In the Shadow of Trump a Beacon?

December 17, 2016 § 15 Comments

The Friends I know are totally freaked out over the election. They break out crying. They wake up crying. They are literally throwing up. In every aspect of his being, Donald Trump assaults our sensibilities. His decadent moral character, his coarse, bullying personality, his utterly self-absorbed psychology, his willful and dangerous ignorance and lack of identifiable personal or political philosophy, his divisive and demeaning political tactics, his racism, xenophobia, and misogyny—we can’t believe that this man, a self-confessed sexual predator, will now be our president.

But I live and worship among liberal Friends on the East Coast. What about the evangelical Friends who live in Iowa and Kansas and Indiana? Are they among the 80% of evangelicals who voted for Trump? Hard to imagine, but it’s clearer than ever that we really don’t know each other in America anymore. I hope any Friends who read my blog and who voted for Trump comment here, to help me understand.

The election of Donald Trump is a rebuke, not just of the week and outdated liberalism of the Democratic party, but of liberal identity itself, including that of liberal Quakerism. We liberal Friends are waking up with nightmares partly because the liberal identity and sensibilities that drove the Clinton campaign are dominant elements of liberal Quaker culture and identity, as well, so his election feels like a personal assault and an existential threat.

But clearly Donald Trump speaks to the legitimate concerns of a lot of Americans whom the Democratic party has betrayed and abandoned—the white working class, especially those folks whose economic prosperity used to rest in the manufacturing sector, and especially their men, who, unlike some of their wives, have found jobs in the service and public sectors both demeaning and hard to find; folks in rural America and in those suburbs that have avoided becoming exurbs and remain predominantly white; and the strongly and overtly religious.

Both parties have some soul searching to do. Both are on trajectories aimed toward collapse. But what about us liberal Quakers (and Christ-centered Quakers, for that matter)?

Have we also abandoned the white working class? Do we have a message that speaks to folks whose jobs followed NAFTA’s “giant sucking sound” out of the country, as Ross Perrot put it so presciently way back when? Do we harbor veiled prejudice against “guys”—men who have not internalized the sensibilities we value in today’s liberal Quaker culture, men who don’t work behind a desk or in the secular church? And about the church . . .

Hillary Clinton may be a genuinely religious person, but you would never know it. She seems deaf to the voices of a large portion of one of the most religious countries in the world. I am glad she ran openly on a woman’s right to choose, so it was going to be uphill from there with evangelical Christians, granted.

But the gospel of Jesus is one of the most revolutionary ideologies on the planet. Did she have any advisors who know the many elements of the “good news for the poor”, as Jesus put it in Luke 4, with which she might fill out a meaningful progressive message to the Christian electorate? Either she didn’t have progressive Christian advisors or she decided against such a message, fearing she would push away her non-religious base, or I missed it.

So also with many of our meetings. Do we have members who know and cherish the progressive message of the gospel? Do some of us cringe when some vocal ministry invokes Jesus Christ or quotes the Bible, for fear that we will push away the non-religious among us? To that point, to what degree do we think of ourselves as “spiritual” but not “religious”?

And the gospel of Jesus is, at its core, a message about relief for the sufferings of the poor. Do we know the economics of redemption in the commonwealth of God, the planks in the platform of the new covenant Jesus offered? Are we equipped to offer the Christian electorate that voted for Trump an alternative vision for society that is fully grounded in the gospel and the rest of Christian scripture? Are we interested in taking our place in the progressive religious opposition to the proto-fascism that Donald Trump and his conservative and alt-conservative coattail riders will be shoveling up? Are we ready with the Word of wisdom and truth, the weapon of the Lamb’s War?

For surely, Donald Trump will betray his Christian voters. He only wanted their votes, and that not very badly. Otherwise, he really has nothing in common with them. Do we?

And he will betray his core, the abandoned white working class, not by failing to give them what he promised, but by delivering on promises that were never going to solve their problems in the first place, by driving the real economy into the dirt, by guaranteeing a global warming catastrophe, and by degrading all the shaky protections we have against an immoral and predatory capitalist system and its captive social and political cultures.

Like the Democratic party, we now need to examine our identity and our message. What do we have to say to the millions of Americans that we now think are either stupid, ignorant, or snookered by a dangerous con man?

Much of America is held together by the ties of religion, family, and community. Is liberal Quakerism a religion or a “spirituality”? Do we have a meaningful message for those who identify as religious? Do our meetings reach and retain young families? Do we know our local communities and share their struggles?

We are going to be a haven for those who are fleeing the reality of Trump. But will we also be a beacon for those who voted for him and whom he will probably ultimately betray?

Quaker-pocalypse: Collapse and Renewal in Quaker Social Witness, Part Three

January 31, 2016 § 7 Comments

Radical witness today?

I think the liberal, committee-based approach to Quaker witness has run its race.

The liberal approach: Study the problem, find the causes, develop a program, fund it with public money and action—we’ve been doing this since the New Deal, but since the 1960s, this approach has become increasingly impotent.

The committee-based approach: Someone feels led to engage some new concern—say, earthcare—so you form a working group. If you get enough people behind the concern, form a standing committee. Then spend half your time developing a budget, spend the rest of your time seeking unity over your direction, negotiating your leading with Friends who are maybe led in some other direction within the concern, or who have no direction at all; resort to brainstorming or visioning sessions when the group can’t find its corporate direction; call the seven minutes you sit in silence at the beginning of your meetings “worship”; hope nominating committee can find enough people to keep you going, linger on after the fire has died out because some Friend in the wider body can’t imagine your meeting without an [xyz] committee, become a zombie committee. X years later some Friends feel a new leading for the concern, the committee gets a defibrillator, and the cycle starts over again.

We may be standing today on the cusp of a new stage in the evolution of Quaker witness. I hope so.

