Collective Witness

February 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

Activist Friends sometimes get upset because their meeting has not taken up their cause and this apparent indifference feels hurtful. At the same time, meetings sometimes feel that they should have some collective witness, that the meeting as a whole should be engaged with some concern. At the very least, meetings sometimes feel that they should at least have a vital peace and social action committee, and are unhappy when they don’t.

The answer to both forms of discomfort, I believe, is the energetic and creative embrace of the faith and practice of Quaker ministry.

For the activist Friend, this means thinking of your impulse to engage some concern as a leading from the Spirit. Following a leading in the framework of Quaker ministry focuses the minister on several questions.

First, am I clear what my leading is and is it from G*d? Do I know what I am supposed to be doing and am I confident in my purpose?

If I am uncertain, then the next step is to ask the meeting for a clearness committee for discernment (for which the primary resource is Patricia Loring’s Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Spiritual Discernment: The Context and Goal of Clearness Committees Among Friends). Even if I am certain about my leading, it’s still a good idea to ask for a clearness committee. Here’s why.

First, of course, is the clearness. Even if you are clear in your concern, you will almost certainly learn things about yourself and your call that you didn’t know before.

But also, the clearness committee will go a long way toward easing your disappointment in the meeting’s lack of interest in your concern. A handful of Friends will become intimately familiar, not just with the character of your impulse toward social or ecological justice (along with yourself!), but they will also get to know you better as a person.

In my own experience as a participant in such a clearness committee, I came out of the clearness committee a champion of the ministry. This doesn’t necessarily translate into action alongside the minister in the cause, but it does at least bring the concern into my prayer life.

If the committee and the minister agree, then the next step would be to bring a minute for travel or service to the meeting. Now the whole meeting (or at least, those gathered for business in worship) learns about the call and brings to it the corporate discernment of the whole meeting.

If such a minute gets written and approved, then the next step is for the meeting to form a care committee, or a committee for support and/or oversight, for the leading. Now another small group of Friends becomes intimately engaged with the concern and with the activist.

Finally, as the activist reports periodically to the meeting about their leading, the meeting’s engagement is refreshed.

One more thing. Properly practiced, the structures and processes of Quaker ministry keep returning the focus to the ministry, and not just to the minister. This also goes a long way toward relieving the activist’s unhappiness with the meeting. It’s not really about you, it’s about the divine call to action. Your job shifts from trying to get the meeting to come on board to seeking to be faithful to the call.

And all this works to alleviate the discomfort the meeting might feel about not having a collective witness—for now they do. If several Friends go through this process of clearness and support committees, the network of relationships spreads through the meeting, deepening this sense of action on the part of the meeting. With this spirit-led dynamic at work in the life of the meeting, the meeting comes to feel that the Spirit is, in fact, at work amongst you.

And of course, chances are fair that, through this intimate contact with it and the Friend, some other Friends will join in the work of the leading more actively.

This is one of the reasons why I feel very strongly that we should not organize our witness in committees, but rather through the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. Committee’s are almost by definition silos of activity that only make contact with the meeting when they present business to the body, much of which amounts to reports and their budget.

There will be the occasional call to action, of course. But this almost always takes the form of asking for approval to act as a committee, which returns the action to the silo, or of approving a minute of conscience, which has its place, but a minute is not much to crow about as an act of collective witness.

A minute of conscience: Apology to Afro-Descendants

November 18, 2013 § 7 Comments

This past weekend (November 15–17, 2013), New York Yearly Meeting held its Fall Sessions and we approved an Apology to Afro-Descendants for our historical participation in and profit from slavery. It was a very difficult meeting.

The Apology had been years in the works, including distribution to our local meetings for discernment. The local meetings ran the gamut from approval to disapproval and ignore-ance. In addition to individual Friends, two formally constituted groups within the Yearly Meeting had participated in its development: a Task Group on Racism and the European American Quakers Working to End Racism Working Group.

Several Friends objected on various grounds and the clerk, perceiving that we were not in unity, decided to discontinue the discussion and move on to other business. At this point, all the African-Americans (three, I think!) in the room stood and left, and others left to support them. Other Friends refused to let the matter rest, however, and we returned to discernment on the Apology. The Friends who left came back. Ultimately, we did approve the Apology, with one Friend asking to be recorded as standing aside and another asking to be recorded as standing aside on behalf of his meeting, though the meeting had not formally charged him to speak for them. That meeting had labored over the Apology at length and could not support it.

