Negative Reactions to Jesus and Christianity

January 17, 2021 § 7 Comments

A Friend of mine recently shared that some other Friends in his meeting experience “negative reactions—even visceral ones—when reference is made to Jesus or Christianity during worship”. I’ve been one of these people, actively hostile to Christianity and the Bible, in vocal ministry, in First Day School curriculum, and so on. I’ve changed my mind since then. So I have a tenderness for Friends who feel this way, on the one hand, and a convert’s zeal for pushing back, on the other.

As a result of this transformation, and because I’m a theologian by calling, I have labored a long time and very deeply with how I now identify regarding my own Christianity. I like the response Friend Don Badgley uses when asked whether he is a Christian: What do you mean by “Christian”? But actually, almost no matter how someone might define being Christian, my answer will be no. The main reason is that I have never felt directly called by him into his discipleship.

However, clearly, many, many people have felt so called, some of whom I know intimately and personally, and some of whom, like Fox, have convinced me of the genuineness of their experience through their powerful testimony. Because I respect and trust their testimony, I therefore believe as an article of faith that there is a spirit of Christ who calls some people into his discipleship and who, according to the testimony of the first Friends, originally gathered Friends as a peculiar people of God and has guided the movement for most of its history.

Thus I consider myself a guest in the house that Christ built. I believe he is real and the house is his. Thus, I believe the Religious Society of Friends to be a Christian religious movement. Which is not the same as feeling free to answer unequivocally that Quakers are Christians. The majority of us are Christians, by far. We have been so for most of our history, by far. 

And even those Quaker communities in which some members are deeply uncomfortable identifying as Christian—none of these meetings have, to my knowledge, ever tested their identity in a meeting for worship with attention to the life of the meeting and then declared, by a sense of the meeting gathered under the guidance of the Spirit, that they are no longer Christian. Technically, then, according to “Quaker process”, those meetings retain their ancient historical testimony as Christians until they discover themselves otherwise in a gathered meeting.

Meanwhile, I would describe many meetings in my experience in the liberal branch as post-Christian. They may not have formally declared themselves post-Christian, but most of the members don’t identify as Christian and their testimony—their vocal ministry, their witness, and culture—do not express a Christian worldview, however you might define that. Post-Christians have moved into the master bedroom and Christ has been thrown out onto the living room couch—or out of the house altogether. 

I don’t feel that way, and I can’t act that way anymore. I feel grateful to be included in the Quaker fold as a lamb who has been invited in, and I gladly sleep on the couch in Christ’s gracious big-tent tabernacle. This means two things, a negative and a positive: I do not (any longer) persecute those who testify to their Teacher, and I actively welcome, desire, pray for, Christian and biblical vocal ministry and the other ways in which my Christian Friends testify to their Guide. They are at home in the house he built—or should be.

It is quite weird to be a member of a Christian movement and not be a Christian myself. This paradox has defined my religious life ever since I became a Friend. The only thing that mutes the dissonance this creates is the fact that the meetings I have belonged to and participated in have all been (non-declared) post-Christian in their culture. Which means that they are comfortable with my non-Christian-ness (though they sometimes act surprised when I sound like a Christian).

On the other hand, however, I will not countenance anti-Christian behavior in any meeting I am a part of. Someone should have eldered me when I did that, and Friends who act that way can expect me to ask some questions.

Quakers and Insurrection

January 9, 2021 § 1 Comment

Barry Crossno, General Secretary of Friends General Conference, and FGC’s clerk Marvin Barnes have recently issued an epistle to Friends addressing our stance with respect to the recent insurrection at the nation’s capitol. (You can read it here.)

I very much appreciate their recognition of the racist roots of that insurrection, their commitment to interfaith action toward de-escalation, and their appeal to Friends to reflect in our actions our belief in a “seed of God” existing in each of us. I would have put that last part differently: I would hope our actions would reflect our grounding in and experience of the seed of God that exists within ourselves, rather than in a belief in its existence in others.

Reading this epistle, I could not help but be reminded of the important role political insurrection played in the history of the Quaker movement.

