Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Authority and Leadership

It is probably fair to say that authority is not a popular concept among Quakers. If it is mentioned at all in a Quaker setting, at least one Friend can be relied upon to stand up and announce 'I am not comfortable with the word authority'. This is sometimes followed by a wave of Friends offering to substitute more palatable words in place of the offending one.

Many of us have experienced groups where authority has been abused or monopolised. Some who have been hurt or excluded by the abuse of authority in other contexts come to a Quaker Meeting expecting it to be a 'leaderless group' where 'everyone is equal'. They are sometimes shocked or resentful to discover that the Meeting has appointed elders, or that there are people regarded as 'weighty Friends' who seem to exercise more influence than others.

It is often claimed that Quakers don't have leaders, and it is true that if a newcomer wants to find out 'who is in charge', they may be bewildered to learn that decisions are made by a voteless process of collective discernment by the whole community of Friends. This is not quite the same thing as having no leaders, however. The Religious Society of Friends is one of history's most successful examples of an organisation with widely distributed leadership. In a Quaker Meeting, leadership is shared between numerous individuals and groups, including clerks, elders, overseers, nominations, outreach and finance committees and many others, as well as more informally by Friends who exercise ministries of many different kinds, including spoken ministry, work with children, organising social events or meetings for learning etc.

All of these Friends need to exercise leadership. Leadership is a form of service to the community; it enables things to happen, by taking responsibility for supporting, enabling and encouraging others, and it is essential for any group to function. The tasks of leadership are not usually highly visible or dramatic. They include motivating, encouraging, thanking and welcoming, making sure that information is shared and clear arrangements are made, helping the group to stay on-topic and summing up the outcomes of discussions. It is also a function of leadership to remind the group of 'right ordering' (the Quaker community's agreed processes) and to prevent the most vocal individuals from dominating the group. Good leaders support and enable others' gifts and leadings (including others' potential for leadership) instead of suppressing everyone else's initiative, as often happens in organisations where all authority is monopolised by a few individuals.

It is when leadership is not explicitly recognised that groups become vulnerable to the 'tyranny of structurelessness'. So-called 'leaderless groups' quickly develop informal hierarchies that cannot be challenged or scrutinised, and that sometimes resort to maintaining their authority by scapegoating, bullying and manipulation. The disappointing performance of groups that rely purely on 'consensus decision-making' has been critiqued by John Michael Greer in relation to the Occupy movement. I have also experienced it first-hand in peace activist circles, where the processes that are intended to ensure equal participation were easily manipulated to secure the control of dominant individuals.

For Quakers, authority means being 'authorised' by the community to exercise accountable leadership. The Quaker approach to church government, which early Friends called 'Gospel Order', is a way of recognising and distributing leadership, while keeping it accountable to the whole community. In a Quaker Meeting, the community as a whole has the responsibility for discerning God's will through the Meeting for Worship for Business. The Meeting usually delegates authority for specific areas of work to committees and nominated individuals for fixed terms, but they remain accountable to the community as a whole. Friends who have been appointed to fulfil responsibilities by the community are generally trusted to get on with it, but major decisions are almost always taken by the whole Meeting, often approving or modifying a proposal from the relevant committee. Remarkably, this approach has been successful in maintaining the unity of the Religious Society of Friends in Britain for over 350 years, through intense religious persecution, the industrial revolution, two world wars and profound social and theological transformations, without resorting to voting or hierarchical government.

Since I began serving my Meeting as an elder, I have noticed how being in a position of leadership tends to make us vulnerable to other Friends' hostility to authority. Some Friends are very unwilling to accept the authority of elders or other appointed roles in Meeting, seeing every suggestion of leadership as authoritarianism. The Quaker testimony to equality is sometimes mistaken for a belief that 'everyone is the same', instead of the recognition of the equal value of our very different gifts and experiences. Those in leadership roles may be accused of being 'hierarchical' or elitist when they try to fulfil the responsibilities laid on them by the Meeting.

