What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Witness & Service, Part II

March 13, 2014 § 3 Comments

Witness ministry: What’s wrong with witness committees?

Standing committees organized around a concern can work pretty well when the ministries they support engage the same social systems in a sustained way over a long time—and when they enjoy the necessary  dedication of Friends who feel a powerful and lasting calling to the work.

A clear example of this in my experience is Prisons Committee in New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM). This committee provides support to worship groups and individuals in an impressive number of New York State prisons. They have been ministering to the same individuals for decades, in some cases. They have been struggling with the same bureaucratic structures in the state’s Corrections department, as well. Unwavering presence, sustained effort, deep institutional memory, these all require a structure that stays put, even as people come and go. And this has all paid off in New York Yearly Meeting, by producing some gains in the institutional response of Corrections and by demonstrably diminishing the suffering of incarcerated people.

You could make this argument for virtually any witness concern. Gains in any area of social change depend on sustained action. Sustained action requires a lasting structure  for garnering and managing financial, human, and institutional resources. This usually means a committee. So yes, we do need committees. But do we need standing committees for witness?

I think that, while they usually do support worthwhile work, standing witness committees also have a negative impact on our witness life. I think that, in the case of most of our witness work, we need instead ad hoc committees of support and oversight for individual ministries.

Let’s look at the real case of a new witness impulse in New York Yearly Meeting and follow its trail into and through the conventional Quaker committee structure.

A case study: Friends in Unity with Nature in New York Yearly Meeting

After Marshall Massey’s address to Friends General Conference in I think it was 1987 urging Friends into ecological witness, some Friends came to New York Yearly Meeting’s Summer Sessions with his message that we should get off our butts and bring G*d into the world in environmental ministry. Actually, what I think he called for was the formation of environmental concern committees.

A bunch of us decided to form a committee, which we called Friends in Unity with Nature (FUN). Over the next several years, we organized conferences and interest groups and submitted text on the environment for the Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, which was then in revision. We held endless committee meetings, and we sought ways to tap the resources and capture the attention of the Yearly Meeting on behalf of our earthcare concern.

Internally, we groped for vision. We approached this problem of what to do in the conventional ways common in committees: lots of discussion, some brainstorming, “visioning” retreats. We each felt a deep concern for what was happening to the earth, but we were interested in different aspects of the ecological crises we face, and we brought different strengths and temperaments to the work. I don’t remember any of us being very clear about what specifically we were led to do as individuals.

We each needed individual discernment. None of us went to our local meetings for this discernment. I don’t think any of us at that time really knew or understood the traditions of Quaker ministry. I suspect that most Friends in our local meetings did not know what we were up to, either. Nor did we do much to help each other discern our individual leadings. We strove instead, mostly out of habit, for collective discernment aimed at finding a vision as a group. This did not go too badly. We did do quite a bit in the years we worked together.

When we asked the Yearly Meeting for formal structure, they first tried to put us in Peace Concerns. But Peace Concerns committee already had its own agenda and we had ours. Both groups could see that both of us would suffer if Peace Concerns tried to absorb us. So we were formed as a Task Group, which, in NYYM, is a formally recognized group lasting three years and charged with exploring a concern that has no home as yet in the Yearly Meeting on its behalf, in order to determine what to do about it.

After our three years, we asked to become a standing committee and were turned down, on the grounds that we had not yet built a base of interest and support throughout the Yearly Meeting strong enough and broad enough to justify being a yearly meeting committee. And we hadn’t. We received a one-year extension, and set about building that base. We didn’t succeed, and the Task Group was laid down. Formal, organized ministry organized around earthcare in New York Yearly Meeting died on the vine.

Most of us continued to carry the concern, however, and some of us eventually become clear about our own leadings.

Lessons learned from FUN’s experience in New York Yearly Meeting

We needed—and didn’t get, or give to each other—discernment about our individual leadings. We felt the concern; we had the emotional commitment necessary. But we never got over the hump from having intense but rather unfocused feelings to having a concrete vision of what to do about them. Therefore, it took us a long time to get organized and our subsequent efforts ended up taking rather arbitrary directions as we groped toward a more coherent vision. In the end, we ran out of time before we could fulfill our task. Lesson: committees distract Friends from individual discernment with a habitual focus on group discernment.