In 1661, Fifth Monarchist insurrectionists seized control of England’s parliament building. Hundreds of Quakers, including most of the movement’s leaders, were swept up by England’s state security forces after the insurrection and put in jail. The state feared dissenters of all stripes and falsely suspected Quaker involvement in the insurrection. This was the beginning of a generation of state-sponsored persecution of Friends and it began a process of radical change in Quakerism.

It annealed the red-hot fervency of the movement, binding Quakers together in a turn toward the spirit of Christ and his teaching and example of love for one’s enemies. This may have been the most important factor in our survival and subsequent direction as a people of God. It also found expression in the extraordinary statement we now call the 1660 Declaration. (The Fifth Monarchist insurrection occurred in January 1661 according to our current calendar, following the calendar reforms made in the 18th century, but it took place in the tenth month of 1660 according to the calendar of the time; hence the Declaration of 1660.)

In response to the persecution, George Fox and a number of other Quakers wrote “A Declaration from the Harmless and Innocent People of God called Quakers” to newly crowned King Charles II defending Quakers from the accusations of participation in insurrection and violence. This document is often cited as the first articulation of our peace testimony. (You can read the text here and a great article in Friends Journal about it here.)

I invite Friends to reread the Declaration as a centering exercise in this weird and troubled time.

Membership, Part 9: Membership and the life of the Spirit

January 3, 2021 § 1 Comment

In an earlier post in this membership series, I ended by posing three basic questions about membership in the Religious Society of Friends, which should form the context for considering alternatives to our current faith and practice regarding membership, especially for young adult Friends. But there should have been four questions:

  • What is membership for?
  • What is religious community for?
  • What holds a religious community together?
  • And, as the foundation for these three concerns, What do we mean by the life of the Spirit in the first place?

Let’s start with the foundation: What do we mean by the life of the Spirit? This is the question that anybody seeking an alternative to regular membership in a monthly meeting should be asking themselves. Well, people seeking monthly meeting membership should ask these questions, too. And for that matter, so should meetings.

We can put the question another way that elicits a different kind of answer: What is the spiritual life for? What do we hope to get out of it?

My own opinion is that the life of the Spirit flows from a temperament. It’s not a choice, but rather more of a drive, something one feels impelled to pursue. For me this impulse expresses itself as a yearning for the transcendental, for experience that transcends the usual directions and boundaries of our everyday lives. It has a lot in common with the artistic temperament, the drive to create.

Furthermore, as their art is for many artists, spirituality is integral to the spiritual person’s identity. It is essential to one’s sense of self and one’s relation to the world and to one’s experience.

And what do we hope to create with the life of the Spirit? My answer: I do not just seek transcendental experience; I seek to transcend my self. I seek my true self, my whole self, my higher self. I seek inner transformation for the better.

And I feel instinctively that this transformation is to be found in the transcendental, in God, in that Spirit, that Mystery Reality that I sense lies within me at the center of my little-“s” self and that I experience in the gathered meeting.

My true self is free of ego investments in my behavior. My true self is free of habitual behavior, programmed and conditioned behavior. The true self is who I am at the center of all that armor.

My whole self includes the broken parts of my self, the parts that are healing and the parts that aren’t healing yet, and even the parts that will never heal. My whole self includes the scars and the burden of the things my un-healed self has done. But my whole self is aspirational, also: it is who I would be if I could wholly heal and become whole.

That is, the life of the spirit draws me into my higher self. It is the path of making the world a better place by being a better me.

Thus the purpose of the spiritual life is to illuminate that path, to project an image of the destination, and to be a walking stick and compass—to provide inward and outward aids for the journey.

The destination is within us; it is to stand within the Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world. And the destination is among us; it is to stand together in the embrace of that Spirit that gathers us as a people of God.

The walking takes place within us, turning ever toward that Light that guides us. And the walking takes place together, not alone, but as members one of another.

For the individual, this means that Quaker membership is a declaration of unity with the way this community defines the path and an embrace of the tools Quakerism provides for the journey. For the meeting, this means that you clearly define that path and you provide the community and the tools that bring support and joy to the journey. You help make members whole.

