Accountability in Quaker Institutions
December 2, 2012 § 13 Comments
A recent issue of Friends Journal is dedicated to Friends and Money. In a searching article titled “When Quaker Process Fails,” John M. Coleman looks at why so many Friends institutions are declining financially and have failed to respond creatively or effectively to the current recession. Friend Coleman uses the recent financial debacle in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting as a case for study in understanding these trends and failures, though, as he points out, the problems he identifies are widespread among Quaker institutions.
John Coleman also points out that we didn’t used to be this way. For centuries, Friends have been extremely competent at managing organizations and money. This only began to change in the early twentieth century. For the book that I’ve been writing on Quakers and Capitalism, I have looked at our relationship with money, taking the research up through the 1920 Conference of All-Friends in London, which is the point at which Friends began to move out of business and management. As a result, I have some ideas about why these changes took place, but they are tentative and not fully baked. Still, I’d like to suggest some possibilities.
Let me start by trying to clearly frame the question. John Coleman has done a great job of naming the problems:
- disregard of elementary principles of accountability,
- insensitivity to ethics,
- weak-to-nonexistent strategic planning and goal-setting,
- lack of realistic priorities,
- poor personnel practices,
- scant appreciation for expertise;
- unworkable organizational structures,
- lack of transparency,
- a failure to measure, and
- an unwillingness to look outside of Friends for models and ideas.
So that’s a broad sketch of the problems we face. Here’s the question: Why, after centuries of world-famous excellence in all these areas, have Friends become so inept? Why, especially, are we failing in areas like ethics and transparency, in which we pridefully maintain an apparently unwarranted self-esteem?
In later posts, I would like to look at a range of other causes for these failures, but what’s on my mind right now is the first one John Coleman names—the disregard for accountability. Many of the problems John Coleman names descend in part from this one.
In the late nineteenth century, Friends turned against the culture of eldership to which they had adhered since George Fox began “bringing gospel order” to meetings in the 1660s. Beginning in the mid-1800s, meetings began laying down the practice of recording elders. Soon after, we began laying down the practice of recording ministers. In doing so we abandoned the structures we had for holding each other accountable. We did this for some good reasons; they had become moribund, in some ways even toxically repressive, and change really was called for. But we threw out the baby with the bath water.
To replace recorded ministers and elders, we created committees for ministry and oversight or ministry and counsel and we staffed these committees with Friends named by nominating committees. By about the 1920s, I think, this process of abandoning recording and other aspects of our traditional culture of eldership was virtually complete, at least in the Liberal branch.
Gradually (maybe right away?), these committees suffered from uncertainty as to their scope of activity and their authority. In the decades since, these committees have come to consist of Friends who very often do have spiritual gifts in ministry and eldership that their nominating committees have recognized. But in my experience, they often now do not know the tradition well enough to understand, exercise, and transmit what is left of our shredded culture of eldership and I’m not sure they would try if they did know it. For one thing, they would likely face serious resistance from some in their meetings.
As a result, nowadays the roles and functions of eldering are haphazardly practiced by inexperienced Friends who do what they can at considerable personal risk. I speak primarily of dealing with problems and with problem people in our meetings and institutions, but even the more positive, nurturing role of elders is now left to chance, or to God, if you will. God does raise up elders among us, but our meetings are often quick to tear them down, or more likely, to let Friends who are allergic to discipline tear them down while we feel paralyzed to stop it.
Just as we turned away internally from the damage that a corrupt and ossified culture of eldership was doing to us, we increasingly embraced newcomers who were refugees from the religious cultures of their upbringing. Some of these people have been damaged by those communities. These Friends don’t just find that ‘eldership’ doesn’t work for them; they are scarred and often scared, and therefore hostile towards it. The treatment that has scarred these Friends almost always involved some kind of coercion. Thus, throughout the twentieth century our ranks have swelled with people who were not going to tolerate anything that looked like coercion in their new home among Friends. And because eldering or accountability of any kind looks suspiciously like coercion and therefore causes these Friends pain, their natural resistance to structures and processes of discipline reinforces the already-established trend of abandoning responsibility for eldership. As a result, we are systematically and systemically failing in our responsibility to protect our worship, our fellowship, and the corporate health of our meetings and institutions.
This includes failure to discipline those who do harm in the name of resisting discipline: we can not and do not hold these wounded Friends accountable for the damage that they themselves do. I know; I was one of those people. I caused a lot of trouble for a while in my meeting and the only person who ever really eldered me for it was the person I was harassing the most.
Part of the reason we have no accountability in our institutions is our practices of membership. I have discussed this in other posts. When we meet with prospective members, we often do not include agreements about mutual accountability in our discussions, especially regarding finances. We don’t think of membership as a covenant between member and meeting in which we exchange promises of mutual accountability for support and nurture. Thus we leave financial support of the meeting to chance, or rather, to individual choice surrounded by a culture of silence and avoidance. The result is that (if I am not mistaken) we are among the least generous of religious communities when it comes to members’ financial support.
I’m not sure what the solution is for this. This fear of coercion goes deep. This creedal commitment to radical individualism is now an established tenet of our faith. This wholesale abandonment of any culture of eldership is now a longstanding aspect of our practice. It will take a conscious choice and a sustained effort to reverse these trends in our culture. No realistic person looking at the problem from the outside would expect us to undertake such a far-reaching and difficult transformation.
But, as I’ve said in a recent post [https://throughtheflamingsword.wordpress.com/], we have done it 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 with structures and discipline. And two hundred years later, British Friends turned on a metaphorical dine (farthing?) and reversed a catastrophic decline in membership.
In the 1660s, the solution was more discipline, corporate efforts to prevent another James Naylor affair and to create a structure that could endure despite the catastrophic loss of leadership in England’s gaols. In the 1860s, however, British Friends relaxed discipline, saving themselves from self-destruction and helping to put us on the slightly slippery slope that has got us where we are today. In the 1870s and ‘80s in America, many Friends found renewal in the great transition to programmed worship and ultimately, professional ministry. In the 1960s, Liberal Friends rode the currents of cultural revolution away from discipline again.
It’s time for the pendulum to swing again.
- We need to recover, study, evaluate, adopt, and adapt what’s left of our ancient culture of eldership and experiment with new forms of discipline that work for us. This calls for a Society-wide commitment to religious education.
- We can pray for spirit-led ministry: vocal ministry in our meetings that begins to open eyes and minds and hearts and doors; written ministry that teaches, preaches, and proposes; and ‘workshop’ ministry that engages Friends in hands-on experience with the faith and practice of eldership.
- And we need to rethink our approach to the membership process. We need to discuss eldership with prospective members, to ask them how far they are willing to engage with the meeting in mutual accountability; we need to establish whether they think of discipline as an essential aspect of religious life. This assumes, of course, that the meeting is itself willing to engage, that it believes that discipline is an essential aspect of religious life. Not many do, in my experience.
- So we need to have an open conversation in our meetings about just how “covenantal” we want our meeting to be.