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.

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§ 17 Responses to On Clearness Committees for Membership

  • Mary LaPorte says:

    I came on this recently and it led to serious reflection. I have been active in my local Meeting for almost forty years. My family had early
    connections to Quakers, and I felt a strong commitment t from the very beginning of my association with an active meeting. However, the more I read and sought discernment, the more I came to the realization that in my spiritual practice I did not see the need for a formalization for membership through a clearness committee. My Meeting has strict rules regarding who may be members of Ministry and Worship and who may serve as Clerk. I have been asked many times to take steps towards membership. I am extremely active and financially supportive of my Meeting. I just do not accept the thinking that I must become a member to be a “true” Quaker. It seems to fly in the face of the original messages to George Fox and other early Quakers. My early Quaker ancestors suffered for their beliefs long before the Society became more regulated and no one would deny them their identities as true Friends. I just have consistently and quietly regarded myself as a Friend for most of my adult life.

    • Howard Brod says:

      Hi Mary, I was so inspired to read your reply to Steven’s post. I wanted to let you know that 15 years ago my meeting in Midlothian VA went on a three year discernment journey regarding recorded membership that has changed our meeting into a wholly spiritual place. It was the beginning of looking at everything at our meeting from a purely spiritual perspective, rather than a human (ego) organizational perspective. We continue on a deeper spiritual journey together regarding everything we do as a community grounded in the Spirit. Here’s some highlights from our discernment together regarding membership:

      – Desiring to be recorded as a member is a personal decision springing from an internal need for recorded membership in order to enhance one’s spiritual journey.

      – Yet recorded membership is not necessary for one to have a fulfilling experience as a Quaker. Non-recorded membership should be as meaningful as recorded membership.

      – Therefore, Midlothian Friends Meeting is determined NOT to make any distinction between recorded members and non-recorded members (who are labeled as “attenders” by most Quaker meetings). Non-recorded members are encouraged to function fully (just as recorded members) in the life of the meeting. At present non-recorded members at Midlothian Friends Meeting serve as the clerk of the monthly meeting, the assistant clerk of the monthly meeting, clerk of the pastoral care committee, as three of the seven Trustees, and on and on. The meeting has noted that non-recorded members are as committed (and often more committed) to the meeting as are recorded members. We’ve seen no difference between recorded and non-recorded members during this fifteen year experiment that has become our way of spiritual life. So much so, that we no longer use the term “attender” to describe non-recorded members, because the term does a disservice to an understanding of their commitment to our meeting.

      – Our Clearness Committees for Friends seeking recorded membership are forbidden to pass judgement of any kind on the validity of someone’s wish to become a recorded member. They interact with the Friend just as they would in any other type of Clearness committee meeting. They only ask open-ended questions to help the Friend determine in their own heart if they indeed want to have their membership recorded in a more formal manner. And, of course, in keeping with our discernment some 15 years ago, Clearness committees for membership are made up of both recorded and non-recorded members. When the recorded membership is brought to Meeting for Business for approval, it is the process used that is approved to ensure no judgement was given by the committee regarding the membership. The Friends membership itself is NOT approved, since the approval has already occurred in the Friend’s heart.

      – After 15 years of intentionally rejecting recorded membership as a barometer for determining one’s dedication to and participation in Quakerism, our meeting is now made up of mostly non-recorded members (or as most Quaker meetings would label, “attenders”); likely 80% are non-recorded members.

      – Associate membership (recorded membership for minors) was abolished so that the meeting would practice equality more fully by recognizing minors as spiritual beings equal to adults.

      – This initial 15 year old effort to launch our meeting into a more egalitarian spiritual community has led us to do similarly in all the structures surrounding the operation of our meeting. We have simplified all the formalities we procedurally and culturally had. We have embraced the testimony of Simplicity for the operation of our meeting, instead just embracing it for our personal lives outside the meetinghouse. It is the overbuilt operational structure of most Quaker meetings that is choking the life out of them and chasing people away.

      I encourage all Friends reading this to start talking about such a spiritual journey for their own Quaker meeting, so that the Spirit is able to flow freely among Friends without all the human constraints we have amassed over the centuries. You will be amazed at the increase of spirituality that will blossom within your meeting.

