“Friend, can I speak to you outside about something?”

He was amiable enough to that. Worship had concluded with the traditional shaking of hands. I’d deliberately chosen a seat next to him at a new location across the Meetingroom from where I normally sit. He leaves immediately after Worship, avoiding coffee hour and conversation. He has never involved himself in the work of any committee or task force of which I know. This is what has complicated this endeavor. Finding time to talk would be much easier that way.

The Friend shares vocal ministry too frequently. He has spoken, at last count, every First Day for the past three months. It is the custom of my Meeting that God ought to be allowed to speak through others during Worship, rather than be the domain of any designated minister. If we truly believe in the Priesthood of all Friends, then constant vocal ministry by one speaker belies what we say we are as Quakers. If we share too regularly, then frequent speakers more or less take the place of a called minister.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d rehearsed a speech in my head for days. I wanted to do this properly, but I didn’t want to sound punitive and scolding. When I made the request that he space out his vocal ministry henceforth, he told me that he felt as though I was the Meeting police. I wasn't entirely surprised with the response. Liberal Friends often have a negative relationship with authority in any form. A recent article in Friends Journal suggested that the unofficial motto of Liberal unprogrammed Friends ought to be, “You ain’t the boss of me.”

Never was this more in effect here. He said he strongly disagreed with my assessment and the assessment of my committee. I hope this means that he will nonetheless heed my request, but I'll see in the future if this is borne out by his conduct. I understand why Eldering isn't done more frequently, because it routinely makes people defensive, regardless of how tactful one seeks to be at the outset. Regardless, I believe my approach to be better than the way I was Eldered for the same reason, with a snide and caustic comment.

A committee member suggested that, following my request, I offer him the ability to participate in committee service. This was a good idea. I fully intended to make the request, but the progression of our conversation never allowed me the opportunity to pose it to him. He said that my approach didn’t allow him the ability to speak his mind. After only a few minutes of conversation, he wanted to part ways, and hastily left my company.

Shortly before heading back inside the Meetingroom, he mentioned an incident between us that occurred well over a year ago. Following Worship, on my way home from Meeting, he approached me for conversation at the bus stop. He rambled on for several minutes, though I sought to understand his meaning. I departed his company after a few minutes of fruitless communication that never really congealed. Since then, he has held fast to the memory of this false start, not recognizing the reasons why it failed.

I’m the clerk of Ministry and Worship. This responsibility falls upon me. Though Quakers seek to avoid hierarchy and champion equality for all, the buck stops here for me and for everyone who serves the Meeting. Years and years of unchallenged Meeting dysfunction have created a climate where habitual line-steppers know that they will never be confronted. I’m not even sure where to begin sometimes, but I’ve now made it clear that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated. I do not take pleasure in being confrontational, but I know that every effort towards reform has to begin somewhere.

Meeting discipline has challenged believers since the beginning of the Religious Society of Friends. For Christians, problems like these necessitated the writing of Paul’s numerous Epistles to fledgling churches spread out over the Roman Empire. Each had its own challenges and needed gentle correction, though some churches had greater problems than others. Jesus proposed a particular methodology in his ministry that I’ve kept in mind in the midst of this entire process.

"If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.


The last lines may be harsh to some but they are certainly not wavering. I will continue to intercede in matters like these as frequently as they are needed. Eldering has not been done at Friends Meeting of Washington, and I know that many are resistant to it. One needs a strong stomach and a thick skin in these matters. Perhaps it even takes a particular kind of specific set of personality traits to Elder successfully. I went into this with my eyes open. I fully expected at the outset to receive significant push back, often coupled with a kind of low-grade hostility best described as nasty nice.

I am not seeking to make the Meeting over in my own image. Instead, my foremost desire is to make sure that Friends are faithful to what and who they say they are. We should live our Testimonies are surely as we espouse them. We should respect Faith & Practice and not be afraid to use it as an authoritative text. My undertaking this past First Day began with a series of small steps like these. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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Comment by Clem Gerdelmann on 4th mo. 30, 2013 at 5:48am

Kevin, I have experienced "nasty nice" as a response to vocal ministry as opening my heart, not speaking my mind, which is what my reading of Quaker history suggests. Unfortunately, my Meeting does not  have a Worship&Ministry committee which both disturbs and dis-empowers me in this situation. So, I am glad, Friend, that you have aired this matter, and happy for your Meeting, if not for this experience in Eldering.

Speaking of classical Rome, Goethe has a line in "Faust" that reads: "For everyone who does not know How to control his inmost self would feign control His neighbor's will according to his own conceit." Thanks for your charitable effort to prevent this ever-more-frequent solipsism in Quakerism.

Comment by Howard Brod on 4th mo. 30, 2013 at 8:46am
I can't help wondering if airing this incident publicly on this site was a wise thing to do. Due to the specifics mentioned, I'm certain any Friend who reads this from Friends Meeting of Washington, knows who was eldered. And the eldered Friend likely feels that he has been publicly put in the stockades for all to see.

Eldering is fine and has its needed place. But love and caring for the individual Friend, our brother, should be paramount.
Comment by Kevin Camp on 4th mo. 30, 2013 at 8:56am

Howard, let me first say I understand your concern.

If our Meeting dynamics were such that channels of communication were readily available, I would concede your point. The problem is that my Meeting is large, diffuse, and very poorly networked. I learned a long while ago that the only way to reach everyone is by way of the internet. In the vast wilderness of busy, overscheduled professionals with busy lives, conventional Quaker process breaks down.

