April 20, 2014 § 5 Comments
Helping our members find the spiritual practices that work for them and nurturing them in their practice, matching their religious temperaments and spiritual gifts with the appropriate disciplines.
For most Friends, “spiritual practice” boils down to going to meeting for worship once a week. But the unique character of Quakerism encourages us to go further in our spiritual practice than just one hour of quiet in the week. The essential elements of Quaker worship—expectant silence, vocal ministry, and its attendant need for discernment—coupled with our rejection of outward forms of worship, mean that the worship is only as deep as we can make it from inside ourselves. In order to share a deep worship experience—ideally, to share a truly gathered meeting for worship—it would help us to strengthen our capacity for deep silence, practiced discernment, and confidence in our ministry.
Meanwhile, Quakerism doesn’t offer individuals very much in the way of distinctive personal spiritual practices designed to meet these needs. We are given no tools for releasing ourselves from the distractions of the world or the distractions of our own minds and bodies, or for deepening our consciousness, or for focusing our attention on G*d. We have no breathing techniques, no relaxation techniques, no focusing techniques, and no catechism classes, no required religious education programs that would equip us with tools that facilitate communion with the Divine.
Yet I believe that these kinds of techniques can be extremely useful. They are not necessary; all that is necessary is to turn our attention and our will toward the Light within us. But they are valuable. They can deepen our “practice” of Quakerism and enrich the life of the spirit. They also can deepen our collective experience in worship.
Helping our members find the spiritual practices that work for them is one of the more important roles a meeting could play in its members’ religious lives. Because trying to do it on your own is not easy.
Developing and maintaining a regular devotional practice is extremely hard for most of us. First, we have to know what to do. What are “spiritual practices”? How do I find out what they are? How do I learn them? Can I learn them from a book? How do I know which ones will work best for me?
Then, once I’ve settled on a practice, when do I find the time to practice? Who can help me mature in my practice? And if I run into stumbling blocks, who can help me get back on track?
Our meetings should be helping our members and attenders answer these questions for themselves. For the benefits are tremendous, not just for the individuals involved, but also for the meeting as a whole. Even a handful of Friends in a meeting who are regularly attuning themselves to the Divine in their own lives and in their own ways, and who know how to go deep in meeting for worship, will deepen the experience of worship for everyone else.
So what tools are we talking about?
Meditation and prayer. We worship in a silence that is more than just the absence of noise. If we want a deep worship experience, if we want to contribute to that deepening, we should be practicing silence. This points us toward the disciplines of meditation and prayer. We should seek out deepening exercises that feel natural to us and that guide us into our own silent depths. And we could be exploring ways to focus the mind, because in prayer we are focusing our mind on G*d.
As meetings, we could be providing members with opportunities to discover prayer and meditation techniques, and these programs would serve best if they were real workshops, in which the participants get to try these techniques out. I think meetings should regularly offer such opportunities to learn centering techniques, and in as broad a range of technique as possible, so as to meet the various temperaments of the membership. No one technique is likely to meet everyone’s needs.
But if there were a technique that could work for everyone, I suspect it would be centering prayer. This technique is simple, effective, and very open-ended in terms of “content”—the centering prayer word or phrase can be whatever you want. And centering prayer can be learned from a book—it’s that simple; and there are a number of good books out there.
Discernment. We wait in the rich silence of worship for the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This is the very soul of Quaker spirituality—listening always for that still small voice and seeking always to be open to G*d’s guidance and inspiration. This happens most commonly and most clearly in vocal ministry in meeting for worship, but it applies to all forms of ministry—eldering, pastoral care, witness and service. . . .
This kind of spirituality points us toward the disciplines of meditation and prayer, again, for the listening part, and to the discipline of discernment for the the aspect of recognizing the call and understanding its direction. In addition to our prayer and meditation in our practice, we should seek out resources on discernment—books and pamphlets, clearness committees, retreat opportunities, and so on.
Study. Without trained paid professionals, it is up to you and me to make sure that our tradition survives. For a Quaker meeting to work well, a certain critical mass of Friends in the meeting must know our tradition. This points us toward the discipline of study and to the spiritual gift of teaching.
I think meetings need at least two people who know the tradition well enough to teach it. If a meeting does not have these human resources, it could develop them or import them from nearby meetings or from the yearly meeting through religious education programs. Few of us are scholars and not everyone is even a student by temperament, so a meeting is lucky to have someone with such a temperament. If a meeting finds itself bereft of such learners and teachers, then you could form study groups and learn and teach yourselves. For how are we going to survive if we do not pass our tradition along to the future? And how can you be an effective Quaker meeting if no one really knows their Quakerism?
I suspect that an awful lot of our meetings don’t have any members who are conversant enough with deepening techniques, or with the traditional faith and practices of Quaker discernment, or with the rest of our tradition, to share these things with the meeting. With luck, though, these resources will exist within the quarterly or regional meeting, or at least within the yearly meeting. Meetings that aren’t equipped to provide these kinds of programs for themselves should actively seek them out in their wider Quaker community.
In his Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster discusses other spiritual practices, as well. Along with meditation, prayer, and study, he includes in his discussion of the Inward Disciplines fasting. This is an under-utilized and under-valued discipline, in my opinion, not that I’ve done much fasting. But every time I have done it, I have been impressed with how effective it is, especially as an aid to deeper meditation and prayer. The benefits really kick in late in the second day, in my experience. And except for the discipline part, it’s really easy.
