What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Doing G*d’s Work

January 10, 2014 § 5 Comments

[Reminder: I use the asterisk in the middle of G*d to stand in for whatever your experience of God is.]

Note: I have more to say about Fellowship as the mission of the Quaker meeting, but I want to do a little research first, so I am going on to the meeting for business in worship and will return to Fellowship in a subsequent post.

When I asked one of my grown sons a while back why, after being raised a Quaker, he has not continued, he answered, “Because meeting for worship is a bunch of blowhards saying the same things every week and meeting for business is about things that don’t really matter.” Something like that.

I think there’s probably more to it than that. And I think he might have a rather different experience of meeting for worship if he went to some other nearby meetings. But I doubt that the meeting for business would be different.

I once statistically analyzed the business of a yearly meeting over a year, as recorded in its minutes. The vast majority of that business was irrelevant to the kingdom of G*d *. Only three pieces of business out of some 120 minutes came to the Yearly Meeting floor in gospel order, that is, originating in a local meeting and passing on through a regional meeting to the yearly meeting because that was the appropriate body for it; and one of these items was a fairly routine request for a disbursement from a trust fund asking for help with meetinghouse repairs.

Almost all of the yearly meeting’s business was generated by the yearly meeting’s committees. Most had to do with either the mechanics of the meeting sessions or money. Most of the business affected only the yearly meeting organization (by which I mean the yearly meeting’s committees and the Friends under appointment to those committees, and the apparatus of the Yearly Meeting sessions). Most of our business is, to use the most shocking and crass expression possible, spiritual masturbation. It brings forth almost nothing in the world we live in, which is in dire need of spirit-led ministry. It is a waste of the Seed.

A lot of our business is quite mundane, it’s true. Property matters, budget stuff, routine reports from committees on their work. We have to do this work, and it is boring at the surface level of management. So we all sit there doing it, usually with the utmost conscientiousness, in my experience. Fine.

But we do sometimes get lulled into a pro forma treatment of this work. Put another way, we let ourselves fall into habit—and out of worship. And our meetings for business are supposed to be meetings for worship. Often, the tone of our business meetings is to get out of there as soon as possible. And it’s not always just tacit. My own meeting cuts fifteen minutes off the meeting for worship that day so that we can get out earlier.

Clerks, both the presiding clerk and committee clerks, can help maintain a spirit of worship by being prepared and thoughtful about the agenda, trying to help committees present effectively, maintaining a good period of silent waiting between items, knowing Quaker process well, and setting a worshipful tone throughout.

Then there are the decisions that are contentious or otherwise difficult. Two things really get on my nerves in the way we often handle difficult business. The first is our habit of asking for voiced approval before everyone who might have an objection has been heard, which forces the meeting to return to its discernment after approving something—which feels very odd to me and often results in some chaos in the discernment. Second, and often in tandem with this first dynamic, we often do our discernment by editing the text of a minute, focusing on tweaks to the language and often devolving into points of grammar and semantics, instead of focusing on the guidance of our Teacher.

I feel that clerks should pointedly ask for objections to a verbally proposed test minute, and do so repeatedly until no one speaks up; then ask the recording clerk to read her/his record of the minute that’s just been presented verbally by the presiding clerk—and then ask again for objections and corrections until no one speaks up; then ask if s/he may take the body’s silence as approval. (Doing this also means you don’t have to reread and approve this minute later in the process of approving minutes.)

But the basic problem remains: where is the kingdom-work? Why do we do so little that addresses directly the spiritual lives of our members or the woes of the world? Even when we approve a minute of conscience, all we are usually doing is laying down some words. Maybe we issue a press release or in some other way broadcast our words. Still just words.

I believe the root problem behind our lackluster business agendas is that we have lost the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. I know I keep saying this, but this is my ministry—to recover the central role that I believe ministry could and should play in our personal and corporate spiritual lives. I believe that the faith and practice of Quaker ministry is the very soul of Quaker spirituality, both personal and collective.

Currently, our standing committees generate most of our business. I believe that some of the work that some of our committees do should be treated as ministries under the care of the meeting and in the hands of people who feel led to do the work, with committees of support and oversight when appropriate. I’ve written about this before.

However, we do need standing committees for some of our work, especially that which concerns the necessary and routine business for which we have fiduciary responsibility: property, money, the corporation. But I question the use of standing committees that are organized around concerns, like our witness committees, advancement, outreach, even religious education. But that’s another blog post.

If we actively taught—trained, really—our members in the faith and practice of ministry as a personal path, ministries would arise, hopefully even flourish. By “ministry” I mean clear leadings to do something to enrich our members’ spiritual lives or to bring G*d’s love, healing, compassion, and justice into the world. Then we would have some great work to do in our meetings for business in worship, helping to discern and support these leadings—are they spirit-led, what exactly is our Friend led to do, what can we do to help, does our minister need oversight, how do we track the ministry’s progress, when should s/he and we lay it down?

