Quaker-pocalypse—Nominations and Meeting Renewal

October 11, 2015 § 8 Comments

The goal

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

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.

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§ 8 Responses to Quaker-pocalypse—Nominations and Meeting Renewal

  • Viv Hawkins says:

    I have recently re read a small pamphlet written by Gordon Cosby and Kayla McClurg entitled Becoming Authentic Church. As I understand it, it is based on the premise of serving God I some meaningful way beyond simply serving congregational members. It sees the larger context for the congregation is the community in which the congregation finds itself, one might say “the world.”

    AFSC has been adapting an Unitarian Universalist model that joins Quaker church/ meeting members together in spiritual practice, social change learning, and action that supports a local change initiative. The next three Calls to Spirited Action will focus on it. All are welcome.

  • Howard Brod says:

    Regarding membership: Like many mid-western unprogrammed meetings, our east coast meeting took the opposite approach to membership than you are suggesting. We eliminated any corporate meaning to formal (recorded) membership. Instead, we only retain formal (recorded) membership for those who still want it as an aid in their spiritual journey.

    The ‘Spirit of Truth’ led us to admit that there are many formal members of our meeting who do not participate in the life of our meeting; yet, there are many informal members (unrecorded or attenders) who hold our meeting together. So, through a three year discernment process, we were led to state in our meeting procedures the obvious: formal membership is inconsequential to the life of our meeting and would be used only for the benefit of an individual if it is meaningful to them for their spiritual journey.

    That decision translated to us lifting more ‘burdens’ off of Friends; one less thing they needed to do to become a fully active participant in the life of our meeting.

    Result after a decade or more with this arrangement: Commitment to our corporate spiritual life has steadily grown (with the normal few bumps), and this is what matters to the meeting – not membership. We now have 80% of our active Friends who have chosen to not seek formal (recorded) membership. No one even knows who’s a member at our meeting because it is not emphasized or even noted in published documents. We’ve had monthly meeting clerks, committee clerks, even Trustees who are not recorded (formal) members (half of our current 7 Trustees are not members).

    Modern seekers are not drawn to churches that push membership. It does not seem very spiritual to them, and it is really not very quakerly anyway to have an under-class within the meeting (attenders who are “less than” the members). It is absurd for a meeting to welcome ‘attenders’ to participate equally in our Meetings for Business; yet deny these Friends the joys of equally serving the meeting in any role available (even clerk and Trustee). We need to open our hearts and minds and come into the 21st century by operating in the way modern seekers expect from a spiritual community.

    • What I was getting at, though, was an agreement between the member and the meeting in which the meeting would be invited to engage with your spiritual life proactively in ways that most meetings I know do not do, and that this level of involvement would properly depend on some kind of explicit agreement–not a tacit one. For instance, if you found yourself speaking somewhat regularly or frequently, with a sense of calling to vocal ministry–as I do–you and the meeting would take it for granted that my ministry should enjoy some level of eldership, for both nurture and oversight.

      Put another way, it seems to me that the faith and practice of Quaker ministry needs a more developed culture of eldership than most meetings maintain (in my experience), but this level of engagement would not be fore everyone. You would want Friends to ask for it, not just assume it of everyone. The natural mechanism for this would be application for membership.

      Now formal membership would not be necessary as long as the meeting had some way of satisfying the needs of emerging ministers who wanted to carry their ministry in the traditional Quaker way.

      • Howard Brod says:

        What you are suggesting, Steven, could certainly be done in a meeting that does not embrace formal membership as necessary to be a full participant in the life of the meeting.

        I do think that younger people are not into making formal commitments – especially when it comes to their spirituality. At least that has been the experience at my meeting. To work within that reality, we have worked for several years to develop a culture of “informal eldering” – again foregoing the need for the formality of designated elders. And this has worked well for us, especially because us seasoned Friends have experienced the joy of being “eldered” by any Friend in the meeting. I personally have grown much through this culture of allowing the Spirit to use anyone among us to elder when warranted. We have used the Clearness process when a more formal eldering arrangement is requested or would be beneficial.

        I think what we each want for our meetings is a healthy and helpful environment for every Friend that enters our meetinghouse; an environment where everyone recognizes that we each have areas to grow in our spiritual journey. Removing or de-emphasizing formality and replacing it with a genuine egalitarian and caring community of Friends that demonstrates love naturally, is the best environment to attract and retain newcomers. And the spirituality of old-timers (seasoned Friends) would constantly be challenged to grow even more.

        Rather than creating more formality to enhance the spiritual life of our meeting, I think the real challenge is to develop over a number years the healthy and helpful culture I am advocating for. This will involve letting go of structure, formality, and tradition; and replacing it with simplicity in all facets of the meeting’s life. We should look for ways to help new ones among us feel immediately comfortable and valued, participating in the full life of the meeting from the get-go. As soon as they see formal programs, or named “elders”, or an effort to keep newcomers (non-members) out of the click of leadership – these new ones will become turned-off.

        I have often noted that while liberal Quaker worship is simple and genuine, the structures of our meetings and the traditions we hang on to, are not simple at all. So, while our worship can be quite a spiritual experience, the business/structures of the meeting often smack of the world’s businesses. What would happen if we let the Spirit be in charge of the whole meeting – not just unprogrammed worship?

      • I am intrigued by what you’ve said here. I have a tendency to go straight for the formality and the structure. But this more open approach seems better–as long as there are “elders” in the meeting who can meet the needs of the people in the meeting in the informal ways you talk about.

  • barbarakay1 says:

    Something that was not addressed was those of us led to minister in the wider community who (while also ministering, perhaps as hospitality, in our Meeting) need our Meeting as a recharging station and have no energy for another commitment.

  • I’ve been trying to track down when the committee structure took over, too. Some standing committees are really old. Philadelphia YM’s Indian Committee was formed in 1793, I think, and New York Yearly Meeting’s Indian Affairs Committee was formed in 1895, I think.

    But I suspect that it was AFSC that jump-started the practice. Although I know that London Yearly Meeting convened a Committee on War and the Social Order in 1915 charged with analyzing what had caused the Great War and what Friends might do about it. It came back to the Yearly Meeting in 1917, I think, and its report was then circulated to the local and quarterly meetings. The Committee brought its final report to LYM in 1918 and soon after that a new Committee on Industry and the Social Order was created, which lasted at least until the 1940s. So committees may already have been fairly well established in LYM before the war.

    If any of my readers have more information about the emergence of standing committees among Friends, I would love to hear it.

  • Jnana Hodson says:

    It’s so refreshing to hear other Friends thinking along the same lines!
    Quakers didn’t always work from such a structured form, and I’m still at a loss as to when it really took over. The fact is, though, that change is required.
    One caution about the Jubilee year, though, is to make sure you have a nominating (uh) committee in place at the end of that time. I can name one Monthly Meeting that learned that the hard way.

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