This gathering took place on Sixth Month 20-22, 1996 in Middleton, Ohio.

This report is a summary of the gathering’s responses to presentations by a panel of Friends concerning their own experiences of eldering and being eldered.

Table of contents


Summary & Suggestions:

Eldering as Encouragement to Faithfulness

– Susan Smith

Ohio Yearly Meeting has kept alive the recognition and recording of elders, even through the period in which many Friends were uncomfortable with the emphasis elders were putting on correction. Although traditions may become a dead form, traditions used with discernment can often be helpful vehicles for spiritual progress. The best aspects of the tradition of eldering are being rediscovered, not only in Ohio Yearly Meeting but also in many other places, as Friends seek to encourage the spiritual life of individuals and of the meetings.

Effective elders, acting in responsiveness to the power of the Lord, encourage people to faithfulness. Elders do their encouraging with words and sometimes simply by their presence. Elders’ rightly exercised abilities are a gift from God and are not of their own making.

Each of us may sometimes act as an elder. Just as any person may be called to speak in meeting for worship, and some who speak are not recorded ministers, so from time to time anyone may be called to encourage others to faithfulness. Each one of us may find ourselves called into that service and, at other times, may ourselves be eldered (that is, spiritually encouraged) by some who are and some who are not recognized elders.

However, recorded elders, like recorded ministers, are those whom the meeting has recognized as being especially gifted in that particular service. If we could take note of all the eldering that occurs over time in our meetings, we would find that a majority of the eldering is undertaken by named elders and by those whose gift should soon be formally recognized and supported.

In supporting the right exercise of eldering, we need both to encourage others who are called to that work and to be willing to be used ourselves. Opportunities for service in eldering are given by God. It is up to each of us to recognize the opportunities given and to be obedient.

Some opportunities are brief, demanding immediate action at a specific time. Others are long-lasting, taking the form of “spiritual friendships” or long-term prayer. Long-term relationships may be mutually supportive, or they may involve one person doing the nurturing and the other being encouraged. One example of a one-way, long-term relationship is an elder’s “adopting” a young person for special nurture and encouragement.

How do elders accomplish their work of encouragement to faithfulness? We have been reminded of the importance of mentioning aloud any appreciation we feel, expressing our thanks both to persons and to our God. May we be willing to let our joy bubble up.

When, instead of blessings, we encounter sin, we can meet it with even greater portions of love, allowing God’s power to work where we in our human limitations cannot. When we find people struggling with tragedy in their lives, we need to speak to them, meeting their hurt with understanding and encouragement. Those who are hurting often say nothing about their pain, but they wonder, then or later, where are the brothers and sisters in Christ who care.

Elders should also encourage young people and new attenders in our meetings. Those new in the faith sometimes appreciate suggestions about how to start as they enter into meeting for worship. For instance, a person might begin by acknowledging that the Lord is the head of our church, present in our midst, and then go on to thank Him for blessings and to pray for the needs of others and themselves. Elders might also encourage young people to be bold to use their lives as they feel led of God.

When any of us steps forward in action as an elder, we risk someone’s criticism. We need to be ready to handle criticism, both accepting suggestions that come from the right Source and being able to set aside, without being devastated, that which is not rightly given. Since criticism is often hard for even experienced Friends to handle, those who are eldering must be especially sensitive to God’s guidance before engaging in criticism. In addition, it is good to remember that elders are also human and sometimes make mistakes. They need to be forgiven like everyone else.

As we increase our sensitivity and obedience in the eldering work that God would have done, we should seek the right balance between the need for privacy when an elder counsels another Friend and the need to bring a concern before the gathered wisdom of the meeting. We recognize that just as we have a corporate faith, we also have a corporate responsibility one to another, both to share our lives and also to be part of the lives of others. As a functioning body, the meeting steadies the individual, encouraging growth in faithfulness. Conversely, like the right use of any gift, each individual’s faithful exercise of the gift of eldering lends strength to the meeting and to our ability as part of Christ’s church to go forward in His work.

[return to Table of Contents]

Development of the Office of Elder among Friends

  – John Brady

In the early years, Friends’ organization was more charismatic and less democratic than it came to be. There were no designated “offices,” positions appointed and recognized formally by the body. As in the time of the Judges in Israel, a group of Friends — those “grown up in the Truth” — was recognized as the spiritual leadership of the Society. Decision-making, when needed, was generally by this group, not by the whole meeting as now. This group of those “seasoned in the Truth”: would have included those most gifted in preaching, such as Edward Burrough, and those with a ministry of nurture and encouragement such as Margaret Fell.

When we see the term “Elder” in early Friends’ writings, we should not assume that we are reading about elders as we now mean the term, or that there was an office of elder. George Fox was often referred to as an “elder,” as were many of the established leaders. No distinction was made between what we now call ministers and elders, and the term “overseer” was apparently unknown. So the famous epistle from the Elders of Balby, first circulated in 1656 and still quoted in many books of discipline, did not come from a group of designated office-holders, but simply from the spiritual leadership of Balby meeting.

