Sunday, August 22, 2010

Gifts and grunt work

In addition to the general call to single-mindedness that I heard at this last New England Yearly Meeting sessions, a specific concern that seemed to need its own post came up clearly. This has to do with our understanding of gifts and the distribution of work.

I heard several Friends call us to recognize and support the spiritual gifts of particular individuals, gifts which were to be used for the benefit of the community. This sounded good to me, but seemed as though it could mean a variety of things. I had lunch with one Friend who spoke eloquently of the need to recognize ministers and elders, and went on to define these roles. Here’s how I understood the definition: ministers carry God’s words to the community, and are accountable to the community for their faithfulness in bearing this message; elders provide physical, logistical and emotional support for ministers and help them to discern whether or not the message has been delivered faithfully. The minister/elder relationship is not meant to be reciprocal--the elder takes care of the minister, the minister takes care of the message. People are apt to be given either the gift of ministry or the gift of eldership lifelong. This Friend felt called as a minister, and said that I seemed clearly to have a gift for eldership, as I had been busing tables and carrying things for people over the course of the week. I didn’t say much, but I didn’t take well to this. Partly that was an ego thing--I feel that I’ve also had occasion to speak the Word sometimes, which may be well and good, and I want to be recognized for that, which is not so good. Part of my reaction, though, arose from a larger concern which seemed to be connected.

Everyone is asked to volunteer with some physical work during Sessions, and I spent some time carrying trays and clearing tables. In the course of doing that work I noticed that quite a few people seemed to have loaded their trays into the rack that fed the dishwasher without sorting out and disposing of their paper and trash, as the signs clearly asked us to do. This bothered me because my work at the farm sometimes involves cleaning up after groups and I object when they don’t do their part, and because we had been talking about Jubilee and racial and economic justice and we were being inconsiderate of the folks who cleaned up after us, who were on average darker-skinned and probably less affluent than most of us. I started talking to other Friends about how we could most effectively remind people to be considerate. Some gave helpful suggestions and seemed to share the concern. (One especially helpful Friend pointed out that we should also be paying attention to the table signs asking us to avoid using trays unnecessarily, in order to save soap, hot water and the time of the dishwashers. I hadn’t been doing this, but I started after she spoke to me.) Others offered variations on, “We’re here trying to do important spiritual work, and you want to take people’s time and attention to talk about scraping plates?”

I had done something similar earlier in the week; I pushed the button on the ice-cream machine for a kid, and when we missed each other and there was a glob of soft-serve on the floor I was embarrassed and slipped away, figuring that someone would be along to clean the floor soon anyway and that would be their job and I wanted to get away from people who’d seen me being clumsy and foolish and anyway I had some other important things I wanted to do.

But I believe that the real important work, living into the kingdom of God, requires us to pay attention to the messes we make and the people who get stuck cleaning them up. I think it requires us to do more of our own basic work and to help our neighbors with theirs, rather than leaving a disproportionate share of it for poorer folks. I know this isn’t the only thing we need. I know we need ministry, teaching, the Word. But I think that if we each did our share of the basic work we’d each have some time and strength left to cultivate other gifts and use them in God’s service. I know that we need help in discerning how to rightly use our gifts. I hope we can find a way to do this clearly, consistently and lovingly, without letting our gifts excuse us from helping with the grunt-work of the world. I know both can be done; one of the things I like about Paul’s epistles is the combination of his clear writing about spiritual gifts and their care, and his insistence on the importance of manual labor.

I realize that I don’t think as clearly and calmly as I’d like to about this. It hooks into my memories of childhood involvement with the (intellectually) Gifted communityand into my recurring frustration at being considered dumb because I am farming. And it hooks into my dismay at the waste of the gifts of migrant workers who have visited us, who are usually too overtaxed and exhausted by their overlong shifts growing our food to have much time for prayer, song, storytelling... I would like to hear from others about how the recognition, nurture and exercise of spiritual gifts can be rightly exercised and balanced with mutual responsibility for basic work.

