By Zélie Gross. Quaker Books, 2015. 432 pages. $20/paperback.
This is a thorough and useful resource book for Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM). With a little translating, it can also be a helpful resource book for Friends in North America. It is practical and addresses the current condition of most of our unprogrammed meetings.
The translations necessary include the obvious “local meeting” and “area meeting”—analogous to particular or allowed meetings or worship groups and monthly meetings. The terms “elders” and “overseers” refer to appointees to committees generally named here ministry and counsel, ministry and care, worship and ministry, and so on. There are also numerous references to programs at Woodbrooke and publications of BYM similar to a few things offered by Quaker retreat centers and the Friends General Conference (FGC) Gathering. Their wealth of resources suggest more things that could be done here.
The book was commissioned by Quaker Life, a department of BYM, to help Friends in local meetings provide good pastoral care. The author draws on an older nine-volume Eldership and Oversight series, a wide variety of publications including some from FGC, and feedback from a number of BYM Friends serving in eldership or overseer roles. The result is a useful compendium of pithy advice, resources available in print and online, a few pertinent quotations, and queries to ponder.
The book expands on “Caring for one another,” which is chapter 12 of the latest edition of BYM’s Faith and Practice, helpfully available at qfp.quaker.org.uk/chapter/12. With a Tender Hand amplifies and makes multiple references and cross-references for topics grouped into six themes. Each theme has several short chapters beginning with a summary and ending with queries intended for individuals, “pastoral groups” (meaning ministry and counsel committees), and the entire meeting. All of these queries are available online at quaker.org.uk/tender-hand.
The six themes are pastoral care, worship, community, caring, communication, and leadership. They overlap and are examined from a variety of angles, hence the usefulness of cross-references. The focus is on how Friends appointed to eldership and oversight for (usually) three-year terms, renewable once, might work more consciously to strengthen their faith community through attention to the spiritual life (usually by elders) and to life in community (usually by overseers). All the while it stresses the need for the two to work together and to enable others in the meeting to participate in the service.
For those without access to the book, there is plenty of good information available on the web from Britain Yearly Meeting.
One of the queries the author asked of herself was, “What am I failing to see?” Applying the question to this book, it seems British Friends today have not been exploring the relevance of the traditional Friends understanding of the presence of spiritual gifts. That understanding is that the Spirit bestows a cluster of gifts on one or more individuals, who are enabled to use them for the good of the meeting. In the past, such individuals were recognized, named, and held accountable as elders or ministers.
Another gap, partly excusable by the nature of the focus of the book on eldering and oversight, is an absence of a sense of God-given gifts of ministry. We tend to expect such gifts to show up in terms of good works or vocal ministry in meeting for worship. But our tradition offers more: gifts of ministry that result from a transformed life that serves the meeting community by example as well as through wise and loving service.
Back in 1750, Samuel Bownas wrote of the qualifications necessary for a minister, namely the dedication of one’s entire life to obedience of divine guidance. Such Friends were assumed to be present in meetings, and the structures and processes we value today were predicated upon meetings recognizing and valuing them. Since most Liberal meetings no longer expect such wholehearted willingness to be God’s tool, nor know how to deal with Friends if any should be so transformed, we do the best we humanly can using the structures we have inherited. This book has useful suggestions for how to do that.