In a smaller setting, it wouldn't take a public airing like this to spread the news. Some people likely know who I am talking to, but I know others likely do not. We have three Meetings for Worship on First Day, which means that it's difficult to share information in an effective way. Some people have chosen to insulate themselves from the problems with frequent vocal ministry by attending one of the other two Worships. 

How else can I reach these Friends? 

Now, perhaps, others who share too frequently (he is far from the only one) will recognize that they need to toe the line.  That would make my job and everyone else's a great deal easier.

Comment by Doug Bennett on 4th mo. 30, 2013 at 3:39pm

How would a newcomer come to learn the following?  "It is the custom of my Meeting that God ought to be allowed to speak through others during Worship, rather than be the domain of any designated minister. If we truly believe in the Priesthood of all Friends, then constant vocal ministry by one speaker belies what we say we are as Quakers. If we share too regularly, then frequent speakers more or less take the place of a called minister." Is that expectation stated anywhere for all to hear and learn, or does the line only become clear after you cross it?

Comment by Julie DeMarchi Heiland on 4th mo. 30, 2013 at 4:39pm

I have no idea whether the "ministry" you describe was appropriate or not, but I did want to point out one thing. This idea amongst liberal Quakers that Friends should not minister frequently or regularly is a relatively new one. "Ministers" were historically identified among Friends because of  the quality and regularity of their ministry, which was seen as a gift and a calling. These ministers were then recorded and it was typical to expect these individuals to regularly minister to the meeting.

For what it's worth, I wonder if you would have the same level of concern for those in your meeting who have not ministered, who go through extended periods of time without verbal ministry, or who you feel are hiding their lights under bushels, so to speak. I guess I'm just wondering if it's not so much the frequency as the authenticity of the ministry that you find problematic.

Comment by Kevin Camp on 4th mo. 30, 2013 at 4:57pm

My Meeting has a problem with vocal ministry that is neither Spirit-led, nor meant for anyone else but the speaker. That's the biggest problem of all. The frequency of vocal ministry by the same few Friends week in and week out sets out a false expectation, especially for newcomers. Those who have every right to speak may believe that there is no room left for them to share ministry.

Prior to the beginning of Worship, language has been included that states that the experienced speaker should take care not to speak too frequently or at undo length. Furthermore, the speaker is further encouraged to give ministry that is is meant for the entire gathered Meeting, not as I've said, the speaker himself or herself. The presumptive speaker is reminded that no one should arrive at Meeting with the intention to speak or not to speak.

I recognize that once upon a time Friends did have recorded ministers, but I know that Baltimore Yearly Meeting no longer does. Nor do we as a Monthly Meeting.

I quite enthusiastically support those who have never shared a message or share infrequently. They have an equal right to give voice as much as those who dominate Worship. Authenticity is indeed a large part of my reservations along with the frequency. Washington, DC, by its very nature tends to attract people who want to be heard and use Worship as a personal soapbox. I'm glad when I hear that other Monthly Meetings do not have these similar dynamics in place.

Comment by Kevin Camp on 4th mo. 30, 2013 at 5:03pm

This problem I've described is ancient. Friends have been working on this situation for generations. It's not a new concern. But what is new is the desire to resort to confrontation rather than being deathly afraid of being confrontational for any reason.

Comment by Ian Barnett on 5th mo. 1, 2013 at 2:05pm

......may I wholeheartedly recommend Lewis Benson's paper "On Being Led By The Spirit To Minister In Public Worship"?- a fine exposition of what might usefully happen before, during and after.

For five years (until the Lord gave me leave to go) I attended a meeting which I sense viewed what I was given to say (maybe once every three weeks or so) as too narrowly Christocentric.  They stared at the floor and shuffled their shoes and said nothing.  To me, at any rate. I feel it would have been much better if they had said something, and we might have resolved the different perceptions and deepened our relationship.

Comment by Howard Brod on 5th mo. 1, 2013 at 2:34pm

Ian, it is always disappointing for me to hear that a liberal Quaker meeting would presume to tell or imply to any Friend how they should practice their spirituality.  In doing so they are embracing their version of strict doctrine that was once such a foreign concept to the liberal Quaker tradition.  It is especially foolish for any meeting to "discriminate" against Christocentric Friends who relate personally to the rich Christian heritage that belongs to all Quakers living today.  To have Friends in a liberal Quaker meeting that appreciate and speak of Jesus, is a gift beyond compare for that meeting.  Whether a modern liberal Friend considers himself Christ-centered or not, it is an undeniable fact that since its founding in the mid-1600's Quakerism has at its core the teachings of Jesus.  Just read the Sermon on the Mount in the Bible book of Matthew, and you will see the undeniable influence of Jesus on liberal Quaker faith and practice even today - nearly 400 years after George Fox first started a religion based on the raw teachings of Jesus as experienced within.  

We who are not Christocentric in our spirituality should be open to the rich Quaker heritage that lives even today thanks to the teachings and the Spirit that so consumed Jesus of Nazareth. 

My meeting is one of the most liberal Quaker meetings I know of.  We have Friends who personally relate to Jesus, Friends who are atheists, and Friends of all spiritual persuasions in between.  Yet, we strive to remember that the Spirit that unites us is the same in all of its manifestations of Love, Truth, and Light.  It is such a gift to have this spiritual diversity, and I bathe in its richness.

Comment by Doug Bennett on 5th mo. 1, 2013 at 3:12pm

Word, Howard.

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