On Clearness Committees for Membership
March 27, 2012 § 17 Comments
A note to my readers:
I’ve been away from this blog for quite some time while I focused on other writing. But I’m back. I still may not post as often as I used to because I’m still really engaged with these other projects, but I have a little more time these days and I do expect to post every few days or so. Thanks to those of you who have continued to check in now and then. ~ Steven
Now, on membership:
Some of the articles in the April issue of Friends Journal on membership got me thinking again about the central role that the faith and especially the practice of membership play in driving and directing the trends of change in the Quaker tradition. As a community we are whom we admit into membership and we become what these Friends want from their religious life. (Of course, this is true only so far as most of our members come to us through convincement rather than by being born to us through ‘birthright.’ And we also should acknowledge the significant contributions of our attenders in this regard, who often make up a sizable portion of our meetings and often stay attenders for a long time rather than applying for membership. As a result, they end up becoming ersatz members, reflecting and reinforcing the fact that we have become very unclear (and apparently unattractive) about what membership means, what it offers and what it entails—we have given them no good reason to become members.)
Over time the influx of new Friends has brought to us many of the trends and issues that preoccupy our attention. Christ-centered versus universalist, confessional faith versus a faith defined as seeking, nontheism, Quaker ‘paganism’ and forms of women’s spirituality, abortion and other gender issues, concerns about homosexuality, same sex marriage and sexuality in general, intolerance of each other’s beliefs, the apparent dilution of spiritual vitality in many of our meetings—all these have their roots to some degree in the minds and emotions and expectations of the people we have admitted to membership.
My own experience serves as a good example. When I first joined Friends, I applied to a meeting in which I already had very close friends and they were very happy to have me. My clearness committee was anything but perfunctory, however; we all took the process very seriously, and I came with baggage that really needed to be dealt with. I was hostile to Christianity and the Bible (though I had been a zealous member of my Lutheran church as a youth and dove with relish into Bible study during confirmation class) and I told my committee so. They saw this as no impediment and soon I was a member.
Soon I was harassing Friends who brought us Christian and biblical vocal ministry. I objected to Bible lessons in First-day School. I expressed my hostility. No one eldered me. Years passed. Then I went to Pendle Hill intending to begin research for a book on earth stewardship that involved intense Bible study. This study rekindled my love for the Bible and, in short time, this renewed enthusiasm overwhelmed my hostility. I’ve never stopped studying scripture since and have been writing two books that amount to biblical eco-theology. I still am not a Christian by any of the definitions that I use, but I have learned respect for my tradition. So my meeting got lucky—I changed on my own.
But I might not have. I could have continued to hurt people and damage our fellowship. I could have continued to quench the spirit in other Friends and damage my meeting’s worship. I could have continued to reinforce the liberal shift away from our traditional Christian and biblical roots. This troubles me.
The doorway to all this damage and all the trends I’ve mentioned is the clearness process for membership and the attitudes and the expectations we bring to it. Because of my own experience, I have felt for some time a call to a ministry focused on recovering our traditions and on taking greater responsibility for the direction our movement is taking. That means taking a close look at how we approach membership.
Here’s what I think my clearness committee should have done in my case: Accept my application, certainly. I am not talking about excluding people by applying some kind of creed. But I wish they had probed my woundedness enough to anticipate more clearly my possible behavior and its consequences. Then, most importantly, I wish they had asked (really, I mean required) that I labor with them to overcome my negativity. I wish that they had reminded me that my behavior affects real people and put me on notice that the meeting would protect its fellowship and its worship—that I would be held accountable for my behavior. I would like to believe that I would have snapped to right then and there if they had made this request/demand.
Here’s the crux—the cross, really—of what I’m saying: I am proposing that our meetings consider membership as a commitment to covenant, a mutually binding agreement, an agreement in which, as applicants, one of the things we are asking for is help with our spiritual development through both nurture and loving correction if we “step through the traces”; a willingness to actively engage each other in the sacred work of discipleship, by which I mean the individual and corporate discipline that leads to greater faithfulness. For its part, the meeting would promise to nurture each member’s spiritual life and to lovingly but confidently labor with members when they threaten either the meeting’s worship or its fellowship. For this kind of eldering is, truly, a form of spiritual nurture.
Most meetings will resist this. ‘Discipline’ is a four-letter word among us now. Many of us have found our home here as refugees fleeing hurtful intrusion into our lives by a religious institution. The last thing such Friends want is similar intrusion from their meeting. Our liberality, our self-identification as a “do it yourself religion,” our desire to be nice, our position as a haven for these refugees, all these cultural traits make Quaker meetings very reluctant to build a meaningful culture of eldership. And our desire to welcome good people into our (dwindling) fold makes us loathe to do anything in the membership process that might scare applicants off. I would have welcomed this kind of engagement myself; I have always felt covenant was essential to my spiritual life. But, yes, some applicants would be scared off and many others would become wary; and rightfully so.
So we should at least probe our applicants deeply enough to find out what they want from us in terms of spiritual nurture, including eldering—how far are they willing to let us go? Just raising the question will be useful. Meanwhile, meetings need to examine themselves to see whether they are clear to provide such nurture and eldering. Clearness for membership is a two way process of discernment: are we clear to accept the applicant as a member, and are we clear as a meeting that we can answer their spiritual needs? Very often, our applicants won’t really know what they want. If we are going to help them find out, then we need to know what we want as a meeting, and who we are.
If we do not clarify what we want from our members, if we do not consider the consequences of inattention and reticence in our clearness committees, then we relinquish any chance of discerning the future of our tradition, of furthering our tradition rather than gradually and thoughtlessly abandoning it over time. We relinquish any chance of choosing the course of our history and we thus relegate our fate to arbitrary forces that are mostly invisible to us until we reap the consequences. Bereft of a vital culture of eldership, such a rudderless ship will inevitably founder on the shoals of the world’s values.
Most important, by not asking for more from our members, we fail them in their search for spiritual fulfillment. Presumably, this is one of the reasons people join, that they believe the Quaker community will give them the environment they need to enrich their inner lives. They hope to find God among us, whatever that might mean to them. They join—and then we often leave them to their own resources after all.
Finally, as sociological studies of religious communities have repeatedly shown, asking more from your members actually attracts people and grows membership. A community that really knows what it is about shines like a light on a hill. A wishy-washy community with no clear definition or boundaries hopes that people will somehow find their way to its doors by their own perseverance in navigating the world’s spiritual labyrinths.
So this new approach to membership requires that our meetings search themselves more deeply to discern what, in fact, they are about. What do we have to offer new members besides opportunities to serve on committees, community with good people, and an hour a week of relatively peaceful silence and heartfelt sharing? How can we offer them experience of the Divine in ways that nurture their souls?
I am trying here to define the mission of a Quaker meeting and the meaning of Quaker membership. Our mission is to serve as God’s agents in furthering our members’ spiritual lives. Membership is entering that covenant, the mutual agreement that working together to nurture each other in the Spirit is what we are all about.