What is the Religious Society of Friends for? —Witness, Part III

March 15, 2014 § 6 Comments

Witness Ministry: An Alternative to Committees

My last post laid out a critique of standing committees organized around concerns, claiming that they tend bring the world’s ways into our discernment, to quench the spirit behind spirit-led ministry, and to force those with leadings to compete with each other for time, attention, people, and money. But at the end of that post, I had to admit that we have at present no alternative to our habitual committee structures. Most of our meetings are not equipped to support the traditional Quaker structures for spirit-led concerns, the faith and practice of Quaker ministry; some of our meetings probably don’t even really know what it is. Committees are all we know.

The strategy

This calls for a “meta-ministry” whose goal is to recover the faith and practice of Quaker ministry and to adapt them to our present needs. We need to teach our meetings how ministry works, train ourselves in the tools we have for discerning leadings and supporting and overseeing ministries, and develop a culture of eldership in which Friends seasoned in the faith and practice of ministry help other members, our newcomers, and our young people to recognize their gifts of ministry and their leadings, and to give them some guidance and support.

In the meantime, we would have to run two parallel systems for our witness work while we migrate gradually from a committee-based structure to a ministry-based structure. I expect that this transition phase would take at least ten years, if pursued vigorously; I can’t imagine it taking less than five years. I think it could easily take a generation. I have been at this “meta-ministry” myself for twenty years and have achieved almost nothing.

What to do? I think that to so radically change our culture, we would need to leverage our current standing committees in the service of midwifing traditional ministry.

For instance, I think that each of our witness committees should train itself in how to conduct clearness committees for discernment and then conduct clearness committees for each of its own members. The goal would be to help each member of the committee get over that hump from strong caring about the concern to clear leading about what they are called to do about it.

Then, as the members of the committee become clear about their individual leadings, the committee should reorganize itself around these leadings and provide the kind of support these ministries require, serving essentially as surrogate meetings until the meeting itself gets up to speed enough to take over the role of ministry support.

To accomplish this, each standing committee would have a second charge parallel to the charge of pursuing its concern: to teach the rest of the meeting the faith and practice of Quaker ministry, to be a kind of seedbed, case study, and laboratory for creating the kind of culture of eldership that ministry requires.

Eventually, theoretically, each witness committee would have migrated care of all its members’ ministries to ad hoc ministry support committees, and the committee would then lay itself down.

In this way, all of the good work that our witness committees are currently doing would continue, but the structure for their support would gradually shift, at the yearly meeting level, from committees to local meetings and, at the local meeting level, from standing committees to ad hoc support committees for specific ministries. Some concerns would be bigger in scope, in their need for resources, and so on, than a local meeting could effectively support, and these concerns would then be referred in gospel order to the quarterly or regional meeting. For the same reasons, some concerns would properly find their way in gospel order to the yearly meeting.

And some concerns might, after all, really need a standing committee. But this would be discerned in gospel order, being the spirit-led decision of a meeting or of progressively higher-level meetings, rather than out of unconsidered habit.

For example, some of NYYM’s prison work might remain in the Yearly Meeting’s hands because some of that work involves the state’s corrections department. Much of the rest of their work, however, is already being done at the regional level, since many of the volunteers in a given prison come from various meetings in the area. But some centralization of services might still be very useful and thus remain in the hands of some Yearly Meeting structure.

Some problems

I see several problems with this idea of using witness committees to lead the migration to a ministry-based model, however. These boil down to reasonable resistance to these changes in the witness committees themselves and in the wider meeting.

First, we are asking them to radically transform themselves, and organizations rarely willingly undertake their own creative destruction. Usually they fight for their lives and they identify their lives with the status quo.

Second, many (most?) of the Friends who are doing the work in these committees—the ministers—may not see that there’s a problem. They may not see themselves as “ministers” with “ministries”, may not know the faith and practice of Quaker ministry themselves, and may be fairly happy with the way things are. They are doing the work, so who cares, really, how we structure it? They are likely to be much more focused on doing it than on thinking about it. Furthermore, nobody likes to be told that they’re doing what they’re doing wrong.