The first office to be formally recognized among Friends was that of minister. As many of us know, there was a Second-Day Morning Meeting in London of those who regularly went out to preach: the office of minister developed when conflicts arose as to who was entitled to at tend this meeting. This group met partly to divide up the work of preaching, and to ensure that ministers were well distributed among the meetings — something that later Friends might have thought too “programmed.” The Second-day morning meeting also became the editing and censorship committee for Friends’ writings. This produced an interesting comment from George Fox when the ministers refused to publish one of his tracts:

I was not moved to set up that meeting to make orders against the reading of my papers, but to gather up bad books that was scandalous against Friends; and to see that young Friends’ books that was sent to be printed might be stood by; and to see where everyone had their motion to the meeting that they might not go in heaps, and not for them to have an authority over the Monthly and Quarterly and other Meetings or for them to stop things to the nation which I was moved of the Lord to give forth to them.

By the late 1600s, most of the founding leaders were dead and there was a feeling among friends that some of the original fire had gone out of the movement. In this climate Friends felt the need for more structure to preserve our testimony, to encourage the ministry, and to guard against error.

In 1692 the Irish Half-Year’s meeting directed that one or two Friends from each local meeting should meet to look into the condition of worship and ministry. The next year, Quarterly Meetings of ministers were set up, which these appointed Friends were asked to attend also. This seems to be the first formal establishment of a system of eldership, though we can guess that there had already been local arrangements like it. In 1714 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s monthly meetings were authorized to name a few “prudent solid Friends” to sit with the ministers, and in 1727 London Yearly Meeting for the first time advised the appointment of “elders” to encourage and advise young ministers and to sit in the meetings of ministers. We can select this date, about 75 years after the beginning of the Friends movement, as the official beginning of the office of elder, roughly as we know it today.

It seems that at this time no distinction was made between the eldering role (upholding the ministry) and what we now think of as the role of overseers. In the 1727 London Yearly Meeting epistle, elders were encouraged to “take the oversight of the flock of Christ, not by constraint but willingly, not as lords over God’s heritage, but as good examples.”: A distinction between elders and overseers grew slowly through the mid-1700s, and finally in 1789 London Yearly Meeting formally laid out a system that held in most Friends’ disciplines through the 1800s, and in our own discipline until 1963: that elder and overseer were separate offices; that elders met with the ministers to encourage and advise them; and that overseers had care of the moral and material life of the membership, and met separately.

Though the stated purpose of elders was always to “encourage and advise” young ministers, I have not found much in my reading to show that the ministers felt very encouraged by them. In reading a number of ministers’ Journals, I can remember only one (that of Samuel Janney, a Hicksite) who points to an elder’s encouragement as helpful in his growth in the ministry. [Note: After this talk was given, a Friend pointed out that Joseph Hoag also speaks of being encouraged by elders. We do find several ministers emphasizing the elders’ correct ing role. Samuel Janney describes an incident in which he misquoted Scripture while preaching in meeting and was corrected on the spot by an elder. Stephen Grellet in a letter asked “what it was that prevented Friends from coming forward into religious service, particularly the elders, who seldom were engaged in any religious service out of their own meeting, as if they thought they had no other part or lot in labor ing for the spreading of truth than to sit as judges over poor ministers, to hear when they misquoted a passage, or to judge when they exceed proper limits in the exercise of their gifts.” It appears that the tendency for elders to drift from encouragement toward an over-emphasis on correction has been with us a long time.

There can be little question that ministers and others did receive much helpful, positive encouragement and guidance: our own living ministers share stories of the help they received along the way, and ministers’ journals often describe helpful encounters with other ministers, and counsel given by them. In particular, spiritual encouragement and counsel of Friends not active in the ministry seems to have come most often from the ministers. The nurturing role was mercifully present, even when it did not flow through the institution of eldership as fully as might be hoped.

The history of the office of elder can show us much about the tensions that have always existed among the Lord’s people between Spirit-led leadership and the institutions designed to contain and nurture it.

[return to Table of Contents]

Applying and Adapting the Tradition of Eldering for Today

Frances Taber

What comes to your mind in response to the word “elder” or “eldering”? In this group of Friends, most of them from Ohio Yearly Meeting, I found somewhat to my surprise that a majority of responses were positive, images of nurturing experiences, of older Friends who served as models or mentors, or of occupants of the facing benches who were much admired. In other groups to whom I have put the question, negative responses have often been preponderant; the word itself has come to mean to admonish, to criticize.

The way I have come to think of what we call eldering is as a term for the work of those who (other than vocal ministers) most embody the spiritual tradition, the Quaker understanding of spirituality, those who are most concerned with carrying it on and nurturing it in their meetings as a whole and in the members individually. I think of the work of eldering as the less conspicuous, often invisible, behind-the-scenes work of nurture, compared to the more obvious work of the vocal ministry.

