Why Young Friends Need Elders—and Why They Need Us

Photo courtesy Micah Bales

To be a Young Friend is to be in transition—to be in a time of great possibility, uncertainty, and formation. Often, to be a Young Friend is to be rootless, at least in comparison with those younger or older. It frequently means having a great deal of mobility vis-à-vis other generations. To be a Young Friend often means being open to a great variety of ideas and ways of looking at the world, not only in the theoretical sense but in the experimental sense. We are often very willing to apply new ideas to our lives to see if they work. We are exceptionally flexible and willing to learn, and thus we allow a point of entry for new perspectives and ways of operating into the Religious Society of Friends. Very significantly, Young Friends often have profound emotional flexibility. We do not yet have decades of divisions and disputes behind us, so we are in a position to look past personality conflicts and engage the issues that are before us rather than focusing on our sense of having been offended.

Above all, Young Friends have tremendous energy on every level. Young Friends have immense physical energy—for projects, travels, labor, and taking risks. We also have great mental energy and often the ability to focus on many new projects, since we are not yet tied down to any particular life mission. Finally, many Young Friends have awesome spiritual energy. Our relationship to the Spirit is far more likely to be one that guides us to preparation, inner refinement, and spiritual warfare. When God speaks to Young Friends we are ready to obey with the entirety of our beings and to let the Holy Spirit speak and act through us in ways that will let none doubt the living presence of the Kingdom of Heaven in the world. The Spirit of Christ fundamentally shakes our reality and alters our ways of relating to the world and to our community.

Many Young Friends are on fire for God and are ready to express the Love we have experienced in the world. This has been underscored recently at the 2005 World Gathering of Young Friends in Lancaster, England, and at the Young Adult Friends Gathering this past February in Burlington, New Jersey. Many Young Friends are ready for all-out revolution, calling for total life change (repentance) and revealing the blasphemy of the principalities and powers that claim to rule over our world. The Spirit is with us, we have the fire; but we need guidance. Young Friends have energy on all levels, creativity, openness, and fresh eyes to view old disputes, but we need love, community, tradition, and yes, discipline. Young Friends have enormous gifts to offer the Religious Society of Friends as a body, but we also have acute needs if we are to deliver our gifts to the wider fellowship.

We need the wisdom, guidance, and discipline our elders can provide, as well as their love and acceptance. Both sides of the equation are crucial; we need supportive environments where we can feel free to explore our faith and our gifts, but those supportive environments can only be created in a space where our elders are being truly open and honest with us. A part of openness, at least in the context of the Religious Society of Friends, is sharing the tradition of our religious community and providing a space where Friends can learn spiritual discipline. Elder Friends render us a great disservice when they refuse to hold us accountable to our identity as Children of the Light. This is critical business for our future as a community. After all, where will Young Friends learn what it means to be a Quaker if not from our elders?

Some elders—as well as many Young Friends—understandably fear the word “discipline,” perhaps in many areas of their lives, but certainly in the religious sphere. One of the main reasons that many Friends were initially attracted to Quakerism was a sense of openness and freedom to explore without being coerced or judged. It should be made clear that “discipline” is not used to mean a relationship of domination by one Friend or group of Friends over another. Instead, it is used to suggest that there is a common understanding and faith that draws us together as Quakers, and that there can be modes of imparting our understanding as a community—our tradition, our symbols, our language, our shared calling—that do not require the domination of the individual by the group. The basis for discipline amongst Friends must be relationships of love, not domination. But Young Friends, and perhaps others, do need discipline to help us learn how to live as Friends and to take part meaningfully in our religious community.

We need elders to be leaders now if there is to be any Quaker leadership in future generations. One of the primary roles of leadership is nurturing new leaders, and our elders need to make sure that they are doing so. How are elder Friends helping Young Friends develop as leaders, as ministers, as children of God? Are older, more experienced, and more established Friends taking up their responsibility to younger, less experienced, and less established Friends in their communities? How do Friends support and care for emerging leaders amongst us? How do Friends make themselves available to share their experience, tradition, and expertise with younger Friends?

There are, of course, many simple things, seemingly small things, that can make a difference in the lives of Young Friends and in their development into leaders in the Religious Society. One basic step that any elder can take to encourage youth in their community is to take an interest in them as individuals. This could take the form of speaking with them on First Days, learning about their lives and experience, inquiring about where they come from in all senses, and finding out how they see themselves fitting in among Friends. Little gestures are surprisingly important; a hand-written note, or even a brief e-mail or phone call, can be miraculous in its ability to give Friends a sense of connectedness to others in their community. Beyond these inordinately powerful, simple gestures, elders hold many other keys to the integration of youth in our religious communities.