We have awakened to the total integration of oppression across all areas of life, culture, economics, and politics. All of our problems are interrelated. The whole system is corrupt. Nothing less than a total social-cultural-economic-political-constitutional revolution will do. Civilization itself must change. How do you do that?

We are paralyzed by the enormity of the challenge. We are bereft of a prophetic vision that could take on this kind of monolithic global evil. We are chipping away at things here and there, and with some remarkable success. But a sense of helplessness and dread often looms over our efforts, as we seem to be losing ground on a number of really important fronts, especially ecologically. The human race seems bent on following the passenger pigeon into oblivion. It is as though the Book of Revelation has become our playbook.

Quaker witness now needs to recover the genius of all four stages of our witness history at once. We still need liberal activism and programs that alleviate the sufferings of the people and the planet. We still need the government—legislative reform and executive regulation and enforcement. We still need the truth and intelligence of science and the leverage of technology. We still need to threaten pharaoh in his own court with the prophecy of the plagues he is bringing upon us all.

But we also need a new evangelism, a message of good news that can bring individual people to the altar of light and life with a new consciousness. And that good news needs to be more than just the truth of salvation from sin in Christ.

And we need to recover, adapt, and embrace the faith and practice of spirit-led Quaker ministry, to rebuild a culture that is adept at recognizing and supporting G*d’s call to prophetic action, as we had in the 18th century. Now that we’ve expanded our understanding of ministry to include witness leadings, we need a robust infrastructure for the discernment and support of that ministry.

And we need a new Lamb’s War, a radical, unreasonable, Spirit-led assault on the roots of our civilization’s downturn, as we had in the 17th century. But with a new focus, a new sense of urgency, a new understanding of what the endtimes and the second coming of the Christ mean now that the seven seals are being opened and the Four Horsemen have been set loose, for real.

In short, we need the Holy Spirit.

We need a new apocalypse, a new revelation, one that gives us some hope and faith with which to overcome the fear and dread we feel and that helps us embrace the failure that we certainly face. For we are going down. The end is near—depending on what you mean by “the end” and “near”. My wife Christine just came back from a planning conference in which scientists studying the New Jersey shore say that the barrier islands won’t be there in 25 to 30 years; South Cape May is already under the Atlantic Ocean.

Climate change, sea level rise, species extinction, the death of our oceans, the spread of ideological evil, the collapse of old institutions, including our own—all this calls for something new, a lamentation that can reach the ears of God, a Seed that can awaken a new consciousness in at least a critical mass of the people.

We may be the only religious community on the planet that is already equipped to receive and nurture that seed, for whom continuing revelation is a concrete reality, a movement that knows that any one of us could hear that call and answer it.

This is very unlikely to happen in our witness committees. We have had committees for a hundred years and they, too, have run their course; they have become part of the problem.

If we take our faith in continuing revelation seriously; if we really believe in Spirit-led ministry, then meditation, prayer, and worship are where we will receive the Seed, not in some committee brainstorming session. Like the Seekers of the 1650s, we need to stand in expectant waiting for the Word to come.

Do we have the discipline, the patience, and the faith to do this? I’m not sure that I do. But I don’t know what else to think. I don’t know where else to turn, except radically, toward G*d, who century after century, has come through for us.

Quaker-pocalypse: Collapse and Renewal in Quaker Social Witness, Part Two

January 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

This is the second installment in a five-segment series on the history and future of Quaker witness, focusing on how we organize it.


Evangelical witness

Into the desert of late-18th century ossified Quaker ministry emerged evangelical Quakerism around the turn of the 19th century, giving rise to a third phase of Quaker witness. Evangelical witness had a new willingness to engage with the outside world and to minister to some of its needs. The new witness impulse took the forms of social witness against slavery, ministry to prisoners, the temperance movement, expanding women’s rights, and a few others I’m certain I have missed. It matured into the philanthropic movement as wealthy Friends felt compelled to use their wealth in positive ways for social change. Friends led the movement toward philanthropy that you see typified in scenes from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Evangelical witness had organizing principles that had been missing in the previous period: the cause of social ills was sin, and thus the solution was evangelism, calling people away from their lives in sin to a life in Christ. I think of Joseph John Gurney’s deep soul searching after the economic crash of 1828 in Britain, a depression that was worse in some ways than our Great Depression. The Gurney family nearly went under and Joseph John agonized over whether his greed had brought on his trials.

For evangelical political economists (the dominant economic school of the time) and evangelical ministers were laying the blame on those who had overextended themselves in debt through greed. The cause was the sin of greed. The solution was an avalanche of pamphlets and sermons against greed in particular, and sin in general. A clear understanding of business cycles, of boom, bubble, and burst, that would emerge in classical economic circles, had yet to find its adherents.

Evangelical witness was somewhat confrontational, but hardly unreasonable. The discourse was flooded with moral reasons, biblical reasoning, and intelligent argument. But it wasn’t radical. This was no real departure from 1,500 years of Christian religious culture, just a more focused intensification of an already seasoned message about sin and salvation. Thlnk of Elizabeth Fry teaching the women in Newgate prison to read the Bible.

The rise of liberal witness

The next phase of Quaker witness was a radical departure in very important ways from its evangelical roots. My poster boy for this revolution is Seebohm Rowntree, a member of the Rowntree chocolate dynasty located in York, and a member of the cohort of young Friends who gave birth to liberal Quakerism around the turn of the 20th century, a group that included Rufus Jones and Seebohm’s brother John Wilhelm Rowntree. Seebohm Rowntree’s book Poverty: A Town Life was the first widely-read sociological analysis of a social problem in human history. He interviewed virtually all of the households in York and tabulated their economic condition, then drew some conclusions and made his arguments.

