By Jonathan Vogel Borne

The recording process of Western YM which is part of Friends United Meeting (FUM), is typical for both FUM yearly meetings with predominantly pastoral meetings and Evangelical Friends International (EFI) yearly meetings. There are clearly defined steps. First, the gift is recognized by the monthly meeting committee on Christian Ministries and Evangelism. The candidate’s character, knowledge of scripture, and Friends testimonies are carefully examined, and a recommendation is sent to the monthly meeting. If it concurs, a minute is sent to the YM Board of Christian Ministries and Evangelism, which, after careful consideration, refers to the YM Committee for the Training and Recording of Ministers. The candidate is put under the care of this committee and is required to take a prescribed course of study taking up to three years. The name is then sent to the yearly meeting for recording as a minister, recorded also in the monthly meeting minute book.

In Iowa YM (FUM) the local Ministry and Counsel requires the written answer to ten questions for ministers, including belief that it is Jesus Christ who qualifies one as a minister of the gospel, the Bible is given by divine inspiration, resurrection of all, and eternal punishment of the wicked, and blessedness of the righteous. Eventually, elders prepare a recommendation asking that he/she be recorded as a minister of the Gospel. If approved, the recommendation goes to the YM on Ministry and Counsel. It appoints a committee to carry out training and recording. All candidates are expected to complete studies on the YM Discipline, Christian doctrines, church history, Biblical studies,the history and doctrines of Friends, and Christianity and social concerns.

North Carolina YM’s (Conservative) recognition begins with the monthly meeting. “If it feels that a true gift for vocal ministry has been bestowed,” it informs the Quarterly Meeting of Ministry and Oversight. If they approve, the matter goes back to the entire monthly meeting for approval. If approved, the meeting so records, and sends a report in writing to the next yearly meeting sessions.

Philadelphia YM [Friends General Conference (FGC)] “no longer follows a general practice of granting formal recognition as ‘recorded ministers’ to those with special gifts in the ministry.” However, some meetings have continued its observance “as a nurturing support to those individuals with unusual gifts in the ministry” although “a monthly meeting may, upon the advice of its Committee on Worship and Ministry, record as ministers those members who are recognized as having a clear leading to vocal ministry and prayer or counseling of individuals. This recognition is not one of status or privilege and should be reviewed periodically. It is an affirmation based on loving trust.”

In 1924 London Yearly Meeting discontinued the practice of recording ministers, after some decades in which it was done more and more rarely. The reasons were largely those mentioned in the paragraph above, and also included the fact that some Friends kept the designation of recorded minister after their gifts had, as far as could be seen, been withdrawn, or their testimony had lost its value for other reasons. However, twenty years after the cessation, T.H. Harvey concluded in a report to the London Yearly Meeting that meetings had largely not taken up the challenge to support and nurture the ministry adequately, and to stimulate and sustain the (unrecorded) ministers. No institution had arisen to replace the older system of individual consecration under the guidance of the meeting.

The Pastoral System

During the 1880s, in the midwest of the USA and then elsewhere, the practice arose of inviting recorded ministers to come to a meeting for some period of time. The descriptions of this trend, generally and stereotypically, mention how many new “converts” to Friends there were in the revivals of the time (the terminology is different from that of earlier generations of Friends), and how these unseasoned new members looked to the traveling evangelists for guidance. Ministers at first were invited for a short time to help settle a meeting, and these transactions took on more and more the nature of “callings” to pastorates, influenced by the value of the practice in other Protestant denominations (as such Friends felt they were). This differed from the Friends practice of ministry before, but not quite as usually described.

Elton Trueblood and others have pointed out that in very many meetings, one or a few Friends who were able and called might bear the burden of ministry (there was no distinction between “spoken ministry” and “pastoral ministry” as these terms are used in unprogrammed Friends circles). Trueblood points to this as an antecedent of the system of settled pastors, and therefore as a connector between the successive generations of Quakerism. This is somewhat inaccurate. The difference lies in the fact that, traditionally, ministers went (or stayed) as called by God, with the concurrence of their meeting. In the “new Quakerism” of the late 19th century, the practice grew in such a way that local meetings called for individuals. The meetings and the individuals involved are of course bound to seek whether there is any stop in the way of the new arrangement, but I feel this to be different than a Friend feeling drawn to visit a meeting, and showing up there, proceeding as way opened, and then returning home, and in the process presenting the Friends visited with an unanticipated opportunity. Others may not see a difference in kind, but only degree.

