Reclaiming Leadership as a Spiritual Gift

I walked into my first Quaker meeting in 2009, and one of the first things anybody taught me was, “Quakers don’t have leaders.”

The person who told me this did so gleefully. She meant that, among Friends, nobody tells anybody else what to do, that each of us follows our own spiritual path, and that decisions for the group are made by the entire group. And because I didn’t know any better, I accepted her statement at face value and proceeded under the assumption that Quakers don’t have leaders.

Unfortunately, this statement is untrue and fundamentally damaging.

Is it true that nobody tells anybody else what to do? Ideally.

Is it true that each of us follows our own spiritual path? It is.

Is it true that decisions for the group are made by the entire group? Well, sort of. More on that another time.

But what I didn’t think to challenge in my earliest days as a Friend was that none of the above statements mean that Quakers don’t have leaders—and the statement “Quakers don’t have leaders” has nothing to do with those statements–because leadership is a spiritual gift, and practiced faithfully, it’s not about telling people what to do.

Leadership is about a relationship with a people—loving the people intensely, knowing the people intimately, and serving the people constantly. Leadership is about perception, about path-making, about recognizing what’s rising up among a people and empowering those people to live into Spirit’s calling. It’s about fulfilling a role that is as essential to the beloved community as any other role—not more essential, but also not less.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we do have leaders in our monthly meetings, in our yearly meetings, in our international organizations, and in our informal Quaker networks. We can choose to identify, nurture, support, and hold accountable these leaders, or we can choose to pretend they don’t exist.

Finally, leadership as a spiritual gift is not the same as institutional leadership. We are best served when our institutional leaders carry this particular gift, but whether Friends do or do not has nothing to do with institutional title. Rather, like any other spiritual gift—like that of prophecy or healing or discernment or speaking—it is entrusted to some among us by Spirit and for the service of us all.


Why are we frightened of leadership?

Some Friends find the word “leader” very scary, probably because it does imply an authoritarian relationship in most modern cultures. It’s easy to perceive leadership as directly in conflict with a horizontal decision-making structure. And it’s certainly true that a gift of leadership can be abused.

The word “leader” may be especially frightening to spiritual refugees, to those of us who have come from faith traditions or homes where the expectations were demanding and inflexible and we were ruled by a culture of fear. A few years ago, I studied a bit of refugee psychology—actual refugees, fleeing physical violence—and one of the most striking parallels was that refugees will often deliberately avoid relying on anyone designated as a “leader” of any kind for resources or for information, preferring to lean on peer networks even if they are demonstrably less effective. We fear what has hurt us in the past.

My question is whether we can move forward with the understanding that leadership in the Quaker context is, like any other spiritual gift, to be practiced in a loving and trusting relationship with a community and only in a state of accountability to that community.


What are the implications of rejecting leadership as a spiritual gift?

Your spiritual gifts aren’t for you—they’re for the people around you. That’s how somebody once explained it to me. A spiritual gift is worth nothing unless it’s used in faithful service to a community.

The community’s rejection of any particular spiritual gift, if we go back to 1 Corinthians 12, sounds something like this: “We’ve got a lot of great body parts, God. But there’s one particular body part…let’s say the lungs…yeah, we’re not crazy about lungs, so we’re going to pretend that lungs aren’t a thing.  Okay?”

What is it, exactly, that we’re rejecting when we reject the spiritual gift of leadership? I think it’s vision, and clarity on how to get from where we are to where we’re collectively called to go, and intense and deliberate nurturing of each person’s spiritual gifts, and perception and articulation of what’s standing in the way of faithfulness, and courageous leaping into things that are new…this is the work that leaders do.  Not exclusively, of course–any one of those tasks is something that any one of us might be called to occasionally.  But for a leader, these functions are primary.  These are the sparks we’re stamping out with the proclamation, “Quakers don’t have leaders.”

And finally, there are the implications that extend beyond the Religious Society of Friends. Are we not meant to be ministering in the world? If we’re declining to identify and nurture leaders, how do we ever expect Friends to step into leadership roles beyond our walls? 


How do we identify those who carry the spiritual gift of leadership?

Many of us carry the gift of leadership to varying degrees, and a few of us carry this gift in spades. I believe that most who have the capacity for leadership already suspect this about themselves, but it’s difficult to say it in a context where “leader” is sometimes perceived as a dirty word. So how can we identify those around us who might be carrying this spiritual gift?

1) Leaders often demonstrate a fierce love for the people. They’re always there. What happens next matters to them.

2) Leaders often make perceptive observations. They notice what individuals are good at. They point out flaws in the community’s assumptions.

3) Leaders often have new ideas. They wonder why we haven’t tried X or Y. They’re constantly offering to take on a new initiative. They might be disruptive to the status quo.

4) Leaders often awaken passion in others. People want to participate in whatever they’re doing.