Now, while Quaker meetings do have a collective spirit and consciousness, it is individuals who actually do the work of supporting members in these ways. This is the genius of the Quaker way, that we minister to each other. So membership means responsibility, not primarily for financial support or committee service or attendance at meetings for business, but for turning ourselves toward the Light, for fostering the gathered meeting, for caring for each other, and for employing our own gifts of the Spirit in the service of each other’s journeys.

Membership, Part 8—Proposal: a new kind of meeting

January 1, 2021 § 1 Comment

Presumably, for people who seek membership in the Religious Society of Friends, the life of the Spirit is important to them, they feel they need to pursue it in the embrace of a community, and the Society of Friends looks like the right community.

None of that requires membership in a monthly meeting. But it does require community. A community that is capable of embracing your spiritual life in a meaningful way. That is, a community that can give you the things I outlined in the second post in this series, namely communion, community, pastoral care, spiritual nurture, and religious identity.

Many of our monthly meetings are not doing that great a job at providing these things. Gathered meetings are infrequent. Opportunities for community may be confined to two hours on Sundays and a local meeting may not have a critical mass of young adults to meet the need for a community of peers. Pastoral care can be spotty, depending on how well you’re known in the community. Proactive, confident, effective spiritual nurture is just as uncommon as gathered meetings. Religious education may or may not take place or have a clear and useful focus.

Yearly meetings are even less equipped to provide these things, because of their population size, geographical scope, and infrequency of shared worship. (I analyzed the problems with yearly meeting membership in more detail in my previous post.) I think many young adult Friends gravitate to the yearly meeting because that is where they build community with their peers; yearly meetings are big enough to provide a critical mass of young people for community.

So I don’t think yearly meeting membership is the answer. A yearly meeting can offer community, communion, and spiritual or religious identity to a degree (more on the difference later), but not meaningful spiritual nurture or pastoral care.

The YAF community itself is really the only “organization” that can minister to all of these member needs in a meaningful way. Thus I propose that yearly meeting YAF communities be given meeting status, with a new set of characteristics that will differentiate them from the traditional monthly meeting:

  • Membership. Membership would mean whoever happens to be there. No clearness committees for membership. This fluidity would mean doing away with the usual responsibility of the meeting recorder (the keeper of the meeting records, not the office of the recording clerk, who keeps the minutes) to report numbers to the yearly meeting. I still think the YAF meeting (shall we call it a pod?) should keep number records for its own self-knowledge and they might report an average annually to the yearly meeting for the YM minutes, but not for the official YM records.
  • Business. The YAF pod would conduct its business in meetings for worship with attention to the life of the pod under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as monthly meetings do, meeting whenever they can, rather than monthly, presumably, online some of the time, at YAF gatherings, and at YM sessions.
  • Gospel order. The YAF pod would relate to the YM organization and business body as if it were a monthly meeting (MM), in all areas of gospel order—facilitating transfer of formal membership to a monthly meeting when and if a “member” seeks membership in a monthly meeting, but perhaps with a careful explanatory letter; seasoning minutes and epistles that are passed on to the YM for approval; providing discernment for leadings and ministries and support for the ministries it endorses; writing minutes of travel and service for its “members” when their ministry takes them outside the pod; endorsing applications by its members for grants from YM funds; recommending members to YM nominating committee for service on YM committees; providing the YM with an annual State of the Pod report, if their YM writes an annual State of the Society Report; encouraging financial support among its “members” for its own activities; passing a portion of its budget on to the YM for support of the YM’s operations as if it were a monthly meeting; and so on.
  • Ministry. The YAF pod would take responsibility for the spiritual nurture of its “members” as it sees fit, providing for its members eldership in all its forms—discernment and support for leadings and ministries,, programs and other efforts towards spiritual formation, spiritual pastoral care, and religious education.
  • Pastoral care. Likewise with pastoral care for the outward lives of its “members”, as they are able.
  • Have I missed anything? I think you get the idea.

Membership, Part 7: Yearly meeting membership

January 1, 2021 § 2 Comments

The one concrete effort I know of to meet YAF needs is New York Yearly Meeting’s approval of individual membership in the yearly meeting itself, as an alternative to monthly meeting membership. However, I worry that a yearly meeting, at least one as big as NYYM, won’t be able to meet those needs either.