I wish I had kept better notes on Friends’ objections. Several of those who spoke had clearly thought about the matter to some depth. This is what I remember:

  • The body was not in a position to make such an apology because none of us had participated in the institution of slavery and we were not accountable for the actions of others, even if they were our Quaker “ancestors”. This was the reason voiced most often.
  • We were not a collective body that could in any way be held accountable for the actions of individuals in the past. We were a living body that had moved beyond the condition of the Friends who had owned slaves in the past.
  • The Apology was not enough: it needed more work and it didn’t say enough.
  • As worded, it spoke on behalf of the Yearly Meeting as though that body were a white body speaking to a black audience, whereas the body did in fact include African-Americans, so its voice was wrong.
  • It was unclear to whom the Apology would be addressed, since the victims of slavery were no longer alive, though the Apology did address the ongoing suffering and oppression of the descendants of slaves (it was titled “Apology to Afro-Descendants”).
  • The Apology looked to the past and it would be more constructive to look forward and dedicate ourselves to ending racism, rather than look backward in this way.
  • Many Friends were not comfortable with various aspects of the Apology’s wording, and wished to add things or change things in the minute.

This was an extremely emotional discussion for many Friends. Many wept as they spoke. I myself spoke with some passion and came close to breaking up, which surprised me. I think a lot of us surprised ourselves.

I spoke in support of the Apology. I do feel that:

  • Both in faith and practice, we have a strong sense of ourselves as a corporate entity that can and should be held accountable for its actions, even those the community has taken in the past.
  • Because in our meetings for worship with attention to the life of the meeting we seek to discern and do the will of G*d, and always have, the body that gathers today stands in a continuum, in a prophet stream that is continuous with Friends of past ages, and thus we share in some way in their failure to discern a truth that we now see clearly, namely that slavery is abhorrent and morally wrong. The oneness, the continuity of the prophetic stream that is embodied in the meeting for business in worship, ties us to our past.
  • just as present-day African-Americans live lives constrained by the legacy of slavery, so we European Americans live lives constrained by the legacy of our privilege, bought in part by our historical participation in slavery and its aftermath, and thus we European Americans living today do owe Afro-Descendants an apology.
  • I felt that the Apology did not go far enough, because it did not ask for forgiveness.
  • I felt that, though the audience for such an Apology might be a little vague—to whom would we deliver such an apology, for instance—that it should also have been addressed to G*d, as a prayer of repentance and for forgiveness, though here also, the audience is a little vague, since many modern Liberal Friends do not believe in a theistic God to whom one could address such a prayer. Nevertheless, our slaveholder Quaker ancestors had believed in such a God, and so have the vast majority of our Quaker ancestors since, up until perhaps the middle of the 20th century. We therefore have inherited an unfulfilled religious obligation, even though this is complicated by the fact that we mostly don’t have a theology that matches up with that obligation. Still, I thought it important to ask for forgiveness.

It was a confusing and disturbing meeting. Friends did things that troubled me, though I think I understand and appreciate their motives, both the rational and the emotional ones.

Several Friends brought prepared statements. The clerk, rightly I think, encouraged Friends not to make this a regular practice, but these Friends are not likely to make it a regular practice, I am sure. Furthermore, we had been encouraged to read the Apology and think about it before we came to the Sessions, so it was only natural that many of us had already formed an opinion. I would have been more comfortable if these Friends had waited to read their messages until they had heard some other vocal ministry, remaining open in this way to the possibility of hearing an alternative to their view that carried the power of the Holy Spirit, but they were all virtually the first to speak.

When Friends left the meeting at the point that the clerk decided to move on, it had the effect of holding the meeting emotionally hostage. I am sure that this was not their intent, though one Friend did say that she could not remain present in a body that could not unite behind such an apology. In retrospect, I think that rising to ask the clerk to test whether the meeting really was ready to move on to other business would have been more constructive, because clearly we were not ready to move on. But sometimes the only thing you can do with searing pain is try to get away from it. Perhaps that was what they were doing. I haven’t had a chance yet to find out what motivated them. I hadn’t even realized they were gone, actually, until someone rose to point it out, and that was the thing that brought us back to the discernment. I think my eyes were closed in prayer when they left.

So the withdrawal of these Friends did in fact have the effect of drawing us back into discernment on the matter. But I worried at the time that our subsequent willingness to approve the Apology over the objections of Friends may have arisen, at least in part, as an attempt to affirm our fellowship with those who had left, as a natural response to their pain, rather than as a response to the prophetic call of the Holy Spirit.

Now, however, I think it might have been both. Walter Brueggeman, the biblical theologian, once wrote that lamentation is the beginning of prophecy—that before the prophetic message can emerge, a community often has to be able to name its suffering and oppression first. So perhaps answering that of pain in our Friends was answering the work of the Spirit among us, after all.

The final complication for me was approving an action over the rather strong objections of Friends. From the formal point of view, there was no problem because both Friends stood aside, rather than standing in the way, so we were clear to go forward. But I doubt very much that those other Friends who had expressed their objection had changed their minds; they certainly did not say so.

Normally, we would have kept at it in the face of such resistance. I strongly suspect that it was the clock that drove us forward. We were already over time, it was the last session of the last day of Fall Sessions, and we were waiting to eat lunch. Moreover, we had yet to approve our 2014 budget, which was important business and business that in the past has often proved to be its own very difficult discussion.

