October 25, 2006

Eldering then and now

NOTE: Links to related posts are at the bottom of this essay.
Over on Richard M's blog, he has an important post on recognizing elders within our monthly meetings. What follows below is an extended version of the comment I left there.

Eldering and eldership is a topic I have thought a bit about for much the same reasons that Richard listed: it is a concept and a practice that is, in some ways, on the "endangered species" list of Quakerism among unprogrammed Friends in the U.S.

Eldering is still confused with admonishment, an action which some Friends identify as part of mutual accountability and how we engage with each other as part of being a covenant community.

In my recent consideration of eldering among modern Friends, I have been holding two things:

1. Many Friends have equated--or still equate--admonishment with eldering. If our experience is that we felt admonished for a certain thing we said or did, let's use that word--"I was admonished"--instead of the word "eldered" (as in "I was eldered").

2. Within contemporary Quakerism, it seems as if the function of elders is becoming more narrowly defined as the behaviors or activities that a seasoned Friend undertakes in relation to individual members and attenders within or even beyond the meeting.

As I see it, this narrower definition is also endangering the traditional role of elder. Elders have other functions too.
  • Elders have certain gifts that are specific and responsive to condition of the monthly meeting or yearly meeting. They are gifted with the ability to provide spiritual care and nurture to the meeting as whole, which can be seen as an extension of the elder's being steeped within the Quaker tradition. So it is that if that Friend were to move to another meeting, perhaps other gifts of that same Friend may be called forward, and the Friend's gift of eldership may not transfer to or be required within other meetings.

  • Elders may be "holding the space" during worship, helping ground the meeting as Friends enter the meetingroom and settle into worship.

  • Elders may speak to the "big picture" of how the meeting is or isn't being faithful or obedient to God's call. They may help knit the community together in ways that are often unseen or unheard.
  • Maybe it's because these functions are not as explicit as, say, the function of a minister--one who has a gift to preach, to offer vocal prayer, to articulate our faith, to share the Word of God.

    Recently, the word "elder" began to be used--to some Friends' dismay--to describe the Friend who accompanies a traveling minister on her or his visits among Friends beyond the monthly meeting or during a workshop or presentation.

    I have been hearing rumblings that there is a desire to reserve the word "elder" for its traditional use--relating it to the spiritual role and function within a particular meeting--and to identify those Friends who accompany traveling Friends as "travel companions," "spiritual support persons," or "companions in the ministry."

    More than once I have heard it said that when John Woolman, David Ferris, and other early Quakers traveled among Friends, they did not have "elders" travel with them, yet they were companioned.

    An elder's work traditionally has been in the Friend's own home-meeting.

    Only time will tell what is endangered within Quakerism and what will become extinct. We are early in the process of looking at and understanding how the practice of eldering, the use of admonishment and mutual accountability, and the function of companions in the ministry all intersect and impact one another, as well as how they are shared among Friends and within our meetings.


    P.S. Given the intersection of my service on FGC's Central Committee and my service in helping prepare for the 2007 FGC Gathering, I have discovered that the Traveling Ministries Program has drafted a "working paper" that touches on the distinction between "elder" and "travel companion." The paper reflects some of the points that Richard raises and certainly has informed my own questioning and understanding of yesterday's and today's elders.

    The document doesn't appear to be online, so I'll want to find out if it is available for sharing more widely.


    Eleventh Month 2006: The conversation about eldering continues over on Richard M's blog; click here to go there.

    Second Month 2007: Friends General Conference has a selected bibliography on eldering and ministry, for anyone who doesn't have enough books on their nightstand already.


    Richard M's post on recognizing elders within our monthly meetings

    Chronicler's Minutae's post on eldering as an undervalued gift

    Marshall shares his take on the giftedness of elders and draws on some historical resources.

    Robin writes about her own experience of seeking a travel companion and wonders about the use of that term as compared to the term "elder."

    In February 2009, I found this post by a Quaker veterinarian, raising questions about Friends who read in meeting and other similar concerns.

