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.


§ 14 Responses to Membership

  • […] about which we are perennially confused and even dysfunctional. I have written about this before (Membership, and On Clearness Committees for […]

  • Ben says:

    Sorry, wrong premise. we are from Christianity and that’s nice and to be respected, if respect is afforded. But we are not of christianity, not any more by any measure I can find.
    Christianity requires a test which we don’t do.
    Again sorry to offend but I’ve been offended by christians enough.
    Just forget this stuff and quiet down and just try to think of the light or something, it’ll help

  • Christine M. Greenland says:

    Back in the days when I was also a “former Christian” seeker, Friends I encountered at the time were quite clear that the basis of Quaker faith (historically, and for them personally) was Christian. The advice I was given was to “explore the variety possible” among Friends, and then see if I could still stand being among them. This is not to say that the non-theistic approach isn’t valid… it may be the only honest thing to say. The Quaker Bible scholar Henry J. Cadbury once noted that the Latin “we do not know” (ignoramus) was the only honest stance for a scholar.

    I can also understand (from experience) how those who profess Christianity may not actually have the experience of being confronted by the divine…hence they do not know.

    It took a very long time for me to be overcome my resistance to the term “Christian”. However, when I actually had the experience of the Living Spirit of Christ/God, people who hadn’t experienced this insisted that I tone down the only language I could find for what I had known/felt inwardly. I felt spiritually bereft!

    But I do understand the lack of experience. I once wondered how people could be so certain… and for many years was a wistful unbeliever. But I wasn’t ready for faith, and perhaps that’s the point.

  • SJ says:


    I wonder if there is a false analogy at work in your complaint against those who would resist granting membership to atheists. I certainly believe that in the world outside of my faith community, I am obliged to respect and tolerate everyone who happens not to share my religious convictions. When you assert, however, that a religious society is obliged not only to tolerate but to embrace all forms of difference, even when these run contrary to the shared convictions of this religious society – that to do otherwise is somehow a form of “prejudice” – I am not sure that your argument holds. I certainly agree that Friends are obliged to make our meetings safe for atheists and pagans who are interested in learning about Quakerism. I quite frankly have a problem, however, with the notion of self-described atheists and pagans demanding membership and regarding all refusals as expressions of bigotry. I have a problem with it, because the potential result is a religious society peopled with those who, while they are sentimentally attached to silent worship and open ministry, reject the theological core of Quaker tradition; a religious society, in other words, that may be Quaker in its outward practices but not in its inward spiritual life, and thus has become no different from any of the other “outward” religions criticized by Fox.

    I find your last paragraph quite troubling in its insinuation that, if Christian Friends are not content to shut up about the Christian basis of Quaker practices, they should just run off to “one of the thousands of faith communities competing for them.” Let’s be clear. The “thousands of faith communities” to which you refer are not competing for us. They’re competing for our money. Quakerism was established by Christians who saw that the forms of institutional Christianity surrounding them were forced, because of their close relations with the State and their need to monetarily support a pampered clergy, to tell pleasing lies rather than witness for Christ. It was not established by people who wanted to sacrifice bulls to Odin.

    We are already beginning to see the consequences of the misguided openness you demand in the case of a junior officer in the Navy named Michael Izbicki, who after attending Quaker meetings refused further participation in war out of obedience to Christ. His claim to conscientious objector status was denied – on the grounds that “Quakers do not believe in Jesus Christ and that a ‘saved’ Christian could not sincerely worship with them,” as an investigating officer put it. It’s a shame that we can’t any longer respond in defense of this man that we do, in fact, follow Christ without lying.

    • I was very close to a case in which a nontheist Friend was disowned by her meeting—close to the Friend who was disowned and also to some of the Friends in her small meeting. The meeting made its decision in the light of a very strong sense of gathering and, knowing them as I do, I trust their report of the Spirit that led them to their decision. I am also clear that my Friend was—is—a Quaker. This is supposed to be impossible: a meeting truly led by God comes to unity around the truth. One of them has to be wrong. But I think they were both right. My friend has since become a member of another meeting, but the experience was extremely traumatic and lasted a long time, affecting a lot of people.

