Meeting response to individual concerns

July 26, 2017 § 8 Comments

Last Sunday a Friend visited our meeting from another nearby meeting and, in our “joys and sorrows” time, expressed puzzlement and hurt over the fact that she had come to us some time ago with a deeply held witness concern and a minute from her meeting and nobody showed up for a program she had gone to considerable length to organize with outside speakers. I learned from speaking to her later that the experience had cast a shadow over her ministry and now, in addition to the sense of hurtful rejection of her ministry she struggled with spiritual confusion about the nature and future of her calling.

I have seen this happen before. A Friend who carries a witness concern with deep commitment and passion has trouble getting other Friends to pay attention. Often, it’s the lack of interest in one’s own meeting that hurts the most, especially when your desire, or even your expectation, is that the whole meeting will take up the concern collectively.

Meanwhile non-Quakers seem more receptive. Often such a Friend finds support only among the members of whatever secular movement has organized around the concern, but those folks do not appreciate the spiritual roots of your concern or its religious expression.

We can’t expect our meetings to collectively take up our concerns, witness or otherwise. This takes time, energy, and resources both human and sometimes financial, and our meetings are usually short on all three, or four. Taking up as a collective body the deeply held concerns of all those in the meeting who have them would lead to exhaustion and collapse.

Moreover, we come to meeting with different religious temperaments and for different things. As a survey by Britain Yearly Meeting of who had come to them through convincement has shown, we break down into three basic groups, broadly categorized: activists, mystics, and, in BrYM’s terminology, refugees. I would call this latter group communitarians, people who seek religious community; not all of these Friends are refugees from some other tradition, but they share a hunger for community and find fulfillment in fellowship and service to that community.

My point is that the communitarians and the mystics are not temperamentally inclined to respond to an appeal to activism. Friends in both groups are inclined to acknowledge the importance of a given witness concern, but aren’t likely to embrace it with passion, or maybe, even to go out of their way to attend a program.

I ran into this from the other end just a few weeks ago when I unknowingly set up a Bible study on the Politics of Passion Week at the same time that someone else was leading a session on racism, a concern which our meeting has taken up collectively. Four Friends showed up at my session, instead of the 15 or so who had been coming to past Bible study sessions, and those four felt quite torn. I didn’t blame them. I would never have scheduled my Bible study opposite that session if I had known. We often feel torn by competing goods like this.

However, while we can’t expect our meetings to whole-heartedly embrace our concerns collectively, we should be able to expect them to give us the discernment and support we need to be faithful to our call. This visiting Friend had a minute of service from her meeting but apparently no other support.

Too often writing a minute of service for someone with a leading is as far as a meeting goes. New York Yearly Meeting, for instance, routinely endorses minutes of service at its sessions—and I do mean routinely. The body usually gets some sense of the ministry from the reading of the minute itself, when that occurs. But there almost never is any follow-through—no background, no report from the Friend and/or her or his accompanying elders or support committee, if there are any. It’s all very pro forma, as though the yearly meeting has no other responsibility for the individual ministries it supports.

The Friend who visited my meeting obviously needs a support committee and also a clearness committee to help her sort out where she is with her call. She doesn’t have either. Did she ever have a clearness committee for discernment of her leading? If she did, then at least the Friends on her clearness committee would know what her leading means to her and maybe they could provide support. Having a support committee spreads this intimate familiarity with the Friend and her or his concern even farther into the meeting. This helps to ameliorate the feeling of isolation, at the very least.

But many meetings do not really know the faith and practice of traditional Quaker ministry. All they know how to do is write a minute, and that often with a rather shallow understanding—or maybe they don’t. They often don’t know how to conduct a clearness committee for discernment. They may not know about the resources available for guidance in creating support committees for Friends with leadings.

My meeting has a committee dedicated to this work, but mine is the only meeting I have ever heard of that has such a settled and seasoned infrastructure for the nurture of Quaker ministry. Meanwhile, this is the very heart of Quaker spirituality—as individuals, to listen for and to answer God’s call to service, and as meetings, to support the ministries that the Holy Spirit has raised up.

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§ 8 Responses to Meeting response to individual concerns

  • Howard Brod says:

    Steven, the usual attendance at our ‘Meeting for Business’ is between 15 to 30 Friends. But I think having a more Spirit led community has more to do with the environment we cultivate at ‘Meeting for Business’ than the number of Friends present.