28 comments:

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

I'm familiar with that ministers/elders polarity idea, and I find it useful... up to a point. There are some kinds of clusters of gifts and abilities, but we do have to be careful of how we view this idea through the distorting lens of our enculturation.

(And I don't think that paradigm is much connected with the history of Friends, either, so those who think of Elders as the unpleasant people who deliver scoldings to members of meeting might want to set that notion aside for a moment.)

I feel a bit exposed, laying this out in public as I'm about to do. I have a lot of trouble using the "M" word, myself. But never mind. Let me share with you my experience.

Very roughly, my husband and I could be defined as a minister/elder pairing. I'm the one who talks more, and the one who is more visible, online especially. I'm the one that people who haven't yet gotten to know well gravitate toward first--there's a kind of charismatic thing that happens when I'm doing the work, whatever it is, and I think I'm easier to connect with initially because of that.

I'm also the one who writes most of the blog posts, and who gives the lion's share of vocal ministry, if we compared the two of us, in our monthly meeting.

But while, yes, he's the one who packs the suitcases and organizes the schedule to get us to Sessions and back (and was even before I hurt my back) he's a lot more than that.

He's the one who holds the cool, deep Center where Spirit is, so when I begin to outrun my guide, or exhaust myself with a lot of active, outward activity, he helps me find God again.

Peter is not the only elder I know; Mt. Toby is blessed to have a lot of them. And it took me quite a while to realize that not everyone saw them as I do: islands of Light, or wells of deep water, scattered throughout the meeting. I mean, I like vocal ministry, but when I first heard J. say he doesn't do ministry much in our meeting, I was stunned. Because what rolls off of him in waves in meeting for worship seems so much more real and potent and Spirit-filled than any of the words we speak.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Elders do give vocal ministry, of course. Maybe less often, but, from where I sit, it tends to be deeper and more powerful than what I normally hear from others.

I have to fight, in fact, a tendency to see what I do as shallow and unimportant, in comparison to what the elders in my meeting do. I have this uneasy sense that, if I were doing it right, I'd give a lot less vocal ministry, and spend a lot more time radiating just that incredible sense of the PRESENCE of God I receive from elders.

I'm not talking about not giving inappropriate vocal ministry, by the way--I mean that, on some level, I can't help but think that the ministry that elders deliver in their silence is better than the kind I give in words. And I think the root of that is that it is the presence and prayerfulness of elders that gets it done for me, personally, during worship. Far more than even the best vocal ministry.

Intellectually, I grasp that my sense that real Quakers are more like elders, and less like me, is probably a distortion. But I still have those feelings, because I know where my needs get met. (And its not about the carrying trays, by the way. It's about the being present that elders know how to do.)

Time after time after time, the folks who I am most drawn to among Quakers, who seem most to embody what I want to be when I grow up, and in whose presence I feel the most joy and upwelling love... turn out to self-identify as elders.

Huh. Like the minister in me is drawn to the elder who can balance and complete me? Like Spirit leads me to those I most need?

What's even weirder--to me--is that not everyone feels that way. In fact, I've noticed that a lot of people with gifts in eldering seem to be drawn in turn to people with gifts in ministry. Almost as if it makes sense, to make sense like this.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Of course it's more complicated than that. I've heard the term "melders" thrown around, to signify those carrying both "kinds" of gifts... but of course, there are a lot of ways to carry gifts for a community. There's a lot more that goes on in a healthy Quaker community than silent worship, vocal ministry, and washing the dishes after fellowship. There are a lot of gifts that go with all the different flavors of service and care we have, and none of them confer specialness on their holders; it's not about that (though sometimes we forget, and act as though it is). Gifts in clerking and recording and pastoral care, in naming and nurturing the gifts others have, in finding just the right reading material for just the right time, or for holding in prayer, offering healing... all that and more, and there's no clear dividing line that says ministers do one thing or elders do another. There are trends, I guess, but no hard and fast rules.