How many times have I seen an important piece of G*d’s work face the tyranny of the clock and suffer for it? And how many times have I seen a meeting fail to take decisive prophetic action (if you can call a minute an “action”) because we could not come to unity on the language of a minute, even when the issue is a no-brainer? How many times have I seen a meeting make a decision simply out of exhaustion?

We were stuck. Things were going to go badly almost no matter what we did. So we stumbled forward. On the way, we trampled some people, our gospel order, and maybe some Truth. We did our best and it wasn’t all that good. Some Friends felt triumphant, I think. I felt battered. This was the best we could do and I feel it was a net positive, in the end. But if it was a “victory”, it was pyrrhic.

This is the bittersweet condition of a community that tries to live according to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in a world that does not grasp the Light. Our way is not an easy path and we often do stumble. But it’s still the best one I’ve found so far.

PS: A note about the clerking of this meeting. Reading over this post, I realize that I may have given the impression that I thought the clerk failed to discern the sense of the meeting. I do not think that. We really were deeply divided, with no clear breakthrough on the horizon. I suspect that only a crisis such as what did take place could have given us direction. And the clerk has responsibility for all of the business on the agenda. Given how important the budget was and the way the body was writhing under the burden of discernment over the Apology, I think it was perfectly reasonable to lay the matter aside and go on. We do this all of the time, and properly.

Furthermore, one really does have a different perspective when sitting at the clerk’s table, able to see the body as a whole, and the body language of all the individuals, and so on. It’s a lot easier to second-guess a clerk than to be one.

Finally, it is my experience that Friends really need time to vent when their emotions get so involved in a matter of business. The venting is going to happen until it’s spent, usually, and it’s almost not worth trying to reach a decision until it’s over. We were a long way from done with venting. We still are, I suspect. But the body—some of it anyway—was going to charge forward. So maybe we surfed the venting into a decision. Clerks are not in control of such a wave.

Accountability in Quaker Institutions

December 2, 2012 § 13 Comments

A recent issue of Friends Journal is dedicated to Friends and Money. In a searching article titled “When Quaker Process Fails,” John M. Coleman looks at why so many Friends institutions are declining financially and have failed to respond creatively or effectively to the current recession. Friend Coleman uses the recent financial debacle in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting as a case for study in understanding these trends and failures, though, as he points out, the problems he identifies are widespread among Quaker institutions.

John Coleman also points out that we didn’t used to be this way. For centuries, Friends have been extremely competent at managing organizations and money. This only began to change in the early twentieth century. For the book that I’ve been writing on Quakers and Capitalism, I have looked at our relationship with money, taking the research up through the 1920 Conference of All-Friends in London, which is the point at which Friends began to move out of business and management. As a result, I have some ideas about why these changes took place, but they are tentative and not fully baked. Still, I’d like to suggest some possibilities.

Let me start by trying to clearly frame the question. John Coleman has done a great job of naming the problems:

  • disregard of elementary principles of accountability,
  • insensitivity to ethics,
  • weak-to-nonexistent strategic planning and goal-setting,
  • lack of realistic priorities,
  • poor personnel practices,
  • scant appreciation for expertise;
  • unworkable organizational structures,
  • lack of transparency,
  • a failure to measure, and
  • an unwillingness to look outside of Friends for models and ideas.

So that’s a broad sketch of the problems we face. Here’s the question: Why, after centuries of world-famous excellence in all these areas, have Friends become so inept? Why, especially, are we failing in areas like ethics and transparency, in which we pridefully maintain an apparently unwarranted self-esteem?

In later posts, I would like to look at a range of other causes for these failures, but what’s on my mind right now is the first one John Coleman names—the disregard for accountability. Many of the problems John Coleman names descend in part from this one.

In the late nineteenth century, Friends turned against the culture of eldership to which they had adhered since George Fox began “bringing gospel order” to meetings in the 1660s. Beginning in the mid-1800s, meetings began laying down the practice of recording elders. Soon after, we began laying down the practice of recording ministers. In doing so we abandoned the structures we had for holding each other accountable. We did this for some good reasons; they had become moribund, in some ways even toxically repressive, and change really was called for. But we threw out the baby with the bath water.

To replace recorded ministers and elders, we created committees for ministry and oversight or ministry and counsel and we staffed these committees with Friends named by nominating committees. By about the 1920s, I think, this process of abandoning recording and other aspects of our traditional culture of eldership was virtually complete, at least in the Liberal branch.

Gradually (maybe right away?), these committees suffered from uncertainty as to their scope of activity and their authority. In the decades since, these committees have come to consist of Friends who very often do have spiritual gifts in ministry and eldership that their nominating committees have recognized. But in my experience, they often now do not know the tradition well enough to understand, exercise, and transmit what is left of our shredded culture of eldership and I’m not sure they would try if they did know it. For one thing, they would likely face serious resistance from some in their meetings.

