Letting Go of the Term ‘Elder’
by Anne Pomeroy
New Paltz Meeting
As a practice, continuing revelation asks each of us to tend the spiritual condition of the body and of ourselves. We are asked to listen to how we are led. Continuing revelation provides a framework for understanding that the qualities that help us be more faithful will change in us, both for ourselves and for our community. Our understanding and practice of eldership will also change with our faithful attention to Spirit’s leadings. It is important to tend the existing and emerging functions of eldership without being bound by previous understandings of the term "elder."
Prophetic eldership is one function to tend. The prophetic function in a spiritual community may be thought of as feeling/sensing/seeing below the surface words—to identify and support what God/Spirit is trying to manifest in a particular moment. Prophetic eldership can name and disrupt the status quo. Disruption of the status quo is often met with resistance, which is a natural response.
As more Quakers experience the call to the functions of both elder and minister, let’s move beyond those terms to faithfulness. Being faithful means listening to Spirit/God. The way we listen and what we listen to are individual and collective. This listening may be limited when we identify with the role or term. Let’s listen for what Spirit is calling us into.
Both eldership and ministry tend the spiritual condition of the community and/or the individuals in the community. Aspects of eldership include: spiritual accompaniment (of individuals and the community), prayer, teaching, voicing the condition of the body, and tending the movement of the spirit in the gathered body or in an individual. Eldership has an element of listening for emerging ministry and therefore is a part of the communal support of continuing revelation experienced either by individuals or by the community. The actions of the elder are generated by and manifested through love and tend the wholeness of the community.
The motions of eldership support the spiritual growth of individuals and the community. Thus, when the gifts of eldership manifest, people feel seen and supported on their journey; there is a collective sense of spiritual community; resources are made available to support the spiritual deepening; and the community can sense and move toward collective action. The faithfulness of the community is enhanced by the function of eldership.
Without faithful listening, the shadow side of the gift of eldership can emerge. The shadow side of eldership is evident when the actions of an individual support the enforcement of the status quo and structural biases. Actions referred to as ‘eldering’ often encode racism, power, and exclusivity. In these instances rules (overt or unwritten) may be enforced that create an in/out sense in the faith community. This disrupts the fabric of the community causing personal and collective pain. In some instances the misuse of the role of elder has caused people in our communities to leave. Other individuals stay but are wounded. When the shadow side of eldership emerges it may reflect an underlying conflict in the community, an instance of ego, the use of personal or institutional power, or resistance to change. The occurrence of the shadow elements of eldership require a deep faithfulness from the community to tend the aftereffects of this behavior. A timely intervention can help the community heal and become more deeply connected spiritually. The community will need to tenderly navigate its way—seeking the guidance of Spirit throughout.
Our forms of worship and our practice of discernment help us listen. This faithful listening requires that we not bind ourselves by our previous understandings, our biases, and the stories we tell ourselves. So much has changed and is changing. New things keep emerging.
Can we embrace the functions of the care of the spiritual condition of the body that both elders and ministers carry? Can we release the terms of minister and elder? In these times of collective increasing awareness of structural racism and colonization, are we willing to let go of forms from the past and deeply listen to what is being called for now? Can we let go of terms, roles and behaviors that keep our vision of ourselves individually and collectively small, powerless and separated? Holding on to existing beliefs and behaviors (a form of confirmation bias) keeps us from being open to the promptings of Spirit and to continuing revelation. The power of Spirit for transformation is immense. What new is emerging? How are you/we experiencing Spirit moving? Are you ready? Let us do this together.