''Visions of Quaker Ministry

I’m writing here on the experiences I’ve had growing up as a liberal Quaker in the North and what I’ve learned since coming South and experiencing programmed Quakerism for the first time. I’m from Philadelphia. I was raised in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, and, thanks to my mother’s influence, I had all the traditional benefits and restrictions a good Quaker family provides. This means that my family was a loving, nurturing one, but that I didn’t own even a squirt gun until I was about 13. Growing up, I was allowed to watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and X-Men but not G.I. Joe because of its glorification of the military.

I was raised with a deeply ingrained sense of equality and respect for people, but also a fairly deep-seated anxiety that I could offend someone with anything I said. All these attributes stem from my family and the Quaker communities of which we were a part, and there is no end to the appreciation I have for them, with one exception. While I was raised in a powerfully and avidly spiritual community, I think I could count on two hands the number of times I opened a Bible. It just wasn’t something that was given a lot of emphasis as I grew up. The way I remember my religious education as a child is like this: In First-day school we’d discuss a Quaker value and what it meant in our lives, and sometimes they’d tell one of Jesus’ parables about the subject. But more often it would be related to a story out of Quaker history, or an Aesop fable, or a Native American or African myth.

You see, the Quakerism in which I grew up draws from a wide variety of spiritual practices. You’re just as likely to hear someone speak in meeting about a favorite passage in the Tao Te Ching or the Qur’an, as you are to hear a Bible verse. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing; it’s something that I find quite admirable in fact. The point is that in giving attention to all these worthwhile religious disciplines, I didn’t learn a great deal about any of them. In my high school years, whenever I thought or talked about the Bible or Christianity, it was in very vague terms; and it wasn’t until the end of my senior year that I realized that not only had I never read the Bible, I wasn’t even sure if my family owned one. I’ve noticed that most every young Quaker from my area has had a similar experience. We have fairly similar reactions when something or someone is described as Christian, too. I’d hear stories from young Friends who had attended YouthQuake about how strange and even cultish the Christian Quakers from the Midwest were. That this ignorance of mine was a failing and even a prejudice never even crossed my mind.

Then I got accepted to Guilford and its Quaker Leadership Scholars Program. I decided that since I was going to be surrounded by these Christian Quakers, I should probably learn something about them. So, during the summer before I came to college, I attempted to read the Bible, cover to cover. I failed abysmally. Genesis and Exodus—they went fine, but when I hit Leviticus, it stopped me dead. (You know what I’m talking about: two pages of sacrifice instructions and temple dimensions, and I was done.) So I gave up, and I came to North Carolina somewhat unprepared for what it would be like. First of all, I found that the Quakers I interacted with at Guilford had backgrounds very similar to my own. I hadn’t been dropped into the alien environment that I had expected, and this actually heightened my curiosity about Christianity and programmed Quakerism. I also had to take Max Carter’s Quaker Social Testimonies class.

After reading a few original Quaker texts and doing a little bit of Bible study, I came to realize how steeped in Scripture Quakerism really is. The Sermon on the Mount alone has all the testimonies in it. Curiosity grew. I’ve since become fascinated by Christianity, which, it turns out, is the basis of all my beliefs, yet was thoroughly absent and misunderstood by me as a child. I’ve met numerous Christians and Christian Quakers and, much as I expected, I found them to be as reasonable and interesting as everyone else.

A number of experiences in the past year have forced me to redefine myself. Some of these included reading a book for the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program called Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg, and seeing the film The Passion of the Christ. I know, I feel kind of corny having had a faith-defining moment come out of a movie by Mel Gibson, but it forced me to think about Christ with new appreciation. I’ve decided to start identifying myself as a Christian if only because in actually reading the Gospels I have yet to find anything Jesus said that I don’t agree with wholeheartedly. I don’t know if he was the Spirit made flesh or God’s only son; but I do know that his wisdom is still applicable to my life 2,000 years after his death, and I have to appreciate that. So I’m a follower of Christ’s teachings, and that makes me a Christian in my book.