As a result, nowadays the roles and functions of eldering are haphazardly practiced by inexperienced Friends who do what they can at considerable personal risk. I speak primarily of dealing with problems and with problem people in our meetings and institutions, but even the more positive, nurturing role of elders is now left to chance, or to God, if you will. God does raise up elders among us, but our meetings are often quick to tear them down, or more likely, to let Friends who are allergic to discipline tear them down while we feel paralyzed to stop it.

Just as we turned away internally from the damage that a corrupt and ossified culture of eldership was doing to us, we increasingly embraced newcomers who were refugees from the religious cultures of their upbringing. Some of these people have been damaged by those communities. These Friends don’t just find that ‘eldership’ doesn’t work for them; they are scarred and often scared, and therefore hostile towards it. The treatment that has scarred these Friends almost always involved some kind of coercion. Thus, throughout the twentieth century our ranks have swelled with people who were not going to tolerate anything that looked like coercion in their new home among Friends. And because eldering or accountability of any kind looks suspiciously like coercion and therefore causes these Friends pain, their natural resistance to structures and processes of discipline reinforces the already-established trend of abandoning responsibility for eldership. As a result, we are systematically and systemically failing in our responsibility to protect our worship, our fellowship, and the corporate health of our meetings and institutions.

This includes failure to discipline those who do harm in the name of resisting discipline: we can not and do not hold these wounded Friends accountable for the damage that they themselves do. I know; I was one of those people. I caused a lot of trouble for a while in my meeting and the only person who ever really eldered me for it was the person I was harassing the most.

Part of the reason we have no accountability in our institutions is our practices of membership. I have discussed this in other posts. When we meet with prospective members, we often do not include agreements about mutual accountability in our discussions, especially regarding finances. We don’t think of membership as a covenant between member and meeting in which we exchange promises of mutual accountability for support and nurture. Thus we leave financial support of the meeting to chance, or rather, to individual choice surrounded by a culture of silence and avoidance. The result is that (if I am not mistaken) we are among the least generous of religious communities when it comes to members’ financial support.

I’m not sure what the solution is for this. This fear of coercion goes deep. This creedal commitment to radical individualism is now an established tenet of our faith. This wholesale abandonment of any culture of eldership is now a longstanding aspect of our practice. It will take a conscious choice and a sustained effort to reverse these trends in our culture. No realistic person looking at the problem from the outside would expect us to undertake such a far-reaching and difficult transformation.

But, as I’ve said in a recent post [], we have done it in the past. The problems we face today are nothing compared to the challenges Friends overcame in the 1660s and ‘70s when we first established gospel order as a way to reign in ranters among us and protect us from the depredations of official persecution with structures and discipline. And two hundred years later, British Friends turned on a metaphorical dine (farthing?) and reversed a catastrophic decline in membership.

In the 1660s, the solution was more discipline, corporate efforts to prevent another James Naylor affair and to create a structure that could endure despite the catastrophic loss of leadership in England’s gaols. In the 1860s, however, British Friends relaxed discipline, saving themselves from self-destruction and helping to put us on the slightly slippery slope that has got us where we are today. In the 1870s and ‘80s in America, many Friends found renewal in the great transition to programmed worship and ultimately, professional ministry. In the 1960s, Liberal Friends rode the currents of cultural revolution away from discipline again.

It’s time for the pendulum to swing again.

  1. We need to recover, study, evaluate, adopt, and adapt what’s left of our ancient culture of eldership and experiment with new forms of discipline that work for us. This calls for a Society-wide commitment to religious education.
  2. We can pray for spirit-led ministry: vocal ministry in our meetings that begins to open eyes and minds and hearts and doors; written ministry that teaches, preaches, and proposes; and ‘workshop’ ministry that engages Friends in hands-on experience with the faith and practice of eldership.
  3. And we need to rethink our approach to the membership process. We need to discuss eldership with prospective members, to ask them how far they are willing to engage with the meeting in mutual accountability; we need to establish whether they think of discipline as an essential aspect of religious life. This assumes, of course, that the meeting is itself willing to engage, that it believes that discipline is an essential aspect of religious life. Not many do, in my experience.
  4. So we need to have an open conversation in our meetings about just how “covenantal” we want our meeting to be.

Notes on Friends Business Practice

August 5, 2012 § 2 Comments

The role of the clerks in the process of discernment

Who writes minutes?

I’ve served as recording clerk for both committees and a monthly meeting and I wrote the minutes for those bodies. In fact, in every Friends meeting and committee in which I’ve participated, the recording clerk has written the minutes.

This was not always our practice. For most of our history, the presiding clerk articulated the minute and the recording clerk recorded the minute as spoken by the presiding clerk.

Question for my readers: does anyone know when we started adopting the newer practice?

The rationale for this more ancient practice, I believe, was that, because the presiding clerk was responsible for discerning when the meeting had come into unity on a matter, she was in the best position to discern what the sense of the meeting was.

