Membership, Part 7: Yearly meeting membership

January 1, 2021 § 2 Comments

The one concrete effort I know of to meet YAF needs is New York Yearly Meeting’s approval of individual membership in the yearly meeting itself, as an alternative to monthly meeting membership. However, I worry that a yearly meeting, at least one as big as NYYM, won’t be able to meet those needs either.

A yearly meeting can provide community and a sense of identity and inclusion, which the alternative-seekers yearn for, but it can only do this passively. To a deal-breaking degree, yearly meetings are incapable of ministering effectively, let alone proactively, to the deeper needs of individuals.

If I read the PhYM YAF epistle and other documents from these seekers correctly, these individuals want to be included. They want their gifts acknowledged and employed in meaningful ways, not just through placement on committees as token young people. They bristle at “bureaucratic” membership and seek “spiritual membership”.

But I see three kinds of problems with the yearly meeting membership alternative:

  • First, yearly meetings are not likely to be able to meet YAFs’ stated needs.
  • Second, and more important, I think these seekers have not fully understood their own needs, and yearly meetings are even less equipped to meet these deeper, more important needs.
  • Third, trying to meet them would strain yearly meetings structurally until they fail.

Stated needs

If a yearly still uses clearness committees for membership, I’m not sure how they will avoid the pitfall of “bureaucratic” membership. I suspect that yearly meetings are likely to be even more “bureaucratic” than monthly meetings, because they are too big to be flexible enough to recognize nuances and special circumstances. Recognizing this, NYYM has relegated all aspects of the “bureaucracy” to a committee for Ministry and Pastoral Care, cutting the gathered body and the business meeting out of the deal altogether, which I understand is structurally necessary, but irregular as gospel order.

Similarly, yearly meeting nominating committees are even more over-burdened and distant from the whole membership of the yearly meeting than monthly meeting nominating committees are from their membership. Nominating committees do their best, but the truth is that nominating committees are not well equipped to know and nurture the membership’s spiritual gifts and leadings, and it isn’t their charge, anyway. They fill positions on committees. NYYM’s Ministry and Counsel Committee and its Ministry and Pastoral Care Committee would be the body charged with recognizing and nurturing spiritual gifts. But their charge is to employ those gifts on behalf of the yearly meeting, not to mentor and support the spiritual lives of individuals. That’s the role of a monthly meeting committee for worship and ministry. Yearly meetings are not designed to minister to individuals.

Deeper needs

Which brings me to point number two. I think the Friends seeking an alternative to monthly meeting membership have not quite thought through their needs, just as most meetings have not really thought through how they might meet them. Young adults, especially, presumably seek support with their spiritual formation. Having decided to be Quakers, presumably they want immersion in our tradition and some level of direct personal attention to their individual journey. Yearly meetings are not equipped to provide these things.

Now, to be honest, neither are monthly meetings. But that’s because monthly meetings tend to view membership from only one side of the relationship—what the member owes the meeting. They tend to forget about what the meeting owes the member. But at least a monthly meeting could provide meaningful spiritual nurture, if they applied their imaginations and their resources. Yearly meetings just can’t; their scale, structure, and mission make this almost impossible.

And that’s just the matter of spiritual nurture, which is usually the most overlooked of all of a meeting’s responsibilities to its members. But pastoral care has the same problem—scale prevents a yearly meeting from knowing its broader membership at all, let alone well enough to minister to a Friend who needs pastoral care. NYYM has 4000+ members maybe? 125 regularly attend sessions and work on committees, a number that shrinks every year, while the work only grows. A member in distress will likely go unnoticed, let alone properly cared for.

Structural inadequacy

Reason number three for why yearly meeting membership is not a good alternative to monthly meeting membership: it overburdens the yearly meeting. This is not just a matter of resources, especially human resources and even spiritual resources, though these burdens are already breaking the backs of many yearly meetings. It’s a structural problem. Yearly meetings just are not designed to minister to individual needs. By definition, they minister to the needs of meetings and act on their behalf in the ways that monthly meetings cannot do themselves. Yearly meetings focus on local meetings and on the wider world.

I suspect that yearly meeting membership will turn out to be a good faith effort that proves unsatisfactory in the long term. Something else is required.

I want to make a proposal about that in the next post.


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