Comments on PYM Annual Sessions

August 3, 2011 § 7 Comments

Part Two — Budget Cuts, Reactions and the Future of PYM

In a period of open worship after Philadelphia Yearly Meeting approved the budget for the fiscal year ending 2012 on Friday morning, Sadie Forsythe, the coordinator for the Young Adult Friends program of the Yearly Meeting spoke passionately about the budget process and how she and staff in general were treated in its course. If I remember correctly, she called that process “abusive”, among other things. Her epistle, published yesterday (Tuesday, August 2) on the PYM site, expresses some of the feelings and the message she brought to us that morning. Add a voice broken up by grief and maybe some rage in your mind, and you have some idea of the moment. Several YAFers also expressed their grief and woundedness, their love for Quakerism and even for the Yearly Meeting, and some prophetic words about their place in the community.

The thing Sadie said that made it into my notebook was that, throughout the discussion of the budget in the annual sessions (an hour and a half or more during two separate sessions), Friends had not once expressed regret about letting faithful staff go or thanks for their service. The Light of her witness exposed a dark shadow among and within us and I felt truly convicted. She was right and I was guilty. Like everyone else, I was all about those numbers, those issues, and never thought about the people involved.

It reminded me of the conservative Republicans in Congress: obsessed with the government’s books and oblivious of the pain their cuts would deliver to the human flesh and the human spirits their pens had targeted. Yes, the cuts have to be made. Apparently, the Yearly Meeting occasionally forgot its compassion. Certainly, we did in those sessions.

I understand that some Friends engaged in outright lobbying on behalf of programs and staff that served their constituencies. I don’t know the details, how far this went or whether Young Adult Friends pursued this course. Some YAFers who spoke that morning, including Sadie, specifically said that they had not, which suggests that others had. Some of this lobbying worked, too, I guess, since the interim budget discussed in April was in fact changed; notably, Burlington Conference Center was saved.

The Yearly Meeting is reducing staff from 40 full-time equivalents (FTEs) to 32. The YM estimates that a staff level of 24 is sustainable, and more staff will almost certainly be let go next year. I suspect that eliminating the YAF coordinator position makes sense from the purely financial perspective. The Yearly Meeting has been forced into triage and they don’t have a lot of room to maneuver.

Several times, Jack Mahon, who brought the budget to the session on behalf of Financial Stewardship Committee, said that just because we were letting staff go in some areas didn’t necessarily mean that the ministry in those areas would end. I suppose. Theoretically, Young Adult Friends can carry the ball themselves. My sense, though, is that they do need an anchor, something at the center to root them to their Quakerism in the reality of their unsettled lives. And right now they feel like the center just cast them adrift.

These sessions delivered a hefty kick to the flywheel connected to the forces of decline in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting as an organization. Morale is terrible. Membership and financial support are declining, staff and programs in the organization are disappearing, and the financial/organizational crisis is nearly apocalyptic. Nominations can’t fill the committees. The structural issues at work are very hard to understand, let alone deal with. And these problems are hardly confined to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

We need a prophetic inbreaking of the Spirit. I fear that nothing less will save us in the long run. We will hobble along for a while. But at some point, without some revolutionary, systemic change, the system will collapse. A spreadsheet depicting the curves for rising costs and declining income could reasonably predict the date for that collapse (something I plan to do, actually). At that point, PYM will have to figure out how to divest itself of some of the most historically significant buildings in North America, let alone in Quakerism.

I invite Young Adult Friends—and all the other aggrieved constituencies in the Yearly Meeting—to work through their grief for what they have lost and turn toward the Spirit with courage and some faith. Use the heat of the pain to transform yourselves. Turn the impulse to whine or complain into determination. Pray, as individuals—or whatever you do to reclaim your center. Worship, as a group—or whatever you do to reclaim your power to act creatively, prophetically. Turn away from old forms that no longer have that power and wait to see what love will do.

George Fox was in his early twenties when he had his first visions. The programmed, pastoral tradition of Friends began as a movement of young adult Friends. So, largely, did the liberalizing movement at the turn of the 20th century. Young adult Friends brought Right Sharing of World Resources to the Friends World Gathering in Guilford in the 1960s.

Friends have been bandying around the cliche that you are the future of Quakerism. Well, maybe . . .

