Challenges for Large Quaker Meetings

September 9, 2014 § 5 Comments

I moved to Philadelphia in June and while packing my Quaker library I uncovered a paper I didn’t know I had: The Caring Multitude: Is It Possible? Preliminary Reflections on Experience in a Large Quaker Meeting in an Urban Setting, by Dan Seeger. Dan is a fairly well-known Friend who has held several high-level positions with AFSC and was Executive Director of Pendle Hill for a time, among a number of other significant contributions to Quaker culture. His 1965 case before the US Supreme Court, The United States of America vs Daniel A. Seeger, won the right to conscientious objection to military service for secular people who were not claiming religious grounds for their stand.

The Caring Multitude was written in 1979 and was originally meant “to be shared with a small group of Friends concerned with the life of the Monthly Meeting”. I am not at all sure how I ended up with a copy, which is a photocopy of a typewritten manuscript that has someone else’s notes on it.

In this little talking paper, as he calls it, Dan addresses the challenges that large urban meetings face in three crucial areas: pastoral care, meeting for worship, and corporate social outreach. He makes a lot of really interesting points. More than interesting—they are true, to my mind, and very much worth considering, especially by Friends worshipping in large meetings.

Because I don’t have permission to republish his paper, I don’t feel comfortable even quoting it extensively, which I would like to do, but I do want to raise up some of his ideas and add some of my own, and invite my readers to think about them. They are especially pertinent for Friends in large meetings and for those of us who attend regional and yearly meeting sessions that get large.

What do I mean by “large”? I want to leave this definition to the subjective sense of large, rather than giving a number. I think, when you read further, you will have a sense of what I mean. And anyway, some of these dynamics apply even to smaller meetings.

What it’s like to worship in a “large” meeting?

I agree with Dan’s assessment that our way of silent, waiting worship doesn’t really work in large meetings. That it can’t work, in fact. Here’s why (the core insight here is Dan’s; most of the elaboration is mine):

A certain proportion of Friends are likely to feel a genuine call to speak in meeting. Another proportion are likely to speak with less obvious grounding in the Spirit. The more people in the meeting, the more people are likely to speak. When the population gets to a certain point, you get an awful lot of speaking, and, as Hegel first pointed out, at that point, quantitative change precipitates qualitative change.

First, it tends to induce popcorn speaking, a chain reaction of messages that have been prompted more by each other than by the Holy Spirit. Second, the increased number of messages squeezes the intervals between messages, and this squeezing suppresses the ministry of those Friends who feel it’s important to leave a decent interval between messages and who use that interval to properly attend to each offering. Thus the Friends who are most likely to bring a deeper, more seasoned ministry to the meeting are least likely to finish their seasoning or find an appropriate moment in which to deliver it.

This has several bad effects. First, by denying Friends the time of waiting silence necessary to go deep, we don’t go deep. By denying Friends the vocal ministry of some of its most gifted ministers, we disrespect both the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s servants. And by virtually guaranteeing a certain amount of un-gifted ministry, we degrade the quality of the worship.

Furthermore, the situation reinforces the low standards for both corporate behavior and individual ministry that prevail in such a meeting, encouraging more of the behavior that causes the problem. It gives newcomers a false impression of what meeting for worship is for, and it inevitably drives some of them away. I know this from personal experience: one of my sons stopped attending such a meeting because “the same blowhards rise to speak every meeting”. And it drives away seasoned Friends who want a deeper worship experience; but before they go, it leads them into grief and even despair.

And the whole dynamic is a self-reinforcing downward spiral. The more devoid of Spirit the ministry is,

  • the more likely that gifted ministers will either keep quiet (and bring down the spirit of the worship with their despair), or leave;
  • the less likely that avid Spirit-seekers will stay and join;
  • the more bandwidth the blowhards will occupy; and
  • the more likely that gifted ministers will lower their own standards in desperation, and then get even more depressed because of their own perceived unfaithfulness.

Does any of this make sense to you? Is it your experience? Do you serve on a ministry and worship committee, which is charged with nurturing a deep meeting for worship and with protecting the worship from unworshipful influences? Do you have any idea what to do about these problems?

I hope you respond, and, in my next post, I want to try out some ideas for dealing with these problems. Some come from Dan’s paper, and some are my own.

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