Appreciative Eldering

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When I first got involved in Friends Meetings, I was fortunate to have a number of role models and elders to guide my first steps into this society, which was foreign to the world I had known. I felt immediately that I was a Quaker and that I had been one for years before discovering a meeting. But learning the Quaker jargon took a while. Some of it seemed so natural because it fit so well, but some of it required absorbing new processes and new ways of looking at the community life. I did some of that learning by osmosis, some by asking questions, and some by getting help from more experienced Friends.

I was lucky that several veterans of Civilian Public Service camps, conscientious objectors like me, took me under their wings at key moments and explained things to me, especially when I began to take on meeting responsibilities. I learned there is such a thing as “politics of consensus,” with tactics – like the process of seasoning – behind “finding unity in the sense of the Meeting.” There are techniques for writing minutes and for tracking Good Order of Friends. There are ways to include newcomers and answer their questions without breaking the rule that “no one person speaks for the whole Society of Friends.” And there are ways of dealing with problems that arise between and among Friends in a Quaker Meeting.

 “Eldering” is the traditional word for this last process. It is a word that is not used as often today as it once was – because it has acquired the connotation of “criticizing or judging others according to inflexible rules.” But that is not its original meaning, nor its most Quakerly meaning. “Eldering” designates a practice of listening spirituality by which those with more experience or knowledge of Quaker practice will query and encourage those who are lost – or whose behavior is disturbing the Meeting – to look at their choices, explain themselves, and seek ways that are more functional and spiritually centered. More importantly, eldership gives us ways of listening and querying to reinforce good ministries and to encourage those with gifts to develop them.

For the last fifteen years, I worked with Friends and meetings to deal with conflicts and discord in meetings and worship groups. I have done this by helping Friends rediscover the process of positive, appreciative eldering based on listening.

Many meetings feel helpless when trying to deal with individuals whose actions interfere with the meeting’s normal practices. Friends are typically anarchic; we feel uncomfortable saying anything that dissents from another person’s choices. We hate the thought of criticizing or holding anyone accountable to standards; especially when we’re not sure about the standards, and are often unsure of what good Quakerly practices are. The word discipline is generally anathema. Calls for self-control and commitment are frightening to many of us. We have forgotten how to use the word “no,” or to set boundaries and say, “This is the way we do it.” At the same time, this is exactly what our book of Faith and Practice does; also known as our Book of Discipline, it lays out a normative description of our ideals and practices, which have been harvested from years of discernment and shared experiences in Friends meetings.

So perhaps we need a different term than “elder,” one that’s not freighted with our old fears of tyrants. But whatever we call them, “elders” receive much of the credit for having helped the Religious Society of Friends survive its first hundred years. Many sects sprang into existence in the seventeenth century, but few of them survived. Several Quaker historians have proposed that the Ranters, Muggletonians, Levelers, and other forgotten voices of that time were lost due to their lack of the wisdom, foresight, and tempering influence that Quakers received from their elders, those Friends who were stronger and more experienced in living a life of faith – and they could be of any age.

In our liberal Quaker meetings in the western United States, we generally fail to teach our traditions successfully to newly convinced Friends, let alone the reasons behind our more distinctive differences from secular society. Many people come to us assuming we are just another post-hippie, progressive activist group, and that the social norms that work in other such groups apply to Friends as well. They do not; but nobody tells them.

It is not that we don’t have Friends among us whom we appreciate for their exemplary lives and centered wisdom. But we are not clear about whether those Friends play any special roles in our community life – either formal or informal. In fact, we seem to willfully refuse to recognize such roles or set them up.

I have begun using the term “appreciative eldering” for the role that I believe we need more Friends among us to fill. These are servant leaders who listen equally to the still, small Voice and to the inner meaning of community discussions. These are Friends who are able to recognize the many gifts that the Eternal Creating One blesses each person with. They have a knack for calling those gifts forward with thanks. They ask hard questions easily, in ways that are easy to answer. They simultaneously hold up the traditions of Quaker wisdom, the vision of their meeting’s current gathering as a great people, and a vision of where their meeting needs to go. They facilitate discernment and set limits when people wander off the path. They seek reconciliation and are quick to forgive.

