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.


    Anonymous said...

    Glad to see thee carrying this banner - thee knows I feel it to be important...


    GMC said...

    Thank you for your post, as person who has hung around Quakers for about twenty years and been one for several, I have wondered where all the elders are? I must not be making enough waves cause I don't rember ever being admonished or Eldered (must have been, hope I was, can't believe I havn't stepped on a few toes over the years).

    Sorry about that digression. I think that we need to have elders and I am sure when needed that they will rise.


    Liz Opp said...

    To llw and GMC - Thanks as always for stopping by. I can't say exactly why, but I feel I've been on a "learning curve" this past year or so. It really hasn't been too long since I myself have come across information like what I share here.

    And I'd say that there's a tendency--or at least a temptation--for Friends to be "nice" rather than lovingly firm with one another. After all, who wants their name to be associated with "eldering" or admonishment if that accusation is always made with a sneer rather than a sense of gratitude or humility?


    GMC said...

    Isn't admitting to being on a learning curve kinda like admitting to be alive? After-all if you arn't learning are you concious?

    I think that you have rightly pointed out that eldering and admonishment are two different things, but "lovingly firm" is the way both are best administered, or should I say that "lovingly firm" can be nice.


    anj said...

    There is a woman in our meeting who very firmly and very lovingly elders us very well. Her skill in this area is a huge gift to our small meeting. As I have experienced it, it seems to me, named or not, it happens. And I wonder if the freedom to allow others to speak truth to us is more necessary than the naming of others -- sort of that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Perhaps it would be of more benefit to name our discomfort when we are eldered, or called to elder others.

    Anonymous said...

    Liz -- Richard's essay on elders, and your answering essay here, provoked me to write this essay on my own site, discussing what the traditional Quaker view of elders really was.

    I hope I didn't misrepresent you! But if I did, I'll be happy to correct myself.

    Liz Opp said...

    GMC - I appreciate the good-naturedness of your remarks, especially "After all, if you aren't learning, are you conscious?" What I meant in this case, about being on a learning curve, is that I am still absorbing, hearing, reading, and thinking about information about elders and eldership--much more so than I am about other parts of Quakerism where I've had more direct contact and experience. At the same time, seeing Richard M's post helped me pull together some of my thoughts. Perhaps it will help others, too.

    Marshall - I recognize that you are able to put your fingers on much more Quaker history than I am, and I've taken a quick look at your essay. Thanks for pointing me and other readers to it.


    Liz Opp said...

    Whoops, I forgot to acknowledge Anj!

    Thanks for this comment and sharing your experience. You say so much using far fewer words than I have!


    Elizabeth Eames Roebling said...

    Thanks for this posting. I moved from Newport, RI (where we were 7) to Asheville, NC specifically for the presence of elders -and by that I mean really the "seasoned" the "weighty" Friends who might be able to guide me more firmly on my path. I am a "remedial" Friend, in that I am not naturally quiet, not normally silent and introspective. I actively sought eldering, clearness committees, and was lovingly cared for and raised up (and filed down) by my Meeting.

    Often Friends equate the "being loving" testimony with "being kind" and are loathe to confront a troublesome Friend (which I most certainly was). This can lead to a passive-aggressive "sense of the parking lot" in which there is definitely a sense that some are within the Meeting and some are without. It is, I believe, up to each Friend to make it clear that he or she welcomes the eldering process, is willing to come under discipline.

    Elizabeth Roebling
    Asheville Friends Meeting
    (now in Santo Domingo - and keeping faith with you via the internet)

    Liz Opp said...

    Babette -

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I like the distinction you make between "being loving" and "being kind." And I agree that we need elders to hold our feet to the fire, to be willing to tell us the stuff that we don't want to hear but need to hear, if we are going to live into gospel order and lay aside our egos in order to better follow God's guidance.


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