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 [], 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. So we need to have an open conversation in our meetings about just how “covenantal” we want our meeting to be.

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§ 13 Responses to Accountability in Quaker Institutions

  • pablo1paz says:

    I find this article very clear and helpful with the concern under which i currently labor: eldership. Accountability is become something of a buzz-word in the last decade, but it is still an essential element of community life. That we are accountable reciprocally to each other cannot be lost in the discussion — which counters some of the concerns of Howard Brod. Yes, ideally we live in a state of the fruits of the Spirit, and we reach the Quaker idea of perfection; but we all know that we do not achieve this the day we first join meeting for worship or ever maintain it constantly. We need eldering… we need the encouragement, the kind hand helping us back up on the path, the reminder of the wisdom of our tradition, the questioning of our intention and choices. The delicate balance of recognizing those with the gifts to do it well and mindfully, from guidance in the Light, and then clearly demarcating when and how they are empowered to speak for the Meeting, is vital; not static or moribund.
    Perhaps others don’t recognize how many members we are already losing to both the affronts of those who act out their hurts on others in our communities and to those who for whatever ‘shoot from the hip’ feelings “elder” –actually criticize unwisely– others without any authority. I have seen it in my meeting in which one judgemental young man has driven many fine Quakers away because they do not believe that the appointed elders of the Comm. on Worship & Ministry can or do try to educate and improve his egregious behavior.
    I would appreciate people’s not taking this as an all-or-nothing issue. We do not want to return to the days of reading out for tiny missteps and disorderly walking, but we do need to know that Friends are mindful of what they say and do and the effects it has on others.

    • Howard Brod says:

      Yes, I do agree with other comments here, stating that Friends should be held accountable when behaving badly to other Friends, or when disrupting the meeting. I have seen this done lovingly in many meetings. And the authority to do so was a spiritual process that went through Quaker process – not the authority of a “leader”.

      I do believe that if our meetings cultivate a strong spiritual culture amongst Friends, the appropriate eldering will naturally occur when needed using Quaker process instead of human “leadership”.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, pablo. I agree. I helped develop a tool used for a while in New York Yearly Meeting called the Gospel Order Packet. For that project, I developed a couple of eldering tools, one of which mapped out some “triggers” for eldering action. One of them goes like this: as soon as you have lost one valuable Friend because of a member or attender who has driven them away, you might as well have lost the problem member. So when that first person withdraws from meeting, it’s time to do something—I’m not saying what, but some real action is called for.

      • pablo1paz says:

        Have been busy with many things – including getting my ministry recognized and preparing to travel in the ministry – one aspect being eldership.

        I agree with that criterion very much. What’s you no. 2?

  • Thanks Steven, I’m generally sympathetic to your message and have writen a proposal for renewal of Netherlands Yearly Meeting that in many respects echoes your ideas.
    I’m not sure that it is just about reversing the pendulum: times have changed also.
    The most relevant changes may be better average education and faster and wider ranging communication:
    – We can do without an ‘elite’ of elders to the extent that more people have individually developed gifts (because of that education) that previously were more scarce.
    – We can and should build communities globally using internet to be the ‘salt and light’ that today’s world needs.
    Eldership and accountability remain relevant concepts and structure and organisation remain essential, but the specific institutions will have to differ from those that were created in the 17th century.

    • Wim, I would be very interested to see the proposal you have developed. I have been working on a similar project off and on for some time, and I would love to see what you’re thinking. Please feel free, if you feel led, to contact me directly:

      In fact that goes for all of the people who have responded so positively to this post. I would like to continue all these conversations. (written 12/12/12).

  • Susanne Kromberg says:

    Steven, an excellent blog post that spoke to my condition. I have just written two blog posts from an experiential perspective about major failures of accountability in Meetings I have been in. Reading your historical explanation for how we got to be where we are is very helpful. Exploring new ways of practicing discipline and eldering sounds very inviting to me – there’s safety in that. With safety comes freedom to risk more, spiritually. Tell me where to sign up. 🙂

  • Thanks, Steven, for this thoughtful piece. Accountability is a good word for a necessary attribute within a community. I hope Friends can think about other ways this could look if thy suggestions are too unpalatable.

  • Lucy Duncan says:

    Dear Stevie,

    Thank you so much for this post. I appreciate Friend Howard’s response as well.

    To me it seems what is most important is structures of accountability that foster the collective nature of our faith – they do not need to be punitive structures, but clear pathways to a more centered faith. One young Friend recently said to me that other faith communities have ways to hold the cranky Friends who try to dominate our communities with loving accountability – they don’t tolerate the squeaky wheel getting all the grease. When the abusive or deeply wounded Friend is the voice that is most often heard, our collective voice becomes diminished. That’s not to say that structures for supporting these Friends = quiet, private ones – aren’t important, but without mechanisms for holding one another in loving community, in mutual responsibility, we will not thrive.