I would like to develop a new gestalt or picture of the Quaker elder as nurturer, as one who is concerned with whatever nourishes the spiritual life of the meeting and its members, but whose primary work is not in vocal ministry. As we talk about this, however, we need to remember that there is nothing wrong with an overlapping or blurring of the roles. of elder, minister, and overseer. We name these roles as a convenient device for describing the various types of work needed in the meeting congregation, and if our discernment is adequate, for identifying primary gifts of those appointed to these offices. In the early decades of the Society of Friends, however, there were no formal roles.

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, vol. 7, p. 320, Epistle 262)

Fox uses more maternal imagery, directed especially to women, in a letter written to women’s meetings. This letter also specifically speaks of :: a place for experience, a function for age;

But the mothers in spiritual Israel, and church of Christ, has the cup of salvation, and the breasts of consolation, which are full of the milk of the word, to suckle all the young ones, and to nourish; and instruct, admonish, and exhort, and rebuke all the contrary: and to refresh and cherish every tender one. So the elder women and mothers are to be teachers of good things, and to be teachers of the younger, and trainers up of them in virtue, in holiness, and godliness, and righteousness, in wisdom, and in the fear of the Lord, in the church of Christ. (Works, vol. 8, p. 41, Epistle 291)

We might ask ourselves, what kinds of work of nurture occur in our meetings in addition to the vocal ministry? Take as broad a view of the topic as possible, think of the various spiritually nurturing acts we have received or given or have observed among others, and make a list of them. If a group of us can do this, we may come up with a fairly long list.

Then we might ask ourselves, who actually does these things? What persons, what committees? Is it particularly those named as elders, or are others involved in many ways? What do our responses tell us about the accuracy with which we identify and affirm the spiritual gifts among us?

Our traditional practice in Ohio Yearly Meeting has been for Meetings for Ministry and Oversight on the local level to meet quarterly. Is this enough? In Stillwater meeting, for a number of years Ministry and Oversight has been meeting monthly, and there always seem to be plenty of concerns to consider, plenty of work to do. (Overseers also occasionally meet separately to take up work specifically in their area, such as membership matters.)

Even before they are ready to take up work for the meeting, meetings for ministry and oversight need to nurture themselves as individuals and as a group. They need to take time and create space for their own worship as a group. They need to become a group that prays together. They may find it needful to read and consider together biblical sources and Friends writings that are related to their work or to do worship-sharing in an ongoing and in-depth manner. They might consider taking a more extended time together in a retreat. They may want to foster spiritual friendships among or for themselves. Out of this deeper formation which they have shared they will then be more prepared to approach the concerns presented by their meeting situation.

If we draw on the image of the church as the body of Christ, one way of thinking of the work of eldering is as a concentration of the listening function in what Sandra Cronk and Kathryn Damiano refer to as the “culture of listening.” The term “culture of listening” is a way of describing the whole cast and intention of traditional Quaker culture as being directed towards an ever-growing and ongoing awareness of the movement of God in our lives. Thinking of the elder as the locus for a concentration of the listening function in this culture of listening is a way of contrasting the work of the elder with that of the vocal minister as the voice or mouth function of the body. This characterization relates specifically to the meeting for worship and is overdrawn to make a point, but it does have a point. Persons drawn to and gifted in the work of eldering tend to be those who are drawn towards listening, observing, responding. They are those who have their antennae out, in terms of a special concern for the spiritual life of the meeting, both corporate and individual.

Another image for the work of the elder is that of being a “priest”: for another. In using the word “priest” in this way we are using it in its generic sense as one who is a mediator between the people and God, a channel to assist people in knowing God. We are also using the understanding of church authentic to us as Friends that Christ is our high priest and that the church community is a royal priesthood, often referred to as the priesthood of all believers. As in each spiritual reality or gift that is available to all, there will be some persons especially gifted in this area of being a “priest” for another, of being the bearer of God’s love in one’s own self, of holding up the promises of God for healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The work of the elder as a priestly, mediated ministry involves giving of oneself, of time, of energy, of space in one’s life, of hospitality. It involves sacrifice for others.

As the elders in a meeting meet together (and most often in our situation meet with ministers and overseers), they need to work as a group, as well as working as individuals. As individuals, each can exercise his or her own particular gifts, recognizing that each may have gifts more in one function than another.

In thinking of the functions which may be included in the overall work of eldering, or of nurturing the spiritual life of the meeting and its members, I have come up with a list of ten varieties of work.

1. Primary is the nurture of the meeting for worship, and primary in attention to this is the elders’ own prayer and attentiveness to their own faithfulness. Elders need to be able to create inwardly an open, listening space toward God, towards each other and towards the meeting, both as individuals, corporately in their own meetings, and in the meeting for worship. Elders may also be able to notice what the meeting for worship may need and move to help fill that need. In the meeting itself this may be by prayer or by occasional vocal prayer or ministry. Outside of meeting it may sometimes be helpful to create occasions for sharing or teaching about worship, or to initiate ongoing groups for the nurture of members.

