Membership, Part 5—Seeking alternatives

December 6, 2020 § Leave a comment

I’ve been reading the documents produced by New York and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings as they have worked to understand and address the concerns some Friends have raised regarding our traditional understanding of and processes for membership (and watched a great PhYM recording of a panel on the topic). My original goal was to identify what these concerns were. But my research has raised a bunch of other questions:

  1. Who—who has these concerns?
  2. What—what are their concerns?
  3. Why—what do they want?
  4. But—what kind of resistance have they met?
  5. How—what alternatives to traditional membership have emerged?
  6. And—what “ur”-questions lie behind these other questions? What root questions must be answered as context for the discernment.

For reasons of space, I’m going to break up my discussion of these queries into blocks, starting with numbers one and two.

1.  Who finds that our traditional faith and practice of membership doesn’t work for them?

Dissatisfaction with our current practice of membership began with young adults, but deeper exploration has revealed other groups who carry the concern:

  • Young adults, including participants in Quaker youth programs who have no relationship with any Quaker meeting; 35% of YAFs in one survey said they don’t have a home in a monthly meeting, though many of them actually hold membership in one.
  • The incarcerated.
  • Parents with young children.
  • Friends at a distance from their home meetings or are too far away from any local meeting.
  • Caregivers and others whose schedules or circumstances limit how much they can participate in meeting life.

2 & 3. What doesn’t work for these Friends in our current practice and what do they want?

Certain structural and circumstantial barriers prevent some from feeling they belong to their meeting: incarceration, transience, schedules, personal circumstances, differences in culture and/or theology from a local meeting, and distance.

But the deeper concern, especially on the part of young adults and members of marginalized communities, seems to be a feeling of exclusion fostered by inflexible attitudes and the strictures and constraints of Quaker “bureaucracy”. They want accessibility and a voice, particularly in yearly meetings, without having to “check the box” of meeting membership. They want inclusion, not membership. To quote the PhYM* Young Adult Epistle, they want their community to say: “We know you, and the Spirit is within you, and we acknowledge you.” They want their gifts to be recognized, welcomed, and included in the community’s governance and work, irrespective of their membership status. They want “spiritual membership” as opposed to “bureaucratic membership”. And they want the barriers that hinder the full inclusion of marginalized persons to come down.

In support of these desires, they know from their own experience of YAF gatherings that you don’t need “membership” in any form to feel you belong in a nurturing spiritual community, or for that community to grow and act under the guidance of the Spirit.

*  Friends on the East Coast tend to use PYM as their anagram for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, but so does Pacific Yearly Meeting. I prefer PhYM for Philadelphia YM because it seems to me better than PaYM for Pacific YM, and in order to, in some small way, try to reorient the attitudes of East Cost Quakers. Unfortunately, PhYM already owns the domain name pym.org, so my gesture only goes so far.

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