His central conclusion about the cause of poverty was truly radical at the time, though it seems obvious to some of us today (though obviously, not all of us): sin was not the problem. Most poor people worked hard, they just didn’t have enough money. Their poverty was not the consequence of their character, as the evangelical model had insisted. It was not lust (too many children), intemperance, gambling, etc., that made them poor; it was the low wages their employers paid them.

Rowntree gave us the first systematic analysis of systemic evil, and he saw that it called for structural solutions. Moral exhortation of the poor would never raise their wages; only their employers could do that, and they weren’t likely to do it on their own. Seebohm Rowntree himself reformed the labor relations in his own family business after writing his book, but he did not substantially raise worker’s wages. Meanwhile, he also argued that the government had an important role to play in making up the gap, in relieving this human suffering, and in trying to regulate business toward greater compassion.

This, too, was a radical departure. Evangelical witness had actively opposed government involvement, seeing it as intervention in a process of conviction and repentance that rightly involved only the sinner and God. Helping poor people with alms actually enabled the sinful life, in the evangelical view. Rowntree saw that the only agent powerful enough to affect the behavior of business—the real source of poverty—was the government. Poverty played a significant role in the creation of the Liberal Party in Great Britain and of Britain’s welfare state. Among other breakthroughs, the book popularized for the first time the brand new idea of a “poverty line”, a formula for measuring poverty and therefore for evaluating programs. His formula was picked up wholesale by Roosevelt’s New Deal labor department and is still the basic framework for policy thinking and poverty metrics today.

Rowntree went on to serve in government in several capacities for the rest of his life. Rufus Jones went on to help found the American Friends Service Committee. With the onset of World War I, Friends recovered their testimony against war and, for the first time since the late 1600s, Quakers were again being persecuted for their witness. Thus the Great War forged a new consciousness in Quakerism and we have been much more focused on “mending the world” ever since.

AFSC illustrates the arc that this witness took as the twentieth century roared on. While many men went to jail rather than serve in the military, AFSC and similar efforts aimed to reduce the suffering that the war was causing. The genius of the Orthodox Quaker Herbert Hoover at organizing relief efforts put him on the political map.

But gradually Friends turned their attention more and more to the structural causes of our problems, as the consciousness that Seebohm Rowntree had ignited began to mature. Committees on industry and the social order in both Great Britain and the US published amazingly searching and radical pamphlets. A small but vocal and influential socialist movement eventually spawned some collective communities in the UK.

World War II returned us toward the peace testimony again. Then the Vietnam War and the cultural revolution of the 1960s helped broaden the “peace testimony” beyond just a testimony against war into a deeper understanding of violence. The Alternatives to Violence Project was born.  AFSC became increasingly an advocacy organization rather than just a service organization. And other testimonies began to proliferate, as we woke up to new evils: environmental degradation, women’s rights (again), racial equality, then an even broader understanding of equality that could include the sanctuary movement, LGBTQ concerns, and so on.

Liberal witness is reasonable in the extreme and not radical, by definition; it is liberal. It works with existing institutions. it studies problems, proposes solutions, argues from science, develops programs, and seeks to move governments into the roles that only governmental scale, reach, and resources can assume.

And it is pursued by Friends through committees organized around concerns—a peace and social witness committee, Quaker Earthcare Witness, Friends Committee on National Legislation, the American Friends Service Committee. AFSC, I think, ,may have led the way into organization by committee. But the rise of liberal Quakerism settled the already significant trend toward abandoning the traditional infrastructure for Quaker ministry that had developed in the 18th century and continued into the 19th. It increasingly relied on membership donations and the operating budgets of local and yearly meetings rather than on the largesse of wealthy philanthropist Friends. And it was  inspired by a more reasonable energy than the apocalyptic fervor that had ignited the Valiant Sixty.

Quaker-pocalypse: Collapse and Renewal in Quaker Social Witness, Part One

January 31, 2016 § Leave a comment

I think I feel led to return to my Quaker-pocalypse series, to focus a bit on our witness life. But my leading for this blog has been sputtering lately and I find myself darting from one theme to another without clear coherence, so I’m not sure where I’ll be led next.

Meanwhile, this post, when I finally finished it, was so long that I decided to break it up into segments. This one takes a historical look at our witness—how we have organized it—in the first two of four—possibly five—stages. These first two stages are The Lamb’s War and “Quietist” Ministry. The next two segments are Evangelical Witness and Liberal Witness. Finally I look at Radical Quaker Witness Today.

I think we need a new approach to witness. And to work my way feebly toward such an opening, I found myself reviewing how Quakers have organized our social witness in the past. I see four modes of organizing witness in our history, in which energy followed by maturity and then decline—or in the first case, persecution—has led to a new form with new energy. It’s as if the Holy Spirit wants us to keep at it, providing new openings, and—hooray!—finding us with ears to hear. One big reason we believe in continuing revelation.

The Lamb’s War

The first phase was the Lamb’s War, the Apocalypse of the Word (see Doug Gwyn’s groundbreaking book of this title). It focused on the world with the zealot’s intensity and often was confrontational. It was unreasonable, being founded on religious faith. It engaged virtually all the Children of the Light, in the sense that virtually all Friends eschewed hat honor, used plain speech, etc., in their everyday lives. It aimed at what early Friends believed to be the root of social ills—false religion, as the agent of an even deeper cause, alienation from God. And it was radical, not just in its critique, its methods, and its proposed solutions. It also arose from radical discipleship and it aimed at the roots, as they saw it, of a world that could not comprehend the light that was coming into the world.

Then came the persecutions, the backlash from the established church and the state, bringing the wholesale death of our early leadership in Britain’s gaols—the collapse of the Apocalypse of the Word and the need to change our stance toward the world.