§ 7 Responses to Comments on PYM Annual Sessions

  • Bill Samuel says:

    I wonder if what PYM should do is to have a grassroots based consideration of how they would structure the YM, ignoring the current and past structures. Come up with a structure anew, and then prepare a transition plan to get from the current to the agreed upon. Doing it by chopping away at the current structure is likely to keep up opening wounds. It’s the normal way of doing business, but I doubt it’s a good one.

    Take it in logical progression. What should the YM do as a YM? How best would that be done? But it’s got to be grassroots and the process must not be controlled by those with a big stake in the current structure.

  • Mia says:

    Friend, I’m so sorry to hear about the pain that it seems you and others experienced at PYM sessions this year. I’m curious, however, about your comment about PYM needing to “divest itself of historically significant buildings”–can you say more about this?

    • What I meant was that, as income falls and expenses rise (and one of the largest areas of fixed cost are the costs of maintaining PYM’s three buildings), at some point—if there is no change—the Yearly Meeting will have to figure out what to do with the buildings that are so costly to maintain. This year’s budget originally called for closing the Yearly Meeting’s conference center in Burlington. I’m not sure of the details, but somehow, they found money to keep Burlington Center open.

      PYM will probably continue to lay staff off first, since staff are one of the other areas of rising fixed costs. But sooner or later, unless something radically changes, there won’t be any more staff to lay off either. That will take a while, I suspect, but the current course is not sustainable.

  • Thanks for the reflections, Steve. I’m taking a sabbatical from sessions for a period of at least two years. It isn’t just staff who have borne the brunt of being sidelined from what passes for “process.” One Friend in my local meeting wondered whether any of us have a voice in business sessions. Even the discernment of standing committees (Worship and Care) seem to be ignored, particularly the suggestion of a sabbatical.

    Prayer and fasting might do us a fair bit of good.

    I agree that my discomfiture needs to be set aside, and that we all need to work toward building what Friends can (and should) be. We may need to deconstruct our institutions for this to happen, though.

  • William F Rushby says:

    I come from a Quaker tradition where there are no “professional Friends” except in church schools, and their role in the yearly meetings has been of questionable value IMHO. I find it incredible that PYM has such a large professional bureaucracy, and wonder if cutting much of that bureaucracy may have some positive outcomes–a possibility you don’t appear to consider. What ever happened to non-hierarchical, non-clerical Quakerism?

    Yes, I know that people’s jobs are at stake, and being unemployed is tough. I have no solution for this problem. I’ve been there myself, so I can empathize. Unfortunately, people cannot be paid if there is no money to pay them!

    Perhaps PYM needs to divide into smaller yearly meetings, which could be more cohesive and more manageable, and where the members feel more of a sense of ownership.

    At the risk of offending yet further, I have read of a survey that found that 60% or so of PYM Friends do not believe in God. Could this be part of the problem of declining membership and contributions?

    In Christian concern,

    Bill Rushby

    • Dear Bill Rushby —

      I’m not sure of percentages, but this Friend in Philadelphia is an adult believer … Had there been a Church of the Brethren or Mennonite congregation where I went to college, my personal history might have been different… but instead I met Friends who insisted that I get over my misunderstanding of the languages others use to describe their experience of the Holy One.

      That said, I had a very difficult time coming up with a “statement of faith” recently — not because I do not believe, but simply because words fail…

      Then I was reminded of one of my mother’s favorite hymns “Great is Thy faithfulness” …

  • I understand that it was also young adult Friends that went to martyr’s deaths in Boston when colonial Massachusetts banned Quakers on pain of death.

    And it was young adult Friends that led the reunification of New York Yearly Meeting in the 1950s.

    I’m not sure of the median age of the Valiant Sixty; probably, like Jesus and His twelve disciples, they were mostly young adults.

    This doesn’t mean that old Friends can’t also take bold, Spirit-led initiatives; look at old Moses, old Gandhi and old Mother Teresa. But historically, we older folks have always depended on the young to look at things with fresh eyes and ask us why things have to keep being done the same old unexamined way.

    I’m praying for repentance and reconciliation within PYM and Quakerdom generally. This is Christ’s earthly Body and we can’t afford to wound It. It has too much important work to do.

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