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How Can I Tell If I’m Codependent?

How Can I Tell If I'm Codependent

Donald Miller over at Storyline Blog put out a video the other day, in which he talks about the moment he realized he was codependent in his romantic relationships. Here’s how it happened: A counselor leading a small group session laid out three pillows on the floor. She had Don stand on one of these pillows, while a second participant stood on another. The pillow in the middle was left open.

Once these two – probably slightly confused – individuals were standing on their respective cushions, she explained: This is how healthy relationships work. This is Don’s pillow, this is her pillow, and the pillow in the middle is the relationship. The only two things that you have influence on are your pillow, and the relationship pillow.

Not the other person’s pillow.

Watching Don explain this, I had a knee-jerk negative reaction. This is dumb, I thought. Are you really going to explain to me how human relationships work with a set of pillows on the floor?

Then I realized, it’s not the metaphor that’s silly; it’s me. How often do I try to mess with other people’s pillows? How common is it for me to try to change other people, rather than focusing on those things that I do have some legitimate influence over – my own self, and my part in the relationship?

It’s humbling to get schooled by somebody using floor pillows as a metaphor, but that’s where I’m at. This is a message that I needed.

Don talks about codependency in terms of romantic relationships, but my own experience of codependency is far broader than that. It can extend to friendships and the workplace, to community and family. For me, it has often extended into my ministry. Rather than staying focused on those things that I can control, I’ve often worried too much about the reactions and choices of others.

When I focus on the other person’s (or community’s) pillow, it doesn’t end well for anybody. I end up judging my failure or success in terms of the choices other people make, rather than focusing on those things I have influence over. It’s easy to get bogged down in lamenting the shortcomings of others rather than taking a hard look at my own attitudes and actions, and the part that I play in my relationships.

Scariest of all, maintaining these healthy boundaries means that sometimes I have to walk away from relationship. There are moments when it becomes clear that there’s nothing more that I can do to improve that middle pillow. Sometimes, the most loving choice is to say no to a dysfunctional situation – whether with another individual, a faith community, or a work environment.

As painful as it is to lose these troubled relationships, it can be even worse to stay. It’s possible to spend years hoping against hope that things might get better someday if only that other person or community would change. But the longer I allow myself to measure my happiness by others’ reactions, the more warped my own will become.

It takes a lot of self-awareness to disengage from a toxic relationship. It requires great strength and love to value the well-being of the relationship more than the absence of interpersonal conflict. And sometimes the healthiest relationship is the one that ends. When I know who I am and what my purpose is, nobody and no situation is going to shake me off my foundation.

That’s the life of humble power that I want to live into this year. Rather than re-making the world in my own image, can I submit myself to the truth of who others are? What would it be like to value the depth of my own integrity over the accolades of those around me? What in my life will change when I know who I am and allow others to be who they are, even if it costs me the illusion of relationship that I have clung to so tightly?

Does any of this ring true for you? Where are the places of codependency in your own life? What is the next step you can take towards more fully embracing your own role in your relationships, and leaving the rest to God?

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Success and Vulnerability

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Together in the Truth

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire. – Hebrews 12:28-29
In my last post, I imagined what it might mean for a whole community to respond to Jesus’ challenge to us as his disciples: to follow him without reservation and without safety net. I used the image of burning down a meetinghouse as a metaphor for what it might look like for us to surrender to God as a community, to lay down all of those things that get in the way of child-like faith. It turns out that this was really shocking imagery for some of my readers, and I got a lot of pushback from commenters here on the blog and on Facebook. Unfortunately, it seems that many people got so stuck on the image of a burning meetinghouse that they could not see through to the underlying message of renewal.
In retrospect, I should not have been surprised that the image of a torched meetinghouse upset some members of my online community. Despite our insistence to the contrary, we Quakers are just as attached to our “stuff” – buildings, rituals, procedures and endowments – as any other religious group. This is not necessarily a bad thing. An important function of religion is to provide a stable community where we can grow deeper in the knowledge and practice of the love of God.That function would not be served by constantly calling every aspect of the community’s life into question. Stability and unity within the Church are helpful.

All too often, however, stability gives way to hardness of heart, and unity degenerates into group-think. In our desire to maintain a conflict-free community, we may come to value conformity over prophetic witness. Our tendency can be to freeze the community at a particular point in time – whether past or future – and to seek to maintain that “perfect” moment indefinitely. But a living, breathing community cannot be perfect in this sense. True life is found in dynamic tension. Living communities change and grow; they reproduce themselves in a diverse array of shapes and sizes, suited to their own times and places.