Imagine business meetings so packed with G*d’s work that we have to lay over property decisions, or simply leave them in the hands of our competent property committee! For this kind of work, young people like my son might show up. In fact, they probably would be bringing a lot of the work, if our meetings fostered this kind of religious environment.

One other thing would deepen our business meetings and invite some kingdom-building: extended periods of open worship without an agenda at all, except a kind of non-binding focus on the life of the meeting and its members and on the world we live in, leaving the more open-ended, not-focused worship to our regular meetings for worship.

*  Saying “kingdom of G*d” is like saying “mankind”—it carries bad gender baggage, and I would like to use some other phrase. I hope my readers will accept that I mean what the Greek of Christian scripture really connotes with the word “basileus“, which translates clumsily in English. For us, influenced by Latin more than Greek, “kingdom” is an abstract noun. It denotes a place and a state governed by a man. But the Greek basileus is, like most Greek nouns, a verb-noun: it’s a noun built from a verb. So a gerund would be more faithful: “ruling”, without the “-dom” on the end, would be a better translation: the “ruling of God”, rather than the “kingdom of God”, the state in which God rules.

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§ 5 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Doing G*d’s Work

  • Howard Brod says:

    My meeting is Midlothian Friends Meeting in Midlothian, Virginia – which is a suburb of Richmond, Virginia. We would welcome a visit! Just email me at howard_brod@msn.com whenever you want to visit.

    Just 8 or so years ago, we were once a moderate sized meeting with 30 to 40 adult worshippers each Sunday, plus about the same number of children each Sunday. We had 5 Sunday School classes at one point (as an aside, I now refuse to use “First Day School” after 30 years of using it). Then wham! Within a period of four years we dwindled down to 3 to 8 adults at worship each Sunday and NO children. We had a perfect storm of events. Our meeting population aged, the kids grew up and stopped coming or moved away. Many of our aging members moved to the city and either stopped going to meeting or started attending the meeting in the city. Because of the previous size of our meeting, we retained an elaborate committee structure that we once thought we needed to handle the business of meeting. Somewhere along the line, our once vibrant Spirit waned, causing us to lose even more Friends. For the most part, they had no particular gripe with the meeting. It was just that the increasing stress of life (I blame this on the internet age and the economy combined) began to weigh them down, and the meeting’s lack of a vibrant and alive Spirit made us just another drain on Friends. Add to that our constant request for time from people for teaching Sunday School, for committees, etc. – I think we just became a downer for must of our Friends. Then, the panic set in and we began to wonder if we needed to lay our meeting down. The stress of trying to save the meeting and keep all of our structures going caused some of us (I’ll include myself) to act from the ego rather than the Spirit.

    I wrote that essay after a self-correction occurred for me. After prayer and reflection, I believe the Spirit gave me a leading that we (and all Friends) had begun to kill the Spirit by overburdening ourselves with structures and traditions that were likely needed decades ago – but no longer held any value for modern life and thinking. I had always been one who was enamored with Quakerees, committees, and traditions. So, this light-bulb going off for me, was very powerful.

    Ever since writing the essay, I have been “preaching” this leading to Friends at my meeting. About eight months ago, our clerk began leading us into an implementation of more simplicity of our structure. While all of our committees are still “on the books”, most are either not operating or barely operating. We chose to freeze any committee appointments for 2014 in order to allow the Spirit to lead us into new ways of doing things. Most importantly, we have stopped asking Friends to do things: to be on committees, to teach First Day School, to give more money.

    At Meeting for Business, it took several months to decide to hire two First Day School teachers – so parents can focus on their own spirituality by always attending worship (amazingly, the Spirit provided from an unsolicited source the $1200 needed to fund this for a year). The old-timers still among us have been careful to NOT ask or suggest that any newer ones to be on a committee. And with our frequent financial deficits, we decided to ask no one for anything – we just silently looked at the Treasurer’s report and sat in silence together during Meeting for Business with no requested actions suggested.

    We started listening to “leadings” instead of formal committee reports at Meeting for Business. Since our Care and Community committee was inactive, we began to have a worshipful time during Meeting for Business to bring forth and consider those among us with needs, and on the spot arranged for anyone willing to spear-head needed action to help the Friend(s) mentioned. Since our Ministry committee (which we have always called our “Spiritual Nurture committee”) was also nearly inactive, we have begun to have worshipful silence during our Meeting for Business to discern the state of our spirituality, and again take care of needs with Friends who on the spot offer to help. Our regular Christmas Candlelight worship was arranged this way for the first time (instead of the permanent Spiritual Nurture committee arranging it) and was perhaps the best we’ve had in 30 years. One Friend brought to Meeting for Business a leading she had to start up a Quakerism 101 series. As a result, the series began led by her – and has had nearly two dozen participants at each session. Another Friend had a complementary leading that we should advertise it at the meetings two charitable thrift stores in the village (something we had never done before) – and we acquired 6 or so new attenders at our meeting. Not only are they coming to the Quakerism 101 sessions – they are also coming to worship often. Another Friend (me) had a leading to begin a 30 minute Circle of Friends each Sunday before the worship hour, where deep spiritual sharing occurs over material from various holy writings (and yes, this includes the Bible along with other spiritual works). It too has drawn both old-timers and new ones.