“Quietist” ministry

The result was the second phase of Quaker witness—the reliance on Quaker ministry that characterized the 18th century. Think of John Bellars and John Woolman. Friends who felt a divine leading to mend the world in some way who took their leading to their meeting and, if the meeting discerned that the leading was a true one, off they went. It tended to be focused internally (think of Woolman visiting Friends to persuade them against slaveholding) and it was not, generally speaking, confrontational or radical. Putting aside the vigorous culture of travel in the gospel ministry, this period’s social witness ministry did not, as far as I can tell, engage very many people as either ministers or recipients.

There was no overarching organizing vision for collective action, as there had been for the first generation, no sense of mission like the earlier apocalyptic belief that the second coming of Christ was at hand. As Doug Gwyn describes in The Covenant Crucified, Friends had cut a deal with the powers of the world after the persecutions gave way to some level of tolerance: you leave us be and we’ll leave you be—that was the deal.

This witness was morally reasonable, in that it relied on arguing from a scriptural and a moral stand. But it was not yet reasonable in the secular humanist sense that so dominates Quaker witness today, in which we argue from a stand in social science and use liberal political rhetoric.

This witness was radical in that Quaker ministry still relied radically on the movement of the Holy Spirit, at least in theory, but it was much more contained and far less focused on the world outside the Quaker community than the Apocalypse of the Word had been.

But Quakerism became more and more quietist, more withdrawn from the world into Quaker distinctives and an ossified culture of eldership that tended to quench the spirit.

Quaker-pocalypse—Nominations and Meeting Renewal

October 11, 2015 § 8 Comments

The goal

On the surface, it looks like the goal regarding nominations and meeting service—too few people doing too much work—is to increase the number of Friends willing to serve on meeting committees. But I think the goal is to help Friends discover and develop their gifts in the context of a new kind of relationship with their meetings, in which Friends are serving each other in their spiritual lives with the extraordinary tools that we have inherited from our tradition, in a structure that better serves the spiritual lives of the members, without leaving the meetings any more under-served than they already are.

Some of those gifts will be useful to the meeting. Some of those Friends will feel led to use them in service to the meeting. There will almost certainly still be gaps. A handful of dedicated Friends will still probably shoulder more than their share of the meeting’s work and financial support. That’s just the way things are in an all-volunteer organization in our time. But the meeting’s energies—by which we mean the energies of its members—will be pointed in the right direction: toward the members.

The goal is to channel divine energy from the members through the meeting organization back toward the members. This energy is, essentially, love, in the form of service to each other in our spiritual lives—and, for that matter, in all aspects of our lives—work, family, and the emotional and even the material aspects of our lives—to the degree that is appropriate and we are able. The meeting’s role is to facilitate this channeling, not to gather unto itself all the members’ energy.

The challenge

The challenge is that we are talking about a radical change in Quaker meeting culture. We are talking about structural changes that Friends are likely to resist, when they can understand them at all. More importantly, we are talking about a change in consciousness—a much greater clarity about what the religious life could be, a significant shift in our understanding of the purpose of the meeting and the meaning of meeting membership.

This means doing a lot of different things at the same time with strategic purpose, a kind of full court press, sustained over a considerable period of time. Multi-dimensional strategic efforts are hard to conceive, hard to communicate, and hard to grasp, even when communicated well., hard to implement, and very hard to sustain. A “full court press” will involve a lot of the members, when the problem we are trying to solve is the fact that our members are already at the limit of their resources, and we have trouble getting a lot of them involved in anything. Furthermore, energy tends to wane over time, even when the community is behind a significant collective effort, but this level of transformation just can’t be done quickly with a magic tantric spell.

So this effort has to start small and progress in stages and it needs to work on several fronts at once. And it needs to live on the energy of Friends who feel led to the work. As soon as this transformative effort begins to feel like an obligation or duty, we might as well have stayed with the original, now ‘traditional’ committee structure.


In the short to medium term, we could try the following:

Clerking. Improve the effectiveness of our committees with some training and/or resources for their clerks. See these resources on the New York Yearly Meeting website.

Committee oversight—in a new way. See whether any Friend or group of Friends feel led to serve as elders in a particular way: as a kind of ad hoc working group on meeting life whose charge is to pay attention to the life of the meeting overall, to watch for emerging problems, trends, and patterns, and to serve as ombudspersons, people everyone knows they can go to with a difficulty. This could be the assistant clerk, or even the meeting’s clerk. And they should feel free to co-opt other Friends to help address a particular situation. I know, this sounds like another committee, another nomination. But I think this person or group should truly feel led to do this work. This should not be an appointment for a specified term, and if the meeting cannot find such a person, then so be it. This should not be a new standing committee, but rather a locus of concern for the overall life of the meeting. I suspect that this approach would be most appropriate for medium-sized and large meetings.

Trim the organizational tree. Take a look at your committees and see which ones could be laid down or combined.

Working groups instead of committees. We might try getting rid of committees altogether, except for those with fiduciary responsibility, and form working groups instead. Standing committees are hard shells with defined tasks occupied by nominated Friends for specified terms. What I am groping for here is rather a locus of activity around a meeting need or concern with a specified time and place to meet and with very permeable boundaries—whoever shows up does the work. Someone would have to manage a calendar to make sure groups meet in a timely way (planning in the summer for First Day School’s opening in the fall, for instance) and to arrange for the spaces needed. In this scenario, nominating committee might only have to present to the meeting names for meeting officers and a couple of Meeting Life Coordinators to manage the logistics.

In the long term:

Meaning, Quaker identity, and membership. In the end (or rather, in the beginning), it all comes down to membership—what do we think membership means and what do we ask of those who join us? The answers to these questions rest on a higher-order question: What is the Quaker meeting for? What is the Religious Society of Friends for? Who are we and what are we doing? Specifically, do we understand the meeting as a covenantal community in which the members and the meeting share promises of mutual service and enrichment? The ways in which members serve the community have long been defined, but in terms of committee service; and the ways the community serves the members usually have not been defined at all, beyond hosting of meeting for worship and some level of reactive (rather than proactive) pastoral care. Do we want the meeting—that is, our fellow Quakers—to be actively, proactively, engaged in our spiritual lives? Do we understand the life of the spirit to include active mutual engagement with our religious community, beyond simply sharing meeting for worship and working together to run the meeting? Do we understand the life of the spirit as something we cannot do well alone, that collective discernment and support and even oversight are essential to individual spiritual thriving? Can we offer attenders something more than committee service when they become members, a level of engagement that would be serious enough that you would have to ask for it—by applying for membership.

