Liz and I are beginning to feel more settled in, both in the church and in the community. Sophie is starting to also, though I doubt she is willing to admit it just yet. I suspect most ministers do not have the luxury of being assigned a “post” near to their families. So, in that regard, being away from family is probably a hardship that most pastoral families face. We both want to thank so many of the grandmas and grandpas who have reached out to Sophie, have laughed with and at her antics, and made her to feel a little bit more at home. I also want to thank the Thury girls for all their hard work in chasing after her, and playing with her, and also thank all who have been helping with the nursery. There is an old saying, “if you don’t hear crying, the church is dying.” May God bless us with as many squirmy little ones as our nursery can hold!
You may have noticed that I have some fancy new contact cards. Often the first thing that comes up when I hand them out to people is the fact that it doesn’t say “pastor” on the cards but “released minister.” I intend to change all of the other print resources that refer to me as pastor to match this, and I will tell you why: I believe strongly that what it means to be a Friends pastor is markedly different than what it means to say, be an Anglican priest or a Baptist minister. Now I don’t want people to feel as though they can’t or shouldn’t call me pastor, but while released minister is a confusing term, it often starts a conversation of what it means to be a Quaker that is well worth the time.
What “released minister” means is basically that I am not the minister of our meeting, but that I am a “minister among ministers.” Early Friends believed very strongly in the idea of the Priesthood of All Believers, so much so that they shunned any auspice of office. They were suspect of those who bore titles, because often authority became abused to force people into conformity. Early Friends took a fresh look at calling, noting as Fox once wrote that, “to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not enough to make a man fit to be a minister of Christ.” Most Quaker meetings reflected this idea of a shared and equal worth before God, and instead of creating a class division like clergy/laity, the whole meeting shared in the pastoral care of the meeting together. Quakers firmly believed that whether someone is speaking from the pulpit or guiding the plow, that all people are uniquely doing the work of ministry; that we are all called by God to the use of our spiritual gifts in special ways that qualify as ministry.
For centuries, most Quaker meetings did not have pastors, and they often did not need them because their meetings were usually less than forty people, and they were a people who were richly steeped in the Bible, and who were very sensitive to God’s leading. As I mentioned earlier, they did not like to think in hierarchical ways. They believed God was available, and active, and that anyone from the least to the greatest could readily hear His voice. But also, many recognized that paying clergy put those clergy in a position of weakness and physical dependence. They did not want the awkwardness of money silencing the prophetic voices among them, as money is often used as a weapon.
In George Fox’s Journal, he referred to many of the paid pastor’s of his day as “hireling ministers.” What Fox meant by this was exactly what Jesus meant by it in confronting false teachers in His day; that certain people had become religious leaders in name only, not in actual practice. This derogatory name has stuck among Friends, but often its context as meaning “false teacher” has been lost. I have heard it used in reference to paid pastor’s, and want to point out that this is quite offensive. It means, in effect, that a person’s call to proclaimational ministry is not a real one, and that their motivations for ministry are quite misguided. Many Quakers who have not adopted the pastoral system remain skeptical that people could be faithful within such an arrangement.
The reason Quaker’s began to adopt the pastoral system in the first place, had to do with the role of teaching in discipleship. As Quakers began to follow the path of westward expansion, they had explosive growth in their meetings. The typical Quaker practice of silent worship for an hour worked well for groups of people who had grown up with that model of worship, but it had serious shortcomings in the face of large numbers of people who had not, not to mention many people who were not from a Christian background at all. It seemed to many of these westward moving Quakers that spiritual instruction and teaching needed to take a larger role in the meetings, and they began to rethink their method of worship to fit their context of the radical circumstances of the “wild west.” Quakers began paying pastors, facilitating planned sermons, and holding Sunday school classes. But these new practices among Friends have always held the tension with Friends theology that there is no laity/clergy, no hierarchical power structures, and that titles do not make people ministers, but God.
Already, some richer Quakers that could afford to, traveled the country preaching at various meetings. Likewise, others who were not rich but felt called to, also went around preaching as those from their home meetings supported them financially, and took care of their farms and families in their absence. Quakers began to look at how they could empower and enrich their own meetings; meetings that had to make difficult decisions to be faithful and relevant to their newfound discipleship needs. If they felt comfortable empowering traveling ministers to go, why not empower them to stay? It is hard to set apart time for good teaching, if it means your family will be ever suffering financial loss as other more financially profitable work is neglected, so many Quakers began to adopt the pastoral system.
These first paid Quaker ministers wanted to break away from the sheep/shepherd hierarchies of the churches around them, and radically hold to the idea that we are all ministers called by God to serve in our own unique way. They also wanted to avoid what they saw as “hireling ministry,” that resulted in the abuses of power they had experienced. So what do you call a Quaker pastor that stays true to these core distinctions, and allow for those with more proclaimational gifts to use them? Quakers began referring to these pastors as released ministers. “Released” in this sense is in reference to money, the idea of being financially released to be able to serve and use their vital gifts in ways that could do even greater good for the life of the meeting.
So this is some of the history of the term, but what does it mean to us? I think it means that we should keep this tension of pushing back against hierarchy, and in seeking to foster both the proclaimational and non-proclaimational gifts of those in our meeting. We should strive to be a body of ministers, and more fully live into the idea that God has a special calling, and gifting, for each one of us. I just found and fell in love with College Avenue Friend’s mission statement, as I noticed it on the picture board downstairs:
“College Avenue Friends exists to be compassionate examples of Christ, as we live out the Quaker testimonies through the exercise of our individual gifts. We are committed to live as a Christ-centered fellowship which gives freedom to its members to practice their faith as led by God’s Spirit.”
I think the empowering spirit of this statement distills well what thinking of myself as a released minister might look like. It also fits perfectly with my philosophy of the actual work of ministry; that of being a sort of “spiritual usher” who guides God’s people to the place they fit into the family of God, and where they can best use their gifts and grow in Christ’s love. Please take a fresh look at our mission statement. Ponder it and pray for its realization. What are ways we might consider giving “freedom to our members to practice their faith as led by God’s Spirit?” What new ways might God be stretching us to a rediscovery of what it means to be a body of ministers, of which I (James) am merely one? I thank you for your prayers and support as I continue to learn what faithfulness looks like at College Avenue. Pray that God would continue to magnify the work He desires among us, to prune our expectations, and to further align our hearts to His.