Following Leadings Today

As many as are led by the Spirit of God, are the sons of God.  Romans 8:14

In the late 1980s, young urban professionals Scott and Mary Ann Savage experienced an unexpected call.  In the midst of a booming material culture, they were uneasy with their lengthy commutes, hurried lives, and impact on the environment.  They began to long for a simpler way of life.  A spiritual hunger grew as well, which caused them to read about the plain communities around them in Ohio.  During the home birth of their first child in 1991, they unexpectedly felt the presence of God.  Mary Ann quit her job in order to be a stay-at-home mom, and nearby Amish people taught them how to simplify their lives.  They found spiritual community among Conservative Friends, who believe that, with the assistance of Scripture and fellow believers, God’s leadings can be found in one’s heart.

Scott and Mary Ann received a leading to move to a farm without electricity.  There they learned to grow and can fruits and vegetables, feed livestock, and use a horse and buggy to get around.  More children were born.  Although the work was hard, they experienced joys they had not known before.  In his book A Plain Life, Scott Savage tells the story of the transformation of their lives as they followed the call to a simple life, in touch with God, community, and the earth.

Most of the book describes the unfolding of a particular leading Scott received to make a hundred-mile walk to Ohio’s state capital to give up his drivers’ license.   This leading, he wrote, was a “necessary thing blossoming in my heart as a directive from God.” (19)  Although they had already given up their car, Scott had been renting vehicles and traveling a great deal.  He spoke with other Friends to test the clearness of his leading to give up his driver’s license.  “I … found myself describing it as a needed step in pulling away from the freedom and mobility many people hold up as great achievements in modern life.  I had come to see the car and what it represented as paradoxically oppressive, not only to myself, but also to the larger society…and the planet that was choking on its fumes.” (19)  The Friends he spoke with had not, themselves, been led to give up their cars, but they sensed that his leading was truly from God.

Quakers today use three related words to describe being led by God’s spirit.  Only rare people are acutely sensitive to all the suffering and injustice in the world.  Instead, an individual or community often becomes especially sensitive to one or a few of the worlds’ needs. We speak of this as coming under the weight of a particular concern.  A person or group carrying a concern is then prompted to undertake specific actions to address the issue.  If a task is God-given, we speak of it as a leading.  The word call is used to describe a God-given task that demands effort and attention over a long period of time.  During the course of following a call, one may receive and carry out a great number of leadings.

In her recent Friends Journal article, “Africa, Appalachia, and Arrest”, Eileen Flanagan describes how, after twenty years of mild efforts to live in earth-friendly ways, a shift happened.  Suddenly she felt under the weight of a concern about climate change.  She became active with the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) as they protested PNC Bank’s financial support of mountaintop removal in Appalachia.  A phone call from a friend in Botswana, where she had served as a Peace Corps volunteer, made her aware of the devastating impact of climate change on her friends there.  With support from her Quaker community, she followed a leading to travel to Africa; there she saw how rising temperatures and water shortages will have a harsher effect on the poorest people.

Eileen realized that her efforts to reduce her personal and family energy consumption are not enough. “What the world’s hungry need,” she wrote, “are big changes from big institutions and people bold enough to call for them.”  She became more sensitive to the great hazards of our culture’s current push to extreme extraction practices like mountaintop removal, and to the devastating environment effect of burning dirtier fuels, such as tar sands oil, instead of developing clean energy technology.  A deeper level of commitment was born.


8/22/11 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I came home feeling that I was being led to show more courage, act more boldly, and more publicly in my leading to work for climate justice.”  Next Eileen felt nudged by the Spirit to represent EQAT when representatives of organizations across the country participated in a protest at the White House, in an effort to persuade President Obama to veto the Keystone XL pipeline.  Handcuffing herself to the White House fence and going to jail, along with fifty other activists, was a joyful experience.  What followed were many opportunities to speak with the press about the concern God has placed upon her.

It can be difficult to know for sure when a prompting to action comes from God or from another source.  We are motivated by a multitude of impulses and beliefs, many of them unconscious and some deeply embedded by our culture and upbringing.  Quakers therefore test their leadings with others.  If a leading comes from God and not from a merely internal motivation, others who are attuned to the Spirit can also sense its source.  An important question in discerning a leading is to ask if it leads to the fruits of the Spirit named in Galatians 5:22: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control.  Does the leading fulfill God’s purposes, rather than the desires of the ego?

Quakers today often use a prayerful communal process called the clearness committee to help us discern our leadings clearly.  Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, which is Eileen Flanagan’s Quaker meeting, as well as my own, has encouraged and supported many members in discerning and following our calls and leadings, appointing not only clearness committees, but also oversight committees for those called to some form of ministry or witness.  Some Friends take part in peer groups, mutual spiritual accountability groups that help one another with ongoing discernment as a call or leading develops over time.