      • Bill Samuel says:

        So sad. This is what happens when individualism runs amuck. Early Friends must be turning in their graves. I’m so happy I left Friends. Most of what I hear about Friends is disturbing.

  • […] Finally, membership—arguably the most important aspect of Quaker community, and yet one about which we are perennially confused and even dysfunctional. I have written about this before (Membership, and On Clearness Committees for Membership). […]

  • Emily says:

    Peter, I think eldering is very important, and I sensed that Bill Samuel thought that as well. It seemed to me you were suggesting that a one time covenant could replace ongoing eldering.
    A covenant is a beautiful idea, and in theory we should all live by a covenant of love with one another, but a covenant can’t solve the host of problems involved in Friends’ meetings that your blog brings up.
    I fear we’ve forgotten the importance of eldering. But eldering does not mean scolding another for their beliefs; it means correcting wrong behavior. Eldering for rudely demanding that others adhere to your First Day School ideas is right, but that’s not eldering for expressing a belief that maybe something beyond Christian teaching might be useful for First Day School.
    I myself had a very rich religious education about all religions through Unitarianism, where I developed a wonderful respect for most religious teachers, from Moses to Jesus to Buddha to Mohammed. I wish Quakers had similar training, and I do feel I’ve been heard when I’ve expressed that belief, though I’ve also been told there were some that felt only Christianity should be taught.
    I think we should all be ready to do more eldering, and to listen to eldering, rather than reacting defensively, either by not talking or talking too much. I’m not sure I know how to elder effectively, but I do think more of us should try. Maybe we need ongoing workshops in eldering. Better eldering might also mean we could become better Quaker examples–a rabbi friend of mine once asked me why Quakers were so arrogant. I told him it’s because we’re all at different stages of spiritual development, we haven’t all realized the truth–this suggests we all need more eldering.
    Perhaps we need more education–which is basically how Quakers revitalized themselves at the end of the 19th century. But education isn’t a covenant.
    I fear that too many Quakers now focus on the sociopolitical sphere rather than the spiritual sphere as the source of our Quaker identity, and forget that we’re a source of spiritual truth, not a socialist meeting ground.
    Putting together some covenant on the Christianity of Quakerism wouldn’t work, also as this is where Friends have so often split, over demand for theological uniformity. This happened with Isaac Hicks (who wasn’t averse to the Bible at all, it was just interpreted that way by those opposed to his ministry). It’s not what happened with Isaac Crewdson, who was scolded for his behavior, for evangelizing for such long periods that the Manchester meeting had no time left for silent contemplation. He refused to stop, and only then was he told to retract his rather polemical “Beacon” piece–which was directed not against the moderate Quakers in England, but rather against Hicksites in America. It was then he resigned.
    We have problems, as RadicalProgress wrote, with respecting the very real differences among us, while as SeekerQuaker pointed out, we don’t want to upset each other, whatever our differences. We want to simultaneously proclaim our differences and rest in our sameness. As the Chinese philosopher Chuangtzu wrote, we all want to stand out in the crowd. That is not as important as what he calls “crowding the crowd,” trying to persuade others to move virtuously. Which, again, involves eldering.
    Perhaps we have here a real problem also resolving the two major Quaker identities–the Quaker listener identity and the Quaker speak truth to power identity. We speak truth to power when we might do better to listen to the perspectives of others. We are opting for the Saul Alinsky approach, of confronting our enemy (the attitude of early Friends), rather than trying the Mahatma Gandhi approach of satyagraha, trying to find common ground with the enemy, which is more in line with our peace testimony. The two approaches cannot mix. Again, we might benefit from more eldering here.
    What we need to remember always–and I see this in all religions–is that within us is a still small voice, of God or or Christ or of the light or of the seed, however it’s expressed. Today Quakers around the world seek that light very differently–a Polish Quaker website proclaims its workshop on paganism, while evangelical Quakers opt for a Jesus saves approach. We have to respect all those differences. I agree with the authors of Reasonable Faith, the piece written in 1881 which rocked the London Meeting, that the Bible is a series of revelations, rather than one, and that the Bible is only one source of that truth, not the only one. Marjorie Sykes, in Quakerism in India, bemoaned how so many missionaries tried to force Indians into accepting their version of Jesus, instead of realizing that Indian philosophy possessed enough similarities to Quaker philosophy and to Jesus’ teaching that Indians could easily have received the Quaker gospel, while their social structure precluded them from converting to Christianity in the way that many missionaries perceived necessary to find the truth. While many Indian revolutionaries revered Jesus, they resented those missionaries who said this is the only way you cam accept him; in effect, they forgot that Jesus did not say, “go forth and convert;” he said, “go forth and teach.”
    Smaller meetings often are better, too, as treegesalt pointed out. The original meetings in London, were huge, rowdy affairs, from which individuals who seemed capable of reaching greater spiritual truth were invited to attend smaller meetings at people’s homes throughout the City. We don’t have these by invitation only these days, but I have always found the smaller meetings to be more congenial, with more opportunities for growth.
    Regarding membership, one of the British websites some time ago proposed that we change the process of membership to asking people to become members, and that members would become part of the larger meeting. I don’t have the link anymore, but it did seem like a good idea. Being held to a covenant at the time one
    applies for membership is not the answer.

