Friday, September 19, 2014

Pastoral Authority in Unprogrammed Friends

[As part of my second year in a Master of Divinity program at Candler School of Theology, I am required to spend eight hours a week in an ecclesial setting.  My site is Atlanta Friends Meeting, where I am a sojourning member.  This week, in the class connected with that site work, we were asked to interview our site mentor about his or her views on pastoral authority and leadership.  These are my reflections on our conversation.]

When I interviewed my site mentor, Paul B, about his understanding of pastoral authority and leadership, we agreed that it is a tricky question for unprogrammed Friends.  In my site, Atlanta Friends Meeting (AFM), there is no pastoral staff.  Paul stated that the pastoral nature of Quakerism is that the community cares for itself instead of having a designated pastor or minister to provide care.  Thus, every Friend has an obligation to support the community.

At AFM, we do have a committee that focuses on pastoral care, the Care and Counsel committee.  That committee is made up of people who choose to be on it and serve for a designated term.  The committee draws people who are gifted in pastoral care, but they are not the only people who provide pastoral care in the meeting.  One of the tensions in an unprogrammed meeting is how to hold (mostly) volunteers accountable.  Having people rotate off the committee after their term is one way to do that.

As we spoke, the primary metaphor that Paul used for pastoral care was the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27).  Christ is the head of our meeting and we are the body.  Within that body, people care for each other and provide care as needed.  Friends are resistant to the idea of authority, other than the authority that comes from the Holy Spirit, but we do recognize the need for leadership.

Three committees in AFM cover three of the roles that a pastor traditionally fills.  Care and Counsel provides pastoral care as described above.  The Ministry and Worship committee focuses on the worship within the meeting and attends to things like weddings, support for ministry, and applications for membership (I serve on the Ministry and Worship committee).  We also have a Social Concerns committee, which connects the meeting to the larger community context and does outreach.

Reflecting on this conversation, I agree that the body of Christ is a very good metaphor for pastoral care in a Friends meeting.  I also realized that my personal metaphor for ministry has been the story of Peter’s shadow falling on people and healing them (Acts 5:15).  In that story, if Peter’s shadow is behind him as he walks, he will never know whom he is healing.

I have been a public minister among Friends for over six years now, and in that time I have lived in four different cities.  Each time I moved, I felt like God was calling me to the next place, but it has been very hard for me.  I feel like I have been planting seeds in ministry, but I do not get to stay long enough to see how they grow or if they bear fruit.  I have to trust that God is working through me even as I move on.

Having a year to spend deeply involved in the life of the meeting at AFM feels like a gift.  My site mentors and I are still discerning what ministry will look like for me in this context, but I know that there are needs in the meeting and that I have gifts to bring.  I am also grateful that I will not be doing this work alone.  We have a well-developed committee structure with many people bringing their time, gifts, and skills to support this community of Friends.

1 comment:

  1. Having been raised Catholic, I was imbued with a different version of this body "metaphor"; in Roman doctrine, it is not an internal, pastoral image but an external, ecclesiological one: the Church (as a visible institution) is the "mystical body" of the raised Christ in the world. This notion looks more to the earlier verses in the same 1 Corinthians chapter:
    "12For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. 13For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14For the body is not one member, but many."
    I brought that notion with me into Quakerism, but with a different, no doubt heretical, slant: rather than the imperial, triumphalist orthodox Catholic vision (the RC church is THE body), I see the "church" as an invisible "body," of which various denominations (and some non-church renegades) are "members" or organs.
    And I've often pondered: which "organ" of this "body" might the Society of Friends be? When I'm feeling optimistic, I think -- "Maybe we're the pineal gland, a tiny organ which emits influences that shape much bigger systems in favorable ways"; when I'm pessimistic, I think, "Naaah; we're no more than the appendix, a shriveling and useless evolutionary relic."
    Yet despite my changing moods, this notion of Quakerism as a functional, if often itchy or dyspeptic, "member/organ" of a larger body remains useful. And I don't think it's really incompatible with the internal pastoral vision, tho I admit I like it better.


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