One phrase that has deep meaning in the Quaker community is, “under the care.” Friends often employ this term in sentences such as, “Sarah’s ministry is under the care of Ministry and Oversight,” or, “James and Rachel’s marriage is under the care of the Meeting.” Most commonly, when Friends speak of something being under the care of a group, it is a reference to a formal relationship that is bound up in procedure. For example, if a couple’s marriage is under the care of a Meeting, this generally means that the couple goes through a process of clearness – similar in many ways to premarital counseling – with other members of the Meeting. To be under a group’s care often means to take part in a process of accountability with the group.
Perhaps in some Meetings this is all that being under the care means. As with all traditions, some of our communities have fallen into reliance on the outward forms of care – committee work and procedure – while having lost sight of the spiritual substance of the matter. For a healthy, spiritually vibrant Meeting, however, being under the care is far more than undertaking a certain series of procedures or committee obligations.
In the ideal, relationships of care are diverse and interwoven throughout the Meeting – individual to individual; ministers to elders; individuals, couples and families to the Meeting; and the Meeting as a whole to the Quarterly and Yearly Meeting. These care relationships are not, first and foremost, a series of procedural obligations. In fact, it is my opinion that the fewer committees a Meeting can get by with, the better. Instead, care within the Meeting is primarily about love, transparency and mutual submission in the Lord.
In Ohio Yearly Meeting, it is our conviction that Christ Jesus is the head of the Church, of which our Yearly Meeting is one small part. Jesus being the head, we have found ourselves gathered together and bonded to one another in his life, way and truth. In him, we are able to submit ourselves to one another, testing our sense of Christ’s guidance with one another, trusting that the wider community has important insight into the experience of the individual. We experience that the Meeting, when submitted to the present teaching of the Holy Spirit, can speak with authority to the lives of individual members or groups under its care.
In Rockingham Meeting where I am a member, we place a very high value on yieldedness. This is a concept that I suspect Rockingham Meeting has imbibed from the ambient Mennonite culture of Shenandoah Valley, and it means that the individual should value the insight of the wider fellowship and be willing to change his or her life in order to meet the expectations of the community. In this life of yieldedness, each individual is profoundly under the care of the community as a whole.
In practical terms, this means that the individual should consider the convictions and witness of the community in all aspects of her or his life. For example, my Yearly Meeting has a longstanding testimony against gambling and financial speculation. As a member of the fellowship, I have a responsibility to respect that testimony, and prayerfully consider how God might be calling me to make changes in my life to live more fully into it myself. On the most basic level, it is important that I do nothing to publicly discredit the testimony of my community, even if I am personally struggling with how our testimony fits into my own life.
A good example of this of this sort of yielding might be declining to participate in charity raffles (instead simply donating money), even if I do not yet entirely understand on a personal level why Friends testimony against gambling and speculation is important. Being under the care of the community means accepting the discernment of the community, even when I do not understand. There is value in yielding to the community on matters in which I do not feel convicted to the contrary by the Holy Spirit.
The latter part of that last sentence is key: Yieldedness is not about giving preference to the human opinions of our community over the motions of the Holy Spirit. If the wisdom of the community is contrary to what Christ seems to be revealing to me, I have a responsibility to bring this concern to the community. In a sense, the Meeting is also under the care of the individual. Each of us must lay our own sense of Christ’s leading before the Meeting, even if it is unpopular. It may be that God is calling on us to adapt the testimony of the Meeting to meet a new situation.
Yieldedness is not about unduly venerating human authorities, nor is it about remaining silent in the face of injustice, spiritual blindness, or just plain old incompetence. But it does mean giving the Meeting the benefit of the doubt, laying our concerns before the community. If the Meeting is placing itself under the immediate guidance of Jesus Christ, seeking to be obedient to his Holy Spirit today, we do well to participate fully in the Meeting’s process of discernment rather than running off ahead of the Meeting.*
We discover our full potential to be the Body of Christ when we simultaneously place our lives fully under the care of the Meeting and take care for the Meeting as individuals. Taking seriously the guidance and discernment of the Christ-centered community, we are better equipped to recognize and obey the voice of God within our own hearts. When we hear and respond to the inward presence of Christ, we offer our own witness to the wider body and deepen the Meeting’s understanding of how Jesus is guiding us today.
When care and yieldedness are fully mature, we come to see that we have been under Christ’s care all along.
*If the Meeting is not seeking to put itself under Christ’s leadership, that is another matter altogether. While one should never lay down membership in a Meeting lightly, there are times when it is appropriate to dissolve ties with a Meeting that has ceased to follow the risen presence of Jesus. We may trust in Jesus himself to let us know when that moment has arrived; he may ask us to labor with a wayward Meeting for quite some time.