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Quaker, French-speaker, educator, anti-racist; Southern-born & raised, and talking enthusaist.


Overseers and Oversight

The Ministry & Worship committee on which I serve has struggled with proper terms for overseeing worship. Traditionally Quakers have had 3 offices: gospel ministers, elders and overseers. Gospel ministers were recognized by their meetings as having a particular gift in vocal ministry during worship, an ability to deepen the silence with their preaching and edifying the meeting. Their lives were exemplary. Elders helped to nurture and guide the ministers in their ministry, helping them to keep in the Light and be faithful. They also, unfortunately, began to wield power regarding orthodoxy and content of preaching which later led to Quaker schisms (along with other issues). They generally served terms, but were still chosen by the membership based on their gifts, not because of age. Therefore "elder" is not someone who's been a Quaker a long time and knows the ropes, but someone who has a particular spiritual gift that can help deepen the gifts of others. Overseers were the watchdogs of the meeting. I guess they are like Trustees. They watched that members were keeping to the faith and manner of Friends.

In modern liberal Quakerism none of these offices exist (in most circles). We no longer encourage or nurture gifts in vocal ministry. We don't recognize or encourage gifts of pastoral and spiritual care, and we certainly don't have people watching the hem of our bonnets and whether we dance at state fairs or not (ha). Instead we have committees that concern themselves with the worship and religious ed (Ministry & Worship at Homewood) and the care of membership (Clearness & Counsel). Most meetings have one committee that does all of this (Ministry & Counsel). People rotate on and off of the committees. Some meetings' Nominating Committees do sit in prayer and discern which members have gifts for these committees. They won't just put anyone on there regardless of gifts. Other meetings see committees as a way to share the responsibilities of the meeting community and to acclimate all members into the different aspects of meeting life. I disapprove of the latter: we aren't all suited for all of the work of the meeting, and to put someone on a committee without the necessary understanding or abilities seems counterproductive(don't ever put me on a finance committee).

So, with that overly-simplified background, Ministry & Worship at Homewood has members who have been involved in anti-racism work. The trend among liberal Friends involved in that work is to cease using the term "overseer" because it was an office or position in the slave trade. As we seek to remove remnants of racism in our hearts and our institutions, we also seek to be tender to those for whom certain words or concepts invoke negative or even harmful memories, images, emotions, etc.

It's not easy as a relatively liberal/progressive person raised in a very liberal/progressive family to admit my part in racism. Although I'm gay and many doors are shut to me because of that, and although I still am harassed and physically threatened sometimes in my own city because of my perceived sexuality (I wear clothes that fit, and apparently that's "faggy" among certain segments of Bmore's population), as a white male I certain doors are open to me that aren't open to people of color. Although, in Baltimore City, that is often not true and even reversed. Still, nationally and beyond, it is true. So, I am racist insofar as I'm privileged as a white guy.

I also have class biases. No matter what my parents taught me, the larger upper middle class culture and even some of my more bourgeois black friends influenced me enough to where I have to really separate my understanding of reality from, well, reality! Too often I made generalizations based on race that were really based on class. Knowing this, I admit that what irks me about people shouting in the streets, cussing at their children, beating them in public, littering on the ground with no care whatsoever, completely disrespecting authority and their elders, spitting in front of others, pissing in the alleys or in my bushes, (shall I go on?) has nothing to do with race. It's a class issue. However, what pisses me off about that is my maternal grandmother was poor. My mother was born in severe poverty. They were clean, respectful . . . u get the idea. And rich people often have similar disrespect for others but it comes from a place of privilege.

Anyway, I digress. Point is, I am classist and biases and institutionally I'm racist by default. I acknowledge this. IT's up to me to be faithful and educate myself on these issues. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I will not just decide "well I need to do something about this." Instead, I will educate myself on the issues of race and class and allow God to do his work in my heart.

So when I hear Quakers refusing to use a traditional term that describes well the function of looking over the meetings for worship at our meeting houses because it was used 140 years ago for those who oversaw the work of slaves, it does stir my heart. But my mind says "wait a minute, this is a distraction from the real work we need to be doing." I realize it may be symbolic of a larger commitment of Friends to work against racism, but symbolism seems like another good intention that paves the way to distraction and discord.

