What is a Quaker Public Minister?

by Windy Cooler

Throughout Friends General Conference, Friends are taking up the cause of “right relationship,” as 18th-century Quaker public minister John Woolman advocated. This cause involves addressing previously taboo issues and bringing hidden hurts into the healing light. This is the essence of a public minister’s role: summoning the courage to confront harsh realities, dedicating time to nurture tenderness even at a personal cost, serving as a prophet to challenge cruelty, and acting as a healer to guide Friends toward a new, vibrant, life-affirming reality. They are dedicated, sensitive caretakers, sharing with us all how to live more fully into our guide through receptivity, testimony, and sometimes risk-taking with themselves.

Throughout the history of liberal Quakerism, public ministers have played a pivotal role as guides and leaders for needed spiritual growth, beginning with the Valient 60 who, for instance, publicly ministered on the cause of equality while receiving support from one another and from patrons, without which they would have been pulled away from the ocean of light, for they were so disliked by those comfortable in the status quo. Their supported leadership is not something liberal Friends often recognize today, preferring to consider ourselves both leaderless and much like the Valient 60, whatever the evidence to the contrary.

In a recent blog post from the Quaker Leadership Center, on speaking of what it means to be identified as exhibiting leadership, or ministry, in public, they wrote “each time they stand up or speak up, they are subject to attacks from Friends who think it’s their responsibility to cut them down, serving as the humbling hand of the Almighty. No wonder so many potential Quaker leaders feel deflated and discouraged.” One might well ask: if some feel the authority to cut others down, are we really leaderless or do some Quaker leaders promote the status quo at the expense of creativity and growth?

This question is relevant to defining the public minister and how to support them. Effecting change is a demanding and often uncomfortable, sometimes full-time, patient labor. Because many dynamic public ministers swim in the leadership undertow of the status quo, one must possess discipline, accountability, and a robust support system for the health of the ministry. Without these three essential things, public ministers risk the drowning of their guide in their care, either outpacing it — or in not catching up to it. Discouragement can look like either in dangerous waters.

The startling lack of support for many public ministers as agents of creativity and growth is partly because many Friends are unfamiliar with the term “public minister” and uncertain how to support their work. Additionally, a misinterpretation of the testimony of equality, which often leads comfort-seeking elders to criticize or “cut down” those who stand out among us (referred to as the “tall poppies” by Marty Grundy in her 1999 Pendle Hill pamphlet of the same name), causes many Friends attempting public ministry to encounter hostility or apathy in their local meetings. Even in cases where a faith and practice document outlines the practice, it remains largely taboo in liberal Quakerism to seek a minute acknowledging the gifts of ministry, much less more substantial support.

Public ministers’ personal cost is therefore significant. I feel compelled to speak candidly to Friends about this issue through my own testimony.

For the past decade, I have been called to a public ministry that addresses interpersonal violence and trauma within the Religious Society of Friends. My concern is of right relationship. It was in 2018 that I received formal recognition of this calling through a clearness process and then a minute of my gifts of ministry, first from my yearly meeting and then from my monthly meeting. Despite this and the recent high demand for my speaking and educational support, for which I labor full-time, I lack adequate financial or spiritual support. My elders in ministry, who have ardently championed the cause of Friends’ right relationship for decades, stand alongside me, and I am profoundly thankful for their support. As I assume my place as an elder, I remember those who have guided me during my struggles with the Spirit’s assignment. But the institutional impoverishment of this ministry may eventually pull my guide into the undertow of the status quo. I am treading water with all my might. I notice others doing the same. We want a healthy, vibrant Quakerism and we are treading water with all our might, holding our guide’s head up with all our faith in our local meetings.

While it’s true that many of our famous historic public ministers were disliked in their time and praised in ours as if they represent our own actions, it is inconceivable that these leaders could have traveled, spoken, and effected change in their quest for right relationship without robust support. It is something of a miracle then that so many dynamic Friends today are attempting to do just that out of love for who we are and can be and we are treading water with all the faith in the world that the undertow of the status quo will not overcome us.

This is the first of four short essays in a series on public ministry in the liberal tradition. In subsequent essays, we will hear new first-hand accounts of diverse Friends serving in public ministry. In the next installment, we will explore the specific concerns of public ministry today. In subsequent installments, examples of support for prophetic and healing work across FGC, ending with a vision for what public ministry might look like in the future.

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