Life depends on a vibrant dynamic between stability and change, the new and the old, creation and destruction. Neither a constant turmoil, nor frozen “perfection” present fertile soil for the work of the Spirit. How do we balance the need for corporate unity with God’s call to radical faithfulness? How can we embrace the God-given stability that we need for our community to thrive while remaining open to new teaching from Christ?
Such questions are too complex and contextual for me to give firm answers here. These are questions for us to live into as a body. That being said, I do believe there are steps we can take to encourage the stable flexibility that our communities need if they are to be places where we grow together in maturity and love. One of these steps is to consider the generational dynamics that are at play in our religious society.

I write from my perspective as a 29-year-old man – a Millennial– who is pretty close to aging out of the “young adult” category. I speak out of almost a decade of experience of being a twentysomething among Friends – first as a seeker; then as a new member of a small Quaker Meeting in Kansas; later as a seminarian at ESR; and finally as a Friend doing ministry in the wider world. I have watched for years as so many in my generation have fallen away from Quakerism, sometimes to join another religious community, but usually drifting into the wider, secular culture. I carry a concern for these younger Friends who have not found a place within their religious community, and I have opinions about how we might change to become more relevant to our present context.

This is a place where I get into trouble a lot. Many folks – especially those of older generations – get very defensive when I start talking about generational challenges. And, it is true, I probably go a little too hard on the Boomer generation at times. I am sorry about that. But I would like to encourage Friends to keep things in perspective. Adult Friends under the age of 40 are an incredibly small minority in our communities here in North America.When I first became a Quaker, I was the only person under fifty in my Meeting, and was one of only twoyoung adults who were active in my Yearly Meeting. In Ohio Yearly Meeting, where I am currently a member, I can identify only perhaps half a dozen Friends under the age of 40 who are active in the life of the Yearly Meeting.

I realize that I can come across to some older folks as an “angry young man” who blames all the challenges facing Friends on older generations. But take a moment to see the world from my vantage point. In my life in Washington, DC, I am surrounded by adults in their twenties and thirties. We are young professionals, activists, writers and intellectuals. We are energetic, earnest and hard at work throughout the city.

Yet, when I participate my Yearly Meeting, or other Quaker groups, my peers are nowhere to be found. I am surrounded by people who are decades older than me, with very different life experiences, assumptions and worldviews. I am too young to clearly remember when the Berlin wall came down, yet most of my brothers and sisters in the Quaker community had their worldviews shaped in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War! I love my older Friends, and I lean on a number of them for eldership, support and counsel. But, over time, it can also be alienating to be a part of a community where my different life experience is often unrecognized.

So, I apologize for anything I have written or said that has made my older Friends feel attacked or devalued. While at times I may say some things that feel like insults to our older members,I hope you will hear where my concern really lies: not in tearing down older Friends, but in lifting up the particular gifts, experience and concerns of younger Quakers. How can our religious community value and empower the gifts and ministries of younger Friends? How can all of us come together in the Truth?

Our God is indeed a consuming fire, and all of us – young and old – have dross to be melted away as we wait in that refining Presence. How must we change so that we can wait together as a body, receiving the teaching of the Holy Spirit? If all our forms and structures and buildings and finances are tools that God has given us for blessing the world, what does it look like for us to faithfully exercise those tools, those gifts? And how do we avoid making the tools and gifts our focus, rather than God? How can we live into these questions together, as an intergenerational community?



QuakerSpring: A New Creation

Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
– Isaiah 60:1-2

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
– Romans 8:22-23

God continues to surprise me. All the Holy Spirit has to do is blow through, and I am back to square one; the sand castles that I have built are swept away by the tide, and I am left without fortifications before God. I suppose it could be frustrating to realize that most of the things I had been worrying about for months do not really matter. But all I feel is joy.

I see with stunning clarity that God is not like me at all. Though I am characterized by grasping and self-centeredness, God’s character is one of self-giving, healing and mercy. God’s presence is power to receive forgiveness, and to be remade in the image of Christ.

