01 July 2008

Eldering: a Parable

I've had a lot of beautiful eldering in my Meeting. Many of my Friends have brought me along, a little bit at a time, with a well-placed comment or sharing. They've educated me lovingly, patiently, and with humor. I've been grateful for this gentle eldering, and imagine that other Friends also welcome it.

To my surprise, however, many Friends seem to think of eldering not as teaching or guidance, but rather admonishment. When I suggest that someone might welcome a little gentle eldering, I run into a wall.

Oh surely, say my Friends, we don't need to tell this Friend that they're doing something wrong.

Well, no, I certainly wasn't suggesting that. Just that we might share our own insights and approaches to different situations, plant a few seeds with what wisdom we've been given, and perhaps encourage the Friend to think about things a little differently.

I eldered a weighty Friend in this manner a few weeks ago. He has a habit of delivering deep, thoughtful, spiritual ministry. Unfortunately, in the preamble to this ministry, he also often delivers a slight or a barb directed at a subset of the Meeting.

After Meeting, I told him about reading a parenting book that suggested that, when we give our children instruction, we leave off the insults. If, for example, we are telling our child to pick up his socks, we don't need to tack on a "you filthy slob" or "you'll never learn, will you?" to the end.

This Friend didn't seem to understand what I was driving at (although another Friend, listening, did). I left it there, however, having planted my seed. Perhaps it will germinate or perhaps it will die in barren ground. I've done what I was led to do, and now I'm led to wait.

The current Worship & Ministry committee is staffed by Friends who believe in the slow and subtle approach to nurturing the Meeting and the spiritual lives of Friends. We stay in contact with Friends, plant our small seeds, and wait to see what happens. Some Friends see our role as too passive, and have suggested that we might do more, manage things more vigorously, and be a lot more visible about what we are doing.

After Meeting, I was chatting with the incoming clerk. I shared something about how the committee had handled a particular issue, and how, once again, the issue was resolved without it looking like Worship & Ministry had done anything about it.
To me, this is a sign that we're doing our job well, but not everyone sees it that way.

That Saturday, my two sons had a disagreement that ended in my younger son telling my older son that he was not going to share his birthday-gift books with him. My older son and my 15-year-old daughter were incensed about this, and insisted that I do something about my younger son's refusal to share.

"I have done something," I said, "He doesn't have to share his books if he doesn't want to. I've told him that I think that families work better when people share, but it's important that he comes to that decision on his own."

My daughter was particularly steamed at this. She wanted me to make my son share his books, to lay down the law, to punish him for his selfishness.

Within a few hours, my sons had worked things out, and my younger son decided to share his books. I was still, however, a bad parent in my daughter's eyes, because I had not taken a more direct approach. I think we have a better outcome than we would have had if I had enforced sharing. My son came to the decision, under his own power, that it was better to share and to have his brother share with him. 

That's eldering, to me, in a nutshell. Planting little seeds and then giving people time and space to come to their own insights, their own solutions, their own decisions. And, while planting those seeds, being humble enough to realize that we don't ourselves have all of the pieces of the puzzle, and that bits of the solution come from all sorts of different places.

We just toss our pebble into the pond and wait for the ripples to do whatever ripples do.


Mark Wutka said...

This is great, Heather! I have felt for a while that parenting and eldering are very similar. I think the negative connotation of "eldering" is similar to the way you hear young folks talk about someone being too "parental". You don't hear that word applied when a parent picks a sick kid up from school, or when they drive the kids all over the place. In the same way, people don't recognize the positive reinforcement part of eldering, just the negative.

I really like the gentle approach you have taken, it sure seems like the way God deals with us.
With love,

Anonymous said...

This is so useful...thank you, Friend!


kwix said...


This speaks to me. Lately -- and this was only reinforced by my workshop at FGC -- I feel that I WANT to be eldered -- because I see that as synonymous with mentoring, ministering. In a religion that has no orthodoxy, that is all about one's own walk with God, it is really helpful to have the insights of those who have already been on similar spiritual paths, or who know how my own walk can best fit in with others' at meeting. I see it -- if done lovingly and, as you point out, lightly -- as a very loving ministry.


Liz Opp said...

Thanks for this gem, Heather.

And especially to Kent, I want to say that when I recognized that I wanted eldering, I began to look for a seasoned Friend who I felt could offer that gift--and I asked for eldership.

It took a conversation or two to understand what it was I was seeking, but we began to meet monthly over the course of several years.

We don't always have to wait for someone to offer us eldering...

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up