  • Howard Brod says:

    I think your meeting handled your views absolutely perfectly during your membership clearness process, and during the ensuing years. They have allowed the Spirit, the Christ within, to “elder” you in IT’S own good time. I hope you come to appreciate the faith and trust they placed on the power of Quaker worship to change a person over time, and their willingness to get out of the way to allow the work of the Spirit to proceed.

    • Do you feel, then, that the meeting has no responsibility for eldership at all, that faith in the Spirit to act in its own time is all that is required? And what if I had begun to drive Friends from the meeting with my behavior, as I have often seen happen? Is that, too, the will of the Spirit?

      • Howard Brod says:

        The meeting community certainly has a responsibility to encourage love and respect within the meeting. Such an environment is where the Spirit can be manifested in our physical world. If someone left because of your expressed views, who is it that needs “eldering”? You or them? You need to also be respected for where you are at any given time. If you attacked and belittled someone for their views, that’s certainly not very loving. In the Quaker tradition at its best, our individual notions should not divide us from the unifying force of love. Perhaps along the way you were informally eldered by loving Friends who helped you to re-think your approach to others over time through a number of little, undramatic conversations. If this happened for you, then you were eldered by the Spirit in its time with a power that changed your heart. I think the Spirit acts more often in small steps to bring us to a better place of love. It’s better when human egos don’t have to get involved if at all possible.

  • Bill Samuel says:

    The problem is well illustrated in some of the comments. Steven, I would suggest you not waste your energy in trying to convert a meeting into your vision of Quakerism. It matters really not at all that this vision may be much more faithful to the tradition. It took me a long time to realize that this was not appropriate.

    What is appropriate is getting out. That could be to a small fellowship which is Quaker oriented, another church which is more compatible with your Quaker understanding, or something else. But it is very frustrating for both you and the meeting with which you labor to try to change it, and it is unlikely to make it into a fellowship that is faithful to the historic Quaker vision.

    • You don’t have to read my comments quite so harshly. I can affirm the work of helping Friends get beyond their woundedness to wholeness. There are lots of Christian churches out there who do good work healing wounded people. Quaker meetings can do this work. as well.

      However, non-Christians are a harassed minority in this society and Quakers, as dissenting peace-makers descended from Christians, can play an important role in getting people beyond the biases and reactiveness that we all struggle with at some level.

      Most of my friends and family are Christians and my brother, a Pentecostal preacher, barely speaks to me and considers me a hopeless infidel. That is painful. I didn’t choose to become a nontheist, it evolved gradually. If I could go back, I really would, but that wouldn’t be honest.

      I began to get over my reactive period after I left the church with the help of liberal Friends in FGC, both Christian and non-Christian who modeled generous acceptance of everyone. As for a covenanting body that seeks to be divine agents, that is possible even for liberal meetings. We may not put “Jesus” all over our meeting houses, but the spirit of Love can accomplish great things.

  • Ben says:

    Dang friend.

    Simply put, there are christians who just do it and there are christians who must push it.
    If you have to be pushy christian, there are plenty of places for you to work that out besides meeting.
    You don’t need to push kids in meeting especially.
    It pushes them away.