This presence and power was very much in evidence this past week at the sixth annual gathering of QuakerSpringin Barnesville, Ohio. QuakerSpring is a unique, Spirit-led retreat that was conceived as an alternative to the frantic programming of some other Quaker gatherings. Rather than planning the schedule ahead of time, each day’s agenda is set out according to the group’s sense of the Spirit’s leading.Rooted in deep worship and shared discernment, QuakerSpring unfolds according to the community’s sense of God’s call.

I was surprised by the spiritual intensity we experienced this year. There was a palpable sense of connection to God, but also an awareness of spiritual darkness. At the heart of our time together was a deep sense of our human brokeness, and of Christ’s presence within, calling us to deeper faithfulness. Our spiritual burdens felt like a heavy weight, but as we sat together in Christ’s presence, much of this darkness was revealed, brought into the light, and purified in the Refiner’s Fire. Both individually and as a group, we experienced real transformation.

During QuakerSpring, I personally became more aware of the burdens I had been carrying. I saw more clearly that I was struggling with a spirit of anxiety and confusion around issues of financial security and support. I was so caught up in worry about the future that I had lost sight of my present Ground and Source, Jesus Christ.

Fortunately, an elder was able to name what was happening. She expressed her sense that the Adversary was loose in our midst. When she said this, I knew immediately that it was true. I perceived the spirit of confusion and anxiety for what it was – a spirit that was not from God – and I felt an immediate release. In what felt like a miraculous moment of spiritual house-cleaning, the darkness, confusion and anxiety cleared out of me. I give praise to God for using this elder to name what was happening, and to reveal the dynamics at play that were keeping me in bondage.

One thing that struck me this week was the prominence of what I would describe as almost “charismatic” expressions of faith. The reality of darkness and evil emerged as major themes of our worship and conversation. At the same time, there was a deep sense of Christ’s inward power that is breaking out of forms and structures and transforming us in ways that we could never have predicted. God is doing a new thing, though it is still unclear what this new creation will look like.

As someone who has been involved in QuakerSpring since the first gathering in 2007, this year felt like a turning point. I have always valued QuakerSpring as a chance to rest in the Spirit and grow in community. I saw QuakerSpring as a vacation from the hard work of ministry in the wider world. This year, however, I had a growing sense that God has a broader purpose for this gathering. What if QuakerSpring is more than a spiritual refuge? What if God is using QuakerSpring as an engine of renewal and rebirth for the Religious Society of Friends?

Everything in the Religious Society of Friends seems to be falling apart right now. Yearly Meetings are splitting, and old venerable institutions are in decline. Many of our Meetings are in states of crisis, and there is a general sense that we don’t really know what to do. We are at a loss for how to respond to our present circumstances. At QuakerSpring, I experience a community that is grounded in the Spirit, listening and seeking to be obedient to the voice of Jesus Christ within. This is the kind of community that I want to be a part of. It is a kind of Quakerism that could truly be relevant for 21st-century post-modern America.

QuakerSpring represents the unique meeting of Christian (or Christian-curious) Liberal Friends and Conservative Friends who seek a more vibrant and flexible Christian faith. I learned in high school biology that hybrids are often much stronger than “pure breeds.” Could this new community – this mutt of branch lineages united in the Spirit of Christ – find a voice and a witness that speaks to the needs of modern-day North America? How is God teaching us to contextualize the truth that early Friends re-discovered in our own – dramatically different – context? How might we move forward with our Guide?

There are no easy answers. While many of us wish there were some sort of “technical” solution for the challenges facing the Religious Society of Friends today, I am convinced that there is no quick fix that will produce faithfulness and awareness of God’s presence and power. Rather than developing a technique or a process, God is gathering a people.

QuakerSpring is not an abstract model or process that can simply be exported. This is not something that we can manage or control. Rather, QuakerSpring is apeople who are being knitted together in God’s love and power. Based on my experience of QuakerSpring, I am more convinced than ever that rebirth within the Church will not be the result of our human plans and strategies. There is a new creation that we can sense, and Christ himself is creating it.

Have you experienced the Spirit drawing a new community together? What does it feel like on the growing edge of a faith tradition? Where is the intersection between what God is doing in each of us individually, and the ways that God is at work in the Body as a whole? How do we give this new creation space to breathe and develop, avoiding the temptation to suffocate it with our own ideas and agendas?

Sing and rejoice ye children of the day and the light; for the Lord is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt: and the Truth doth flourish as the rose, and lilies do grow among the thorns and the plants atop the hills, and upon them the lambs doth skip and play. 
– George Fox

Success and Vulnerability

The truth about myself is often hard to see. It is easy to overlook my own brokenness precisely because it is such a part of who I am. I have grown accustomed to it. The log in my own eye seems normal, which makes it far easier to play doctor to others than to examine my own wounds.