This creates a strong temptation for those in leadership roles to be timid about exercising their responsibility, for fear of upsetting or provoking Friends who don't accept their authority. Part of the challenge for those who hold leadership responsibilities is to be faithful to the authority entrusted to us by the Meeting, even at the risk of being criticised or resented. Sometimes this may mean challenging Friends who insist on getting their own way in opposition to the discernment of the whole community. This too, as difficult and painful as it sometimes is, is an essential form of service - helping to prevent the community from being bullied by its most aggressive members.

My own experience of many different community groups is that the availability of leadership is one of the main limiting factors for their success. I have repeatedly seen projects fail or dwindle away simply because there were not enough people willing to take responsibility for supporting and encouraging others' efforts. Quaker communities, as with all other human groups, need people who are willing to take a share of leadership responsibilities, including the difficult and challenging ones, in order to thrive. Leaders are not a special kind of people with extraordinary abilities. The principal quality needed for leadership is simply the willingness to embrace some responsibility for the welfare of the group as a whole.

I would like to learn more about others' experience of leadership and authority. How have you experienced the exercise of leadership in Quaker or other contexts? Have you encountered (or offered) resistance to authority within Quaker Meetings?


  1. Excellent post Craig! Coming to Friends about nine years ago when I was in my early 40s, I found out quite quickly that in practice authority and leadership was frequently linked directly to how long one had been a Quaker. I often felt patronised with a pat on the head and a reassurance that I would understand eventually when I had been a member of good standing for some 40 or 50 years! This infuriated me and I thought of the first generation of Friends who were turning the world upside down within a year or so of their convincement. Clearly 'length of service' had replaced the corporate discernment, recording and nurture of gifts as the key indicator of leadership and authority. It seems to me that, at its best, the Quaker way works with the apostle Paul's body analogy in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. We have a diversity of gifts, a diversity of ministries and diverse ways of exercising authority and leadership. However, there are dangers in individualism (an unwillingness to recognise that we are 'a people' with a need for mutual accountability) and in rigid institutionalism (where some set rule is applied as a test of authority and enforced on individuals). Our spiritual and practical gifts are gifts of the Spirit and we must turn to that Spirit again and again in discerning those gifts and how they should be used in the service of Friends, of the world and most importantly in realising God's shalom and peaceable kingdom..

    1. Many thanks for these very helpful reflections Stuart. The sense of being 'a people' is something that seems to me almost entirely absent from Liberal Quakerism, which appears very predominantly individualist. At the same time, many of the people who are coming new to our Meeting are looking for some experience of community. I wonder if there is a way that the experience of being a people, who belong to each other, and are mutually accountable and responsible, might be renewed without creating stifling conformity.

  2. Thank you for your cogent description and analysis of the handling of authority within meetings. Your ideas on leadership were especially insightful. In former times, no such discussion of authority would be complete without an examination of the problem pictured in the parable found in Mark 12:1-12, the managers overreaching the authority of the messengers, who speak for the owner of the vineyard. Gospel ministers (the messengers) once had authority in meetings, when meetings were vital spiritual entities, i.e., the Church. It's understandable that this problem, which so concerned the prophets in every age, would not have been considered in your otherwise comprehensive essay; it's an irrelevant issue in today's meetings. I think that you're doing well with what's in front of you.

    1. Hi Pat, and thank you for introducing this theme. I think the authority of spoken ministry is still very relevant for our Meetings. One of the implications of the traditional practice of 'recording' Friends who were recognised as having received a particular gift and vocation to spoken ministry, was that the Meeting took responsibility for developing, encouraging and also holding ministers accountable to the authority of the Spirit, as discerned by the whole community. The current practice of spoken ministry in Meetings seems to be that we still have some Friends who speak very regularly in Meeting, but whose ministry is not supported or held accountable in the same way. Again it is often seen as a purely individual offering, rather than an exercise of the gifts given to the whole Meeting.

  3. Many thanks for this. I am deeply concerned that so many people are bringing notions of authority and leadership from the secular world as well as other religious traditions into our meetings. As you say, this includes notions of rejection of these forms.

    Nine months before I first went to a Quaker meeting for worship, it was revealed to me – by what I would now call the 'light within' - that authority is not vested in persons but in the light itself – what some call Christ, and others the divine, and that it is this that reveals authority, whether it be of scripture, of institutions or of the roles of people. I had spent all my life till then believing in the authority of persons and institutions: my father, my teachers, my managers, the church, the vicar.

