A Brief History of Eldership
Beginnings. The term eldering or eldership refers to a variety of Quaker practices designed to identify, nurture, and support the spiritual gifts of others within the faith community. The term derives from a traditional designated role in a local Friends meeting. Beginning in the late 17th and early 18th century, local meetings began to officially recognize certain members as having gifts of ministry (the ability to provide spirit-inspired vocal ministry during worship). Eldering was considered a separate spiritual gift: involving the nurture and support of those with special gifts of vocal ministry in the local meeting as well as in "public ministry" (preaching to non-Friends and among distant meetings.) Meetings at this time began to ormally recognize both women and men in the role meeting elder as a distinct role from recorded minister.
Elders were recognized as having a number of gifts including:
· Identifying women and men in the meeting with the gift of ministry
· Nurturing & supporting the development of ministers' gift
· Holding ministers accountable for faithfully exercising their gifts
· Prayerfully supporting and upholding deeply gathered waiting worship
· Accompanying ministers if they were led to travel under religious concern as their spiritual companions.
Ministers and elders met regularly both on the local meeting level and also on the quarterly and yearly meeting level.. Conservative Yearly Meetings continue to "record" gifts of ministry as a meeting and appoint elders. Ministers and elders meet with each other on the local monthl meeting level as well as the QM and YM level exercising prayerful responsibility over the quality of worship and spiritual life within the meeting community.
Reaction against Elders. There was a strong reaction in
the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Hicksite yearly meetings against both formally recognized
elders and recorded ministers. In part this was a response to what was viewed as
an overly dominant role that elders had come to play within the life of many meetings. These practices were also viewed as inconsistent with the value Friends placed on the giftedness
of all members. There was also a strong movement in these yearly meetings towards
individualism with an accompanying feeling that eldership represented an intrusion into
individuals' and families' personal discernment of how they should live their lives.
As a result, most FGC yearly meetings have discontinued these practices. Meetings of ministers and elders have been replaced by committees of ministry and worship, whose members serve by meeting appointment rather than for life.
Rebirth of interest in eldership. During the last few decades, however, there has been a significant rebirth of interest in eldership as a spiritual gift among many Friends in the large non-programmed yearly meetings. This was due in part for the important work done by Bill Taber (1927-2005) was a recorded minister of Ohio YM who taught Quakerism at Pendle Hill for many years. Bill felt led to reach out widely beyond the circle of the 3 Conservative Yearly Meetings to increase understanding of the unique Conservative Friends approaches to Quaker faith & practice. Sandra Cronk (1942-2000) of Philadelphia YM played a similar key role in spreading a fresh understanding of the meaning and value of eldership.
More and more Friends today are recognizing the importance of recognizing and nurturing a variety of spiritual gifts within the meeting community. Many today recognize that the pendulum swung way too far towards individualism in many of our meetings today. Many Friends are taking small steps towards being more open to others within their faith community holding them accountable in moving towards greater faithfulness. Many realize that this can be done mutually and in love rather than some in a superior role telling others how they should live.
In most cases today eldership outside of the Conservative YMs is not seen primarily as associated with a formal life-long role but rather as a gift widely exercised within the meeting community (including, one hopes, by the meetings ministry and worship committee!). Some Quaker retreat centers, gatherings and yearly meetings now regularly appoint elders to support those exercising spiritual leadership.
Ongoing work nurturing eldership. Sandra Cronk's work is carried on by the School of the Spirit (which she cofounded) with its wonderful training program nurturing spiritual leadership gifts among Friends. The Deborah Fisch of Iowa YM (Conservative) has played a leading role in the FGC Traveling Ministries Program. This program facilitates travel under religious concern among Friends widely and holds regular retreats supporting those who feel a calling to this work.
Workshops at the Friends Center in Barnesville OH, Woolman Hill in Deerfield MA, Quaker Center Ben Lomond and elsewhere help Friends to discern their gifts of eldering and learn with others to exercise these gifts more effectively. The School of the Spirit programs nurture these gifts. Quaker Spring is an annual gathering that introduces these ideas to many new Friends and also facilitate their ongoing exercise during the gatherings themselves.
Jan Hoffman of New England YM, Elaine Emily of Pacific YM, Lloyd Lee Wilson of North Carolina (Consevative) YM, and Susan Smith of Ohio Yearly Meeting are among the many other Friends carrying forward this work today.