I expect that it would take a meeting quite a long time to answer these questions, and the answer might well be no—we like things the way they are. We don’t want to scare people away, and it’s okay if there’s really no difference between being an attender and being a member. We want to be able to keep our inner lives to ourselves. My spiritual life is none of your business.

Membership jubilee. If a meeting decides to try a radical approach to renewal, however, we might try declaring a jubilee on membership altogether, once we’re clear as a meeting about who we are. Wipe the slate clean and hold new membership clearness committees for everybody, so that everybody has a chance to re-up, as it were. This would take a long while, especially in a big meeting. We might experiment with a more collective approach: hold small groups led by a facilitator in which Friends would discuss their spiritual lives and their hopes and needs regarding meeting life and membership—and then hold an “altar call” at the end. Those who decide not to apply for membership then would, of course, be free to apply later.

I’m just throwing out ideas here. I really do think this problem is very difficult to grasp and to solve. I’ve been thinking about it for decades and my ideas just keep changing, and I still don’t feel very confident about any of them. So I would love to hear what others think and what others are doing.

I know of a couple of meetings that have laid down their committee structure and turned to working groups, including Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. I would love to hear how those experiments are going.

On a final note: I am going on vacation for two weeks, so it will probably be at least three before I post again.

Quaker-pocalypse—and Personal -pocalypse

September 19, 2015 § 8 Comments

In the next post in this series on reforming committee service in the service of Quaker renewal, I had planned to start laying out my plan. But I found myself reviewing the challenges we face, and when I was done, I had talked myself into a funk. I rolled back from my desk and looked out the window, overcome with grief and depression. My plan was just so much beaver pucky, because no meting was going to embrace it. Only a relative handful of Friends even read this blog, and I imagined that most would just shake their heads and say to themselves, some interesting ideas in there, Steve, but it will never fly in my meeting.

Now I believe in the dialectic of community evolution. It’s of some value to present the antithesis to a community’s thesis, a radical alternative to its current condition and direction. Even an unachievable vision, even a ridiculous proposal, will pull a community farther along the curve that it would have progressed otherwise. It will make only moderately radical (is there such a thing?) alternatives seem acceptable by contrast.

More to the point, though, this blog is for me a form of written ministry. I have to feel that it’s spirit-led before I can publish it. Reviewing my plan and the obstacles in its path left me wondering about my plan’s source. I questioned the balance between my head and my Muse.

It doesn’t help that I am now reading Neil Stephenson’s latest novel Seveneves, an apocalyptic science fiction thriller in which the moon has for reasons unknown broken up and planet Earth has roughly two years before the moon’s pieces start falling in a Hard Rain that will destroy most life on the planet.

Also, I have made a very in-depth study of biblical apocalyptic. I’ve read Jared Diamond’s Collapse. I am myself an apocalyptic by intellectual temperament. I’ve been thinking and talking (mostly with my brother) about the collapse of corporate capitalism and of civilization as we know it, since the mid-1970s.

My observation, born of my biblical study and from watching contemporary Christian apocalyptic movements—David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, in particular—is that apocalyptics usually do get the nature of the problem, the causes of the collapse, and of course, the prophecy of collapse itself, mostly right. But they always get the timeline wrong. It’s always going to be day after tomorrow, and it never is.

I think the book of Revelation was written during the first Jewish War, sometime between 65 and 73 CE. But even if it was written in the second century, as many scholars think, it’s been roughly two thousand years and we are still waiting—and still believing that our time is the Endtime.

The apocalyptic impulse arises (say its scholars, and I agree) when a fervent religious minority believes in its community’s rampant and deeply-rooted corruption, a corruption so endemic that human efforts at reform cannot suffice and only God can bring true renewal; that therefore God’s judgment is inevitably going to fall, and only the faithful remnant will remain.

The first paradigm for this pattern was the one the priests of captive Judah recrafted from Babylonian material during the Babylonian Exile to explain why this disaster had befallen God’s people—the story of Noah and the ark.

Six hundred years later, Jesus was praying for God’s manifestation on the slopes of the Mount of Olives with his disciples when the police showed up and his vision of God’s return had apparently been forsaken. His Little Apoclypse (Mark 13 and parallels in Matthew and Luke) lacks Revelation’s cosmic and iconic imagery, but it’s a pretty horrifying picture—one that did not come true until 35 years later when the Zealots could not take it any more and Rome muddled around for several years because they could not take these peasants very seriously. Jesus saw it coming, but he got the timeline wrong. And, of course, the wrong side won.

George Fox had the same experience. Empire usually wins the outward war. But the Lamb and the persecuted minority sometimes win the inward war.

I think we are going to lose the outward war. Liberal Quakerism is—outwardly—withering away. I suspect that our institutions will either collapse for lack of time, talent, and treasure, or accommodate themselves, the way our schools have, and AFSC has, getting time, talent, and treasure from other sources while trying, with varying degrees of success, to hold on to a distinctive Quaker character.

Two questions remain for me. First, how do we deal with the death of Quakerism as we know it? And, more importantly, where is God in all of this?

These questions mirror the questions I have regarding our global ecological collapse. Not how do we stop sea level rise from taking down New York City, but what ministries will arise in Fifteenth Street Meeting, and Brooklyn Meeting, and Morningside and Flushing Meetings, to deal with the suffering that will inevitably result when that drowning finally takes place. Because it’s going to.

