Introduction to Eldership and Spiritual Accompaniment
by Lu Harper
We understand elders as Friends who hold a deep concern for the spiritual life of the meeting, and who carry gifts of prayer, discernment, recognizing & naming spiritual gifts, voicing hard truths, listening, teaching, a ministry of presence, spiritual accompaniment, and an understanding of the spiritual basis of Friends’ faith & practice. In traditional or indigenous cultures, “Elders” are named to reverently acknowledge the wisdom of the elderly. Our Quaker understanding of elders differs: while not excluding respect for the wisdom that comes with age, it does not limit acknowledgment of wisdom or spiritual depth by age. In this issue we hope to expand our collective understanding of eldership through the experiences and stories of Friends across the yearly meeting.
In this understanding of eldership, which can be exemplified both within and without Quaker circles, someone who is called into eldership or spiritual accompaniment:
- practices deep, respectful listening;
- cultivates relationships based in mutual learning;
- provides practical support for another’s work;
- carries a concern for the well-being of the body;
- is open to unexpected opportunities;
- creates space for “way opening”;
- creates structures of integrity & mutual accountability;
- serves the community as led;
- is grounded by both history & experience; and
- provides opportunities for witness and testimony in a meetinghouse of ideas.
The Quaker understanding of eldership developed in the first generation of Friends, when “public” Friends were traveling and spreading their experiential understanding of the possibility of unmediated access to God. As these ministers helped establish local meetings and then moved on, early Quakers became aware of the importance of identifying steady Friends to ground and settle fledgling meetings. These Friends were recognized as elders.
The work of early elders as described in the Balby Epistle of 1656 was largely that of pastoral care, care of the meeting for worship and overall care of the functions of the meeting: caring for families, the poor and imprisoned; recording marriages, births, and deaths, etc. The Epistle’s postscript emphasized the importance of following the Spirit rather than rules, an emphasis that is still at the root of eldership.
In the Quietist period that followed the persecution of the first generation of Quakers, organizational structures solidified, and ministers and elders became associated with structural power that was subject to abuse. “Eldering,” historically used to describe one function of eldership—gently admonishing in love the ways, habits, or thoughts of a Friend or attender after serious consideration by or consultation with respected members of the meeting—became a byword for structural abuse of power among Friends, and in the liberal tradition the naming of elders fell into disuse by the beginning of the 20th century.
Throughout our history, Friends have carried the gifts of eldership and concerns for the spiritual life of the meeting. We continue to experience these gifts working among us, whether or not we name them as such. Friends carrying gifts of eldership are called to serve on clearness committees, committees of ministry & counsel or pastoral care; they are the Friends you turn to for guidance or for a listening ear. In meeting business sessions, they will be “holding space,” holding the gathered body of Friends in the Light or in prayer. And so much more.
In this issue, we will hear a variety of Friends’ experiences of elders and eldership and explore what eldership might look like in a renewed vision of the Religious Society of Friends.