This is part IV in a series of four articles on Quaker Traditions. In his role as Associate Secretary for Religious Life, Zachary Dutton has listened deeply to Friends in the community. Working with the PYM staff community engagement team he has provided answers to framing questions for this four-part series. The answers are reflective as opposed to definitive.
We’ve seen the term ‘Quaker Minister’ used in many historic or modern texts about unprogrammed Friends. What does that term mean in an unprogrammed Quaker meeting community today?
Historically, a minister has meant various things for Quakers. Most commonly, Ministers were people who travel around, visiting different Quaker meetings to convey a message of healing, of change, or of other things related to the faith. Overtime, Quakerism developed different branches. In each branch, a different version of the tradition developed. In some branches, the concept of “minister” came to mirror that of a conventional protestant faith tradition – someone who leads worship and the whole of the community’s spiritual life. In the liberal tradition, which is that of PYM’s, and as described previously in the articles on Quaker practice, today’s ministers are people who feel a special, spiritual calling to teach the community about something, or bring some other gift to light. Usually, Quaker ministers are recognized as such by their community.
In the minister’s community, a group of people with a concern for being in close relationship with this ministry, (what Friends describe as eldership), meet with the minister regularly in spiritual support groups and/or faithfulness groups. They help ensure their ministry has what it needs to thrive and continues to be a grounded and relevant spiritual calling.
Those with a call to the role of eldership (whom we call elders) have a long, fraught history, connected with rules and discipline in the quietist period of the faith—when the Friends community was fractured, and many Friends lived at a distance from civic society. However, today “elder” is the general term used to describe those in the meeting, who support relationship work, pastoral care, and help curate the tradition.
How do Quakers communities use paid staff to support the needs of Friends?
Increasingly, liberal Quaker communities have had the practice of hiring meeting office managers to help carry out the daily logistical needs of the community as well as to support the relationship work in community at quarterly or yearly meetings.
As society changes, and we become ever more under the weight of equity and inclusion, it has become increasingly important to provide adequate compensation to those we ask to take on large tasks for the community, however this manifests. Hiring staff is consistent with previous iterations of the Quaker tradition, as in “released” ministry, though it takes a different form in the post-post-modern age.
What is a covenant community?
Quaker community is a covenant community, which means that becoming part of it commits one to engage in mutual spiritual accountability. We are responsible for nurturing, supporting and empowering ministry as it arises in ourselves and in others.
In the unprogrammed, liberal, Quaker faith, who actually has authority or decision-making power?
Liberal Quakers embrace structures of hierarchy that use forms of power that are co-creative in their search to discern the authority of the group.
We call this ‘power-with,’ rather than power-over.
For example, we do not designate one type of spiritual teacher—what other traditions call priests, rabbis, ministers, etc. We have many types of and sources for spiritual teachings. Therefore, power and authority can be very diffuse in Quaker community.
Yet, we have come to see that power requires explicit delimitation and formalization through discernment if it is to operate equitably within our communities.
Quakers over the years have developed a complex set of norms and practices surrounding how we make decisions and designate authority and responsibility in our community.
Many of these norms and practices need renewal and revision in the face of critiques regarding diversity, equity and inclusion in our communities (or lack thereof). We usually refer to this set of practices and norms as Friends Decision Making Process or discerning a, “Sense of the Meeting,” — a process that seeks to understand how the group is being led on an action.
Note, specifically, that there is no such thing as, “Quaker Process,” as a fixed and static idea. While Quaker Process has become a term of art for some, it indicates different things at different times to different groups of Quakers. As there is no single kind of ‘Quaker process’, it is wiser to speak about a specific Quaker tradition, Faith and Practice, or decision-making process.
Sometimes Friends speak of Corporate witness or discernment. What does that mean?
Within the liberal tradition, our theology is determined by the discernment we conduct as a whole community. In the traditional jargon, this is called “corporate” discernment.
This discernment has been typically envisaged as referring to moments wherein we are all sitting in a room at a specific time and physical place waiting for God to speak through the collective. In the post-modern age, corporate discernment could also be taken to mean a “through line” of truth or several truths emerging in the context of discourse taking place in many physical and virtual contexts over a period of time.
The period of time could refer to several days during a yearly meeting’s annual sessions, yet it could also refer to a series of years when the whole community is wrestling with a specific set of concerns in many different ways and venues.
Regardless, Quaker corporate discernment relies upon Quaker tradition because we have received important discernment from those who came before us.
In other words, we reference the work of our “faith ancestors,” and they participate in our corporate discernment through our traditions.
Faith and Practice
Faith and Practice is Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Quaker guide for members, attenders, and seekers. A digital version of Faith and Practice is available online. A paperback version can be purchased from the FGC bookstore. Below is an abbreviated quote from the Foreword to the 2018 PYM edition.
Every person has been empowered with the capacity to enter directly , without mediation , into an empowering relationship with God….Philadelphia Yearly Meeting affirms that transformation comes when we, in daily life and in our meeting communities, trust in the Light that gives life and empowers everyone who comes in our world,
Wednesdays on the Practice of Worship
If you are interested in furthering your own spiritual practice, sign up for the 7:00pm Wednesday Weekly Worship Series. Zachary Dutton facilitates a Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting program that shares a new type of mid-week worship each Wednesday through June.
To receive the Zoom information for Wednesdays on the Practice of Worship (or share your thoughts about the Quaker traditions article) contact Zachary Dutton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To see a full listing of Wednesday Worship visit PYM’s events calendar.