Being A “Released” Minister

I recently went through and changed most of my online profiles, email signatures, and even our bulletin for Sunday morning it from “pastor” to “released minister” as that language seems to fit where I am at better. So now, at least on paper, that’s the language I use to describe my work. But in day-to-day language I move between these two labels depending on who I am talking to and the context in which the discussion takes place. I have been getting a lot of questions about what it means so I thought I’d share it here. I am going to write more from a place of what it means to me, rather than here’s the history. If you are a person who knows some of the history or other details behind this I would love for you to leave a comment below.

I have never felt all that comfortable with calling myself a pastor. I am comfortable with the fact that I do pastoral care, teach scripture, and help guide and accompany a Quaker congregation in the movements of the Spirit and our tradition, but there are times when the word “pastor” gets me hung up. I think part of it is that people assume automatically assume this or that about my work. For me language is very important, even language that is a bit cumbersome to use at points if it means that the words I am using a more exact and have a chance to challenge common assumptions. For these reasons, as well as other ones, I have been in a holding pattern for different language to describe what I do.

Then Brent Bill posted his “Modest Proposals” and in part 6B he wrote about what he calls the rise of “clergyism” among Friends and what it means to be a released minister within the Quaker tradition (see his post here: This idea of being “released” is traditional Quaker language that we still use in some of our in-house documents but the language isn’t always carried over into the more public documents that we use.

Anyways for me there’s a couple things it means (building on Brent’s ideas):

  1. It means “minister among ministers,” rather than the only minister in our church. I am a minister who has been released to tend to certain things within our church but it embraces the the idea of the priesthood of all believers found in Hebrews.
  2. By “released” it means, at least in part, released from the financial responsibilities of sustaining one’s family (earlier Quaker ministers often lived in someone’s home from the church and were supported that way!).
  3. Finally, I take it to mean “released” as in appointed to take care of certain things that the Quaker meeting wished him or her to bring to the community. For many, “Pastor” has become more of a generic or universal job description that applies to all denominations regardless of whether they are Quaker, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, etc. But to be a “pastor” within a Quaker tradition takes certain skills and practices that may (or may not) be needed in another community. In other words, I see being a released minister as not so much a universal job description but a very contextual one, depending on the meeting/church that releases you. Thus, a Quaker meeting is a community of ministers that calls and releases one (or more) person(s) to come and tend to certain needs or other tasks in that particular community that the community itself feels is missing (or could be added to) from the community. The church/meeting then looks for certain people who can add to their community in particular ways, and who exhibit a gifting and call to the work, and seeks to release people for service and leadership in the Body rather than hire people to take care of ministry.

Does that make any sense to the rest of you? I’m still working this out. But I think it basically means minister among ministers, and released within a particular context for particular things needed within that context. I also like it because it is rooted within the more traditional language of Quakerism.

8 responses to “Being A “Released” Minister”

  1. Thanks for sharing this Wess. Since I am fairly new to the Quaker world, and because I am actually a “youth pastor” it has been interesting to learn the language. I remember submitting some written answers to West Hills during the interview process. For one of the answers I explored the idea of having a “special” role within the community. This acknowledges that everyone at the meeting has a unique and valuable gift to be shared with the community. As I understand the idea of released (and that understanding is fairly limited at this point) in this context, I understand my role in the meeting as someone who is released from the typical responsibilities of working in the secular world, so that I can focus more energy on contributing to the well being of the meeting and community. I am anxious to read up on this more.

  2. This clarification seems helpful, yet I wonder if this is really a distinction without a difference. I was married to a Methodist pastor for 20 years, and she had much the same attitude as you have. She saw herself a minister charged with helping others find and use their gifts of ministry.
    Since her death, I have been asked to clerk the pastoral care committee of my unprogrammed meeting and I now see myself as a kind of pastor in the sense of helping those in my meeting who need help, i.e. the sick, the elderly, the financially challenged, etc. When I go to the hospital to visit the sick, I call myself a pastor since that’s what I am doing.
    I believe that among early Friends there was a division of labor about those called to ministry. Some were called to pastoral care, others to prophetic ministry (vocal), and still others to evangelism. These Friends were released to do this work on a more or less temporary basis (as Spirit led them), not usually for a lifetime (as usually happens with Protestant pastors).

    • Hi Anthony, Thanks for the comment. I think that last part is a really important aspect of released ministry when you said, “These Friends were released to do this work on a more or less temporary basis (as Spirit led them), not usually for a lifetime (as usually happens with Protestant pastors).” The timing and particularities of a person’s call, as well as a community’s call is essential. We need to avoid careerism here and treating it as a real call to be released means there may be times when you are not released.

      I see enough “clergyism” around me (and am regularly tempted by it) that I have no doubt it is alive and well both inside and outside the Friends tradition.

  3. Well, of course, I relate to this. 😉 But then I think there is, besides the “name change”, a certain freedom in being “released” — and thinking of one’s self as released. “Free at last…”

  4. Hi Wess:

    I share your concern about the use of language. Add to that a concern about “Quakerish” terms in particular.

    It happens that I carry the title (and responsibilities) of “clerk” in an unprogrammed meeting. The title does not rest easy with me. I tell Friends who occasionally show me too much deference that I may be the “clerk of the meeting” (for a brief two years) but they are the clerks of this clerk.

    Is not “equality” one of our testimonies? How do Quakers handle the whole concept of leadership? Isn’t our true “leader” the spirit that “leads” us in worship? Hence our “leadings.”

    I see listening as job one for all clerks (and pastors?). For Friends, it all begins with listening, listening, again, in the silence of worship. In that silence, are we not all listening clerks, listening to our “leader” for “leadings”?

    A question: the words “clerical” and “clerk” are obviously related, and “clerical” has pastoral connotations. How did that happen? I see “clerical” monks meticulously transcribing the Word by candlelight….They were clerks, and they had the responsibility to get it “right.” As listening Quaker clerks, we have the responsibility to hear it right…and then capture it accurately in writing and in speech. Sounds similar to me.

    • Hi Rick,
      Thanks for your thoughts here. I like the connections you’re making to clerk and I do see the relationship between that and what it means to be a released minister. How is clerking going for you so far?

      • Clerking is going very well, Wess. Thanks for asking. I do take it day by day. Actually minute to minute. One never knows what might need attention or when I might slip up.

        I’ve described clerking as being a “lightning rod,” in two senses of the term. You get the occasional jolt. You also attract a whole lot of Light. It’s striking!

        The other wonderful part about clerking is that I’m surrounded by folks who’ve done it before. I can call on them anytime for advice and guidance. And, of course, everyone wants the clerk to succeed. I have a great support committee, a wonderful group of committee clerks (some 20 of them!) and a seasoned, always helpful immediate past clerk who, by design, serves as my assistant clerk.

        In short, I’m blessed!