by Mary Linda McKinney
When I have introduced Friends to Faithful Meetings through the public information sessions, the question of “Who are you?” has been asked once but otherwise has hung unspoken in the air. Behind this, I think, is the question, “What qualifies you for this work?” These are both important questions that deserve an honest response but I’ll focus on the second one right now.
When I think about it from a worldly perspective, I don’t feel at all qualified for this. You see, I have almost no secular authority. My background is working class. I could fill pages with all the things I am not. I have no M.Div. or background in teaching, theology, or leadership; I haven’t written books, lectures or pamphlets; I don’t even have an undergrad degree. Aside from spiritual direction training, on paper I have little in common with the founders of The School of the Spirit or others who have created and led programs like this. Because of a learning disability, I read very slowly, retain little of what I read, make copious notes which slows my reading even further, and then struggle to make sense of the notes to use them later. I only know secondhand what Samuel Bownas says about the qualifications for Gospel Minister because I’ve tried reading his book several times and have given it up within the first few pages as beyond my ability of concentration.
But I don’t believe that the qualifications for ministry are about how the world sees me. To be qualified for ministry is to be called by God (however you conceive of the Divine) to do God’s work. To be qualified is to allow the Divine to use who and what I am…and not just the parts of me that look acceptable to others but the very parts of me that I want to keep hidden, the parts that have caused me embarrassment or shame and make me feel like a misfit or outsider, the parts that the world sees as unqualified and lacking. Submitting my feelings of inadequacy to God first required being willing to be present to the shame and defensiveness and grief and hurt and all the other emotions tied into it before I could truly give it over. To prepare myself, I talked through the emotional layers in many conversations with my spiritual director, therapist, elders, and spiritual companions. The process of being qualified for ministry has meant that I have had to be fully present with the parts of me that make me feel most vulnerable, most hurt, most unacceptable so I can bring them into the Light and say, “Are you sure about this, Beloved? Ok, here is the real me. I don’t see how it can possibly be of use to you but it is available if you want it.” And shetheyhe has responded by saying that those are the very things that make me the person called to bring forth this ministry.
In accepting this, I’ve been given the understanding that my flaws are my strengths. What this means is that God wanted me to create the program from the orientation of being a misfit rather than someone who holds power and authority among Friends. Any power and any authority I carry comes through me from the Divine, it does not originate in me. I’m the weird kid eating my lunch in the corner. If you join me, we won’t make much small talk but you’ll find that often the Holy Spirit is our dining companion.
This, of course, turned my understanding of Faithful Meetings inside out. Instead of beginning with the premise “What should Friends be taught?”, my starting point shifted to considering what I needed at various points in my relationship with the Religious Society of Friends and, in particular, the monthly meeting to which I belong. What have I needed that I received? What have I needed that I was supported to find or create for myself? What have I needed that was simply unavailable?
From there, I explored some of the core elements of Friends beliefs and traditions, not to establish a doctrine to teach but to collect a variety of voices telling about their own experiences and understandings. What I have been given is that there is no standard we must all follow, no correct way to believe or interpret or act that will make us Officially Good Quakers. The Spirit gives each of us our own Light and living up to it is the right way to be a good Quaker, even when the Light one is given makes one’s understanding different from others in the meeting. (I wasn’t going to get into my own theology but it seems fitting to say that I believe we are all created unique in God’s image and because of that, we each have our own unique way of relating to God. In God’s eyes, it truly is “all good”.)
Faithful Meetings will be a different program with each meeting that engages with it because each meeting will have it’s own needs, concerns, and strengths. Over the course of the program, I will introduce a core set of topics important to Friends and offer some historical and contemporary perspectives about them but what a meeting community brings to each topic, how they want to engage with it, and what they take from it will grow out of the Light given them.
This is where some of my gifts come in. My role in Faithful Meetings is not that of teacher but facilitator. With each community, I will co-create a space in which Friends can share themselves with one another, explore and sometimes wrestle with spiritual concepts, and find new ways of connecting with one another and with the Inward Teacher. My work is to act as host for all of this–to arrange, invite, welcome, introduce, provide, and refresh. Like the host of a good party, I will keep my finger on the pulse of things: “They seem enthusiastic about the topic. Is this a good time for a question that might help them go deeper?”; “This person has spoken at length and that one hasn’t spoken at all; how does Christ want to guide me in navigating this dynamic?”; “The energy in the group feels a little flat; maybe it is time for a playful activity.”; “The group as a whole is doing well but that person seems to be struggling. I think it would be useful to meet in small groups so they can process what they’re learning with one another.”
So…the qualifications I bring to Faithful Meetings are my gifts of creating emotionally safe spaces, meeting people where they are, and the kind of deep listening that one gains from training in spiritual direction and in facilitation. I bring an abiding sense of Christ’s inward presence and absolute trust that everything we need is available to us in God’s time. I bring a willingness to submit myself–all the parts of me, even the ones I think are unworthy–for the Holy Recycler to use and work through. I bring openness, curiosity, humor, integrity, reverence (and a fair-sized dollop of irreverence), vulnerability, my love of expectant waiting worship and Quaker process, and my faith that God has qualified me-is qualifying me-to carry this ministry.
I know there will be people who reject this program because I am not credentialed in the ways they expect and value. I’m sorry for that but all I can be is who I am given by my Creator to be. I trust that our Divine Guide will connect Faithful Meetings with the communities that are ready for it.
If you would like to learn more about Faithful Meetings, register here to join one of the 4 information sessions scheduled for February. If those dates don’t fit your needs, feel free to contact me to set up a time to talk or to bring an information session to your meeting or worship group. firstname.lastname@example.org