Foster discusses several Outward Disciplines: simplicity, solitude, submission, and service. Simplicity and service are quintessentially Quaker, at least in theory. So is submission: instead of “submission”, we speak of faithfulness to the promptings of the spirit in the faith and practice of Quaker ministry—readiness to submit to a leading, whether in meeting for worship as we feel led to speak, or elsewise in the movement of the spirit toward witness or service. Solitude can be hard to get in this life and this world, especially if you have children. But like fasting, it brings surprising benefits. In my own practice, I often combine solitude with time in nature; there’s something about being alone in a forest or out in the desert or on the seashore that dissolves the barriers between flesh and spirit.
Foster’s third group of disciplines he calls Corporate Discipline: confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. Worship, of course, is a Quaker strength. We do know how to gather under the wings of the Spirit. Confession feels more foreign to us. But I suspect that, when our meetings find themselves in conflict, turning to confession would often deliver us from our fears and hurt and anger. For guidance, we have clearness committees—and eldership. Many of our meetings have disempowered their potential elders. This has been a big mistake, though it does seem that the old culture of eldership had lost its way. So now it’s time to recover a new culture of eldership that respects the individual in the ways that we now take for granted, and yet actively seeks to nurture the life of the spirit in a meeting’s members.
Quaker culture is not very welcoming of the kinds of celebration that other churches practice. I am thinking especially of the eucharist and of music, of the rituals and holidays that bring celebration into the lives of other faith communities, and the pure joy of good music. The Catholics and Orthodox and Episcopalians understand celebratory ritual and, as good as the Bach preludes and the hymn singing were in the Lutheran church of my childhood, I think the black church has always been the benchmark for celebration through music. We have potlucks. I am not being sarcastic. We do have our ways of celebrating. In fact, in my opinion, the Quaker meeting for marriage is as good as religious celebration gets, when it’s done well. Unless it’s a memorial meeting. How often have I experienced a gathered meeting for worship while celebrating the life of a Friend! For that is the purpose of the discipline of religious celebration: to bring the worshippers into the joy of G*d’s love by awakening our own.
April 1, 2014 § 5 Comments
The Quaker movement was born in a time of tremendous economic upheaval and hardship and one of the main reasons that meetings and membership rolls were formally established in the first place was to deal with the financial crises we faced. I have discussed this at length in early posts on Quakerism and Capitalism.
At the very beginning in the late 1640s and the 1650s, most Children of Truth were yeoman farmers or tradespeople in small towns and villages. Within a generation, most Friends had abandoned their land or been driven off and had entered commerce, as part of the great transition from a mostly agrarian economy toward capitalism. By 1700, this transition was virtually complete among Friends and already British commercial capitalism was beginning to evolve into an economy that combined trade with manufacture and industry, an evolution driven in considerable part by Quaker energy, innovation, and investment.
In the meantime, beginning in the early 1660s and lasting officially until the mid-1690s, the state, the church, and local authorities conducted a campaign of economic persecution against Quakers that took an enormous financial toll on the movement.
Quaker meetings were established in this period in great part to organize and manage the funds for sufferings that ministered to the financial hardships of their members. At the time, this was one of the more important answers to the question, What is the Religious Society of Friends for? : financial care of its members.
The same was true for the earliest followers of Jesus. I have never seen evidence that early Friends deliberately based their faith and practices of financial care on the model found in Christian scripture, but I suspect that the reason is that I just am not well enough read yet. For the model is quite visible in its basic thrust. It’s a little less obvious how completely ministering to financial hardship permeates the teachings of Jesus, or how central it was to his prophetic mission.
In the fourth chapter of Luke, after having been baptized and tempted in the wilderness, Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth and is invited to read from the prophets in the synagogue. He reads Isaiah 61:1-2:
- The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me,
because Yahweh has anointed me (“Christed” me, “messiahed” me);
he has sent me to bring good news (evangelion) to the poor/oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted (those who have lost their family farm to bankruptcy),
to proclaim liberty to the captives (possibly debt slaves),
and release to the prisoners (ditto);
to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors (the jubilee year).
After reading these words, Jesus declared that in his listener’s hearing, this prophecy was being fulfilled.
In this passage, Jesus declares himself the messiah and defines his role as the Christ as ministering to the sufferings of the poor, mainly by declaring a Jubilee. The Jubilee, from Leviticus 25, did four things:
- It cancelled all debts.
- It set free all debt slaves, people who were working off their debts as indentured servants.
- It returned all families to their ancestral farms, families that had lost their inheritances to foreclosure.
- It required a sabbath fallow, that all fields remain fallow for the year.
Once you learn to recognize the covenantal language for debt, poverty, the Jubilee release, inheritance, and other related “legal” “economic” terminology, you see it everywhere you look in the teachings and actions of Jesus: most of the most famous sayings, half of the parables, most of his curing miracles, many of his other miracles, and much what he actually did in the narratives relate his teachings about the poor and demonstrate his plan for relieving their burdens of debt. Read in this light, the (Synoptic) gospels and Acts lay out a faith and practice of financial care for the poor that was the obligation of the local congregation.
