Thursday, February 17, 2011


When I learned that Wess D was going to be the guest speaker for Quaker Heritage Day, my first thought was, "I should go with him as his elder!"  Then I looked at my planner and realized that I couldn't―Quaker Heritage Day was scheduled for the same weekend as the February School of the Spirit residency in Durham, North Carolina.

Wess and I talked on the phone soon after, and we both said we were sorry that we would not be able to do this ministry together.  I promised to keep him in my prayers, and he said that he would let me know how his search for an elder progressed.  A few weeks later, Wess sent me an email saying that he would be traveling with a Friend from his church who was new to this kind of work.  Wess asked if I had written any blog posts about being an elder and I realized that I had not, and I probably should.

So here are some of my thoughts on being an elder.  Before I begin, I would like to clarify that this is a specific kind of eldering, that is, traveling with a minister to hold the minister and the community in prayer as he or she gives ministry under a concern.  I have also done less formal sorts of eldering in my home meeting, which I may talk about in another post.  In addition, although I have eldered for both men and women called to ministry, I will use female pronouns for the rest of this post for simplicity.  I will also refer to the gathering as a "workshop," even though these reflections would apply in many contexts.

As an elder, I have found that prayer is essential.  When I feel called to elder for someone, that person is in my prayers long before we travel.  I pray that she will be open to what God is putting in her heart to share.  I also pray for the people we will visit, that their hearts will be open to hear the message.

Before the workshop, it is important for me to spend time with the minister.  It is best if we have an opportunity to worship with each other, but traveling and eating together are also good ways for us to "sync up" before offering ministry.

During the workshop, I continue to hold the minister and the community in prayer.  This can be a very powerful experience for me.  I often feel myself holding the meeting, which, for me, feels like being at the bottom of a well.  I don't always hear all of the words Friends are sharing, but I have a sense of how the Spirit is moving through them and in the room.

Eldering is a very physical experience for me.  When I am praying, I feel the weight of the ministry.  I am also very aware of the bodies of those in the room.  I have found that one of the gifts I bring to eldering is a sense of when to take a break, either because people are getting restless, or because they need time to absorb the ministry being shared.

I try to be mindful about where I am in the room, and I check in with the minister beforehand about what would feel most supportive for her.  Generally, I try to sit near the minister, but where I can also see everyone in the room.  Sometimes I feel led to move, and I try to be open to that.

I check in with the minister throughout the workshop, to see how things are going with her and to share any impressions that arise.  Sometimes this is as mundane as making sure the minister has water or a snack, other times it involves major course correction to respond to the needs of the people in the room.  If the workshop is long, it can be grounding to have another opportunity to worship together.

Throughout, I do my best to lay down my own business and concerns and be open to God. 

It is helpful for me if the minister lets me know if she wants anything in particular.  For example, when I eldered for Marge A in the fall, she asked me to sum up the day in the final worship.  Knowing that in advance helped me to pay attention to the threads of ministry being woven together over the course of the workshop.

The relationship of minister and elder is intimate, and I think it is important for anyone being called to this work to know that in advance.  Ideally, both the minister and the elder are open and vulnerable to God, which can make them quite open and vulnerable to each other.  Spiritual intimacy often is not recognized in our culture, and it can be confusing for those doing ministry and those witnessing the ministry.  Consequently, while doing this work, it is critical for both the minister and elder to keep their focus on God.

After the workshop is over, I try to spend time with the minister reflecting on the experience.  Something I have learned from the School of the Spirit is the practice of examen―reflecting on the day, in particular, how I felt the Spirit at work and where the Spirit felt absent or blocked.  This is a time when the minister and I may feel tender and tired, so it is not a good idea to rehash everything, but it is good to take some time to check in again and close in worship.  I also try to keep in touch with the minister over the following days and weeks to see if anything arises about the experience.

I realize that I have described a kind of idealized eldering experience here.  I don't remember to do all of these things all the time.  In fact, when I am preparing to serve as an elder, I usually have a moment of panic, when I feel sure that I can't do it.  That is important for me, because it reminds me that I am not doing this―God is working through me to help ground the minister in truth.

Friends have a lot of historical resources describing the experiences of ministers, but not very many about the experiences of elders.  That isn't surprising; I have found that elders aren't always the chattiest bunch.  It is intuitive work and there aren't always words for the experiences.  I hope that these reflections on my experiences are helpful for those feeling called to serve as an elder, and I would welcome responses from others who have done this work.