    Shortly after a retreat on eldership, I've added additional reflections on the topic.

    October 20, 2006

    Soft spots

    God has given me a number of occasions to be of service in the past month, not only to support my parents but most recently to support my partner, who parted with her appendix over the weekend! (Hence, in part, the long spell between recent posts.)

    Thankfully, the appendix had not ruptured but it was giving warning signs that it just might do so in another few days. Also, thankfully, the on-call surgeon in the E-R was able to do the procedure laparoscopically, which meant a very quick surgery (30-45 minutes!) and a much faster recovery period at home. All appears to be going well.

    The other item that has taken up much of my attention, and to which I have been called, has been clerking the Workshops Committee for the 2007 Gathering in River Falls, Wisconsin.

    Before anyone jumps to conclusions: No, the slate of workshops for next year's Gathering will not be overrun with workshops about Convergent Friends! In fact, the list of workshop offerings will probably look very much like what has been offered in the past.

    Change comes slowly to well-established systems. Take my parents, for example.

    When I went to New Jersey to support my folks after my dad was diagnosed with sciatica, there was hope that between my two brothers and me, we could sway my parents to make different choices: sell the small apartment they maintain but seldom use; ease my 79-year-old father into (partial) retirement; simplify their complex financial structure.

    Not only did my parents refuse to sway or be swayed, they resisted acknowledging the gentle wind of inevitable change being blown into their house!

    "Yes, our taxes are complicated but there's nothing to be done about it."

    "No, we're not going to sell the apartment in the city."

    "No, I'm not going to take a rest in the middle of the day because a little sciatica never hurt anybody, so I'll keep putting hours of work in at home, even if I have to hobble from room to room, my leg hurts most of the time, and I'll feel worse in the morning."
    My dad makes a perfect Scrooge in some ways. Retirement? Bah, humbug!

    My parents might make each other miserable some of the time, with their long entrenched habits developed over 40 years of marriage, but they'd be more miserable if they were forced to change their lifestyles, their finances, and their mental attitude overnight.

    Being with my folks for even a couple of days showed me how strong the power of love--and entrenchment--can be. Nearly impenetrable.


    After the first day or so with them, I realized that there were what I came to think of as "soft spots" for each of them individually and in their coupleship. Mom at one point said, well, she could probably call off the remodeling of the apartment, since no papers were signed.

    And Dad was able to acknowledge that there may be some benefit for lying down, if only for thirty minutes, to rest before picking up the pace again.

    I had my own soft spot, too. By the end of my visit with them, I had switched my own lens through which I saw them and their situation:

    I started off believing that they were going to have change and change soon (sound familiar?), and I ended up understanding and accepting that very little was going to happen in the immediate future, but some things might be prepared to happen in the next 6-12 months or longer.

    Soft spots: where I can poke and discover some "give" to them; not as much resistance.

    It's an apt analogy as well for my work on behalf of FGC and its Gathering.

    When it comes to seeking and selecting workshop proposals--which is only one part of the work of the Workshops Committee, but a very large part it is!--there are all sorts of Friends who have all sorts of needs, wants, and expectations about what the week of Gathering will hold for them:
    "I work everyday at the office with Friends, so at Gathering, I'd like to take a workshop where I can be out in nature and just slow down."

    "I love to sing, it's how I connect with God."

    "The history of our religious society has a lot to teach us. I always take a workshop on a famous Quaker or the history of Friends. It makes me think."
    Before I started my service on the Workshops Committee, I was an "outsider" to that committee's work and process.

    When I initially started my service on the committee, I assumed it would be easy to incorporate more workshops that were grounded in a rich Quaker tradition: workshops that were about the transformational power of the Light, the covenant of the religious community, the corporate nature of seeking God together in our worship and in our business...

    As is usually the case, though, being on the "inside" of a system presents all sorts of information to the former "outsider" about why things work the way they do. It is eye-opening.

