Eavesdropping on Ministers: How are Meetings and Quaker Institutions Supporting Public Ministry?

by Windy Cooler

During these years of preparation, a time came when I felt led to ask Hartford meeting for oversight of my ministry… Hartford meeting heard my request, we labored together for a year before being ready for a called meeting for business in which to hold the question. The result was that the meeting was not in unity to provide oversight, but it did charge the Worship and Ministry Committee to make sure I had the support I needed. I was blessed with a feeling of clarity that I had been faithful in asking. The meeting had been honest about where it was as a body.

Debbie Humphries, from her 2016 Pendle Hill Pamphlet Spreading the Fire: Challenging and Encouraging Friends through Travel in the Ministry. 

According to Debbie Humphries’ public writings she received a travel minute from her meeting five years after beginning the process of asking for support. She was grateful.


In the previous two entries in our series on public ministry in FGC affiliated meetings we have explored the question of what a public minister is and what concerns shape the lives of public ministers. We talked about the traditional, but seemingly forgotten, vitality of support structures for public ministers, such as George Fox and the Valiant 60, who worked with the support of patrons and a developing spiritual community. Indeed, vital support continued for public ministry until at least the mid-19th century. Today, we said, despite any evidence or testimony to the contrary, many meetings claim that an abandonment of support for ministry is because of a 17th century admonition of Fox’s against “hireling ministers.” We also explored the testimony of 21 contemporary public Friends to conclude that, because of scant material and spiritual resources for public ministry today, John Woolman’s call to right relationship, compelling ministers into public discernment, often becomes an ironic spiritual struggle, carried alone, in anger and sadness. Ultimately, public ministers, I said, “carry Quakerism in their bodies and offer their bodies to us as mirrors of who we are called to be…”

This third entry in our four-part series on public ministry eavesdrops on a conversation between three public ministers in our tradition, Ashley Wilcox, Katie Breslin and me, as we read through the Faith and Practice documents of the 16 yearly meetings that make up FGC.

Ashley, Katie and I have decided not to focus on any one of the yearly meetings we discussed for this piece, but instead to look at patterns of how FGC yearly meetings document their intention to support ministry in their Faith and Practices and supporting documents. We don’t think it is helpful to single out any one meeting. We would like you to look at your own Faith and Practice though. In the end we ask what it would mean for public ministers to live less like the “tall poppies” mentioned in both of the previous entries in this four-part series and more like, to reference Matthew 6:28-33, “the lilies of the field?”

We three public ministers from different places in the Quaker world are gathering on a Google Meetup call, talking about how we are, how our pets are. 

The question we might ask ourselves, we decide, is “Do FGC-affiliated yearly meetings intend to support public ministry?” The surprising answer is yes, most do, or at least the writers of their most recent Faith and Practices did, or at some point in the last two decades someone did, as evidenced in the minutes of a business meeting where there will be a mention of the practice of some kind of public ministry, or chaplaincy, or travel ministry, or support for pastoral education. Confusingly, there may also be some kind of undocumented tradition, a kind of folk tradition, of offering minutes for travel or chaplaincy that is mistaken as a documented tradition in the memories of Friends. Ashley called these kinds of supportive folk traditions “a workaround.” She says “Friends will need something for their professional credentials (such as for chaplaincy) and meetings want to support them or give them what they need. But [in all cases of the folk tradition] it becomes this kind of ad hoc process, or case by case, or based on the social capital or charisma of either the minister or the person who is championing them. The problem is that it’s really inconsistent. It can change from year to year, depending on who’s in or who’s out or who has the energy or is paying attention.” 

The uneven consequences of not documenting our intentions may surprise Friends who believe they are being supportive of public ministry. Indeed, after finding no evidence of any means of support for public ministry in one yearly meeting’s records, I tell Katie and Ashley, I called their office and was told that, of course, they have many public ministers receiving support. In follow up calls to those public ministers I was referred to, I heard that their lived experience of support is very different than that the yearly meeting believes itself to be offering. Even receiving travel minutes, which are a kind of letter of introduction Friends traditionally use when going to another meeting, was decided, according to one public Friend I spoke with, “without much discernment.” This Friend explained that at their monthly meeting it was impossible to get a travel minute and at the yearly meeting it was practically “rubber stamped.” When they returned from their travels in the ministry very few Friends in either meeting were interested in what they had learned from being in other meetings or what they had done under the presumed care of the yearly meeting. 

