In defense of hireling ministers

An excerpt of something longer I will write soon, about changes I sense in our Yearly Meeting:

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At a recent meeting of Standing Committee clerks of the Yearly Meeting, Alan Crossman, clerk of the Arch Street Standing Committee, observed the following: there are two kinds of people Quaker groups hire. One is a person with a certain skill set to do a job that needs to be done. The other is a minister who the Quaker organization in question “hires” to further that Friend’s ministry and put it to use for a greater good. In this, Alan makes the distinction between work which is Spirit-led, and work which is wallet-led. And he observes too that, in his experience, modern Friends have paid people to work in the ministry, albeit a well-defined ministry. He helped me understand that some Friends labor under a misunderstanding: that financial support for an activity removes any Spiritual validity from it. Any examination of the ways in which Friends have assisted each other financially over the years, when called to ministry will show you that Alan is right. We don’t pay ministers, but we give money to Friends who are in the service of ministry.

In the past, we had a category for this kind of Friend, one who was supported by a meeting community so that he/she could serve God in some way. These were “released Friends”: released from financial obligations so that they could more fully give over to the calling they were led to. These Friends went through a clearness process, and only after a committee and the meeting itself was in unity on the rightness of the Friend’s ministry, was the Friend in question released. These arrangements could be as simple as the meeting making sure the Friend’s fields were plowed while he was away, to paying for the Friend’s children’s expenses, to taking in his/her entire family while the Friend was preaching against slavery in the South. Early Friends were not nearly as squeamish around money as we are: it was just another tool for serving God, like a plow, or a petition, or a sermon.

But of course to the Friend caught between serving God as he feels led to do, and the stack of bills on the table, money is much more than a tool. It is the health, safety and comfort of his family. And so from his perspective, being released by a meeting is both a collective affirmation of his leading, and an extraordinary gift from his Friends. He feels doubly motivated: both to activate his leading in the world, and to make his Friends feel well-used in their support of him. He doesn’t feel like he’s doing a “job” in a conventional sense. He doesn’t feel like he’s doing someone else’s drudgery, simply because they don’t want to and they have the means to pay someone else to do it. He doesn’t feel like he’s “punching the clock”, doing only what is expected and counting the minutes until he can go home. And even though he occasionally works long hours and tacks on his ministry on top of a hundred other things he must attend to in his life, he never feels worn down, burnt out or resentful about his the task his meeting has released him to do. He feels blessed.

I know how he feels because he is me. My journey in the Society of Friends has been defined in large part by my exploration of the twin leadings in my life: one Quakerly and one theatrical. I have worshipped many hours on how these two energies, so evident in me, so seemingly contradictory, might work together. I have prayed with other Friends on it through Clearness meetings. I have developed workshops around it, in vocal ministry and in “meetings for theater”. I feared that the two were irreconcilable, but God was so much bigger than my fear. God showed me that they were twins: that my acting and teaching were only as rich as the Spiritual content I admitted into them, and that the greatest service I could provide to my faith community was to put my theatrical skills to work through Outreach.

All of the openings I have had about this I have had as the result of my membership in Haverford Monthly Meeting. All of the praying and exploring I have done on it, I have done in the meeting, lifted and supported by my Friends there. What I have affirmed in myself I have felt affirmed by beloved Friends and Elders in my meeting. And so my position as Outreach Coordinator I regard as released ministry. I feel it as the right culmination of the Spiritual path I have been following since becoming a Friend, assisted, corrected and lifted by the Friends in my meeting.

This does not mean that a released Friend should be released from the expectations the meeting community has of him, as a result of their financial support of him. In the old days, a traveling Friend released in ministry was always accompanied by an Elder, who was his companion, guide and faithful touchstone. This Elder was the will of the meeting expressed through a single Friend, making sure that the ministry the other Friend was released to do was actually being done, and not, say, vain and corrupting activities like dancing and swearing. And so I am observed by and accountable to the Outreach Committee, who is responsible for making sure I am doing what I said I would do, and serving the meeting as fully as I can.

I believe part of the misunderstanding revolves around the notion that it is inappropriate to hire someone from within the meeting to do something the meeting needs done. If someone needs to be hired, hire from outside the meeting. I disagree. In fact, I think we should be actively looking for Friends from within our meeting who a) are led to a ministry which comports with a need the meeting has (childcare, maintenance, education, outreach, landscaping, just to name a few possibilities) and b) demonstrate a need for financial support.

“B” is important. Friends a hundred years ago didn’t financially support well-off Quakers who were led into ministry, but had the resources to take care of their own affairs while attending to God. The meeting community acknowledged a financial need, a hardship that a Friend’s ministry would visit upon himself or his family. I have often said that the money I receive as Outreach Coordinator is “serious” money for me and my family. We depend on it. It puts food on the table, quite literally. If I wasn’t being paid to be Outreach Coordinator, I would have to be doing something else which would divert some significant amount of time and energy away from my leading in Quaker outreach. Seen in this way, it is obvious how the meeting is releasing me into this ministry.

What we lack is unity on this concept of “released ministers” and a process through which we might identify and support them. But I maintain that they are among us, I am not the only one, only the most obvious. How wonderful would it be if there were others in our midst, who had a significant financial need met by the meeting through the activation of their Spirit-led ministry? How wonderful if that ministry served the meeting, themselves and God all at the same time?

In Defense of Hireling Ministers originally published Monday, March 15, 2010