5) Leaders often lock on to the people’s stories. They remind us of our history. They remind us that we are connected to what happened before and what will come next.

6) Leaders often affirm other people. They notice when others are contributing. They remember details about other people’s lives and offer support.

7) Leaders often know how to get from “here” to “there.” They make plans that work. They might show impatience with inefficiency.

Not every leader demonstrates all seven of these qualities, especially in the beginning, before the spiritual gift is developed. And demonstrating some of these qualities doesn’t necessarily indicate a spiritual gift of leadership. But this is a good place to start.


How do we support (and hold accountable) those who carry the spiritual gift of leadership?

In the beginning, a growing leader needs affirmation, information, and opportunities to succeed and fail. Affirmation—simple, private recognition of the gift by one or more Friends is enough. Information—a growing leader will often crave details about history, structure, practices, and people, building a body of knowledge in which a leader perceives patterns. Opportunities—it’s important to provide enough support that the growing leader can succeed…but sufficient space to make it possible to fail. We lose some of our growing leaders because we claim to support them and then do not; we lose others because we don’t allow them a challenging level of genuine responsibility.

For the most part, though, supporting a leader—and holding a leader accountable—works the very same way as support and accountability for any other spiritual gift. I can’t improve upon what Lloyd Lee Wilson says in Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order:

The first task in proper stewardship of spiritual gifts is to perceive and name them properly. This is a joint responsibility, as are all the stewardship tasks, but the emphasis falls on the work of the faith community rather than that of the individual… 

The task of claiming our giftedness has more to do with the individual’s willingness to accept the gift being named as something for which (s)he is intended to be the steward…

[This claiming] places us in a condition of needing to do a thorough self-evaluation in light of this new gift, to discover and to make any changes needed in order to develop and exercise the gift as it was intended to be. This is a task of dedication or consecration of our life as well as our gift…

The responsibility for developing our spiritual gifts falls jointly on the individual and the meeting community…

Eventually one comes to the actual exercise of the gift. This is a joint responsibility, shared by the individual who must take the initiative and the faith community. The latter group is responsible for providing continuing guidance about how the gift is being exercised and what the effects of exercising the gift in that way have been or are likely to be in the future…

As the tasks of stewardship begin with accepting our spiritual gifts, they come to completion with receiving the fruits of those gifts. This is a joint task, but one that falls with special emphasis on the faith community. After all that has already been discussed has been done to ensure good stewardship of the gifts God has given us, we can still be unfaithful by refusing to be ministered to by those gifted Friends among us.

The leader–the Friend who loves, perceives, points the way, and empowers–must be named, claimed, consecrated, developed, permitted to serve, and received, as must we all, be we healers, prophets, teachers, or nurturers.  I pray that we might learn to accept the embrace the spiritual gift of leadership–not when it’s abused, as it certainly can be, but when it’s practiced as God intends in a Spirit-guided beloved community.

7 thoughts on “Reclaiming Leadership as a Spiritual Gift

  1. Thank you, Emily. As one whose MBA concentrated in leadership, I appreciate your perspective and the wisdom in it. A key aspect of leadership, for me, includes both perceiving where the people are led and helping them arrive there.

    I know a yearly meeting where the term “the leadership” is commonly used to describe the senior staff and clerks. In that case, I prefer “administrators” because I experience the majority of those folks as administering (accomplishing tasks needed today for the operation of an organization).

    Leadership, as you point out, calls on a wholly different set of gifts from administration. Leadership includes sensing where the group is led in the long run and helping the group to sense also, sensing where the group is now and helping the group to sense also, being aware of external influences and helping others to also be, and setting people free (with the loosest limits possible) with the needed resources to succeed, fail, learn, grow, and reorient along the way.

    I think of Friend Robert Greenleaf’s statement about servant leadership, a particular form of leadership which can be well-suited to today’s U.S. Quakerism:
    “The best test, and difficult to administer, is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

    Personally, in this test, I prefer to substitute “whole” for “autonomous,” because at different points in adult human development, autonomy is less preferable than interdependence.

    Thank you for advocating for the benefit of leadership to Friends. May it be true leadership – always attentive to and following our Guide.

  2. Hello Emily,

    Thank you for all the wisdom in your post regarding leaders!

    I have been part of a meeting for 30 years that used the typical structure of most liberal Quaker meetings with ‘rotating leadership’ for the core committees in the meeting such as ‘Ministry and Worship’ or the meeting’s pastoral care committee or clerk of meeting. These Friends were looked to as guides for their respective duties to the rest of the meeting. Over the years we experienced a lot of pitfalls with this ‘rotating’ arrangement; just as many as are present with a ‘permanent’ leadership appointment arrangement that many Conservative Quakers use.

