– Peter Blood
From their earliest beginnings in 17th century, Quakers have valued and supported travel by individual Friends “under a religious concern”. In most cases such Friends have traveled among settled (i.e. already established) Friends Meetings either in their immediate vicinity or at a great distance. At times, however, Friends have felt led to travel among non-Friends with a particular leading. A striking example is when Mary Fisher felt led in 1658 to travel to Istanbul to meet with Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire.
All early Quaker leaders, especially those identified informally as the “Valiant Sixty”, carried out such travels in the “gospel ministry”. Quaker journals [spiritual autobiographies] are filled with accounts of such religious travel.
Shared discernment and support from the faith community. Friends developed very early a process for group testing, usually by one’s local congregation, of such leadings. This process is now usually referred to as a “clearness committee” for one-time calls to travel and a “support committee” or “oversight of ministry committee” for the nurture and holding accountable of those led to carry out such work on a more ongoing basis. This process is one important example of what Friends refer to as “eldership” or eldering. The process of shared discernment of God’s call and holding an individual accountable for carrying out that call faithfully is the same whether or not it is carried out by persons formally recognized as elders or by others not so designated.
It is considered important that Friends undertaking such work obtain a written minute of religious concern often referred to as a “traveling minute” that describes the faith community’s official endorsement of the individual’s calling to a particular or more ongoing religious work among Friends or in the wider world. In cases of distant travel among Friends, these minutes are also often endorsed by the Friend’s yearly meeting (regional association).
It is important to note that a traveling minute or minute of travel under religious concern is not the same as a simple letter of introduction. Many meetings provide a letter or minute of introduction for Friends undertaking travel for other reasons besides gospel ministry as a way of introducing their member or couple or family to Friends they encounter during their trip.
Accompaniment by an Elder
It is considered critical that Friends undertaking this type of work travel with a spiritual companion or “elder”. The elder both provides prayerful support to the “minister” (both during any programs the minister is leading and before and after) and also to hold the minister accountable for faithful exercise of her or his call.
(Note: There is a whole separate section on this website devoted to the subject of Eldership more broadly.)
Committee of Oversight
Traditionally ongoing oversight of a meeting’s recorded ministers would be provided by the monthly meetings elders. Each monthly meeting’s recorded ministers and appointed elders were expected to meet on a monthly basis. This meeting of ministers and elders is the antecedent of current Ministry and Worship Committees, which in many meetings today are appointed for specific terms. The three North American Conservative YMs still record ministers basically for life and appoint elders for a long open-ended period of time.
Beginning towards the end of the 20th century many FGC meetings began a practice of appointing committees of oversight for both those who held central responsibilities in the yearly meeting such as yearly meeting clerks and also for members called to ongoing ministries of various kinds. This has been associated with a broadening of the meaning of ministry. The term ministry was traditionally reserved by Friends for those with a demonstrated gift for vocal ministry both in meetings for worship and also in travel under religious concern.
In many other Christian faith traditions the term ministry is applied to many forms of religious service besides preaching and pastoral care including chaplaincy, religious education, music, and even social witness such as earthcare ministry.
After recording of ministers had largely disappeared from FGC yearly meetings, some Friends sought a form of recording to support ministries such as chaplaincy or prison visitation for which there were often legal or professional requirements for a faith congregation to provide some form of formal recognition as an alternative to ordination. It is important to note that meeting a formal legal recognition similar to ordination is seriously antithetical to the Quaker traditional opposition to a formal priesthood or hireling ministry set in opposition to lay members of the community.
This traditional opposition to the lay-clergy distinction has led to the unwillingness of many meetings to formally recognize some member’s call to ministry. Engaging with a Monthly Meeting about Ministry [in the Community section of this website] describes one Friend’s request to her meeting for a minute of travel and the meeting’s struggle to come to unity in supporting this Friend’s request.
Larger meetings have, however, been increasingly willing to consider providing a committee to support some Friend’s ministry, while also emphasizing that the meeting values equally all of its members’ spiritual gifts, even if the meeting only has the capacity to support a few Friend’s with formal minutes and oversight committees.
An oversight committee involves a significant amount of time and energy. Smaller meetings may seek to provide oversight of one or two member’s ongoing ministry by the meeting as a whole. Another way to provide this kind of support and accountability is
Early Friends saw themselves as continuing a pattern of religious work described in the Bible, especially the New Testament. The importance of traveling with an elder ties in with the fact that Jesus sent out his followers in pairs. See Mark 9-13. The resurrected Jesus gave similar briefer instructions in Matthew 28-18-20. Many examples can also be found in the Book of Acts and Paul’s letters. You can read many reports of the process of discerning in prayer with others what particular travel or religious task Paul and others were called to carry out.