God has somewhere between zero and maybe fifty years to raise those ministers up. The history of apocalyptic suggests that the prophets will not appear until the water is at the door. That was Hurricane Sandy. I’m eagerly waiting, looking, praying.

So we can stick our fingers in the committee service dike and hold back the tide for a while, struggling along with too few Friends doing too much work with too little monty until we can’t anymore—which is already happening in some meetings. But no grand scheme like mine will prevent the inevitable.
Only God can do that.

So the real question is, how do we build a culture that knows God, that offers fertile soil for divine seed? This work will probably fall to a tiny remnant. And mostly to young people.

At least that’s been the pattern of Quaker renewal in the past. The original prophetic spark in the 1650s was largely a youth movement. Joseph Stephenson Rountree was in his early twenties when his essay Quakerism Past and Present won the £100 prize for the best description of the causes of London Yearly Meeting’s decline and the best solution; within two years, the Yearly Meeting had revised its book of discipline to correct the issues he described. So, too, with the renewal movement in midwestern Quakerism that gave rise to the programmed, pastoral tradition—mostly youth. And again with the emergence around the turn of the twentieth century of liberal Quakerism under the leadership of the young Rufus Jones and John Wilhelm Rountree.

We have been in decline before. And the Holy Spirit has never failed to raise up ministries of renewal. Our task is to be midwives to that renewal. To recognize the divine seeds when they fall on good soil and begin to sprout, and to water and feed those plants without standing in the way of the sun.

Quaker-pocalypse: Nominations, Committee Service, and Spiritual Renewal, Part Three

September 12, 2015 § 1 Comment

Some solutions to the problems of committee service—a preview

I said at the outset of this series that, if there are solutions to the problems of committee service, they will have to be sustained and long-term, far-reaching and multi-dimensional, structural and radical.

In subsequent posts, I want to unpack these approaches to a solution. Here, let me outline them in preview. We might consider pursuing the following alternatives:

  1. Redefine the purpose of the meeting committee. Make the committee a laboratory for helping its members discern and explore their leadings in the committee’s area of concern, and an incubator for helping to bring its members’ leadings to fruition.
    This is in contrast to the committee’s usual role as a workshop for handling the meeting’s tasks. However, we would probably have to add this role to the committee’s existing roles or the meeting’s business would collapse—not a very realistic proposition, since the committees and their members are already overworked. So this is a case, I think, in which the half-way measure just won’t do. We need a more radical solution . . .
  2. Virtually eliminate standing committees altogether, except in the case of those necessary for the good operation and fiduciary responsibility of the meeting as a corporation—trustees, financial services, property, etc. And . . .
  3. Replace these standing committees with something else, a combination of ad hoc working groups, support committees for ministers who feel led to work in various areas of meeting life, and something like Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Threads, open gatherings of Friends interested in various areas of meeting life.
    Philadelphia Yearly Meeting has undertaken numbers two and three, and I will be very interested to see how this unfolds. This approach might be easier for a yearly meeting than for a monthly meeting. More about this in a subsequent post.
  4. Redefine membership, so that, in the covenant between meeting and member, the meeting offers its members energetic, reliable, and focused spiritual nurture and pastoral care, not just an invitation to serve on committees, and then sees how the members reciprocate with service to the meeting. This reverses the usual pattern, in which we ask the members to contribute to the meeting, without thinking about how the meeting will contribute to their lives, assuming, I guess, that meeting for worship and committee service are enough, and then we wait to see whether worship and meeting service are enough to keep them active.
    Once the meeting is clear about its identity, its role in its members’ lives, and about what membership means (see #5 below), we might consider a membership jubilee, in which all members are asked to reapply for membership in a round of clearness committees stretched out over a few years that focus on learning how the meeting can serve the member.
  5. Consciousness raising. In general, we need a sustained, long-term program of consciousness raising, not about the value of committees, but about the purpose of the monthly meeting, the nature of the life of the spirit, and the role of the meeting in the members’ spiritual lives. We need open discussion, threshing sessions, and spirit-led discernment about who we think we are as a monthly meeting and about the meaning of meeting membership. We need spiritual formation programs that implement the offering of spiritual nurture that I suggest in bullet #4 above as the meeting’s commitment to new members—assuming that we are willing to reconceive the meeting as a two-way street, a covenant in which both the meeting and the members are actively contributing to each others’ lives.

In the next few posts, I want to unpack some of these ideas in greater detail.

Quaker-pocalypse: Nominations, Committee Service, and Spiritual Renewal, Part Two

September 11, 2015 § 3 Comments

Part Two: The Problem(s) with Committees

In this entry, I want to focus just on the purpose of the committee and its dynamics and how they tend to turn off our members.

The Problem(s) with Committees

Committees are oriented toward the meeting and its needs, not the needs of those who serve on them. Each committee’s charge is a set of tasks that meet a set of needs in the meeting. In this system, the committee member’s role is to contribute to these tasks. Committees are the commit-ees—they are the thing to which we are committed, rather than the Spirit or the expression of our own spiritual gifts. This orientation toward the meeting is mostly an unconscious and structurally imposed dynamic that we do not even recognize is at work most of the time.

Committees have a life of their own. They exist whether or not anyone on the committee has a true spirit-led call to be there. Most members of the committee have been suggested by Nominating committee because someone knows they do have some gifts or a concern for the aspect of meeting life served by the committee. But that does not mean that the appointees are clear about what the committee should do. And if they are clear, then God help them! Furthermore, committees can be extremely hard to lay down. Even the most moribund committee will often have one member who thinks it’s unthinkable that the meeting does not have a peace committee, or whatever.

