Gospel Order—Setting Limits

March 4, 2016 § 2 Comments

A checklist of questionable behaviors in meeting

A guide intended to help clarify the role of eldership in the meeting.

Meeting for worship

  •        Consistently arriving late
  •        Speaking too early in the meeting
  •        Leaving too little silence between messages
  •        Bringing a prepared message
  •        Dialog, or answering another’s message
  •        Speaking too long, “running past the guide”
  •        Speaking too often
  •        Speaking more than once
  •        Harangues, threats and other assaults on the worship
  •        Eldering a speaker without the inward or outward authority to do so
  •         Conversation, moving about, and other disturbances to the silence; reading and cell phone activity

Fellowship

  •        Inappropriate unauthorized eldering of others
  •        Quenching of the spirit of Christian or biblical (or any other) vocal ministry
  •        Sexual harassment; assault and/or battery
  •        Deceit and theft
  •        Refusal to work in good faith toward resolution of conflicts
  •        Tale bearing, backbiting, and rumormongering; “sense of the parking lot”
  •         Civil suit between members

Quaker process and meeting for business in worship

  •        Knowingly and consistently violating Quaker process
  •        Holding the meeting hostage: “if you do “x,” I will do “y”, withholding financial contributions in protest
  •        Forming political alliances
  •        Blackballing or stacking nominations
  •        Biased or forceful clerking; ignorant clerking
  •        Secret or improperly publicized meetings
  •        Failing to record minutes or changing the minutes without meeting approval
  •         Presuming to speak or act for the meeting on weighty matters without the approval of the meeting

The testimonies

  •        Civil suit between members
  •        Joining the armed forces
  •        Gambling
  •        The use of dangerous or addictive drugs
  •        Improper sexual conduct
  •        Unrepentant prejudice

 

 

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Accountability in Quaker Institutions

December 2, 2012 § 13 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time for the pendulum to swing again.

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

On Clearness Committees for Membership

March 27, 2012 § 17 Comments

A note to my readers:

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

Now, on membership:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yearly meetings, monthly meetings and gospel order

July 31, 2011 § 4 Comments

In a recent post on Earlham School of Religion’s blog, Valerie Hurwitz, Director of Recruitment and Admissions, invited thoughts about ways forward for Indiana Yearly Meeting in its recent struggle with the course of its eldership of West Richmond Meeting, which had approved a welcoming and affirming minute dedicating the meeting to apply the same standards to all persons regardless of “race, religious affiliation, age, socio-economic status, nationality, ethnic background, gender, sexual orientation or mental/physical ability.” Sexual orientation was the sticking point, for it runs counter to the yearly meeting’s minutes condemning homosexuality as a sin.

Bill Samuels commented on that post that “the key question may be, What is God’s purpose for Indiana YM?” I commented, as well, agreeing in part to Bill’s comment that, behind hot-point questions like homosexuality lie meta-questions like the ‘purpose’ of the yearly meeting. Another of these ‘meta-questions’ that lie behind this particular controversy is how you define and practice your culture of eldership. I wrote in my comment about how the yearly meeting might approach its role as elder of the monthly meeting in gospel order.

It turned out that Earlham’s comment text box has a character limit that prevented me from posting my entire comment. So I am posting a revised version of my original full post here because I think the problem of corporate discipline in gospel order deserves more searching attention than we often give it. By ‘corporate discipline’ I mean how yearly meetings discipline monthly meetings in gospel order.

 

How does a yearly meeting exercise eldership over a monthly meeting?

Eldership has two sides, that of nurture and that of discipline. In its role as elder, any meeting has a responsibility to nurture its members and their gifts and a responsibility to protect the meeting’s worship and fellowship from behavior that threatens either one. For the monthly meeting, this is difficult because you are face to face with each other, week in and week out, and it’s personal, even intimate. You really have to know your members to nurture their ministry and spiritual life. And discipline is difficult because real people can be hurt. We’re talking about real relationships between people. Difficult as it may be, though, it’s still rather direct and, in a way, straightforward in a monthly meeting. It is immediately obvious when the worship or the fellowship is suffering, and how, though our culture of deference and silence sometimes confuse things.