Third, the knowledge about the Quaker traditions of ministry is much more likely to reside in the ministry and worship committee or in Friends with that bent than in the witness committees. So not only must these committee members change what they do, but they must study first, and then start experimenting with new structures and processes that no one really knows now to operate to do their precious work.

And I am not being facetious when I say “precious”—this is precious work they are doing most of the time. Normally, we would not want to mess with something as important as effective witness work.

And then there’s the rest of the meeting and the wider Quaker culture. Almost all organizations suffer inherently from inertia and habitual and instinctive resistance to change. I know from personal experience that talking about these ideas excites almost instantaneous and often vehement objections. I have literally never been given the opportunity to finish laying these ideas out (it takes a few sentences, at least) before my listener starts rebutting the half-finished and half-heard proposal. All they hear is that I’m trying to destroy or at least disrespect their witness ministry.

Then there’s the broad knowledge gap. There are pockets of Friends in the wider Quaker community who are excited about and conversant with the faith and practice of Quaker ministry, but I suspect that many meetings may not have anyone who knows these traditions well enough to lead the way. And even if they do have such people, we all know how Friends tend to treat such leaders—or leaders of any kind.

These pockets of Friends who yearn for a deeper culture of eldership around Quaker ministry tend to form at higher levels of meeting life than the local meeting. I find them at the yearly meeting level and clustered in and around our conference centers and in and around other self-organized groups like the School of the Spirit. I suspect that they gather in some numbers at FGC Gathering; I’ve only been to the Gathering once and only for one day, in which I myself was doing a program, so I didn’t get around much or get a sense of the Gathering more broadly. So, if these Friends lead the way, now we have a top-down or outside-inside dynamic that often puts off Friends in local meetings, unless they have themselves asked for a program of some kind.

These amount to huge obstacles to the kind of cultural change I am advocating, and I’m not sure what to do about them. I would despair if I did not know quite a few Friends who share my love for these traditions and likewise yearn for a vital culture of Quaker ministry.

Here’s what I hope for: That here and there in the Liberal Quaker world a meeting sees the value of trying to recover our traditions of ministry and vigorously undertakes to transform itself. Then, after a few years, other meetings see that it isn’t the apocalypse, after all, to transform witness committees in this way, and they take a closer look. If I’m right about ministry-based structures being better at nurturing ministry than committees, then the light of witness in these starter meetings will shine quite brightly; more people in the meeting will be engaged in the witness work, and everyone in the meeting will have a deeper and better-informed Quaker spirituality. Business meetings might even be more exciting.

What the alternative to committees would look like

The ultimate end result would be a culture of eldership in all our meetings in which a meeting’s members would all know the faith and practice of Quaker ministry and would understand ministry’s role in Quaker spirituality. To achieve and maintain this culture would require a sustained program of religious education about Quaker ministry in all its aspects.

The meetings would know how to convene clearness committees for discernment. Their ministry and worship committees and other elders would always be on the lookout for emerging concerns, sometimes even recognizing G*d’s work in someone before the minister does; they might see cues in the vocal ministry or just in casual conversation. They would regularly sponsor programs in which Friends shared their concerns and other aspects of their religious and spiritual lives, so there would be more opportunities to recognize Friends’ gifts and leadings. Nominating committee would not just seek to fill slots but seek to really know the members and attenders, so that they recognized spiritual gifts and the concerns that each member cares about and could then provide mentoring, support, books, recommendations for conferences—whatever might nurture the gifts and leadings they become aware of. In this way, nominating committees might take on a bit of a ministry-and-worship role.

Once leadings had been through a clearness process, they would begin to come before the meeting for the collective discernment of the whole meeting in its meeting for business in worship. Those who had served on a Friend’s clearness committee would testify as to the source, depth, and direction of the leading. These Friends would already be deeply involved in the concern by serving on the clearness committee and now everyone present in the business meeting would become involved.