2. A second important focus is the nurture of the spiritual life of individuals in the meeting. This is often a one-on-one role of listening to persons, of being ready to be a spiritual companion on the way for persons who want that, either in special situations or on an ongoing basis. Individual nurture can be done by correspondence as well as through face-to-face conversation.

3. Discernment and testing of leadings is important to the work of the elder. Elders should be especially practiced and sensitive in this in their own lives, and they should be ready to help others open up their experience and discover their way into the practice of discernment.

4. The nurturing of community can be a significant part of nurturing the spiritual life of a meeting, especially the opening up of opportunities to foster our knowing of one another in that which is eternal. This is an area where the work of elders and overseers overlaps; it is well for whoever feels called to such work to labor freely together, remembering the original unity of function in the early days of the Society of Friends before elders and overseers were named and differentiated. Whoever is drawn towards the nurture of community will be alert to needs and ready to act to meet those needs. Groups for prayer, meetings for healing, worship-sharing groups, the classic Quaker “opportunity” or informal meeting for worship in a home or other setting outside the meetinghouse and followed by spiritual conversation – all such gatherings can be occasions to stimulate and to share in faithfulness our spiritual journeys. My own Stillwater meeting is divided into small groups which are responsible in rotation for drafting answers to the queries. The group meetings sometimes involve a shared meal, and consideration of the query can lead to a deep discussion. Stillwater has also had several gatherings in which one member or a couple shared their spiritual journeys with the group. Gatherings with a less overtly spiritual focus are also needed in living out our faith together, so work projects, cleaning and yard work days, a picnic for new members, and oc casions for shared hospitality, even if organized as “Friendly Eights”—or “guess who’s coming to dinner” evenings have an important place in the life of the meeting and need to be organized by someone.

5. The nurturing and oversight of the vocal ministry is a central part of the work of eldership. Elders need to be sensitive to and encourage the gifts and callings of persons to vocal ministry; they need to be especially close to the spiritual development of members who speak frequently in meeting. Support of the traveling ministry is a part of this function. A current example is Bill Taber’s work in support of Seth Hinshaw’s concern to visit among Friends in Iowa. In this case Bill, a recorded minister, played the elder’s role. As an experienced Friend, acquainted with Iowa, he spent much time on the phone interpreting the concern for renewed acquaintance between the two yearly meetings and organizing the itinerary. Bill and Seth spent time together talking about the concern and how it might be carried forward. At each gathering with Friends they could employ the differing gifts and perspectives of two persons. As they traveled together they had opportunity to reflect on visits past and to come. There are other current examples in our yearly meeting of the carrying out of this function of eldering. In addition to facilitating travel in the ministry, it can also be a part of the work of elders to host traveling ministers, helping to make arrangements for their visits in one’s own meeting and being aware of the effect of their visits on the life of the meeting.

6. The identification, eliciting, and nurture of other gifts is an important part of the work of nurturing the spiritual life of the meeting. This is more important than we may often realize, because for the body to be in health, the gifts of all must be recognized and used. Those whose contributions are in organizing covered dish dinners or in fixing the plumbing are just as essential as those who speak in meeting, and they may be in even more need of affirmation and encouragement because their gifts are less obviously spiritual. I have found Elizabeth O’Connor’s book Eighth Day of Creation helpful in understanding the importance and the implications of identifying, nurturing and using the gifts of every member. She writes out of the experience of the Church of the Savior in Washington, D.C.

7. Historically, the function of teaching in Friends meetings was a part of the vocal ministry. When folks appreciated hour-long sermons based on scriptural texts, a great deal of teaching could occur in that context. In today’s information-crowded society, Friends generally crave a larger portion of silence in their meetings for worship, and find explications of biblical topics, presentations on Quaker history or theological reflection more acceptable in other formats—classes, workshops, or weekend conferences such as this one on eldering. A three-session course on Quaker history which Bill Taber is offering to meetings in Ohio Yearly Meeting this year is another example. In this situation, teaching often becomes a function of those not called to vocal ministry in meetings for worship.

8. A fundamental and basic part of the work of eldering is that the elder should embody and exemplify the tradition of the community. Certainly no one appointed to the office of elder will feel that she or he does this adequately; each, however, can strive in that direction. Nominating committees are likely to be better judges of this quality than the individuals are themselves.

9. Accountability was historically a major role of elders. The way this functions authentically is by growing out of the character of persons who exemplify in their own lives an embodiment of the understanding and wisdom of the meeting. Out of this place, they become aware of the state of the community. Only then are they prepared to take loving and helpful corrective action. Historically, because this function was heavily emphasized, often over-emphasized, and because the corrective action or admonition was not always loving and helpful, we first fled from exercising this function, and are only now beginning to grope our way back towards an authentic understanding of it. Our understanding of accountability as Friends rests on the premise that we are members one of another, that we are together members of a greater whole, that each of us needs fellow-members to enlarge our own understanding, contribute to our nurture, to help us see ourselves as we cannot see ourselves with our own eyes.

