves, when elders would be present to work with me.
An Additional Elder Appears
In addition to these elders chosen by me, God sent an additional elder. I received a letter from Carol Holmes, a women from NYYM I knew only slightly who said she was led to come to NYYM that year specifically to elder for me – so that added a third elder to Bill and Fred at the sessions besides the one praying at home (Chuck).
A week before NYYM sessions began in July, Carol sent me a letter (“It came on me in worship today to write you a letter”). Her letter contained many things she had been led to tell me, from spiritual realities to the rhythm of the day at Silver Bay and the traditions and expectations of New York Friends to “Bring a beach towel if you want to swim.” This grounded me in the realities surrounding the release of my message and made me feel more at ease with an unfamiliar place.
The Message Persists
As I usually do, I took a retreat for some days before leaving for Silver Bay, allowing the first talk to clarify a bit more in me, and to feel consistently the place where my message would arise from. On the retreat, the two messages God wanted me to give NYYM were still crystal clear: “Remember God loves every one of you,” and “Repent.” I still was eager to deliver the first and fighting with God about delivering the second.
Once arrived at Silver Bay, I ran into Bill and Fred almost immediately and reassured them of my prayers and presence as they reassured me of theirs. We were also clear that their place during my talks would be in the front row, gazing encouragingly up at me – a solid presence to remind me of their prayers. Also almost immediately, Carol Holmes appeared to remind me of her call to elder for me and to urge me to ask her for anything I needed. Meanwhile, she would be praying for me.
I spent the evening before my first talk with the person who was to introduce me. We began with simple conversation, as she asked questions about my spiritual life and journey toward faithfulness. I then articulated the piece of eldering she could do to nourish that faithfulness here: Arrive 30 minutes early to begin worship with me. Be sure there was water on the podium. Arrange for the set-up and sound test to be done earlier in the day. In introducing me, she was not to focus on me personally, but to open the space in people’s hearts into which I could speak. She would also be responsible for closing meeting.
For the beginning of the first session, the person introducing me did well everything we had spoken of the previous evening, and in introducing me did indeed open up a wonderfully deep space into which I could speak. I was a little uneasy when she walked down into the body of the meeting after introducing me, so that I was alone on the stage, but there was such an atmosphere of prayer that I did not feel alone.
The First Talk: Sustained and Faithful
For this first talk, I felt sustained and faithful. Normally when I speak I do not have a prepared text, but only “anchor threads” on paper. Then I’m led at the time to more extensive words – and in this case, I felt rightly led. As part of the message given, I spoke one of the specific phrases given me: “Remember God loves every one of you.”
This talk was at 3:00 in the afternoon, and the second was the next afternoon at 3:00. I saw Bill and Fred only briefly after this talk, as Bill was beginning preparation for his talk that evening, and I turned my attention to prayer and grounding for him. I began serious preparation of my second talk on Tuesday morning, and was not nearly as clear at the conclusion of this preparation that I was close to the message God wanted. The key words at the top of my page were “authority,” “fear,” and “evil.”
Panic in the Second
When I arrived early for the second talk, expecting my elders, nothing was set up, and I felt very alone. I began opening windows, moving the clerks’ table and chairs off the stage, finding the podium. Bill and Fred and Carol had somehow all been prevented from arriving early, so that we were not able to settle into worship until quite close to the time I was scheduled to speak.
Since no one from Ministry and Counsel had spoken to me about closing meeting, I fortunately had the foresight to ask Bill and Fred to close meeting if no one else did. There was good reason in the old days for the responsibility of closing meeting to be given to the elders: as a minister, I know that when I have faithfully delivered a message, I am often exhausted spiritually, and need to just sink into the worship. The necessity of closing meeting requires a complete switch of focus, from a focus on what is coming up in me to a focus on the group in order to discern when worship is over. Elders can focus on the Spirit moving in the group during the entire worship and thus are more fitted to close it.
Once we were settled into worship, I realized all three elders were in the body of the meeting. Thus I was alone on the stage, and felt this keenly, which increased my sense of unease. I prayed to feel God’s presence and tried to remember the elders in the body of the meeting holding me in that Presence.
During the talk, it seemed to me that I looked at my paper more than usual, yet didn’t see things. I seemed not to discern from a centered or grounded place. At one point I realized I might just go on talking about the “organics” of meeting for business and not ever get to fear and authority, which was the rhythm God had given me for the talk. At this point I said to those gathered, “I need your help. I realize I could go on talking about meeting for business and not go on to fear and authority because I think I’m afraid of what I might be given to say .” I was not able to feel such help forthcoming.
At the conclusion of my second talk, I burst into tears. I felt terrible; hot, tired, sweaty and confused, and unclear if I was faithful – even though people were coming up to say how much they appreciated what I said. When they went away, I was left with Carol and Bill and Fred – and I wept, “I was unfaithful. For the first talk at least ‘repent’ was on the paper. Today it wasn’t even on the paper.”
An Elder Clarifies
Carol then asked, “But who in that room was more faithful than you? Those who listen need to be faithful, too. You can take some responsibility, but not all of it.”
I said, “Yesterday I felt the group call me out. Today I didn’t feel that.”
