What I Really Learned at ESR

They look a lot like me. That was one of my first thoughts when I arrived at Earlham School of Religion some 30-plus years ago. Many of the students did—look a lot like me, that is. I was somewhat surprised because it was my first foray out of the land of Ohio Quakers into the wider Friends world. Up until then my experience of Ohio Quakers had been fairly limited to pastoral Friends, primarily of Evangelical Friends Church-Eastern Region.

My only earlier encounter with other types of Friends was as a teenager. It came at the rededication of Ohio Yearly Meeting’s meetinghouse in Mount Pleasant. The ancient structure had been given to the Ohio Historical Society for restoration. At that time of its rededication, there were three Ohio Yearly Meetings (Evangelical, Hicksite, and Conservative). Of course, we Evangelicals knew we were the true heirs of George Fox, the Evangelical English preacher. We suspected all the others, regarding them as Friends of apostasy. Still, since the historical society had invited us to the rededication of "our" meetinghouse, we laid down our Quaker arms and came together amicably.

I went on the trip partly because I was interested in history. Mostly, though, I went because it sounded like more fun than hanging around the house. Arriving in Mount Pleasant, I had my first glimpse of other kinds of Quakers. And, as on my first day at ESR about 11 years later, many of them looked like me. Some didn’t, though. I saw folks dressed in black and gray, wearing hats and bonnets, and speaking an archaic dialect. I thought they were re-enactors hired by the historical society.


They were Conservative Friends from Ohio Yearly Meeting (Barnesville), as we called it. I learned that after one of the women came up and asked what "meeting" I was from. (Actually, I think she asked, "What Meeting is thee from?") When I replied, "Westgate Friends Church," she sniffed and said, "Oh, thee is from the ones who burned down the schoolhouse in Mount Pleasant." Then she huffed off.

I had no idea what she was talking about, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t something I had done. I would have remembered burning a building down. And, besides, I had never even been to Mount Pleasant before.

After that unfriendly introduction to other Friends, I decided to stick to my own tribe.

I kept to that decision fairly well until I felt led to go to Earlham School of Religion. It was time for me to take the chance of mingling with those other Friends.

At ESR I quickly experienced a diversity of faith and practice that, instead of threatening my own faith understandings, helped me appreciate the breadth of the Friendly family. I encountered an intellectually curious community filled with people who, while different theologically from me, were as hungry spiritually as I was. We studied together, shared together, ate together, and—in a very peaceful way, of course—fussed together. As we did so, I came to appreciate the varieties and vagaries of Friends faith. I also soon realized that what another person believed was no threat to what I believed. That was a pleasant discovery since it turned out that many of the people I liked most believed differently than I did. My love and respect for them opened the door for me to practice a more generous faith. I discovered the truth of Thomas Story’s words: "The unity of Christians never did nor ever will or can stand in uniformity of thought and opinion, but in Christian love only."

This discovery was especially helpful to me as I found myself moving into Friends ministry. At first, that move was fairly much in keeping with my tradition— as a pastor to a programmed meeting. But this congregation was not one of the Evangelical Friends congregations I grew up with. It was a smallish, rural group of Friends who, I quickly discovered, did not all believe exactly alike—or like me, necessarily. If I was to be the pastor to that meeting, I had to be the pastor to the entire meeting— not just those people who believed the same as I did. I loved these people and they loved me. We respected each other’s beliefs and quirks and were a faithful community.

The first thing that ESR helped me with in growing into ministry was to appreciate the goodness in the diversity of religious experience. It helped me be a kinder, gentler minister than I had ever been to that point—which is not saying that I have always lived up to that ideal. Indeed, this understanding and appreciation of the diversity of authentic religious experience has served me in good stead from my first day standing on the sun-drenched lawn of Jericho Friends Church to my time as a staff person at Western Yearly Meeting, to my current position at the Indianapolis Center for Congregations where I now work with faith groups of all stripes, including non-Christian. I have appreciated and learned from them all, while retaining my core beliefs.

A second thing my ESR experience did that has made me a better minister is that it taught me to see the varieties of ministry to which God calls people. When I went to ESR, I saw ministry primarily as pastoral. That was my experience. My understanding of ministry was that of preaching and tending to a flock. I quickly learned that Quaker pastoral ministry is not nearly anything as bucolic as that image!

ESR introduced me to people who felt called to serve in a variety of ministries: as teachers, pastors, social justice workers, chaplains in mental health institutions, college professors, and writers.

That latter one truly appealed to me. I had always been a reader; I desired to be a writer. It wasn’t until I went to ESR, though, and met Tom Mullen that the idea of writing as a ministry occurred to me. Because of that, my life was truly changed and I found my vocation in writing.

Over the 30 years since I graduated, the constant ministry of my life has been writing. I have had other ministries: youth and camping work, nonprofit management, teaching, pastoral ministry, and more. While I felt called to each one, I also saw each as a way to support my ministry of writing. I have never been a gifted-enough writer to support myself and my family financially by writing alone. This is not a bad thing. Since I have an income apart from my writing, I have been able to give my writing ministry freely in many instances—article and curriculum writing for Friends, for example. Giving away my writing is a way for me to live out Robert Barclay’s desire for ministers who are "such as having freely received, freely give."

The third gift that ESR gave me was a deep appreciation of the Quaker way. Like Canby Jones at Wilmington College, Wilmer Cooper, Elton Trueblood, Alan Kolp, Hugh Barbour, and others at ESR introduced me to writers and thinking that illuminated both my mind and my soul. As I studied Quakerism, I found that it spoke to my spirit in a way that nothing else did. I loved the liturgy of the high church traditions and the vigor of low churches, but Quaker silence and spirituality—they spoke to me in a special way. This quirky faith—of a "peculiar people," as we have called ourselves—has real power at its heart: the winsome invitation to come and meet God together. I love the fact that we do not ask anybody to come sing about God, hear about God, or recite certain prayers to God. Instead, we invite people to experience God.

That appreciation of the spiritual power of Friendly faith has formed much of my ministry and writing in the years since I first arrived at 228 College Avenue in Richmond.

Of course, ESR broadened my understanding of theology; I received a first-rate education there. But I could have received this at any number of other institutions. The three things mentioned above that I learned to appreciate— the diversity of religious experience, the varieties of ministry, and the uniqueness of the Quaker way—made all the difference for me in preparing me for ministry in the real world. This ministry finds me speaking to and writing for Friends across the spectrum, from Evangelical to non-theist. Thanks to my ESR experience, I can use my faith language and ideas and encourage others to do the same in a theologically hospitable atmosphere.

Is ESR the perfect institution for preparing Friends for ministry? No, of course not. It wasn’t back then in the glory days of my aging memory, either. But it was right for me. The connections I made across the Friendly barricades that existed then (and exist now to a lesser degree) have been maintained and continue to enrich me. And I hope my ministry enriches others, too. It is my hope that ESR will continue to be a community filled with intellectually curious and spiritually hungry people. If it does this, then, I anticipate, women and men will continue to be well prepared to minister among Friends—as I was.


J. Brent Bill, a member of Friends Memorial Church in Muncie, Ind., attends West Newton Meeting in Indianapolis. A Friends minister, retreat leader, photographer, and author, his recent books include Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality and Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment. He graduated from ESR in 1980 with an MA in Quaker Studies. He blogs at http://holyordinary.blogspot.com and can be reached through http://www.brentbill.com.