November 26, 2008

Quakerese: Concerns and leadings

A few recent conversations and emails among Friends, as well as thoughts of my own, have converged within a matter of days, all about what Quakers call concerns and leadings, so I thought it would be worthwhile to do some writing about these two topics.

The other morning, too, I was pressed to explain the difference between a concern and a leading, within the Quaker vernacular. My off-the-cuff answer went something like this:

"A concern is something that is laid on a person's heart, or that has arisen from within a person but not out of that person's conscious intent or choice. In addition, a concern has no clear action or direction related to it, no "map" on how to address, resolve, or reconcile it. The Friend who has come under the weight of a concern may be left with the exercise--the inward wrestling--of answering the question Now what?!?

"By contrast, a leading is a particular prompting of the Spirit that has a specific action attached to it, although oftentimes, like a concern, there is no conscious intent or choice to decide on, or to have thought up, such an action. A leading is often connected to a concern--but not always: early Friends for example were led to visit other meetings but did not necessarily understand why."

After reflecting on my own impromptu answer for a while, I reached for a seldom-used book on my shelf: The A to Z of the Friends (Quakers). It's a collection of alphabetized entries of nearly all things Quaker, including people, places, historic events, concepts, vocabulary, practices, and more.

I hesitated to look for an entry for "concern." It's a word that is heavily used these days in the wider world, and I wondered if the word had become completely secularized: We are concerned about the economy, the environment, the planet. We are concerned about how our meetings handle conflict and the low attendance at our meetings for worship for business.

I was pleased to have seen this entry after all:

CONCERN. The name, dating from the earliest period of Friends, given to a leading from God "laid upon" an individual as a call to action. Testing the concern with the local meeting provides a check as to its validity. The meeting may also unite with the concern, that is, share the sense of rightness for action. The meeting may then act on its own behalf or take the concern to a wider constituency of Friends. Most new directions for Quaker work and witness have begun life as an individual concern. Some concerns remain within a single person but with meeting support of the individual witness.
I was surprised to see how closely the entry linked "concerns" with "leadings," so of course I turned to look at what there was to be said on the latter subject.

That entry was more than twice as long, and while it points to a similar s/Source as in a concern, the entry goes on to address several ways to test a leading, as well as matters of responsibility and leadership within the meeting:
...If the spiritual fellowship recognizes the leading as genuine and in good order, the individual may be given both responsibility and authority to take leadership, whether in committee work, as a recorded minister, in a professional capacity, or in following an individual concern.... Such leadership is not a status conferred but a spiritual readiness recognized.

As the days have gone by and I've returned to the draft of this post a few times, I realize that much of why I make the distinction that I do, and much of why I define the two items as I do, is the result of my own experience.

As many as seven or eight years ago, I was experiencing what I articulated as a "concern about my relationship with the monthly meeting." In this case, I meant a generic, secular sort of worry; not a spiritually driven concern. Something was amiss and I couldn't put my finger on it. I asked to meet with a few Friends from the meeting, and after a few meetings, the ad hoc group was laid down without a satisfactory result for me.

The concern persisted, but I still couldn't articulate it. I was spiritually hungry but didn't know what I was hungry for.

As I began to travel among Friends, mostly in service to Friends General Conference and its Central Committee, I was exposed to language, concepts, and practices that I hadn't heard before--and my spiritual hunger began to ease.

At last I could name it: I was carrying a concern for how we share our faith with one another, as Friends--a topic I have written much about on The Good Raised Up.

Now that I knew what my spiritual concern centered on, I looked for an avenue to share it. The concern was morphing from a private, inward motion to a more outward one. But where was I being led? And was it God that was leading me?

I looked into FGC's Traveling Ministries Program. I asked for and was appointed a clearness committee by the monthly meeting, which heard more about my experience in coming to carry this newly named concern.

In the end, while the clearness committee affirmed the validity of the concern I had, it did not unite with the pursuit of traveling in the ministry through FGC's program. Instead, to my surprise and to my dismay, the clearness committee affirmed that it was their sense of the committee that I "travel" within the monthly meeting itself and seek ways to bring the concern that had been laid on my heart to the meeting--somehow.

Thankfully, the committee also minuted its request that I be appointed a committee of elders--a committee for spiritual care and accountability as I continued to sit with the concern and understand how God might be leading me, if anywhere.

Over time, I was indeed led: I began to speak out of the silence of worship in a new voice. I engaged in an informal listening project to learn how Friends in the meeting had been experiencing me, both before and after I had articulated the concern I was carrying. I began to travel to other monthly and yearly meetings. I developed and presented a workshop about Quaker identity and I began this blog. Most recently, I helped pull together a panel of Friends in the meeting to talk about how they came under the weight of the leadings they had been given.

These leadings are an outgrowth of the original concern, and I can't envision the events occurring in any other order. But for some Friends, they have specific leadings first, without an understanding of why they are led to those actions, and it's only in retrospect that they come to know the underlying concern that "connects the dots" for them.

Still, this post has been mostly about my own answer to the question, What's the difference between a concern and a leading? How would any of you answer that question? What personal experience have you had that might shed more L/light on the distinction, if in fact there is one?



RichardM said...


To me the distinction is primarily about size and specificity. Leadings are small scale and specific. Concerns are larger in scale and more open-ended. An example of a leading would be to "speak to this particular person about this now." A concern would be "to work to revive the practice of eldering." So the difference is one of degree and not a difference in kind which explains why some people will make a distinction and others won't. Of course concerns, being bigger, are more appropriate to testing. In cases of leadings to do some small thing right now, there is little opportunity for testing the leading.

natcase said...

In the end, in the Cosmic Dictionary, are they really any different? I think if you look at the English origins, the difference is pretty clear, and it's about where we perceive the urge coming from:

In a leading, we are led. We perceive ourselves as being pulled from without, like a farm animal or a dog. Or that we are fitting into a pattern as a drum major leads a marching band. Or that we are one of a multitude following a leader, as we humans tend to follow alpha members of our tribe.

In a concern, we ourselves perceive that we hold the "advantage" in the problem. We are acting like parents, concerned for the care of whatever part of the world we are concerned with.

In both cases, though, the Quaker lens shifts our point of view. The dynamic is not the same as we experience in our primate social life, with alphas and parents and omegas and children and so on, but one in which we are drawn into the Light. Then the leadings become part of not following meekly, but being called to "give weight" ina kind of dance. And concerns become about giving over to the question, about surrendering the idea that we can "fix it" when it comes to matters of the spirit.

And in the end, the specific words don't mean much, because (we hope) we end up in the same sort of dance.

That's my 2¢ anyway.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks for your thoughts and reflections, Nat and Richard. I find that the attributes of scale and specificity are helpful to me.

...In addition, I realize that part of my own curiosity comes from my perception that the word "leading" among Quakers has not been eroded by the secular world, whereas the word "concern" has.

Therefore, there appears to be more confusion among modern Friends about just what is meant when, say, someone acknowledges that he "holds a concern" for poverty or that she "carries a concern" about reclaiming our traditions.

But were these same Friends to speak about "having a leading" to work with the poorest of the poor or "being led" to help bring Friends (for example) back to the Living Christ, I don't imagine that other Quakers would ask what was meant by that language.

More grist for the mill...