by the Subcommittee on Ministry & Leadings of Pacific YM’s Ministry & Worship Committee
In the experience and understanding of Friends, a leading has these dimensions:
- Recognition of need, injustice, or other work to be done
- An inward, caring response to the need, injustice, or work to be done
- A sense that one is somehow being asked to take action to meet the need, correct the injustice, and/or do the necessary work
A belief that one’s sense of “being asked to take action” arises not merely from one’s small self, but from a larger Source — God, Christ, Spirit, the Numinous, the Real, the Unconscious
Quaker and Judeo-Christian histories abound with examples of leadings. Two familiar scriptural examples are those of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-10), and Saul (later, Paul) on the road to Damascus (Acts, 9:3-6). The Journal of George Fox and other early Quaker writings are full of accounts of leadings, often described in explicitly biblical terms. (
A passage from John Woolman’s Journal illustrates the essential features of a leading:
12th day, 6th month, and first of the week. It being a rainy day we continued in our tent, and here I was led to think on the nature of the exercise which hath attended me. Love was the first motion, and then a concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they be in any degree helped forward by my following the leadings of Truth amongst them. (Phillips P. Moulton, ed., The Journal and Major Essays of John Woolman, p. 127)
Reflecting on the lives of the Indians, Woolman experiences a “motion of love” and a “concern . . .to spend some time with” them. Humble and open, his first hope is to “receive some instruction from them”, and possibly to help them, by “following the leadings of Truth.”
How do I know whether I am experiencing a true leading?
We are notoriously capable of deceiving ourselves—and perhaps nowhere so readily as when we imagine that we are “following the will of God.” Ancient and modern history abounds with instances of what Friends regard as false “leadings” that have led to cruelty, injustice, war and oppression. Religious conflict, slavery, racism, sexism, suicide bombings, and many other deranged and destructive behaviors have all been rationalized as “God’s will.” Thus when we sense that we are experiencing a leading of the Spirit, careful discernment is required.
In Friends’ perspective, genuine leadings are characterized by love, not hate; a desire to unify, not divide; an impulse to heal rather than to destroy. Although awareness of cruelty and injustice may readily inspire moral outrage, anger is not the root motivation of a true leading. The Letter of James (which George Fox frequently cited in defense of Friends’ Peace Testimony) declares that “your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” and “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (1:19, 3:17) In Galatians, St. Paul expresses a similar sentiment: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23, NRSV) “Love was the first motion,” writes Woolman.
A genuine leading may announce itself through overheard conversation that speaks directly to one’s heart3 ; it may arise as a persistent dream, preoccupation or concern that one cannot shake off; it may become clear through painful realization that one’s beliefs and actions are not congruent. Awareness of a leading may unfold slowly over time, as one’s heart opens more fully to Truth. It may be work that is begun reluctantly—perhaps assigned by a nominating committee—yet grows into a labor of love. (See Appendix C: When a Nomination Becomes a Leading, pp. 18f.)
As these examples illustrate, there is no formula, no infallible marker by which a genuine leading may be recognized. In Quaker perspective, religious passion or zeal are not proof of a true leading. Early Friends were all too aware of the dangers of undisciplined fervor and excess. Quakers were frequently confused with the Ranters, another 17th-century religious group, who (in the words of Hugh Barbour, a leading Quaker scholar) “claimed that since they were redeemed and led by the Spirit, they could do no wrong, and so followed impulses into all kinds of immorality and anarchy.”4 To counter such religious anarchism, from a very early date Friends insisted upon the importance of corporate discernment (rather than purely individual conviction) as an essential test of religious insight.
Often, recognition of a leading comes first not from one’s own discernment, but through suggestions or nudges from others who recognize and name one’s ministry. In Quaker tradition, those in a Meeting who demonstrated a gift for discerning, naming and lifting up the ministry of others were formally recognized as “elders.” The practice of drawing upon elders is being widely reintroduced among liberal Friends. The spiritual insight and guidance of trusted elders (whether formally recognized or not) can be immensely valuable throughout the entire process of discerning and following a leading. Thus when exploring a possible leading, Friends are strongly encouraged to consult with others whom they trust as spiritual mentors—good listeners who are spiritually experienced and seasoned, able to “hear beyond the words” to the underlying motion of the Spirit. For a fuller description of elders and eldering, see Section #15 below and Appendix D.
A rich, useful literature exists on leadings, ministry, callings, spiritual discernment and similar concepts. Hugh Barbour’s classic piece, “Five Tests for Discerning a True Leading” is included here as Appendix A. A number of helpful sources on leadings are listed in Appendix B. Friends who are exploring a possible leading are encouraged to consult these sources.
From the pamphlet Faithfulness in Action: Supporting Leadings in Pacific Yearly Meeting.