    For one thing, FGC has received over the years a steady flow of comments about how much Friends from across Canada and the U.S. appreciate the breadth of workshop selections as well as the sense of worship that pervades them. And yes, there are many Friends who also are concerned about that breadth: what would happen if the offerings of workshops didn't stray into interfaith studies, recreation, or intellectual presentations?

    The best summarizing statement I came across in my own mini listening project around why the Gathering offers such a wide variety was this:
    Where else can you go, as a Friend, and get together with other Friends, and talk about or explore nearly any subject AS a Friend?
    My heart opened a bit, even though something within me acknowledged that there is still a place for working to restore and renew Quaker practices that are on the brink of being lost.

    Still, I have needed to avoid the pitfalls of polarization. I have needed to ask questions and look for soft spots. And, as one Friend recently put it to me, I need to be wary of seeking to assert my own will when I need to be willing to seek the will and guidance of the Spirit with how to proceed.

    It's been a few months since the preliminary work of this committee has gotten underway. I'm still poking around for the soft spots where new ideas might be introduced into an established system. And in my own case, one of the gifts of being a clerk--at least for me--is that I am reminded, regularly and repeatedly, that the task of the committee is to listen for God, to reach for Love, to be faithful to how we are called.

    It may be a while before anything changes... and it may be that no one even notices how the Wind has shifted.


    P.S. It's likely that my posts will become less frequent, given what I am facing in the weeks and months ahead. But I admit that blog-writing is a nice break and gives me a chance to connect with Friends whose support I feel, regardless of the medium.

    October 8, 2006

    Is FGC Convergent?

    What would you make of this statement:

    "We seek to help Friends engage in a continuing process of renewing and integrating their experiences of the historical, spiritual and theological foundations of Quakerism and our Quaker Testimonies as the basis for our practice, social witness and service."
    Would you think this is a vision statement crafted by a group of Quaker bloggers? or a minute that was approved by the Ministry & Counsel Committee of Friendly Monthly Meeting, U.S.A.?

    It's neither.

    It is a statement that comes from what I believe to be one of the Best Kept Secrets among unprogrammed Friends: the Long Term Plan of Friends General Conference.

    Before I launch into my love for that particular document, I want to underscore a couple things.
      1. Friends General Conference (FGC) is an organization that provides services and programs to Friends in Canada and the U.S., primarily to Friends (and their yearly and monthly meetings) who worship in the unprogrammed tradition (i.e. Liberal and Conservative Friends).

      2. FGC is not intended to be an overarching organization that develops policy and procedures for its constituent affiliated meetings--though many Friends mistakenly put FGC in that role. FGC's history of providing services to unprogrammed Friends comes out of a confluence, of sorts, of concurrent conferences held at the turn of the 20th Century: First Day School associations; Friends' religious conferences; and a gathering for "philanthropic labor."

      3. The policies and procedures that FGC develops, including its Long Term Plan (LTP), are intended to guide the FGC staff and governing body (Central Committee) with carrying out its responsibilities. Yearly meetings and monthly meetings remain responsible for their own decisions and for care of their own responsibilities (e.g. whether or not to marry same-sex couples).

    Okay, back to what I really wanted to write about.

    When it's printed on paper and shared with Friends, the Long Term Plan starts with FGC's Minute of Purpose. The online version includes a whopping six introductory paragraphs (yawn...).
    (Approved by Central Committee, Tenth Month 21, 1995)

    Friends General Conference is a Quaker organization in the unprogrammed tradition of the Religious Society of Friends which primarily serves affiliated yearly and monthly meetings. It is our experience that:

    * Faith is based on direct experience of God.

    * Our lives witness to this experience individually and corporately.

    * By answering that of God in everyone, we build and sustain inclusive community.

    Friends General Conference provides resources and opportunities that educate and invite members and attenders to experience, individually and corporately, God’s living presence, and to discern and follow God’s leadings. Friends General Conference reaches out to seekers and to other religious bodies inside and outside the Religious Society of Friends.
    So how cool is that, that in the Long Term Plan, several key elements of our faith are right there, front and center! And as a newcomer to serving on FGC's Central Committee, when I read that Minute of Purpose, I knew I was in the right place!

