During a recent conversation, a person shared that he served as an intern at a Mennonite church. He quickly followed, in a hushed, conspiratorial tone, with, “But we’re really not Mennonite.” He was conveying his and, assumedly, the church leadership’s discomfort with the Mennonite identity and its implications. The statement was both baffling and troubling, as it represented the almost existential unsettledness that occurs when people serve within an organization or movement with which they are unfamiliar, or perhaps even to which they are opposed. However, lest we become either too judgmental or too self-congratulatory, it could be argued that the Friends movement has, at times, taken the same attitude regarding the pastoral role.
Where one resides on the theological and ecclesiological spectrum of Quakerism may determine which part of the phrase “Quaker pastor” is the most offensive. For there are some Quakers who believe that the pastoral role is anathema to the very heart of Quakerism, while others believe that the Quaker distinctives in faith and practice should be of secondary, if not marginal, concern to a Friends pastor. Even within programmed, pastoral Quakerism, there is a lack of unified understanding of the pastoral role: specifically, an explicit expectation and understanding of the boundaries of leadership and authority. Why is this?
Without getting too deep into Quaker history and ecclesiology, through doctoral studies and ongoing research, I have concluded that the pastoral role was never fully nor correctly integrated into the Quaker ethos or theology, and thus there exists, to this day, ambiguity regarding the leadership and authority of the pastor. Therefore, the pastoral role differs depending on the yearly meeting. And sometimes the role differs among churches within the yearly meeting, and even those change over time, leading to difficulties for pastors who move from one yearly or monthly meeting to another.
Most relevant to this discussion, though, is the difficulty this ambiguity causes those tasked with training and educating future Quaker pastors. For the last eight years, I have chaired the Pastoral Ministry Department at Barclay College in Haviland, Kansas, and thus have had the privilege of journeying with and helping prepare future Friends pastors. It is a blessed and highly rewarding duty, and I have loved every moment of it; however, it is not without its challenges. One of those challenges is the lack of unity regarding the distinctive expectations of the Friends pastoral role. This is not a theoretical question but one with practical, pedagogical implications, for this lack of unity has led to a thematic approach. Any pastoral education meant to prepare a Quaker pastor for several potential yearly meetings must seek a common denominator amongst the Quaker distinctives and the various yearly meetings. Otherwise, any degree program would either be too parochial or too complex to be of any use.
I’d like to provide a thematic approach to Quaker pastoral principles that is designed for applicability, regardless of the student’s ministerial context. These principles focus on the actions and attitudes of the pastor and are not systemic, structural recommendations. Those kinds of discussions (unified expectations of pastoral duties and behavior set by the churches and yearly meetings) are necessary but must be undertaken by all parties involved, not just the pastors. Until that time, what I can do is help future Quaker pastors thrive under the actual conditions present.
Now, arguably what I propose is neither particularly innovative nor distinctively Quaker. Both points are correct. However, one could argue that the faith and praxis of the early Quakers were neither particularly innovative nor distinctively Quaker but instead a faithful, consistent adherence to and application of Christ’s teachings in all facets of individual and corporate life. This is precisely what made it distinctive and innovative: faithfulness amid faithlessness, consistency amid inconstancy. My argument is that these three principles, while not comprehensive, if practiced with consistency, would model a Quaker pastoral ministry that would stand out as distinctive amongst other ministerial paradigms. The principles themselves would be a testimony (as they always should have been).
These principles are presented in no particular order, for no one of them takes precedence over the other, and all three interconnect and benefit each other.
A Quaker model of pastoral leadership driven by humility seeks a deliberate pace in search of unity and the sense of the meeting, so that any major changes or initiatives are embraced and supported by the whole church.
In American Christianity, the CEO model of pastoral ministry, which first emerged in the ‘80s and ‘90s, remains relatively popular. This model merged with the fad of hypermasculine Christianity to create a model of pastoral leadership that is take-charge, action-oriented, and very appealing to those who desire to regain control over circumstances that seem outside of their control—for example, changing cultural standards and declining church attendance. It is also anathema to the spirit of Quaker egalitarianism and is often a straw-man image used to denigrate the idea of a pastor in Quakerism (just as the image of a paralyzed Ministry and Oversight board is used by some to unfairly denigrate decision making based on the sense of the meeting).
The principle of Quaker pastoral ministry that is most distinctive from the authoritarian pastoral role is humility. This humility should stem from the recognition that these pastoral gifts, while given to provide leadership to the church, are no different in importance from anyone else’s spiritual gifts being utilized in the church. This humility should also embody itself in the pastor’s recognition that the future of the church does not rest solely in the hours and energy expended by the pastor, week in and week out. This humility should prevent the ego-driven perception of insults and slights that can lead to pastoral power trips or congregational power struggles.
Above all, humility should slow things down. Speed seems the order of the day. An authoritarian pastoral model may dictate that a new pastor “take the reins” and “make their mark” on the church by implementing dramatic changes and new endeavors. A new sheriff is in town, and crime has to be stopped. Now, there may be situations where drastic measures must be taken, but those situations are rare, and, when they occur, the congregation recognizes their gravity and assents to the changes anyway. Rushed leadership maneuvers, based on a false sense of urgency or emergency, can lead to coercive tactics, manipulation, or conflict in the name of pushing through the pastor’s agenda.