Thus both the primitive Christian church that early Friends sought to restore, and the measures that Friends themselves undertook served to make sure that no one in the community suffered from poverty.
Financial care today
I think most of our meetings do have a concern for the financial welfare of their members, but we do not hold this as one of our core missions, as Jesus’ followers and our own Quaker forebears did. Why?
For one thing, as I write in Quakerism and Capitalism, and as Doug Gwyn describes so well in The Covenant Crucified, Friends in England soon became fabulously wealthy in spite of the intense persecutions, and they abandoned the original covenant they had built on the foundations of their radical eschatological expectations. We became one of the wealthiest communities in Great Britain. This didn’t begin to change in Britain until the 20th century.
Quakers in America were always more diverse in all ways, including economically. Many Friends in the New World continued to be farmers, for instance. But the new nation so often delivered on its promise of opportunity in those days that poverty among American Friends was also rather rare, as far as I know.
In our own time, many of us are middle class, and we don’t really know poverty or even see much of it in our day-to-day lives.
Nevertheless, many of our meetings probably have members who live close to the edge. Some may be underwater in their mortgages or carrying a lot of credit card debt. Our culture encourages us to hide these things from others, so we often do not know how our fellow Quakers are doing financially. So here are my questions:
If someone in our meeting were suffering under a crushing burden of debt, would we know? And if we did know, what would we do about it? Is ministering to each other’s financial distress still a core mission of the Quaker meeting, as it was for early Friends and for the early followers of Jesus? Should it be?
March 28, 2014 § 3 Comments
Human life is quite full of human suffering. One of the most important roles for the Quaker meeting is to minister to one another in our suffering. Thus pastoral care is for Friends a form of ministry.
The faith and practice of pastoral care, the roles and responsibilities of both the individual and the meeting, are not different for pastoral care ministry than they are for vocal ministry or witness ministry, or any other form of ministry:
As individuals, to always seek to be open to the promptings of the Spirit to serve, in the knowledge that any one of us at any time could be called to be there for someone in pain; that you do not have to have professional training to do this.
As meetings, to teach the spiritual practice of Quaker ministry, including pastoral care as one of its forms, thus encouraging all members and attenders to be available to the Holy Spirit, and to each other as pastoral caregivers; and to create a fellowship in which Friends know each other well enough to recognize when someone needs our care.
Pastoral care as ministry
As with all other forms of ministry, the goal is to bring someone to G*d and to bring G*d into their life. To seek to awaken the sufferer to the Comforter within them and to give them whatever kinds of support seems appropriate.
The one sure vehicle for doing this is love. For whatever else “God” is, most of us can agree that G*d is love, that loving is as close as we can normally get to the divine. This love is taught in a Masters program that no outward schooling in counseling can replicate, though it can facilitate.
Just as this love is inwardly learned without outward instruction, so it is outwardly expressed without specific forms. That is, when we encounter someone in pain, the first thing we can do is to be still inwardly and listen for how we might be led. We can seek to act and to speak in the situation in answer to that of G*d within our Friend, and to heed that of G*d within ourselves, waiting as it were to be led into action and speech by the Holy Spirit, by the Mystery Reality that binds us together in love. We can settle into the feelings we have for our Friend, our care for them, our wish for their well-being, and in the fullness of that silence, find a way forward revealed. Thus simply sitting together for a time, in the silence, in the light, in that love, can often be the best first action.
We may, in fact, end up employing professional skills and tools in the situation, just as a Bible passage may find its way into our vocal ministry, or our knowledge of hydrofracking may inform our tactics in our earthcare ministry. But love is the first motion, and along with that, expectant listening, knowing that we can be inspired to right action if we attend to the light within us and within others.
But pastoral problems often are—well, usually are—complex and hard to deal with. They often feel bigger than our meager knowledge or skills or gifts. And they are so fraught with tension that it is hard to silence our fears and sense of helplessness, our reluctance to intrude or the tendency to seek a solution, so that it can be very hard to hear that little voice inside or feel that little nudge toward right action. And very often, there really isn’t much we can do, as an individual or as a meeting or pastoral care committee, to actually solve these difficult situations.
We can try. We should try to do something, even if we are not clearly led, I think. The trying is its own act of love. But at the least, we can love and we can pray. We can just be there, and say that we are there. We can listen. And we can minister to the heart, even when we cannot minister to the situation. We all know what a difference it makes to know that the meeting cares, to get those flowers and cards and visits and covered dishes. These things any pastoral care committee can do, whether it has trained professionals or not.
We often do put people on our pastoral care committees who are mental health professionals or professional mediators, people whom we recognize have already realized their gifts and their calling in this area. But even when these Friends are bringing their professional training and skills to a pastoral need in the meeting, they also are bringing the gifts and the calling that led them to their profession, they are bringing the love and the healing of G*d, the giver of those gifts, the source of that calling.
Gifts of pastoral ministry
And what are the gifts of pastoral ministry?
