What do Quaker pastors do?

To a lot of people, the words “pastor” and “Quaker” don’t belong in the same sentence. I don’t know how many times in the last 40 years I’ve been told, “Quakers don’t have pastors!” Even though many Quaker meetings have had pastors since the 1870’s, and even though more than 2/3 of the Quaker meetings in the world are programmed, there’s still a great deal of ignorance about what Quaker pastors do.

We don’t do sacraments like baptism or communion — or at least, the great majority of us don’t. On the other hand, a lot of pastoral work is sacramental, using the classic definition that a sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible reality”. Pastors and ministers try to help people see that God is real, that God is very near, and that the same love, grace and healing which it talks about in the Bible are available to everyone today.

Most pastors preach — trying to share a full range of Scripture, sharing accurately what the Bible says, bringing God’s word alive for people today. Good pastors preach in such a way that other people will be drawn to speak. Good messages  give permission for people to ask honest questions, and good pastors respect sincere doubt.

Pastors make calls and visits in an unimaginably varied range of circumstances. I visit people in homes, hospitals, at their place of work, anywhere I can find them. I’ve done pastoral calls in prison cells, crawling in the basement carrying a flashlight with service techs, in supermarket aisles, on roof tops, in class rooms, in law offices and banks, sitting on the dock by the lake, eating watermelon on the back porch. Go where the people are.

Pastors teach – sometimes to people who aren’t interested in learning. I teach Bible studies, Quaker history, how to run committees, prayer classes, marriage clearness groups, all kinds of interesting subjects. If I wasn’t a full-time pastor, I’d probably be a teacher.

Pastors listen  a lot — to people, to the Holy Spirit, to oneself, to the world, to the meeting. Most of the mistakes I’ve made in pastoral work happened when I wasn’t listening enough.

Even though it’s not sacramental in the traditional sense, pastors hear a lot of confessions and carry all sorts of confidences.

Pastors pray — pray often, pray deeply, pray for ourselves and for others. Sometimes my prayers “work” (what I prayed for happens), but a lot of the time prayer is more about just being there and asking God to be here with us. My prayers aren’t better than anyone else’s, but I do try to pray a lot.

Pastors need to study, long after whatever training program they take is “completed”. Even a master’s-level program is just the beginning of all pastors need to read, learn, reflect, and write about. The learning really never ends, since the world keeps changing (and keeps staying the same).

Depending on their personal gifts and calling, Quaker pastors can be involved with peacemaking, truth telling, reconciliation, counseling and referral, writing, chaplaincy, prison ministry, youth work, evangelism and missions, ministry with the poor, retreats and conferences, motivational speaking, translation, historic preservation, ecumenical ministry, pilgrimage, hospice, mental health and addiction, agriculture, environmental concerns, and a few dozen other things. Just about every Quaker pastor I know covers the “main things” (worship, pastoral care, organization) but also has some kind of special schtick that God has called them to. Really good pastors work to support the ministries of others in the meeting.

Representing the meeting to the community and to other Friends — we’re the ones they turn to for information about Friends,and for the “Quaker position” on all kinds of subjects we know nothing about. We get tapped to serve on community boards, ministerial associations, charity events, and historical tours. We spend hundreds of butt-numbing hours on boards and committees.

Many pastors spend a lot more time than they want to on maintenance. It’s always demanding, it’s often neglected, and it can easily take over our time and define our ministry in ways we’d rather not spend so many hours on. I’ve overseen the installation of roofs and elevators, pumped out flooded basements, fixed sound systems, done janitorial work, painted every room in the meetinghouse and the parsonage, dealt with mice and cockroaches in the meetinghouse kitchen, sealed leaks, planted flowers, and cleaned gutters, usually because there was no money, it really needed to be done and no one else was available to deal with it.  Personally, I like to fix things — things that are broken, things that don’t work well, things that could bring beauty and life to the meeting.


Pastors are supposed to understand and uphold Quaker beliefs, be the local experts on Quaker history, know where to find things in Faith and Practice, have memorized all the major Quaker journals and be able to quote from them at a moment’s notice. The pastor is frequently the contact person, educator and fund raiser for Quaker missions; I’ve been lucky enough to go and see a few mission sites for myself.

Some Quaker pastors evangelize — preach in public and try to convert people (yes, there are Quaker evangelists!). Nearly all Quaker pastors try to share the good news, help save people who are lost or confused, and encourage people to grow in faith, hope and love.

Pastors are often called on to give thanks for old ministries and meetings, and help with gracefully laying them down when their day is done. Much more fun, we’re called to be midwives and assist at the birth of new ones.

Even though there are many pastoral Quaker meetings, there are fewer people who are willing to spend their working lives as pastors. I often wonder if Quaker pastors are a dying breed. Fewer meetings have the financial resources to support a full-time pastor, and a lot of young potential Quaker pastors have or want to have a family. Most Quaker pastors need things like a home, a car, health insurance, retirement savings, and income to pay off their educational loans.

