I have a concern about the lack of spirit-led eldering among contemporary Friends. Historically, Quaker elders encouraged the gifts of ministry and discernment and called to order those who disrupted worship. While some of these tasks have been absorbed into committees, we’ve lost much of the sense of eldership as a function. Our meetings need people to be elders. We need Friends who are willing to be eldered when needed. Ministers are not perfect, and elders can help ground those Friends who feel called.
Quaker meetings and churches should guide ministers and be a nurturing place for them, but meetings also need a way to challenge and hold accountable those in ministry. I myself have run away from eldering on several occasions.
After the last YouthQuake gathering in 2004, I gathered together some traveling Quakers to talk about the possibility of an event that might bring together young adult Friends across the divides of our religious society. While I found someone to join me in this work, it never got off the ground. But a remarkably similar event did occur four years later. The group that came together to organize this event were not part of the 2004 discussions. By this time, I was not ready to take on the leading, but the group had enough momentum and energy on its own.
While attending college, I became active in a wide range of activities and worthwhile projects. These projects led me to travel around the world and kept me on the move. Elders from my home yearly meeting would email and call me to offer friendly advice and ask me to seek a support committee. They worried that although I had good intentions, I was spreading myself too thin and not taking adequate time to attend to all I was doing. They tried to get me to re-center and become more focused on fewer projects. I rejected their eldering and, as a result, had several periods of burnouts in the last two years of college. Looking back, I wish I had listened to them and formed a standing support committee at college to help guide my ministry.
Out of my experiences in ministry and watching others in ministry, I have learned that ministry does not only arise from one person or a small group all the time. That is why early Friends believed anyone could be called by God to minister at any time. If an individual or group is not sufficiently supported, the ministry will not disappear forever. Sometimes I see that part of the ministry that one is called to is to struggle. In our struggles, we can learn more about our faith and our relationship with God. I have seen numerous situations in which people felt led towards a particular ministry independently of one another. Sometimes they joined together to forward this common vision; while in other situations, some went on to find other callings.
God works in mysterious ways. While being in ministry is about being faithful to God and to your own self, it is also about the community. I am wary of ministries that become focused on the glorification of an individual or a small group. Ministries are a way to live out God’s Kingdom here and to help people see what is possible through God. Eldering can help us to ground our ministries in a community that can support and challenge one to go deeper. When we ground ourselves within a larger community, we can remind ourselves that the ministry is not about us, but about something much larger.