Gathered in the Spirit at New York Yearly Meeting

August 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have been away from this blog for a while, mainly because I attended New York Yearly Meeting Summer Sessions, held July 20–26 at Silver Bay YMCA in Silver Bay, New York, on the shores of Lake George. Because I’m staff (I’m the Yearly Meeting’s communications director), I have been extremely busy preparing for, attending, and following through on the Sessions.

The gathered body of New York Yearly Meeting was truly gathered in the Spirit this year at its Summer Sessions. 

This took place during a called meeting for business in worship on Friday afternoon, July 25, a meeting called to further consider the report and recommendations of the Yearly Meeting’s Priorities Working Group (PWG), which the Working Group had expressed in a written Statement of Leadings and Priorities (see also an interpretive document for the Statement). After earlier business sessions in which the body was markedly NOT in unity with the Working Group’s recommendations, the Working Group brought a revised version of the Priorities section of the Statement to the called meeting and, one after another, Friends rose to express how pleased they were with the new version and we gradually realized that we had been transformed in love. Rejoicing filled our hearts. We were renewed in our faith that love for each other and faith in the Spirit that guides us and trust in our process could bring us into joyful unity.

The Priorities Working Group (PWG) had been convened in 2011 to visit local meetings and worship groups around the Yearly Meeting to listen to local Friends’ concerns about, and desires for, the Yearly Meeting organization, and to discern from these visits the priorities of local Friends and local meetings as they should apply to the Yearly Meeting organization’s work and budget. In this context, the Yearly Meeting organization comprises the Yearly Meeting committees and the Friends under appointment to those committees, the apparatus for conducting Yearly Meeting Sessions (Fall, Spring, and Summer), and the Yearly Meeting’s staff and institutions. 

The event that precipitated the convening of the Working Group was the Yearly Meeting organization’s extreme difficulty in approving a budget in 2009. The main issue underlying that precipitating event is a long-standing disconnect between local Friends and local meetings from the Yearly Meeting organization in general, and from its budget process, in particular. The Priorities Working Group was New York Yearly Meeting’s sixth formal attempt to address these issues since the early 1990s.

The initial Statement of Leadings and Priorities included six Priorities, general vision statements distilled from PWG’s extensive visitation, and intended to express the priorities that local Friends and local meetings hoped would guide the work of the Yearly Meeting organization and its budget. Each Priority had a paragraph elaborating on the Priority. After the Priorities section, there followed a short section on accountability and two sections of “Leadings”, actions they were recommending for implementing the Priorities, one set for the coming year and another for the coming five years. The Priorities were as follows:

“We, the Body of Friends gathered through our New York Yearly Meeting, recognize as a priority for the Yearly Meeting . . .

  • the development of programs to teach and share our spiritual skills with each other, and to help meetings to revitalize themselves;
  • the development of programs to help sustain our monthly meetings financially and to increase membership;
  • the pursuit of greater contact and spiritual relationship among Friends;
  • assisting Meetings with developing First Day School curricula, building skills for working with our teens, helping rejuvenate First Day Schools, and providing support for parents of young children;
  • the responsibility to be an active voice for Friends’ faith, values, ministry and witness in the world;
  • the responsibility to hold itself accountable to the above priorities, ensuring their faithful fruition.”

The paragraph introducing the five-year vision for the Priorities provided what I felt was a truly inspiring general vision for the Yearly Meeting:

In approving this Statement of Leadings and Priorities, we commit to focus the energy and resources of our Yearly Meeting for the coming five years on achieving a vision of growing and vital monthly meetings [that] are open and loving communities, effective in their outreach, active in the world, and skillful in nurturing the spiritual lives of Friends of all ages. We envision a yearly meeting structure [that] is devoted to furthering this vision, is an effective focal point for organizing our collective work in the world, and [that] communicates that work broadly. We envision a yearly meeting structure [that] is accountable to these priorities, transparent in its finances and integrally connected to the monthly meetings it represents and supports. We envision a yearly meeting where there will no longer be “yearly meeting Friends” and “monthly meeting Friends,” but rather one, whole yearly meeting devoted to faithfully living out the leadings of the Spirit. We reaffirm our commitment to utilize these Leading and Priorities in “preparing budgets, staff work plans, and other services and initiatives of the Yearly Meeting and its committees and constituent parts.”

Initially, we were only to consider the Priorities section plus the accountability section that directly followed it, and not the one-year and five-year recommendations for implementation. 

As general statements of intent, the Priorities seem pretty straightforward to me. Yes, I had quibbles, but it was clear what their general intent was and the details are always a problem. So I was ready to approve them straight off. I felt differently about the accountability section, which I believe was fraught with real problems, and I had serious questions about the Leadings for implementation, as well.

When the document was presented on the floor of the meeting, it was presented in its entirety, and many members of the gathered body were very disturbed by many aspects of it. While the clerk had asked that we consider only the six Priorities and the accompanying accountability section, Friends soon lost track of those instructions and began to focus on the Leadings, the recommendations for implementation. 