Over the past year, I’ve begun to feel a leading towards ministry, and I’ve developed a kind of vision. This is something I would never have expected from myself. Up until two years ago, in my mind Quakers didn’t have ministers. Oh, sure, Quakers in the Midwest and in Kenya do, but—I thought—they’re not real Quakers. The idea of programmed worship was still just too Christian for me. During my freshman orientation, though, we went on a trip to Forbush Meeting in Yadkin County to meet the clerk of the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program, Michael Fulp, and his father, the pastor of Forbush Meeting. Their explanation of Quaker pastoral ministry struck something in me and I still think about it often.

In Quakerism, every member of the meeting is a minister. When one member has a problem, every other member of the meeting should be available to lend whatever advice, assistance, and consolation is necessary to get him or her through it. But as much as they’d like to, they can’t always. People have jobs, families, cars, taxes, and a slew of other responsibilities that usually keep them too distracted to help anyone but their close friends. It’s one of many religious ideals that sounds good on paper but is much harder to practice in the real world. The solution is to free one person to care for the community. Remove a few of the concerns about money and housing by paying that person to be a resource to the meeting; the job becomes that of an open ear to talk to and a strong arm to lean on when times get hard. That person is the advisor, the counselor, the one who provides wisdom and direction for the community.

That person also provides direction for the community. I’d never really enjoyed other programmed forms of worship. I have a strong inclination towards the expectant silence and meditative tranquility of silent worship. At the same time, I don’t always get a great deal out of unprogrammed meeting. I have an active imagination and my mind wanders a lot during meeting. Since experiencing semiprogrammed meetings, I’ve come to appreciate the focus that a speaker brings to my worship. After having listened to a message, I’m still free to worship on whatever I am led to; but on days when my thoughts are shallow and my mind is in six places at once, I find that a message can help me get to a deeper place within myself.

This was the job I’d been looking for. I’d always felt a leading towards this type of service but never felt that the traditional jobs fit me. My vision of ministry just felt right. My problem then became where would I go to follow this leading. As much as I like Guilford and North Carolina in general, I still see myself returning to the North after college. But up north there are fewer ministers. This isn’t from a lack of good ministers or good meetings. It’s because when unprogrammed Quakers hear "minister" we think "priest." Unprogrammed Quakers have a vision of ministry that harks all the way back to our Protestant roots. I still believe that Quakers shouldn’t have clergy; no degree or amount of training makes any one person more able to hear God’s will. Quakers rejected the clergy because of our Testimony of Equality, and that state of equality in the eyes of God is as true today as it was then. But what I have come to see is that a minister is not a priest.

This is my vision and my life’s aspiration: to bring ministry back to unprogrammed Quakerism. To do this I will need to redefine an entire culture’s way of thinking. It seems an impossible task at times because, to quote the Great Gatsby, "It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment." In general people are anxious of change and Quakers can get very uppity when you ask them to change something that is traditionally Quaker.

I’ll be honest: Right now I’m really not sure how I’m going to accomplish this, or if it can even be accomplished. My plan for myself right now is to become what I see as a minister. Not a holy man. Not an interpreter of God. Not a man who knows God’s message any better than anyone else. But, a man who gives the gifts of compassion and discernment. A man with an avid ear for the words of both humans and the Spirit. A person of clarity and devotion to community. A man not just of knowledge but of experience and of appreciation for all that this world and this life have to offer. A man of passionate stillness and dynamic silence. I hope someday I can become this man and then offer myself up to be a leader and a servant to all of Quakerism.

Tristan Wilson

Tristan Wilson is a member of Chester (Pa.) Meeting. A philosophy major at Guilford College, he has been attending the college's weekly semiprogrammed service for the past two and a half years. While having a leading towards Quaker ministry, his only current calling is a passionate attraction to swing dancing.