People think such elders aren’t around anymore, but they are. They exist in most meetings, but are often shy about their strengths. They are also aware of the pain that elders have caused in the past and so are reluctant to stand out or speak up. It is time for us to elder our elders. Western Friends need them. Come out of the closet and learn to elder appreciatively, share your counsel and experience, question when things are not going according to Good Order.

There is much work for appreciative elders to do. The most significant challenges to our silent worship tradition come from within: the lack of understanding of our traditions and the reasons for our practices; the individualistic isolation that prioritizes the individuals’ feelings and needs, as well as jobs and families, over the peace and unity of our congregations. We have watched as group after group embroils itself in cold-shoulder conflict, tiptoeing around the anger or pushiness of individuals with personality disorders or with contrary ideas about what the Religious Society of Friends should be. We have watched conflict drive attenders away as we fail to respond to disorder. We have lost members by failing to provide them with spiritual support when they have been aggrieved by unloving behaviors during Business Meeting and committee assignments. Silence is not the only option. There are ways to address these concerns.

We need to start by appreciating each of the Friends in our community for their own quirky gifts. We need to provide more opportunities for all members of our community to work side-by-side, so we can see each other’s abilities and perceive their unseen possibilities. If we have never washed dishes together, planned the program for a retreat or shared a class with a Friend whose approach is diametrical to our own, or negotiated the assignment of the finger-food for a post-memorial reception together, how will we be able to recommend the human potential of these friends to nominating committee? Our presence together in coffee hour and second-hour religious education is almost as important as our presence together in worship.

We must get back to frequently thanking each other for every gift anyone gives. Appreciative eldership means to encourage new attenders to start to consider the needs of the meeting, and to see those needs as opportunities for them to get involved and to grow. “You can do that,” we need to say. “I did it once, and I will teach you what I learned.”

Appreciative elders need to listen with empowerment when they hear gripes and challenges. “Somebody should do something about . . .”  The elder is somebody. G!d is giving the elder this concern to care for, or at least find out who can care for it.

The elder can hold the problem in the Light in daily worship ­– or while walking or jogging or vacuuming. If the people involved in a conflict are viewed through the eyes of love, a suggestion might emerge that might help move the people toward reconciliation or successful collaboration.  It is all right to initiate and intervene when “private” problems affect the group.

Appreciative elders need to help newer Friends feel competent, help them learn more about Quaker processes and about what makes those processes work. Both the educational and guidance functions of elders have been part of this role for centuries. Quaker education cannot depend on osmosis alone. Elders must help us talk about how to work through the things that are not working. We must trust that the Spirit can guide us.

Finally, we must ask out Ministry and Counsel Committees to set limits. When a Friend does not respect our process or our standards for treatment of each other, we must have the conviction that it is right to say, “That is not O.K. That is un-Quakerly.” Numerous resources are available to help us with this: in fields related to nonviolent communication and active listening. These can teach us and remind us of all the various steps that can gently and caringly guide a “disorderly walker” back onto the path of Love. Patricia Loring’s Listening Spirituality: Volume II: Corporate Spiritual Practice among Friends is one excellent example.

In the end, that is all an “elder” is – no matter their age – someone ahead on the path, someone who can see where we’ve got off track, who can tell us where to step to get out of the rut and get back on the Way. All of us need to listen and follow. I know we hate to. We want to run ahead and frolic in our own ways. But sometimes it is just better to listen to the Guide, who tells us through an elder, which way to go. Or sometimes we need to listen to the Guide telling us how to elder in love, so that all of us can live again as Friends.  ~~~

Pablo Stanfield is a member of University Meeting (NPYM) in Seattle. He has traveled with a recognized ministry for peace education and conflict resolution among Friends, whose traditions of Good Order, eldering, and dialog can help build healthy communities.