February 3, 2009

Reflections on eldership

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?

Most surprising

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...

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
Yes, I think to myself: Love is the first motion. Keep low and love; keep low and love.


NOTE: An earlier post, Eldering Then and Now, includes a number of links to posts written by other bloggers.


Ember said...

Very interesting.

There's often an 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' approach to human relationships that means we focus only on what's gone wrong.

Thus 'eldering' becomes a synonym for 'addressing a problem' - which may account partly for the defensiveness it can arouse.

I think it may be the case that many people need eldering for encouragement - the word in season to identify what they are contributing and doing right. This I think might have the effect of blessing the positive, and be a means by which the good is raised up.

Martin Kelley said...

I was at an open small-group session of my yearly meeting a few years ago sponsored by the worship and ministry committee. The topic was dealing with conflict in our meetings. The facilitator asked the forty-some participants to go around the circle one by one and share something about dealing with conflict, which he dutifully listed on a flip chart. The answers were completely, depressingly secular.

It was all 1970s-style conflict resolution--you know, the now-hackneyed advice to "use I statements." I had a squirmy kid in my arm and had gotten "you're bothering us" looks so had stepped out of the circle to the back of the room where the facilitator ignored me. I watched passively as the flip chart filled up. Here was a group of the most "seasoned" Friends in the largest unprogrammed yearly meeting in the country and they can't think of anything religious to say about conflict? I wondered if I should interrupt--and it would have been interrupting--to share the basic Christian/Quaker Gospel Order conflict resolution process. But honestly, sometimes I get tired of being the only religious person in a Quaker-filled room. How presumptuous would it be for me to lecture my yearly meeting elders on Quaker process 101?

They got to the end of the circle and to the last person--Marge Larrabee. She finally uttered the "G" word and went on to suggest that God has a role to play in resolving conflict. I could have kissed her right then and there!! But the moment was quickly shut down. The facilitator launched into an follow-up (explicitly secular) exercise by matching everyone into pairs (everyone but that dad who for some strange reason was still in the room).

I had enough and took my kid out to get some ice cream. Come to think about it that's the last time I went to yearly meeting. Marge passed away a short time ago so I guess that have no one to bring up that awkward "G" word anymore. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's worship & ministry is finally free to be functionally atheist, with no presumptuous talk of spirit and good order to bother it.

Mark Wutka said...

When I read this:
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.

it made me think of a quote from George Fox's epistles (#4):
And the God of power and love keep all Friends in power, in love, that there be no surmisings, but pure refreshings in the unlimited love of God which makes one another known in the conscience, to read one another's hearts

I think this also blends with you thinking "Love is the first motion ..."

With love,

Liz Opp said...

Ember -

I like the idea of reframing eldering as encouragement, to be able to say "I was eldered and encouraged when that Friend said such-and-so to me..." Thanks for the comment!

Martin -

Too often during business meetings or committee meetings, I find that I can't answer affirmatively the question, "If someone walked in right now and watched us and listened to us for a while, would they know we were a religious group?"

But I am beginning to understand how to raise my concern out of Love while cherishing the human beings that we are. I fail a lot and often say things in an unkind manner, but it's part of what I feel God has given me to carry for a time... and my care-and-accountability committee help me return to Gospel Order when I lose my way.

Mark -

Thanks for the Fox reference; I love it when you bring him up!


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Liz, thank you for the link!

I've been reading Martin Luther lately. He talked and wrote about how even the things we think we do for God, or for our fellow human beings, turn out to be things we actually do for ourselves — if not for power or profit, then just for the sake of being noticed.

I think Luther somewhat overstated the matter — he said that everything we do, without exception, comes from such selfish desires — but I can't deny that there is a measure of truth in what he said.

I think what bothers me most about the big interest in eldering is my sense that, often enough, the motivation behind it is the would-be elder's own desire for the gratifications of being seen as an elder and/or the gratification of straightening things out that she cannot simply accept as they are.

I guess that's roughly the same thing that bothered Luther. And it wouldn't bother me so much, if I didn't see the same cheap motivation in myself.

Chuck Fager once told a story, dating back to the 1860s when revivalism was sweeping through Gurneyite silent meetings, about a young man who kept standing in meeting for worship to preach come-to-Jesus sermons, week after week. The Friends in the meetinghouse just sat in worship and didn't respond; and as time went by their silence drove him crazy.

Finally one morning the young man burst out, "What am I to do with you all?" And a woman in the meeting said, "John, we own no man but Christ master in this assembly."