A yearly meeting can provide community and a sense of identity and inclusion, which the alternative-seekers yearn for, but it can only do this passively. To a deal-breaking degree, yearly meetings are incapable of ministering effectively, let alone proactively, to the deeper needs of individuals.

If I read the PhYM YAF epistle and other documents from these seekers correctly, these individuals want to be included. They want their gifts acknowledged and employed in meaningful ways, not just through placement on committees as token young people. They bristle at “bureaucratic” membership and seek “spiritual membership”.

But I see three kinds of problems with the yearly meeting membership alternative:

  • First, yearly meetings are not likely to be able to meet YAFs’ stated needs.
  • Second, and more important, I think these seekers have not fully understood their own needs, and yearly meetings are even less equipped to meet these deeper, more important needs.
  • Third, trying to meet them would strain yearly meetings structurally until they fail.

Stated needs

If a yearly still uses clearness committees for membership, I’m not sure how they will avoid the pitfall of “bureaucratic” membership. I suspect that yearly meetings are likely to be even more “bureaucratic” than monthly meetings, because they are too big to be flexible enough to recognize nuances and special circumstances. Recognizing this, NYYM has relegated all aspects of the “bureaucracy” to a committee for Ministry and Pastoral Care, cutting the gathered body and the business meeting out of the deal altogether, which I understand is structurally necessary, but irregular as gospel order.

Similarly, yearly meeting nominating committees are even more over-burdened and distant from the whole membership of the yearly meeting than monthly meeting nominating committees are from their membership. Nominating committees do their best, but the truth is that nominating committees are not well equipped to know and nurture the membership’s spiritual gifts and leadings, and it isn’t their charge, anyway. They fill positions on committees. NYYM’s Ministry and Counsel Committee and its Ministry and Pastoral Care Committee would be the body charged with recognizing and nurturing spiritual gifts. But their charge is to employ those gifts on behalf of the yearly meeting, not to mentor and support the spiritual lives of individuals. That’s the role of a monthly meeting committee for worship and ministry. Yearly meetings are not designed to minister to individuals.

Deeper needs

Which brings me to point number two. I think the Friends seeking an alternative to monthly meeting membership have not quite thought through their needs, just as most meetings have not really thought through how they might meet them. Young adults, especially, presumably seek support with their spiritual formation. Having decided to be Quakers, presumably they want immersion in our tradition and some level of direct personal attention to their individual journey. Yearly meetings are not equipped to provide these things.

Now, to be honest, neither are monthly meetings. But that’s because monthly meetings tend to view membership from only one side of the relationship—what the member owes the meeting. They tend to forget about what the meeting owes the member. But at least a monthly meeting could provide meaningful spiritual nurture, if they applied their imaginations and their resources. Yearly meetings just can’t; their scale, structure, and mission make this almost impossible.

And that’s just the matter of spiritual nurture, which is usually the most overlooked of all of a meeting’s responsibilities to its members. But pastoral care has the same problem—scale prevents a yearly meeting from knowing its broader membership at all, let alone well enough to minister to a Friend who needs pastoral care. NYYM has 4000+ members maybe? 125 regularly attend sessions and work on committees, a number that shrinks every year, while the work only grows. A member in distress will likely go unnoticed, let alone properly cared for.

Structural inadequacy

Reason number three for why yearly meeting membership is not a good alternative to monthly meeting membership: it overburdens the yearly meeting. This is not just a matter of resources, especially human resources and even spiritual resources, though these burdens are already breaking the backs of many yearly meetings. It’s a structural problem. Yearly meetings just are not designed to minister to individual needs. By definition, they minister to the needs of meetings and act on their behalf in the ways that monthly meetings cannot do themselves. Yearly meetings focus on local meetings and on the wider world.

I suspect that yearly meeting membership will turn out to be a good faith effort that proves unsatisfactory in the long term. Something else is required.

I want to make a proposal about that in the next post.

Climate Change Minute

December 14, 2020 § 4 Comments

I carry a ministry that forms a recurring theme in this blog: that our social witness minutes ought to express our Quaker faith explicitly as the heart of our testimonial rhetoric. In my experience, they rarely do.

