The Concerns of Public Ministry

by Windy Cooler

I need to find ways to put my love into the world. It is frustrating but the Society of Friends does not have the kinds of relationships I longed for. What [I have] learned was a lot of people were getting hurt.

A public minister in the liberal tradition, Fall 2023

In FGC’s first installment in our series on public ministry, we explored definitions of public minister in the liberal Quaker tradition. I said that the role of the public minister is to pursue, in a focused, deeply experiential way, what John Woolman referred to as “right relationship.” I said “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.”

In this second installment in FGC’s four-part series on public ministry, we will explore some of the specific concerns public ministers bring into the healing light through the testimony of some of the 21 Friends I have interviewed in the autumn of 2023. As we will see in the testimony of modern public ministers their concerns transcend the specific advocacy cause for which a minister is known.

Public ministers carry Quakerism in their bodies and offer their bodies to us as mirrors of who we are called to be, even when their ministries take them eventually to other communities, as in the case of this Friend: “…[my ministry] wasn’t for Quakers. I never wonder: what can Quakers offer in these spaces? My Quakerism comes with me and I think: how can I hold space for people who have deep soul hurt? Do they want to be part of that space holding?”

Modern public ministers indeed are often longing for a beloved community inside Quakerism and find themselves on the outside of it. Their gift to us is often, eventually, in their lament and what they eventually offer to people outside of our community through their learnings within our community.

In the voice of one public minister: “The way I understand the idea of Quakerism is that we’re trying to build a community where we encourage each other to be naked to the truth. That is a delicate, frightening thing to do.” This encapsulates something in the role of the public minister of today, a journey toward community and truth telling, however frightening. Another Friend says “I don’t want to be exclusive, but we should know what our shape and contents are.” Finding definition is another concern. These two concerns, the pursuit of truth, however frightening, and a definition of what it means to be inside the community and to know belonging, are central leadings throughout the testimony in this installment on public ministry.

While the testimony I am sharing does not focus on advocacy goals, concerns within the Quaker community do include a disconnect between activism and practical intent, as well as challenges in separating personal desires from divine guidance. Leadership potential is acknowledged, but conflicts arise when financial anxieties take precedence over human-focused values. “The current state of Friends is related to activism”, one Friend says, “We still have the reputation of activism, but we don’t think we need to be practical and intentional about it.”

Practical matters often put public ministers at odds with Friends who control access to material resources. One Friends recounted the experiences of conflict between one public minister engaged in work they described as “unusual” in its commitment to treating those in their care as humans and reluctant to put finances over the common good of the people. The board, on the other hand, was focused on finances.  “Quakers cut the heads off our leaders, like the tall poppies. I have not felt any head cutting. But I know if I stay long enough I might.” 

This Friend is referencing Marty Grundy’s Pendle Hill Pamphlet Tall Poppies: Supporting Gifts of Ministry and Eldering in the Monthly Meeting[], in which Quaker public ministers and others exhibiting leadership qualities are cut down like flowers. Tall poppies are often mentioned in the testimony of public ministers, both in lament and in rebuke of the way they experience a lack of support for their call to support Quaker community and Quaker potential. 

Some public ministers are angry at not being supported, and the anger becomes central to the ministry itself. “The point of faithfulness: why would you be a Quaker otherwise? I came to this faith because of an actual and impending apocalypse. I needed a community. I needed to center the holy. It is still my ministry to center the holy in worship and before and after worship. I tried to preach that with my life and with my words, living a life that is love. I feel so upset and so confused that my meeting doesn’t want that.”

Critiques of an older Quaker generation who are perceived as being in implicit or explicit control of resources to which younger public Friends need access are commonplace in the testimony. These critiques include a tendency to prioritize institutional stability, an idea, over communal well-being, a lived reality. This is leading to a failure to recognize the divine in others. “I found my participation in Yearly Meeting to be a waste of time,” one Friend tells me, recalling how existing structures are laborious and seem to serve the interests of a problematic status quo, rather than calls for creativity and change that can bubble up from the collective in Quaker practice. 

Many public ministers eventually seek employment in Quaker institutions as a way of staying active in their call. Inside of institutional employment, opportunities for ministry are acknowledged as calls to orientation, and are not just jobs. Employment in a Quaker institution necessarily involves a, not always supported, conversation with the divine. “Public ministry is always a negotiation. That is what makes it public. Even the clerk of a meeting is a public minister. To an extent, the public needs to compromise to you–and you to them–to stay in the relationship. Quakerism, as its institutions, doesn’t know how to compromise when it comes to the ministers in their midst. Exceptional communities don’t need to compromise. When I get pushback it is because I’m expressing uncertainty about their certainty.” Employment in Quaker institutions then, while sometimes, but not always, resolving material needs, eventually feels to some as if they are settling for the status quo to stay connected at all. This power imbalance is rarely acknowledged in public spaces.

Resentment about power imbalances and the suppression of acknowledging power imbalances is at the heart of many public ministers’ call to right relationship, in fact: “What I thought was wrong with me was that I have leadership potential. Being wrong, it turned out, was just leadership abilities. Nothing was wrong with me. “

Despite claiming inclusivity, the Quaker community is seen by many inside it as selectively accepting and hiding its lack of true inclusiveness. The discrepancy between proclaimed values and actual practices underscores a need for self-reflection and genuine inclusivity within the liberal Quaker tradition. Many Friends have a sense that their time in public ministry will be limited because their bodies cannot sustain the impact of public ministry for very long, especially given the overwhelming lack of spiritual or material support available to those without personal means. This is an irony in that they are using their bodies to address power imbalances and claim a sense of right relationship.

“Public ministers within Quakerism are inherently willing to serve as a lightning rod,” says a Friend. “The more lightning [there is] the more comfortable we eventually become. New lightning rods have to emerge, though, along with the newness of new lightning rods. We are so guilty of the tall poppy syndrome.” This turnover of lightning rods leads to questions about the disposability of public ministers, even popular Friends who travel and speak often, serving as nothing more than “cheap entertainment, not unlike the type of protestant minister we critique so often.”

Throughout these concerns, however urgent and critical, is the ongoing uplift of the potential we have in our love for one another and the need to be present to the nudgings of the Spirit. Perhaps the concern of public ministers in their call to right relationship is that we are indeed all ministers and they would like to remind us of that, even when we resist. As often as I heard a reference to tall poppies I also heard “In Quakerism, we hear that we are all ministers.”

Public ministers call our attention to our prophetic potential through their work and their lives. Says one such Friend:  “There are three audiences [to your ministry]. The first is God. The second is your community. And number three is yourself. Each of us is a minister in Quakerism. All of these things require compassion, and paying attention. We must balance all three of these in a sustainable way.”

It is up to all of us to live into that prophetic potential, the truth and definition we are looking for. The question raised by the tensions made apparent by public ministry is: what does sustainability mean to us in that prophetic potential?

This is the second of four essays in a series on public ministry in the liberal tradition. FGC hopes to end our study of public ministry with a vision for what it might look like in the future.

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