Still, it’s an interesting and (mostly) rewarding calling, and I encourage readers to ask questions or suggest new ways that Quaker pastoral work can be done in today’s world.




4 Responses to “What do Quaker pastors do?”

  1. 1 seekerquaker June 9, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    I appreciated this post a good deal. It reminded me a good bit of what my father, Logan Smith who was a Friends pastor in Indiana and N Carolina YMs and missionary in Jamaica and Kenya, said. I particularly identified with the following: “Even though there are many pastoral Quaker meetings, there are fewer people who are willing to spend their working lives as pastors. I often wonder if Quaker pastors are a dying breed.” This is particularly of inter test since it reflects two different comments of my Dad’s. One from 1947 as he ended his one year term as Superintendent of Indiana YM and the other near the end of his life (in 1976) while at Goldsboro Mtg.
    1) It is critical for Friends to have pastors who have a good deal of Friends education and experience. If Friends continue to “import” pastors from other denominations who have essentially no background in Friends and little interest in studying Friends, then it will be difficult to continue as Friends.
    2) It may be best for Friends to “disband” and congregations go with other denominations they identify with, such as Nazarene, Baptist, Community Church, etc. The “diversity” of beliefs will only lead to discord and division. (Both seem rather prophetic)

  2. 2 kwixote June 12, 2017 at 11:02 am

    Thank you for this. As someone whose sole experience of what it means to be a Friend is in the unprogrammed tradition, I have always wondered what the role of a Quaker pastor is — as contrasted to the roles of the people of the meeting. It sounds very much like what I assume most pastors do, but this gives me a sense of the more specific aspects and contexts.

    I was a bit shocked recently to discover that programmed Friends bring in non-Quaker pastors. That had never occurred to me. But I can see it now as a response to a shortage of Friends who are trained and ready for the task. (Although a nearby meeting, having lost its pastor, decided that they did not need that role anyway.)

    The main challenge my own meeting faces now is how to deal with growth in our numbers. This growth means we need ever-more volunteers, and we are discerning whether we can sustain a meeting that is entirely run by volunteer efforts. I don’t think we’re at the point of paying someone for pastoral care, but we may well create a paid position to coordinate our children and youth programs — if we can figure out how to raise the funds.

    • 3 Mackenzie June 13, 2017 at 11:14 pm

      How big is your meeting? My meeting has ~250 members and attendance runs about 110. We have no full time staff, though we hire a childcare worker for the nursery on Sundays.

      Another meeting in my city has ~400 members with the main weekly meeting for worship being about 100 people, but they have 2 Sunday morning, 1 Sunday evening, and 1 Wednesday evening worship. Plus, they have a lot of space which they rent out to non-profits in addition to renting the meetingroom for weddings pretty much every Saturday and other events for non-profits every other day of the week. They have a part time bookkeeper, full time secretary, and full time property manager.

      • 4 kwixote July 30, 2017 at 1:58 pm


        Hi! What a coincidence — I was just listening to Quaker Faith & Podcast (that’s you, right?) on my way to visit a monthly meeting. I’m enjoying the interplay between you and Micah. I just got to the episode on convergent friends, with Wess Daniels, but I haven’t listened to it yet. Robin Mohr invented that phrase just as I happened to be discovering, through the internet, that there were other types of Quakers — so I remember the post in which she first coined that term.

        I’m a member of Durham Friends Meeting in North Carolina. When I first started attending in the mid-90’s, there were maybe 45 people for MfW and 100 members/attenders. But that number has kept growing. About a dozen years ago, we built a new much larger meetinghouse that can hold twice as many for MfW. We’ve already filled it and had to do some more classroom building. I would guess there are maybe 250 families or individuals who are members or attend. We’re getting 100-135 for MfW each Firstday morning (if you don’t count the kids & youth, who leave after 15 minutes: we get about 40 each week). We have an earlier worship, as well as a mid-week group, but few attend them.

        It’s great having all these people of all ages! We even have a lot of active 20-somethings. But while we used to be a meeting where everyone knew each other, now that’s not really possible. So our culture has had to change a bit without giving up what is central to Friends community and values. Another challenge is the need to make a large number of new Friends familiar with the ways and values of Friends. And of course, to help people understand that a meeting like ours only works if there are lots of volunteers. We only recently realized that these issues about how to maintain a large unprogrammed meeting have been faced by others, and so we’ve been in contact with more established meetings such as Cambridge to ask them how they manage things.

        I’m not sure of the causes of this growth. Partly, it’s because we’ve prioritized the children’s program, and that attracts young families. Partly, it’s because we dared ourselves to triple our budget and build a new meetinghouse. Partly, it’s because we’ve managed to maintain a fairly rich and deep worship and a very Quakerly culture (even at business meeting!). And I think a lot of it has a lot to do with the fact that we don’t police language or ideas (e.g., you’re not required to be Christocentric or universalist; you can talk about the Bible — but you don’t have to talk about the Bible). Our yearly meeting is North Carolina – Conservative, but we are also affiliated with FGC through Piedmont Friends Fellowship — and I think that we gain a lot by being fed by both streams.

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All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.



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