    People do not have authority, they are given it, as you say, by the meeting acting under discernment. But we are not given authority to hold on to, but to disperse in action. Leadership is authority in action. When we live in our heads in the world of ideas, we come to see 'authority' and 'leadership' as ideal states, when in fact they are aspects of action in relationship to a community.

    Here is the Quaker philosopher John Macmurray on the subject:

    "When there is a [community] which knows what must be done, leadership is never a difficulty, because the leader is then merely the agent or the servant of the purpose which he shares and which he is responsible for carrying out. Only within a body of people who are united …... can the understanding of what must be done arise. And this understanding must arise in them. It cannot be given to them from outside. They must first discover the action which they have to take in the social and political field; then they can commit the carrying out of this defined common purpose to
    agents of their own choosing. The whole principle of democracy involves this.” (Creative Society 1935; SCM Press, p 167)

    As the title of the book that this quote is taken from indicates, leading on the authority of the light within results in true creativity.

    1. Thanks for this Gordon. I especially like Macmurray's expression 'servant of the purpose'. Of course, the really hard part is coming to a shared discernment of the community's common purpose.

    2. Note the distinction here: the notion of 'servant-leadership' is invariably conceived of in terms of being the 'servant of the meeting'. Macmurray firmly places leadership in the field of action: we take a lead to achieve a purpose - and when that purpose is achieved, the leader lays down their role. The problem occurs when the lead is defined in general terms with no fixed completion, such as 'elders' and 'trustees' - especially the latter. The purpose of those nominated as elders or trustees or whatever is not to 'be' an elder or a trustee - for we are all elders and trustees, rather their purpose is to carry out specific tasks of eldership or trusteeship, either discerned by the meeting as a whole as when the minute asks elders or trustees to consider some task or other, or to discern through their own specific meetings the needs of the meeting as a whole. A specific problem with the latter is to discern when to just get on with it, and when to take the matter to the meeting as a whole. This is a creative dynamic which cannot be formulated into rules and procedures despite the efforts of many to do so, not least, for elders, the list in QfP 12.12.

  4. I've recently finished 3 years service on the committee of the Friends World Committee for Consultation Europe and Middle East Section - the collective body for Quakers meetings in Europe and the Middle East. I was continuously impressed by the exercise of leadership and authority by our staff. They are few and they have a big job, a wide range of meetings and people to serve and they do it with love and with humility. The leadership and authority they exercise is necessary. When there was conflict, looking back I think it was handled really well and always with love and care.

    During my time on the committee the secretary was given support to take part in the Equipping for Ministry programme at Woodbrooke. I feel that we need to find opportunities and ways to support the people we appoint to positions of responsibility and this (and some other activity) was one of the important things that we could do.

    Separately to this, I was once appointed to clerk a committee at my local meeting. We met monthly and I tried to introduce what to me felt like a meaningful period of worship at the beginning of the meeting. However, a weighty Friend on the committee did not agree with this and they sought confirmation of their position from their partner. The word came back that their partner (considered by many to be 'the' authority in the meeting) agreed with them and we could only have a couple of minutes of silence as the meeting began. So that was that. It was quite an undermining way to begin my experience of clerking!

    1. Thanks for sharing these experiences Jez. Your experience with a 'weighty Friend' is disturbing, and would certainly seem to be abuse of informal authority. This is the kind of thing where failing to recognise the role of leadership and authority explicitly, and thus hold it properly accountable, creates the opportunity for dominant personalities to engage in 'Quaker squashing'.

  5. Dear Craig,

    I love this post, it is so true. I love the paragraph below particularly and your diagnosis of how problematic an unwillingness to name and claim leadership is. Very thoughtful, very powerful.

    And leadership that is all about supporting others in development of gifts is really a wonderful frame. It's not about taking over, but more about being a vehicle for effectiveness, faithfulness.

