Quaker-pocalypse—Spiritual Nurture & Advancement

June 3, 2015 § 6 Comments

If we want to reverse our decline and fulfill our calling in the world, our meetings need to enjoy a vital religious life. In recent posts, I have offered queries for meetings to assess how well they are doing in the areas of worship and fellowship. People coming to a meeting for the first time or for the first few times will first experience the quality of the worship and its vocal ministry and get a first impression of the community, so these two aspects of meeting life impact the growth or decline of a meeting directly.

Spiritual nurture for individuals and families has a less direct impact on meeting growth because it takes a while for newcomers to experience and appreciate whatever efforts a meeting makes to recognize and nurture the members’ spiritual gifts and their ministry, and the meeting’s religious education programs for youth and adults.

I fear, however, that most of our meetings do not try to name our members’ spiritual gifts or nurture them in any proactive way. Too often we are left to our own devices when it comes to maturing in the life of the spirit. As a result, the collective life of the spirit, the spiritual maturity of the meeting, suffers. So, when people come to our meeting for the first time or for a handful of times, is there a there there?

I believe that recognizing and nurturing spiritual gifts is an absolute essential for a vital meeting’s religious life. If, as I said in my series on What is Quakerism for?, our mission as meetings is to bring people to God and God into the world, why would we leave our members and attenders on their own in finding God, in finding a personal spiritual practice that works for them (spiritual formation *)? And why would we deny our meetings the blessings of a membership that is confident and mature in its gifts and equipped to serve the meeting and the waiting world with their gifts’ unfolding?

We are not without resources. Several yearly meetings have spiritual nurture or spiritual formation programs, we have the School of the Spirit, and we have our conference centers that hopefully have programs along these lines. And even if meetings do not have anyone with substantive experience in spiritual nurture and spiritual formation, the meeting still has some good options. But first we have to ask ourselves some questions.

Recognizing and Nurturing Spiritual Gifts

  • Does your meeting have a list in its collective head of spiritual gifts, so that you would recognize them when you saw them? (I plan a subsequent post or series of posts in which I provide such a list and some context for understanding them, using the gifts of the spirit in Paul’s letters (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, and Ephesians 4) as a starting point.)
  • Does your meeting do anything to help its members and attenders recognize their own gifts in the spirit? Does your ministry committee take the time to discuss the gifts of each member and attender with an eye to how they might be nurtured?
  • Or do you leave this task to nominating committee? Does your nominating committee go beyond just its charge to fill slots in the roster with people who who have a gift in a certain area, to recognize where some gifts may lie unrecognized or unexpressed because there is no committee for that gift, and to help Friends recognize and grow their gifts, regardless of whether they choose to bring those gifts to a committee in service?
  • Do your other committees think in terms of the gifts that the Friends who serve on them bring? In addition to the tasks involved in the committee’s charge, do your committees take time to be laboratories for the exploration of the gifts of its members, to name those gifts, and to be nurturing gardens in which the gifts of the committee’s members may grow, regardless of whether they directly serve the tasks laid upon the committee?
  • Does your meeting record gifts in ministry, or do anything else to collectively name and recognize your members’ spiritual gifts for the meeting? Or do you have members who fear that somehow recognizing gifts in ministry elevates the minister in ways that violate the testimony of equality? If this fear does prevail in your meeting, then why? Do you have direct, concrete experience of harmful exaltation of recognized ministers? If this fear does not come from direct experience, then where does it come from?
  • Does anyone or any committee in your meeting proactively watch for emerging gifts and emerging ministries, so that you are ready to serve as an elder or mentor when you see them?
  • Has your meeting considered helping someone in the meeting to attend the School of the Spirit or some other spiritual formation program or conference?
  • Does your meeting invite members to share their spiritual practice, either in an open discussion gathering or, in the case of Friends who have some experience or a personal practice of some kind, in a more formal teaching mode? Does you meeting know of Friends outside the meeting with these skills that you could invite in?
  • If you think your meeting lacks the resources to do some of these things, have you considered hosting a study group that reads books on spiritual formation together? The books that come to my mind are Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, Patricia Loring’s two volume Listening Spirituality; anything written by William Taber or Lloyd Lee Wilson; Martha Paxson Grundy’s Tall Poppies: Supporting Gifts of Ministry and Eldering in the Monthly Meeting, a Pendle Hill Pamphlet. I have not read the following books, but they are available from QuakerBooks.org and they look promising: Connecting with God: A Spiritual Formation Guide, by Lynda Graybeal and Julia Roller; Light to Live By: An Exploration in Quaker Spirituality, by Rex Ambler; Living the Way: Quaker Spirituality and Community, by Ursula-Jane O’Shea.

* Spiritual nurture and spiritual formation
Readers may not be clear what I mean by “spiritual formation” and what the difference is between spiritual formation and spiritual nurture. By spiritual nurture, I mean anything that fosters a deeper spiritual life. By spiritual formation I mean programs to impart a spiritual practice, or, in the broader sense, an organized effort to help Friends find the spiritual practice that works for them.

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§ 6 Responses to Quaker-pocalypse—Spiritual Nurture & Advancement

  • Bill Rushby says:

    Hello, Steven! I appreciate very much the concerns you have expressed in this post! The spiritual situation of many unprogrammed meetings reminds me of a common problem in evangelical churches.

    Often in such churches, the preaching aims at drawing the hearers to a commitment to Christ. The problem is that most of those attending are already committed to Christ! While the already converted hear evangelistic sermons over and over again, the unconverted are somewhere else, not listening to such preaching. The net effect is that the preaching never gets to Step 2; the task of discipling believers!

    If the attenders at a Friends meeting are not believers, then the meeting gets fixated on the rudiments of faith. Does God exist? Do I need to have a relationship with Him? What of Jesus Christ? Just as with many evangelical churches, Step 2 (in this case spiritual formation and the recognition and exercise of spiritual gifts) may never arrive!

    When I first came among Friends, I attended a meeting affiliated with New York Yearly Meeting. It seemed to me that most of the members were stuck in Step 1.

    The spiritual formation I experienced came through the college-age young Friends group and from a considerable library of Quaker books, faithfully tended by the venerable Ruth Eldridge. I am sure that Ruth was much more liberal than I was, but she functioned effectively as a spiritual mentor for me. May the Lord bless and keep her!

    Steven., I pray that your concern will find a hearing!

    • Thanks Bill. I suspect that I myself am a bit stuck in stage 1, though I came to Friends after I had experienced quite a bit of spiritual formation. But I do seem to be very absorbed with the fundamentals.

      But the shape of my own practice is quite clear, though my discipline is a little erratic.

    • Jim Schultz says:

      If the members of a meeting trust the Holy Spirit He will lead the meeting depending on what its attenders needs are and whether there should be additional meetings on additional topics. Meetings should encourage their members to take responsibility for holding such extra meetings if they trust the member’s leading. By the way I don’t think the Holy Spirit is limited in to whom He/She gives a leading to. In other words you don’t have to believe in the gifts of the spirit to ssuggest having additional meetings to study them, at least not if you have a big enough God.

  • […] Spir­i­tual Nur­ture & Advance­ment: […]

  • vombutch says:

    Fear, like the double-edged sword, cuts us both ways – keeping us from honoring our gifts and from being obligated to offer them.

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