Instead they use the mindset and rhetoric of social change nonprofits. They employ arguments from science and social science, and use statistics, rather than a straightforwardly moral argument. Very often, you would never know a religious organization had written them, let alone a Quaker meeting.

They often refer to the “testimonies” and often list some, but almost never explain them or recognize that “testimony” is Quaker jargon that does need unpacking, especially since, in the wider Christian world, the word usually refers to testifying to Jesus’ saving grace in your life, and so many people are likely to misunderstand our usage.

Sometimes, they invoke “that of God in everyone” as a foundation for the testimony, when it isn’t historically, and shouldn’t be theologically. They never quote scripture.

And that’s it, usually.

So I’ve raised my concern with this practice for years, here in this blog and on the floor of many business meetings, including just yesterday in my own meeting.

Today, replying to my ministry yesterday, a Friend sent me a minute on climate change that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Eco-Justice Collaborative is preparing to submit to the yearly meeting. It’s a good case in point. You can read it here.

I should say that I fully agree with its intent, I am deeply grateful for the Collaborative’s work, and I do not wish to criticize anybody involved in its writing, though I guess that’s what I’m doing. I pray that I speak and write in faithfulness to God’s leading here, and that these Friends will hear my words in the Light I hope I am following.

Anyway, I was inspired to write an alternative minute on climate change as an exercise in following my leading in these matters. Time to put up or shut up, to stop complaining and offer an alternative. It reeks of the pipe. I suspect my peculiar voice will not appeal to many Friends. And it’s addressed to the world as an epistle, rather than as an appeal for action to the yearly meeting, as the Collaborative’s is. Here is my proposed minute on climate change:

To leaders everywhere:

How long will the land mourn and the grass of every field wither? Because of the wrong mind of those who live in it, the animals and birds are swept away, and because people said, the Word of Creation knows not what we do?  ~ Jeremiah 12:4

In the beginning was the Word . . . [that was] the true light, which enlightens everyone, coming into the world.  ~ John 1:1, 9

Divine Wisdom first manifested as Creation, as the long arc of evolution, and it has found its consummation in a creature that now can self-consciously edit that First Book of Code, the operating system of our world.

Meanwhile, each of us humans has within us a Light that enlightens, a direct link to that Word of Wisdom which animates and guides creation. This experience and knowledge of the Light Within is the foundation of our Quaker faith.

Over the centuries, that Spirit of Love and Truth has consistently shown us that violence is wrong, that justice is necessary, that divine guidance is always trying to break through our ignorance and ignore-ance, and that we should live our outward lives as we are inwardly led by this wisdom. Because the world has been given into our care, that voice of Love and Wisdom within us should guide all our efforts at monkeying with its workings.

Thus we must ask: Does it? Does Divine Wisdom guide our stewardship of the earth? Our Quaker answer is—not yet.

Does Divine Wisdom lovingly guide us toward a hothouse planet? Does it demand that we should both deliberately and ignorantly alter the very chemistry of our only home and permanently destroy its God-given balances and purposes? Our Quaker answer is no.

Does the spirit of the Christ intend that this behavior should harm the most vulnerable of God’s children—the least of us—the most? Our Quaker answer is No.

Does the Wisdom of Creation countenance its collateral damage, urging us to destroy the oceans and so many creatures that have been our divinely generous gift? The Quaker answer is NO.

Will we not be answerable at the very least to the inevitable chastisement of nature’s downfall? The Quaker answer is yes.

And can we correct course by turning toward the Light? Our Quaker answer is YES!

Therefore we Friends fervently pray that the leaders of our communities, our institutions, and our governments will heed the Light within them; that they will do whatever they can to slow the cascading catastrophe that human-made climate change is bringing upon us; and that they will see to the needs of those who suffer as a consequence of our failure to do so thus far. We include our own Quaker institutions in our plea.

In Divine Love, we beg you to act. Soon.