10. Sandra Cronk suggests a final function for the role of elder, drawn from Anabaptist experience. This is as an advocate for those who are unheard or invisible. Perhaps each of us can think of examples from our own meetings of persons whose spiritual or other needs may be neglected because they are in some way invisible. They may be shut-ins, new attenders, members who appear infrequently at meeting, a single parent whose needs for support are not fully appreciated. We may think of other examples. Someone needs to remember these people and nurture them. We might look back and notice how much of the attention in these ten examples of functions of eldering is directed towards the community of the meeting. Contemporary society has such a strong individualistic bent that persons coming new among Friends, while bringing a strong hunger for community, for spiritual community, have little idea of what that community will look like or how it may affect their personal lives. Even those of us who have been fortunate in growing up in—fairly strong Friends communities and there are fewer and fewer of us—have been influenced by the individualism of the time and need continually to hone our awareness of what the meeting community might ideally be, and continually work towards strengthening it.

[return to Table of Contents]


Scriptural Examples of Eldering

Faye Chapman

The Goal of Eldering
I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; That in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and (in) all knowledge; Even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
(1 Corinthians 1:4-9)

A Description of an Ideal Elder
This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil
(1 Timothy 3: 1-7)

The Process of Eldering
Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted. Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ
(Galatians 6:1-2)

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell [it] unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
(Matthew 18:15-17)

Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by: the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works.
(Hebrews 10:19-24)

Eldering Events:

Samuel elders Eli
And the LORD came, and stood, and called as at other times, Samuel, Samuel. Then Samuel answered, Speak; for thy servant heareth. And the LORD said to Samuel, Behold, I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of every one that heareth it shall tingle. In that day I will perform against Eli all things which I have spoken concerning his house when I begin, I will also make an end. For I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not. And therefore I have sworn unto the house of Eli, that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering for ever. And Samuel lay until the morning, and opened the doors of the house of the LORD. And Samuel feared to shew Eli the vision. Then Eli called Samuel, and said, Samuel, my son. And he answered, Here am I. And he said, What is the thing that the LORD hath said unto thee? I pray thee hide it not from me: God do so to thee, and more also, if thou hide any thing from me of all the things that he said unto thee. And Samuel told him every whit, and hid nothing from him. And he said, It is the LORD: let him do what seemeth him good.
(1 Samuel 3:10-18)

Jesus elders the woman at the well
The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.
(John 4: 19-24)

Ananias elders Paul
And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord… And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus for, behold, he prayeth, And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight. Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name. But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake. And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house, and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.
(Acts 9:10-18)

[return to Table of Contents]

Examples of Eldering from Friends Writings

  – Virginia Schurman

Description of an Elder
A little child, who had seen the wonderful cathedral windows of England with their saints in glorious color, described a saint as “a person who lets the light come through.” That is just what happens. The saint lets the light come through. But my “saints” not only let the light through for me…but they were also always pulling me upward and forward by invisible cords.
– Rufus Jones, in Finding the Trail of Life

My mother was an elder. She was of sound judgment, and exercised that judgment for the encouragement of right, and the discernment of wrong things in her family and neighborhood, and in society at large….She was careful neither to overrate nor underrate the gifts and services of ministers, and when she felt an uneasiness with any…she would go to the individual or individuals, and relieve her feelings in a Christian spirit, and in such an honest way as left no doubt of her heart-felt concern for the best welfare of those to whom she administered caution, reproof or whatsoever might be given her in this way to communicate…. My parents, both by example and precept, advised quietude and stillness, which we found tended to our settlement in the Truth as it is in Jesus.
Ann Branson, in her Journal

Advice to Elders
Friends, our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another and forgiving one another…praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand, if there has been any slip or fall….Wait to feel this spirit, and to be guided to walk in this spirit, that ye may enjoy the Lord in sweetness, and walk sweetly, meekly, tenderly, peaceably, and lovingly with one another. And then ye will be a praise to the Lord….So watch your hearts and ways; and watch one over another, in that which is gentle and tender….So, mind the Truth, the service, enjoyment, and possession of it in your hearts, and so walk, as ye…may be a good savour in the places where ye live—the meek, innocent, tender, righteous life reigning in you, governing over you, and shining through you, in the eyes of all with whom ye converse.
Isaac Penington