    "My own experience of many different community groups is that the availability of leadership is one of the main limiting factors for their success. I have repeatedly seen projects fail or dwindle away simply because there were not enough people willing to take responsibility for supporting and encouraging others' efforts. Quaker communities, as with all other human groups, need people who are willing to take a share of leadership responsibilities, including the difficult and challenging ones, in order to thrive. Leaders are not a special kind of people with extraordinary abilities. The principal quality needed for leadership is simply the willingness to embrace some responsibility for the welfare of the group as a whole."


  6. One last thought and you sort of said this, but I wanted to reinforce it. When there are no leaders there is not an ability to resist the entropy of the status quo and so the dominant issues in society show up and take over in such spaces as well - racism, a tendency for violence, etc. When a community has a commitment to be really counter cultural, we need leaders to help us fulfill these faith commitments and support the discipline needed to be who we hope to be. Otherwise, we are just repeating the patterns of dominant society, rather than really functioning in a way that is prophetic.

    Thanks again,

    Lucy Duncan (of

    1. Thanks for this Lucy. This is why I think it's important to keep reminding ourselves and our Friends in Meeting of the language, practices and testimonies of the Quaker Way, in small as well as large matters. Otherwise it is easy to just be absorbed into the dominant culture's patterns and perspectives without even noticing where we are going.

  7. Thank you Craig for your challenging piece on leadership and authority which kept me awake in the early hours of this morning.
    A strange vision of George Fox atop Pendle Hill appeared in the space between my waking and dreaming, and in this twilight imagined his nightmare of a murmuration of Quakers, leaderless and fearful of divine authority.
    Thank you Lucy for your apposite use of the words entropy and status quo. 'Entropy' which one dictionary defines broadly as ' the degree of of disorder or uncertainty in a system'. This, for me, brings into clear focus the meaning of the word 'leadership' and the question as to who is being led, and to what. Does not leadership imply purpose if not even vision and mission - and now I can viscerally feel modern Friends antipathy rising to such words as vision and mission. But, for me, this is where transition to newness might well begin. In my experience of worshipping within some 10 Meetings over the last 14 years I have seldom seen a Meeting for Business starting with a vision statement or with a real sense of how to answer the question 'what is our Meeting's purpose? And where would we as a group want to be in a year, or five years?' So many Meetings seem to be content to maintain the status quo which often means accepting an ageing and low energy meeting. So many Meetings accepting that a really good attendance would be under 20 people and lamenting that having a thriving group of young people and children has become just a past dream.
    So often leadership, where it it does exist, seems to limit any forward momentum, and 'discernment' is used as a tool to give reasons why things can't be done - ' we are too old and too small.....Little faith in action.
    this may seem a very jaundiced view of Modern Quakerism but there are prophetic voices, like Craig's and others, that give hope.
    So perhaps George might not be having such a nightmare after all but seeing a Great Multitude yet to be gathered into our home capable and ready to feed a spiritually hungry and distressed world. May it be so.

    1. Hi Chris,
      Thanks for this image - 'a murmuration of Quakers' seems strangely appropriate... I know that there are many Meetings experiencing the terminal lack of focus and energy you describe, but also some (including Sheffield thankfully) where there has been a definite resurgence over the last few years. I am hopeful of seeing a wider 'transition to newness' across BYM, and am still trying to discern how best we can support and encourage it. This might be a subject for another time...
      In Friendship,

  8. Craig, sorry to 'speak again', but I have just read this: which is a review by Jennifer Barraclough, once a director of Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, of the 1949 Swarthmore lecture 'Authority, Leadership and Concern' by Roger Cowan Wilson, and wish to commend it to you and the discussion we are having. I found this reference in 'The Q-Bit - At the Heart of A Quaker Led Organisation' - from Quaker Social Action:, which I also commend to you.

  9. I really appreciate this conversation. New York Yearly Meeting's newsletter Spark dedicated its January 2014 issue to the topic of Leadership and it's posted online here: The issue includes a list of Quaker resources on leadership here: I personally especially liked the piece "Weighty Friends," a series of excerpts from Ben Pink Dandelion's book A Sociological Analysis of the Theology of Quakers, which, as a PhD dissertation, is really dense and academically organized, very expensive, and thus not very accessible. However, as an analysis of our leadership culture, his chapter on this topic can't be beat.


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)