But it is good, for me at least, to think in terms of these gifts as I do my work. To me, an elder is someone in whose company I center down deeper, hear God more clearly... and who can, perhaps with a single touch on the back of the arm, steady me down when I'm about to lose my balance after making myself visible and vulnerable trying to serve that damn message.

If painful moments in ministry feel like getting a paper cut and having lemon juice in it, being held in prayer by an elder or even just in their company can steady me enough to be big enough not to let that get in the way either of delivering the message, or of moving beyond my anxiety, my pain, my hurt feelings, in order to go forward in love and forgiveness.

I realize I didn't speak to your concern about the trays, or the tendency to see gathering trays as "elder's work" (is that like "women's work" in some ways? Ugh!). But I agree with you there, and, for what its worth, I did a stint of scraping other people's trays, too. I was a bit flummoxed that a people who could give and receive so many social justice messages in worship could fail to recognize the implications of not properly clearing their trays!

But, at the same time, I can tell you that there have been occasions--not many, but a few--when the work of ministry has left me literally too weak in the knees to clear my tray, or to fill it. Not at YM Sessions, but at other times, it has sometimes been the case that, if I had had to get my own meal, I'd have gone hungry, simply because I was too weak and shaken from the work to get my own food.

On those occasions, I don't think it's so much that Peter, my first and best "elder" got my food because that is his gift, as because he had the insight to understand that I could not do for myself what was needful.

(Like I say, it hasn't happened often. But it has happened... and, in comparison with the Big Quaker Boys and Girls in ministry, I've hardly handled any volts at all.)

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Wow.

Look at that. What a long comment! Please excuse my verbosity.

And I realize I may sound very presumptuous and full of myself, referring so matter-of-factly to what I do as "ministry." I am certain there are those who would find my using the word to be offensive, especially as I am not a Christian Quaker. And I look at what I do, and I look at what some of the acknowledged ministers of our meeting do, and I feel quite small and foolish for using the same word to describe the feeble little things I do that is used to describe their work.

But, well, while I hate using the word, I have been working with my meeting towards clearness in understanding whether or not it is relevant, and I think... we did come to some clearness about it.

And obviously I've got experiences I at least think are relevant.

I do feel funny about using that word, though.

I'll just own that, I think. But I apologize for writing such a book on someone else's blog. Though it's at least partly your fault, for sparking so many thoughts and feelings in me, in what you wrote here yourself.

And thank you for that.

Martin Kelley said...

I've never been convinced about a strong divide between minister and elder. When I read the Bible or accounts of early Friends, I see them traveling in twos, and while there's usually a more vocal member it doesn't seem like their roles are so defined. As liberal Friends have reclaimed these ideas in the last few years, I've heard elders described as the people who make sure the temperature of the meetinghouse is comfortable and that the minister has water to drink if their throat gets dried, which seems completely trivial.

I've seen undefined eldership at work. At the most successful workshops I've led, there's been a moment when someone interrupts proceedings to point out some important spiritual truth I'm about to roll past in my effort to get through the workshop schedule. The interrupt isn't always obvious. When starting a workshop I quickly sense there's a few participants who have an unusual steadiness. Before moving on in a workshop I look around the room but especially at these unnamed elders to sense whether the moment is right; if they look ill-at-ease or seem to be holding some silent partipant in the light, I pause.

Jesus told us there were two things to do to show our friendship of Him: love our neighbors and love God. When he was asked who our neighbors were he told the Good Samaritan parable. The pious religious types failed the good-neighbor test. The one who passed was an outsider who tended to a person right there in front of him--human to human, no official role needed. We Friends can be very abstract and intellectual, carefully crafting epistles and statements, but what if the most important test of our friendship at gatherings is how we treat the outsiders right in front of us?

Joanna Hoyt said...

Cat--thank you! There's a lot more in there than I can reply to at all adequately, but this definitely makes things clearer to me.