Elders do well in inviting Young Friends to spend time with them outside of meeting for worship, business meetings, committee meetings, or other Quakerly obligations. Invite us out to lunch. Developing ordinary, human relationships with Friends is deeply motivating, especially for Young Friends, who are often in the process of sorting out where we belong in the world. The value of providing a space for community, relationships, mutual friendship, and vulnerability cannot be overstated. Once established, new opportunities will open up for all involved. It is at this stage that elders might offer emerging leaders opportunities to give ministry in a variety of contexts where the elders are already involved. Some elders might be in a position to offer the youth in their midst apprentice relationships with them and the opportunity to learn practical skills in the process. While this is most immediately obvious in the pastoral setting, it is equally true among unprogrammed Friends. Many Young Friends would be thrilled, for example, to be included in the clerking process in their monthly and yearly meetings. In most Quaker communities, Friends are involved in a variety of projects where youth could participate and learn leadership skills.

There are further steps that individual elders and the Quaker fellowship as a whole can undertake to encourage the ministry and leadership of Young Friends. One such step would be the formation of support committees for Friends who want to deepen their relationship with God and discern the will of the Spirit for their lives. Elders willing to serve on such committees as supportive, grounding presences in the life of a Young Friend would be invaluable to the development of a generation of powerful Quaker leadership. Established Friends could also open their homes to Friends who are traveling in the ministry. Young Friends are often well equipped to carry out traveling ministry, thanks to being relatively unattached, as well as to their physical stamina and ability to visit other communities with openness and humility.

Finally, elders can be financially supportive of budding young ministers. This seems like the most obvious suggestion of all, and a place where Friends seem to be doing a fairly decent job. Yet it is worth mentioning briefly. For all of our strengths, youth are not typically in a position to have access to a great deal of wealth. We often rely heavily on our elders for the expenses associated with education, travel, projects, and event-planning. Elders would do well to consider or continue to support Friends who are seeking training as ministers. This could include support for those who are exploring attending schools for theological training such as Earlham School of Religion, Quaker centers such as Pendle Hill or Woodbrooke, or a variety of other training opportunities that exist throughout the world. Spiritual support and guidance during the process of discernment and during the course of study, and financial support to enable studies, are both very important.

We also greatly need the support of our elders as we undertake new projects and gatherings as Friends. The World Gathering of Young Friends in August of 2005, for example, would not have been possible without the financial support of elder Friends across the world. That gathering was a seed planted for the future of our global religious community. Let us pray that Friends will continue to plant and care for these seeds as they sprout in a variety of ways.

If elder Friends do take the initiative to provide support for us on all of these levels, from the most personal to the organizational, and if they work to create relations of love and respect between individuals and generations, they will create a space for discipline. Young Friends are desperately thirsty for guidance from our elders, but there must first be a vibrant relationship that enables such guidance. When elders have shown their love for us and their concern for our lives as individuals and as Friends ministers, they are in a position to speak with authority in our lives. This is not a relationship of domination, but one of loving concern and guidance. When those who love us speak to us in concern and out of their experience, we are obliged to listen to them, and perhaps even to take their advice over our own perception of a situation, trusting them and their proven record of loving us and looking out for our best interests.

An example of this arose for me in my yearly meeting while I prepared for the World Gathering of Young Friends (WGYF) in 2005. I had applied and been accepted to attend the WGYF, but it turned out that the total cost of my trip would be in the range of $2,000. In the days before Great Plains Yearly Meeting, I became firmly convinced that it was absurd to spend that much to be in England for a week. I spoke up in the yearly meeting sessions and expressed my concern in no uncertain terms. To my great consternation, my yearly meeting was quite set on sending representation to England. In the end, both I and another Young Friend were sent to England, quite against my own judgment.

Having my elders set aside my concerns and act in direct contradiction to them was a deeply humbling experience for me. But it turned out that they were right: the WGYF was worth the cost. Indeed, the gathering in England was one of the most important events of my life. My elders did not simply accept at face value what I told them; in fact, they completely contradicted me. But they spoke with authority, and—I am now convinced—they spoke with a sense of the will of God. The basis of discipline is speaking with authority in relationships of love, even when it does not fit in with the understanding of the person being brought under discipline.

Discipline sometimes means the ability to say no in love. It is a legitimate role of elders to speak with authority to matters of community faith and practice. It is in such a context where statements such as “you can be a Quaker and believe whatever you want” are challenged in a loving spirit. Young Friends are looking for communities that not only can love and support us, but have something to teach us and can hold us accountable. We are thirsty for elders who can provide a model as living compasses to keep us on the Way.

Young Friends are in a place of great transition and trials, which gives us at once great strength and great vulnerability. We are, for the most part, physically able, mentally flexible and, in many cases, spiritually aflame. We have so much strength, passion, and spirit that we want to share with the wider body of Friends. But we need guidance. Young Friends need the support of elder Friends on every level, from the mundane and personal to the organizational. And we need discipline. Young Friends need discipline that stems from loving support, holding us accountable, and speaking with authority in our lives. We need assistance in finding and staying on the Way. Elders, we need you.

Micah Bales

Micah Bales is a member of Heartland Meeting in Wichita, Kans. He is currently living in Richmond, Ind., where he attends Earlham School of Religion. [Online: micahbales.com]