Building Networks of Support and Eldering

There’s a lot to say about this past weekend retreat on Convergent Friends and New Monasticism and it’s going to take me some time to unpack all the various experiences, ideas and thoughts that came out of it. However, one thing is for sure it was a learning experience. One of the really important things that came out of this past weekend was around my experience of leading a group like this.

A couple months ago, while Martin and I were in the middle of planning the weekend, Ashley Wilcox, member of Freedom Friends Church, emailed the two of us and asked us if we’d would be interested in having her companionship over the weekend as an elder. We both met Ashley last year at Ben Lomond Quaker Center while we were leading a convergent Friends retreat with our good friend Robin Mohr.  She is also the co-clerk of the Pacific Northwest Quaker Women’s Conference and visited Camas Friends this past fall with co-clerk Sarah Peterson.

Martin and I, for as much traveling and teaching we’ve done, have never experienced an offer like this. So we said, “Sure! What do you mean exactly!” And so she told us. What Ashley has been working recently is finding ways to support traveling ministers and build up a better, more healthy culture of eldering in our churches. She’s recently done a really great project on the subject for one of her courses at the School of the Spirit in Seattle.  Her presence during the weekend as our elder, and friend was invaluable. Her role was mainly two fold, spiritual support, and a third voice for sounding ideas off of. We met when we first got to Pendle Hill on Friday, and did checking in, and then periodicially throughout the weekend we would take a break during a session and pop outside to debrief with Ashley. For the most part she quietly prayed during our sessions, and only very occasionally would she add a thought or two. She helped to close the last session and invite us into worship, and got everyone singing during another.

More specifically, she helped us work through some of the more difficult moments in the retreat. By the third session, we could tell that there was something negative in the room. Some people’s body languages and lack of interaction seemed to point at this, but I wasn’t really sure how to respond. My thought was, as it usually is, “stick to the plan, and things will work out.” Well Ashley had a different leading and with the help of another Quaker, helped Martin and I change courses on what we were doing. By the last session on Saturday night the room’s energy had shifted and it felt like things were headed in the right direction. At one point I thought, “Wow, they were right, that’s what we were supposed to do.”

Martin and I hadn’t planned on having this kind of prayerful support while we did our workshop but Ashley obeyed Christ’s leading to do this and I really felt that gift (and I think I can speak for Martin on this too). This past weekend was a good example of working to build a network of support that goes beyond our own local meetings, support that is convergent in that it is deeply centered and communal, yet geographically spread out and theologically diverse. It also goes to show that this requires real work, and a gifted person to do that work. I see this as a growing area of work for all of us, whether we travel around in the ministry giving talks, and leading weekends, or do the day in and day out work in our local communities there are people who are ready, willing and capable of going deeper in their faith in a way that actually helps others.

Finally, Martin wrote about another example of this in his recent post on the weekend:

It actually helps to come at this from the different edges. One of the most interesting experiences came from Wess bringing a traveling minute. The director of Pendle Hill suggested that participants in the group might want to write the response that would be returned to his church. We talked about how this is one of the ways meetings support members and three people volunteered to write a response. As it was read at the end of the weekend, the de facto clerk of the response committee surprised us all by suggesting that the group approve a similar response for myself and for Ashley, even though we didn’t carry traveling minutes. Here was an example of a group of Friends finding ways to support and rebuild Quaker processes that aren’t as strong in every meeting.

As our churches/meetings continue to transition what is going to be need is a lot of nurture and pastoral care, a lot of formal and informal kinds of support, and a community pulls together in whatever ways possible.

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Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

2 thoughts on “Building Networks of Support and Eldering”

  1. I have had opportunities both to travel with an elder and to be the elder for another Friend. This is a very valuable traditional Friends practice which I’m happy to see is coming back into wider use.

    I remember the experience where I accompanied a minister leading a retreat for a group at a distance who didn’t really know us. They thought we were coming to lead together, and didn’t understand why I didn’t lead any of the sessions, which provided an opportunity to educate them about this traditional Friends practice.

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