[In the Quarterly Meeting of Ministers and Elders at Salem] my mouth was opened, and my heart enlarged in the love of the gospel towards the little company then gathered, expressing the desire and necessity that we might all deepen in the root of life. That elders might dwell where they could understand what to encourage, and what to discourage in the line of ministry, and be faithful to the openings of Truth upon their minds,so as to be helpful to the ministers. That the ministers might dwell so low and humble as to be willing to receive a word of counsel, or rebuke, coming from a baptized elder, esteeming it as a kindness, and as an excellent oil when and where the Master requires; and that all might be in a disposition to follow out the command of our Saviour, “If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14) Thus are we instructed to watch over one another for good, willing to receive, as well as to give counsel.
Ann Branson, in her Journal

Now the state I have considered this infant minister in is such as requires help by tender advice from faithful Friends of experience, so that I may compare him to a babe that wants both breast and nursing, which should be tenderly and with great care administered. If he be corrected, let it be in love; if encouraged, let it be with prudence. Both may hurt him, if not well timed, and given discreetly.
Samuel Bownas, in A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister

[Young ministers who have shown excessive zeal) ought to be treated with great charity and meekness; and that overforwardness in them rather shown to them than reproved. And when they see it, they will not need to be told of it, for shame will come fast enough upon them….
Samuel Bownas, ibid.

[return to Table of Contents]

Contemporary Examples of Eldering

As the planning committee for the eldering event thought about how we could share more deeply our experience of the positive aspects of eldering and spiritual nurture, I began recalling stories of my own experiences with receiving eldering, nurture, support, and encouragement. For example, I was befriended several years ago by a woman about the age of my mother, active in the ministry in Cambridge (Massachusetts) Meeting, at a time when I was beginning to appear in the ministry there. Feeling lonely and in need of direction, I prayed, and one First Day I felt led to sit next to this woman in worship. We had never spoken prior to this, but at the rise of meeting she turned to me and said, “I’ve been wondering if you would come over to my house for tea sometime.”. Her invitation was in some ways a life-changing event for me, leading to a deep friendship. We met often, prayed together, and talked about Christ, the ministry, the meeting, and our lives. I still treasure notes she often sent me after a visit. Our friendship built up: my faith and helped me focus on the Lord’s work and call in me. I believe I learned to be more confident in God’s grace through this answer to prayer, and when I think of it, I am reminded of how important it is to respond to the promptings we receive to reach out to one another.

I think also of the time when I received a note from a friend, and although there was nothing much in the note, I remember clearly the sense that I must go and see him as soon as I could. This story is not as spectacular as the discerning of states that we read about in some of our ministers, but what is important is that we are open and pay attention to these promptings. I’ve also been blessed several times with small groups that have met for worship and prayer and have taught me by example what it is to discern our needs and share our burdens. It is by these living experiences that we learn what faith is.
  – Marilyn Neyer

It seems important to watch that praise and advice given be from”, the unction of the Lord, so that the ministry is not spoiled from being motivated by prideful self-confidence or shut up by uninspired criticism. A minister can be understanding when some kind people speak out of their own desire to be helpful. On the other hand, if loving counsel is a sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17), the Kingdom of Heaven is built up.

I appreciated the gifted eldership of my mother and her father. My mother was careful to explain to her children, as we grew up, about the reality of God’s Spirit. She also explained the Scriptures and what Friends believe. She was particularly sensitive to what spirit was present in a meeting for worship, as well as to the words spoken therein. This sensitivity, along with her knowledge of the lives of ancient Friends, has taught me that I could trust God to lead me, if I sought Him with all my heart.
  – Nancy Hawkins

My earliest memory of eldering goes back to a time when Uncle James Walton invited me to have a talk one evening when I was about nine years old. As we sat on the grass in his little orchard, he kindly suggested that I might be more helpful to my mother. (At that time my father was away five days each week, employed in Pittsburgh, and was able to be home with us in Barnesville only on weekends.) This talk made a lasting impression on me…

The evening after I first spoke in meeting as a student at Olney Friends School, Superintendent Charles Palmer, a recorded minister from Middletown Meeting of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, called me into his office. I remember little of what happened, except that we had an “opportunity” (a time of worship), and when we concluded, he said, “Well, William, now we have dedicated thee.” I have never forgotten the brightness of the stars in the sky that night as I walked back to the boys’ dorm afterward. 

More than a dozen years later, and after I had spoken many times in meeting for worship, I received a letter from a woman elder who wrote simply that she wanted me to know that what I had been moved to speak in meeting that day had seemed to have life in it.” Because of the character of the person who wrote this, I felt affirmed and also more able to sense when a leading to speak truly came from the Living Source. Over the years many people have encouraged or even complimented my ministry, but this was a special example of how a few words rightly spoken (or written) at the right time can have an important effect.

After I had been recorded as a minister, I was especially glad to have an occasional opportunity with Rachel Livezey, whom I once embarrassed by calling a “true elder.” More than once, after we had sat together in living silence, I would be moved to ask a question and discover that, even as I spoke the words, I would know the answer! My explanation for this is that a gifted elder is so “clear” in her own spirit that when she is really “present” to another person, that person’s mind also becomes clearer, making it easier to discern the truth. Rachel also “knew things about me, about my trials and temptations and weaknesses without my telling her – and I know that she prayed fervently for me.