    It’s been interesting working at AFSC after having worked at FGC – AFSC has fully embraced strategic planning and accountability and our budgets are program based – we all write our plans for the coming year with clearly articulated outcomes and how much both human and other resouces they will take to accomplish and our budgets are created based on these – and based on what the strategic priorities of the organization are. That’s not to say our work isn’t deeply informed by grassroots listening and awareness – it is – but we are invited structurally to name our work and what the impact of that work will be. AFSC is a learning organization – we acknowledge that sometimes we won’t get it right in these plans – but that we will learn from what doesn’t work and apply it. Because we have these plans, we are able to be more responsive and nimble when other opportunities arise and can say – what is a higher priority the opportunity that has arisen because, say, Obama has made immigration a legislative priority – and what we will not do to make space for this new initiative. FGC seemed to have a much harder time focusing its efforts and making decisions between priorities – this may be changing under Barry’s leadership, I hope so. But focus for both organizations and meetings is critical in order to thrive – and having a strong sense of identity- who you are and who you are not.

    If that doesn’t exist, might as well be someone with a private spiritual practice rather than a collective one.

    I love what a friend said – that Quakerism is a faith one learns over time, and which must be practiced over time and the fruits of which are rich if one commits to the practice.

  • Howard Brod says:

    I believe the genie is out of he bottle, and what you are suggesting is not doable, nor even desirable. Many, if not most, religious groups are undergoing a decline due to the very structures you want to re-institute among Friends. Re-establishing these structures would just exacerbate our own decline.

    We would do better to “mind the Light” by cultivating a loving, spiritually-alive home within our meeting communities that concentrates on enhancing among us the fruits of the spirit expressed by the apostle Paul: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and moderation. These are the things an aching world is seeking.

    Cultivating more structure will send the rest of Friends running. The hold of organized religion in the western world is fast diminishing. In response, we need to offer what we are: barely organized religion that is there to assist – not burden and dominate. All we need to include is some “inspiration” by taking our spirituality out from under the “bushel basket” and letting it shine as a beacon to a seeking world.

    • george schafer says:

      Thanks, Steve for your article.

      I, too, recently described the loss of the function of elders among Liberal Friends as having thrown out the baby with the bathwater. And, I would agree that the pendulum is swinging back toward understanding how elders can help to nurture ministry and strengthen community. I have been studying the tradition of elders among Friends for years now and talking to Care Committee members who are “uncertainty as to their scope of activity and their authority” about how some of that tradition can be adapted to our present circumstances.

      I recently read an excerpt of the NYYM State of the YM Report in which they state that they recognize that many of their meetings struggle with conflict. It is a source of great pain among Friends in most meetings and YM’s. In my experience many meetings have forgotten how to address conflict and find unity. It is a discipline/process that we are famous for in the world but one which we seem to have forgotten how to do among ourselves.

      According to analysis of the recently reported decline of religious participation in the US, it is those religions that do not require/offer some personal spiritual engagement/accountability that are losing members most rapidly. Folks surveyed say that they feel disconnected to rituals and processes they are not invited to share in. So, it would seem that, yes the decline is attributable to alienation but the solution doesn’t seem to be less engagement. Actually, the people that are leaving organized religion identify themselves as spiritual but not religious (anymore).

      It has been my experience that many meetings suffer loss of membership because they do not know how to hold members accountable to the demands of community. Conflicts arise, as they always will and structures/supports/knowledge/wisdom/traditions that help communities cohere and find unity (and harmony) are just not there. So, people drift away from meeting.

      I think this is especially difficult for Friends because our central religious practice is group spiritual guidance. I believe that new forms of eldership/accountability can/will naturally evolve (in fact, they are!) out of our current struggle. And, thank you again for lifting up this important concern.

      George Schaefer

      • Thanks for adding your thoughts, George. I once read a terrific book called, I think, Paul the Convert, that looked at Paul’s theology from the point of view of the psychology and sociology of religious conversion. The author cited sociological studies that showed that the more you demanded from your parishoners, the more your congregation grew. I thought right away that this was a prophetic message for Friends, that we’re going the wrong direction when we ask less and less of our members, in an attempt to avoid driving them away.

        Many people are searching for a spirituality that actually delivers results and everybody knows that any spiritual discipline requires—well, discipline: hard work, a willingness to let go, and to make sacrifices on behalf of longer-term gains. “Narrow is the gate and hard is the way that leads into the kingdom of heaven”—is that how the quote goes? Something like that.

        I know that no few Friends agree with us about this. Our problem often is that individual meetings may lack a critical mass of members who have this view of Quakerism.

        But the Holy Spirit is moving among us, I feel sure. Our faith in direct communion with God and in continuing revelation leads us to believe this. But I experience it, as well. Your comment was another such experience.

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