In my experience, one of the main things that the Holy Spirit does is to uncover the hidden wounds that have become so normal to me. The Spirit reveals that which is buried under the surface, shining light in the darkness. It exposes the truth, and offers me the chance to embrace it, though it is often painful.

In recent days, God has been revealing my own hidden selfishness. The Spirit has drawn my attention time and again to the many ways in which I put myself first. My self-centered way of living is so normal that, without God’s help, I would never have noticed it.
It is easy to assume that my life and my needs are at the center. I have been brought up in a society that encourages me to conceive of myself as the protagonist in an epic story. Since I am the “main character,” it is easy to assume that what is best for me is best in general. And as a Christian, it is easy to confuse my own preferences for God’s will.

This false worldview is hard to break through. Mainstream American society is built around the idea of the autonomous, self-sufficient individual. Nowhere is this more true than the labor market. Today, it is widely assumed and understood that each person must operate as a free agent, without ultimate loyalty to any party or organization. We are encouraged to think of employment as a transaction, to calculate what we are “worth” to a prospective employer in dollar terms, and to justify ourselves as commodities.

In this environment, we are encouraged to be self-focused, because it can make the difference between a good-paying job and unemployment. When we interview, we present ourselves in the most positive terms possible. We play up the best parts of ourselves, because we fear that revealing any weakness might cost us the job. And, most of the time, we are probably right. Success, in the world’s terms, depends on self-promotion. We learn to fight for our own advancement, rather than seeking out the good of the organization and society as a whole.

I feel convicted of the ways in which I personally play into this dynamic. The path of self-promotion feels safer. It is easier to clothe myself in human strength, attempting to impress others with my embellished accomplishments. Yet, I feel God challenging me to live in a way that lays bare my own fragile humanity. I feel called to seek the truth recklessly, and to lead a life of simple trust and vulnerability.

What would it be like if I were to shed all fear of my fellow men and women? What if, instead of calculating how others might help or hinder my own ambitions, I opened my eyes to God’s incredible love for them – and acted on that?

Radical Christian Community in the New Rome

“Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand…”Isaac Pennington, 1667

During my studies at Earlham School of Religion, I was part of an intentional Christian community called Renaissance House, located in an impoverished area of Richmond, Indiana. There were five of us living there: The house’s founder, me, and three other men, each of whom had physical or mental disabilities. We had an open door policy, inviting folks from the neighborhood to stop by and visit with us. Three nights a week, we hosted community meals, inviting folks from the neighborhood, and our friends from around town, to come and have dinner together.

These dinners were an amazing demonstration of what Christ’s table looks like. A normal Wednesday night dinner at Renaissance House included seminary students and professors, area businessmen, the homeless, the mentally ill and physically handicapped. It included the young and the old, the middle class and the poor.

I was deeply affected by my experience at Renaissance House. The depths of community at Renaissance House were profound. We experienced the good, the bad and the ugly of life in community. It was beautiful. We relied on one another, chopping wood, remodeling homes, serving food and gathering around the Scriptures as a little church of misfits and outcasts.

The heart of Renaissance House was our commitment to being radically available to one another. We were not primarily concerned with advancing our careers or “getting ahead” in the world. Our main focus was caring for one another, sharing the gospel and breaking bread together. We bore one another’s burdens and spent hours together every day. We prayed together.

Not everything was ideal. Life at the Renaissance House was very challenging much of the time. We were living on the edge in many respects, and the community was so intense that we had to work constantly on our interpersonal relationships. This was not always easy, and there were some pretty spectacular blow-ups while I was there. Nevertheless, on balance, these challenges seemed healthy. Though we were often uncomfortable and struggled with our human weaknesses, it felt like we were growing together in the Lord.

I wonder increasingly whether this kind of community might be possible here in Washington, DC. There are a lot of challenges here that we did not face in Richmond, Indiana. The biggest of these is the sheer cost of living. Unlike in Richmond, where houses were available in the low 10,000s, the DC housing market is intense. Life in general is more expensive here. Even living on the margins requires a serious income. Is there room in DC for the kind of radical Christian community that I experienced at Renaissance House?