I’m not sure that follows, though. I believe the rationale for our current practice is that, while the presiding clerk is shepherding the flock, the recording clerk can write notes and even sentences that try to articulate what Friends in the body and the presiding clerk are saying along the way.

Doing business by editing minutes

Both of these rationales make sense to me. The problem arises, not so much because of who writes the minutes, but in the way we proceed after they are written.

With the newer practice, the meeting usually hears a minute for the first time after a draft of the minute has been written. At this point we have two options. The presiding clerk can ask for further discussion after the minute has been read. Very often, however, the presiding clerk asks the body whether it approves the minute, receiving then a chorus of vocal assent—“Approve!”—from the body.

In this latter case, inevitably, those who do not approve rise to speak against it, and at this point the meeting really gets down to it. Many people take some time to find their way to object, especially if the main body seems to be moving right along toward some unity. And we so often do not feel that we have enough time in which to do our business. But then that feeling that we all know—that something is not right with the way the sense of the meeting has been articulated (usually, we are thinking, “That minute is just not quite right.”)—our objection finally rises to a level that we can no longer ignore, so we ask to be recognized, and back into it we go. Furthermore, in both cases, we do the deepest work of corporate discernment through vocal ministry by editing a minute.

This is bad for several reasons. It perforce casts those who object to some aspect of the stated sense of the meeting as against the sense of the meeting; they should not be forced into this role because, in fact, there is no sense of the meeting—just a minute that fails to capture the sense of the meeting. It also traps everyone who speaks into vocal ministry that addresses the content of the minute rather than vocal ministry that speaks directly to the matter at hand.

An alternative

One of the advantages of recording minutes that have been articulated by the presiding clerk is that she can float tentative minutes verbally as way-markers toward the sense of the meeting; the recording clerk records these, and, when the presiding clerk finally speaks a tentative minute that seems to actually express the sense of the meeting, the recording clerk has already written it down. (You also have a set of markers that I feel would be a valuable record of the meeting’s progress toward unity.)

In any case, once either the presiding clerk or the recording clerk has proposed the minute that they believe expresses the sense of the meeting, the critical next step is to make sure that there are no objections before asking the body for approval. I once heard Jan Hoffman propose in a presentation on business process that the clerk pointedly ask at this point whether anyone still has objections to the minute as written or spoken. The discernment process continues as long as Friends are still objecting, until no one answers the invitation to object. Here’s my favorite part of Jan’s suggestion: At this point, the clerk asks, “May I then accept your silence as approval?” Finally, now, the body vocalizes, “Approve!” after a period of deepening silence.

I’ve seen this done just two, maybe three times. It worked really well. It brought the meeting deeper as it progressed, the silence in the penultimate moment was profound, and the “Approve!” at the very end was joyful.

On Clearness Committees for Membership

March 27, 2012 § 17 Comments

A note to my readers:

I’ve been away from this blog for quite some time while I focused on other writing. But I’m back. I still may not post as often as I used to because I’m still really engaged with these other projects, but I have a little more time these days and I do expect to post every few days or so. Thanks to those of you who have continued to check in now and then.   ~ Steven

Now, on membership:

Some of the articles in the April issue of Friends Journal on membership got me thinking again about the central role that the faith and especially the practice of membership play in driving and directing the trends of change in the Quaker tradition. As a community we are whom we admit into membership and we become what these Friends want from their religious life. (Of course, this is true only so far as most of our members come to us through convincement rather than by being born to us through ‘birthright.’ And we also should acknowledge the significant contributions of our attenders in this regard, who often make up a sizable portion of our meetings and often stay attenders for a long time rather than applying for membership. As a result, they end up becoming ersatz members, reflecting and reinforcing the fact that we have become very unclear (and apparently unattractive) about what membership means, what it offers and what it entails—we have given them no good reason to become members.)

Over time the influx of new Friends has brought to us many of the trends and issues that preoccupy our attention. Christ-centered versus universalist, confessional faith versus a faith defined as seeking, nontheism, Quaker ‘paganism’ and forms of women’s spirituality, abortion and other gender issues, concerns about homosexuality, same sex marriage and sexuality in general, intolerance of each other’s beliefs, the apparent dilution of spiritual vitality in many of our meetings—all these have their roots to some degree in the minds and emotions and expectations of the people we have admitted to membership.

My own experience serves as a good example. When I first joined Friends, I applied to a meeting in which I already had very close friends and they were very happy to have me. My clearness committee was anything but perfunctory, however; we all took the process very seriously, and I came with baggage that really needed to be dealt with. I was hostile to Christianity and the Bible (though I had been a zealous member of my Lutheran church as a youth and dove with relish into Bible study during confirmation class) and I told my committee so. They saw this as no impediment and soon I was a member.

Soon I was harassing Friends who brought us Christian and biblical vocal ministry. I objected to Bible lessons in First-day School. I expressed my hostility. No one eldered me. Years passed. Then I went to Pendle Hill intending to begin research for a book on earth stewardship that involved intense Bible study. This study rekindled my love for the Bible and, in short time, this renewed enthusiasm overwhelmed my hostility. I’ve never stopped studying scripture since and have been writing two books that amount to biblical eco-theology. I still am not a Christian by any of the definitions that I use, but I have learned respect for my tradition. So my meeting got lucky—I changed on my own.

