By Mary Linda McKinney
Some Friends shy away from the word “elder”. They associate it with finger-wagging rule enforcers who perform what is humorously called “drive-by eldering” which equates often to upholding out-dated cultural norms. If you’ve seen the movie “Friendly Persuasion”, you’ll recognize this kind of false eldering from the scene where members of their meeting visit the Quaker family after learning they have a musical instrument.This kind of busybody acts as a block to authenticity in community and to the Divine.
True eldering is not that, at all. Eldering done right is about relationships. A true elder knows that eldering is about helping members of their community flourish into who God is calling each to be. This often involves naming gifts, providing opportunities to learn and grow and openings in which to use the developing gifts. Occasionally, this does mean saying something to spur an individual to examine some aspect of their life which may be out of alignment with their stated intention or what is good for the community. None of this comes from the elder’s own will but instead comes through the elder as a leading from God. The elder makes themself available to God and God makes the elder available to their community.
God has given two wonderful elders to companion me as I create the Faithful Meetings program. Scott Wagoner was the most recent addition to the School of the Spirit board. He is the pastor of a Friends church in North Carolina and carries a concern for spiritual formation in Quaker communities. When the board began considering what kind of stewardship I would need to develop Faithful Meetings, Scott enthusiastically volunteered to provide support. I love working with Scott. Although he is a birthright Friend, because he is grounded in the Friends United Meeting branch of Quakerism–about which I know little–, he brings an outsider’s perspective to my work. He asks questions that make me consider what I take for granted so I can express important concepts with fewer assumptions. He shares insights and understandings that are different from those found in typical Liberal Friends communities which broaden my awareness. Also, it is fun that we’re both originally from Indiana so share a homespun sense of humor.
Robyn Josephs also lives in North Carolina and is a member of my own yearly meeting, Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association; I’d heard about her for years but we’ve met in real life briefly once. When School of the Spirit put a call out for people who might feel led to nurture this new ministry, Robyn responded with reticence about adding another thing to her overfull schedule and the clarity that supporting Faithful Meetings is her work to do. Robyn brings an important perspective to our time together. She was a member of the Pendle Hill community and knew the founders of School of the Spirit, Sonnie Cronk, Katheryn Damiano, and Fran Tabor, well as they faithfully created the Spiritual Nurturer program. Robyn brings first-hand experience of how profoundly centered in the life of the Spirit our foremothers were. She is able to share insights of her own experiences and those of the entire community from that era, which I find edifying. I am humbled and grateful to be connected in this way to ministers who have had a profound impact on my spiritual life and the lives of so many Friends.
Robyn and Scott beautifully model Spirit-guided eldering, which reinforces for me the importance of reclaiming not just the word but the role of the elder. This is one of the many spiritual practices of the Religious Society of Friends that I look forward to examining with Friends communities through Faithful Meetings. If you are interested in learning more about Faithful Meetings, please contact me at faithfulmeetings@