Membership, Part 4—What meetings (should) offer members

December 3, 2020 § 1 Comment

Meetings tend to define membership only in terms of the member’s obligations to the meeting. Here, I want to look at what meetings offer their members.

This affects our consideration of alternative forms of membership in three ways. First and most obviously, it starts to answer whether monthly meetings and yearly meetings can meet the needs of the alternative seekers. But it also invites the alternative seekers to reconsider what they are looking for. Maybe they haven’t yet identified all their needs. And thirdly, it challenges meetings at both the monthly and yearly meeting levels to reconsider their mission

Ideally, I see meetings offering members five kinds of things, which together define the body of Christ:

  • Communion—that is, worship, the opportunity to share the joys, the healing, the renewal, the guidance, of the Holy Spirit—in community.
  • Community—the joys and challenges of fellowship in the Spirit, including mutual support of those areas of outward personal life in which the worshipping community can be of service, but also the joys and challenges of knowing one another and being known “in the things that are eternal”, in that deep way that is distinctive to religious community. Plus, religious community offers the following special ways in which the community can minister to its members:
  • Pastoral care—being there for each other in meaningful ways in times of joy and sorrow and transition.
  • Spiritual nurture—that is, eldership, support and nurture of the member’s spiritual journey, including mutual accountability for one’s walking on the path, and help with discernment and support for one’s callings, the work we feel led to do in the world.
  • Religious identity—content and context for understanding who we are in the world, a tradition and a community that can ground our sense of self and guide our development in the life of the Spirit.

Communion

The one thing meetings do for sure is host the meeting for worship. But offering a roof over the head of worship is not enough. The meeting owes its members gathered meetings for worship. It should offer real holy communion, direct experience of the spirit of Christ, that is, with the spirit that unites us, transforms us, heals us, forgives us, inspires us, guides us, awakens us to our inner truth and our truer selves. The meeting should deliver its members into the quaking joy and transcending gratitude that collective baptism in the Well of Life bestows.

I’ve discussed what fosters the gathered meeting in my Pendle Hill Pamphlet The Gathered Meeting, but here I want to raise up the importance of vocal ministry. The meeting owes its members truly Spirit-led vocal ministry. This means much more proactive nurture of vocal ministry than most meetings provide.

Community

Being members one of another involves so many things, and these have been well discussed in our written tradition, including in the Pendle Hill Pamphlet with that title, so I won’t go into detail here. Ideally, meeting for worship and the coffee hour afterwards, meeting for business and committee work actually go a long way toward building deep, Spirit-bound community. But meetings should not stop there, but do other things that build community, especially things that meet the needs of families. And they need to deal effectively and lovingly with conflict.

Pastoral Care

We’re not professionals. For deeply troubled people, we can only try to get them professional help. So we should be prepared with resources in this area.

But for most pastoral care needs, the charge is sometimes daunting but nevertheless fairly clear. First, to try to be aware enough of each other’s lives to know when need arises. Then, to respond as we are able. Some of us have pastoral gifts; the rest of us do our best. As with all forms of ministry, the way forward is to stand still in the Light and to work from the heart. And to be as proactive as possible. Like most meetings I know, my meeting has a Membership Care committee that meets monthly. Each of us is assigned a list of members under our care. We are more or less good at keeping in touch with them. But ideally, meetings offer members a kind of caring that they could not get anywhere else.

Spiritual Nurture

I think this role falls into three categories—spiritual formation, the care of gifts, leadings, and ministry, and eldership, properly defined.

Spiritual formation. Many members come to us not yet fully formed. They may not have a settled personal devotional life, or be very clear about what spiritual life means to them. The meeting has an important role in helping members clarify what spiritual disciplines work for them, what they “believe”, and what gifts they have.

Some of us come with more fully developed faith and practice, which usually have been formed outside the Quaker tradition. The meeting’s role then is to help the member integrate the spiritual life they bring with them into the religious life of the Quaker meeting.

All of this assumes, of course, that people join a meeting because the life of the spirit is important to them and Quakerism seems like the place to pursue it. The clearness committee for membership’s role is to become clear about both of these things.

Nurturing ministry. Within the Quaker tradition, the meeting owes its members discernment, support, and oversight of their spiritual gifts, their leadings, and their ministries, especially their vocal ministry.

Eldership. If the goal of spiritual life is personal transformation, and the goal of religious life is the transformation of the community—BIG if’s—then membership becomes a covenant in which we become accountable to each other under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Do we clarify with applicants how much they welcome our engagement with their spiritual lives and how much we’re willing to become engaged? These are deep questions that meetings tend not to ask, of their applicants or of themselves. We should.

Not everyone comes to a meeting seeking personal transformation. Most, perhaps, seek community, often as a refuge, a recharging station, as a place to get away from the demands of the world. They seek the silence, the peace, the people—not the crucible. Most of us are individualists and we like things our way.

On the other hand, most people seeking to join a religious community presumably do so because they think it will help them realize their higher selves, whatever that means. So how do these spiritual desires, however they are defined, match up with how the meeting understands its religious role or mission?

Which leads us to . . .

Religious Identity

People seek membership in part because they have come to realize that they are already Quakers in some degree, they already identify with this Way, and they want to take this identity to a new level, which membership in a meeting promises to confer. But what does “being a Quaker” mean?

The meeting has a role in nurturing and developing its members’ growth into this identity. Put in concrete terms, this means equipping members to answer with confidence and integrity the kinds of questions that people might ask when a member tells somebody that they’re a Quaker. This means spiritual formation, spiritual nurture, eldership as mentorship, as discussed above, and religious education—programs and efforts through which they can learn to answer these questions for themselves.

If we want to become good cellists, we expect to study music, to practice the instrument, and to have teachers. If we want to become good Quakers, we should expect to study Quakerism and to practice the Quaker way. And meetings should offer religious education.

The unique value of a religion, as opposed to a spiritual life pursued on one’s own, is that having a tradition allows you to go deep, usually much deeper than you could on your own. A tradition provides some great music, an instrument, and teachings, if not teachers. Our tradition has already sunk a shaft into the depths and it offers ideas, tools, people, stories, and promise as guides to those depths.

Meetings should transmit our traditions as a ministry to our members’ religious identity.

In the next post, I want to lay out how I understand the concerns of those who seek alternatives to traditional membership in a monthly meeting.

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