- The gift of attention, of being consciously open to the signs of suffering in others;
- of listening, of really being present to someone when they are speaking;
- of empathy, making a habit of imagining what someone else is going through as though it were you;
- of compassion, making a habit of turning from the awareness of some problem to the resolve to do what you can to help;
- of discernment, a deep openness to G*d’s inspiration as to the source of someone’s suffering, or the solution to the situation, or to the possible role of the meeting;
- of prayer, the practice of bringing others into our devotional life;
- of presence, the willingness to simply be with someone on their own terms, without any expectation of outcome and without fretting too much about the awkwardness;
- of healing, one of the rarer gifts, of channeling healing power, knowing what to do or what to say or how to help in the moment of counsel, beyond even the great gift of just being present.
These gifts are universal, a natural capacity we all possess, though we each possess them in different measure. Some people seem quite naturally to possess some of these gifts in greater measure, but I believe we can cultivate them within ourselves, we can raise them up or strengthen them, with a little practice.
I want to emphasize the value of prayer. The gift of prayer is one of the most endangered in the liberal Society of Friends. But ironically, its very rarity among us enhances its power when we use it. And it has tremendous power to start with. Even “holding someone in the Light” has real power when through the practice we descend into our own depths and send forth our love.
I have seen the truth of this many, many times. In my own meeting just recently more than one Friend has testified to how important the meeting’s prayers were to them and how they could feel the meeting’s love at work within them. I have seen miracles.
I do believe that healing prayer stands a much better chance if practiced in conjunction with some deepening exercise. At least that’s been my experience. Something happens when you take the time to really center down before praying for someone, and when you stay in that deep place for a good time, allowing your lovingkindness to sink you ever deeper as you reach out across the ocean of light with G*d’s love. Oh, it feels sublime and it has great power.
I believe that the Quaker meeting has a special role to play in ministering to the financial suffering of its members. This was the central mission of the church that Jesus built and it was a central mission of the Quaker meeting in the earliest times for Friends. But this post is long enough. This discussion will have to wait until my next post.
March 15, 2014 § 6 Comments
Witness Ministry: An Alternative to Committees
My last post laid out a critique of standing committees organized around concerns, claiming that they tend bring the world’s ways into our discernment, to quench the spirit behind spirit-led ministry, and to force those with leadings to compete with each other for time, attention, people, and money. But at the end of that post, I had to admit that we have at present no alternative to our habitual committee structures. Most of our meetings are not equipped to support the traditional Quaker structures for spirit-led concerns, the faith and practice of Quaker ministry; some of our meetings probably don’t even really know what it is. Committees are all we know.
This calls for a “meta-ministry” whose goal is to recover the faith and practice of Quaker ministry and to adapt them to our present needs. We need to teach our meetings how ministry works, train ourselves in the tools we have for discerning leadings and supporting and overseeing ministries, and develop a culture of eldership in which Friends seasoned in the faith and practice of ministry help other members, our newcomers, and our young people to recognize their gifts of ministry and their leadings, and to give them some guidance and support.
In the meantime, we would have to run two parallel systems for our witness work while we migrate gradually from a committee-based structure to a ministry-based structure. I expect that this transition phase would take at least ten years, if pursued vigorously; I can’t imagine it taking less than five years. I think it could easily take a generation. I have been at this “meta-ministry” myself for twenty years and have achieved almost nothing.
What to do? I think that to so radically change our culture, we would need to leverage our current standing committees in the service of midwifing traditional ministry.
For instance, I think that each of our witness committees should train itself in how to conduct clearness committees for discernment and then conduct clearness committees for each of its own members. The goal would be to help each member of the committee get over that hump from strong caring about the concern to clear leading about what they are called to do about it.
Then, as the members of the committee become clear about their individual leadings, the committee should reorganize itself around these leadings and provide the kind of support these ministries require, serving essentially as surrogate meetings until the meeting itself gets up to speed enough to take over the role of ministry support.
To accomplish this, each standing committee would have a second charge parallel to the charge of pursuing its concern: to teach the rest of the meeting the faith and practice of Quaker ministry, to be a kind of seedbed, case study, and laboratory for creating the kind of culture of eldership that ministry requires.
Eventually, theoretically, each witness committee would have migrated care of all its members’ ministries to ad hoc ministry support committees, and the committee would then lay itself down.
In this way, all of the good work that our witness committees are currently doing would continue, but the structure for their support would gradually shift, at the yearly meeting level, from committees to local meetings and, at the local meeting level, from standing committees to ad hoc support committees for specific ministries. Some concerns would be bigger in scope, in their need for resources, and so on, than a local meeting could effectively support, and these concerns would then be referred in gospel order to the quarterly or regional meeting. For the same reasons, some concerns would properly find their way in gospel order to the yearly meeting.
And some concerns might, after all, really need a standing committee. But this would be discerned in gospel order, being the spirit-led decision of a meeting or of progressively higher-level meetings, rather than out of unconsidered habit.
For example, some of NYYM’s prison work might remain in the Yearly Meeting’s hands because some of that work involves the state’s corrections department. Much of the rest of their work, however, is already being done at the regional level, since many of the volunteers in a given prison come from various meetings in the area. But some centralization of services might still be very useful and thus remain in the hands of some Yearly Meeting structure.
I see several problems with this idea of using witness committees to lead the migration to a ministry-based model, however. These boil down to reasonable resistance to these changes in the witness committees themselves and in the wider meeting.
First, we are asking them to radically transform themselves, and organizations rarely willingly undertake their own creative destruction. Usually they fight for their lives and they identify their lives with the status quo.