      For me the paradox aptly illustrates the complex character of modern liberal Quakerism. It raises a lot of really important questions related to membership: the role of belief or faith versus values, principles and practice in defining Quakerism; the boundaries of eldership and discipline; the ‘judicial’ processes regulating discipline in our meetings, specifically, the role of quarterly and yearly meetings in regulating monthly meetings in gospel order; and most importantly, perhaps, the Christian and, to a lesser extent, the theistic identity of Quakerism itself.

      About this last matter, I am personally very clear: Quakerism as a movement, regardless of its branch, is Christian. By any and all measures, I feel we must assert this truth. First, our founders were not just Christians; they were gathered by Christ in Christ to bring a new experience of Christ to the world in a prophetic movement that they understood as the second coming of Christ—Christ is the founder of Quakerism; so those first Friends testified. Furthermore, since then, we have been historically Christian, only becoming postChristian in any degree since World War II. Moreover, we are still demographically Christian: the vast majority of Friends today are Christians. Perhaps most importantly, our own tradition is that we hold a testimony until we decide, in Spirit-led worship, that we don’t anymore, until some meaningful process of Spirit-led discernment determines otherwise. We have never abandoned our Christianity through any process of discernment at any level of meeting life. Rather, we have become confusedly postChristian and post-traditional by a process of unconscious drift, driven by our practice of membership. We have been admitting more and more people to membership who no longer identify as Christian, or even as theist. Thus, we liberal Friends have rather naturally and gradually and unconsciously taken this shift for granted.

      I have two images or metaphors for this process. In the first, Christian meetings invited more and more people into the house of God who were not followers of Christ its founder, and then one day, woke up to find nonChristians in the master bedroom and Jesus sleeping on the couch. In the other metaphor, just as the First Nations of North America invited Europeans to settle here in numbers initially so small as to pose no threat, so Christian meetings invited nonChristians into membership, only to find themselves overwhelmed and relegated to reservations.

      As I said in my original post on membership, I feel that those of us who aren’t Christian have a responsibility, in the light of the testimony on integrity, to act respectfully as guests in the house that Christ built, even when—especially when—we find we are the dominant force in our meetings. I am calling here for more than just tolerance of Christian and/or biblical members and their vocal ministry. I am talking about owning the truth of our identity, while acknowledging its complexity and paradoxical character. For instance, if someone asks us, Is Quakerism a Christian religion, I believe the answer should be an unhesitating yes; but it’s not an unequivocal yes. It’s a pretty complicated yes, but it’s still yes.

      Meanwhile, we need to pay much better attention to our processes for membership. But I already spoke to that in the earlier post.

      • Steve, I don’t know if you have explored the history of liberal Quakerism, which dates back to Elias Hicks and some say earlier. Hicks denied the blood atonement and other Christian orthodoxies, as did his even more famous contemporary Lucretia Mott. This unorthodoxy split the society. Since then, liberal Quakers have been rethinking our relation to our Christian roots repeatedly over nearly two centuries since 1827.

        It is that history of questioning orthodoxy and its concomitant theological diversity in membership that is one of the key legacies of liberal Quakerism. I cherish and it and name it – including its liberal Christian expressions – as my legacy and heritage. However, this does not require that we look back on early or even Hicksite Quakers with any sort of uncritical affirmation.

        Yes, we are a Christian body, but we are also liberal and universalist and pluralist. This legacy and living embodiment of universalism is a unique voice in the religious world today and deserves to be proclaimed as good news.

        Peace & Luv! Charley

    • SJ – I must correct you, I do not assert “that a religious society is obliged not only to tolerate but to embrace all forms of difference.” I only assert that liberal Quaker meetings who have followed a distinct path since our departure from orthodoxy, should not try and became an Orthodox or Conservative form of Quakerism. Our meetings are theologically diverse in membership, may it ever be so. To change that now would be to reverse course, not move forward.

      Peace & Luv! Charley

  • I am an ex-Christian who showed up at Quaker meeting 13 years ago seeking a place to explore my post-Christian path. My meeting was basically universalist and so I pretty much fit right in. A year or so later, a member came back from a Pendle Hill sabbatical and in a worship-sharing on membership practically bragged about being involved in disowning an atheist Quaker. As I had just become clear in my own mind that I was nontheist, I became a bit nervous.

    When the crunch came over my appointment to a committee on Worship and Spiritual Life, my meeting supported me over against this person considered a “weighty Friend” in some circles. I do respect this Friend and hope this Friend will someday sees how hurtful this prejudice towards nontheism has been.