But I might not have. I could have continued to hurt people and damage our fellowship. I could have continued to quench the spirit in other Friends and damage my meeting’s worship. I could have continued to reinforce the liberal shift away from our traditional Christian and biblical roots. This troubles me.

The doorway to all this damage and all the trends I’ve mentioned is the clearness process for membership and the attitudes and the expectations we bring to it. Because of my own experience, I have felt for some time a call to a ministry focused on recovering our traditions and on taking greater responsibility for the direction our movement is taking. That means taking a close look at how we approach membership.

Here’s what I think my clearness committee should have done in my case: Accept my application, certainly. I am not talking about excluding people by applying some kind of creed. But I wish they had probed my woundedness enough to anticipate more clearly my possible behavior and its consequences. Then, most importantly, I wish they had asked (really, I mean required) that I labor with them to overcome my negativity. I wish that they had reminded me that my behavior affects real people and put me on notice that the meeting would protect its fellowship and its worship—that I would be held accountable for my behavior. I would like to believe that I would have snapped to right then and there if they had made this request/demand.

Here’s the crux—the cross, really—of what I’m saying: I am proposing that our meetings consider membership as a commitment to covenant, a mutually binding agreement, an agreement in which, as applicants, one of the things we are asking for is help with our spiritual development through both nurture and loving correction if we “step through the traces”; a willingness to actively engage each other in the sacred work of discipleship, by which I mean the individual and corporate discipline that leads to greater faithfulness. For its part, the meeting would promise to nurture each member’s spiritual life and to lovingly but confidently labor with members when they threaten either the meeting’s worship or its fellowship. For this kind of eldering is, truly, a form of spiritual nurture.

Most meetings will resist this. ‘Discipline’ is a four-letter word among us now. Many of us have found our home here as refugees fleeing hurtful intrusion into our lives by a religious institution. The last thing such Friends want is similar intrusion from their meeting. Our liberality, our self-identification as a “do it yourself religion,” our desire to be nice, our position as a haven for these refugees, all these cultural traits make Quaker meetings very reluctant to build a meaningful culture of eldership. And our desire to welcome good people into our (dwindling) fold makes us loathe to do anything in the membership process that might scare applicants off. I would have welcomed this kind of engagement myself; I have always felt covenant was essential to my spiritual life. But, yes, some applicants would be scared off and many others would become wary; and rightfully so.

So we should at least probe our applicants deeply enough to find out what they want from us in terms of spiritual nurture, including eldering—how far are they willing to let us go? Just raising the question will be useful. Meanwhile, meetings need to examine themselves to see whether they are clear to provide such nurture and eldering. Clearness for membership is a two way process of discernment: are we clear to accept the applicant as a member, and are we clear as a meeting that we can answer their spiritual needs? Very often, our applicants won’t really know what they want. If we are going to help them find out, then we need to know what we want as a meeting, and who we are.

If we do not clarify what we want from our members, if we do not consider the consequences of inattention and reticence in our clearness committees, then we relinquish any chance of discerning the future of our tradition, of furthering our tradition rather than gradually and thoughtlessly abandoning it over time. We relinquish any chance of choosing the course of our history and we thus relegate our fate to arbitrary forces that are mostly invisible to us until we reap the consequences. Bereft of a vital culture of eldership, such a rudderless ship will inevitably founder on the shoals of the world’s values.

Most important, by not asking for more from our members, we fail them in their search for spiritual fulfillment. Presumably, this is one of the reasons people join, that they believe the Quaker community will give them the environment they need to enrich their inner lives. They hope to find God among us, whatever that might mean to them. They join—and then we often leave them to their own resources after all.

Finally, as sociological studies of religious communities have repeatedly shown, asking more from your members actually attracts people and grows membership. A community that really knows what it is about shines like a light on a hill. A wishy-washy community with no clear definition or boundaries hopes that people will somehow find their way to its doors by their own perseverance in navigating the world’s spiritual labyrinths.

So this new approach to membership requires that our meetings search themselves more deeply to discern what, in fact, they are about. What do we have to offer new members besides opportunities to serve on committees, community with good people, and an hour a week of relatively peaceful silence and heartfelt sharing? How can we offer them experience of the Divine in ways that nurture their souls?

I am trying here to define the mission of a Quaker meeting and the meaning of Quaker membership. Our mission is to serve as God’s agents in furthering our members’ spiritual lives. Membership is entering that covenant, the mutual agreement that working together to nurture each other in the Spirit is what we are all about.