Second, many (most?) of the Friends who are doing the work in these committees—the ministers—may not see that there’s a problem. They may not see themselves as “ministers” with “ministries”, may not know the faith and practice of Quaker ministry themselves, and may be fairly happy with the way things are. They are doing the work, so who cares, really, how we structure it? They are likely to be much more focused on doing it than on thinking about it. Furthermore, nobody likes to be told that they’re doing what they’re doing wrong.
Third, the knowledge about the Quaker traditions of ministry is much more likely to reside in the ministry and worship committee or in Friends with that bent than in the witness committees. So not only must these committee members change what they do, but they must study first, and then start experimenting with new structures and processes that no one really knows now to operate to do their precious work.
And I am not being facetious when I say “precious”—this is precious work they are doing most of the time. Normally, we would not want to mess with something as important as effective witness work.
And then there’s the rest of the meeting and the wider Quaker culture. Almost all organizations suffer inherently from inertia and habitual and instinctive resistance to change. I know from personal experience that talking about these ideas excites almost instantaneous and often vehement objections. I have literally never been given the opportunity to finish laying these ideas out (it takes a few sentences, at least) before my listener starts rebutting the half-finished and half-heard proposal. All they hear is that I’m trying to destroy or at least disrespect their witness ministry.
Then there’s the broad knowledge gap. There are pockets of Friends in the wider Quaker community who are excited about and conversant with the faith and practice of Quaker ministry, but I suspect that many meetings may not have anyone who knows these traditions well enough to lead the way. And even if they do have such people, we all know how Friends tend to treat such leaders—or leaders of any kind.
These pockets of Friends who yearn for a deeper culture of eldership around Quaker ministry tend to form at higher levels of meeting life than the local meeting. I find them at the yearly meeting level and clustered in and around our conference centers and in and around other self-organized groups like the School of the Spirit. I suspect that they gather in some numbers at FGC Gathering; I’ve only been to the Gathering once and only for one day, in which I myself was doing a program, so I didn’t get around much or get a sense of the Gathering more broadly. So, if these Friends lead the way, now we have a top-down or outside-inside dynamic that often puts off Friends in local meetings, unless they have themselves asked for a program of some kind.
These amount to huge obstacles to the kind of cultural change I am advocating, and I’m not sure what to do about them. I would despair if I did not know quite a few Friends who share my love for these traditions and likewise yearn for a vital culture of Quaker ministry.
Here’s what I hope for: That here and there in the Liberal Quaker world a meeting sees the value of trying to recover our traditions of ministry and vigorously undertakes to transform itself. Then, after a few years, other meetings see that it isn’t the apocalypse, after all, to transform witness committees in this way, and they take a closer look. If I’m right about ministry-based structures being better at nurturing ministry than committees, then the light of witness in these starter meetings will shine quite brightly; more people in the meeting will be engaged in the witness work, and everyone in the meeting will have a deeper and better-informed Quaker spirituality. Business meetings might even be more exciting.
What the alternative to committees would look like
The ultimate end result would be a culture of eldership in all our meetings in which a meeting’s members would all know the faith and practice of Quaker ministry and would understand ministry’s role in Quaker spirituality. To achieve and maintain this culture would require a sustained program of religious education about Quaker ministry in all its aspects.
The meetings would know how to convene clearness committees for discernment. Their ministry and worship committees and other elders would always be on the lookout for emerging concerns, sometimes even recognizing G*d’s work in someone before the minister does; they might see cues in the vocal ministry or just in casual conversation. They would regularly sponsor programs in which Friends shared their concerns and other aspects of their religious and spiritual lives, so there would be more opportunities to recognize Friends’ gifts and leadings. Nominating committee would not just seek to fill slots but seek to really know the members and attenders, so that they recognized spiritual gifts and the concerns that each member cares about and could then provide mentoring, support, books, recommendations for conferences—whatever might nurture the gifts and leadings they become aware of. In this way, nominating committees might take on a bit of a ministry-and-worship role.
Once leadings had been through a clearness process, they would begin to come before the meeting for the collective discernment of the whole meeting in its meeting for business in worship. Those who had served on a Friend’s clearness committee would testify as to the source, depth, and direction of the leading. These Friends would already be deeply involved in the concern by serving on the clearness committee and now everyone present in the business meeting would become involved.
Thus the structures and processes of Quaker ministry tend to do a better job than committees of integrating the meeting’s witness work with the rest of the meeting’s life because it involves at least those Friends who serve on the original clearness committee quite intimately in the Friends’s leading and inner life. Once a meeting had held two or three such clearness committees, you now have quite a rich network of Friends personally and meaningfully engaged in each other’s witness activities. And that’s only the first phase of evolution in this network of elders (defining “elders” as Friends whose ministry is, in part, the nurture of the ministry of others).
The second phase comes with the convening of care committees. Once a meeting had recognized a leading, then it would convene an ad hoc committee for support and perhaps oversight for the conduct of the ministry. These care committees would try to help the meetings’ ministers stay on track and overcome the obstacles they might encounter along the way. They might help “release” the ministry by helping with financial support, if needed, and with release from other obligations that might stand in the way of a minister’s faithfulness.