Yours in the Light of God’s Love

Membership, Part 6—Seeking alternatives, part 2: Resistance

December 6, 2020 § Leave a comment

New York Yearly Meeting has been working for several years on this problem of traditional membership not satisfying the needs of some Friends, so we now have some information about how the rest of the Yearly Meeting feels about it. Some were not happy.

The resistance to alternative pathways to membership has in some quarters been quite intense. The fact of intense resistance highlights the underlying fact that our current approach to membership is, in fact, in trouble. People fight back hardest when they think you’re trying to take something away when they believe it’s already under threat. The intensity of the pushback is directly proportional to the intensity of the perceived threat. So, while any given proposal for an alternative may have its problems, the resistance signals the need to do something.

Here are some of the questions they have raised, as reported in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s “Threshing Session on Membership Report”, and my condensed summaries of their answers:

  • Monthly meetings are the basic unit of our Society. Doesn’t that mean that membership should always live there? Well, this is not true for some Friends, and alternatives take nothing away from the sacredness of monthly meeting membership.
  • What about all the practices linked to MM membership (e.g., marriage)? This will have to be worked out.
  • Are the alternative seekers trying to circumvent our tradition? No, they are just seeking a pathway that meets their needs.
  • Won’t this drain people from already struggling monthly meetings? No, we are talking about people who would not be active in a monthly meeting anyway.
  • What does accountability look like without the monthly meeting? Membership in the yearly meeting (the alternative chosen by NYYM) will provide the “services” that monthly meetings provide their members.
  • Will other pathways follow? Who knows. More radical alternatives were considered by NYYM, but the report does not say what those were. Nor am I personally aware of other pathways under consideration by PhYM.

Basically, the NYYM pathway just replicates the process and obligations of membership in a monthly meeting for membership in the yearly meeting. The yearly meeting is still in the process of filling in the details of how it will actually work, beyond naming its Ministry and Pastoral Care Committee as the body responsible for clearness committees, affirming membership (the YM body does not affirm applications, as a monthly meeting for business does), and everything else.

Most importantly, the decision to establish membership in the yearly meeting does not address the basic questions about what membership means, what I call the “ur”-questions. For me, these are:

  • What is membership for?
  • What is religious community for?
  • What holds a religious community together?

Membership, Part 5—Seeking alternatives

December 6, 2020 § Leave a comment

I’ve been reading the documents produced by New York and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings as they have worked to understand and address the concerns some Friends have raised regarding our traditional understanding of and processes for membership (and watched a great PhYM recording of a panel on the topic). My original goal was to identify what these concerns were. But my research has raised a bunch of other questions:

  1. Who—who has these concerns?
  2. What—what are their concerns?
  3. Why—what do they want?
  4. But—what kind of resistance have they met?
  5. How—what alternatives to traditional membership have emerged?
  6. And—what “ur”-questions lie behind these other questions? What root questions must be answered as context for the discernment.

For reasons of space, I’m going to break up my discussion of these queries into blocks, starting with numbers one and two.

1.  Who finds that our traditional faith and practice of membership doesn’t work for them?

Dissatisfaction with our current practice of membership began with young adults, but deeper exploration has revealed other groups who carry the concern:

  • Young adults, including participants in Quaker youth programs who have no relationship with any Quaker meeting; 35% of YAFs in one survey said they don’t have a home in a monthly meeting, though many of them actually hold membership in one.
  • The incarcerated.
  • Parents with young children.
  • Friends at a distance from their home meetings or are too far away from any local meeting.
  • Caregivers and others whose schedules or circumstances limit how much they can participate in meeting life.

2 & 3. What doesn’t work for these Friends in our current practice and what do they want?

Certain structural and circumstantial barriers prevent some from feeling they belong to their meeting: incarceration, transience, schedules, personal circumstances, differences in culture and/or theology from a local meeting, and distance.

But the deeper concern, especially on the part of young adults and members of marginalized communities, seems to be a feeling of exclusion fostered by inflexible attitudes and the strictures and constraints of Quaker “bureaucracy”. They want accessibility and a voice, particularly in yearly meetings, without having to “check the box” of meeting membership. They want inclusion, not membership. To quote the PhYM* Young Adult Epistle, they want their community to say: “We know you, and the Spirit is within you, and we acknowledge you.” They want their gifts to be recognized, welcomed, and included in the community’s governance and work, irrespective of their membership status. They want “spiritual membership” as opposed to “bureaucratic membership”. And they want the barriers that hinder the full inclusion of marginalized persons to come down.

