Membership — in a Yearly Meeting?

July 31, 2018 § 6 Comments

A young adult f/Friend that I know and some of her friends (not sure how many of them have the capital F) are considering asking New York Yearly Meeting to give them membership. (Technically in my friend’s case, I suppose, she would be asking for a transfer of membership, since she’s already a member of a monthly meeting by birth.)

My initial reaction was negative. But then I began thinking about it and now I’m not so sure.

From the point of view of her monthly meeting, on the surface it looks like a loss. But in fact, they have already lost her. So that’s a “0”.

From the point of view of the yearly meeting, it would essentially be recording what is already a reality, that she treats the yearly meeting as a surrogate meeting already, and is quite active in its life. In addition, it would theoretically cement deeper relationships with the other young adult friends in her cohort and support an aspect of yearly meeting life that it’s always struggled with, the place and engagement of its young adults. So I’ll call that a “+1”.

On the other hand, the yearly meeting is ill equipped to provide her with most of the “services” that monthly meetings provide. This gets to the third part of the relationship, benefits and costs to the Friend herself. So far, she has apparently not yet felt the need for the monthly meeting services I am referring to, by which I mean:

  • pastoral care, including the care of a meeting for marriage, the conduct of a memorial meeting when she dies, and conduct of a clearness committee for solving a personal problem;
  • spiritual formation and support, including regular worship, regular religious education, and discernment and support for a leading or ministry; and finally,
  • the unique fellowship one gets from the more intimate community life of a local meeting.

To be fair, the yearly meeting does dedicate some time at each of its sessions to memorialize deceased members who have been an important part of the life of the yearly meeting, so I bet she would get that; and anyway, she won’t be around to know. And the yearly meeting does enjoy truly deep fellowship—lots of Friends who know each other well and love each other well. This, I suspect, is the reason she thinks of the yearly meeting as her surrogate meeting. So that’s a “+1”.

Furthermore, the yearly meeting could take on many of these other roles. But its resources—especially its human resources—are already stretched almost to the breaking point. I imagine that it would decline to take them on, and rightly so, in my opinion. But apparently, this Friend does not want or need those things.

For my part, without meaningful pastoral care, regular worship, spiritual nurture, and a fellowship that goes deeper than just three annual meetings could provide, what does “membership” mean? All that’s left is Quaker identity and a sense of belonging to the unique spiritual community that is New York Yearly Meeting. To me, that’s a half-baked Quaker life.

On the other hand, all the renewal movements in Quaker history have been youth movements, and their innovations have been resisted by their elders every time, and usually wrong-headedly. Fox and his cohort were themselves young adults when they got started. So were the Friends who began experimenting with programmed worship. So were the Friends who gave birth to the liberal Quaker movement around the turn of the twentieth century.

Those were all resistance movements. Those young people were unsatisfied with the status quo, couldn’t get a meaningful response to their concerns from their elders, and took matters into their own hands.

So in my next post, I want to look more carefully at what today’s young adult Friends might find so unsatisfying, think about whether this membership in a yearly meeting solves the problem, and whether something else might. Now it’s extremely presumptuous for me to speak for them, so this will just be speculation on my part, and I expect I’ll be wrong about some of it. But maybe it will spark a conversation.

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Covenant Community and God

June 30, 2018 § 3 Comments

In my last post about covenant community (click here to read it), I defined covenant community as a community in which we help each other do our inner work, to become the people the Spirit wants us to be. However, contrary to the quote I offered from Lloyd Lee Wilson*, I think a lot of Friends do, in fact, see meeting rather as a place of shelter from the world than as a spiritual workshop. These Friends aren’t joining because they want help in their spiritual formation. They want community, yes, and a religious identity. And they want support.

But how many of us really want change. Rather, we want a refuge from change, from all the demands for change that beleaguer us. And a lot of us can’t embrace the “vertical” alignment that Wilson feels is essential to covenant community, an intimate relationship, personally and most importantly, collectively, with a God who offers relationship; that is, with Christ.

But can you have covenant community without God (assuming you want it in the first place)? In other words, Is it enough to just have each other?

Think of the question in more familiar terms. We say we conduct our business meetings under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Or maybe we just say, the Spirit. But do we really do so? Just what is our faith, our belief, about what we experience when a meeting for business in worship is actually gathered? When suddenly, unexpectedly, even miraculously, our divisions dissolve? When as individuals we find ourselves releasing our own agendas in the swell of a mighty wind of the spirit? When the community sees its way open and clear before it, where once conflict and deep emotions had clouded it?

That Mystery, that Reality, is the anchor of the covenantal community. That is its pole star. That manifestation of Spirit, of God’s wish for us, is, theoretically, available to us, both individually and collectively, in all the other aspects of our personal and community lives. Meeting life as covenant community is the deliberate infusion of that manifestation, that Spirit, into all aspects of the meeting’s life.

The ancient Israelites entered into their covenant with Yahweh because they had collectively experienced the saving and creating power of their God. The disciples of Jesus exulted in the new covenant he offered them because they had experienced the creating power of the Father. The early Friends understood their community to be a new covenant with Christ because they had collectively experienced the unifying and creating power of Christ. Our attenders will seek to enter into the covenant we share when they too experience the gathered meeting for worship.

So a covenant community only exists when the direct experience of the divine exists. We say that this is the hallmark principle of our faith, that we commune directly with God—the Mystery behind our experience—both as individuals and as a community.  We renew the covenant when we gather in worship. We exercise the covenant when we have faith in the promises and faithfully fulfill the responsibilities that define the covenant—that is, when we turn to the Spirit for our collective guidance.