Now the network of Friends intimately involved in a given ministry has become quite extensive, and, if the meeting is discerning and supporting other Friends’ leadings, these double-concentric rings of elders with a minister at the center would likely start to overlap. At the center of each ring is a Friend with a leading. Around her is a circle of Friends how have served on her clearness committee. Around that circle is a second circle of Friends who now serve on her care committee. But some of the Friends in these two circles might also serve on some other Friend’s clearness committee or care committee. Now you have a robust network of elders, a framework for a vital culture eldership for ministry.
Then comes the third phase in this culture’s evolution. The meeting might recommend the minister to other meetings or to people outside the meeting when appropriate by writing minutes of travel or service. This would almost certainly be the case in “activist” witness ministry that focuses on one of the world’s many ills, though we would probably want to call the minute of service a letter of introduction, so that the recipients understand it.
So now we have more than just one Friend personally involved in some activist activity like prison work. Now we have a Friend representing her meeting in that activity.
Finally, when the ministry has run its course, the meeting would lay down the care committee. The meeting might need to help the minister discern whether she had been released from the weight of the concern.
Thus meeting life would be a constant flow and cycle of gifts being recognized, of leadings being discerned and pursued and laid down, of nurturing the work of bringing G*d into the world.
March 13, 2014 § 3 Comments
Witness ministry: What’s wrong with witness committees?
Standing committees organized around a concern can work pretty well when the ministries they support engage the same social systems in a sustained way over a long time—and when they enjoy the necessary dedication of Friends who feel a powerful and lasting calling to the work.
A clear example of this in my experience is Prisons Committee in New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM). This committee provides support to worship groups and individuals in an impressive number of New York State prisons. They have been ministering to the same individuals for decades, in some cases. They have been struggling with the same bureaucratic structures in the state’s Corrections department, as well. Unwavering presence, sustained effort, deep institutional memory, these all require a structure that stays put, even as people come and go. And this has all paid off in New York Yearly Meeting, by producing some gains in the institutional response of Corrections and by demonstrably diminishing the suffering of incarcerated people.
You could make this argument for virtually any witness concern. Gains in any area of social change depend on sustained action. Sustained action requires a lasting structure for garnering and managing financial, human, and institutional resources. This usually means a committee. So yes, we do need committees. But do we need standing committees for witness?
I think that, while they usually do support worthwhile work, standing witness committees also have a negative impact on our witness life. I think that, in the case of most of our witness work, we need instead ad hoc committees of support and oversight for individual ministries.
Let’s look at the real case of a new witness impulse in New York Yearly Meeting and follow its trail into and through the conventional Quaker committee structure.
A case study: Friends in Unity with Nature in New York Yearly Meeting
After Marshall Massey’s address to Friends General Conference in I think it was 1987 urging Friends into ecological witness, some Friends came to New York Yearly Meeting’s Summer Sessions with his message that we should get off our butts and bring G*d into the world in environmental ministry. Actually, what I think he called for was the formation of environmental concern committees.
A bunch of us decided to form a committee, which we called Friends in Unity with Nature (FUN). Over the next several years, we organized conferences and interest groups and submitted text on the environment for the Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, which was then in revision. We held endless committee meetings, and we sought ways to tap the resources and capture the attention of the Yearly Meeting on behalf of our earthcare concern.
Internally, we groped for vision. We approached this problem of what to do in the conventional ways common in committees: lots of discussion, some brainstorming, “visioning” retreats. We each felt a deep concern for what was happening to the earth, but we were interested in different aspects of the ecological crises we face, and we brought different strengths and temperaments to the work. I don’t remember any of us being very clear about what specifically we were led to do as individuals.
We each needed individual discernment. None of us went to our local meetings for this discernment. I don’t think any of us at that time really knew or understood the traditions of Quaker ministry. I suspect that most Friends in our local meetings did not know what we were up to, either. Nor did we do much to help each other discern our individual leadings. We strove instead, mostly out of habit, for collective discernment aimed at finding a vision as a group. This did not go too badly. We did do quite a bit in the years we worked together.
When we asked the Yearly Meeting for formal structure, they first tried to put us in Peace Concerns. But Peace Concerns committee already had its own agenda and we had ours. Both groups could see that both of us would suffer if Peace Concerns tried to absorb us. So we were formed as a Task Group, which, in NYYM, is a formally recognized group lasting three years and charged with exploring a concern that has no home as yet in the Yearly Meeting on its behalf, in order to determine what to do about it.
After our three years, we asked to become a standing committee and were turned down, on the grounds that we had not yet built a base of interest and support throughout the Yearly Meeting strong enough and broad enough to justify being a yearly meeting committee. And we hadn’t. We received a one-year extension, and set about building that base. We didn’t succeed, and the Task Group was laid down. Formal, organized ministry organized around earthcare in New York Yearly Meeting died on the vine.
Most of us continued to carry the concern, however, and some of us eventually become clear about our own leadings.
Lessons learned from FUN’s experience in New York Yearly Meeting
We needed—and didn’t get, or give to each other—discernment about our individual leadings. We felt the concern; we had the emotional commitment necessary. But we never got over the hump from having intense but rather unfocused feelings to having a concrete vision of what to do about them. Therefore, it took us a long time to get organized and our subsequent efforts ended up taking rather arbitrary directions as we groped toward a more coherent vision. In the end, we ran out of time before we could fulfill our task. Lesson: committees distract Friends from individual discernment with a habitual focus on group discernment.