    Over the course of several years various Friends suggested significant changes to our process at ‘Meeting for Business’ that not only simplified how we function – but also allows the Spirit to be free-flowing within the whole community of Friends at our meeting. Each of these changes were discerned by the whole meeting and adopted. One result of these changes has been a recognition by Friends that primarily spiritually-based things should occur at ‘Meeting for Business’ – rather than primarily administrative things. Here are some of the details you requested regarding our ‘Meeting for Business’.

    Simplify our Minutes: In our meeting library we have the minutes from our ‘grand-parent’ meeting from the eighteenth century. We have noticed that they only contain the decisions that were made at ‘Meeting for Business’ without any reference to general announcements, committee reports, or even the deliberation that led to the decisions. So, we decided to try this simplified approach. Now, the minutes only contain a sentence or two for each decision made at ‘Meeting for Business’. All the decisions therefore now utilize about a half of a type-written page instead of the two to three pages that our minutes used to take. And guess what – there is no longer any problem getting someone to be the Recording Clerk because it is the easiest role in the whole meeting. We now approve each individual minute on the spot with no need to later (at the next ‘Meeting for Business’) approve them.

    Eliminate the ‘corporate’ environment: This was a tuff one for all Friends to agree to. It required a lot of letting go. No more listing the names of those participating in the ‘Meeting for Business’ which meant no more passing around a clip-board to note our attendance; the reasoning being that it is the Spirit who is making the decisions and each Friend is part of the holistic manifestation of that Spirit; the individual names don’t matter. No more steering of the meeting by various committees by these committee bringing to ‘Meeting for Business’ pre-determined actions for nominal approval by the meeting; instead bringing questions and gradual steps for the whole meeting to consider and process with the goal of the whole meeting seeking the path forward as the Spirit leads us all each step of the way. No longer rigidly adhering to the agenda if the Spirit moves Friends in another direction. No more artificially calling for periods of silence; instead use silence as the tool to activate the work of the Spirit in arriving at a decision. Let go of ‘stuffiness’ by being more natural with humor, allowing coffee/tea to be brought into the worship room as we discern together, and encouraging Friends to lovingly bring forth their concerns for other Friends within our meeting who have needs so that the whole meeting community can respond. Generally, no matter how large the ‘Meeting for Business’ is, we want to strive for a family environment as the backdrop of our discernment – a family in the Spirit.

    Limit agenda items to needed decisions only: No more announcements, committee updates, or unnecessary financial reporting at ‘Meeting for Business’. Unless an item requires a meeting decision/action, don’t bring it to ‘Meeting for Business’. Instead announce it in the Newsletter or via the email mechanism we have in place.

    Request agenda items from everyone: Our clerk of meeting used to request agenda items from committee clerks. Because the changes above created much more available time at ‘Meeting for Business’, we decided to encourage anyone to bring forth agenda items. This has created an environment where everyone feels like an equal partner in the steering of our meeting’s spiritual life.

    Do decision-making as a whole meeting: Finally, all of this has created a loving environment with the time during ‘Meeting for Business’ for our meeting to make all decisions that effect the meeting’s spiritually as a whole meeting. No more letting committees steer the meeting. No more pre-determining the path forward for ‘Meeting for Business’ rubber-stamping approval. Decisions emerge gradually over time in a natural manner since everyone is involved from inception. Our egalitarian, Spirit-led environment has become self-sustaining.

    Steven, I hope the above information answers your request for details of what we’ve done regarding ‘Meeting for Business’. The result has been much greater participation in it and the life of the entire meeting.

    • Howard Brod says:

      Oh yes, I forgot one thing. We’ve changed the name from “Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business” to “Meeting for Worship with a Concern for the Life of the Meeting” thanks to you, Steven, for introducing us to that most excellent terminology that better describes our reason for gathering together once a month to seek the path forward. We are not transacting business or administrivia as a corporation, club, or even many churches do.

  • Joyce Holwerda says:

    Thanks for this helpful post, Steve. My husband reminds me that Woolman worked on his own for some time before receiving support from Friends.