I believe the most important factor in fostering this communion is Friends in the meeting who are mature in the Spirit. Thus spiritual formation of the members is the essential factor in reaping the blessings of the covenant. Thus, becoming a member should be an agreement, an invitation to the meeting on the part of the applicant, to seek help from the meeting with their spiritual formation. And conversely, membership obligates the meeting to answer that of God in its members.

This is a virtuous cycle: A covenantal community nurtures individual spiritual growth. Individual spiritual growth nurtures the gathered meeting, the direct collective communion with God. Direct communion with the Spirit renews the covenant.

Without “God”—without communion, without this alignment toward that Mystery that we sometimes touch in the gathered meeting, without that yearning as impulse and compulsion behind our shared practice, without a shaft that passes power into the community through the hub of the wheel of collective Quaker life along a third dimension, that of the Spirit, the sacred—we just have each other. We just have consensus. We just have group meditation. We just have brainstorming and visioning exercises. We just have a peculiar and quite complicated social nonprofit, however enriching and “effective” it might feel.

But we do have “God”. We do have this mysterious reality. At least some of us do; not everyone has experienced the gathered meeting or met the Spirit in their own inner lives. And that’s what we offer. In theory.

Declaring ourselves a covenant community, acting like a covenant community, means taking responsibility for the faith and the practice that our tradition has built around its experience of this Axis empowering us through the third dimension of spirit, beyond the dimensions of self and community.

And that means turning toward it, personally and collectively, in a life of the Spirit, and bringing those who have not experienced it home to the Light within them and to the Well in our midst.

*  Meeting is not a place of shelter from the world so much as a place where we are shaped in order to become God’s instruments in the world. The primary reality is our relationship with God, and the world is an arena in which that relationship is lived out. . . . [living in a covenant community offers] a path to a transforming relationship with the One who makes all things new, who makes each one of us a new creation in Christ. (Lloyd Lee Wilson, Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, page 71)

Meeting as Covenant Community

June 23, 2018 § 10 Comments

My meeting is reconsidering what it means to be a member and I’ve been working with a committee that is preparing a draft of a new document that lays out the meaning of membership for newcomers and people considering membership.

The old document presents membership in terms of “covenant community”, which works very well for me. I seek a covenant community in my membership and I have thought about membership as covenant for a while. I want to dedicate a couple of posts to my thoughts on this subject. I want to do several things:

  • First, I want to be clear about what “covenant” and “covenant community” mean.
  • Then I want to explore how the truth of this approach to membership prospers in our meetings.
  • And I offer a metaphor for covenant community that seeks to express it in a way that works even for Friends who are post-Christian and not theistic in their spiritual outlook.

What do “covenant” and “covenant community” mean?

For an in-depth discussion of the meaning of covenant community, you can’t do better than the chapter on The Meeting as Covenant Community in Lloyd Lee Wilson’s Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order. I hope my readers have access to this wonderful resource. But let me offer my own take on this.

A religious covenant is a set of mutual agreements or promises regarding privileges and responsibilities between individual covenanters and their religious community, with God as the anchoring third party. So, at least in theory and technically speaking, a (religious) covenant has three nodes of relationship, and the relationships are reciprocal. The nodes are the member, the community, and God.

As Lloyd Lee Wilson puts it, this anchoring of the covenant in God is essential and changes the character of the community utterly. This is what makes a covenantal community uniquely valuable. To quote him:

Meeting is not a place of shelter from the world so much as a place where we are shaped in order to become God’s instruments in the world. The primary reality is our relationship with God, and the world is an arena in which that relationship is lived out. . . . [living in a covenant community offers] a path to a transforming relationship with the One who makes all things new, who makes each one of us a new creation in Christ. (page 71)

The purpose of a covenant community is to provide a home for this transforming work. That means that joining a meeting that is a covenant community invites radical engagement with our spiritual lives on the part of our fellow members, who are to be the vehicles for God’s transforming work. We will discern together what transformation means and how we will go about it. We will work with each other to achieve it. We will be disciples together in a discipline of seeking and living into God’s will for us, in a relationship of mutual engagement with our fellow covenanters. Or, if you will, we will seek to realize our real and higher selves with each other’s help.

This requires a level of attention to each other, in both our outer and inner lives, that goes far beyond what most folks are expecting from their meeting. Many Friends would not see the purpose of religion to be diving into a spiritual crucible or the purpose of a meeting to be managing the crucible’s controls.

Thus I suspect that most liberal Quaker meetings would be at least a little uncomfortable thinking of their meeting as a covenant community. (In fact, I suspect that many meetings wouldn’t even really know what I’m talking about.) And that most meetings couldn’t function as covenant communities, even if the language wasn’t off-putting. Because we’re talking about something that goes much deeper than the words.

Some Friends in my meeting are uncomfortable with those words. And we tend to “honor’ these discomforts by avoiding them, so our little committee feels some pressure to drop the words. But what about the concept or understanding of meeting life as a covenant? Do we keep that understanding and use language to express it that won’t trigger uncomfortable reactions? Or does their discomfort go deeper than just some uncomfortable associations with the words as evocative, perhaps, of a religiosity that now longer works for them? Do they intuitively sense the fire in the crucible, the challenge of change, to both themselves and the community, that embracing transformation entails?

This kind of proactive, mutual engagement with each other in our spiritual formation is what I mean by covenant community. It’s something you would only presume to get into with fellow members; not with attenders. That is, you would only get this spiritually intimate with people who had also agreed that that is what they want from their meeting. They, like you, would have bought into the covenant and welcomed the attention by becoming members.

But is that ever what we offer people in our clearness committees for membership?

What about your meeting? Does it use covenant in this way as its understanding of the meaning of membership? If not, could it? Do you?

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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