Quaker-pocalypse: Nominations, Committee Service, and Spiritual Renewal, Part One

September 11, 2015 § 4 Comments

Part One: Quaker “Decline” and the Committee System


One of the signs of Quaker “decline” is the trouble nominating committees have finding enough Friends to serve on committees. All the work of the meeting tends to get done by the same small, dedicated, and overworked group of Friends.

In my experience, nominating committees often have very dedicated, seasoned Friends who are doing their best to match the interests and gifts of the members to the work that needs to be done. However, the “slots” that have to be filled loom over their work, and they have to do it over and over again, with a deadline. Meanwhile, nominating committees themselves are often among the hardest committees to fill, partly because so few Friends want to shoulder this burden. Agreeing to serve on Nominating committee is signing up for a kind of failure, or at least for hard work and frustration.

This problem is universal and persistent. In my thirty-some years as a Friend, I have never known a meeting that did not struggle with too few people doing too much work, with committees that are under-appointed and sometimes not very effective. I have come to the conclusion that the problem cannot be solved, at least with the solutions we have been trying all these decades. We should ditch them—ditch the solutions that are failing us, and maybe ditch committees themselves, as well, at least in a lot of cases.

Past solutions

As they say, doing the same things over and over again to solve a problem while expecting a different outcome is a definition of insanity. I would call it deep neurosis, myself; “insanity” is a little strong. Let’s stop doing the things that have not worked after all this time, and try something new.

In the past, meetings have tried the following:

  • We have tried to improve communications, assuming that, if only Friends knew what the committees did and how important that work was, they would agree to serve. —Not. The product we are trying to sell with better “advertising” is flawed and needs a recall.
  • We have formed ad hoc committees to study the problem and propose solutions—of course; what else would Quakers do? This often leads to the creation of at least one new committee. A truly dysfunctional approach, except . . . what else can you do?
  • Because—in general, we have been taking the system for granted, a system in which the business of the meeting is done by standing committees with a discreet set of tasks that define their charges, staffed by Friends appointed for set terms by nominating committees. Maybe the system itself is the problem.

Sometimes, meetings go a little deeper in their search for solutions than exploratory committees and renewed efforts at communication. Are we losing people because the committees are dysfunctional? Are the committee meetings tedious because of ineffective clerking? Would an orientation for new members and training for clerks help? Do we have too many committees? Do we have the right committees? Could some restructuring solve the problem?

These questions get closer to the heart of the matter. I think the problem is structural and it does call for structural solutions—but not for a shuffling of the meeting’s committee chart. If there are solutions, they will have to be sustained and long-term, far-reaching and multi-dimensional, structural and radical.

The real problem(s)

I think the basic problem is that we define the problem in terms of the meeting’s needs instead of the members’ needs. We have been looking for ways to get more Friends to serve on committees. I think we should be looking instead for ways to serve our members in their spiritual lives and see where that leads.

This orientation toward the meeting rather than the members is natural and mostly unconscious. It has a lot of dimensions, too many to address in one blog entry, even one as long as mine usually are. So—

  • In the next entry, I want to focus just on the purpose of the committee and its dynamics and how they tend to turn off our members.
  • Then, in a subsequent post, I want to sketch out some possible solutions.
  • Then I’ll unpack some of these solutions in greater detail.

The overall thrust will be to turn the vector of service around so that it flows from the meeting toward the member, rather than the other other way around.


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§ 4 Responses to Quaker-pocalypse: Nominations, Committee Service, and Spiritual Renewal, Part One

  • Beth Allen says:

    Ben Pink Dandelion’s Swarthmore Lecture to Britsin Yearly Meeting in 2014 addresses this very helpfully. In one Meeting he describes, there are just three groups, Us, Them, and Stuff, which deal with everything. He suggests just asking “what is essential for us to worship together, and to function?”

    In London, UK, we are beginning to realise that having lots of buildings does not help, they trap us and burden us.

  • barbarakay1 says:

    Chester River MM (of Philadelphia YM) has laid down the committee structure in favor of working groups and making decisions as a committee of the whole. Really the only practical way to go when we truly have less than two dozen active members, all of whom are very busy people.

  • Viv says:

    Steven, I’ve shared your blog with several people strongly associated with Nominating committees and with traveling ministry. Thank you for continuing to serve the RSoF so faithfully through your insights and blogging.

  • Jnana Hodson says:

    Your twist in perspective is part of what’s needed — it also points to identifying talent and spiritual gifts rather than filling slots on an organizational chart.
    I’m leaning more toward working groups — or mini-ministries or mini-monthly meetings — where individuals may participate as resource people or the like, not just as bodies that have to show up monthly for a committee session.
    Glad to see others doing some deep thinking here.
    By the way, just when did Friends shift to the burdensome committee system we now have? My guess is that it came about when we laid down the separate men’s and women’s meetings for business … and made our agendas twice as long.

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