Why become a member?

March 29, 2017 § 4 Comments

Why would an attender apply for membership in a Quaker meeting?

In a lot of meetings I know, the only thing it gets you, really, is the privilege of serving on some new committees and maybe some more deeply internalized sense of responsibility to attend meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship, and to support the meeting financially. In a word, you’re signing up for responsibility. Not to denigrate the quite wonderful sense of belonging that membership brings for most of us, I suspect.

So we may be fairly clear about the member’s responsibilities to the meeting (or not). But what is the responsibility of the meeting to the member? This is what I want to focus on.

I think our meetings pay too little attention to their side of the covenant with members, to what they owe the members, beyond providing a roof for meeting for worship and some coffee afterwards. What does the member get out of the deal that is different from being just a faithful attender?

I think we can name with some confidence three things that meetings try to offer. I would then add a fourth, one that I think is extremely important, but I’m not so confident that we have this one covered. Meetings offer members:

  1. communion, that is, meeting for worship, the regular opportunity to share the presence of the Spirit;
  2. community, f/Friendship in the Spirit, which includes
  3. pastoral care; and (in my understanding)
  4. spiritual nurture—active, proactive, even focused nurture of spiritual gifts, opportunities for personal spiritual exploration and formation, and discernment and support of leadings and ministries.

The first three we take seriously already, though it’s not always so easy to do well. Most meetings have committees dedicated to this work and they try hard. But for all intents and purposes, we offer worship, community, and pastoral care equally to both attenders and members. Nothing here changes with the status of meeting membership.

The fourth service is the only one that we would not necessarily give to attenders in the ways that I personally desire from covenantal community—that is, meaningful engagement in one another’s spiritual/religious lives. And for me, this is one of the central missions of a Quaker meeting, one of its main reasons for existing.

For me, covenantal community means that the community is willing to engage with me, actively and proactively, in the nurture of my spiritual gifts, the support of my leadings and ministry (including my vocal ministry), and in the formation and nurture of my spiritual life in general.

It’s the proactive part that differentiates membership from “attender-ship”. I think we would not presume to get intimately involved in someone’s spiritual life without her or his express wish. Thus, the difference between being an attender and being a member is that you invite the meeting into your spiritual life, recognizing that, in the Quaker way, the spiritual life only fully flourishes in the embrace of community.

This applies to both aspects of eldership, both positive spiritual nurture and accountability. Put another way, we promise to protect the meeting’s worship and its fellowship on behalf of all its members and attenders, so that all can feel welcome, spiritually nurtured, and safe in our community. In essence, we notify members that we will hold them accountable for their negative behavior. In practical terms, this means we bring up our commitment to protect the worship and the fellowship in our clearness committees for membership.

For it’s in the clearness committee that the rubber hits the road. It is here that we ask an applicant what their spiritual life consists of and just how involved we can get in helping them put it together and deepen it. Many people come to us without a very clear idea yet of what the life of the spirit means or consists of for them. Do they want help in exploring and clarifying that? For those who are already on a fairly clear path, how can we help?

The one area that obtains for all applicants in this regard is vocal ministry. Our clearness committees should ask what the applicant thinks and feels about vocal ministry—their own in particular, and vocal ministry in general. Do they welcome our attention, support, and even correction in their vocal ministry? Do they consider it a sacred calling that deserves and even needs the community’s involvement?

All this presupposes, however, that the meeting is actually going to engage with members in the ways I’m talking about and that it is equipped to be of service in these ways. I don’t think I’ve ever known a meeting that is clear about its role in members’ spiritual lives or prepared to be proactive in the ways I’m talking about. Even my own meeting is hesitant and it has a Gifts and Leadings Committee specifically charged with with this role. Many also do not have seasoned Friends who could be good resources and mentors to others in their spiritual lives and who are also willing to serve in this way.

So, for a meeting to offer something substantive and distinguishing to attenders considering membership, the meeting must have a rather deep conversation about its mission, about its role in members’ lives. It needs to be clear with its membership care and clearness committees about what it expects of them. And it needs to be prepared to deliver on its promises if it’s going to make any in the first place.

If it does not have the spiritual and human resources to nurture its members’ spiritual lives, it needs to reach out to other meetings and to the wider Quaker network. Can it bring people in? Can it help to send members to nearby retreat centers? Can it at least hold viewings and discussion of the many great videos now available on QuakerSpeak.org, or discussion groups on Quaker readings, Pendle Hill Pamphlets, its Faith and Practice?

This, in my opinion, is an essential calling of a Quaker meeting and what we owe our members.

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