Monday, April 29, 2013

Eldering in Practice

“Friend, can I speak to you outside about something?”

He was amiable enough to that. Worship had concluded with the traditional shaking of hands. I’d deliberately chosen a seat next to him at a new location across the Meetingroom from where I normally sit. He leaves immediately after Worship, avoiding coffee hour and conversation. He has never involved himself in the work of any committee or task force of which I know. This is what has complicated this endeavor. Finding time to talk would be much easier that way.

The Friend shares vocal ministry too frequently. He has spoken, at last count, every First Day for the past three months. It is the custom of my Meeting that God ought to be allowed to speak through others during Worship, rather than be the domain of any designated minister. If we truly believe in the Priesthood of all Friends, then constant vocal ministry by one speaker belies what we say we are as Quakers. If we share too regularly, then frequent speakers more or less take the place of a called minister.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d rehearsed a speech in my head for days. I wanted to do this properly, but I didn’t want to sound punitive and scolding. When I made the request that he space out his vocal ministry henceforth, he told me that he felt as though I was the Meeting police. I wasn't entirely surprised with the response. Liberal Friends often have a negative relationship with authority in any form. A recent article in Friends Journal suggested that the unofficial motto of Liberal unprogrammed Friends ought to be, “You ain’t the boss of me.”

Never was this more in effect here. He said he strongly disagreed with my assessment and the assessment of my committee. I hope this means that he will nonetheless heed my request, but I'll see in the future if this is borne out by his conduct. I understand why Eldering isn't done more frequently, because it routinely makes people defensive, regardless of how tactful one seeks to be at the outset. Regardless, I believe my approach to be better than the way I was Eldered for the same reason, with a snide and caustic comment.

A committee member suggested that, following my request, I offer him the ability to participate in committee service. This was a good idea. I fully intended to make the request, but the progression of our conversation never allowed me the opportunity to pose it to him. He said that my approach didn’t allow him the ability to speak his mind. After only a few minutes of conversation, he wanted to part ways, and hastily left my company.

Shortly before heading back inside the Meetingroom, he mentioned an incident between us that occurred well over a year ago. Following Worship, on my way home from Meeting, he approached me for conversation at the bus stop. He rambled on for several minutes, though I sought to understand his meaning. I departed his company after a few minutes of fruitless communication that never really congealed. Since then, he has held fast to the memory of this false start, not recognizing the reasons why it failed.

I’m the clerk of Ministry and Worship. This responsibility falls upon me. Though Quakers seek to avoid hierarchy and champion equality for all, the buck stops here for me and for everyone who serves the Meeting. Years and years of unchallenged Meeting dysfunction have created a climate where habitual line-steppers know that they will never be confronted. I’m not even sure where to begin sometimes, but I’ve now made it clear that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated. I do not take pleasure in being confrontational, but I know that every effort towards reform has to begin somewhere.

Meeting discipline has challenged believers since the beginning of the Religious Society of Friends. For Christians, problems like these necessitated the writing of Paul’s numerous Epistles to fledgling churches spread out over the Roman Empire. Each had its own challenges and needed gentle correction, though some churches had greater problems than others. Jesus proposed a particular methodology in his ministry that I’ve kept in mind in the midst of this entire process.

"If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

The last lines may be harsh to some but they are certainly not wavering. I will continue to intercede in matters like these as frequently as they are needed. Eldering has not been done at Friends Meeting of Washington, and I know that other people are resistant to it. One needs a strong stomach and a thick skin in these matters. Perhaps it even takes a particular kind of specific set of personality traits to Elder successfully. I went into this with my eyes open. I fully expected at the outset to receive significant push back, often coupled with a kind of low-grade hostility best described as nasty nice.

I am not seeking to make the Meeting over in my own image. Instead, my foremost desire is to make sure that Friends are faithful to what and who they say they are. We should live our Testimonies are surely as we espouse them. We should respect Faith & Practice and not be afraid to use it as an authoritative text. My undertaking this past First Day began with a series of small steps like these. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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