    Now, more Friends are volunteering (from their own leading) to do things that need to be done within our community, and bringing it to Meeting for Business. We no longer have to ask because there is now a sense among us that it is OK to just offer to do something that you think needs doing.

    Although we are not where we are to be yet, a refreshing change is definitely occurring. We are allowing the Spirit to lead us to where it would take us. We don’t know where that is – but we know that our worship is returning to previous numbers. Right now there are 12 to 30 each Sunday, and Meeting for Business has between 25 and 40. I think this is because something important is beginning to happen at Meeting for Business, and Friends sense that.

    This trusting of the Spirit has been a scary road for many (me included at times). That’s why we are taking it slowly. Instead of eliminating committees, we’ve just allowed them to be inactive. But, it is important to note that in the absence of active committees, we’ve supplanted them with the whole meeting being active in the work that these committees once did. For too long, no one did anything – and we suffered for it.

    It is important to also note that our meeting has a wonderful clerk who is good on his feet, has a keen appreciation for the importance of Quaker process, is well-respected by all, and is flexible (i.e., he values Quaker traditions, but does not idolize them – putting them before the action of the Spirit).

  • Howard says:

    I enjoyed your post Steven because it speaks to a discernment process my own meeting is now undergoing regarding the “business” of the meeting. We are experimenting with handling more core items as a meeting of the whole, and using committees (even temporary committees) to do resulting detail work at the direction from the sense of the meeting as a whole. Our modern “Quaker process” has greatly deviated from the manner earlier Friends handled the core work of the meeting. Today, we are acting more like the world – in that we utilize permanent committees as “steering” committees. This trend is upside down from how it should be in order to allow the Spirit to live in our meetings.

    My meeting is now experiencing Friends bringing leadings to Meeting for Business, and we are having deep worshipful silence more naturally. And participation in Meeting for Business has increased greatly.

    I invite your readers to read an article I posted some time ago on QuakerQuaker.org that also speaks to this need to revitalize our meetings to allow the Spirit to lead us. Here is the link:

    http://www.quakerquaker.org/group/liberal/forum/topics/let-s-get-real

    • Wow, Howard, I cannot tell you how excited I am by the post you provide the link to. Amazingly insightful and at the same time useful. And of course, I could not agree with you more. Thank you, thank you.

      I would like to know more about how this is playing out in your meeting. And where is this meeting? I would love to visit.

      Thanks again.

      Steven

    • sourlandr says:

      Howard, thank you so much for this comment and especially for the link you provided. I said this publicly in a reply to your comment on the blog, and I plan to do more to spread its Word, but I wanted to reach out to you personally, as well, to let you know how excited I was to read your little essay.

      I once read something that has changed the way I experience and evaluate a lot of things. Its a passage in the introduction to The White Goddess by Robert Graves. If you don’t know him, he is best known for writing the novel “I, Claudius,” on which the TV miniseries was based. He was an important second-tier poet of the 20th century, but more importantly for me, perhaps the best interpreter of Greek mythology we have ever had. His Greek Mythology is a classic.

      The White Goddess is an inspired, rather chaotic exploration of the essential, original poetic vocabulary of early English poetry. In it, Graves claims that the purpose of “true” poetry is to invoke the presence of the Great Goddess, and that you will know when you are reading “true poetry” because the hair on the back of your neck stands up. I’m a sometimes poet myself and I have adopted his poetic worldview, not only in poetry, but—adapted—in many other areas of life through a Quaker filter.

      When I read your blog post, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I felt I had felt the brush of the winds of the Spirit. I felt the inrush of Truth. I am so grateful.

      Steven

      Sent from my iPad

      >

      • Howard Brod says:

        Thank you Steven and Steven for your kind words. I’m glad this QuakerQuaker.org article is striking a chord within many Friends. Warning: I have found it is slow going to change among liberal Friends the traditions (even recent ones, relatively speaking) that have nothing to do with the core aspects of being a Quaker. I encourage those Friends who resonate with my and Steven Davison’s posts to persist with encouraging your meetings to let go of the trappings of the past for a more real spiritual experience that was the core experience of early Friends. I am seeing gradual, but wonderfully meaningful changes, within my own meeting in a timeframe that the Spirit is directing.

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