What was the job of overseers and why did we stop using that word?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

What was the job of overseers and why did we stop using that word?

In early Quaker days, ministers preached, elders cared for Friends’ spiritual condition, and overseers cared for Friends’ physical condition. 

Overseers made sure Friends had food, children had schooling, and imprisoned Friends got visited. This was super important when Quakers were being persecuted and lost jobs or couldn’t send their children to non-Quaker schools. Like ministers and elders, overseers were named according to their spiritual gifts. It was not a temporary role; it was a recognition of who someone was created to be.

The changes happened slowly, but by the 1960s, ministers and elders and overseers in most places weren’t named roles anymore but committees called Ministry and Oversight. The committees tried to do most of the traditional roles of ministers, elders, and overseers.

“Overseer” and “oversight” have strong associations with slavery, especially in the United States. Friends’ use of the word was not connected, but nevertheless many found it jarring and hurtful, so we started saying “pastoral care” or “Ministry and Counsel Committee.” The word still appears in many Faith and Practice books.

Today, practical care of Friends sometimes falls through the cracks. Our “new” committee way of doing this doesn’t always function well. But that’s a different story.

1 thought on “What was the job of overseers and why did we stop using that word?

  1. Hi, Emily. Your major exposition is sound. My understanding is that the named roles of elders and overseers developed during Quietism (1692-1805), however, rather than during the early days of Quakerism.

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