Committees quench the spirit. If a member of committee has a real leading in the committee’s area of concern, the committee inevitably tries to fit that leading into its own work—rather than turn its full attention to the Friend and her leading, providing the discernment the leading probably needs in order to reach full maturity, and providing whatever support the Friend called to this ministry might need to be faithful to the call. I am serving on a committee right now in which this has just happened. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit is a wild, unpredictable, untamable force; who knows where the discernment process for a new leading will lead? This emerging ministry might fit in the committee—or it might not; it might not fit in any committee at all. Then it’s really in trouble.

Committees are the way of the world, not the way of the Spirit. The way of the Spirit employs worship and collective discernment, and looks to the Light within individuals as the source and ground for direction and action. The Quaker way of structuring spirit-led action is the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. Committees, on the other hand, often employ only a perfunctory period of silence, usually daring, nevertheless, to call this worship. They do practice corporate discernment, sometimes reverting to real worship when it’s clear that the group is either stuck or close to something that needs some Light to get through. However, when a committee is not riding a clear wave of movement in the Spirit, when it is bereft of ideas, it often employs brainstorming  or “visioning exercises” to get over the hump. This happens either informally, with members just throwing out ideas, or in a more structured format, with newsprint pasted on the walls with scotch tape, etc. Brainstorming and “visioning” are (in my opinion) insidious incursions into the Quaker way by the ways of the world. A committee that doesn’t know where it’s going or what it’s doing should commit itself to real worship until it is clear about its way forward or that its work is done.

Committee meetings often are tedious. Committees often spend a lot of time doing business that is only about the mechanics and administration of the committee structure. Developing a budget is one aspect of this. Much of this business is regular or cyclical and routine, business that must be attended to. This often gets in the way of doing new things or exploring new directions, and of thinking about the big picture or the long term. Committees sometimes have weak clerks who have trouble keeping the committee focused. Committees sometimes have appointees who don’t know what they’re doing, don’t understand Quaker process or respect it, who have an axe to grind, who are long-winded, or  who are otherwise ungovernable.

Committee service often is onerous. We lead busy lives. Time is precious. Work and family life is demanding. This can be especially troublesome for Friends who have non-Friend partners who might wish that you were doing something with your time that included them. Serving on more than one committee multiplies all these problems. Then there’s possible service on a quarterly meeting or yearly meeting committee. Uff da, as the Norwegians say.

Membership. The only thing that we offer prospective members as a benefit of membership is service on a committee. We virtually define membership as the willingness to serve on a committee. By presenting membership and committees in this way, we virtually define Quakerism as committee service.

The upshot

It’s a miracle that any Friends choose to serve on a meeting committee. What’s in it for them? In what ways are their spiritual lives served by serving on a committee?

Okay, service is a gift of the spirit. I myself actually like serving on committees, and that is because serving the meeting is fulfilling for me. And it is for a lot of Friends. Good thing, too. And other gifts of the spirit can find expression in a committee, though, as I’ve said, committees tend to interfere with the traditional practice of Quaker ministry.

The solution(s)—a preview

I said at the outset that, if there are solutions to the problems of committee service, they will have to be sustained and long-term, far-reaching and multi-dimensional, structural and radical.

In the next post, I want to offer some approaches to a solution., then in subsequent posts, I will unpack some of these ideas with more detail.

Quaker-pocalypse: Nominations, Committee Service, and Spiritual Renewal, Part One

September 11, 2015 § 4 Comments

Part One: Quaker “Decline” and the Committee System


One of the signs of Quaker “decline” is the trouble nominating committees have finding enough Friends to serve on committees. All the work of the meeting tends to get done by the same small, dedicated, and overworked group of Friends.

In my experience, nominating committees often have very dedicated, seasoned Friends who are doing their best to match the interests and gifts of the members to the work that needs to be done. However, the “slots” that have to be filled loom over their work, and they have to do it over and over again, with a deadline. Meanwhile, nominating committees themselves are often among the hardest committees to fill, partly because so few Friends want to shoulder this burden. Agreeing to serve on Nominating committee is signing up for a kind of failure, or at least for hard work and frustration.

This problem is universal and persistent. In my thirty-some years as a Friend, I have never known a meeting that did not struggle with too few people doing too much work, with committees that are under-appointed and sometimes not very effective. I have come to the conclusion that the problem cannot be solved, at least with the solutions we have been trying all these decades. We should ditch them—ditch the solutions that are failing us, and maybe ditch committees themselves, as well, at least in a lot of cases.

Past solutions

As they say, doing the same things over and over again to solve a problem while expecting a different outcome is a definition of insanity. I would call it deep neurosis, myself; “insanity” is a little strong. Let’s stop doing the things that have not worked after all this time, and try something new.

In the past, meetings have tried the following:

  • We have tried to improve communications, assuming that, if only Friends knew what the committees did and how important that work was, they would agree to serve. —Not. The product we are trying to sell with better “advertising” is flawed and needs a recall.
  • We have formed ad hoc committees to study the problem and propose solutions—of course; what else would Quakers do? This often leads to the creation of at least one new committee. A truly dysfunctional approach, except . . . what else can you do?
  • Because—in general, we have been taking the system for granted, a system in which the business of the meeting is done by standing committees with a discreet set of tasks that define their charges, staffed by Friends appointed for set terms by nominating committees. Maybe the system itself is the problem.

Sometimes, meetings go a little deeper in their search for solutions than exploratory committees and renewed efforts at communication. Are we losing people because the committees are dysfunctional? Are the committee meetings tedious because of ineffective clerking? Would an orientation for new members and training for clerks help? Do we have too many committees? Do we have the right committees? Could some restructuring solve the problem?

These questions get closer to the heart of the matter. I think the problem is structural and it does call for structural solutions—but not for a shuffling of the meeting’s committee chart. If there are solutions, they will have to be sustained and long-term, far-reaching and multi-dimensional, structural and radical.