Thus the structures and processes of Quaker ministry tend to do a better job than committees of integrating the meeting’s witness work with the rest of the meeting’s life because it involves at least those Friends who serve on the original clearness committee quite intimately in the Friends’s leading and inner life. Once a meeting had held two or three such clearness committees, you now have quite a rich network of Friends personally and meaningfully engaged in each other’s witness activities. And that’s only the first phase of evolution in this network of elders (defining “elders” as Friends whose ministry is, in part, the nurture of the ministry of others).

The second phase comes with the convening of care committees. Once a meeting had recognized a leading, then it would convene an ad hoc committee for support and perhaps oversight for the conduct of the ministry. These care committees would try to help the meetings’ ministers stay on track and overcome the obstacles they might encounter along the way. They might help “release” the ministry by helping with financial support, if needed, and with release from other obligations that might stand in the way of a minister’s faithfulness.

Now the network of Friends intimately involved in a given ministry has become quite extensive, and, if the meeting is discerning and supporting other Friends’ leadings, these double-concentric rings of elders with a minister at the center would likely start to overlap. At the center of each ring is a Friend with a leading. Around her is a circle of Friends how have served on her clearness committee. Around that circle is a second circle of Friends who now serve on her care committee. But some of  the Friends in these two circles might also serve on some other Friend’s clearness committee or care committee. Now you have a robust network of elders, a framework for a vital culture eldership for ministry.

Then comes the third phase in this culture’s evolution. The meeting might recommend the minister to other meetings or to people outside the meeting when appropriate by writing minutes of travel or service. This would almost certainly be the case in “activist” witness ministry that focuses on one of the world’s many ills, though we would probably want to call the minute of service a letter of introduction, so that the recipients understand it.

So now we have more than just one Friend personally involved in some activist activity like prison work. Now we have a Friend representing her meeting in that activity.

Finally, when the ministry has run its course, the meeting would lay down the care committee. The meeting might need to help the minister discern whether she had been released from the weight of the concern.

Thus meeting life would be a constant flow and cycle of gifts being recognized, of leadings being discerned and pursued and laid down, of nurturing the work of bringing G*d into the world.

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§ 6 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? —Witness, Part III

  • Roger D-W says:

    The process of change is non-linear. It begins slowly, gathers momentum, reaches critical mass, and then moves toward completion. We are no longer at the beginning. Your articulation of the arc we are to follow is a crucial marker in the process. I am most humbly grateful.

  • Thank you for this vision!

  • Again, thank you, Steven, for delineating this vision so clearly. It strikes me that it would be workable (as a start) in a very small meeting, or perhaps also in a larger one if some of the resisters to change would gently “stand aside” while others worked on a leading and followed your scenario (instead of using the traditional committee structure).

    What I observe, however, is that many Friends routinely equate the committee structure with “Quaker process.” I think it will be challenging for Friends to “lay down” that equation, misguided as it may or may not be.

  • Jill H-W says:

    Rather than “do this because we always do this”, this would lead to “do this because this is our calling” and that would be powerful. Thank you for this vision.

  • Steven,

    This is some of the clearest, cogent, and action-able writing on this topic I have ever come across. I hope that you will consider updating us all as to whether it ever finds its way into active consideration.

    ,I for one, feel in resonance with the whole of your vision and would love to see this kind of thing explored more seriously.

    Thank you for your faithfulness.

    • Thank you, Callid. Your comment really means a lot to me. I do think that there are quite a few Friends who want to recover our traditions, so we all need to keep striking sparks and hope that here and there something catches. And I realized in the process of writing this entry that I have not actually been fully faithful to this leading I have to a “meta-ministry” focused on recovering Quaker ministry. I have not brought my leading to my own meeting, for instance. I myself am not doing what I recommend. Time to find greater clearness, myself.

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