As a new Quaker, whenever I had a question about my faith, more experienced Friends at my Meeting would recommend a book or pamphlet I should read. I was inspired by stories about the profound awakenings and prophetic ministry of my spiritual ancestors, and over time I came to trust my sense of spiritual intuition, developing an increasingly deep relationship with God. I grew a lot just by waiting in the silence and listening for the inward voice of the Spirit.
Yet at the same time, I felt something was missing. There was this yearning that could not be filled by pamphlets, nor even the weekly training of silent worship. What could answer this aching need to lead a life of faithfulness like the ones I read about? What did I have to do to live in the light, life and power that I saw glimmers of in worship?
For many years, I sought this something more outside of my local community. I traveled to an international Quaker gathering and visited a wide variety of Yearly Meetings and Quaker conferences. I even organized some of them. Not to mention that I spent several years away from my Meeting, studying at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana.
I benefited immensely from these experiences. The opportunity to attend seminary, in particular, was a transformational undertaking. With each Friends gathering I attended, I felt that I was rediscovering and integrating a bit more of the living tradition of Quakerism that is scattered across our communities in North America. In many ways, the only way to get the kind of training I needed was to leave my local community.
I know that there must be many folks who became Quakers and developed into fully-grown leaders without needing to spend much time away from their local church. Nevertheless, it is my observation that many of the outstanding Quaker ministers today have felt it necessary to spend a huge amount of time moving around in seminary-like environments – whether literally at a seminary, in programs like School of the Spirit, or at gatherings, consultations and conferences. For most of us – my 20-something self included – the local church environment is experienced as being inadequate for preparing and equipping new leaders for the work that God is calling them to.
This is new. For most of our history, Friends have trained up our leaders within the local church. It was generally only once a minister was already well-prepared that she was encouraged to venture beyond her home Meeting. In contrast to those Christian communities that called seminary-trained pastors from beyond the local congregation, Friends have traditionally expected that the gifts a community needed would arise within that community. Our leaders have been home-grown, raised up from the grassroots.
Today, this may not be realistic for many of our congregations. The Quaker community faces immense cultural and demographic challenges, and many local groups may no longer have the internal resources to cultivate their own leaders. In my personal case, I do believe that going to seminary and traveling widely among Friends was probably the best way for me to get the education I needed to learn what our tradition is really about. I am thankful that these resources were available for me.
But should my path be the norm? Should our most passionate, inspired new leaders feel like the only way for them to grow is to leave the local community? Might there be a way that our local communities could provide a path for leadership development, spiritual gift assessment, and discernment around how Jesus is calling us to become living members of his body, right where we are? What if sending one of our leaders to seminary was seen as a culmination of a process of local development? What if our seminarians were expected to come back prepared to equip others with the education they received?
Could our local fellowships become places where the gifts that God plants find water and encouragement to grow?