Quaker-pocalypse—Nominations and Meeting Renewal

October 11, 2015 § 8 Comments

The goal

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

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

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

The challenge

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

In the long term:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 12, 2015 § 1 Comment

Some solutions to the problems of committee service—a preview

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

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

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

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

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

September 11, 2015 § 3 Comments

Part Two: The Problem(s) with Committees

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

The Problem(s) with Committees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The upshot

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

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

The solution(s)—a preview

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

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

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

September 11, 2015 § 4 Comments

Part One: Quaker “Decline” and the Committee System


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

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

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

Past solutions

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

In the past, meetings have tried the following:

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

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

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

The real problem(s)

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

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

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

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

Joys of the Quaker Way—Quaker process

December 20, 2014 § 3 Comments

In the last post, I talked about how much joy I get from theology, from the study and the sharing of both the faith and the practice of the Quaker way, and from seeking to understand the dynamics of Quaker community. But I also get real joy from taking part in the dynamics of Quaker community, and especially in its discernment processes.

When we are faithful, sometimes we are led by the Spirit, and that gathering brings great joy. I have said this before. But here I am talking about a quieter joy I get from simply participating.

I love participating in Quaker meetings for discernment, whatever forms they take, as long as everyone understands how the process is supposed to work and is committed to following it, and the clerking is at least somewhat effective. We do not often find ourselves in the joyful transcendence of the gathered meeting, but just doing the work gives me a quiet spiritual pleasure.

Even committee meetings. I may be the only Friend I know who enjoys committee meetings, Even when they are not being conducted well, I sometimes enjoy trying to bring them into “gospel order”. Unless the committee is “brainstorming”; I hate brainstorming with a flaming passion, and feel that it is profoundly contrary to the Quaker way.

On the other hand, though, I do have to admit that sometimes “Quaker process” drives me nuts. This happens under several conditions:

  • when too many Friends are either ignorant or ignore-ant of how our meetings for discernment work, especially when the clerk lets their behavior prevail;
  • when Friends become impatient or lose their faith; and
  • when Quaker bureaucracy stands in the way of progress, usually by thwarting some newly emerging ministry.

In this latter case, I say, “To hell with Quaker process when hell is where it takes you.” We sometimes adhere to a process as an outward form when we should rather be heeding the movement of the Spirit.

Moreover, “Quaker process” has been trending secular over the past sixty years or so. The term has a secular ring to it to start with, and I prefer “gospel order”, though some of the traditions of gospel order apply more to our culture of eldership than they do to our processes for discernment. I plan a series of posts on gospel order in the future.

More importantly, however, we have increasingly adopted the world’s ways to do our business (down with brainstorming!) and have increasingly abandoned the core principle of gospel order, that we do our business in worship under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. We give lip service to this idea, but in practice, we often act otherwise.

And we increasingly give our commitment and our trust to the process rather than to G*d; we increasingly have made an idol of our process. I suspect that this is because we are so conflicted about G*d. Of course, the very fact that I use an asterisk in the word G*d means that I myself participate in this ambivalence.

Even so, I am clear that a spiritual presence animates our “Quaker process” when we are in the Life, and it awaits us as we work the process even when we are not “in the Life”, and thus our discernment is not merely consensus decision making. Our faith should not be in a process but in the Spirit in which it was revealed to us.

I keep returning to this theme. I think it’s the essential question for modern liberal Friends—just what do Spirit and worship mean? And I will return to it again. But not here. This series is about my joys, not the wrestling match I am having with that angel.

And the faith and practices we call “Quaker process” do give me joy, even as watered-down and bastardized as they are sometimes. Two in particular, are modern innovations of genius—worship sharing, and clearness committees for decision making and for discernment. These processes have at times given me a joy much greater than just a “quiet spiritual pleasure”.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? —Witness, Part III

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.

The strategy

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.

Some problems

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.

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Witness & Service, Part II

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.

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