I think I do understand what you mean about the elder's gift, and how it;'s different from the gift that is more habitually exercised in vocal ministry. On a rather different plane, I wonder if it's similar to the difference between the people who seem to have a natural gift for editing, perceiving what is essential to the story, what gets in the way, what needs to be clarified, and the people who have a natural gift for writing...some people seem to have both, and either can fill the other's function, but the basic aptitudes do differ. And I particularly remember one very quiet and very centered Friend in my old Meeting whose presence brought light and space into everything.

I gather from your writing that the minister/elder distinction is not essentially connected to the issue of class and who does the grunt work, although they may get conflated in my mind or in the minds of others. That is reassuring.

I certainly don't hear it as presumptuous when you describe your work as ministry or yourself as a minister. I looked both words up, and 'minister' was defined as 'a person acting for another as agent and carrying out given orders or deisgns...a person..thought of as serving as the agent of some power or force." And we'd better be that for God--that's not presumption, that;s just really being alive. And I love and often need words and am grateful for vocal ministry and ministers. And what does your not being a Christian Quaker have to do with it? I've always been, or at least been trying to be, Christian, and tend to get cross when people object to Christian language; but so far as I can see God's work gets done by people who have very different names for God, or no names at all. Anyway your writing tends to speak strongly to my condition.

Joanna Hoyt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kathryn said...

Your comments reminded me of the story of Naaman, 2 Kings 5. There are three major characters: Naaman, the king of Israel, and the prophet Elisha. Read verses 1-19 for the account. But what has always interested me are the unnamed people in the story, whose faith and servanthood actually guided the major characters. Without the slave girl telling Naaman's wife about Elisha, Naaman would have never heard about his hope of being cured of leprosy, a painful, contagious, deadly disease. And even after receiving instructions from Elisha, Naaman still would have missed the blessing of a cure if it were not for the quiet pleadings of his servants to follow the simple instructions. To me, the miracle came through the "small" people, who saw a need, and ministered to those whom the world would have perceived as being "more important." But because of the "elders" (to use your terminology, pardon me if used incorrectly) Naaman came to know God. He trusted them because they had taken care of him and his family.

So don't under-estimate the power of YOUR testimony by the acts of service you perform for others. God uses you to spread His word. He sees what you do, even if you and others don't always appreciate it or see immediate results. Just some thoughts from a former Mennonite...........

Paula Roberts said...

Joanna, thee always has something wonderful to say!

1. Ministry. I think that without clergy as we (FGC) are, ministry might mean taking care of the community, making sure people's needs; spiritual/physical/mental/emotional are being recognized. This seems like interference in our culture (big generalization I know) because we have been trained to be so insular, and to view this insularity as a virtue - as being strong, independent and having "everything under control", and the opposite as being some kind of failure. So that when someone asks you how you are you say you are fine whether you are fine or not. And you keep your trouble to yourself. The consequence, to use a cheap, emotional, perhaps hyperbolic consequence, is that nobody knows that you and your family in a financial abyss until you kill them all and shoot yourself.

Ministers are important here, but ministry does not (in my opinion) require a clergy versus laity dynamic. It is the responsibility of all of us. It means that you must be 'nosy' and you must be authentic.

Nosy; I'd asked a Friend about a current situation and her and her answer worried me so I talked to a member of ministry and counsel who happened to be a therapist about it, and this member of M&C hasp promised to take some action. In that situation I was a minister because I happened to ask a question at the right time that allowed the Friend to be authentic about his/er feelings (s/he said said that this was the first time s/he spoke of it). Here I was a minister because I'd asked a timely question, but we are all ministers in that sense.

Authentic: It is a trial for me to ask for help, but I strive every day to tell the truth - to ask for help, or to tell you how I am if you ask me. Not telling the truth, as far as I am concerned, weakens the entire community. I almost got kicked out of my doctoral program because I never told anyone I wasn't writing. But fortunately I did eventually say something (and cry and wail) and I am still here, and writing like a crazy person!

Paula Roberts said...

2: Inconsiderate behavior.

