Crisis and Leadership

November 4, 2012 § 12 Comments

I believe modern Liberal Quakerism is in crisis. What little I know about the programmed branch in the United States suggests that they are, too. Our numbers are declining. Our meetings and institutions are facing severe declines in financial support resulting from this decline in membership, the relocation of older, stalwart supporters into retirement communities, and rampant niggardliness among those who remain. Many meetings lack vital vocal ministry, the energy and people to host first day schools that would attract and keep young families, and elders who know enough of the tradition to guide their meetings and pass it on.

But this is not the first time we have faced serious challenges like these and we have turned ourselves around in the past. The problems we face today are nothing compared to the challenges Friends overcame in the 1660s and ‘70s when we first established gospel order as a way to reign in ranters among us and protect us from the depredations of official persecution.

Two hundred years later, British Friends faced with unQuakerly speed a steady and disastrous decline in membership not unlike our own, laying down the practices of disowning members who married out of meeting in 1859 and making plain dress and speech optional in 1860, coming to both decisions within only three years of their first proposal. They then went on to completely revise the book of discipline, kicked in the pants by the publication of John Stephenson Rowntree’s Quakerism Past and Present, the winning essay in a competition for an account of the causes of Quaker decline.

The common factors in both these revivals are crisis and leadership. Things were really bad and everybody knew it, and then divinely inspired Friends stepped forward with solutions. The community was then gathered into unity around changes that had seemed unthinkable just a handful of years before and now suddenly seemed obvious.

So we have the crisis. Where are the leaders?

Right here: Jon Watts: Support a Minister. Sell Your Meeting House. ( And here: Ashley Wilcox: The Cost of Traveling Ministry. And here: Micah Bales: Get a Job, Minister! And here: Maggie Harrison: Clothe Yourself in Righteousness.

These emerging ministers are all young adults. Just as John Stephenson Rowntree was a young adult when he wrote that pamphlet that turned London Yearly Meeting back from the abyss in 1859. And they are not alone. As Jon Watts says in his blog, he grew up with a whole coterie of inspired young people in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, but their seed feel among the birds, and the stones, and the weeds, and the dry ground of our meetings. Even so, there are still more beyond this little but vital list. I just met another—Vonn New—last week.

I appeal to my readers: Read these blogs! Read these pamphlets! Listen to this music! Bring them to your meetings. Do what you can to support them.

I believe these young people have answers. Not the answer, necessarily, but spirit-led ideas nevertheless. I believe a tidal wave of truth is sweeping through Quakerism carried in the voices of young Friends who have been touched by the Holy Spirit. This is what they really have: the Holy Spirit.

Thank God.

§ 12 Responses to Crisis and Leadership

  • Its like you read my mind! You appear to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something.
    I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is fantastic blog.

    A fantastic read. I’ll certainly be back.

  • ag says:

    Hi Steven! Thanks a lot for this post. I think acknowledging that there is a problem and not falling back on “Well, Quakerism isn’t for everyone” to explain why our liberal meetings are overwhelmingly White, able-bodied, extremely well educated, Democratic, upper-middle and upper-class places. I will say that not every leader has a blog or a public ministry. There are many Friends – of all ages – doing tremendous things to strengthen their meetings, follow Christ and model faithful community in their meetings. I think one think that the younger generation of public Friends has done is provide visibility and a way of connecting. But there are many people who are responding to, and encouraging others to respond to, the movement of the Spirit in our Society

  • Jim Schultz says:

    Maybe a little more openess about the Holy Spirit and his/her role is in order?
    Luk_11:13 If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?
    Act 1:8 But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
    How about Adult Discussions on the “gifts of the spirit” as well as the “fruit of the spirit”. Too many times we act as if we get the fruit of the spirit by magic instead of discipline and practice and our lack of knowledge of the gifts of the spirit lead to misunderstandings of spirituality.

  • mkissil4 says:

    John Edminster speaks my mind. As a slightly-older-than-a-young-Friend-but-not-quite-over-the-hill-yet-thank-thee-very-much member of my yearly meeting, I look forward to being a part of the change that is coming. But I feel uncomfortable and increasingly resentful of the “if you are not part of the youth contingent you are part of the problem” mentality that at times seems to pervade.

  • Stephen McKernon says:

    Hi Steven,

    I cannot dispute the facts as you present them, but I’m less sure about the ‘crisis’. Perhaps I’m more sanguine about the current state of Quakerism. Or perhaps as a newer Quaker I’ve seen less of its effects and so can be more (naively) optimistic.

    To me, much of the decline is brought on by an ageing population and by the end – perhaps – of a Post-War generation overly and overtly devoted to consumerism. Even in their differences, perhaps the Quakers have not been immune to a social context marked by the ravages of wealth and complacency. Perhaps there is a crisis of old and new leadership, but perhaps too it features a natural inter-generational shift from one worldview to another.

    With you I would also wonder if and hope that this is a time of transition. I’d love more freshness and a new sense of challenge within my Quaker community. Personally, I’d especially love some frank discussion about problems, weaknesses, failures, challenges, and new directions. If one result is conflicts (I use that word knowingly) within the Quaker community, then these need to be marked out as important and valued experiences. To risk triteness, we can’t be the change we want in the world without being really good at change ourselves.

