Spirit-led Structures for Quaker Meetings

by Steven Davison
Central Philadelphia Meeting


A Quaker meeting’s structure has the same purpose as the meeting for worship—to channel the movement of the Holy Spirit: to nurture its experience by individuals and the gathered community, and to facilitate its expression in individual and corporate action.


In the late seventeenth century, instead of creating committees, Friends created “meetings” for various purposes—monthly meetings to conduct the community’s business, the Meeting for Sufferings to distribute support to Friends in jail and their families, the Monday Morning Meeting to oversee public ministry, etc. They also developed the faith and practice of Quaker ministry, which eventually matured into a culture of eldership for vocal ministry in which ministers and elders were “recorded” and supported by the meeting.


The rise of the liberal movement in Quakerism around the turn of the twentieth century brought a consequential shift to a new structure for meeting life—standing committees. 


We now take our committee structure for granted. In some areas of meeting life, particularly in administration and finances, they have served us well. In other areas, I see evidence that committees obstruct the movement of the Spirit, hindering the work of the Spirit in some ways, while often serving it in other ways.  


In the areas of outreach, religious education, and witness—that is, for committees organized around a specific concern—the committee structure can lead to a negative outcome. For these functions, I think we should eventually stop using committees and return to a reimagined version of the traditional faith and practice of Quaker ministry.


Here’s why I think committees obstruct the work of the Spirit.


In theory, at least, “concerns” rise up because the Spirit has tapped someone on the shoulder. Most of the time, this call from the Holy Spirit raises in the Friend a concern, an emotional and spiritual feeling about something that seeks to impel them into action. Sometimes, this feeling gels into a more or less clear leading, a call to do something specific about the concern. Sometimes a leading keeps growing, or it multiplies—it leads to other leadings or to a broader call into ministry beyond the original specific task laid upon the Friend by the Spirit. 


The meeting has important roles at every stage of this development. For a heart-felt concern or leading, the meeting is called to provide discernment as to whether the leading is of God—whether it’s a true leading or not—and clarity about what exactly one is called to do about it. Once the truth, weight, and character of the leading has been established, the meeting needs to support the minister in her calling in whatever ways it can.


When a Friend has been called into the ministry—say, as a gospel (vocal) minister, or as an activist, or in some form of pastoral care—then the meeting needs to establish some form of sustained eldership for the minister, perhaps in the form of a support committee. Central Philadelphia Meeting has established a Gifts and Leadings Committee just for this kind of support.


Committees usually work against the Friend and her concern, leading, or ministry, and against the meeting’s proper roles in relation to the call, at virtually every step of the way. For example, probably everybody on a Peace and Social Concerns committee feels a concern. The committee’s role, then, would be to help each member of the committee move from a general feeling of concern to the clarity of a call to action. They should hold clearness committees for discernment for their members. Instead, the focus is on what the committee should do, rather than on what the individuals should be doing.


It’s even worse for those with clear leadings or a call to some ministry. In a committee, your leading or ministry must compete with those of the other members of the committee (assuming they have a clear calling) and with the main function of a committee, which is to figure out what the committee should be doing. If other members of the committee do not have a clear leading, then you compete—for time, attention, and resources—with the committee’s internal management needs (budget, nominating, etc.) and with whatever its visioning process is. In addition, the various committees organized around a concern have to compete with each other for the meeting’s time and resources.


And that’s if your leading naturally falls within the purview of one of the meeting’s existing committees. If you have a leading that doesn’t, the meeting almost always tries to cram you into one anyway, the one that seems the closest to your concern. This brings to the committee a new, relatively unrelated concern, but one felt strongly by someone, when the committee’s members already have their own agenda. The result is often conflict, or at least suppression of the new leading. 


This dynamic tends to quench the spirit behind new leadings. All of our testimonies, and continuing revelation in general, start out as new—that is, prophetic; that is, Spirit-led—concerns and leadings. They deserve Spirit-led attention and eldership, not a bucket of cold water. I watched all this happen to the earthcare concern in New York Yearly Meeting. Committees quench the Spirit and suppress continuing revelation.


For Friends who are called into a ministry as a life calling, carrying one’s ministry in the committee framework is a kind of purgatory, a lifetime spent struggling against the constraints imposed by the structure—or going on alone without the support that God’s work really needs.


The alternative to the dysfunctional committee structure for support of concerns is to return to a reimagined version of the traditional faith and practice of Quaker ministry: to answer that of God in emerging ministers with personal discernment, support, and oversight. Many meetings are not equipped to do this because they don’t know or don’t understand the tradition well enough to take responsibility for it. But there are gobs of resources in our heritage for the learning. 


In the meantime, the committees already organized around a concern should conduct clearness committees for each of its members to discern their leading. As each member becomes clear about what they are called to do, the committee should help the meeting understand its role as support system for the newly identified leadings and ministries. In other words, the existing committees should serve as laboratories for the exploration of a new and revitalized infrastructure for the eldership of Quaker ministry.