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Deepening the spiritual: exploring the role of the elder

In a faith with no leaders, Helen Oldridge explores the role of elders in supporting the spiritual side of Quaker meetings.

Elders can work in different ways, but their core focus is supporting the spiritual in Quaker meetings. Photo: Michael Preston for Quakers in Britain
Elders can work in different ways, but their core focus is supporting the spiritual in Quaker meetings. Photo: Michael Preston for Quakers in Britain

Quaker worship is distinct because it is not led by one person but by all who take part. Our meetings don't have priests or ministers. Anyone can speak, or minister, if they feel moved to.

How is this facilitated? Well, there's a lot more going on in a Quaker meeting than just a bunch of people sitting quietly in a room. Over the years Quakers have found ways to ensure that meetings are thriving spiritual communities which nurture people, provide leadership and inspiration, and also maintain our commitment to equality.

One of these ways is the role of elder. Traditionally elders are nominated to take responsibility for the spiritual side of the Quaker community, usually for three years. Contrary to what the name might imply, the role isn't based on age. It also doesn't signify any kind of rank or reward for long service. Elders are one side of a two headed coin, the other side being the overseer role, which focuses on pastoral care. Many Friends I've met see an elder's role as 'deepening the spiritual life of the community'.

So what does this mean, practically speaking, and how are some meetings doing it differently?

Spot the elder

Most obviously, elders bring meeting for worship to a close by shaking hands with someone in the meeting. This is a simple but important responsibility, and they have to consider timing carefully. While most meetings have a set start time and tend to be an hour long, the end time is not set in stone.

Elders can choose to close before or after the hour to find the most natural end. They will be guided by how the meeting feels: it could be becoming restless, or it could be overflowing with powerful ministry.

Listening for meaning

Two terms sometimes associated with eldership and oversight are 'control' and 'rules'. It's true that elders have responsibility to maintain the worshipfulness, or spiritual quality, of the meeting. On occasion this might mean steering the meeting back on track, or making a judgement about whether to intervene in worship or ministry. This is only done as a last resort but is a necessary responsibility and must be done with tenderness for any individual and the gathered meeting. Elders might also comfort those who are overwhelmed with emotion of ministry.

In short, elders have the important job of fostering spiritual spoken ministry. Often this involves encouraging people to give ministry, helping them to feel confident about it, and guiding the meeting to listen for meaning in everyone's ministry.

A chance to share

At many meetings elders will facilitate something called 'afterword' after the hour of worship ends. Held in the same spirit of worship, it is a less formal opportunity to share things that bubbled up during worship but weren't expressed. Some of the smaller meetings I visit, which are often silent throughout worship, really value afterword.

Elders also create other opportunities for friends to deepen their spiritual life together, and to strengthen community. The elders may organise or enable these to happen. These could be things such as discussion groups, going for walks, gardening or singing together.

New approaches

These are just some of the main aspects of being an elder, and of course elders will have their own varied approaches to the role. I've also found in my work that many meetings are exploring different approaches to the role itself.

Some are looking at merging the roles of elder and overseer as there is so much overlap between them – an approach taken by my meeting. Others are moving to a corporate, or shared, model where the tasks are explicitly shared by everyone instead of appointing individuals to roles.

While it's true that some meetings who commit to a shared approach have been reinvigorated, moving to a corporate model requires corporate commitment. If there's no one being nominated to do a role formally, and people lose momentum to do it informally, then things don't work out well.

Sharing circles

Larger meetings, often in big cities, have their own challenges when it comes to eldership. With people spread over a large area, and often a high turnover of attenders, creating a continued sense of spiritual support can be more difficult.

One approach is to subdivide into smaller 'loops' or circles of Quakers who can better support each other. Each of these loops has an elder or coordinator, who ensures that meet-ups happen, make sure people feel connected to each other and the meeting, and visit people who are sick. They also connect with other coordinators to make sure loops don't become separate meetings in themselves!

Changing roles

From my work alongside the meetings in my patch, it's clear that elders play an important part in meetings, and that the role is changing to suit the needs of people and meetings today. I look forward to seeing how meetings continue to find ways to facilitate their worship in ways that suit their situation while remaining true to our core Quaker practice.

Find our more abut different Quaker roles