I feel certain that there is. After all, just decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul was writing to an established church in Rome. Life must have been difficult for the Roman church, living in the capital city of the pagan empire that ruled almost the entire known world. They were surrounded by a society that worshipped imperial power and reveled in the luxury that the might of Caesar provided.

The Church in Rome must have had a particular role to play in bearing witness to Jesus and his Upside-Down Empire – an empire of love and justice that stood in contrast to the selfishness and violence of the wider culture. I believe that there is need for such a witness today in the new Rome. In a city that is so weighted down by the narrative of domination, power struggles and abusive privilege, there is a need for an alternative story.

Here on Capitol Hill, we witness the ways in which the narrative of Empire is expressed in the feverish scramble for control and power over others. This anti-gospel is a tangible reality in the offices of the many organizations that seek to gain influence here. In the face of this very real darkness, there is need for another story to be told, embraced and lived out. It is the story of a little baby who is born in a back alley, the Savior of the world. It is the story of the Messiah, tortured and executed by the imperial authorities for challenging the narrative of privilege and domination. It is the story of a community that serves a Risen Lord and is led by the Holy Spirit – a Spirit that reveals the falsehood of human empires and invites us into a life of sacrificial love and siblinghood.

I believe that there is a call for such communities here in Washington, DC. Despite the challenges that we face as residents in a wealthy center of imperial power, God is calling us to set aside our fear and our need for control. God is inviting us to live as the Body of Christ, not in a metaphorical sense, nor in a merely “spiritual” sense, but concretely. We are called into life together as a community, a life of mutual care and shared suffering for the Truth.

Surrender to Jesus in community will come in small, practical ways. We may be asked to surrender habits that upset our brothers and sisters. We may be asked to forgo career advancement that conflicts with the needs and mission of the community. We will most certainly be asked to give up some of the mobility that our present society so highly prizes.

During my time at Renaissance House, I learned that true Christian community is not a theoretical question. We can have all the right ideas about God and still fail to step out in faith. The Body of Christ only becomes a reality when we are willing to surrender control and live in community guided by the living presence of Jesus.

Are we willing to let go and become a part of something greater? Are we ready for a life more grounded in community? It will be hard to let go of the individual freedom that the wider culture so cherishes. But the reward that we are promised is so much greater – the abundant life that we receive as we live into God’s purpose for us.

Lone Ranger Culture and Growing the Body of Christ

I recently received an email from an American Quaker who had read my recent post, Freelance Ministry or the Body of Christ? They wrote:


“I am totally in agreement with what you advocate — and my behaviors as minister among Friends are strictly Lone Ranger-mode.  It’s not only my culture, it’s how I survived childhood.  Those habits are deep in my cells and tissues.  From your experience getting re-enculturated among Ohio Conservative Friends, can you suggest how one can change the freelance ministry culture when one is within the culture?”


Here is my response, which I post with my correspondent’s permission:


Dear Friend,

I’m particularly pleased to hear how helpful my post on freelance ministry vs. the Body of Christ was for you. This reality of “body-ness” is really changing the way that I live and grow in Christ, and I am eager to share my experience in this regard with others. It is Friends at Stillwater Quarterly Meeting (Ohio YM)such a treasure, and I want to do everything I can to help others live into this reality.

Unfortunately, as we both know, such a way of life is not something we can achieve on our own. I mean this not only in the sense that this is work that God must do within us, rather than something we do ourselves; this is certainly true, but it is even harder than that. Living in the Body of Christ depends on other people and their response to the call of Christ’s Holy Spirit to live as members of the True Vine. We cannot live in the Body of Christ without other disciples of Jesus who are also willing to take his yoke upon them. We can take first steps in faith, but ultimately we rely on the faithful steps of others.

I have been thinking about your question a lot during this past week: What can you do where you are? How can you become an agent for change within a freelance ministry culture? This is a hard question, and one Friends at Stillwater Quarterly Meeting (Ohio YM)that I have dealt with in the past as a member of another Yearly Meeting before joining Ohio Yearly Meeting.

To provide a direct answer, I must begin by asking more questions. First of all, are there committed, Spirit-led Christians within your Meeting? Your Yearly Meeting? Your wider circle of Christian fellowship? Consider unilaterally submitting yourself to their care and oversight. Allow some disciples of Jesus whom you trust – women and men of spiritual maturity and depth of Christian commitment – to serve as your spiritual elders. Communicate with them regularly, and be open to changing your plans and even beliefs based on their guidance and the inward prompting of Jesus in your heart. These relationships will provide the fundamental support for your ongoing ministry, which will almost certainly be fiercely challenged as time goes on. Make sure that these relationships are strong before venturing out.