The committee structure of the yearly meeting tried to fit us into itself, and couldn’t do it. Even though, as individuals, we were clearly led into earthcare witness, as a group, we could not satisfy the requirements of the committee structure. The system could only deal with us as a group and on its own terms, not as individuals with leadings. Also, a structural clock was ticking toward an arbitrary time when the task group would be laid down, whether we still felt led as individuals or had achieved clarity as a group. The bureaucracy defeated us. Lesson: committee structures tend to suppress emerging ministry and are more or less oblivious to individual leadings.
The attempt to place us within Peace Concerns revealed the competition inherent in the committee structure:
- we would have crowded their agenda, they would have overwhelmed ours;
- we would be competing with our concerns and projects against their concerns and projects, for time in their agenda and for resources within their already resource-strapped budget;
- if we had become a subcommittee of Peace Concerns, we just would have doubled the number of meetings we had to go to in order to do our work, without relieving any of the pressures on Peace Concerns.
- Lesson: the committee structure forces the ministries internal to the committee to compete with each other.
Suppose we had become a standing committee, after all:
Within the committee, matters would have been exactly the same as if we were part of Peace Concerns, in terms of individual leadings and ministries competing with each other (assuming we individuals were clear about our leadings): my ministry would have to compete with the ministries of the other members of the committee for time, attention, support, and resources within the committee. Lesson: committees force ministries to compete with each other.
At the time, of course, we thought of our individual “ministries” as projects of the Task Group and not as personal ministries at all. So our pursuit of these projects tended to further quench the spirit of clarity about individual leadings: we were so busy deciding on, designing, and executing our various projects that we never had the space to discover what G*d wanted each of us to do individually. We only found our individual ways once the Task Group had been laid down. The Task Group’s projects were worthwhile, however, and I suspect that they advanced the concern of earthcare in the Yearly Meeting somewhat. Lesson: clearly the standing committee structure in our meetings has the sustained effect of suppressing individual ministry, though committees are certainly capable of doing good work.
However this suppressive effect of pursuing our collective projects was only half the spirit-quenching story. Maybe even worse was the mechanics of being a Task Group. The machinery of a committee, the bureaucratic demands involved, took up soooo much time. How many hours did we spend just fussing over the minutes! Now arguably, a support committee for someone called to a witness ministry would spend some time writing minutes and reports and dealing with money and other “bureaucratic” matters, too. But the lesson is that the machinery of our committee structure wastes precious energy and distracts you from the real work you are trying to do.
Furthermore, as an emerging concern in New York Yearly Meeting, FUN was also somewhat distracted from the primary work of awakening and fostering ecological concern in the Yearly Meeting by seeking to become a committee. Becoming a committee became one of our goals. I’m not sure how much this affected our actual work, but it certainly altered our consciousness of ourselves. Lesson: the demands of committee structure threaten to replace some of the work the committee was convened to pursue.
If we had become a standing committee, we then would have been competing with Peace Concerns and all the other committees organized around a concern for the attention of the yearly meeting, for time on the yearly meeting floor, for people in the nominating process (already unable to fill its rosters), and for money in the yearly meeting budget. Lesson: committees are inherently a structure or framework for competition.
NYYM appoints Friends for three-year terms and normally allows only two terms of service, expecting Friends to rotate off for at least one year. Never mind whether you still carry the concern or are in the middle of pursuing some ministry. Committees have term limits for a good reason: it helps to prevent power structures from taking root and helps to ensure that new blood and ideas get a chance. Lesson: the committee structure is oblivious to the natural life-cycles of spirit-led ministry; it’s a machine that runs on its own schedule and it tends to truncate ministry before its time.
Or committees continue doing things that no one has any passion for anymore. Witness committees suppress ministry, on the one hand, and then ultimately and ironically, they tend to become moribund over time as people with the real leadings move on or rotate off. It is really hard to lay down a committee that has lost the spirit because some Friends inevitably cannot conceive of a meeting without “x” concern. Lesson: committees, like any organization, tend to fight for their lives no matter how ineffective they have become.
One more matter endemic to committees at the yearly meeting level. FUN in New York Yearly Meeting arose at Yearly Meeting sessions among “Yearly Meeting Friends”, that is, among the small, rarified, and rather insular community of Friends under appointment to Yearly Meeting committees. The Yearly Meeting never asked us to bring our concerns to our individual local meetings and I suspect that our own meetings were largely unaware of what we were doing. Most of our programs were likewise focused on the Yearly Meeting organization, taking place during YM sessions, or at the Yearly Meeting’s conference center, Powell House. We did do some programs at local and regional meetings. But we were born, lived, and died inside the bubble that is the Yearly Meeting committee organization, without ever putting down roots in the Yearly Meeting’s local meetings. This was one of reasons we were laid down. Admittedly, this was a hard thing to accomplish in so geographically large and dispersed a yearly meeting. Lesson: Yearly Meeting committee structures tend to be rather alienated from local Friends and local meetings.
A similar dynamic seems to work even within local meetings. I have often observed that a witness committee, with a handful of very dedicated people, often gets frustrated by their meeting’s unwillingness to get meaningfully involved in their concern, to really even care about what they are doing. When a witness committee does succeed in galvanizing the meeting, this often is because of passionate leadership by Friends who are truly driven by their leading. Lesson: the normal committee-meeting dynamics seem ill equipped to overcome the inertia that witness concerns sometimes face in local meetings.
