In this next-to-last piece in this series, I here quote from my book On living with a concern for gospel ministry (ch 16) — where you can find full sources for the quotations herein. In my next post, I will offer a suggestion for a way that gatherings of ministering Friends might get to practical grips with the work of mutual up-building — a concern that is slowly gaining strength again, here in New England and elsewhere.
Seeking counsel from other ministers
It is a matter for gratefulness that Friends have rediscovered the importance of eldership. However, nothing can take the place of the counsel and fellowship that ministers can offer to each other, and there is the greatest need for this kind of mutual cultivation and support. Indeed, the reason this book is being written at all is because such frank interaction among Friends in the ministry is so rare and precious, and this little book can at least offer an echo of it.
When a Friend is young in the concern, there is a lot to learn about knowing when to act or speak, and when to keep waiting. Those who have struggled with the same questions can offer support and advice that is grounded in personal experience. Ann Crowley describes how, while she was accompanying some Friends travelling in the ministry, she began to feel called to appear in the ministry. She held back, however, believing that she might be mistaken, and in any case her companions were more experienced and she should not get in their way. She kept silent, but they also did as well. She felt turmoil in her uncertainty, but
I spent an instructive evening with my companions, who I believe were dipped into a sense of my condition. The next morning … [my] exercise was renewed; but I was still fearful of believing myself called to so great and important work, as to become a minister of the everlasting gospel of peace and reconciliation. (Skidmore 2004)
She came to understand that her companions’ silence was in fact a consequence of hers, that in those meetings she was given some service which would open the way for the others.
This withholding more than was meet, appeared to shut up the way of my dear companions, for public labour. Indeed, I have come to believe … that, in order to know the life and power to arise in our religious assemblies it is highly needful for all the living members of the body, to keep their ranks in righteousness, whether in doing or suffering for the sake of the cause. (Skidmore 2004)
Other challenges arise, however, as one carries the concern for service through the ups and downs of life. In such cases, the sense of kinship and mutual responsibility between ministers can lead to real consolation as well as frank advice. Lydia Lancaster writes to an old friend,
The last time I heard of thee it was a time of great weakness with thee, which took deep hold of my mind. … Maybe we shall see each other at our spring meeting, meanwhile let us be true in our desires for each other, and for Israel, and for the heritage of God everywhere, that Truth may increase, and cover the earth in a more general way to his praise, and the comfort of all his mourners, that they may put on the garments of praise, instead of the spirit of heaviness—so wisheth, so prayeth, thy firm friend and true lover in the covenant of endless life.(Skidmore 2004)
It’s not just at times of struggle and darkness, though, but also times of joy or solid accomplishment, that a word from someone you know to be an experienced colleague can confirm and solidify your experience. A few years ago, I found myself with a message breaking through with a fresh sense of freedom and fearlessness, to speak both more strongly and more tenderly from my inward experience than I had felt able to before. An older Friend said to me in an opportunity later, that he could confirm that he heard something authentic and fresh, and that I was finally “getting somewhere.” Knowing his gift for listening, and his own long history of seeking for faithfulness, I was greatly encouraged—and put more on the watch than ever. When such a Friend says, “Thee was used, today,” it is very meaningful; and it makes one more eager to affirm and encourage others.
But these personal encounters, important though they are, do not exhaust the resources that Quakerism has developed for the support of those carrying the concern for Gospel ministry. A great service of the traditional meetings of ministers and elders was that they provided a regular opportunity for those under the same concern (each according to their own gifts) to speak to and guide each other. Where these meetings exerted control and repression, they were harmful, and no one would wish their return. Yet they had this virtue, that they were an explicit assertion by the Society that ministers sometimes should meet together for support and counsel.