In support of these desires, they know from their own experience of YAF gatherings that you don’t need “membership” in any form to feel you belong in a nurturing spiritual community, or for that community to grow and act under the guidance of the Spirit.

*  Friends on the East Coast tend to use PYM as their anagram for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, but so does Pacific Yearly Meeting. I prefer PhYM for Philadelphia YM because it seems to me better than PaYM for Pacific YM, and in order to, in some small way, try to reorient the attitudes of East Cost Quakers. Unfortunately, PhYM already owns the domain name, so my gesture only goes so far.

Membership, Part 4—What meetings (should) offer members

December 3, 2020 § 1 Comment

Meetings tend to define membership only in terms of the member’s obligations to the meeting. Here, I want to look at what meetings offer their members.

This affects our consideration of alternative forms of membership in three ways. First and most obviously, it starts to answer whether monthly meetings and yearly meetings can meet the needs of the alternative seekers. But it also invites the alternative seekers to reconsider what they are looking for. Maybe they haven’t yet identified all their needs. And thirdly, it challenges meetings at both the monthly and yearly meeting levels to reconsider their mission

Ideally, I see meetings offering members five kinds of things, which together define the body of Christ:

  • Communion—that is, worship, the opportunity to share the joys, the healing, the renewal, the guidance, of the Holy Spirit—in community.
  • Community—the joys and challenges of fellowship in the Spirit, including mutual support of those areas of outward personal life in which the worshipping community can be of service, but also the joys and challenges of knowing one another and being known “in the things that are eternal”, in that deep way that is distinctive to religious community. Plus, religious community offers the following special ways in which the community can minister to its members:
  • Pastoral care—being there for each other in meaningful ways in times of joy and sorrow and transition.
  • Spiritual nurture—that is, eldership, support and nurture of the member’s spiritual journey, including mutual accountability for one’s walking on the path, and help with discernment and support for one’s callings, the work we feel led to do in the world.
  • Religious identity—content and context for understanding who we are in the world, a tradition and a community that can ground our sense of self and guide our development in the life of the Spirit.


The one thing meetings do for sure is host the meeting for worship. But offering a roof over the head of worship is not enough. The meeting owes its members gathered meetings for worship. It should offer real holy communion, direct experience of the spirit of Christ, that is, with the spirit that unites us, transforms us, heals us, forgives us, inspires us, guides us, awakens us to our inner truth and our truer selves. The meeting should deliver its members into the quaking joy and transcending gratitude that collective baptism in the Well of Life bestows.

I’ve discussed what fosters the gathered meeting in my Pendle Hill Pamphlet The Gathered Meeting, but here I want to raise up the importance of vocal ministry. The meeting owes its members truly Spirit-led vocal ministry. This means much more proactive nurture of vocal ministry than most meetings provide.


Being members one of another involves so many things, and these have been well discussed in our written tradition, including in the Pendle Hill Pamphlet with that title, so I won’t go into detail here. Ideally, meeting for worship and the coffee hour afterwards, meeting for business and committee work actually go a long way toward building deep, Spirit-bound community. But meetings should not stop there, but do other things that build community, especially things that meet the needs of families. And they need to deal effectively and lovingly with conflict.

Pastoral Care

We’re not professionals. For deeply troubled people, we can only try to get them professional help. So we should be prepared with resources in this area.

But for most pastoral care needs, the charge is sometimes daunting but nevertheless fairly clear. First, to try to be aware enough of each other’s lives to know when need arises. Then, to respond as we are able. Some of us have pastoral gifts; the rest of us do our best. As with all forms of ministry, the way forward is to stand still in the Light and to work from the heart. And to be as proactive as possible. Like most meetings I know, my meeting has a Membership Care committee that meets monthly. Each of us is assigned a list of members under our care. We are more or less good at keeping in touch with them. But ideally, meetings offer members a kind of caring that they could not get anywhere else.

