Quaker Universalist Conversations

“Spiritual Eldership”

Excerpts from “Transition Quaker”

Craig Barnett, Transition Quaker http://transitionquaker.blogspot.com/ Craig Barnett is a Quaker living in Sheffield (UK), and currently serving as an elder of Sheffield and Balby Area Quaker Meeting. The following are excerpts from the 4/8/16 post on his blog, Transition Quaker. We encourage you to read the complete blog post.

“Some Friends, whether called elders or not, have been looked to for spiritual counsel from the beginning. So in 1653 William Dewsbury proposed that each meeting should appoint ‘one or two most grown in the Power and the Life, in the pure discerning of the Truth’ to take responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the meeting and its members.”

— “Elders & Oversight,” Quaker Faith & Practice
(Religious Society of Friends in Britain, 5th edition, 2013)

The ministry of eldership is a spiritual gift, a calling and a challenge. It…can be received and exercised by anyone, whether or not they are formally appointed. It is the calling to make oneself available as a midwife to the soul, a mothering and fathering of the inner life of another person, through attentive and compassionate listening.

Exercising the ministry of eldership does not mean setting oneself up as a spiritual teacher. The most crucial insight of the Quaker way is that the Teacher is within….

None of us can teach another person how to live, or know how the Spirit is leading them. The spiritual elder does not point the way, but simply by listening reminds their Friend that they already have a reliable source of inward guidance, and encourages them to put their trust in it.

The ministry of eldership also nourishes and re-affirms our covenant with each other as members of a Quaker community. Where eldership is faithfully practised, with tenderness and in response to a calling of the Spirit, it fosters relationships of mutual nurture and accountability within the meeting….

"Leçon de vie (Life lesson), by  L'oeil étranger (on flickr)
This relationship of mutual accountability and nurture in a Quaker meeting is profoundly countercultural. It challenges the dominant culture’s assumption that we are all isolated individuals who are not answerable to anyone else. This assumption is so widespread among Friends that it often leads to a suspicion of the eldership as a form of inequality or hierarchy.

The role of Quaker eldership has certainly been abused in some times and places…. In our current Quaker culture though, these failings are readily identified and challenged.

It is far more common for contemporary Friends to fail in the exercise of eldership through a timid reluctance to engage with the calling and responsibility that is laid on them by the whole area meeting. We are too often afraid to do anything for fear of being accused of elitism or authoritarianism. In this way, our commitment to mutuality and community can be undermined.

Without the confident exercise of eldership to encourage mutual listening and accountability, a few especially assertive Friends can easily come to dominate the worship or decision-making of the community. The needs and insights of newcomers or less dominant Friends can be neglected, in the absence of elders who are prepared to actively include and support them.

This is the challenge of the calling to spiritual eldership. It can attract criticism and conflict, and requires the courage to be faithful to the responsibility laid on elders by the community.

Exercised faithfully and with humility, eldership can also be a joyful opportunity to nurture our communities, and to be invited into our Friends’ lives, to wonder with them at the miracle of divine life that is present within each person.

Query: How have you experienced spiritual eldership in your life, whether in a Quaker meeting or some other context? Is there someone who has acted as a ‘midwife to your soul’?

This post is a response to the ‘Reading Quaker faith & practice’ project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.

We encourage you to read Craig Barnett’s complete blog post.

Image Source

Leçon de vie,” by L’oeil étranger (2011) [on Flickr, Attribution 2.0 Generic].


Craig, Thanks for raising this issue, arising out of direct personal experience, of which I have none. To my observation, timidity in the face of Quaker individualism and privacy, humility deficits over the long term of experience, and accountability for the entrenched are problem areas that are poorly overseen. Often, there is wounding of new Quakers. To my observation, there is no known, effective accountability mechanism for elders. Reliance is completely dependent on the characters of those so designated. They are entrenched, perpetual, and deferred to. To my understanding, this was such a problem in the 19th century, that the elderships were nearly everywhere abolished rather than reformed with a view to creative management. It occurs to me that the modern version could be a group of active listeners and organizers. I have always thought that a modification of worship sharing as a management mechanism is the direction for a practical elder accountability mechanism even thought this mechanism breaches privacy and confidentiality to a significant degree. This issue is, I think, the reason for avoiding this formal elder mechanism in most meetings. Do you see this issue of accountability differently?
Hi Larry, In Britain Yearly Meeting we have retained the practice of Area Meetings appointing elders, and there are explicit accountability mechanisms to prevent eldership from becoming the kind of entrenched personal authority that you rightly highlight the danger of. These are set out in our Book of Discipline, eg in section: http://qfp.quaker.org.uk/passage/12-07/. Of course, the actual practice of eldership varies between meetings, and is not always in right ordering or full health. What I was hoping to convey in my blog post was the possibilities of eldership as a spiritual ministry, whether or not it is formally recognised by meeting structures. In Friendship, Craig
Thanks for your comment. I have read Book of Discipline 12.7: Eldership and Oversight, which is somewhat helpful. The management by term limitations is reasonable, as is the nominating process. Two things strike me particularly. First there is no delegation of jurisdiction regarding population and subject matter. Second, there is no provision for reporting and evaluation. This is a weakly developed area. You are pioneering is an important area of spiritual ministry, which is only recently been drained of the swamp conditions of the 19th century in most meetings. Currently, my thinking on this is that recognition by meeting structures for individual eldership as a spiritual ministry would be essential, even if inadequate, for its direction and accountability. Thanks for your exploration of this area of spiritual ministry.
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