Now, more questions: Do you sense that you are being called to the work of nurturing the development of the Body of Christ within your local Meeting? Do you sense that there is an opening for you to begin enfleshing the Body of Christ in your local Meeting? If so, you might consider approaching your Meeting’s Ministry and Oversight (aka Ministry and Counsel or Ministry and Worship). You could lay your concern before them, asking them to consider how they might be called to begin (or deepen) a life of accountability and mutual submission within M&O and in the Meeting as a whole. Be ready to submit yourself to these Friends, too, if Doing Dishes at Food Not Bombs in Capitol Heights, DCthey respond in faith to the Holy Spirit. Be ready to be challenged and changed as the Meeting is challenged and changed. This is a time when you will need to rely heavily on your core of elders who can support you and serve as a check to the feedback you receive from your Meeting.

If you do indeed feel called of the Lord to this work, remember that prophetic engagement with the Meeting is a ministry that may take many years to bear any discernible fruit. And you might never see results. I encourage you to be sure of your leading and your motivations before engaging in this work. I also encourage you to regularly ask yourself what Christ is calling you to now.

Another thing to listen for is whether God is calling you to engage in this kind of ministry in your current Meeting. In my own case, I was called to this work for a season. However, God eventually called me out of my previous Monthly and Yearly Meeting and transplanted me into Ohio Yearly Meeting. While I would by no means insist that it is right for you to leave your Meeting, I encourage you to be open to that possibility. In my own experience,Friends at Ministers and Elders Retreat in Barnesville, Ohio - 2011 I was called out in order to be involved in the development of a new community.

Finally, I would encourage you to seek out opportunities to imbibe the community life of Friends groups that place more emphasis on corporate submission to Jesus Christ. Consider joining us for Ohio Yearly Meeting, which takes place in Barnesville, Ohio, August 8-13. Also, you could attend Stillwater Quarterly Meeting or some of OYM’s Monthly Meetings. And you would of course be a very welcome visitor at Rockingham Meeting and Capitol Hill Friends!

Also, while I do not have much personal experience of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), I have heard that their Yearly Meeting sessions are quite edifying. That might also be another gathering worth attending. I especially encourage you to attend the gatherings of covenanted communities (worship groups, Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings). These are places where you can really experience the mutual submission in Christ that is so essential for a community that seeks to live as Christ’s Body in the world.

And, of course, I would be happy to correspond with you in the months and years to come. I pray that we may support one another as we seek to be disciples of the Master, gathered together in him.

I am your friend in the Lord Jesus Christ,

Micah

Freelance Ministry or the Body of Christ?

Now you are the Body of Christ and individually members of it. – 1 Corinthians 12:27

Since becoming a Christian in the Quaker tradition, I have witnessed the wide range of character of many different congregations. There are the obvious differences, like attendance, geography and theology. There are differences in class background, age and the historical pedigree of the Meeting.(1) These factors, and many others, come together to make each Meeting unique, possessing its own character and special mission in its context.

There is one aspect of the character of our Meetings that I have sensed for years, but am only now beginning to be able to name. It is a subtle difference in worldview that makes a huge difference in how the Meeting understands itself and manages its affairs. The difference has to do with the way the group understands the relationship between the community and the individual. While different communities fall at different points in a spectrum of Friends at Northwest Yearly Meeting 2009attitudes, I have noticed two broad tendencies in the way that our Meetings view themselves and the relationship between the Meeting and the individual members.

The first worldview, I will dub freelance ministry.(2) In this understanding, the community exists primarily as a resource for the work that each individual member is doing in the world. The congregation is, in practical terms, a free association of individuals who support one another in their particular callings. The other members of the Meeting may provide advice, emotional and spiritual support, and even financial backing to projects that other members undertake. Often, support consists primarily of fellowship and encouragement for each member in the good work that they do out in the world.

Freelance ministry is, in my experience, the most prevalent perspective found among Friends today. It is predominant in most of the Liberal-Unprogrammed Meetings I have visited, as well as in many pastoral and Evangelical congregations. Most of our communities view the individual as the primary recipient of God’s guidance, with the community serving as a resource for that ongoing journey of personal discovery and service to the wider world.