    We moved to another model that was actually used (according to Rufus Jones’ research) by the very earliest followers of Jesus – even before they were called “Christians” and before human organization structures creped into their spiritual communities. I would dare say that most Quaker meetings still have human-centric approaches to the structure of their meeting instead of a Spirit-centric approach.

    I wrote an article in QuakerQuaker that lists and briefly outlines the various leadership arrangements used by unprogrammed Friends. As I said, my meeting has moved from the ‘Rotating Appointment’ structure (used by most liberal Quaker meetings) to the ‘Situational Leadership Controlled by the Spirit’ structure (the last arrangement discussed in the article).

    We have had tremendous success with this arrangement in that the spirituality of the meeting and individual Friends (including me) has deepened greatly. I attribute that to this ‘Situational’ arrangement which relies on the Spirit to be 100% in charge – AND free to use anyone as the leader in any given situation.

    Here’s a link to the article if you are interested in reading it:

  3. As a ‘seeker’ approaching the Meeting House at the John Woolman School (in Nevada County, Calif.) in 1992….
    A sign set in the center of the path leading from the Parking lot to the Meeting House said something I deeply needed to see:
    “Welcome, Our Meeting begins when the first person has taken their seat , welcome !”
    It was/is a landmark moment.
    Today this flawed brother has the priveledge of being in a rotation of Friends who take turns opening our Meeting on the WHS Campus in Geneva NY. Smiling your direction ❤

  4. Your piece is helpful to me because it helps me better come into recognition of my different experience of the nature of Quaker leadership. Through the anointing of the inshining Spirit I am come out of looking to outside leaders or institutions for vision and clarity. In this inshining anointing, it is discovered to me that the inshining Spirit itself in itself is my sole leader and guide and brings vision and clarity to my actions in the world. Vision and clarity in not the role of outside leaders and institutions. In a conscious and conscience draw of out looking to outward leaders and institutions for direction and guidance, I am opened to the direct leadership and direction of the inward anointing itself in itself.

    It is when outside leaders and institutions perceive their role as “vision” (outward political and religious ideological concepts,constructs) holders and nurturers and clarifiers of the vision, that they take upon themselves the prerogative of the Spirit itself as sole guide and nurturer in the conscious and conscience of people and the gathering as a whole. Their is a role for people (leaders) in the gathering to admonish and nurture each other to abide and sustain in the inward anointing itself as their sole guide without regard or respect for outside persons, institutions, or political and religious conceptual constructs. To take on the role of vision purveyor and clarifier is to lead people out of their habitation and abiding in the inshining Light itself in itself in their conscious and conscience as sole guide and leader and into identification with outside forms and regard for persons. In leading people out of their habitation in the inshining anointing itself, outside leaders become conjurers and their vision a conjuration drawing the conscious and conscience of the anointed back into identification with outside forms which the Lord had lead them out of. This leading into outward forms goes against the impulse of the inshining LIght in the conscious and conscience of the gathering. The inshining impulse itself leads out of identification outside forms and into identification with and habitation in the rule, anointing, and leadership of the inshining Light in the conscious and conscience which is the throne of Christ.

  5. I think many Friends get involved because they don’t want anyone to tell them what to do. Friends sometimes get over this with time and introspection. And sometimes this religious chip on their shoulder is a byproduct of a rejected faith journey. I agree with you that we need leaders. I’m even okay with recorded ministers.

    1. Leaders
      “I think many Friends get involved because they don’t want anyone to tell them what to do. Friends sometimes get over this with time and introspection. And sometimes this religious chip on their shoulder is a byproduct of a rejected faith journey. I agree with you that we need leaders. I’m even okay with recorded ministers.”

      • Self-centered
      It is true there are those who are so captured by outward agendas and desires, mired in the self and ego manifestation, that they do not wish to hear otherwise from outside Leaders, let alone the inward guidance of the inshining Light itself in itself.
      • Dependent upon outward leadership
      It is also true that there are people who, by their own admission, need outside Leaders and are come into a dependency upon outward persons and institutional constructs.
      • Sufficiency of Christ
      It is equally true that there are those who, by the anointing of the inshining Spirit, are come out of a conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by outside leaders and institutions. In this Life, the conscious and conscience are come into the direct and immediate leadership and guidance of the inshining Light itself in itself. Their meaning, purpose, and identity are discovered in the inward Light itself in itself without regard for outside leadership. Truly, this is not a Life that rejects being told what to do. It is a life being told what to do (guided and informed) by the immediate inshining Light itself in itself in the conscience which is the Throne of Christ in heaven. Under the rule and government of the Throne of Christ in the conscience people are come out of a self guided and informed by outward desires and the manifestation of self-fulfillment and they are come into a new Self nurtured beneath the Throne of Christ in their conscious and conscience that denies outside leaders and forms and embraces the leadership and guidance of the inward Spirit of Christ itself in itself established and enthroned in the conscience which is sufficient in itself to rule and govern the individual and the gathering.

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