The real problem(s)

I think the basic problem is that we define the problem in terms of the meeting’s needs instead of the members’ needs. We have been looking for ways to get more Friends to serve on committees. I think we should be looking instead for ways to serve our members in their spiritual lives and see where that leads.

This orientation toward the meeting rather than the members is natural and mostly unconscious. It has a lot of dimensions, too many to address in one blog entry, even one as long as mine usually are. So—

  • In the next entry, I want to focus just on the purpose of the committee and its dynamics and how they tend to turn off our members.
  • Then, in a subsequent post, I want to sketch out some possible solutions.
  • Then I’ll unpack some of these solutions in greater detail.

The overall thrust will be to turn the vector of service around so that it flows from the meeting toward the member, rather than the other other way around.

Quaker-pocalypse—Advancement: What Can We Say?

July 17, 2015 § 1 Comment

What can we say?

. . . when seekers ask what Quakers believe? Here is one version of the answers I’ve been working on.

An “elevator speech”:

We believe that there is in everyone a Light

  • a light in the conscience that can guide and strengthen us to do the right, that can awaken us to the wrong we have done and are about to do;
  • a light that can heal us, that can strengthen us to live better lives, that can release us from our demons, make us more whole, relieve us of suffering, and lead us to redemption;
  • a light that can inspire us to acts of kindness and to creativity;
  • a light that can lead us to the deepest fulfillment and the “peace that passes all understanding” and into acts of kindness, service, and witness;
  • a light that can help transform us into the people we were meant to be;
  • a light that can open to us direct communion with God (however you experience God), both as individuals and as a community.

We Quakers have experienced this light as the Light of Christ, as Jesus Christ himself, as the Spirit of Love and Truth, as a Presence in our midst, as that which has gathered us as a people of God and continues to guide our meetings and the Quaker movement into the future.

In this Light, through this Light, God is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth. In this Christ-spirit we are sometimes gathered in our worship into a joy-filled ttanscendental communion with God and with each other.

That’s my “elevator speech,” a quick answer to a deep question. But of course, we can say a lot more than this. So here is a more fully developed presentation of Quaker “beliefs”.

Six Quaker essentials

The Light. We believe that there is a principle in every person (often called the Light, the Seed, “that of God”) that can know God directly and that yearns for this intimate communion.

  •     Because we experience the Light inwardly, we do not practice many of the outward forms that other religious communities practice; we do not rely on outward sacraments for God’s grace.
  •     Because the Light is universal, we believe that all people are equal in God’s sight and this informs how we treat them.
  •     Because we all have access to the Light, we have no professional clergy that are thought of as intermediaries between God and the individual worshiper. But we have not laid down the clergy itself; rather, we have no laypeople, for all of us are potential ministers. We believe that God can and does call each one of us into service or ministry directly and in various ways, most commonly, to speak from the Spirit in our meetings for worship. And for this, we need no special education or ceremonial ordination, but only attention to the promptings of the Spirit and a willingness to be faithful to the call.
  •     This, in fact, is the essence of Quaker spirituality: to be open always to God’s guidance and to listen always for God’s call into service, and to answer the call faithfully when it comes.

The gathered meeting. Ever since the 1650s when Quakers were first gathered as a dedicated people of God, we have felt that the same Light and Spirit that dwells within each individual also loves and guides us as a community.

  •     Just as we believe that each individual can enjoy a direct relationship with God, so also we believe that the same Holy Spirit leads the worshipping community.
  •     Thus many of our meetings hold our worship in waiting, expectant silence, turning our full attention toward God and leaving off any outward liturgical forms like the Bible readings, collective prayer, hymn singing, and prepared sermons that are featured in most religious services. We worship in utter simplicity in order not to crowd out God’s direct voice or drown out the still, small voice within each of us.
  •     However, many Quaker meetings hold “programmed” worship that is more like other protestant churches, with hymn singing, Bible readings, prepared collective prayer,s and sermons. These meetings feel that these outward forms help the meeting commune with God.
  •     We also conduct the business of the meeting in meetings for worship under the direct leadership of the Holly Spirit, having no professional human leadership or hierarchies. We have a number of distinctive community tools to discern God’s wish for us.

Continuing revelation. We believe that direct communion with God means that God is still teaching God’s people.

  •     God’s revelation did not end with the Bible; rather God is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth.
  •     Thus, in answer to God’s continuing revelation over the centuries, we have laid down the outward practice of the sacraments, we have always recognized God’s prophetic inspiration of women ministers, we have struggled against slavery, and, in some yearly meetings, we fully welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people into our fellowship, even though the Bible seems to some on the surface to condemn homosexuality, condone slavery, deny women’s role in ministry, and require outward sacramental practice.
  •     And we remain open to new light, expecting that God will intend further changes for us in the future.

“Let your lives speak.” We believe that God calls us to live our inner faith in outward practice, to live our lives as testimony to the Truth that has been awakened within us, leading us to alleviate suffering, injustice, and oppression, and to amend their causes. As a movement, we have come to unity on a number of stands of conscience, which we call our “testimonies,” and we seek to be open to new truth as to how we should live, as individuals, as a faith community, and as a society.

Love. We believe that “love is the first motion,” as we say, the commandment by which we should live our lives—that we should love God, love our fellow human beings, and love the creation we share with all other living things.

Direct experience. While “What do you believe?” is an important question, one that deserves a clear and straightforward answer, Friends often focus on a rather different question, one posed by George Fox in the 1600s and from which I derive the title for this little series on Quaker beliefs:

  • “You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”
  •     In other words, even though we do have a distinctive set of beliefs, Friends try to focus more on experience than on doctrine. For us, the essential question is: what is your experience of God? And we seek to ground our religious lives on what we have ourselves experienced, rather than on the inherited experience of others, however valuable that tradition might be.


Each of these core beliefs can be unpacked further to get into all of the other beliefs and practices that distinguish Friends, which I have only just touched upon here. That’s for a subsequent post.

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