  • Steve, I expect we are in similar places, though I have to do the obvious flip to this, what about (usuall7y Christians) Quakers who harass nontheists or pagans and try to get them excluded from membership or committee work? It has actually happened to me and others. Christians can be wounded and self-righteous, as much as wounded ex-Christians, or even non-Christians.

    The overarching issue is that our society is pathologically hostile to difference and tries to demand conformity, which means that the majority viewpoint is privileged. In the case of religion in America, Christianity is privileged.

    I’m not saying people who are hostile to Christianity get a pass, but transfer this problem onto racism and you get an idea of the inequity of asking non-Christians to learn tolerance and patience for Christians but not asking it of Christians for non-Christians.

  • Bill Samuel says:

    There could be an issue here of locking the barn door after the horse is gone. After a meeting has been admitting people into membership for decades often with no clear vision of what the meeting stands for, so that it has members with very different visions accepted, how would a meeting get back to a situation where there was a shared vision? It would require a shared vision for the accountability to make sense.

    Once you have come to the place where there are not terrible compatible visions in a meeting, even a careful process of meeting discernment about the call for the meeting has little chance of coming to a meaningful agreement. They might agree to some statement, but the likelihood is that it will be so vague and general as not to be really useful. This is due to the need to be inclusive of everyone who has been already accepted into the meting.

    Some Friends may resist even the idea of a meeting vision or mission statement. Partly this may be because they assume it would be doctrinal. But it need not read like a doctrinal statement. My current church has a vision statement which is not at all like a doctrinal statement, and it does not have a statement of faith or other doctrinal statement for members to agree to. But it is centered around being followers of Jesus Christ, which would get many Friends’ hackles up. Doctrinally oriented Christians may not think what our church does is adequate, but it in fact serves as the center of everything we do, including commitments to membership.

  • seekerquaker says:

    I have been trying to develop a blog post entitled “Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell.” which would address at least some of the same concerns as you share here. It seems that we fail to ask about “Where are You?” the first question in the Bible asking about our relationship with God. In my opinion, we also fail to ask “Where is your brother?” (one of the earliest questions in the Bible) with respect to our other relationships. We tend to assume that if one fits into certain special interest groups in the Meeting then they are “in.”

    We also “Don’t Tell” what we expect or what we believe for “fear” that we might upset the person. We don’t tell First Day School teachers that we need Bible stories and Quaker History taught and provide the support necessary, because that might upset some people even if the great majority of members would agree that these topics should be addressed. Thus our First Day Schools become times for “socialization” and making everybody feel happy.

  • treegestalt says:

    If the Meetings we have are largely unsatisfactory– and I think they are– the membership process is no longer the key element for moving out of the situation it’s brought us into.

    This is because what we are doing– meeting in large groups and hoping to recruit people into the existing structure– is suited best to perpetuating that structure; visitors who don’t find nourishment there simply move on.

    “Membership” is useful for keeping the organization going; it does not promote worship. In the earliest Meetings, the issue was not “Who’s a ‘member’?” but “Who’s acting too weird and might need to be ‘disowned’?”

    That is, Friends grew better under less control… Samuel Bownas, returning to England and finding things unexpectedly ‘dead’ in some Meetings there, found more life in places where outsiders felt free to come & go.

    Tiny worship groups. Not necessarily Sundays, not necessarily mornings. Loosely attached to largerly, more organized ‘Meetings’. I’ve felt like trying this for awhile now, and events are (at the moment) leading me in that direction. It’s a change. I do think we need to link to larger bodies occasionally– but that’s where all the organizational “Stuff” starts intruding again….
    Nobody’s “a Christian” by any of the various definitions, certainly not Jesus! But can you know what’s true, the same way he was able to, from inside?

    • Howard Brod says:

      For many Quaker meetings, being a member may hold significance for the individual Friend, while no longer holding much significance for the meeting community as a whole. Formal membership if used as a qualification to be on a committee or even clerk of meeting, can indeed kill the work of the Spirit among us. We are not a club. We are a spiritual society that bows to the work of the Spirit. Our two distinguishing practices of unprogrammed worship and decision-making via the unified sense of the meeting, ensure that the Spirit can move about and within us. I contend we don’t need any other qualifications.

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