Quaker-pocalypse—Nominations and Meeting Renewal
October 11, 2015 § 8 Comments
On the surface, it looks like the goal regarding nominations and meeting service—too few people doing too much work—is to increase the number of Friends willing to serve on meeting committees. But I think the goal is to help Friends discover and develop their gifts in the context of a new kind of relationship with their meetings, in which Friends are serving each other in their spiritual lives with the extraordinary tools that we have inherited from our tradition, in a structure that better serves the spiritual lives of the members, without leaving the meetings any more under-served than they already are.
Some of those gifts will be useful to the meeting. Some of those Friends will feel led to use them in service to the meeting. There will almost certainly still be gaps. A handful of dedicated Friends will still probably shoulder more than their share of the meeting’s work and financial support. That’s just the way things are in an all-volunteer organization in our time. But the meeting’s energies—by which we mean the energies of its members—will be pointed in the right direction: toward the members.
The goal is to channel divine energy from the members through the meeting organization back toward the members. This energy is, essentially, love, in the form of service to each other in our spiritual lives—and, for that matter, in all aspects of our lives—work, family, and the emotional and even the material aspects of our lives—to the degree that is appropriate and we are able. The meeting’s role is to facilitate this channeling, not to gather unto itself all the members’ energy.
The challenge is that we are talking about a radical change in Quaker meeting culture. We are talking about structural changes that Friends are likely to resist, when they can understand them at all. More importantly, we are talking about a change in consciousness—a much greater clarity about what the religious life could be, a significant shift in our understanding of the purpose of the meeting and the meaning of meeting membership.
This means doing a lot of different things at the same time with strategic purpose, a kind of full court press, sustained over a considerable period of time. Multi-dimensional strategic efforts are hard to conceive, hard to communicate, and hard to grasp, even when communicated well., hard to implement, and very hard to sustain. A “full court press” will involve a lot of the members, when the problem we are trying to solve is the fact that our members are already at the limit of their resources, and we have trouble getting a lot of them involved in anything. Furthermore, energy tends to wane over time, even when the community is behind a significant collective effort, but this level of transformation just can’t be done quickly with a magic tantric spell.
So this effort has to start small and progress in stages and it needs to work on several fronts at once. And it needs to live on the energy of Friends who feel led to the work. As soon as this transformative effort begins to feel like an obligation or duty, we might as well have stayed with the original, now ‘traditional’ committee structure.
In the short to medium term, we could try the following:
Clerking. Improve the effectiveness of our committees with some training and/or resources for their clerks. See these resources on the New York Yearly Meeting website.
Committee oversight—in a new way. See whether any Friend or group of Friends feel led to serve as elders in a particular way: as a kind of ad hoc working group on meeting life whose charge is to pay attention to the life of the meeting overall, to watch for emerging problems, trends, and patterns, and to serve as ombudspersons, people everyone knows they can go to with a difficulty. This could be the assistant clerk, or even the meeting’s clerk. And they should feel free to co-opt other Friends to help address a particular situation. I know, this sounds like another committee, another nomination. But I think this person or group should truly feel led to do this work. This should not be an appointment for a specified term, and if the meeting cannot find such a person, then so be it. This should not be a new standing committee, but rather a locus of concern for the overall life of the meeting. I suspect that this approach would be most appropriate for medium-sized and large meetings.
Trim the organizational tree. Take a look at your committees and see which ones could be laid down or combined.
Working groups instead of committees. We might try getting rid of committees altogether, except for those with fiduciary responsibility, and form working groups instead. Standing committees are hard shells with defined tasks occupied by nominated Friends for specified terms. What I am groping for here is rather a locus of activity around a meeting need or concern with a specified time and place to meet and with very permeable boundaries—whoever shows up does the work. Someone would have to manage a calendar to make sure groups meet in a timely way (planning in the summer for First Day School’s opening in the fall, for instance) and to arrange for the spaces needed. In this scenario, nominating committee might only have to present to the meeting names for meeting officers and a couple of Meeting Life Coordinators to manage the logistics.
In the long term:
Meaning, Quaker identity, and membership. In the end (or rather, in the beginning), it all comes down to membership—what do we think membership means and what do we ask of those who join us? The answers to these questions rest on a higher-order question: What is the Quaker meeting for? What is the Religious Society of Friends for? Who are we and what are we doing? Specifically, do we understand the meeting as a covenantal community in which the members and the meeting share promises of mutual service and enrichment? The ways in which members serve the community have long been defined, but in terms of committee service; and the ways the community serves the members usually have not been defined at all, beyond hosting of meeting for worship and some level of reactive (rather than proactive) pastoral care. Do we want the meeting—that is, our fellow Quakers—to be actively, proactively, engaged in our spiritual lives? Do we understand the life of the spirit to include active mutual engagement with our religious community, beyond simply sharing meeting for worship and working together to run the meeting? Do we understand the life of the spirit as something we cannot do well alone, that collective discernment and support and even oversight are essential to individual spiritual thriving? Can we offer attenders something more than committee service when they become members, a level of engagement that would be serious enough that you would have to ask for it—by applying for membership.
I expect that it would take a meeting quite a long time to answer these questions, and the answer might well be no—we like things the way they are. We don’t want to scare people away, and it’s okay if there’s really no difference between being an attender and being a member. We want to be able to keep our inner lives to ourselves. My spiritual life is none of your business.
Membership jubilee. If a meeting decides to try a radical approach to renewal, however, we might try declaring a jubilee on membership altogether, once we’re clear as a meeting about who we are. Wipe the slate clean and hold new membership clearness committees for everybody, so that everybody has a chance to re-up, as it were. This would take a long while, especially in a big meeting. We might experiment with a more collective approach: hold small groups led by a facilitator in which Friends would discuss their spiritual lives and their hopes and needs regarding meeting life and membership—and then hold an “altar call” at the end. Those who decide not to apply for membership then would, of course, be free to apply later.
I’m just throwing out ideas here. I really do think this problem is very difficult to grasp and to solve. I’ve been thinking about it for decades and my ideas just keep changing, and I still don’t feel very confident about any of them. So I would love to hear what others think and what others are doing.
I know of a couple of meetings that have laid down their committee structure and turned to working groups, including Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. I would love to hear how those experiments are going.
On a final note: I am going on vacation for two weeks, so it will probably be at least three before I post again.