Take a look around you the next time you gather with your meeting community. You come into meeting for worship and there is Sally already sitting there, quiet, still, deep. As you sit down and begin to center, you are entering the grounded worship that has already begun with Sally’s presence.
After worship, you talk with John, who for some reason sat next to you today instead of in his usual spot across the room. The conversation feels like a continuation of worship as you talk about the painful struggle you’re immersed in at work, or how God has been coming to you in new ways. Maybe you notice Ed talking to a Friend who spoke during meeting. If you were to listen in on the conversation, you might hear them talking about how it was for her when she spoke, where her vocal ministry came from, how she knew she was led to speak.
Maybe there is someone in your meeting who everyone turns to with their deep spiritual needs, someone whose gift of hospitality creates spaces of deep spiritual nurture, or someone who notices and nurtures budding spiritual gifts.
These people are partaking in a practice that has a long history among Friends: they are eldering. And what they are doing is often invisible—unless you open your eyes to see their work and God’s work in and through them. Or maybe this is work that is being done in and through you, work that you have not noticed before.
Perhaps the most visible way that eldering is being carried out among us today is in retreat and spiritual workshop settings, where ministers are increasingly working with elders to help ground the ministry in the Spirit and to help bring the ministry into its fullness. Yet it is in our meetings that elders are most at work, and where that work is, perhaps, most needed.
Elders are those who have a large capacity— a spiritual gift—for deep listening, the ability to see and name gifts in others, to pray deeply, and to know when that is needed. These require spiritual discernment— relying on the Holy Spirit to lead us. Discernment is a gift of God, and it includes skills that can grow in us with practice and prayer. Discernment is something we all do. It is something for which some people seem to have a special gift that can be used for building up our faith communities.
Not all elders are able to do all of the above tasks easily. But all seem to have a great gift for discernment, even if it is in just one or two areas. The common thread among elders is a yawning, aching need to do what they can to nurture and help deepen their spiritual lives and the spiritual life of their community.
Because eldering work is so often quiet and not easily seen, it may seem that others in the meeting sometimes don’t recognize the relevance of the work. Yet there are many who do. If your meeting turns to someone on a regular basis to be on clearness committees or to do other spiritually nurturing work, you are probably recognizing the eldering qualities in that person. You are probably recognizing that the work done through this person grounds the meeting ever deeper in the Divine.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge, to another faith, to another gifts of healing, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits (or "discernment"), to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and God gives them to each one, just as God determines.
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts, and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (1 Cor. 12:7-13, NIV).
To drink deeply of the Spirit and to do so within a community of those who want to drink deeply of the Spirit: this is what we all long for. Just as those with other gifts help us to do that, so do elders. We need each other deeply. We hunger to talk with each other about these deep things of the Spirit.
Some Friends and meetings are exploring the spiritually nurturing role of elders within our community today. We can all join that exploration by considering the Spirit-led eldering that is happening in our own meetings, and by upholding ways to nourish, nurture, and deepen the gifts we see.