Several readers of this blog wrote to share their experiences of leadings.  After the violent gun deaths of children and teachers at Sandy Hook school, Phil Swank felt emotional and spiritual despair, which he eventually understood to be a prompting of the Holy Spirit to witness to his concern about gun violence in America.  He spoke about this during a worship service in the church he was attending, then wrote to his pastor and denominational leadership.

“All of my inquiries were ignored or rebuffed with a concern that any federal policy actions might interfere with 2nd amendments rights,” he wrote.  “I pulled out an old, tucked-away copy of Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion and had a re-opening of the spirit that gave me the yearning to live the Quaker Testimonies.”  He received the strength to leave his comfortable mainline church and to “seek fellowship” with Friends. He wrote: “God now has me on a better path of Truth as I live with renewed sense of integrity, peace, simplicity, care for the earth, concern for equality and the fruits of community.”  May he find encouragement among Friends to follow the leadings of God’s Spirit, and may his passionate conviction be a source of light for the members of the Quaker meeting he now attends.

Bill Samuel shared an experience he had a few decades ago after he was invited to travel to a gathering at a distant Quaker meeting. As he pondered this invitation, he felt led to attend, but did not know the purpose.  During a meeting for worship he sought further clarity and felt confirmed in his leading.  He also sensed that a particular person, who did not have a permanent address, was to be his traveling companion.  A tenuous train of events led to an opportunity for timely communication with this person, who felt clear to accompany him.  As it turned out, this companion was of much assistance in the experience that unfolded.  Only after faithfully attending the gathering and speaking as prompted during the called meeting for worship did Bill understand the purpose for which he and his companion had been led to attend.  He wrote, “From my experiences, I had a perspective on the matter underlying the called meeting (a Friend imprisoned for conscience) that no one local had and that the Friends gathered much needed. I was able to share with them … a sense of God’s victory in the situation which they had not had.”

For Bill, the experience of discerning and following this leading confirmed some understandings Quakers have held about the nature of faithfulness to God’s promptings: “One is that you may not understand why you are called to something, but that does not relieve you of the need to follow the leading. In fact, that produces greater reliance on Divine guidance as you can not accomplish the purpose through your own will, because you do not know the purpose. Secondly, it confirmed the wisdom that generally someone traveling in the ministry should have a traveling companion as an aid to their faithfulness. I certainly felt the value of this quite strongly in this instance.”

Leadings of the Spirit: How have you been led by the Spirit to undertake a particular action, big or small?  How did you know you were experiencing a leading from God and not being motivated by something else?  If you followed your leading, what were the fruits?  Has following a leading led you into an experience of suffering or sacrifice, or what early Friends spoke of as a “cross” to your own will?  Have you found spiritual joy or power given you to help you follow a difficult leading?


* * * * * This post is part of a series about Ten Elements of the Quaker Spiritual Journey. The  next post will describe early Friends’ experience of Living in the Cross.

A Whole Heart has pages on Bibliography  and Upcoming Workshops.

c) 2013 Marcelle Martin

About friendmarcelle

A Quaker writer, teacher, workshop leader, and spiritual director, I've traveled widely to facilitate workshops and retreats about the spiritual journey. I'm the author of Our Life is Love: The Quaker Spiritual Journey, and A Guide to Faithfulness Groups.
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9 Responses to Following Leadings Today

  1. Pingback: Quaker Ranter | - Quaker Ranter

  2. Hi Marcelle. I wanted to add that sometimes we don’t know the fruits of our faithfulness. A person may follow a leading and not see the “fruits of the Spirit” but that doesn’t mean that they were misled. God moves in mysterious ways and we may be bringing the world love, joy, peace, ect. without knowing it. Sometimes I really desire a good warm feeling or to see some kind of “results” from following the Spirit. But that’s just ego. I have to ask myself if I am following a lead because it’s the faithful thing to do or because I want some kind of affirmation from the universe. If I want a certain feeling or response, I haven’t given myself over to be fully in service to Christ.

  3. Hi Kitt, thanks for your wise comments.
    Of course, we never know the ultimate outcome of a following a leading, although we can see effects all along the way, often in ourselves first of all. In testing a leading, Quakers have looked for the fruit of the Spirit even in the initial stages of a leading. Does the prompting toward a leading come from love? Is the person who received the leading growing in patience while facing obstacles to following it? Does the leading require self-control, rather than self-indulgence? Is there an inner feeling of peace and joy about following the leading, in spite of whatever difficulties or sacrifices might be involved?

