It seems like my Quaker meeting has never been traditional. For over 300 years Smithfield Meeting gathered at the same spot in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, to worship joyously with sermon and songs. Although established in 1719, the meeting only began to experiment with traditional silent Quaker worship in the 1950s.
Until the Industrial Revolution brought mills to the area, there were no other places of worship, so Smithfield Meeting was welcoming to all religions. To be hospitable and accommodate people from nearby farms and villages looking for religious services, Smithfield offered sermons and was led by a pastor. Attenders and members have been continually inspired and uplifted by the messages in our meetinghouse for three centuries.
Smithfield Meeting is part of the Southeast Quarter of New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM), which includes a small number of other programmed meetings. A long line of distinguished pastors served at Smithfield. Since the 1940s, our pastors have been part time—sometimes seminary students—often also employed elsewhere. A pastor’s duties included preparing a Sunday sermon and providing pastoral care to the meeting.
The main appeal of programmed pastoral worship is the direction it gives us. Unlike traditional silent-only worship where attendees are moved to speak, in programmed meetings pastors provide prompts for our centering thoughts. At Smithfield, our meetings are a mix of unprogrammed silent worship and programmed worship, including sermons, Scripture readings, activities, and hymns. Typically we have opening and closing singing, listen to the pastor speak, and then share and worship silently. A sermon gives us a topic to explore in our hearts and minds as we worship.
Some of my favorite Smithfield sermons have included learning about the meaning of agape love, discerning the true meaning of Jesus’s metaphor of a rich man and the eye of a needle, and thinking about the actual authorship of some parts of the New Testament. I remember the delight when our former pastor, Pieter Byhouwer, returned as a member and sang “Be Thou Our Vision” out of a silent period in our service. One of our most memorable moments was when pastor Marnie Miller-Gutsell had us act out Psalm 23. She said we wouldn’t forget the story of “The Valley of the Shadow of Death,” and I never have.
There was and continues to be a natural tension in our meeting about pastors and their messages. It is very hard for us to find the right balance between messages that are not God-centered enough and those that are deemed too religious. We are a varied group, with different levels of interest and devotion, which sometimes makes us a difficult audience. Yet, through it all, on our happiest days and in our darkest moments, we gather to hear our pastors explain life’s elations and uncertainties, and that makes things better.
At Smithfield we still follow Quaker teachings and do not offer sacraments. We do have some modified traditions, including baby-welcoming ceremonies. Weddings and funerals follow our Friends traditions, but we also allow non-Quakers to hold their services in our meetinghouse. For many years, we had a robust First-day program, and once a month, we had intergenerational worship where the children stayed for the full meeting. And since the 1990s, Smithfield devoted the last Sunday of the month to unprogrammed worship.
Pastoral Care of the Meeting
In addition to preparing sermons, pastors have duties related to our congregation. One of the most important aspects of a pastoral meeting is the care a pastor offers to our community. Our pastors have offered an outlet for confidential counseling, and kept their focus on the heart of the meeting. Pastors met with happy couples planning weddings, and bereaved families planning funerals. They knew who was feeling depressed, and visited the sick at their homes and in hospitals. Pastors shared in our joys and concerns.
Smithfield pastors worked in consultation with our Ministry and Counsel Committee and attended to the needs of our meeting. Additionally, Ministry and Counsel provided oversight and care for our pastors. New England Yearly Meeting understood the need to offer pastors respite from the sometimes overwhelming burdens of their duties also, and offered organized retreats that many of our paid and volunteer pastors took part in.
Our pastors represented us at interfaith services, at our state’s council of churches, and to the larger world. Having a pastor helped explain the Religious Society of Friends to a community accustomed to churches with ministers.
We can no longer afford even a part-time pastor. Beyond a salary, there are economic considerations like workers’ compensation, retirement plans, and even health and liability insurance. I have heard that some Christian denominations require retirement by a certain age. At Smithfield, we were counting the days until our last paid pastor reached eligibility for Medicare, so we would not have to provide health insurance. We would have gladly hired someone older to reduce our expenses.
Smithfield built a beautiful parsonage next to our meetinghouse in 1924. The offer of housing made our small salary tolerable for most of the amazing men and women who served as pastors since then. We still recognize the value of this housing to attract a volunteer, part-time pastor in the future.
Like some smaller Quaker meetings, our numbers have been dwindling in recent years as our members age. As times change, there is generally less interest in Sunday services and organized religion than in our past. In fact, several other churches in our area are closing or consolidating. When our last paid pastor retired in 2012, we decided we were not able to afford a replacement.
Worshiping without a Pastor
We continue to try things to keep our pastoral meeting’s tradition alive. We had several volunteer “pastors” and have also tried to share the duties of presenting messages among our members. We know that we have people who come to our meeting for the programmed worship. They have alternatives that offer sermons and hymns, including a welcoming Old Catholic church that some of our members also attend. Pastoral care for the members of the meeting was certainly the hardest thing to replicate when we tried it on our own. Not everyone is suited to this type of ministry, and the duty usually falls on those most willing to help.
After our last pastor retired, our Ministry and Counsel Committee met to explore our options. We offered the parsonage to a younger member of our meeting. He took over a number of the pastor’s duties, including representing us in the larger community, offering pastoral care for many of our members, and focusing on our spiritual growth. He read queries at worship, as we worked as a group to find a new way to be a pastoral meeting. An attender with a very impressive academic background in theology became a member and began to give sermons at our meetings.
Next we created a template for our order of service, and for several years we took turns giving messages from the lectern during our meetings for worship. We would start with a song and follow with sharing our joys and concerns of the week. After some silent worship, the volunteer would give a message, and then after another period of open worship, we ended with a song. Many of the sermons were inspiring and moving, even if our singing was not always in tune without a pastor leading us.
It was not always easy to coordinate who would be giving messages, and there were times a volunteer would work diligently preparing a message and then feel there were too few people assembled to give it. When children attended, we modified our order of service and included a time for them to participate in the meeting. It has been difficult to keep these substitute “pastors” going over the years. Paid pastors had specific duties tied to their employment. Volunteers must be managed and that requires other members to provide oversight. The biggest challenge we faced was consistency among the different messages people were presenting, so there were times we decided on themes for the month, like gratitude for November.
Smithfield has still been able to hold on to our holiday celebrations, including an Easter service and Christmas Eve program. And there have been visits from Friends traveling in ministry who have given heartfelt messages during our services. We have been incredibly lucky that since the late 1990s a very talented musician and author, Ron Belliveau, has performed music for our meetings. For the past few years, Ron has occasionally been providing messages and his own music. Now, during this pandemic, he has done some beautiful and inspiring online guided meditations on Sunday mornings. Currently, Smithfield gathers for unprogrammed worship on Zoom with Providence (R.I.) Meeting, a welcoming larger meeting in our quarter. We do not know what the future will bring, but we have the tools to stay true to our programmed roots.
As a Quaker meeting, we know that we don’t need a pastor to connect to our spiritual center because God is in all of us. We do want to keep our pastoral tradition and are committed to the future. Five years ago, Smithfield Meeting received grants and completed a restoration of our meetinghouse’s exterior and, true to our history, celebrated with a beautiful interfaith service, which included other religious institutions in our area. I don’t know if Smithfield Meeting will continue as a pastoral meeting, but we will survive. And that will be a comfort to the many of us who still cherish the time we shared in pastoral worship over the years.