This past weekend, I participated in a retreat that focused on eldership within the monthly meeting.
The group all read Margery Larrabee's 2007 pamphlet Spirit-Led Eldering and we had time to share our thoughts about it with one another. We also talked about our own experiences of giving or receiving eldership, what our understanding of eldership is, how it's changed, how other Friends' groups have engaged in it, etc.
Personally, I think there are other writings out there that address eldering and eldership more thoroughly, but Margery's pamphlet is at the very least a piece of contemporary, accessible writing that can get the conversation started.
Quips about eldering
There were a number of statements and reflections shared that held my attention, or things that I offered that others later referred to. Here's a list of those bits and pieces, some of which are touched on in Margery's writing as well.
- Healthy eldership seems less visible than the admonishing sort of eldership.
- People who are stung by a Friend's approach make that form of eldership visible, which gives eldering a bad name.
- Eldering seems to work best when the intention of caring for the well-being of the relationship and for the well-being of the person being approached is made clear.
- Eldering must be done with care so as not to squash a gift or a prophetic call that a person may be growing into.
- There is a need for humility and keeping low when we provide eldership.
- Eldering isn't the same as confrontation.
- We may not be aware of being eldered when it's done well.
- Eldering may be done well but it may not be received well.
- Eldering often happens simply by being available to one another.
- There are consequences of not eldering, of not setting necessary limits.
- Eldering can be done either with the intention of caring or from a place of criticizing.
Additional reflections about eldering
In retrospect, I was sad that we didn't take the time to consider eldering in its historical sense, such as how Marshall Massey once addressed the topic. As a Liberal meeting, it seems we are consistently focused on how we do things today and give little attention or little weight to exploring some of the historical grounding of today's practices.
That said, I appreciated hearing from Friends how they themselves have experienced both supportive, encouraging eldership as well as the more painful episodes of being scolded or admonished.
These stories and some of the tangents we took during the weekend raised other questions and helped me consider a few other possibilities about eldering:
- How does eldering differ from being a busy-body? Are the expectations about how we engage in one another's lives as Quakers different from how we engage in one another's lives in the wider world? How do we make those expectations, about how we "insert" ourselves into one another's lives as part of being a covenant community, more explicit? What if not everyone agrees to such mutual or reciprocal "insertion" into our lives?
- Discernment is needed when considering what behavior pushes one's individual "button" and what behavior is disruptive to the corporate body and its worship, such that it should be addressed.
- A committee meeting, business session, or other interaction in Meeting seems to go better when we pay attention to how things are going for everyone involved and for the sense of the Presence, the quality of Love, among us. How can we train ourselves to attend to the needs of the Meeting and to each other? How can we train ourselves to attend to increasing the amount and quality of Love among us?
- Eldering looks, sounds, and feels different when it is carried out situationally or incidentally as compared to when it is carried out relationally. When we provide eldering in response to a situation or to an incident, the eldering can often be perceived as correction and is often short lived. When we provide eldering as part of an ongoing relationship, the eldering can be perceived as both challenging and supportive, nurturing and a calling-out. Is there a way to make more visible these ongoing relational forms of eldership?
- There is a creative tension between the eldering function that speaks to protecting the traditions and practices of historical Quakerism and the inbreaking and testing of new Light as the result of continuing revelation. But if this part of the eldering function is completely dismissed "because we don't live as early Friends did and that was then, this is now," then how do we hold ourselves responsible for considering if there is new Light that is being offered and not just engaging in our "business as usual" and enjoying our own best thinking?
The most surprising moment of the weekend for me was when I paraphrased a few statements that Margery had made. I asked how others responded to her assertion that elders help Friends grow into a greater measure of faithfulness and help Friends come into "alignment with the Spirit out of which good order comes." (p. 31)
To my surprise, a couple of Friends spoke about their concern of how presumptuous that statement was, that anyone could judge another's measure of faithfulness.
I don't know why I should be surprised, given my history within the meeting and my Conservative bent to understanding certain Quaker principles. But I was also surprised and saddened that others remained silent: As Friends, aren't we advised to help one another "mind the Light" and "stay close to the Root"?
One last thought
While finishing up this post, I pulled out a pamphlet by Bill and Fran Taber, Building the Life of the Meeting. In it, they have a few pages dedicated to eldership and the spiritual nurture of the meeting. Here's an excerpt:
First I want to hold up the least visible part of the work of nurturing the faith. This is the work traditionally given to elders... [This] work is less conspicuous and less easy to define; perhaps this is one reason we have had trouble knowing what it is and how to go about it or how to grow it...Yes, I think to myself: Love is the first motion. Keep low and love; keep low and love.
We need such persons in our meetings, persons who have "the wisdom born of long experience as focused by the heart's love..."
pp. 13, 14
NOTE: An earlier post, Eldering Then and Now, includes a number of links to posts written by other bloggers.