Ministry and Eldership: Some Definitions

by Liz Yeats

Within any meeting, there will be found some with special gifts. These will include those with a gift in the vocal ministry (ministers), those especially qualified to guide and counsel others (elders) and those whose insights and judgments can contribute significantly to the life and growth of the meeting (overseers).” This quote, from North Carolina Yearly Meeting’s (Conservative) Faith and Practice (1983), summarizes the historical practice (and the practice still used today in some meetings) among Friends of recognizing and recording the gifts of some members in a monthly meeting. Traditionally, such gifts were seen as given by God, to be recognized by the meeting, not by the individual, and to be used for the whole meeting’s benefit. Responsibility for the appropriate exercise of these gifts was assumed by the whole meeting. Friends were recorded so they could be supported in the development of their gifts and so they could be held accountable for using their gifts properly.

It must be emphasized that it was the gifts that were recorded and not the individual. Quoting again from North Carolina’s (Con.) Faith and Practice, “When any member . . . shall at any time be thought to have lost his or her service in that station, it is advised that timely and tender care be extended to such. Should such care prove ineffectual, let some discreet Friend be named to lay the matter before the monthly meeting.” Thus, a careful procedure was laid out for the removal of the recording.

Over the years, the practice of recording has evolved and changed. In some yearly meetings it has fallen out of favor, resulting, in part, from a period in Quaker history when ministers and elders seemed to have abused their positions. Our modern day sense of equality often makes it hard for Friends to accept naming some gifts while seemingly ignoring others. Other forms similar to recording have been done. These include “releasing” Friends to specific ministries and recognizing requests to be “taken under the care of the meeting” made by Friends called to ministry within and outside the meeting.

Certainly, contemporary Friends have expanded and changed their sense of what ministry and eldership can mean. Quoting from Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice (1978), “Some Friends hold the view that it is permissible to broaden the term minister to include those who volunteer to serve the poor, the defenseless, the suffering, the poor in spirit, and others of similar needs. It is optional for each monthly meeting to request of the Yearly Meeting its approval to record as ministers any members who have a special gift of service to the meeting or community.”

This issue of FGConnections explores how some of our meetings and FGC are recognizing and supporting God’s ministry through members of the Society of Friends. It also opens many questions for the future about how we can do this more effectively. In what ways should meetings recognize and affirm the God given gifts of members? When members are called to minister, how do Friends support them? What forms will assure appropriate accountability for the use of such gifts? What role do Friends organizations beyond the monthly meeting have in recognizing and supporting ministry?

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