Comments on PYM Annual Sessions

August 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Part Three — Discernment, Minutes and Quaker Business Practice

In the two sessions of PYM that I attended last week, clerk Thomas Swain used two slightly different variations on the practice of discerning and writing/approving minutes. Both were an improvement, in my opinion, and in my experience, on the way Friends’ meetings usually conduct business; the second session came fairly close to the practice I personally think works best. I would like to outline the practice I prefer (which I’ve only seen used a couple of times) and compare it along the way with the one we usually use:

  1. Background phase.
    1. A committee has prepared a presentation introducing the matter and someone from the committee lays it out, often describing who was on the committee, what their process was, including sometimes how often they met and how they divvied up the tasks, and then he or she introduces their conclusions and recommendations for actions. Good presentations of this sort are very helpful.
    2. The clerk asks for questions aimed at clarification before inviting contributions to discernment in the ‘discernment’ phase. This is not always done.
  2. Disernment phase.
    1. The clerk opens discussion from the floor. There’s often a little confusion here about whether to address the clerk or the presenter, who is usually still standing or still at the podium, and about who has authority to recognize speakers and respond. I would have the presenter sit back down, but near to the podium or microphone, if the size of the body has required them, so that it’s clear that things are back in the hands of the clerk, and yet the presenter can answer questions, if needed.
    2. Often the matter breaks down into several issues or aspects and it’s helpful when the clerk can focus the body’s attention on them one at a time. As the clerk feels that a sense of the meeting is beginning to emerge around one of these issues, s/he echoes this back to the body with preliminary reflections and queries, along the lines of “I sense that we might be saying, ’xyz’. Am I getting this right?”
    3. At some point, the clerk will sense that a sense of the meeting is emerging about the matter as a whole. Here again, it’s useful to float preliminary minutes along the way and invite further ministry.
  3. Decision phase.
    1. If the body is struggling to find unity, the clerk may call for an extended period of worship, or choose to lay the matter over to another session. If the Spirit seems to be moving the body forward into unity, the clerk offers a final ‘minute’, a clear, concise expression of her or his sense of the meeting. Still standing (or however s/he signals that s/he’s NOT recognizing new speakers, s/he allows a little time for Friends to think about the minute.
    2. Here’s where the practice I’m proposing diverges decisively from our usual practice. Usually, the clerk states that s/he senses that the meeting is ready to hear a minute and turns to the recording clerk, who reads the minute s/he has crafted. Then the clerk asks, “Do Friends approve?” Members of the body say, “Approve.” Then the hands go up. Not everyone approves; or Friends ‘approve’, but they still have questions, comments or tweaks to propose. We end up sinking into a deeper level of discussion and discernment as the urgency of approving the minute calls out the deeper objections, and, to complicate things, we now do this through the process of editing the minute, which skews the discussion, warping it around the text under discussion rather than leaving it open to new leadings. This often descends into an iterative process of revising and rereading new drafts that then evoke new comments, creating new drafts, etc. Ultimately, we approve a final draft, often after a confusing and repetitive process that, in the worst case, is dispiriting and exhausting.
    3. Here’s what I would do instead, which I learned from a source I can no longer remember (I think it might have been Jan Hoffman at a conference at Powell House, New York Yearly Meeting’s conference center; but I no longer remember for sure):
      1. The presiding clerk presents a final minute for consideration (not necessarily a crafted text, but a clear expression of the decision s/he believes the body is making) and leaves a little time for reflection. The recording clerk is writing this down, as s/he has been recording any earlier preliminary minutes, and s/he’s thinking of slight modifications that might help clarify and simplify the actual text.
      2. Then the clerk asks whether there are any objections. Pointedly asking for objections raises the bar for comment. Friends will comment anyway, even if they do not have what amounts to an objection, but it deepens the process a bit.
      3. Once all the objections have been uttered, which has been signalled by some time without anyone calling for recognition, the clerk invites new ministry toward discernment.
      4. When the clerk feels s/he understands the new sense of the meeting, s/he presents a new minute and asks for objections.
      5. When, finally, there are no objections, the clerk asks the recording clerk to read what s/he has to make sure the actual text reflects the presiding clerk’s sense of the meeting.
      6. If there still are no objections, the presiding clerk asks: “May the clerk then accept your silence as approval?”
      7. Now the body finally calls out its approval.

I like this process for the following reasons:

  1. It maximizes the chances for true unity without hidden objection.
  2. It conducts the discernment process in open worship for as long as possible, rather than shifting it into the process of editing a text.
  3. It does not fragment the clerk’s discerning role from her or his ‘management’ role at the critical moment of decision: Throughout the discernment phase, the presiding clerk has been helping the body answer to the Spirit at work among them, by choosing who will speak in what order, by providing opportunities for deepening silence, by floating preliminary ‘minutes’, by feeling the movement of the spirit. All along, his or her discernment of the movement of the spirit in the body has been integral to her or his conduct of the meeting. Then, when it comes time to offer a minute for approval, suddenly that integrity is fractured: someone else presents the sense of the meeting. Recording clerks used to record minutes and the presiding clerks used to draft them. We have almost universally abandoned this practice. Recording clerks are often chosen for their writing skills; presiding clerks are chosen for their discernment skills. I have myself served as a recording clerk who has been called upon to draft the minutes, and it often works out just fine; being a passable writer doesn’t mean you lack the gift of discernment. Furthermore, it’s true that the recording clerk sometimes sees things that the presiding clerk doesn’t, caught up as he or she might be in the process of conducting the meeting. But I would prefer that the recording clerk simply speak to the presiding clerk ‘offline’, as it were, bringing such things to the presiding clerk’s attention. Expressing the sense of the meeting should be in the hands of the person who has throughout the process been helping the meeting discern what God wants them to do.