On the contrary, a Quaker model of pastoral leadership driven by humility seeks a deliberate pace in search of unity and the sense of the meeting, so that any major changes or initiatives are embraced and supported by the whole church. Such a goal takes time; time takes patience; patience requires humility.
As I mentioned above, any emphasis on humility raises the false equivalency of “weakness,” along with a question of whether such a pastor is able to lead a congregation into new, necessary directions (especially if there is resistance). Of course, such a question misunderstands both humility and leadership but helps set the stage for the second pastoral principle: vision.
Throughout Friends history, Quakers—many possessing no title, position, or power—convinced and convicted others and, in some cases, radically impacted society for the better. Instead of coercion, a Quaker pastor leads by sharing the God-given vision for how the church can bless and transform the world around it. Rather than issue commands, a Quaker pastor tells the story of divine possibility and potential; of how what appears to be meager offerings and minor characters can change lives, and even the world, through the gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of God. Rather than an expectation of obedience, Friends pastors offer an invitation to a journey of transformation, community, and faith. And through that story, the pastor enables the meeting to corporately discern God’s vision for its future.
The goal is not a smooth-talking charlatanism but a passion that flows from an ever-weightier conviction. For, as John Woolman rightly noted, “Conduct is more convincing than language.” That is, pastors’ lives and passion must correspond to their messages, for otherwise those sermons will be viewed as shallow as any PR spin or pep talk. For a pastor to gain a vision for a church requires a sensitive spirit, and being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, faithful to teachings of Scripture, and aware that God speaks through the most unexpected people and mundane experiences. All of this is cultivated through the discipline of spiritual formation, self-reflection, and discipleship made real in their lives, so that others may follow their example.
Now, doing such things does not guarantee that every Friends pastor will receive clarity as to the way forward for them and the church they serve. However, when pastors center down on Christ, silencing the distractions of the world, they can be fully present, seeing the world as God sees it: with its great needs but also with its great opportunities.
I recognize, and I hope others will as well, the value of these young pastors and ministers for the future of the movement. There is the general blessing of “passing the torch” to the next generation of Quaker leaders, and I know that future graduating classes will have unique characteristics that should not be overlooked.
A Quaker pastor, inspired to reach the “great people to be gathered” and humble enough to recognize that this task cannot be accomplished by the efforts of one person, will see this work as equipping and facilitating those around them. With the understanding that God has gifted every person in the church to serve both one another and the world, the pastor should help members discern each of their gifts and leadings, and then, to the best of the pastor’s ability, they should facilitate the opportunities for those gifts to be used for the benefit of the body of Christ and the world.
This runs contrary to the priority and focus given in a standard Protestant church, where the worship service and the ministry typically do not have the flexibility or responsiveness to adapt to the poly-gift expressions of the entire congregation. To be fair, even an unprogrammed Quaker service during the Quietist period would have been equally unsuitable, as there would not have been the freedom for the full range of expression (e.g., instrumental performance). However, the programmed Friends service that embodies the Quaker ethos of poly-gifting and poly-expression should possess the best of both worlds, with a programmed structure familiar to most Christians (and non-Christians familiar or exposed to Christianity) but also the freedom to deviate from that structure. (I remember some time ago seeing the term “semi-programmed” used to describe a Friends meeting in the Northwest, and I wonder if this was their aim.) Of course, this is not just limited to the worship service but all aspects of the church’s ministry.
As mentioned above, these principles are neither consummate nor complete. However, if my student-pastors—regardless of denomination—consistently lived and ministered by these principles, they would seem to us, at least, a bit “Quakerish” (to use a term coined by my students for one on that journey of convincement). And that makes all the difference.
The Future Friends Pastors
I am blessed to be able to journey with these future Friends pastors during their years of education, despite the conceptual difficulties arising from articulating a Quaker pastoral theology. I recognize, and I hope others will as well, the value of these young pastors and ministers for the future of the movement. There is the general blessing of passing the torch to the next generation of Quaker leaders, and I know that future graduating classes will have unique characteristics that should not be overlooked.
Because this generation is waiting longer to get married, we will be seeing more single pastors who require less financial support than married pastors with children. Some young pastors hesitate at the thought of joining a rural monthly meeting—an uncertainty that has more to do with social opportunities than with finances or ambition. (This can be solved with intentionality and technology, which provides more opportunities to maintain close relationships from a distance, though geographically separated and perhaps serving in a church with no other people their age.) Most importantly, and often overlooked, is the fact that those in their early 20s who have been called into pastoral ministry have grown up knowing the American Church only in decline (both numerically and culturally). Thus, there is none of the logistical cynicism that sometimes manifests itself amongst older pastors who remember more prosperous times. On the contrary, any cynicism from the younger pastors comes from witnessing self-absorbed Christians and congregations wallowing in self-indulgent decay, while the world cries out for grace and truth. And yet, they still obey God’s call to serve the Church.
They may be young and may look and act differently from the way previous generations did when that age, but they love God and want to do their part. They should not be taken for granted. The best thing we can do, as the programmed Friends church, is to take the time and energy necessary to conceptualize and articulate an ecclesiology that allows the pastoral gifts to be expressed, alongside other members’ gifts, healthily and productively, so that the body of Christ may be strengthened, that the world may be ministered to and blessed, and that God may be glorified.