Things are more abstract for the yearly meeting. The members are meetings, not individuals. Nurturing their spiritual life is of a different order than nurturing individuals, requiring different tools and gifts. The yearly meeting’s ‘worship’ is perforce limited to the body’s worship when in session, or it’s viewed in the abstract. The yearly meeting’s ‘fellowship’, beyond the fellowship of Friends in session, is a fellowship of meetings, which we also must treat in the abstract. Given the abstract nature of corporate worship and fellowship in the context of the yearly meeting, how do you perceive threat to either one in the actions of a monthly meeting? And how do you practice discipline?

Suppose we use the monthly meeting’s eldership of individuals as an analogy. Then, a monthly meeting’s decision is somewhat analogous to an individual’s vocal ministry in meeting for worship.

A monthly meeting’s behavior, when minuted, as West Richmond Friends’ decision has been, represents ‘vocal ministry’ within the larger body. Presumably, that decision has been tested corporately in the light of Christ’s spirit (that’s what their minute says), much as, in theory, an individual’s prophetic vocal ministry in meeting for worship is assumed to have been prompted by the Holy Spirit. We would, on this analogy, start by assuming that West Richmond’s ministry is Spirit-led. If we perceive a threat in this behavior to either the yearly meeting’s worship or its fellowship (I think we’re talking about worship here), we are really questioning whether the decision is Spirit-led. We are then called to exercise a corporate gift of the spirit—the gift of discerning spirits—to determine whether the meeting’s prophetic ministry is of God, or (I suppose) of Satan.

How does the yearly meeting exercise the gift of discerning spirits in such a case? Do you interview those who were present at the meeting when the minute was discussed and approved, to try to determine whether the meeting really was gathered in the Spirit? Do you simply assume that a meeting that reaches a decision contrary to the testimony given the yearly meeting in the past (in this case, minutes condemning homosexuality) must of necessity have been out of the Spirit? Do you assume that the yearly meeting’s past testimonies do not need testing anew? If you acknowledge that a monthly meeting’s decision might be prophetic witness, how do you test that witness in discernment?

Josh Brown once wrote a great little essay defining the things Friends use to test a new leading. If I remember correctly, there were four: Scripture, tradition, common sense or reason, and the discernment of the body gathered in the Spirit. I would add a fifth: the testimony of experience, the testimony of the lives of those Friends (or meetings) who are already living in the light of the new testimony: what are their fruits?

For many Friends, of course, their interpretation of biblical testimony stands as the ultimate touchstone for discernment, so that ministry contrary to that interpretation can reliably be deemed out of the Life and contrary to Truth without further ado. (I say ‘interpretation’ because that is, of course, all we are ever working with, even when we interpret Scripture in the spirit in which it was given forth. Friends have, of course, famously reinterpreted Scripture in some cases contrary to the wider Christian tradition, laying down the outward forms of baptism and the Eucharist, inviting women to participate fully in the meeting’s ministry, and abandoning Scripture’s apparent sanction of slavery.)

Finally, our tradition once was to use Matthew 18:15-20 as a guide for bringing gospel order to individuals thought to be walking disorderly. Does this simple but elegant 3-step model still work for us, and, if so, can it not be applied corporately to the discipline of a meeting? This would at least provide a framework for action that might help prevent some hurt and disorder in the course of the discipline. (It’s worth reminding ourselves that, in Matthew’s presentation, once a decision for expulsion had been made, the expelled party was to be “as tax collectors and sinners” to the saints—that is, they are the people on whom your own evangelism focuses most intensely, just as Jesus focused on tax collectors and sinners with special attention himself. They are not pariahs to be cut off and shunned, but lost sheep to be wooed back into the fold. If they then reject your gospel, perhaps you would then leave town, shaking their dust off your feet.)

So meta-tasks involved in a process of corporate discerning of spirits regarding a monthly meeting’s prophetic ministry seem to me to be:

  1. Try to determine, if possible, whether the meeting was in the Life when it made its decision, taking seriously it’s own claim to that effect.
  2. Clarify whether testimony given the yearly meeting in the past should ever be tested anew.
  3. Clarify what touchstones you would use to test a new leading that seems contrary to previous testimony, and clarify their relative importance.
  4. Once you are clear about these questions, test the testimony of the meeting as potential prophetic witness. That is, exercise the gift of discerning spirits regarding the decision, rather than putting the meeting’s defiance of the yearly meeting on trial.
  5. Once your discerning has named the spirit behind the meeting’s decision, apply (if necessary) gospel order according to Christ’s teaching in Matthew 18.

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