  • Kathleen K-G says:

    I’m a member of your monthly meeting, Steven, but have not been attending Meeting lately, and the primary reason I’ve been away is that I’ve felt I need to participate in a different, non-Quaker congregation in order to get the support I need for the ministry I feel called to carry out. I have not left Quaker faith and practice, but I’ve needed to leave Quaker community, and that’s been painful for me. My own ministry concerns children’s religious education — I taught First Day School for years and years, and clerked FDS committee for some time. Our yearly meeting doesn’t support First Day School (all the youth programs are focused on event planning, not nurturing FDS in our monthly meetings) and my experience with FDS at Quaker meetings in Philly is that they don’t nurture children’s religious education with the depth and sincerity that I seek as my own understanding of this ministry grows. I’m sharing this mainly to say that even when a Meeting has an institutional structure for caring for ministry, some people still don’t find the support they need there. Sometimes a ministry needs more than that — in my case, a community of practice that fully embraces children’s religious education as a ministry, and embraces children’s religious experiences as deserving of nurture in a holistic way.

    • Kathleen, I’m sorry we’ve lost you in this way.

      I have no personal experience of First Day School in this meeting, though I’m planning on fixing that this fall. I can only read between the lines to try to fully understand what you think is lacking. But I have taught first day school myself for several years, so I have had a chance to refine what I think about it in practice. And I agree with what I think you’re getting at—holistic nurture of our children’s religious experiences should be our goal. For me, “holistic” includes nurture of both religious and spiritual experience.

      For I distinguish between religious experience and spiritual experience. For me, spiritual experience is transcendental experience that transforms you in positive ways. Religious experience is spiritual experience that arises or finds its meaning in the context of religious community, especially that experience that comes directly from one’s religious practice.

      I feel First Day School should nurture both spiritual and religious experience. That means, first of all, listening to what our kids’ experiences are and trying to give them some context and tools to understand that experience, to build on it and seek deeper. It also means providing that context—transmitting our tradition, our faith, our history, and our practice, and not just the Quaker tradition per se but also its foundations in Scripture. NOT just teaching “Quaker values” and, for God’s sake, not SPICES.

      But to your point that meetings can fail to support some ministries even if they have a structure and processes in place to do so. I have long felt that modern Quakerism suffers from a damaging tension between the faith and practice of traditional Quaker ministry and our committee structures. Committee structures are structurally hostile to ministry. Yearly meetings inevitably end up nurturing their own committees and programs rather than nurturing their constituent local meetings.

      And in the local meetings, individual ministries rarely fit neatly into their committee structures, and they suffer when you try. In both cases—in or out of committee sponsorship—individual ministry ends up competing with committees for virtually all resources—people, money, and time—the attention of the meeting, time on the business agenda, time in the lives of the Friends involved, money in the budget, and other resources. A Friend’s ministry should not have to compete this way. Quaker ministry is the very heart of Quaker spirituality, as I have said many times in this blog. Committees are not.

      In your case, perhaps a ministry of religious education—a personal, spirit-led vision of how to educate our children—may not have fit with whatever the First Day School committee’s vision might have been, if they had one.

      But this is very complicated. There are a lot of stakeholders—parents, the committee, the wider meeting, and the kids themselves—and they all need a say. Furthermore, many people on FDS committees feel led to be there themselves, even if they don’t treat this inclination as a ministry per se; then you end up with potentially competing ministries, or visions of what and how to teach.

  • When there is no awareness nor understanding of the need for Christ as our Head; when there is no urgency to honor and reveal the Truth as the purpose of our coming together, then to superimpose practices which have no relevance outside of these conditions is pointless. It would be better to first seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness before attempting to organize a community along other lines. Satisfying the need for community only dulls the true hunger for real community that can be had only when founded upon the Gospel. We shouldn’t dissipate our energy trying to enliven a body that is deceived about its life, and willingly so. Rather, we should confront it with the truth and offer Christ, the Truth revealed, though it entails conflict.

    • Howard Brod says:

      My experience with various Friends communities would lead me to agree whole-heartedly with Patricia’s sentiment; even if I would use a more universalist term of “the Light” or the “Spirit” needing to be the center or “Head” of the meeting.

      My meeting has been on an intense spiritual quest for six or so years now. When we started we were trying to remedy a lack of community that had come upon our meeting like a dark smog that was suffocating the Light among us. We did not intentionally seek to base our every action on the Light and Spirit that was manifested through Jesus (and I might say others from various spiritual traditions). But as we struggled with solutions to our communal dysfunction we were forced to ‘drop to our spiritual knees’ with a willingness to let everything go that we had held sacred. Once they were gone, years later we realized they had been nothing more than idols. One by one we let go of everything that was rooted in the human desire for ego-control and a world/corporate view of how things should work. This included many time-honored Quaker traditions that were certainly helpful at one-time in history; but were no longer spiritually viable for the twenty-first century.