Current Practices

In some contrast (and reaction) to this, and also as an extension of the increasing “modernizing” trend among Hicksite Friends, most Hicksite meetings after the rise of Friends General Conference dispensed with the practice of recording altogether, and the corporate care for the ministry rested with Meetings or Committees of Ministry and Counsel, Ministry and Oversight, Worship and Ministry, etc. This was also the norm among the independent meetings springing up across the country, though some (even now) mention that, as in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, a monthly meeting is free to record ministers.

In many Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends International yearly meetings, recording has come much more under the care of the Yearly Meeting. Although the monthly meeting is the organ of initial discernment and exercise of the gift, the yearly meetings have well-defined procedures for training, educating, and otherwise equipping ministers. Some have widened the definition of recordable ministry somewhat (the discipline of Northwest Yearly Meeting has a very lucid discussion of ministerial functions); and the final stage of recording is at yearly meeting sessions themselves.

In the united yearly meetings (those with affiliation with both Friends United Meeting and Friends General Conference, as is the case with NEYM) the practice has tended to survive (if at all) in areas where there were pastoral meetings historically. Meetings which were Hicksite or sprang up as unaffiliated meetings generally do not record ministers, and some have decided that they will not, on principle.

In the Conservative and Wilburite bodies, the practice survived, but has been applied spottily, undergoing near-deaths and rebirths as conditions have changed. The renewal of the recorded ministry in Ohio Yearly Meeting in the past twenty years, for example, has been a significant part of the renewal in that yearly meeting. In the minutes of the Wilburite New England Yearly Meeting of Friends (which united with the orthodox “Yearly Meeting of Friends in New England” and other Friends bodies in 1945 to form the present day New England Yearly Meeting of Friends), I have found no notice of a Friend’s being recorded a minister in the last two or three decades of the yearly meeting’s existence, though “prerecorded” ministers certainly were active and valued among them.

NEYM and recording of gifts in the ministry

It is not perhaps useful to multiply examples of the variations now extant among the yearly meetings; there is variety enough among our own numbers in New England. The book of discipline, our Faith and Practice, since the reunification of the Yearly Meeting in 1945, has maintained the procedure for recording ministers at every revi sion. But in this, as in some other issues, individual meetings have felt the need to specify their attitude. At least two monthly meetings have minuted their sense that they should not record ministers, though they do not obstruct ministers recorded elsewhere from maintaining that status upon transferring membership. There has been a continuing concern that recording of ministers is in contradiction with our sense of the “universal ministry.” There has also been a vague association in the minds of some between recorded ministers and pastors, natural enough in those parts of New England where the older system was replaced in the last century. Some meetings (mostly pastoral, but not exclusively) have maintained the practice. Meanwhile, the structure and spirituality within which recording once found its context has been weakened.

In a way, we have in many meetings returned to a situation which has some parallels with the first few years of the Quaker movement, when ministers arose in response to an inward call, and the meeting structure had rather little weight in the matter. Outward guidance was performed by other ministers who had some experience of the demands and dangers of the vocation. The existence of people with such a vocation was accepted as a matter of course, in harmony with the Biblical descriptions of the early church and the prophetic offices.

We differ from this, of course, in many respects, some of which at least follow naturally from the many differences between 17th and 21st century Quakerism. Some have seen a problem in the numbers of Friends trained as pastoral counselors, or in other church related helping professions, where some kind of approbation from the faith community is required. It is hard to understand the role of the call, the meeting, the job, and other variables in a situation such as that. This is especially so, since most meetings are no more involved in supporting these Friends than they are with any other concerned Friends struggling to integrate a concern with their prayer life and their meeting.

The process of recording was [1] consistent with our theology, and [2] addressed real needs for the care of Friends carrying a long term concern for the ministry of the Word. The discussion of recording must continue among us in such a way that we do not just reach some conclusions about an old custom. Instead, we should take creative steps that build both on our current understanding and on three centuries of Quaker practice—practice in a very specific spiritual path with its own boundaries and its own kinds of truth. So we can renew Gospel Order, which in the end is discovered, not “created” by us.

Jonathan Vogel Borne is a member of Friends Meeting of Cambridge (in Massachusetts). This article was originally entitled “Practices in Other Yearly Meetings” and appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of The New England Friend, on the subject of recording gifts of vocal ministry.