I'm wondering about the roots of what appears to be inconsiderate behavior. A pet peeve of mine is people who do not pick up after their dog in the park. My dog finds the mess, my shoes find the mess, no doubt children find the mess. If it becomes egregious the next step often is to ban dogs all together. It strikes me that the behavior is similar to your issue with people not scraping plates. I think it has something to do with mindfulness versus hurry-hurry. I say this because in my journey to being Plain (of a type) I found that I was often a few steps ahead of myself and this manifested in things that were done half way or not done at all. One of my practices to help me slow down is that I take the time to do some mundane tasks properly. For example, I make my bed in the morning, and when I take the covers off the parrot cages I fold then instead of balling them up. These practices have bled into other tasks I find. I cook from scratch - even small meals. I wash my dishes in the morning in a more deliberate way, for example. At this pace these actions are more important, and the consequence of these behaviors is more important. At this pace you scrape your dishes before loading the dishwasher.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Martin, thanks for the description of 'undefined eldership'. I can picture that, and the importance of recognizing it and shaping work to it.

Kathryn, thanks. I do believe that small, practical work is needed and can be life-giving for the doer. . . that all of us need to take part in it, not just to spare others from being overloaded, but because it is necessary to our own integrity and joy. And to God. You said it much better than i did.

Paula, thanks. I'm still working on when it's helpful to ask people what they need and when it's better to leave it be--no, more often when and how long to press the issue after getting an automatic 'fine' response. Also on knowing when to ask for help. Bear ye one another's burdens; every man must bear his own burden...

And yes, I need the reminder to slow down.

Isabel Penraeth said...

Joanna-

I thank thee for thy witness.

I think thee points out that when we allow ourselves to abdicate responsibility in small things, we may form a habit of mind that prevents us from taking proper responsibility in the large. Perhaps thee is in fact fulfilling the role of Overseer in the tradition of the Religious Society of Friends . . . Overseers have something of a bad name in some quarters, but when one helps me keep to the Truth in my actions as well as my words, and manages it with kindness and love, their worth is noticeable.

Some additional information on the use of Minister, Elder, and Overseer in the Religious Society of Friends:

From the Minutes of Rockingham Monthly Meeting, Ohio Yearly Meeting, 11-1987: "We recognize that there are not sharp distinctions to be made among the three offices (minister, elder, overseer), but that their differences are those of emphasis. To summarize the three offices as we have considered them: ministers are called to express, especially vocally, the message of God; elders encourage the indwelling of the Lord's Spirit; and overseers help put the Lord's message to work in our outward lives. A blending of the three is necessary for the good functioning of the meeting in our Lord's business."

I have heard it usefully phrased that, elders are named, overseers are appointed, and ministers are recorded. Also, I have personally witnessed Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative) name a member as an elder and record them as a minister at the same time.

For more on overseers, the best explanation I have seen is: Overseer in the Usage of Friends by Lloyd Lee Wilson (http://www.ncymc.org/ym2006/Overseer_in_the_Usage_of_Friends.pdf).

For more on eldering, I like: The Giftedness of Elders by Marshall Massey (http://journal.earthwitness.org/the-quaker-magpie-journal/2006/10/30/the-giftedness-of-elders.html).

While I'm recommending reading, for ministry, I like: Chronicler's Four-Part The Landscape of Ministry (http://chronicler-3.blogspot.com/2010/05/landscape-of-ministry-part-1.html).

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Kim said...

"He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much". Luke 16:10.

Christ was not just a Minister of God's message, but also in the least of things eg. washing his friend's feet.

I think some are called to different aspects of ministry, as we are all different parts of the body, however, if we have a responsibility that we have chosen, if we are not doing it 'as unto the Lord', is/was it really worth doing at all? I guess the 'as unto the Lord' part does not crossover to those who don't identify with Christian terminology, but the term 'mindfulness' I think carries the same sentiment. We need to at least be mindful of what it is that we are doing (as Paula has also mentioned), for to not, means to live mindlessly. I think it was Socrates who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. For it you don't examine your life (or be mindful) you cannot know your purpose, or come to a knowledge of the Truth.

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