In recent years I have appreciated two Friends who came to me in love – and I could feel the love as well as their openness before the Lord – cautioning me to be careful about exerting too much influence in our Yearly Meeting. We had a meaningful conversation, and I felt supported by their concern. A few years later one of these Friends came to me with another Friend this time to encourage me to be faithful to use more of my gifts on behalf of the Yearly Meeting. On another occasion, some years earlier, a Friend spoke to me lovingly after a business meeting, suggesting that I had engaged in too much rapid “back and forth” disagreement with another Friend during that meeting. Because I could “feel where the words came from,” I took the advice to heart.
  – William Taber 

[return to Table of Contents]

Case Study of Eldering: Margaret Fell

  – Margaret Starbuck

Margaret Fell was a gifted woman who was placed by God in a crucial time and place to nurture and encourage. She helped support community for the inspired Christians who grew into the Religious Society of Friends. Margaret married Judge Fell when she was 17 years old and he was 33. With their nine children, Swarthmoor Hall was a bustling place.

In the mid-1600’s England was in turmoil. More than one hundred years earlier, Henry VIII had established the Church of England, with himself at the head. The Puritans were determined to “purify” the 17th-century English church, which had become very corrupt, and a bloody civil war stretched over decades.

Judge Fell was a Puritan. His family faithfully attended the parish church under a Puritan pastor, but Margaret felt a spiritual emptiness. When George Fox visited Swarthmoor Hall in 1652, Margaret’s heart responded warmly to Fox’s message

In the northern counties near Swarthmoor Hall were groups of eager “Seekers” who also responded to Fox’s gospel message. Within two years men and women set out two by two to spread that message. Supporting, encouraging, and nourishing these “Valiant Sixty” was Margaret Fell, who kept up a constant flow of letters to them. These first Friends’ love and admiration for Margaret is expressed in the letters they returned to her.

From 1653 to 1658 the intense activity of the “seed sowing” travelers had no covering organization to oversee their work. Swarthmoor Hall was their base. Margaret Fell was their guiding mother, nourishing their spirits and providing material help. For long periods, sometimes for years, they left family and friends. Margaret kept up an exchange of news among the travelers, passing on news to George Fox and other leaders. All this was accomplished when mail service was extremely primitive.

It was a comfort to these “Publishers of Truth” that Margaret knew of their struggles and sufferings as well as their joys. They depended on her never-failing sympathy. They trusted her judgment, and they had great confidence in the efficacy of her prayers. Swarthmoor Hall was the center of warm hospitality for these travelers, where good food and fellowship abounded. There they built up their spiritual strength before starting out on their journeys and found a place of comfort upon their return.

Margaret Fell was also concerned for the welfare of the families left behind by those who traveled. She passed on messages from their loved ones. She arranged for children to be cared for when both parents were away.

While Margaret Fell was an encourager of the humble, she was a fearless critic and denouncer of the hypocritical, the vain, the spreader of disunity, and the selfish. She called upon such men and women to: “let their hearts and minds be turned to the Lord God, his Light in their consciences, whereby they may turn from their dark and fallen state, to follow Christ Jesus (and so not to abide in darkness) who is come to teach them himself, and is risen in the hearts of all people.” (A Brief Collection of (Writings of) Margaret Fell, Towle: London, 1710.)

Friends were breaking new ground in many directions, and Margaret’s advice was sought. How should Friends’ marriages be performed so they would be recognized as legal? Her suggestions of a simple but very exact procedure, coupled with a deeply spiritual background, continue as the basis for Friends’ marriages today…

Through Margaret Fell’s efforts the Kendal Fund was founded to help with necessities of travel which the “Publishers of Truth” could not handle themselves. It also helped to feed those suffering in prison and to supply the needs of the families of those traveling in the work of the Gospel. When asking for funds she based her appeal on the need for unity and fellowship “so you may become one with them in their sufferings.” Meetings in other areas established similar funds which were the forerunners of the Yearly Meeting Fund of today’s Britain Yearly Meeting. Other procedures were established by George Fox and Margaret Fell which in many instances stand today as the organization of the Society of Friends.

[return to Table of Contents]

(This paper is based upon Chapter 5 of Margaret Fell, Mother of Quakerism, by Isabel Ross.)

Summary and Suggestions:
What Have We Seen Along the Way and Where Do We Go from Here?

  – Morris Kirk

During this weekend we have heard and shared many useful thoughts, ideas, and inspirations. But as someone has said, if we are not changed in our behavior, it will have been of little value.

We have seen how “on fire” were the early Publishers of Truth, and that by 1700 much of the flame in Friends was gone out. The fresh discovery period over, Friends set about trying to preserve and to restore spiritual life in a new generation who had not been part of those exciting beginnings. So in 1714 Philadelphia was setting about the appointment of elders.