The committee structure of the yearly meeting tried to fit us into itself, and couldn’t do it. Even though, as individuals, we were clearly led into earthcare witness, as a group, we could not satisfy the requirements of the committee structure. The system could only deal with us as a group and on its own terms, not as individuals with leadings. Also, a structural clock was ticking toward an arbitrary time when the task group would be laid down, whether we still felt led as individuals or had achieved clarity as a group. The bureaucracy defeated us. Lesson: committee structures tend to suppress emerging ministry and are more or less oblivious to individual leadings.

The attempt to place us within Peace Concerns revealed the competition inherent in the committee structure:

  • we would have crowded their agenda, they would have overwhelmed ours;
  • we would be competing with our concerns and projects against their concerns and projects, for time in their agenda and for resources within their already resource-strapped budget;
  • if we had become a subcommittee of Peace Concerns, we just would have doubled the number of meetings we had to go to in order to do our work, without relieving any of the pressures on Peace Concerns.
  • Lesson: the committee structure forces the ministries internal to the committee to compete with each other.

Suppose we had become a standing committee, after all:

Within the committee, matters would have been exactly the same as if we were part of Peace Concerns, in terms of individual leadings and ministries competing with each other (assuming we individuals were clear about our leadings): my ministry would have to compete with the ministries of the other members of the committee for time, attention, support, and resources within the committee. Lesson: committees force ministries to compete with each other.

At the time, of course, we thought of our individual “ministries” as projects of the Task Group and not as personal ministries at all. So our pursuit of these projects tended to further quench the spirit of clarity about individual leadings: we were so busy deciding on, designing, and executing our various projects that we never had the space to discover what G*d wanted each of us to do individually. We only found our individual ways once the Task Group had been laid down. The Task Group’s projects were worthwhile, however, and I suspect that they advanced the concern of earthcare in the Yearly Meeting somewhat. Lesson: clearly the standing committee structure in our meetings has the sustained effect of suppressing individual ministry, though committees are certainly capable of doing good work.

However this suppressive effect of pursuing our collective projects was only half the spirit-quenching story. Maybe even worse was the mechanics of being a Task Group. The machinery of a committee, the bureaucratic demands involved, took up soooo much time. How many hours did we spend just fussing over the minutes! Now arguably, a support committee for someone called to a witness ministry would spend some time writing minutes and reports and dealing with money and other “bureaucratic” matters, too. But the lesson is that the machinery of our committee structure wastes precious energy and distracts you from the real work you are trying to do.

Furthermore, as an emerging concern in New York Yearly Meeting, FUN was also somewhat distracted from the primary work of awakening and fostering ecological concern in the Yearly Meeting by seeking to become a committee. Becoming a committee became one of our goals. I’m not sure how much this affected our actual work, but it certainly altered our consciousness of ourselves. Lesson: the demands of committee structure threaten to replace some of the work the committee was convened to pursue.

If we had become a standing committee, we then would have been competing with Peace Concerns and all the other committees organized around a concern for the attention of the yearly meeting, for time on the yearly meeting floor, for people in the nominating process (already unable to fill its rosters), and for money in the yearly meeting budget. Lesson: committees are inherently a structure or framework for competition.

NYYM appoints Friends for three-year terms and normally allows only two terms of service, expecting Friends to rotate off for at least one year. Never mind whether you still carry the concern or are in the middle of pursuing some ministry. Committees have term limits for a good reason: it helps to prevent power structures from taking root and helps to ensure that new blood and ideas get a chance. Lesson: the committee structure is oblivious to the natural life-cycles of spirit-led ministry; it’s a machine that runs on its own schedule and it tends to truncate ministry before its time.

Or committees continue doing things that no one has any passion for anymore. Witness committees suppress ministry, on the one hand, and then ultimately and ironically, they tend to become moribund over time as people with the real leadings move on or rotate off. It is really hard to lay down a committee that has lost the spirit because some Friends inevitably cannot conceive of a meeting without “x” concern. Lesson: committees, like any organization, tend to fight for their lives no matter how ineffective they have become.

