November 27, 2010 § 14 Comments
I started to respond to a post by Micah Bales on membership and it kept getting longer and longer, so I decided to move it to my blog. But I hope Friends will visit Micah’s blog, where he asks some great questions, and several Friends have thoughtfully responded.
I think membership is one of the key issues in Quakerism today. All the complaints we may have about our meetings come down to how we conduct our clearness process for membership, because each person we admit to membership helps to shape the culture of the meeting a little more, and each clearness process defines an initial set of assumptions about the boundaries between meeting and member.
Friends no longer think of membership as a ‘covenantal’ relationship in which they expect their fellow members and the meeting to get directly involved in their spiritual development in an active culture of eldership. They once did. So eldership and discipline, in both their positive and corrective applications, have become four letter words and the meeting has no leverage, no foundation to stand on when it’s needed. More importantly, though, by assuming a passive relationship between member and meeting the meeting has lost its first chance to be really helpful in its new member’s spiritual life: each will now wait until the other makes a move.
Friends tend to fear turning people away by asking for too much from people seeking membership, so they are lucky when they actually get something from them. Meanwhile, sociological studies of religious communities universally conclude that the communities that ask the most are the most vibrant and grow the most. Many people seeking religious community apparently want us to engage them, after all.
The steady shift away from liberal Quakerism’s traditional Christian and biblical identity and even occasional difficulties with hostility toward Christian or biblical vocal ministry and teaching in first day school, for instance, are a direct result of un-clearness about membership clearness. I am an anti-shining example myself. I told my committee that I was anti-Christian and a bit rabid and they took me in anyway (thank God). Sure enough, I started hassling Christians and blocked the Bible in first day school. We get a lot of refugees like me. My meeting got lucky; I woke up to my bad behavior on my own (after a few years and a few woundings of the innocent) and, though I still am not a Christian, and I still have my complaints about Christianity, I am now the guy who consistently insists that Quakers are a Christian community until we decide otherwise, that people like me are guests in the house of Christ and should act like guests, and I have become the local expert on the Bible. It turns out that this is one of my gifts.
Here’s what I think should have happened in my clearness committee: Okay, Steve, we welcome you, but we recognize that you come to us with some baggage, so we’re going to ask you two things: first, you have to be responsible with that anger and those ideas. We ask you not to hurt people with them. Second, we want to work with you to see if we can help you calm down. Will you be willing to work with us? (I would have said yes; just hearing someone say these things would have done a lot, in fact, to wake me up). Then great. Welcome. We’ll let you know soon who we would like you to meet with in what we call a clearness committee to hear about what your concerns are.
Thus, I believe clearness committees for membership should add the following to the tasks they set for themselves when they meet with applying attenders:
- They should actively seek to find out if the applicant is hostile to Christian and biblical tradition, to “God talk”, to the testimonies. If so, they should ask for permission to work with them about these issues, once they become members, and remind them of their responsibility for the openness of worship and the feelings of others. I am not talking about a theological litmus test; I am talking about taking responsibility for the spirit of worship and the care of the members that wounded people might threaten.
- They should ask how much the applicant is willing to allow the meeting to engage with them in their ministry, especially vocal ministry: ask them to read one of the good pamphlets about meeting for worship, at the very least. Try to find some way to open a two-way conversation about vocal ministry, mindful that most folks take a while to get over their original reticence about speaking in meeting, so you don’t want to scare them off, either. But they should know that you are available for support and encouragement.
- Membership clearness committees should begin the process of discerning the applicant’s potential gifts of the spirit: what do they bring to the meeting, what forms of involvement in the meeting would give them an outlet for these gifts, how can the meeting help them fulfill the urge we believe all people have to serve God? This could be done in a later meeting to a greater depth, but the clearness committee should at least make it clear that this is the primary thing the meeting has to offer them as members: help in fulfilling themselves spiritually.
Without that, it’s not clear why someone would want to become a member, and, as we all know, many people attend for years without joining. I think this is the answer to the question, what will change, what will I get out of being a member, besides being assigned to a committee? We will help you discover and develop and express the gifts you have been given. This is the great distinctive breakthrough of Quaker spirituality: that we know that everyone has gifts, everyone is/can be called to God’s service, that we offer weekly opportunities for using those gifts in meeting for worship, that, in almost no other religious community are all members (potential) ministers—and that few joys can compare with the fulfillment of those gifts in service. Membership embodies the formal agreement between member and meeting to work together on awakening and developing and using our spiritual gifts.
Of course, this assumes that the meeting has the resources to sustain a vital culture of eldership—seasoned Friends with the gift of eldership, who know our traditions of ministry, who can sense where someone’s gifts lie, what someone is interested in, and then suggest a book, or somehow guide them toward some form of exploration and expression that will bring their gifts to full fruit. It also assumes that committees for worship and ministry and/or pastoral care have the will to be proactive and ask members and attenders how they can help, and that they have the resources to be of help, once they have a member’s permission to get involved.
To further this role of the meeting as spiritual nurturer, I think we should add a new practice to our conduct of clearness committees for membership. I think we should automatically convene a second clearness committee for discernment of gifts, to be conducted some time after membership, to build on the momentum, to equip new members with whatever will help them contribute to meeting life, and to find out how the meeting can begin to contribute to their spiritual growth. Clearness for membership should open a door into mutual engagement in the life of the Spirit. Membership itself should eventually give more to the member than they could ever give to the meeting—the joy of spiritual awakening and fulfillment.
We can do the same for attenders, of course. In fact, this is the way to encourage membership. But the key difference, I suggest, is that the relationship between attender and meeting is, sort of by definition, passive. The meeting makes spiritual nurture available, of course. The attender takes it or leaves it. And the meeting waits for the attender to apply. But membership means the attender now wants the meeting to actively work with them on their journey. It is ‘covenantal’. The attender asks the meeting to be proactive, to get involved. It is an invitation to active mutual engagement, and it includes the invitation to discipline. We all get into spiritual trouble, sometimes; being a member means you know you won’t be left to out to dry. Someone has promised to help you get back on track, if they can. And all along, they will be helping you find the way God has in mind for you.