We have noted that the gift of eldership is not limited to Friends. A Comanche chieftain possessed a spirit of discernment when he asserted to Thomas Battey, “My friend, I can see your heart.” Since we do not have a separately designated priesthood, pastoral duties fall on all members. These duties are manifold in nature. Those relating to eldering range from nurturing individuals and the community to operating in the area of discernment and knowing what the Lord would have at this time and place. “Mothers and fathers in Israel” are encouraged not only to nurture vocal ministry, but also to draw forth the spiritual gifts imparted by Christ for teachers and trainers in holiness, godliness and a proper fear of the Lord. A sensitivity to the needs of others around us is an essential ingredient for those who engage in eldering.

We have seen that there are spiritual demands upon both elders and the one being eldered or counseled. Humility and submission to Christ are requisites for both parties. We are admonished to be faithful with each other, and accountable in a loving way. We have been reminded that we may have to give up our right to be right. This is one aspect of our surrender to the Lordship of Christ, which is so basic.

We have looked at some Biblical references concerning spiritual encouragement. We have been reminded of God’s intent to put His law in our inward parts. We have heard again the conversation at the well between the Samaritan woman and Jesus. We have been with Ananias when he was skeptical of his mission and God said, “Go thy way, for he (Paul) is a chosen vessel unto Me.” Ananias went, and laid his hands on Paul as directed. Paul received his sight and was filled with the Holy Ghost, and we know some of the results!

Numerous more contemporary instances have been cited where individuals have been given encouragement from another. Sometimes children have done this nurturing, very effectively. Usually responding with silence to a personal tragedy is not making a helpful reaction to the need.

As a case study, we have looked at Margaret Fell’s nurturing service during the time of the seed-sowing evangelism of early Friends. Her house was a house of prayer. She knew the life and motion of God in her own heart. So where do we go from here? What does a fully functioning community of believers look like, “so that they come behind in no gift”?

1. In such a community, each person is valued. Each person’s gifts are appreciated and encouraged. This is true for both the spiritual gifts and the natural ones.

2. If these gifts are to be practiced and nurtured, there needs to be a climate of trust and acceptance, a tolerance for stumbling. There must be an active loving concern for each other.

3. Paul advised, “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25) If people’s needs are met and if the Spirit of Christ is vibrantly alive in our midst, people will be drawn to us and our membership roster will register growth and not decline.

4. Visitation is part of a community of believers, as well as shared work projects. If we share one another’s lives for only a couple of hours a week during worship, we have not provided a broad base for spiritual unity. We invest more time and energy than that in relationships with our employers. May we relate to each other as an extended family, finding many opportunities in addition to corporate worship to interact with each other.

5. Where do Friends learn about God? As one answer to this question, let us consider an analogy. Suppose you set out to be a tennis player. You get the proper equipment and start playing with someone who can at least return the ball to your side of the court. You may have a lot of fun, and you might even become a fairly adequate player, taking this approach.

However, if you aspire to reach greater proficiency, you will not get there on your own, even with lots of effort. To achieve your full potential, you need a tennis coach, someone who is skilled in the finer arts of tennis playing. Such a coach might begin with physical conditioning training. Then there will come detailed instructions in how to grip the racquet and how to position the body and the feet for best performance. There will be particular emphasis on how to serve the ball. Finally, there will be practice, practice, practice and more practice, all under the watchful eye of the coach. The intent is to correct error and improve performance.

The practice of the Christian life is not an “individual sport”; we need to learn from each other. There are many ways to allow others to coach us. Faithful people who have gone before us have left journals, records of their challenges and successes. We now live in a time boast ing more Christian spiritual materials than has ever been true in his tory. We should not let the barriers of denominationalism prevent us from being nurtured by this rich material, classics as well as contemporary. Perhaps we should examine again our definition of “the Church”, to be sure that it includes all who receive Christ as both Lord and Savior.

6. Paul says in the sixth chapter of Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2 ESV)

7. In the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians, Paul informed the Corinthians and us of the special spiritual gifts that the Holy Spirit distributes as He wills to operate in a Christian congregation. These gifts include wisdom, knowledge, faith, working of miracles, discerning spirits, various tongues and their interpretation, gifts of healing. Acts, chapter 6, also speaks of the qualifications of elders. Stephen was one such man. These special appointees were to be of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost, possess spiritual wisdom, have special faith, and demonstrate the power of Christ in wonders and miracles.

All these gifts of the Spirit are described in the early chapters of Acts after the reception of the Spirit’s baptism. These same gifts were operating among first-generation Friends, often in dramatic ways. They can be ours too, to be used by any Friends today to encourage every one in the knowledge of the love of God in Christ Jesus. Christ dispens es such gifts as He wills. So it is that the spiritual gifts may be manifest in the lives of anyone, be they an elder or other obedient servant.