One more matter endemic to committees at the yearly meeting level. FUN in New York Yearly Meeting arose at Yearly Meeting sessions among “Yearly Meeting Friends”, that is, among the small, rarified, and rather insular community of Friends under appointment to Yearly Meeting committees. The Yearly Meeting never asked us to bring our concerns to our individual local meetings and I suspect that our own meetings were largely unaware of what we were doing. Most of our programs were likewise focused on the Yearly Meeting organization, taking place during YM sessions, or at the Yearly Meeting’s conference center, Powell House. We did do some programs at local and regional meetings. But we were born, lived, and died inside the bubble that is the Yearly Meeting committee organization, without ever putting down roots in the Yearly Meeting’s local meetings. This was one of reasons we were laid down. Admittedly, this was a hard thing to accomplish in so geographically large and dispersed a yearly meeting. Lesson: Yearly Meeting committee structures tend to be rather alienated from local Friends and local meetings.

A similar dynamic seems to work even within local meetings. I have often observed that a witness committee, with a handful of very dedicated people, often gets frustrated by their meeting’s unwillingness to get meaningfully involved in their concern, to really even care about what they are doing. When a witness committee does succeed in galvanizing the meeting, this often is because of passionate leadership by Friends who are truly driven by their leading. Lesson: the normal committee-meeting dynamics seem ill equipped to overcome the inertia that witness concerns sometimes face in local meetings.

In sum, our standing committee structures for witness ministry tend to suppress ministry, especially emerging new concerns, they force Friends and their ministries to compete with each other for time, money, people, and other resources, and there is something about the habitual dynamics of the structure that often fails to connect organically with the meeting and the meeting’s members.

What’s the alternative?

Now the reality is that committees are all we know. We have mostly lost the faith and practice of Quaker ministry, the alternative to standing committees that I propose. I know from personal experience that many of our meetings do not know the traditions of Quaker ministry and are not equipped to help their members discern their leadings or support their ministries. So we can’t just start laying down our witness committees. There are no alternative structures waiting to support the important work that our witness committees are doing, no knowledge, structures or vital processes in our meetings to help our members discover new leadings and follow them.

Overcoming this problem is the subject of my next post.

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§ 3 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Witness & Service, Part II

  • Steven, your analysis strikes me as painstaking and very accurate.

    The committee structure you describe also drives people away, people with low tolerance for the “killed in committee” effect that these rigid groups often have on fresh ideas and new blood.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see the glimmer of a hope of any of this changing in the foreseeable future.

    Sometimes I think some Friends’ real motivation for being actively involved in Quaker Meetings is purely social and has nothing whatsoever to do with activism beyond a sort of navel-gazing and preaching to the choir. It’s not unlike membership in a country club: you are among folks very similar to yourself, and it’s safe and comfy.

    • Well, I look at it this way. Everyone comes to Quakerism and to a meeting with their own religious temperament. Some are activists, some are contemplatives, some are devotional, some are ecstatics, some are into service, some are seeking community. Most of us, I suppose are a mix, with different weights to our various interests.

      Quakerism doesn’t work for some temperaments at all. If you are an ecstatic, you’re probably going to be drawn to Pentecostalism. If you are, like many African Americans, into music and joy, well, you’ll probably end up in the African American church.

      We seem to attract and to serve pretty well the temperament that wants community, especially that subset that doesn’t like authority very much. So we get a lot of socialites.

      Ideally, our meetings would meet the needs of a broad range of temperaments, but that just isn’t the case most of the time—and it isn’t for any other religious community either. That’s why there are so many paths out there.

      I don’t think we should beat ourselves up too much over the people whose temperaments our distinctive faith and practice just isn’t going to satisfy. At the heart of the liberal Quaker sensibility is the truth that everyone finds their own way to G*d and pretty much every way that honors truth and love and peace is legitimate; there isn’t just one way to G*d. So we should work on our strengths and not get too exercised over being truly diverse and universal in our appeal. No religion is, even if they claim to be.

      But I do agree with you about being weak in our own areas of strength. We are a practical mystical religion, so we should be good at the practical and the mystical. We aren’t as good as we should be at either. We are not great managers of our own institutions, we have a rather checkered success in witness and service, and very, very few of our members are getting the communion with G*d that they seek.

      As I say in this post, I think the faith and practice of Quaker ministry is the best platform we have for delivering in these areas, and I think that committee structures, which have been imported from “the world”, especially, in practice, from business and the nonprofit sector, just don’t deliver. They hinder.

      • Steven,

        Yes, I agree with you that the committee structure hinders. But quite a few Friends firmly believe that the committee structure is “Quaker process,” something that they believe cannot be tinkered with.

        I look forward to your upcoming post where you suggest possible solutions.

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