This article is a report from a subcommittee of Vassalboro (Maine) Quarterly Meeting’s Ministry & Counsel Committee.
Our subcommittee reviewed Friends writings on the subject, contacted other quarterly meetings and Friends who have been recorded as having gifts in the ministry for their input, and met twice for lengthy discussion of the topic. The committee felt that the process for recording and rescinding the recording of an individual as outlined in Faith and Practice (pp. 246-7) is clearly enough stated that we do not need to suggest any additions. While we are not bound by it, we should bear in mind that we are accountable to New England Yearly Meeting if we should choose to differ from it. We feel it important to bear in mind that the guidelines in Faith and Practice are merely a skeletal structure for us to flesh out, and that the topic, especially as it relates to nurturing the spiritual lives of members and leadership within the Religious Society of Friends, is worthy of the consideration of each meeting.
Friends observed that there has been a reticence to continue the practice in many areas, including our own Quarter in recent times. Most of those recorded have been associated with pastoral meetings, and some of this may be due to misconceptions about the need for a Friends pastor to be recorded. There is no need for this to be done for an individual serving in this capacity in the state of Maine. The recognition of him or her by a meeting as their pastor, allows this person to perform all the functions of a pastor in the wider community including officiating at weddings. Friends who do not serve in this role, but who feel called to minister in settings which require some official recognition by their religious community, may find that the exercise of their gifts in the wider community is easier if they are recorded as ministers by the Religious Society of Friends. There is, however, a way for meetings to provide affirmation of a member’s leading to serve in a particular ministry outside the Religious Society of Friends, by providing that Friend with a Minute of Service which expresses the meeting’s support and confidence that the person demonstrates the gifts necessary for him or her to pursue that ministry. This may be limited in duration if this is appropriate to the situation.
The recording of gifts in the ministry is different from this utilitarian need. As Faith and Practice says, it is something which may be done when a member has consistently spoken to the edification and spiritual help of the Meeting. Those of us who presently feel that it is a useful thing to do, see it as a possible way of encouraging ministry and calling forth spiritual leadership; a way of encouraging those whose passion is for ministry and whose ministry encourages others to move ever deeper in the way of seeking to grow in knowledge of the Light. This quickening and enlivening is crucial to the health of any spiritual community. We believe that with care and oversight, it can be a useful tool and that by nurturing and supporting individuals demonstrating qualities of spiritual leadership within the Religious Society of Friends, we will strengthen it as a religious body. It is also a way of supporting and affirming the individuals recorded, as representatives of Quakerism outside the Society.
While the gift is there, whether we officially record it or not, the recognition of it, through recording, should imply that we are responsible to this individual and they to us for the exercise of their gift. It is a mutual obligation for support and accountability and we feel that we could do much more in faithfully supporting those recorded, maintaining contact with them, celebrating the ways in which they are being faithful to their gift, holding them to their responsibility to check their leadings with the larger group, and maintaining a tender care of them should they seem to be moving in directions we find troubling or inappropriate.
Those of us who feel that it may no longer be a useful or appropriate practice in the Society of Friends fear that it undermines the importance of every individual realizing his or her responsibility for ministry. We also feel that it can be perceived as implying that some have the gift and some don’t rather than remembering that all are gifted at times. While recognizing the importance of encouraging spiritual and organizational leadership, some of us do not see recording as a means to that end. We have a sense that the practice creates a kind of Quaker elite which is not helpful and that it is not appropriate to single out one particular kind of ministry to recognize rather than celebrating the gifts that each member brings to their meeting. Maybe the encouragement of gifts of all kinds is something we could be more intentional about rather than singling out this particular gift for recognition.
Line Art: Westerly MM Newsletter by Alice Wills
It may be useful to note that in the committee’s experience, Friends who have been recorded, do not seem to feel themselves to be in any way set apart from others in their Meetings nor do they have a sense of some kind of status afforded by it. It may be that the problem of viewing them as an elite group lies more in the beholder than the beheld, that it lies in a misconception that the act of recording is an honoring of the person and bestowing a title upon them. As Thomas Hancock says in his writings on the subject, the recording of gifts in the ministry is a recording of the gift not a recording of the person. The spiritual gift rather than the human vessel was recognized, and the monthly meeting recorded its recognition. This gift, with the concurrence of Friends, is simply acknowledged to exist by recording the Friend as a minister. The latter has been actually made a minister by the Lord, and not by men. Perhaps it is unhelpful to refer to Friends through whom this gift is being expressed as “recorded ministers,” even though this seems like a convenient shorthand. It may give rise to the feeling that it is a title. Are there ways we could make this clearer?
Other writings which struck us as particularly helpful and provocative in our discussion and understanding of ministry in the Religious Society of Friends, were the following extracts from the writings of D. Elton Trueblood: “This is a ministry which has nothing to do with status or honor and in which the entire function is a loving, modest, concern for the nourishment of the Divine Seed in each human heart.” He also states, in relation to the idea that there is a need for a particular ministry in addition to the general ministry of all members: “The fact is that people cannot have equal responsibility because they do not have equal concern.”
While the members of the committee differed widely in their opinions as to the usefulness and appropriateness of the practice of recording gifts in the ministry, we were in agreement that the nurturing of each other’s gifts and the nurturing of leadership within the Quarter and its constituent meetings, is of great importance. Whatever conclusion Friends come to about the continuance of the practice and how we as a Quarter might want to be more faithful in nurturing leadership, we would hope that it would be based on providing the most encouragement possible to all, rather than on fear of someone somehow abusing the practice, or in reaction to particular situations which are outside the norm. The committee was in agreement that the whole question of whether to record or not to record gifts in the ministry is of secondary importance to the question of how we faith fully nurture leadership of all kinds in our midst and would encourage meetings to consider how they can do this.
This piece was originally published in the Spring 2000 issue of The New England Friend, the newsletter of New England Yearly Meeting.