This page is dedicated to simple words that define complex ideas. Below, see a list of working definitions for some of the words that often come up in the Quaker world. This page is a stub – we hope to, someday, have a longer glossary to share. For more information, see below!
Discernment – Discernment is about listening carefully to God, or Spirit. I tend to think of discernment as listening for guidance, and also as waiting, when you don't know why. In my experience, it can happen quickly or slowly. Sometimes I pause, very briefly, and check in with my Higher Power. Often, I get an indicator light or I get some data. Discernment can happen in silence (which is often how Quaker practice it), or through movement, conversation, singing, yoga. I have had experiences, lately, where part of my discernment was having a conversation and reasoning things out. Other times, the clarity comes more mysteriously. I think of discernment as whatever we do that helps us listen to our Higher Power.
Elder – An elder is someone who holds space for transformation. It is like being a witness. An elder may offer prayer or companionship, both of which are forms of spiritual accompaniment. Inside of a meeting community, an elder might help to organize a group for healing or discussion. Elders are not necessarily the oldest. In my experience, very strong elders can be in their 20s. Or their 70s. Or 90s, or 50s.
In many groups of liberal, unprogrammed Friends, the practice of naming elders has fallen away. This makes it difficult to name elders publicly, like we do with ministers. In time, this page may include a list of elders who acknowledge their gifts publicly.
Faithfulness - A working definition we have of faithfulness is: "a consistent awareness of the present moment, and responsiveness to it." This includes staying with uncertainty, and naming it. Not running away. Faithfulness is linked to being steadfast, which can be difficult at times. It happens in community. It's also linked to willingness, trust, and good listening. A phrase that JT gave me the other day is: surrender + obedience = the essence of faithfulness.
Minister – A minister is anyone who lives their faith and their gifts out visibly. In the Quaker community, anyone can offer ministry – provided that their words and actions are guided by Spirit. Ministry is about sharing our gifts. Traditionally, a 'minister' refers to someone who speaks during Meeting for Worship. However, giving ministry is much broader than that. Sharing our gifts in an outward way can happen in many forms. Often, the work of ministry happens in a community. For example:
Advocating for fair trade, which is the work of Yoko Koike Barnes.
Vanessa Julye, who works to help the Religious Society of Friends become more welcoming to People of Color
Living out a traveling ministry of healing, as John Calvi does.
Peterson Toscano, who offers transformative performance art that is "quirky, queer, Quaker"
This is a very small sample. There are many more.
Spiritual Practice - A set of habits (formed daily, weekly, or occasionally) that support integrity and right living. Also called a spiritual discipline. It can be many things. It can be biking, making the bed each morning, or praying naked in front of the mirror. It can be anything you do that helps you stay grounded and be useful in the world. I tend to think of a spiritual practice as something I start doing because it's good for me, and that I keep doing because it makes me feel good.
A great resource to seek out to learn more is Peggy Senger Morrison's book, Le Flambeau School of Driving. The book is sassy, witty, smart, and relevant. Peggy outlines Spiritual Disciplines for the 21st Century, with a reflection for each. (For example, the Spiritual Practice of Gratitude. "Dear God, thanks for this mess – I have no complaint – please get my back as I step into the middle of it.") Another option is to read more at Peggy's blog, which highlights the Spiritual Practice of Attendance.
Spiritual State of the Meeting – This is a report offered to a local meeting. It describes some of the highs and lows of the past year, working much like a progress report. The focus is on the sense of a meeting as a whole. Friends may outline activities that they did together, queries that they struggled with, or other trends that pertain to spirituality. In many cases, it is drafted by Friends in Worship and Ministry, with input offered from the community.
More definitions arriving soon. To contribute, see the bottom of this page.
Our work to decode Quaker-ese prompted a Friend to reach out and offer us a wonderful gift. Selden Smith let us know about a Quaker glossary that his father, Warren Smith, published in 1983. This book unrolls a playful list of descriptions that addresses many common Quaker words. Mae Smith Bixby, Selden's mother, revised the glossary with new additions after Warren's death.
Selden offered to share the book here for free, so it can reach a new generation of Friends. (Note: It was originally published by Quaker Press of Friends General Conference. The book has been out of print since 2002, making it very diffiult to find.) Thank you, Selden!
Click "Download PDF" to access the entire file, or browse of the first few pages here. Enjoy!
We are seeking help from long-term Friends who can submit working definitions for the following terms:
To share submissions, please email us with the word "GLOSSARY" in the subject line. Thank you!
Convinced Friend, Gathered Worship, Worship-Sharing, Ministry, FGC Gathering, Pendle Hill, Pendle Hill Pamphlets, Yearly Meeting.