  1. I wonder in your experience if you have run up against those not in favor of women elders and how you have dealt with it.

  2. Good question, Pat. I actually haven't encountered much resistance to women eldering, though I have run up against those not in favor of women ministers. I think people may accept women elders more because it is a nurturing role.

    When people have expressed surprise about me serving as an elder, it usually has more to do with my age than my gender (and sometimes the fact that the person I am eldering for is much older than me).

  3. I like the way you describe your own experience of eldering. It rings true for me, too. And thank you again for serving in this role for me during the recent SotS residency. Your gifts were well used.

  4. Interesting. I suppose it comes down to one's view of scripture and their interpretation therein.

  5. Thanks for this post. It resonated with my experience as a someone who is frequently called to serve as an elder. I look forward to talking with you next week.

  6. I have already shared this with Ashley, but my husband Kenn & I wrote a paper on the experience of being yoked as elder to minister for one of our SotS residencies. We are happy to share it with others who are doing this work.

    Lu Harper
    Rochester Meeting NYYM

  7. Resonates also with my own experience.
    EstherGrace Gilbert

  8. This was a very insightful post for me. I am serving as an elder in my local meeting, but the description of your eldering ministry opens up a broader and deeper perspective. I'm going to copy this post to share with the other elders. Thank you.

  9. Ashley,
    Thank you for these wise words. As I've ministered among Friends I've experienced the nurture of several elders. Your experience echoes most of what "works" for me—helps keep me faithful to God's movement through the efforts of organizing, presenting, responding, debriefing.

    I miss talking with you!

    Christine Hall
    Whidbey Island Quaker

  10. Thanks for the postings. I wonder if one or more of you could write a clear, direct Viewpoint for Friends Journal about what you consider eldering to be and about your "training" for it and your experience of it. I wouldn't apologize for the word "eldering" but just present it. Very few people have any awareness of it, especially as you experience it. Sharon Hoover Alfred MM, NYYM, now at Lewes, DE.

  11. Thank you for the comments, everyone! I am glad to hear that my experiences resonated with you.

    I nominate Sadie to write about eldering for Friends Journal--she really helped me when I was preparing to elder for the first time.

  12. @Nancy--same with me. I serve in a large, evangelical meeting and while I may consult with the pastors on their messages and offer encouragement, our elder positions are largely administrative in nature. I'm sure the size and makeup of the meeting have a lot to do with the nature of the podition, but I definitely like the aspect that you have in your role, Ashley. We have the leeway to make the role into what we envision it, so there would be nothing to stop me or another elder from doing what you and others do. It actually would be nice to add in another component to flesh out the role a little more fully.

  13. @Ashley, @Sharon, et al: Thank you, Ashley, for adding to the voices sharing their experience of our tradition's practice of eldering, in Travel in the Ministry. I am grateful to Friends who d found themselves carrying, researching, naming, and teaching about this when it was all but lost: Elaine Emily, Bob Schmitt, Kenneth Sutton, Jan Hoffman, Bill and Fran Tabor, Lloyd Lee Wilson (as a Minister) - and others. If an article were to be written [for FJ] I would like to see these Friends, and their journey of rediscover of this practice, also lifted up. This is a "contemporary" history I worry we are in danger of losing. This is especially so in the truth that you lift up, Ashley - those with these gifts are not as vocal, nor prone to writing about their experiences. Thanks again.
    -Kristina Keefe-Perry, Rochester MM / NYYM

  14. Thank you for this reminder, Kristina. I am certainly standing on the shoulders of these Quaker giants, some of whom have been personally encouraging to me.

    For those who are interested in reading more about the relationship between a minister and an elder, I recommend the chapter by Jan Hoffman and Kenneth Sutton in "Walk Worthy of Your Calling," edited by Marge Abbott and Peggy Parsons (pp. 152-69).

  15. Thanks for the really practical take on this. I encourage you to consider the suggestion about writing an article and whether you might be led to share this in some ministry of your own.

    As for the female-male thing, Bonnie Tinker asked me, on occasion, to serve as an elder to her in ministry. It was a transformative experience for me. We did encounter one or two Friends who questioned a man eldering a female minister. They were Friends, of course, who did not know Bonnie well.

    Thanks, again.


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