  4. Barbara Smith says:

    Marcelle – I very much appreciated this post. How to discern when a leading is from God has been of special interest to me over the past year as it seems we can make little progress in our spiritual lives until we hone our discernment skills. Thanks for the list of questions in the reply above. They are especially helpful as I also have not found it helpful to look at the results of following the leading itself. But these questions address the motivation and the carrying out of the leading, which is more on target I feel. The results of following leadings seem to me usually a mixed bag, and often looking for confirmation in the results leads to feelings of frustration or doubt, or what feels like a tendency to stretch the facts to see a confirmation!
    I recently followed a leading to get off the computer completely for a couple months. It had consumed my life and I needed to disengage. At first I assumed this was to be a permanent change so I made elaborate arrangements to live without the computer/Internet/email etc. After a month it seemed I could do certain tasks on the computer, though very limited. And then after another month I could do more. As far as looking for positive end results of this leading goes I would say it prompted many conversations with others on their computer usage, what is too much, and how to cut down, computer addictions etc. And my son and his wife were prompted to have a compter-free week at their house and to make decisions about their toddler and computer usage. And of course it sensitized me to when I am being compulsive about checking my email and when I am using the computer responsibly. My biggest supporters in following this leading were my Friends at OYM!
    As a small comment, it seems that Conservative Friends think of leadings slightly differently from what I was used to hearing among FGC Friends. Conservative Friends have an understanding that God is leading them continually throughout the day, telling them which way to turn, which store to go into, when to call someone, etc. Leadings that may be big and many that are very small. For these leadings, of course, a clearness committee makes no sense. It is necessary instead for all of us to learn to develop a listening ear to hear God’s direction on a daily basis. This is different from the leadings you were describing where Friends did turn to others for confirmation. So, in other words, confirmation of the group is not the only way Friends discern the authenticity of leadings.

    Thanks for your blog.
    Barb Smith

  5. Eileen Bagus says:

    Dec. 13, 2013
    Dear Marcelle,
    I attended the Quaker Mystics conference at Earlham and have wanted to write you something about my efforts to follow a leading over the last three or so years, but I am uncomfortable with a community-wide posting. I first became interested in prison ministry about twelve years ago, doing GED tutoring and some other teaching for nine years in the women’s cell block of a local incarceration facility for people who had committed drug-related felonies. My work was mostly limited, honing math skills and occasionally supporting someone through an emotional crisis so she could get back to doing math again. Then I went home and went on with my life as usual.

    In my last year there, with permission from the lead staff person, I began mentoring one of my former students who had expressed a desire to go to college after she was released. I also started reading a biography of Elizabeth Fry’s life in prison work, which started with a small act of kindness and eventually caused a ripple effect of widespread change in the British prison system.
    For myself I have never been comfortable with intense activism and demonstrations to achieve systemic change in society; it scares me. But I can easily relate to kindness to an individual.

    It took me months to slowly win her trust, until she introduced me to her children’s father and allowed me to visit their apartment. Her little girl was napping on the living room floor. I realized they had almost no furniture and kept their clothes in plastic bags and wash baskets. Over time I rounded up some furniture from Quaker friends, then clothes and toys. It began to dawn on me that Elizabeth Fry started to make changes in people at Newgate Prison who were thought to be unreachable by using personal resources from her own family, relatives, and Meeting. I bought a small foreclosed house in an online auction, rehabbed it with help from my children, some members of my Meeting, and some paid workers. Then I sold it to this family on a short term land contract with payments lower than the rent for their previous apartment.

    It’s been three years now since this young woman was released, and she has taught me a great deal about life in poverty. She has not re-offended despite huge economic pressures. She just completed her second year of payments on the house and will own it outright in seven more years. She’s kept the same job for over a year despite two pregnancies. Her partner is doing some legitimate work, and they are both proud of owning something.

    I do have a support committee for my prison ministry work but have not called them to meet as often as I should. What has been a surprise to me is that I have received very mixed reviews for using personal resources to assist returning citizens. Some members of my Meeting have regarded it as kind or generous. At times it seemed to spark a desire to help in additional Friends. Others have stated emphatically that this work should be done only through social agencies. Our society now has a complex safety net in place that did not exist in former centuries. Some of my support committee members have suggested I work in conjunction with a social agency.

    I’ve also read and learned a lot about the prison system, the “War on Drugs” in our country and its impact on the African-American population, and high rates of recidivism, especially among returning citizens who are released from incarceration with few resources. Some of these concerns might be met by public or private agencies. Some of them likely call for major structural change in society–the type of action that is most difficult for me to engage in. I am slowly getting acquainted with organizations in the community that work with prisoners and returning citizens. I sense myself needing another round of discernment as I take next steps.

    Eileen Bagus
    Community Friends Meeting, Cincinnati, Ohio

    • This is such a powerful story of how one step leads to another and God’s leadings transform our lives and those of others. Thank you so much for sharing it!

    • Eileen Bagus says:

      Dear Marcelle,
      I don’t know how to use this website to respond to you, so I will do what I can.You are welcome to use anything I shared in your book or any way that is helpful.
      In 2013 I attended the First Friendly Mystics Conference with Donne Hayden, also from Cincinnati. She is the pastor of Cincinnati Friends Meeting, which is working on a remembrance of its 200 year history. She had planned to do some writing and filming in Aug. for that. She asked me if I would share something on prison ministry for that. I ask you to be open to this project in return.
      Blessings & peace,
      Eileen Bagus
      Community Friends Meeting

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