Releasing Friends to ministry
There has been a recent revival of interest in “archaic” Friends practices such as eldering and releasing. Here I will try to give a bit of history about ways Quakers have historically found to support each other as they seek to do the work which they feel called to. The ones being supported are known in Quaker-ese as “released Friends.” What are the origins of this practice? What are the “conditions?” Can and should this practice be revived?
Baltimore Yearly Meeting (BYM) Faith and Practice- -the closest thing Quakers have to a book of discipline- -states:
The Society recognized from its early times that some members possessed gifts of ministry, but abhorred any monetary reward for the practice of ministry as a trade rather than a calling.
That abhorrence stemmed from the fact that becoming a clergyman (for they were all men in the 1650s) assured a life of relative ease and conferred social status. All that was needed was enough money to afford college at Oxford or Cambridge. A spiritual connection was not required. While there were likely “men of God” among the graduates, George Fox was unable to find any of them when he searched from church to church across the countryside. Indeed, what he found was the opposite: the church was run for its own benefit. Vicars frequently “preached up sin,” as Fox put it.
From his study of the Bible, Fox found no precedent for paid ministry. The Holy Spirit was available to all. Fox asserted that “Christ was come to teach his people himself.” This meant that by allowing Christ to speak through us, anyone could be a minister. Thus began the idea of the ministry of all believers.
Rather than being born in sin, or that salvation was available to a select few, he found that the Bible affirmed the potential for us all to be children of God (John 1:12):
But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become children of God.
While there is the injunction in Matthew not to worry, there was also the pragmatic recognition that ministry is active not passive. Ministry, defined as doing the work of the Spirit, requires us to act, imperfect as our actions may be. The problem (or challenge) then, was to find a way to care for one’s physical needs in this world, while doing the work one felt called to do. The corollary was for the rest of the faith community to find ways to provide for the soiritual and physical needs of those called to the work of the Spirit. Enter the practice of releasing peers to do their work.
The first step happened to be clearness: How could either the called person, or her community be sure that the proposed course of action was divinely ordained? Steve Angell, drawing from several sources, described it thusly:
- The Friend perceives a concern to which he or she is led by inspiration from God. As Roger Wi1son ‘defines “concern,” it is’ a leading from God that cannot be denied, not just the intelligent thing to do. It is perceived through inward experience. Hope Way defines the process whereby a concern arises as the subjection of conscience ‘to “reflection,’ scrutiny, discernment and decision that: transforms [conscience] ,into something outgoing, outgiving, and constructive’:’-a.concern:”2 It does not matter where the concern arises—whether from the group seeking to release a Friend, .or from the individual seeking to be released.
(2) If the concern comes from an individual Friend, he or she raises the concern during a meeting for business conducted in a spirit of worship. Together the meeting seeks God’s guidance on the concern that has been raised for their consideration in worship. If the meeting feels led to unite on behalf of the concern, then it is obligated to determine what assistance the Friend needs. .Thus the second element is corporate support. Such support can include prayers on behalf of the Friend and the meeting’s Concern, oversight (often by an ad-hoc or special committee), and financial assistance as the need arises for the released Friend and his or her family.
3.)The Pendle Hill Workshop Report on Friends as Leaders states that the foremost quality called for in a Quaker leader is a continual posture of openness to God. The Quaker leader is one who proceeds in the power of the Lord …. Genuine authority is derived from the divine leading and empowerment of the leader and from the confirmation and acceptance of that leading by the community of faith.
The community of Friends cannot be more favored “by God than to have a genuine divinely-led concern arise among us and then to have that leading confirmed by the consensus of our meetings for business. Our released Friends, as bearers of those divinely-led concerns, can provide leadership for Friends, if we value highly enough the concern to which we also have been led and if we look to released Friends for that leadership.”
Based on this model, the released friend has a general sense of her calling and works with a committee to assure that she stays “on course,” rather than “wandering off into imaginations” as Fox would have said. It is a feedback loop: concern=> discernment=> meeting support=> work=>discernment. I would add accountability to the above list. There needs to be a way to keep meeting posted on the work, how it’s going, and adjustments to the way forward.
It is also important to realize that while some callings may be life-long, others are transient. The released friend
“usually undertakes a form of enabling ministry. Wilmer Cooper lists five forms of enabling ministry: reconciliation, theological or educational, nurturing, pastoral, and mission or service oriented. Enabling ministry embodies a “basic philosophy of leadership [which] places a very high value on individual persons and their potentiality to become instruments through whom God’s love and Christ’s Gospel can be shared in the life and work of the church.
This model worked for Friends in their early years. In the increasing business and financial pressures of life in the 21st century, the deep needs of our civilization continue to exist, brought into sharp relief by abject poverty and gluttonous wealth. Seeking a way to live an active faith is at least as important today as it was in 1650. Following one’s leadings and acting on concerns is the essence of faithful living: we seek to do God’s will. Our faith community supports us in that work.
BYM Faith & Practice, 1988;
PYM Faith & Practice 2007 PYM Philadelphia PA p. 187.
THE HISTORY AND CURRENT PRACTICE OF RELEASING OF MINISTRY AMONG FRIENDS Stephen w. Angell 1981 Friends Press Richmond, IN