      The list of what went by the wayside is too exhaustive to detail here. But one by one the forms we thought were making us Quakerly or spiritual as a meeting, were shed and replaced with the desire, courage, and trust to turn everything within our meeting over to the Light: our structures, the way we used committees, our Quakerees, and our view of those who were different from us politically, and how we processed things from the stand-point of our age (millennials do not relate to ‘order’ as us older folks think is important).

      But to the point of your post, Steven, one of the lessons we learned is in regards to the process we had been using when attempting to support any Friend’s spiritual leading or concern. We had been utilizing the typical Clearness committee to address these. But this changed after the meeting’s experience with one Friend’s concern regarding meeting-supported interest groups.

      The meeting referred her to a committee to use it as a clearness committee for help with her leading that something in the meeting needed to change in the way some interest groups excluded some types of people for seemingly logical reasons (for example, “why would a woman have a need to come to a men’s group?”). However, her concern went nowhere with that committee because I am guessing it seemed unreasonable to the members. The concern never came to Meeting for Business for discernment because the committee chose not to bring it to the whole meeting. The Friend felt hurt, unvalued, and unheard.

      For a solid year, out of desperation this Friend courageously engaged individual Friends and small groups of Friends to explain her leading and that it was coming from the Spirit’s action on her as a result of our own Quaker testimony on equality.

      Finally, well over a year later the spiritual light-bulb went off and the meeting understood her spiritual reasoning on this issue, and discerned together that we will never exclude a segment of our meeting from any event supported by our meeting. Men’s groups would be open to anyone who had a valid interest. Women’s groups would be open to anyone who had a valid interest. LBGT groups would be open to anyone who had a valid interest.

      This failure of our own process to let the Spirit be free-flowing so it could lead us to uncharted places, so it could show us that what at first seemed “unreasonable” to our worldly minds was actually spiritually reasonable. We had unknowingly put our ‘forms’ ahead of people. We decided we would never use a committee again as a clearinghouse (rather than a caring support mechanism) for one of our Friend’s concern, idea, or leading that they felt important enough to share with the whole meeting. Since that time, we’ve had many Friends bring a leading or spiritual concern to the whole meeting at ‘Meeting for Business’ for discernment from the whole meeting – rather than a subset of the meeting. While such Friends may have first chosen to get some personal clarity from a committee, they are strongly encouraged to also bring the concern/leading to the whole meeting if they are so moved – so the person can receive (spiritual) community discernment and support from everyone.

      This has taught us that when the Light (Spirit) (Christ) is our center, we begin to cherish routinely listening to one another with a spiritual ear – not an organizational or worldly ear. And there is immense power in the whole meeting doing such listening together and discerning together in our ‘Meetings for Business’ – no matter how large our meeting is. Try this a few times and you will experience what a gathered ‘Meeting for Business feels like!

      I would add that if you are thinking there is not enough time to do this in your ‘Meeting for Business’, perhaps this is something to change as you place your meeting in the hands of the Spirit instead of your established Quaker protocol. Thinking there is not enough time in your ‘Meeting for Business’ for this, is thinking like an ego-driven human – not the spiritual being you really are. There are lots of things that most liberal Quaker ‘Meetings for Business’ do that are unnecessary, detrimental to community, and more corporate-like than spiritual.

      • Thanks, Howard, for sharing again your meeting’s exciting and successful experiment in total abandonment to Spirit. How big is your meeting?

        I have heard (but do not know from personal experience) that Conservative Friends meetings hold their meetings for worship with a concern for the life of the meeting without formal agendas. Friends responsible for various aspects of meeting life know their business and bring it up in the course of the meeting if and when they feel led to do so. I think many of these meetings are fairly small and the communities tend, I think, to be quite close-knit, which makes this a lot easier. And they may share a deeper level of spiritual maturity than usual. At least that’s the impression I got from Bill and Fran Taber, who were from Ohio YM Conservative. Such a completely unprogrammed and Spirit-led process does much to foster greater spiritual maturity—you either develop it or you fall apart.

        Thanks again for sharing this. I would love to hear the details.

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