Monday, January 16, 2012

The Circuit Rider

Across the street from where I work, there is a statue commemorating the Circuit Rider.  I pass by it several times a week and at different times, I notice different things about it. 

Sometimes, the fact that there is a memorial to a traveling minister is encouraging.  On some days, I focus on the fact that the rider is reading his Bible while on horseback and I want to tell him, "For God's sake, look where you're going!"  Other days, I notice what a mess the birds have made of the statue and think that seems about right. 

Recently, I have been grateful for the caption on the statue, which says,
Commemorating the labors and achievements of the Ministers of the Gospel who as circuit riders became the friends counselors and evangels to the pioneers on every American frontier.
Often after I have done ministry, I don't feel any sense of achievement, and I appreciate the fact that the statue celebrates the labors as well as the achievements of the ministers of the Gospel.

A few weeks ago, Micah B wrote a post describing a shift in his call to ministry.  Where he once felt called to full-time and traveling ministry, he now feels that God is calling him to a more settled service.  I wrote in the comments that his experience sounded familiar―I wrote a similar post last spring.

After reading Micah's post, I went back and looked at the paper I wrote a couple years ago about the spiritual nurture of young Friends traveling in the ministry.  Looking at the list of Friends I interviewed, I was struck by the number of people who are no longer traveling in the ministry.  There are a few notable exceptions, but I think that the majority of the people I interviewed are not doing that work right now.

I know that there are many reasons that these Friends may have had to lay down traveling ministry.  Most of the people I interviewed are now in their late 20s and early 30s, which is a time of great transition.  People go back to school, move, get married, buy houses, and have children during those years.  I also know that God calls us to different ministries at different times.  And one or two of them have left Friends altogether.

I think another reason that some Friends are not doing this work is because it is so hard.  I know this from experience.

Last spring, during what a friend of mine calls The Bad Time, I did some ministry that was very hard.  I tried to be faithful, but I ended up hurting some people and I got hurt too.  By the end of it, I was a spiritual, emotional, and physical mess.  I couldn't pray, I cried all the time, and my left hip hurt a lot.  When I finally went to see a chiropractor, she said, "You twisted your pelvis.  Was there something about a month ago that triggered your fight or flight response?"

I know that many others have had similarly hard experiences in traveling ministry.  Some of the Friends I interviewed shared those stories with me, and I have heard others since then.

Fortunately, I am blessed with supportive friends, family, and a church community, who held me through that time.  They listened to me and walked next to me as I put the pieces of my life back together.  After I burned out so spectacularly, it was clear that I needed to lay down traveling ministry, and I did.  Slowly, I recovered, and I hope that I learned some of the lessons that I needed to learn.

Traveling ministry has sometimes been called the life-blood of the Religious Society of Friends.  I believe that meeting with those who are called to this work―seeing the Light of Christ shine through them―can be a life-changing experience, one that calls others into deeper faithfulness.  But this cannot be at the expense of the ministers or it will not be sustainable.

I am writing about this now because I am preparing to travel again.  As I have mentioned before, I will be leaving in about three months to go to Kenya for the FWCC World Conference of Friends.  While there, I will be representing Freedom Friends Church and leading a workshop.  In June, I will be one of the plenary speakers at the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference on the topic "inviting grace."  And I am seasoning a leading to visit a yearly meeting's annual sessions in July.

Each of these trips feels good and right, but the thought of traveling in the ministry as a general concept makes me wary in a way I never used to be.  But I know that it is good work, and that there is a time for it and a time for rest.  

So for those who are traveling in the ministry, blessings.  And for those who are resting or feeling led to other kinds of work, blessings on you too.  And to all those who are creating space for this work and supporting ministers who feel called to it, thank you.


  1. Dear Ashley,
    don't get too worried about thy poor circuit rider's attention to the written word rather than they road, and be hopeful he had attention to the Word.
    My maternal great-grandfather was a circuit rider before the Methodists proclaimed him too heretical and he became an independent itinerant minister to logging camps and mining saloons around the Pacific Northwest. Other than a couple of totally egregious gospel tunes with hideous texts i don't know what he or anyone else ever got out of it.
    My paternal grandfather was reminiscing that around 1899 he had had to ride (horseback of course) from Pendleton OR to Wenatchee WA -- about 100 miles that took 5 days or more. He told of heading for Milton and Walla Walla then across the Horse Heaven Hills and then zigzagging up the Columbia, in order to ride with others riding in (barely) similar directions so as not to travel alone.
    I thought it interesting that he thought 5 days was a reasonable time for a trip that could have been raced at 3 days --the company was more important than the hurry then -- it could be done in 80 - 100 minutes today.
    Then i thought about those long days of travel with persons one might barely know, and remembered: horse-riders don't steer. The horse has eyes, intelligence and a desire to get to oats in a stable too -- the rider has plenty of time to read, and quite safely too. So i asked grandad: "Well, after you got thru talking about the weather, the politics, mutual acquaintances and who married whom, and look at that sage brush over there... what did you do if you didn't have a book to read?
    "We knit."
    You knit?
    "Of course. We were mostly single, young men who couldn't count on aging mothers or sisters with little ones to care for us; so if we wanted warm socks, mittens or longjohns for the winter, we had to make them. So we knit. Every cowboy i knew had an alforhus (alforjas) with balls of wool on one side, his needles and piece work on the other... We all knit."
    I was agog. This is part of my Western heritage that no one had ever mentioned before, but he was as authentic an authority on pioneer life as any son of a first-arriving Oregon Trail pioneer could be.
    I just want a Hollywood movie to have a little flavor of authenticity. I want that scene where the bad guys are down in a draw considering nefarious deeds, when over the crest of the hill comes a line of the good cowboys, John Wayne in the lead:
    Knit one, purl two; knit one, purl two...

    But don't worry about their driving, dear. The horse knows the way...
    paz y purling, ~dpablo 8^)>

  2. That's funny! And nice to know I have something in common with the circuit riders. Thanks for stopping by, Pablo.


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