    So, I have to ask while we are making our meetings safe for Christians, who are the majority in this society and who have thousands of faith communities competing for them, are we also making our meetings unsafe for religious minorities like atheists and pagans?

    Peace & Love! Charley

    • I have heard this thinking among Quakers a great deal, that as a Christian I have many places I can worship amicably, and indeed the writer here goes to even greater lengths to imagine that there are thousands of faith communities “competing” for me. I can assure thee that as a Conservative Friend, my Christian faith is so utterly different as to render me truly unwelcome in the vast majority of Christian churches. My not “believing in” paid clergy makes for uncomfortable conversations with pastors, refusing communion causes some truly awkward moments, and not feeling baptism by water is necessary causes many a Christian to insist I am not actually a Christian. Not to mention the fact that I feel called to waiting worship under the headship of Christ. As far as I know, no one is doing any of this outside of the surpassingly small Conservative Yearly Meetings. No one. So, please, Charley, make the plea for thy meetings to be more welcoming to non-Christians as thee wishes, but thee is mistaken in this assertion–and since it is not true, it adds nothing meaningful to thy arguments.

      • Isabel, I take your words as honest and accept their argument. Conservative Quaker meetings are not the object of my concern, only liberal meetings, which decades ago, even for more than a century have been moved towards a pluralist theology.

        I wish nothing but overwhelming blessings and spiritual prosperity to Christian Quakers and their meetings. I want to see Conservative, Pastoral, and Evangelical Friends challenge the unhealthy spirits that dominate world Christianity.

        My concern is that liberal meetings not turn back from their historic leading towards diversity in theological matters and membership.

  • david fish says:

    re membership
    i think we should beware of making membership too complicated and as already member quakers exert the minimum control over the process and the applicant rather than the reverse. wrestling with belief for all members and attenders is not so much an issue for membership but part of the discipleship of being a member of quakers.
    we, quakers, need new members to continue, to continue to worship and to continue do the works we believe are good.
    Quaker Faith and Practice chapters 10 and 11 are worth reading bearing in mind that successive revisions have made the process simpler and less mechanical. These passages remind us that an important part of a visit to an applicant is that the appliant has the opportunity to question the visitors about quakers. Application for membership is very much a two way journey. Coventry Quaker Meeting have produced a simple flow chart ‘5 steps to membership’ available from me at in friendship david fish

  • Christine M. Greenland says:

    Thanks for this, Steven… And Flo… My thoughts were also very long … But at least it got me thinking.

    I am still grateful for the Friends in Boulder Meeting, Vancouver (BC), and Toronto Meeting who took the time to offer spiritual nurture… and were good at it.

    Although it took me 10 years to get to the point to apply for membership, the spiritual support offered at each juncture provided important support. I was very surprised that, moving to the Philadelphia area, Friends did not take this as seriously.

  • Flo Fflach says:

    How amazingly timely. i am a long time attender, it was probably some 30 years ago that I wondered if the uakers were a place for me to follow my way. but it took a few decades to get to meetimg. A little while back I suggested we have a meeting where we considered what membership meant – for attender and member – for many reasons this has not happened. we are a very small group and of regular worshippers there are I think 3 members plus a member from a nearby meeting. I have approached two lifelong members and will go and talk with them after meeting as a first step. I know what the proceedures are for applying for membership and I know what the commitments are in theory but of course that is not in practice. And what difference might it make to me?
    As an attender I have always been involved in the meeting – for business and other important special issues. No-one has pushed me into membership – or even really asked me if I want to be in membership. But there has always been information, openess and support.
    Perhaps i want more asked of me in terms of looking at my spiritual path – some things you said made me confirm that. It seems to be about a commitment not just to the Society of Friends but to myself and my relationship with god.
    I would like, if after tomorrows discussion I decide to continue with an application for membership, for it to be brought out in my local Meeting. unfortunately as I don’t drive I have never been to monthly/area meeting and it is through that body that i have to apply. but i have on occasion gone to other meetings.So it also means a going out into the Quaker world, which is indeed more of a commitment.
    Obviously if I proceed then a member from monthly meeting will come and talk with me.
    Even if I decide not to be in membership (or am not accepted!)it will have been an impostant step.
    So thank you for your words, experience and suggestions. as I said – very timely!

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