Spiritual Nurture

I think this role falls into three categories—spiritual formation, the care of gifts, leadings, and ministry, and eldership, properly defined.

Spiritual formation. Many members come to us not yet fully formed. They may not have a settled personal devotional life, or be very clear about what spiritual life means to them. The meeting has an important role in helping members clarify what spiritual disciplines work for them, what they “believe”, and what gifts they have.

Some of us come with more fully developed faith and practice, which usually have been formed outside the Quaker tradition. The meeting’s role then is to help the member integrate the spiritual life they bring with them into the religious life of the Quaker meeting.

All of this assumes, of course, that people join a meeting because the life of the spirit is important to them and Quakerism seems like the place to pursue it. The clearness committee for membership’s role is to become clear about both of these things.

Nurturing ministry. Within the Quaker tradition, the meeting owes its members discernment, support, and oversight of their spiritual gifts, their leadings, and their ministries, especially their vocal ministry.

Eldership. If the goal of spiritual life is personal transformation, and the goal of religious life is the transformation of the community—BIG if’s—then membership becomes a covenant in which we become accountable to each other under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Do we clarify with applicants how much they welcome our engagement with their spiritual lives and how much we’re willing to become engaged? These are deep questions that meetings tend not to ask, of their applicants or of themselves. We should.

Not everyone comes to a meeting seeking personal transformation. Most, perhaps, seek community, often as a refuge, a recharging station, as a place to get away from the demands of the world. They seek the silence, the peace, the people—not the crucible. Most of us are individualists and we like things our way.

On the other hand, most people seeking to join a religious community presumably do so because they think it will help them realize their higher selves, whatever that means. So how do these spiritual desires, however they are defined, match up with how the meeting understands its religious role or mission?

Which leads us to . . .

Religious Identity

People seek membership in part because they have come to realize that they are already Quakers in some degree, they already identify with this Way, and they want to take this identity to a new level, which membership in a meeting promises to confer. But what does “being a Quaker” mean?

The meeting has a role in nurturing and developing its members’ growth into this identity. Put in concrete terms, this means equipping members to answer with confidence and integrity the kinds of questions that people might ask when a member tells somebody that they’re a Quaker. This means spiritual formation, spiritual nurture, eldership as mentorship, as discussed above, and religious education—programs and efforts through which they can learn to answer these questions for themselves.

If we want to become good cellists, we expect to study music, to practice the instrument, and to have teachers. If we want to become good Quakers, we should expect to study Quakerism and to practice the Quaker way. And meetings should offer religious education.

The unique value of a religion, as opposed to a spiritual life pursued on one’s own, is that having a tradition allows you to go deep, usually much deeper than you could on your own. A tradition provides some great music, an instrument, and teachings, if not teachers. Our tradition has already sunk a shaft into the depths and it offers ideas, tools, people, stories, and promise as guides to those depths.

Meetings should transmit our traditions as a ministry to our members’ religious identity.

In the next post, I want to lay out how I understand the concerns of those who seek alternatives to traditional membership in a monthly meeting.

Membership, Part 3—Defining the problem

December 3, 2020 § Leave a comment

Membership should be a three-way covenant in which the reciprocal gift-giving between member and meeting is done under the guidance and blessing of the Holy Spirit. Exploring alternatives to our traditional practice of membership in a monthly meeting raises several questions:

  1. What do people seeking alternatives to our current practice want from their Quakerism, and why does our current practice fail to satisfy?
  2. What do meetings want from their members?
  3. What do monthly meetings offer their members? And what can yearly meetings offer, since it is to yearly meetings that the alternative-seekers are looking for answers to their concerns?
  4. How do the answers to these queries connect?
  5. And finally, what are the foreseeable consequences of embracing the alternatives?

One would naturally start with the first query, but I’m not ready to do that yet. I have a sense of what the alternative seekers want from some conversations I’ve had, but I want to look more carefully at the already published resources about this in order to be as fully informed as possible.

We already know what meetings want from their members: participation and money. In my last post, I suggest focusing on the inward gifts we would like members to bring to us.

In the next post, I want to look at what meetings offer their members. In later posts, I’ll consider numbers four and five.