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.
NOTE: Links to related posts are at the bottom of this essay.
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.
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.
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.
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.