It Has Seemed Good to the Holy Spirit and to Us:
The Wellspring of Quaker Leadership
By Dorlan Bales
Has the Quaker approach to leadership and authority been remarkable since the earliest days of the movement? Absolutely! Rather than look primarily to tradition, human hierarchy, intellectual arguments or the translations and interpretations of inspired writings; the Society of Friends has put its highest confidence in the eternal Word, the present-tense Holy Spirit promised by Jesus.
Quakers, at their best, seek the guidance of the Living Christ, who gathers us and gives us power for ministry to one another and the world. This movement has kept the Gospel fresh by listening inwardly and corporately for the leadership of the Holy Spirit in every aspect of life. This precious heritage of practicing the presence of God alone and with other disciples may be the most important gift Friends have to share.
Leadership in the First Century: Jesus and the Prophetic Tradition
The message and actions of Jesus are closely related to the Hebraic prophetic tradition. He called hearers to repentance and embodied the healing presence of God among working class people. This Spirit-baptized prophet spent most of his time healing and teaching common people who had uncommon faith, particularly his small group of disciples. Jesus also pointed out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who often asked questions as a ruse to discredit him.
Just before he was betrayed into the hands of his enemies, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to warn them against self-promotion and urge them to serve one another (John 13:1- 17). Jesus’ teaching, example and spirit continued to unite his disciples even after he was taken from them bodily. After the Holy Spirit was poured out and the authorities began to persecute the young community (Acts 2), Jesus’ message and ministry continued to grow.
Peter, Barnabas, Paul, James, and the Jerusalem Council of 50 A.D.
There is no more important milestone in the earliest history of the church, following Pentecost and Paul’s conversion, than that of Peter’s vision on a rooftop that ultimately led to the Holy Spirit being poured out on the household of a Roman military officer (see Acts 10). This breakthrough set in motion a series of actions by courageous Spirit-led early church leaders that broadened early believers’ understanding of God’s intentions and created a new name, Christian, for Jesus’ disciples (Acts 11:1-26).
Some believers settled in southeast Turkey after fleeing persecution in Jerusalem. They founded a congregation in Antioch where Jesus was proclaimed to Greeks as well as Jews. Barnabas was sent to help this new church. After encouraging the Antioch believers and seeing that new people were joining daily, Barnabas found Paul in south central Turkey and returned with him to teach the new Antioch converts.
After they returned, some believers from the sect of the Pharisees in Jerusalem began to teach that all Christians (whether Jew or Gentile) must keep the Mosaic Law and be circumcised. After Paul and Barnabas had “no small dissension and debate with them; Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders (Acts 15:2).”
How would the earliest church contend with its biggest crisis? The issue of Gentile inclusion had the potential to split the fledgling church! Great wisdom was needed. Acts 15 describes what happened.
Paul and Barnabas were welcomed in Jerusalem by the church and the apostles and elders. They shared their news about what God had done. The believers from the sect of Pharisees shared their deep conviction that Gentiles who follow Jesus must keep the Law of Moses. There was “much debate” before Peter reminded those present that he had been called by God to speak the good news to Gentiles and had witnessed God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to them. For Peter, that was the compelling evidence that God loves Gentiles, as well as Jews.
Then, “the whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.” James stood up and proposed that a letter to be delivered by Jerusalem leaders, Judas and Silas, that said, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.” This decision was accepted by everyone including the Jesus-following Pharisees and was received by the Antioch church with joy.
According to this narrative the experience of Peter, Paul and Barnabas and the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit in their midst had more authority for James and the earliest church than even Hebrew Scriptures and tradition.
The founding fathers and mothers of Quakerism in 17th-century England read of this incident depicted in Acts 15 and saw their own experience and emphasis on the Holy Spirit affirmed. These holy words, no doubt, gave them boldness!
Queries for Reflection and Discussion
Describe the way Jesus taught and led his disciples, spoke to the crowds who followed him, and responded to the scribes and Pharisees who tried to stump him with difficult questions. Is it surprising to you that some of the Pharisees became Jesus’ followers on or after the Day of Pentecost? Why or why not?