In sum, our standing committee structures for witness ministry tend to suppress ministry, especially emerging new concerns, they force Friends and their ministries to compete with each other for time, money, people, and other resources, and there is something about the habitual dynamics of the structure that often fails to connect organically with the meeting and the meeting’s members.
What’s the alternative?
Now the reality is that committees are all we know. We have mostly lost the faith and practice of Quaker ministry, the alternative to standing committees that I propose. I know from personal experience that many of our meetings do not know the traditions of Quaker ministry and are not equipped to help their members discern their leadings or support their ministries. So we can’t just start laying down our witness committees. There are no alternative structures waiting to support the important work that our witness committees are doing, no knowledge, structures or vital processes in our meetings to help our members discover new leadings and follow them.
Overcoming this problem is the subject of my next post.
March 8, 2014 § 5 Comments
Bringing G*d into the world in social action—witness and service.
We have a reputation as a socially engaged religious community and, more than any other religious community perhaps, we elevate social witness to a central place in our religious identity.
The testimonial impulse arises within individuals as spirit-led concern, as feelings of anguish at suffering and oppression, as compassion for those who suffer and are oppressed, both human and non-human, and as a desire to do something about it. That our religion offers these feelings a welcoming home in the community is a deep, powerful, and profound aspect of Quakerism.
For hundreds of years, Friends who felt these emotions, and who felt prompted by the Light within them to act on their feelings, brought their concerns to their meetings for discernment and support in the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. To be fair, it seems that for most of this time, the impulse was mostly to evangelism as traditionally understood, to travel in gospel ministry, though we always have had our John Bellers, our John Woolman, our Elizabeth Fry, our Lucretia Mott.
For most of our history, what I am calling the “witness impulse” was usually a prompting to witness to individuals to change their ways, rather than an attempt to address the root sources of suffering and oppression in the structures of society and their systemic dimension. I think of Elizabeth Fry teaching women prisoners to read or John Woolman traveling from household to household urging Friends to stop holding slaves.
Also, Friends who felt led to more focused, more practical, more truly witness-oriented action often faced inertia, if not resistance. I think of John Bellers, for example, who in the early 18th century repeatedly presented practical solutions to poverty to what was then London Yearly Meeting, and got nowhere.
It seems to me that what we now think of as “witness” work really only got going with the rise of liberal Quakerism at the turn of the 20th century. By “witness ministry” I mean spirit-led work aimed at righting wrongs, changing the social order, getting at the roots of human suffering and oppression, rather than evangelizing individuals and treating the symptoms with charity.
When liberal Quakerism realized its identity during and after the Manchester Conference in England and the Richmond Conference in the United States, and Friends like Rufus Jones, John Wilhelm Rowntree and his brother Seebohm saw a new imperative in the Christian gospel, Quakerism entered a new era. This corresponded with the rise of the Social Gospel movement more broadly, a religious reaction of conscience against the ravages of industrial capitalism and the inequities of the Robber Baron era.
Then came World War I and the recovery of an active peace testimony that required of Friends true sacrifice in the face of social persecution and state prosecution. For the first time since the Lamb’s War of the 1650s, Quakers were defying social norms and the laws of the state and trying to change the social order itself from the light in their conscience, and a new consciousness was formed in us by adversity, sacrifice, and the need for a public defense of our witness. Quakers came out of the Great War a different people
But we were at the same time dismantling the traditional processes and structures for Quaker ministry. By the 1920s, in most parts of Quakerism, we had stopped recording ministers and elders and stopped writing minutes of travel and service. Instead, we started forming committees.
The American Friends Service Committee in the US and the Friends Service Committee in Great Britain set the standard. We had Committees of Industry and Social Order. Now we have committees for everything and most Friends know no other structure for their witness ministry.
I have said this elsewhere, but here I must repeat: I believe that committees do not serve us well as the structure for bringing G*d into the world in witness ministry.
I believe they quench the spirit in many ways. I believe they distort in harmful ways the ministries they are organized to pursue. I believe we should stop using them. I believe we should return to the faith and practice of Quaker ministry as the way to bear our concerns in the world, but modified to meet modern needs.
I know from experience sharing these ideas with Friends that people freak out when they hear what I am proposing. Or rather, when they think they have heard what I’m proposing. I have found that Friends have a very hard time really hearing what I am saying because they hear instead an attack on the work that the committees are doing rather than a critique of committees as a structure for doing the work. So I will say over and over again that I am not proposing that we lay down the ministries that our witness committees are pursuing; I am proposing that we move away from committees as the structure we use to do it. The ministries matter; the committees are just structures.
I know, also, that I am proposing a truly revolutionary shift in our culture. You my reader may find yourself resisting my arguments because it seems that I want to take away something that you value with the utmost fervor. Let me reassure you that I do not want to take away a single work that G*d has inspired you and others to do on behalf of Truth. I only want to release it from the shackles that I believe our committee structure has bound them with.
In the next couple of posts I want to lay out the reasons I believe we should abandon committees organized around a concern and a strategy for working our way forward into a new culture of eldership for witness ministry.