    Beyond the opening Minute of Purpose, the LTP includes goals (4); objectives (19) to help us meet the goals; and action steps (half-a-squizzilion of 'em), all of which flesh out the Long Term Plan.

    Now, in my six years of serving on FGC's Central Committee, I would say that Goal IV itself is lifted up a fair amount, probably because the language that it contains reflects some of the yummiest part of Friends' traditions and experience:
    Goal IV:

    Articulate, communicate and model core experiences, values and principles of Friends, such as the direct experience of God, the miracle of the gathered meeting, the meeting for worship for business, the balancing of individual leadings with corporate discernment, and the call to live and witness to our faith.
    Of course, any Quaker who knows me knows that I have come under the weight of making our faith explicit ("articulating" it) and being intentional about modeling Quaker practice and Quaker tradition with integrity, authenticity, and spiritual groundedness as best we can, especially if we want to convey our faith to future generations.

    But THIS is what I'm really excited about, and I think FGC doesn't give enough attention to it:
    Goal IV, Objective 3.

    Help Friends engage in a continuing process of renewing and integrating their experiences of the historical, spiritual and theological foundations of Quakerism and our Quaker Testimonies as the basis for our practice, social witness and service. (emphasis mine)

    Just how do we go about helping Friends "renew and integrate" the primitive Quakerism that is built upon certain "foundations"--foundations that have been undermined by pop culture, oppressive religious dogma, and a quietist form of our faith?

    As I have been living with that question during the past three years or so, I have at last begun to see a few opportunities that could become part of the answer. Some of those opportunities have to do with the Quaker blogosphere and the Convergent conversation. Other opportunities have to do with waiting for an opening to speak with Friends in my local community, about our roots, our foundations, and the basis of Quaker theology.

    Most recently, as I have invested more of my time and energy into helping prepare for FGC's 2007 Gathering in River Falls, Wisconsin, I have found that the Gathering Committee* is not necessarily connected to nor has any awareness or understanding of FGC's Long Term Plan. And I just find that to be a shame.

    Thankfully, though, the FGC committee that guided Central Committee through the process of crafting and implementing a long term plan is still in place, and I've forwarded my concern onto them. The clerk of FGC's Committee for Discernment in Long Term Planning--fondly known as DiLTP--was grateful for my bringing it to her attention. (Doesn't everyone like to be let in on the secret?!)


    P.S. Here's my formula for some of what constitutes FGC:

    Quaker youth + books + online directory of meetings +
    + First Day School materials + a reprint of Lloyd Lee Wilson's
    popular writings + week-long summer Gathering =

    Friends General Conference

    More specifically, here are some of FGC's most beloved and sought after services and programs.

    Quaker Finder, for when you are on the road on business or vacation and want to find out what meetings are in the area where you are staying (FGC is including more and more Quaker churches on this service, too!)

    QuakerBooks, formerly known plainly as "The Quaker bookstore." You can get ANY book you want (or CD or DVD or videotape) from QuakerBooks of FGC!

    Traveling Ministries Program, for when your meeting wants to find a qualified, seasoned Friend to address a tender or difficult concern with which it has been holding or wrestling.

    Quaker Youth Ministries, because young Quakers are not necessarily the future of Quakerism; they are right here, right now, the present of Quakerism.

    FGC Gathering, also known to many Friends simply as "FGC," which drives Central Committee members crazy because of course FGC is "more than the Gathering..." I used to get a chuckle out of seeing banners at the Gathering that supported the misnomer. The banners used to read, "Welcome to FGC!" Now they've all been updated to read, "Welcome to the FGC Gathering!"

    *The Gathering Committee is an ad hoc committee that coordinates the nitty-gritty of the Gathering and basically has a two-year life span, one year of which overlaps with another Gathering Committee that is responsible for the subsequent year's Gathering. For example, just as Tacoma's Gathering Committee was halfway through its work for the 2006 Gathering, the River Falls' Gathering Committee began to gear up for 2007. Did you follow that?