The alternative to the freelance worldview is a perspective which I label the Body of Christ view.(3) This view inverts the relationship between individuals and community. Instead of seeing the community as a resource for its members, those who are living in a Body of Christ worldview see the gifts of the individual members as being given by God for the community. Individuals who are members of a community with this outlook understand themselves as existing to serve the wider body, and spiritual gifts – whether Picnic at Ohio Yearly Meeting 2009vocal ministry, eldership, oversight, or the myriad of other gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows – are given to individuals in trust for the Meeting.

In this perspective, it is not so much that an individual is given a gift of administration; instead, the community is given a gift of administration through the individual member. This is why Friends have traditionally recorded gifts of ministry, eldership and oversight: Not primarily to validate the individual, but instead to recognize and care for the gifts that God has bestowed on the Church.

This view is much less common than the freelance perspective, and for my first few years among Friends, I encountered it mostly in literature. Many books I read described the importance of having a Body of Christ worldview – and I came to agree, in theory – but I rarely saw this worldview embodied in a living community. For a long time, I wondered whether this understanding was lost to Friends, discarded at some point in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Recently, however, I have seen that there are still Friends communities that maintain a way of life that is primarily grounded in a community-centered understanding. 

The main opportunity that I have had to see this worldview in action has been through my increasing involvement with Conservative Friends. As I began to spend more time with Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting, I saw that their self-understanding was substantially different from many of the communities I had experienced before. Taking part more deeply
Plain-dressed family at OYM sessions in the life of Ohio Yearly Meeting, eventually becoming a member of Rockingham Monthly Meeting, I realize that my own worldview is changing dramatically.

While my ideal for Christian community has long been more community-focused, I had always been in contexts where the freelance ministry perspective predominated. I was a member of communities that were primarily focused on the individual, and this could not help but shape me. Though my ideology was more community-focused, in practice I was operating mostly under the assumptions of freelance ministry. This was natural, of course. We adapt ourselves to our immediate context, and for years I was compelled to mostly play by the rules of freelance ministry, even as I sought to encourage a more community-minded ethos where I was.

Since becoming a member of a Meeting that leans much more towards the Body of Christ side of the spectrum, I have found my rhetoric and practice shifting. I think much more in terms of “us” than in terms of “me.” When I examine the spiritual gifts of others or those that have been entrusted to me, I look to how they fit into the life of the community, rather than simply admiring them for their own beauty. I am being taught that the gifts that the Holy Spirit entrusts to me should not be the basis for pride – or even identity.

Calling and gifts change over the course of a lifetime, depending on the needs of the Body, and I am seeing that it is unwise to build my sense of self on things that are not, ultimately, mine. Safest, certainly, is to build upon the sure foundation that we find in humility and obedience to the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit. When I find my identity in Christ, rather than in the gifts he gives, I am much more likely to be flexible and obedient to leadings that defy my own sense of gifting. In a community with a Body of Christ ESR Students in Mexicoperspective, it is easier to relax and see that the gifts belong to the Church, not to me as an individual. It is easier to submit myself to the group, which in turn seeks to submit itself to Christ.

While it is in Ohio Yearly Meeting that I have discovered a community that really prioritizes the Meeting over the individual, I feel certain that there are many congregations outside of the Conservative Quaker tradition that live in a Body of Christ worldview. But it is not surprising that most of our Meetings seem to fall more into a freelance ministry perspective. The wider Western culture is so steeped in individualism, that to put the group first is a radical shift.

What are ways that we can encourage movement towards a more community-centered way of life in our Meetings? What does it take to develop a community where individuals are willing to lay down their own opinions, priorities and independence in order to build up the life of the group in Christ? How might we encourage the conditions where individuals can gain the level of trust and intimacy necessary to surrender our own prerogatives in order to build up the Body of Christ?

1. Talking about pedigree is complicated and ridiculous enough for its own series of posts. Is the Meeting Gurneyite, Hicksite, Wilburite? Modernist, Fundamentalist? New Meetings Movement, Neo-Conservative? There is so much confusion and contentiousness surrounding who we are as communities, and a lot of it is based in our history of divisions.

2. Ministry is just an anglicization of the Latin word for word for service, and in this post I am using the words “ministry” and “service” interchangeably. Of course, as Christian communities our service/ministry is done in the name of Jesus, and for this reason has a particular, sacramental character.

3. I take the term “Body of Christ” from 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.