Carol replied, “That’s right. You weren’t called out. Maybe the right listeners weren’t there.” I then mentioned a conversation I’d had with someone wondering what to do with the suspicion that he was abused as a child. I’d said, “Wait and pray. You need to have the right people listen you into your truth – therapist, friends, whoever. Sometimes you can’t let your own truth out unless someone draws/ listens it out.”
Carol commented, “Did you hear what you just said? That’s what happened to you this afternoon.”
Time to Go Swimming
Fred and Bill said, “Time to go swimming.” They took my sense of unfaithfulness seriously, but affirmed that what I said sounded clear and good from the outside. Fred made a distinction between my speculating whether my message made sense – which it did – and my feelings about it, which only I know and would have to deal with. However, they felt it was time to stop speculating and move our bodies, so they took me swimming in Lake George where we just floated about, letting go – a wonderful release.
I had a free day before my third talk was to be given, and so began the process of trying to listen for God again and faithfully speak what I was given to say. In my own private worship the next morning, it came clear to me that I had not been faithful and that I needed to apologize to the meeting and ask for help – to repent, in fact. Thus God was raising up in me a feeling condition of the message of repentance I was being asked to give.
Prepare to Deliver Any Message
I called Kenneth, an elder in Philadelphia, to say I’d been unfaithful and asked for his guidance. He said, “First, do not be afraid. I know you know this, but I’m reminding you. Second, I do not know if ‘repent’ is the message God is calling you to give, but I do know that until you are willing to deliver any message, you won’t know if it is the message you are to give. So there’s your work – being willing to deliver any message – and I’ll pray for you. Remember also that God works through unfaithful people.”
I also told Kenneth that I felt I might not be given a message with a “flow” to it, but some words on one subject, then silence – then words on another unrelated subject, then silence. His advice: “If you speak and then have silence, think of yourself as clerk: don’t let the meeting go. Hold it in that silence with you.”
So I opened myself to give any message, and then I met with Fred and Bill. They said, “Well, if you were to tell NYYM to repent, what might you say?” Then words started coming out of me, drawn out by their listening. When the flow stopped, they said, “That sounds right to us.” They were leaving Silver Bay immediately after this meeting with me, but assured me of their prayers and their faith in my capacity to be faithful.
Do Not Do This Alone
That night I woke up in the middle of the night with a message, “You can’t be alone on that stage again. You need to ask Carol to find people to sit up there with you to ground you and hold you in prayer.” This message repeated one I had been given in prayer, but apparently had forgotten. In my prayer journal June 3 I wrote, “You need to have elders praying behind you at NYYM for you to be faithful – and to ask those in the body who feel such a call to do so as well. There is a danger of evil. Leave an item when you are no longer in worship about it, since that’s when the spirit of strife and confusion enters.”
At breakfast before I could find Carol, she came to find me. “It came to me last night that you can’t be up there on that stage alone and that I am to find people to sit there and in the audience to pray for you. And I’m supposed to say some words before you speak.”
In addition to persons she asked through her own discernment, some came to her during the day to say, “It came to me that I’m supposed to pray for Jan Hoffman. Do you know how I might do that?” Again, God does much of the work, and we just have to accept it gratefully.
When I came into the room 30 minutes before the third talk, there were people on the stage and some in the audience, already in worship – so I entered a living silence in which for 30 minutes I could be with the message that was about to emerge, feeling held in a deep way. I felt tremendous power in the prayer around me, and the possibility of a faithful, deep message being drawn out.
A Call to Deepen the Silence
Near the conclusion of that period of worship, Carol spoke, “In the kind of ministry that Jan Hoffman is bringing to us, it may feel more comfortable to understand that if Jan should go into silence while she is speaking, it’s a call to center down with her, to deepen the silence, and to deepen the prayer around her. If she should ask, as she did on Tuesday, Friends to call the message out, this would not be a verbal calling out, this would be calling out by virtue of a listening heart.”
So my third talk began with the words, “I feel myself so bathed in prayer at this moment that I don’t feel the need to verbalize one” (as I had the other days). That sense of prayer was definitely the many elders at work, seeding a listening prayer that others in the room could join and make stronger.
Then I continued by confessing my own unfaithfulness in the second talk and my need to repent of this unfaithfulness – which I then did. I spoke some of my own efforts and those of others who had enabled this return, with God’s grace and guidance. Then I spoke the message God had given me for NYYM: “Repent.” Then a message that I had spoken the second day in anger – “I’m tired of hearing about your differences and your diversity” – was transformed in the third talk through my repentance and reconnection to God’s love into “It’s time to stop talking and start praying.” Thus God led me through my own need to repent before I could speak that message – “Repent” – to NYYM, using many elders as his instruments in the liberation of that message.
Some of those elders had no conception of what power lay in the exercise of the gift of “drawing out.” I later asked one of those who had been eldering from the audience about her experience. She said, “I felt weird about doing this because I’ve never done anything like this before, but the strangest thing happened. A question would come into my mind, and the next moment you would answer it, as if I had spoken it aloud.”
“Yes, that’s exactly how it can work,” I responded.
I hope this story illustrates how necessary elders are to a minister in bringing a message to birth. They must work together, each with his or her own function, to bring to life the message intended for a given meeting. There are usually unexpected twists and turns along the way, challenges of cowardice or lack of faith, and much unexpected grace and mercy. In the end, the fruits of the effort will hopefully be a sense that everyone was faithful together, participating in a larger Life which blesses and empowers. – JH