What seems important about how early Christian leaders took action, both in Antioch and in Jerusalem, to resolve the pivotal controversy about Gentile inclusion? Quaker Leadership in the 17th and 18th Centuries Early Friends, like the first Christians, experienced the Living Christ as the source of their unity and as their leader in all things. They practiced an active inward listening in both meetings for worship and business so they could be grounded in the presence of the Spirit.
Just as Jesus, the carpenter’s son, and his unschooled disciples were recognized by their hearers as speaking with authority, the authority of Quaker leaders flowed from the working of the Holy Spirit. Though many were literate and familiar with the scriptures and a few knew church history, Friends did not appeal primarily to outward authorities. Quakerism emerged early as part of a fundamental change from reliance on prevailing church and state hierarchies to a new foundation of inward authority and democracy. As George Fox put it, “Christ is come to teach his people himself, and bring them off the world’s ways.” (Journal, 1652) Truth, according to early Friends, was not to be determined primarily by what ancient authorities or contemporary bishops and kings said, but rather by the present inner workings of Jesus’ Holy Spirit, discerned by all who would listen together and come to a shared understanding of God’s will.
This theological conviction had consequences for leadership. During the 1650s, Quaker emphasis was on preaching the good news, particularly to groups of seekers who had stopped attending church services in order to wait together and listen for a word from God. The earliest Quaker preaching took place in the midst of seeker gatherings, Church of England meetings for worship, open air marketplaces and in public halls where people gathered to hear Quakers debate clergy of various sorts.
Then in the 1660s, King Charles II replaced Puritan Oliver Cromwell and the Parliament of Saints, ushering in a period of greater persecution for Friends. Quaker leader James Nayler, four years earlier, had publicly reenacted Jesus’ triumphal entry. Both events triggered widespread criticism and awakened Quakers to the importance of oversight by Friends communities. Though weak from a long and brutal imprisonment, Fox and others travelled to Quaker worship groups in the mid-1660s and to help set up order and stability to the movement. 18th and early 19th century American Quaker leaders, such as John Woolman, grew up in colonies where Spiritcentered community shaped their attitudes toward material goods and promoted openness to travelling with a concern.
At a time when it was tempting to be satisfied with a formal cultural Quakerism, ministers and elders offered important leadership in maintaining Quaker practices, including plain speech and dress, in order to promote unity and warn Friends not to conform to the world’s values. Self-centeredness was discouraged because it hindered discernment of God’s will.
Some Friends had the gift of sensing the pulse of a meeting for worship or business. Others met with families in their homes to encourage them spiritually, or offered vocal ministry during meetings for worship as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit. (See Samuel Bownas’ A Description of the Qualifications Necessary to a Gospel Minister.) Elders offered nurture to ministers and others, building meetings’ unity and offering an example of strong inward connection with God and neighbors. The practice of having separate men’s and women’s meetings for business, and the establishment of meetings for sufferings (assistance for those in need) encouraged women’s leadership. Ministers and elders, both men and women, typically travelled in pairs to keep Friends meetings connected with one another and grounded.
Queries for Reflection and Discussion
Why do you think Quakers were criticized for allowing anyone, including women, children, and people with little education, to offer their leadership during meetings for worship and business?
Why was the Quaker emphasis on shared leadership of their meetings under the guidance of the Holy Spirit important as new generations took the place of the founders? How do you account for the fact that many people were willing to become Quakers in the early years when that choice often meant loss of possessions and social standing, even imprisonment in terrible conditions? Why did later generations choose to be Quakers when Friends had become a “peculiar people.”
Quaker Leadership in the 21st Century
Today, as in centuries past, the most powerful examples of Quaker faith and practice flow from discernment of the Holy Spirit’s leading, whether the Quaker body is as small as a household or international like Friends United Meeting. Faithful decisions rely upon Spirit-led unity as to what is God’s call and a shared willingness to act accordingly. Such discernment requires both careful inward listening to the Guide by individuals and equally sensitive listening to one another.