Fear drove most of this ministry. In particular, I believe that many Friends rightly sensed—but could not necessarily have clearly articulated—that, if approved, the accountability recommendations would mean the end of the Yearly Meeting’s committee structure as it now stands, and thus, apparently, the end of ministries they hold dear. Additionally, many Friends felt that even the Priorities had left out some key constituencies in the Yearly Meeting and some key aspects of meeting life. Most of this discontent focused on youth and young adults, and on our witness life.

During several sessions, held both in small groups and in plenary, Friends became more and more dissatisfied. At the end of Thursday’s meeting for business in worship, with only two more business sessions left, and one of them the celebration of our Junior Yearly Meeting program with all the kids and a final reading of the Epistle to consider, the clerk called a called meeting for Friday afternoon and the Priorities Working Group was directed to bring us a new draft of the Priorities to consider.

PWG changed little of the original draft of the priorities. They shortened the elaborating paragraphs while developing them a little more, and they restated the Priorities on youth and witness, as follows:

We . . . recognize as a Priority for the Yearly Meeting . . . 

  • the nurturing of our children, youth, and young adults;
  • the responsibility to be an active voice for Friends’ faith, values, ministry and witness in the world, and to support Friends active witness.

This was enough. Probably the many informal conversations held offline and the ministry during the earlier sessions in support of the Priorities helped Friends focus more clearly on the Priorities and hear the intentions behind them. Furthermore, we considered the new draft without the accountability section, which was easily the scariest and most problematic part of the original document. I suspect that the accountability section would have presented a stop to many Friends’ approval, mine included.

But Friends approved the direction envisioned in the Priorities for the Yearly Meeting organization and the broader Yearly Meeting proper, with an ease and a sense of joy that testified to the faithfulness of both the Working Group and the gathered body, and to the guiding presence of a Spirit of Love and Truth. 

This was a bit different than most of the gathered meetings I have experienced during meetings for business in worship. In most others, the gathered body has experienced some remarkable, even dramatic turning point, usually brought on by some powerful vocal ministry. You can feel the lightning strike; you can watch the winds of the Spirit billow the meeting’s sails into a rich, taut pulling toward a new direction, you can feel the ship surge into this new current.

By contrast, this gathering built gradually. As one Friend after another rose to support the Priorities, our expectation of gusts and waves of dissatisfaction slowly dissolved. The more we began to expect messages of support instead, the more peaceful the room became. After a while, we knew that we had arrived at the farther shore. We knew—perhaps with some residual anxiety, I’ll admit, for we could clearly see some storm clouds in the distance—we knew that we were ready to try a minute of approval. And approve we did.

From the safety of that little harbor, we acknowledged that we still have a long journey before us. And we are likely to revisit our complaints with both the new process for accountability to the Priorities that the Working Group develops, with the details of how we will implement them, and with the implications for the whole Yearly Meeting organization that real accountability entails.

Moreover, now the local Friends and the local meetings themselves have an important role to play. This is not just a vision for the Yearly Meeting organization. If this is what the local meetings want, they have to welcome and support the ministries—the leadings, whatever they are—that these Priorities generate for implementation. And they have to pay for it.

Local Friends have long complained that they have no input in the numbers in the budget, that they ship money off to the Yearly Meeting organization without knowing what that money does and without getting meaningful services from the Yearly Meeting organization in return. Now, if the Yearly Meeting organization begins developing the kinds of programs envisioned in the Priorities, as local meetings have asked, the local meetings better recognize that and pay for it.

And for its part, the YM organization has much more work to do.

It has to come up with a structure and process for holding itself accountable that Friends can accept—and Friends have to accept some discipline and let go of some fear. We do need an accountability structure of some kind. 

And it is true that many of the YM organization’s committees do not do much to serve the needs of local Friends. Many of the ministries they pursue are worthwhile and in many cases Spirit-led, but they do not really serve local Friends or these Priorities very directly.  What will be the fate of these ministries and their committees under the new priorities?

Finally, the gathered body did not find fault with the Leadings offered by the Priorities Working Group for the first year and the next five years so much as they found things that were missing. They felt that the Leadings did not reflect all of the voices in the Yearly Meeting. They therefore felt that those voices had not been heard. So the Working Group will have to revisit its notes from its visits and its discernment and recover those missing voices. They will need to bring us a fuller vision for implementation.

I do not doubt their faithfulness, so they will do their best. I guess I am a little less certain of the wider body of “Yearly Meeting Friends”, as we call ourselves, those Friends who regularly attend Sessions and are often under appointment to the Yearly Meeting committees that are being asked to completely re-envision their charge in light of the Priorities from local Friends. But we answered G*d’s call this July, so I am full of hope for the future.

And I have faith in the Spirit that Jesus promised to send to us in the gospel of John, for we have just been visited most wondrously. As long as we remain in love and commit to real worship, we can expect that promise to be fulfilled again.

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. . . . The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. . . . I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. (John 14:15-17, 26; 15:15)

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