    In my limited experience of Quakers (a few years in New Zealand), much of what we value is also valued by non-Quakers who are liberal in their politics, green in their lifestyles, sustainability-focused in their professions and/ or future-oriented in their thinking. It’s not that hard to be a Quaker today.

    It’s easy for me to mix up the casual features of a change with its causes in the Quaker community. So I’m unclear whether we Quakers really are in decline, or whether the world (or some of its sub-cultures in the West) has caught up with Quakerism-as-it-has-been-to-date. Maybe it’s time to partner with non-Quakers to make differences?

    Along these lines what bothers me most is the sense that my Quaker identity is shored up by a peculiar spirituality (I’m of the ‘unprogrammed’ variant), and not much else. Many of my friends would be better Friends than I am, judging by lifestyle alone. And my non-Friend wife even more so : – ). What’s left is my strange habit of seeking the light in silence, alone and with others.

    I find seeking the light in silence both difficult to do and discomforting in its effects. It brings me experiences of difference (in feeling, views, sense of rightness, sensitivity) that are hard to reconcile with how I want to be. It means I notice new things, brings tensions and conflicts I don’t want to have, and pushes me towards being different/ making space for difference in the world (in my own peculiar way). It is also a source of deep joy, excitement, belonging and creativity, and this too can be very disconcerting when it’s running strong. I find being a Quaker very … messy …

    So a summary of sorts. Yes, things might look bad for us. And yes, we can’t know what course our spirituality will take or what it will bring forth for ourselves, for others, or with others.

    And isn’t that the point: unlike most other religions, we really just don’t know where this leads, and so we work with what we’ve got and what’s there?

  • Michael D says:

    As someone who had Friends like Jon Watts as camp counselors and friends in the BYM YF program and as someone who, in his (admittedly early) later years has returned to that program as a Friendly Adult Presence, I know this much is true:

    I am a product of the Quaker communities I was brought up in, namely, the BYM camp program, BYM YF (and YAF), and Baltimore Monthly Meeting, Stony Run. I know of the traditions represented by Friends like Micah Bales (someone else I count among my friends). But I’m not one who adheres to them because growing up I was being taught one thing in First Day school but practicing something else with my peers. That “something else” turned out to be a fervent belief in “being Quaker.” But it wasn’t actually Quakerism itself, at least, not the radical Quakerism put forth by Friends like Jon and Maggie. I guess it’s the “bookish conviction” mentioned above.

    My point is that Jon, Maggie, Micah, Rachel Stacy (not mentioned, see here:, and others are truly needed to guide and reinvigorate Friends both liberal and evangelical. Not all of the youth are so inspired or so able to bring about change. Not all of us are the seeds needed to make our communities grow.

    • I understand completely, Michael. I am not that seed, either, I don’t think. But we both have roles to play. My approach is to listen for my own Guide and then try to be faithful to what I AM led to do. For me, that’s mostly written ministry, like this blog.

  • Ashley W says:

    Thanks for the support, Steven!

  • The Holy Spirit is no respecter of youth or age, however, and I hope that older Friends will not be discouraged by this blog posting from doing the works of leadership if the Spirit raises them up on their weary old bones to contribute their own fresh new visions, energies and other resources. These resources sometimes include the reckless courage of white-haired folks who know they don’t have that many years left to bear their precious witness to a needy world.

    Jesus may have been a thirty-something, but Moses was an eighty-something. And Steve, I think of thee as one of these new leaders, and thee looks to be about my age. We’re getting up there.

  • Brian Ackroyd says:

    I recently read a briliant study of George Fox and early Quakers, called New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism by Richard Bailey, published in 1992. It highlighted a lot of Fox’s behaviour but above all it showed how committed the early Quakers were. They were not Christian, they were Quakers and deeply committed, but dreadfully treated and persecuted. Their main persecutors were so called Christians who lived by the Book
    Our crisis is reflected in my own feelings and I too feel dissatisfied with present day Quakers, simply because they don’t seem deeply committed to Quakerism, as embodied in George Fox and his behaviour. It has moved away from experience to a more bookish conviction. So sad.

    • I read Bailey’s book and was very impressed with it also. In fact I blogged about it here a couple of times.

      About the conviction, though. I know I don’t have it. It would be very hard for me to let a leading totally dirsupt my life, partly because it’s not just my life. I’m married to a non-Quaker and even if she were a Friend, she would not necessarily be willing to see me disrupt our life beyond a certain point.

      I think about this all the time, and think of the rich young man in the gospels who was not willing to sell everything he had to join Jesus because we was rich and deeply embedded in the life he had. I’m rich (relatively speaking) too, and deeply embedded.

      All I can do in my potential unfaithfulness is try to be faithful to the leadings I do have, which have not yet asked this much of me and pray perversely that nothing much bigger comes along. Now that is sad. But it’s where I am, and where very many of us are.

      So as much as I yearn for and applaud the spirit that is driving the young people I link to in this blog, I also try to have compoassion for those of us they have to try to wake from our lukewarmness.

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