Robert Greenleaf wrote an essay in 1970 that was welcomed by many Friends and influenced the writings of Stephen Covey, M. Scott Peck, Margaret Wheatley and others who were moving away from a “top of the pyramid” leadership model to a more organic power sharing approach that helps others develop and seek the common good. It is available online at www.leadershiparlington.org/TheServantasLeader.pdf. (See also Lloyd Lee Wilson’s influential and more recent “Helping One Another Take on the Risks of Ministry” in his Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order.)
Quakers traditionally have not asked selected individuals to make a group’s important decisions, because the Holy Spirit is at work in and among each of its members. Ideally, there are no passengers on the good ship Quaker! All are invited to be members of the crew, exercising gifts that build up the church. The adventure of faithful response to the Holy Spirit’s leadership is not limited by genealogy, age, gender, disabilities, sexual orientation, race, class or academic credentials.
Everyone who responds to the Holy Spirit’s call is welcome on board, invited to share the journey’s labors and experience the spiritual bounty of the Captain’s table. In the midst of this inclusiveness, some Friends are recognized as leaders because they are called to serve by listening inwardly and outwardly, encouraging others to do so and discerning how meetings are being led by the Spirit.
In contemporary Quaker practice, there are unfortunately at least two ways in which Friends make individuals’ service difficult. On the one hand, Friends can sometimes assume that the work of the church is to be done primarily by those who are financially supported, theologically educated and/or blessed with winsome personalities. Church members not supported, educated or winsome assist these leaders as they are able. When problems arise, the church or meeting too often blames the paid Friend, who is urged to find a place of service elsewhere. In these churches and meetings, pastors and meeting secretaries are the crew who keep the ship’s engines running, the passengers fed and the vessel sailing toward a destination agreeable to most passengers. What should be a sense of spiritual partnership in a ministry shared by all, with released Friends equipping other members, easily becomes a secular business model that often leaves paid Friends feeling isolated and unrealistically responsible.
On the other hand, there are Quaker meetings and churches where the service of new gifted and called Friends is discouraged, especially the ministry of those who cannot afford to volunteer. That service is actively resisted and even dismissed as prideful self-promotion and a needless drain on the treasury. Leaders of these meetings and churches who pride themselves on defending the status quo against change have forgotten Friends’ history of creative insights and innovative action.
Fortunately, Quaker schools are leading the way in providing leadership programs that are equipping a new generation for leadership in the Society of Friends and the wider world. Guilford College, Earlham School of Religion, Friends University, Friends Theological College, Westtown School, Ramallah Friends Schools, and Wichita Friends School are only a few of the encouraging examples.
In this new century, Friends dare not rely on a warehouse stocked with spiritual food gathered by past generations. Like the manna in the wilderness, God’s nourishment must be sought and received constantly and lived out in fresh ways if we are to be faithful servant leaders. Let’s avoid the temptation to assume that only a few Friends are called by God to do the Spirit-directed work the world desperately needs, and reexamine our penchant for discouraging ourselves and others called to serve meetings and churches in various ways. Let us heed the Apostle Paul’s plea to the Ephesians in chapter 4: “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
Queries for Reflection and Discussion
How can Friends today encourage those in our midst who are called to ministry? How can the recording of gifts and minister be of assistance or of hindrance? Who is doing the work of the elder?
What can we say to each other and the world that springs from Christ present among us now? How can we learn together to better communicate that Good News beyond our church’s membership and meetinghouse walls?
Can you think of an example or two of Quaker leadership in the 21st century, by groups and by individuals that have built up the church and advanced the kingdom of God?
What particular challenges in your Friends meeting, church, or organization require particularly close attention now to our Guide?
Dorlan Bales grew up in Northwest Yearly Meeting, the eldest child of pastor/teachers George and Elenita. Between ministry studies at George Fox University and Earlham School of Religion, he completed two years of alternative service at a children’s hospital in Vietnam. After studying theology in Chicago, he was led to Wichita, Kansas where he lives with his wife Kathryn Damiano, stays in touch with sons Micah and Andrew and writes grant proposals for Sunflower Community Action, which he helped found. He is a member of Heartland Friends Meeting, works for peace and justice, and enjoys playing and making violins.