Nowadays, I suppose, if that young man had been raised in a liberal Friends meeting, he'd be avidly reading pamphlets and attending workshops on how to elder.

Whenever I personally feel tempted to elder, I think of that story, and ask myself to what degree I might be possessed by similar motives.

Liz Opp said...

Marshall -

"I guess that's roughly the same thing that bothered Luther. And it wouldn't bother me so much, if I didn't see the same cheap motivation in myself."

Hmm. This is something I must look at more carefully in myself, I fear.


RichardM said...


The main difficulty with reviving the tradition of eldering in meetings where it has gone dormant is that it is something that is learned by watching it in action. Good eldering is effective because it comes from people who are attentive to the needs of others in meeting. They are the sort of people who will ask how you are doing and really want to know the answer because they are really concerned. So good eldering is really continuous with oversight. When someone who has shown their genuine concern for the well-being, material and spiritual, of other people for a period of years comes to you and offers some advice you are apt to listen. Far from the stereotype of an elder as someone stern and glum, effective elders radiate a sort of glowing concern for people in all their trivial and mundane glory.

Gary Baumgarten said...

Chuck Fager will be my guest on News Talk Online on Paltalk.com on Thursday February 12 at 5 PM New York time to talk about soldiers who go AWOL as Conscientious Objectors.

Please go to http://www.garybaumgarten.com and click on the CHATROOM button to talk to Fager.



Babette said...

Two experiences come to mind- the first is that I actively sought out eldering after I was first convinced, and wonder why this is not something that is encouraged in newer Friends? I found those Friends whose walks I admired and sought them out for counsel and guidance. The second part to this is that they were not always "elder" in age- but in depth of wisdom and spirit. I know that we often refer to the term specifically as speaking out "against" some piece of behavior but there is such enormous wisdom and wealth in the counsel of wise Friends, if we all actually behaved as the ministers that we are enjoined to be.

Frederick said...

"presumptuous... that anyone could judge another's measure of faithfulness" The role of the elder, and the need for eldering, both seem very clear to me; I think it's because I'm a teacher. Most people can see the rightness in the idea that a young person in my history class might have some room to grow in, for instance, their public speaking skills, and that after they gave a class presentation, I could help them with a combination of supportive praise and sensitive feedback about how to improve. The differences are that teachers and students have formal expectations about this feedback, and that we're talking about spiritual matters instead of academic ones. But affirmation of a tender student's gifts can give them confidence to flower -- just the same as with a potential minister or clerk in a Meeting.

@ Marshall -- I think you're talking about eldering-as-correcting-someone. I agree that there's a large temptation to power. But even that correcting function can be necessary; the more tightly knit your community, the more necessary it can be. Ironically, the best way to guard against selfish desires in that work is to check with others --that is, to find myself an elder. Again, life at boarding school offers lots of examples of the need for correction: the teen throwing food at dinner, or disrupting a study hall --clearly, intervention is needed; the fellow teacher who misunderstood a student and was too harsh with them --checking my perception with a third teacher, and approaching sensitively, are both good preliminaries to a word of advice.

Overall, there's no doubt that we can hardly overstate the need to be tender, sensitive, and humble --to be aware of our presumption-- if we elder, in either the correcting or encouraging sense. We must try to act only with guidance from God. Perhaps the purest form of eldering is simply to pray for someone --pray that they will yield/rise/open to the ministry God is offering them.

@Martin -- How sad to hear that Margery Larrabee has died! She really was great -- I took her FGC Gathering workshop on eldering in 2004.

Marshall Massey said...

Frederick, Friend, I'm afraid I cannot agree with your statement that "clearly, intervention is needed."

Early Friends lived with disruptions of their meetings that were far worse than the boarding school disruptions you describe. So far as I know, they never responded with direct intervention, though they sometimes responded with witness. (A thing can be witness without being intervention.)

The teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:39) is unambiguous: Do not resist evil.

I share your sense of the value of prayer, but I don't believe it's legitimate to describe praying for someone as "eldering" them. When Christ taught his followers, in Matthew 5:43-48, to "pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you," there was not the slightest hint, in his words, that this might help straighten out the persecutors. He was teaching his followers, rather, to let go of the impulse to correct the erring ones, and just be unconditionally loving — to shine as impartially as the sun — so as to be perfect like their Father in Heaven.

That perfection is one of our historic testimonies as Friends.