The other day I came out of the Baltimore MEtro and was handed a post card from a young black guy who was doing outreach for a new church in town. The postcard was flashy and I immediately dismissed the opportunity as "another pop culture Evangelical church with people getting way too emotional and confusing it with religious experience." (I've been a Quaker too long ha ha ha). However, in reading it carefully I noticed that the preacher and organizer was "Reverend Overseer" so and so.

I recalled a conversation with a black colleague of mine who's the wife of an Apostolic pastor. I shared with her the concern over the term "overseer." She said "sounds like a bunch of well-meaning white folk who got it wrong." I explained to her that there are ministers in our religious society who are black and traveling with this concern. Her question "are they bougie intellectuals?" I knew where she was going with this...

So today I go on line and look at "Overseer" as a term used in religious organizations. The term seems to be kept alive in the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) and the derivative congregations (Apostolic, Holiness, Pentecostal, independent Evangelical, Full Gospel) as well as Roman Catholic!

While I respect the work of Friends who seek to remove remnants of racism in our Religious Society, I am not moved by the argument that we should remove this term. I will not stand in the way, but at our meeting we haven't come up with a better term. We tried to say "those who sit at the head of meeting" but then there are some who oppose that "hierarchical" concept. I shrug and give up. There is minimal knowledge about Quaker history and concepts by those who are otherwise intellectuals. It boggles my mind how many Quakers hold PhDs but yet have read little about their own religious tradition. They bring in "worldy" concepts and apply it to Quakerism when Quakerism has its own understanding and use of terms, (minister, overseer, Jesus, Bible). I hope that we can avoid the red herrings and work on the real problems of race and class not only in our own society, but beyond.


  1. Kevin-Douglas,
    Hi! It seems like it's been ages since we've talked. I hope that you'll be able to attend the 2010 Annual Gathering!
    I'm really asking for a clarification about your posting. Is your meeting seeking to revive the function of those once known as "overseers" among Quakers and seeking to discern the most appropriate term for those Friends today, or is your meeting seeking to reinterpret/reconstitute a role in the meeting somehow akin to, but in many ways quite distinct from, what "overseers" once did?
    In Friendship,

  2. I've generally steered clear of this debate. But I don't think a sudden upswell in anti-racist consciousness has been the only motivation for the sudden dropping of the word "overseer." The meetings that ditched it the quickest were those that have theologies that are hostile to the classic Christian/Quaker sense of gifts and ministries--those that have substituted offices for committees.

    The term "overseer" as used by Friends comes from the New Testament (of course). Seeing themselves as "primitive Christianity revived," they scoured the epistles for models of Christian community. "Overseer" was one of the concepts they adopted and elaborated on over the centuries.

    There's lots of terms we could use. I just found a site that claims that "Elder, Presbyter, Overseer, Bishop, Shepherd, Pastor" are all different English translations for the same original word! But I think the dirty secret is that the most liberal of the liberal meetings don't like the concept of oversight, spiritual offices or the idea that our meetings are modeled after first century Christian communities.

    I don't care much if we're changing the word, but if we're changing the purpose and role of a Friends meeting then that's something we should at least be conscious of. And honest about.

  3. Maybe the problem is that they are trying to reason from what they know and are learning, rather than truly listening to God. God can leap barriers of race, class, etc. but reason is not likely to enable that quantum leap. God can help us leap the barriers without even understanding what we are doing.

    There's nothing wrong with having knowledge, but knowledge in itself is not enough for discernment. We have to really wait upon the Lord with open hearts and minds in order to be led to where we need to be.

    If you have a Meeting where there's a lot of doubt on whether there is a God, and if there is, whether God can really lead, it's mighty hard to do this. It's not that easy even when you don't have that confusion.

  4. How about "facing bench." There doesn't need to be a physical facing bench to recognize that there are people who show the qualities of sitting on one. ( And then it will totally confuse anybody outside the small circle of Friends.)

  5. No, just some in M&W don't want to use the term "overseer" anymore, but we can't come up with anything to replace it.

  6. Excellent post. I especially like your statement about educating ones self. Of course, people have to recognize a need for education and quite frankly, some don't. But I appreciate your openness and gut-level honesty. As to the term overseer, in African-American holiness churches of years gone by, that was the title given to the main "pastor" if you will and that person was revered. There definitely is a cultural dimension in the church that so often gets overlooked that would go a long way to help us understand each other better.

  7. What about the term "Underseers"? That would refer to those looking deeply within themselves and their meetings, looking for that of God, helping to reveal that of God, and helping inspire others to do the same.

    Just a thought,