Invitation to Quaker Eldering

Early in the Quaker movement, Friends recognized that the living Spirit of God was guiding them directly without need of intermediaries. Members of the faith community were given particular gifts of the Spirit for the benefit of all. Not all gifts were the same, but it was one Spirit giving life to all of them, for the sake of God’s work in and through the community. This new order of life breaking into the world, empowered directly by the Light of Christ, was called Gospel Order. Some were given a prophetic gift, to speak and teach as moved by the Spirit. Others were given the gift to nurture the spiritual life of individuals and the community. In the first decades of the Quaker movement, some of those noted for their spiritual gifts were called “nursing mothers” or “nursing fathers,” noted for their ability to nurture those called to a new kind of spiritual life, and also for their skill in nurturing the spiritual communities created by the first Quakers. A group calling themselves the “Elders at Balby” wrote a document with suggested guidelines for Quaker meetings. By the 18th century, Friends specifically named the different gifts of ministers and elders, recognizing that although all people may be called to some form of ministry and all are called to participate in upholding the faith community, some are given a larger measure of one gift or another, for the sake of the meeting.

Among the branches of Quakerism that evolved through the centuries, some Quakers (including Conservative and Evangelical Friends), have continued to recognize as ministers those who are gifted in ministry, and as elders those who have the gift of spiritual nurture. Among others, recorded ministers are named, but not elders.

Early in the 1800s, divisions occurred in Quaker communities as Friends responded in different ways to religious currents in the world. The branch of Quakers now called “liberal” began to rebel against the sometimes oppressive authority exercised in that time by those recognized as ministers and elders. By the middle of the 20th century, most liberal Quaker meetings stopped the practice of recognizing and naming either ministers or elders.

“All Friends are ministers,” we said, and liberal Friends’ meetings no longer noted that some people are called to dedicate themselves to religious service in a special way. The word “eldering” became associated with criticism, especially of vocal ministry offered in meeting for worship. The positive and necessary functions of elders were forgotten, though the Spirit still continued to give these essential gifts to the meeting in particular people. A prophetic community guided directly by God requires dedication and tending, and when the community stops recognizing and valuing this, the spiritual vitality of meetings diminishes. Over time, liberal Friends have become more secular and intellectual, and prophetic vocal ministry has became more rare.

I began to participate in the Quaker community early in the 1990s, at a time when some liberal Friends meetings were realizing that very much is lost when we don’t recognize and support the gifts of ministry given to members of our meetings. Although most liberal Friends were continuing to feel resistant to naming individuals as “ministers,” by 1990 some meetings had began to recognize that certain people are called to particular kinds of ministry, both within and beyond the community, and that the community is called by the Spirit to support those with calls and leadings. Many meetings began to develop or renew practices for recognizing and supporting ministries.

Around 1999, I was present at a several-day gathering at Pendle Hill retreat center for Quakers called to ministry. Such a gathering had not been held among liberal Quakers in a long time. The co-facilitators were four esteemed Friends who had all been recognized by their monthly and yearly meetings for their gifts in the ministry. Many Friends with strong calls, leadings, and gifts for ministry were in attendance, including some Conservative Friends. Many had received recognition and support for some form of ministry from their Quaker community. The gathering was open to any who registered, however, and some also came whose gifts in ministry had not been recognized or encouraged by their meetings. Many of them were particularly eager for recognition from others.

About fifty of us gathered in the worship room in the Barn at Pendle Hill, and the Presence of the Spirit was strongly felt during the meetings for worship. Many experienced the power of the Spirit speaking to them, and they stood and offered vocal ministry. So many spoke that there was not enough silence in which to absorb the messages, some of them very powerful and prophetic. The sparsity of silence between these messages became more and more painful. Some of the spoken messages, it seemed, were really meant for the person to whom they had been given, not meant to be spoken aloud. Clear discernment was missing, not only in those who were very eager to received recognition for their gifts, but also in some who had already received such recognition.

During these meetings for worship, a few Friends felt moved to discreetly kneel on the floor in prayer, to try to hold the meeting for worship in the depth of Spirit to which the group was called. On the second or third day, a group of Friends identified themselves as elders and took seats on the bench behind the front (or “facing”) bench where the four co-facilitating ministers were seated. When given leave to explain themselves, these elders noted that since liberal Quakers had stopped identifying those with the gifts of eldership, and liberal meetings were no longer encouraging or supporting such Friends in their ministry of spiritual nurture, something essential had been lost. In this gathering, we were feeling the painful lack of the gifts of spiritual anchoring offered by those who called to serve as elders.

That event at Pendle Hill marked an important turning point among liberal Friends. It was a moment when those called to the ministry of spiritual nurture stepped forward and said clearly, “the gift of eldership is essential to the maintenance of a healthy and faithful spiritual community among Friends.”

Elaine Emily was one of the elders who took her place on the bench of elders at that gathering. Afterwards, she felt called to gather together groups of Friends who were experiencing the gift and call to serve as elders. They shared experiences and confirmed for each other the validity and importance of their call. More than twenty years later, Inner Light Books has just published a beautiful book, An Invitation to Quaker Eldering, in which Elaine Emily, Mary Kay Glazer, and numerous other Quaker elders describe the gift of eldering as it has been experienced by them in the first decades of the twenty-first century.

The book offers three metaphors for eldering: cultivating a garden, finding a path in the wilderness of an old growth forest, and connecting everything like the essential but invisible network of fungi which exchange information and nutrients under the surface of the earth. One chapter describes the qualities of elders. Another describes the formation of an elder and their growth in the gift of spiritual nurture. The various functions of elders are described, include nurturing the gifts of the vocal ministers and nurturing the spiritual life of communities. Elders help both individuals and communities to be accountable for the calls and leadings they receive. This book describes these functions of elders and offers frameworks for understanding the nature of this essential but often misunderstood gift.

In addition to the chapters giving an overview of the spiritual gift given to elders, An Invitation to Quaker Eldering contains numerous short accounts written by a wide range of Friends about their experiences of recognizing and exercising their eldering gifts. These personal accounts wonderfully illustrate the wide range of ways that these mysterious gifts manifest among Friends and hint at their function. Like the mycorrhizae under the surface of the earth, the essential nature of these gifts is still barely known, but this book goes a long way toward increasing awareness and understanding.

An online book launch event was held on November 6, 2022. The two primary authors, Elaine Emily and Mary Kay Glazer, and the two Friends who served as their primary elders in this project, Janet Gibian Hough and Bruce Neumann, read from the book and spoke about their process of working together. The publisher, Charles Martin, described why he was glad he postponed his retirement long enough to publish this book. To see the recording of the book launch, go HERE.

Invitation to Quaker Eldering: Have you received the gift of eldering or experienced spiritual nurture offered by another?

© 2022 Marcelle Martin

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The book can be ordered from Barclay Press, Pendle Hill, and other publishers.

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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.
This entry was posted in Contemplative spirituality, Facing Life with Faith, Learning from Early Friends, Quaker Faith Today, Radical Christianity, spiritual practices, Supporting Spirit-led Ministry and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Invitation to Quaker Eldering

  1. Donna Eisenhower says:

    Marcelle: Are you planning an online book discussion on the invitation to aQuaker Eldering I would be interested. Thanks for bringing attention to this. Donna Eisenhower

  2. Gerard Guiton says:

    Interesting. I’ll get that book. Thanks for the heads up, Marcelle. Hope you’re OK. Blessings to you and yours,

  3. Gerry, I think you’ll find the book very interesting. Blessings to you! Marcelle

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