Of course, the folk traditions a yearly meeting may have that are not connected to Faith and Practice can also be unsupportive. Ashley adds, speaking of the defensive way in which some Friends will counter a request for support by saying that “we are all ministers” — and therefore no one should get support for their ministry: “It feels disingenuous, like it is a way to stop the conversation instead of inviting conversation. If we’re all called the ministry what does that look like? And how do we support each other? And what are the different kinds of support that people need in that? A lot of things can be considered ministry or vocation, like teaching elementary school is a ministry, or being a lawyer…you can feel called to that. And those things have professional support built in. But being a traveling minister, or public Friend, does not have that support built in. And so, we need extra support for folks who feel called to them.” 

Because these defensive and unsupportive folk traditions happen in all of the yearly meetings we looked at, no matter what the Faith and Practice might say, it is clear that documentation isn’t enough to develop fairly discerned responses to leadings that come before any of us. And not documenting practices does not stop particularly engaged or socially powerful Friends from advancing a favorite public ministry, using supportive folk traditions, either. 

We noticed that many, though not most, yearly meetings, especially in the wealthy east coast, have funds to support ministry, and most yearly meetings have a documented process for at least minuting a ministry and spiritually supporting the public Friend, even if Faith and Practice makes it clear that no material support will be available. But we did not see, nor could we find many really good examples, of this working in an egalitarian way. The people who have power in the outside world, we conclude from the relationship between Faith and Practice and folk practice, often have power in the Quaker world. “Well, we’re not outside of those systems; we’re immersed in them. We would like to pretend that we’re not,” adds Ashley.

Katie chimes in as we all marvel at one particularly robust Faith and Practice’s intentions around recognizing public ministry which include instructions on how to spiritually and materially nurture those whose leadings we unite with: “I just wish they would publish a list of who has received this recognition so we could get a sense of who they are and how they are doing.” We can’t think of anyone from this yearly meeting we know who has the kind of support being described. Katie adds that maybe the process being described takes a very long time and in her experience Quakers “fetishize taking a long time.” She recalls a conversation with someone with whom she felt impatient: “they were like, well, it took us a really long time to come to the end of slavery. And I’m like, not a good example, guys.” As has been repeated by FGC’s Ministry on Racism, Quakers have a problematic relationship to white supremacy culture. Addressing this has been the work of countless historical and contemporary public ministers who are often not very popular with their home meetings or yearly meetings.

Katie, Ashley, and I murmur lovingly over several of the minutes and other documents we are reading, noticing that the travel minutes a yearly meeting has issued are in an easy to find place on the website. We exclaim, full of hope: “Oh, look at that! I know them!” or “At least they have a clear way of helping people become chaplains without having to change denominations!” or “At least they have dedicated money to send people to conferences.”

There are a lot of grateful “at leasts.” We are easily made grateful, perhaps. We have concluded there is a lot in what is already documented that could be very useful to building something we can all use to at least document when someone has a leading we unite with. But we know now it will take a lot more than clever wordsmithing and an eye to legalisms to overcome some of the folk practices that many of us have accepted as law. 

As we navigate the diverse approaches to ministry within these yearly meetings, a nuanced picture emerges. The intricate dance between institutional support, individual freedom, and financial considerations shapes the landscape of Quaker spiritual life. Each meeting contributes to the rich tapestry of Quaker ministry practices, reflecting the complexities and challenges inherent in nurturing and supporting ministers within the community.

What would it mean to transform from where we are, Friends, in this grateful “at least” place, to a place of abundance — and the vibrancy amid all the world’s concerns that we accept was the experience of the Valiant 60 in their public ministry? What would it mean to be something other than a tall poppy, or to be afraid of tall poppies, to, in the words of The Message’s translation of Matthew: “walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers?” What would it mean, in other words, to be accompanied and to accompany ministry? 

The fourth and final entry in our four-part series will explore the question of what a healthy future for public ministry might look like. 

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