Comments on Friends’ Practice Prompted by PYM Annual Sessions

August 2, 2011 § 7 Comments

Part One — Acclamation of Friends’ Service


Annual sessions of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting opened last Wednesday night, July 27, and ended Sunday, July 31. I attended the plenary sessions in the morning and workshops and interest groups in the afternoon on Thursday and Friday, and the experience prompted some thoughts.

Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is going through hard times. As is often the case, in the Yearly Meeting as in the United States government, budget woes have precipitated a deeper searching about mission and priorities. On Thursday morning the YM treasurer, TylaAnn Burger, gave an extremely well-designed presentation on the YM’s finances, budget, the issues driving the crisis, and the issues revealed by the crisis. And crisis it is: the approved budget calls for drastic cuts in staff, and more will probably be needed next year, as well. Sessions considered and approved the proposed budget on Friday morning.

The problems are systemic. Steady, unavoidable increases in fixed costs like healthcare for staff and upkeep for buildings are colliding with decreases in investment income and contributions, both covenant giving from monthly meetings and individual giving to the Annual Fund. Some of the deeper issues involve disconnects between individual Friends and their local meetings and the yearly meeting and its staff and services; a disconnect in the way the budget is developed between who develops it and who spends it; widespread ignorance and misinformation about the yearly meeting’s finances and financial and accounting terms and practices; and the sheer complexity of the yearly meeting’s financial operations.

My observations cover the general conduct of the sessions as well as some of these issues related to yearly meeting organization and finance. First, on the practice of clapping and including thanks for service in our minutes.

Acclamation of Friends and Friends’ service

At times, Friends did or contemplated doing a couple of things that I thought contrary to our tradition: they clapped and they considered including thanks for service to individual Friends in the minutes. For hundreds of years, we did neither of these things because we believed that service was prompted by God and given to God as a form of ministry, and so God deserved the thanks and the acclamation. We were glad that the individuals were faithful to their call to service, but for a number of reasons, we did not divert our thanks and praise from the Caller.

Both practices are so common nowadays that I suppose we have to consider that we are laying down our tradition in these areas. Both reflect the inroads that the “ways of the world” have made in our practice. They also reflect a corresponding abandonment of the original Quaker understanding of service as a form of ministry, as service to God prompted by the Holy Spirit, rather than as service to the community prompted by—what? community spirit? a spirit of responsibility? I’m not sure that we have really thought much about where service comes from, now that we no longer think it comes from God. I suppose that it comes from “that of God” within us or from the Inner Light. But both practices seem to me to redefine religious service as community service, to relocate its source in the individual and the community rather than in a divine Source, and to accept the world’s ways of acknowledging such service accordingly.

It’s natural for us to appreciate the work that Friends do, especially when they do it so well. And, believing as we do in ‘continuing revelation’, it’s natural for our practice to evolve and take on new forms. However, I think this shift needs our attention. So far, it’s been mostly unconscious, the result, I suspect, of many Friends just not knowing that clapping and minuting thanks are not our tradition and why they are not our tradition, so they do it because it’s the right thing to do in the wider society; and it’s the result of many clerks either sharing that ignorance, or being unwilling to bring it up when it happens in meeting, or believing that it does no harm.

And maybe it doesn’t. I don’t like it. It feels unseemly to me, and I get very uncomfortable when it’s me they’re clapping for or thanking. Then I sometimes have to speak up, though it feels awkward and ungracious to do so. But obviously, many Friends feel otherwise

On the surface, it probably looks like I’m a traditionalist, but that’s not quite it. I do not feel responsible to the tradition, meaning that I feel I must adhere to it. But rather, I feel responsible for the tradition: I feel uncomfortable when we abandon it without thought, without discernment, without consciousness of what we are doing.

So, if this really is new ‘revelation’ that we simply have not yet subjected to discernment, then the yearly meeting and our monthly meetings should, I think, take the matter up and formally acknowledge that clapping and minutes of thanks are now our practice, and at least informally acknowledge that this represents another dimension to our shift toward secularization, from a Religious Society of Friends to a Society of Friends, or at least to a Society that no longer thinks of God as the source of ministry. (And by “God” I mean the Mystery Reality behind our religious experience, whatever that experience is. I’m not evangelizing here for any particular definition of God.)

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