In his article, “Our Quaker ministry twenty years after the cessation of recording,” T. E. Harvey (of London Yearly Meeting) deplores the loss of the chance at yearly meeting for recorded ministers to meet and counsel with each other, which he found a great solace and help in his youth. It may be, however, that some will not have a clear sense of what kinds of advice he might have in mind when he writes:
there are all kinds of simple, practical advice which those who are called to speak in meeting can offer to one another, and which cannot be given in the same way by those who never open their mouths in meeting and do not know from within what it means to do so. (Harvey 1946)
It is also likely that such meetings could arouse concern or fear that they represent a potential “elite” within the larger body. Such fears can only be addressed by the experimental evidence of more humble, courageous, and effective service among those who attend and benefit from such gatherings.
They were occasions in which experienced ministers, with great tenderness, and under the sense of a blessed unity in the love and service of Christ, often gave wise and helpful counsel to their younger brethren. Offerings in the ministry from those whose names were not yet recorded on the list of approved ministers were passed under review, in a confidential and loving spirit; and when occasion seemed to call for it, individuals were deputed to procure interviews with some of these Friends, and to convey to them messages of counsel or encouragement as the case might seem to require. (J.J Dymond)
Perhaps more practical for modern unprogrammed Friends is the notion that ministers (which might mean “anyone who speaks in meeting and feels drawn to the gathering”) should gather together informally from time to time, for mutual support and advice. This kind of gathering is sometimes hard for Friends to organize in their home meeting—perhaps because of embarrassment, or some other sort of inhibition about naming gifts, or causing disagreements or discomfort within the community.
For this reason, a concerned visitor is sometimes better able to help this happen. Sometimes Friends in the ministry were concerned to convene ministers either in their home area, or when travelling. Such episodes are very common in the journals of the Quaker middle period, for such Friends as Scott, Churchman, or Bownas, for whom this was a perennial concern. From more recently, T. Harvey writes:
I can remember attending in London some forty years ago [ca. 1900] the meeting of Recorded Ministers which was held at intervals … that is almost the only gathering of Friends engaged in the service of the Ministry which I can recall from my own personal experience, in spite of the very definite instruction of [London] Yearly Meeting encouraging everywhere this kind of fellowship.
Such gatherings were known from the earliest days of the Quaker movement, and through meetings and correspondence, those Friends who bore some share of the ministry trained, guided, encouraged, and reproved each other, frankly and in love, for the work’s sake. From the nineteenth century, J. J. Dymond recalled the value of such occasions, and urged their renewal in his own day:
if something like the restoration of the “Preachers’ meetings” which existed in the very early days of the Society could be brought about, it would be to me a joyful realization of the desire of many years … it is needless here to describe in detail what should be the duties of such meetings. They would … afford opportunity for united prayer, for considering the needs of the flock, and for taking counsel together in order to the furtherance and efficiency of the work of the Gospel among us. (Dymond 1892)
I can relate the story of a recent, hopeful experiment in this direction, which might help make this whole idea more concrete, more realistic, and less forbidding than it might appear to some readers of this chapter so far. In the 1980s and 1990s in New England, Friends who were travelling in the ministry met together three or four times a year, and communicated also by way of an occasional newsletter. These gatherings were quite informal, typically on a Saturday for a few hours; attendance varied from six or eight, to as many as 15. After some opening worship, we would spend the time it took to tell each other what we had been doing, where we had been going, interesting things we’d noticed at meetings we’d visited. In this way, we all improved our knowledge of events around the yearly meeting, and also became aware of meetings that were particularly in need of visits from Friends.
Many of us attending were not travelling much, or even were only thinking of doing so, and such Friends could hear all the different kinds of intervisitation that were going on, with or without minutes, with or without specific concerns or topics to talk about, and so on. We gave each other advice about travel minutes or questions about reporting to our own meetings, and gave each other feedback, and prayed for each other. We also found partners, made agreements to accompany each other, and shared potluck lunches and the stories of our everyday lives. The meetings faded away when several of the convening Friends were unable to continue scheduling meetings, and putting out newsletters. While they continued, however, they were instructive, refreshing, encouraging, and fun.