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


  •        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



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? — Corporate Spiritual Nurture

December 29, 2013 § 4 Comments

I’ve written quite a bit already about the next items in my outline of What the Religious Society of Friends is for—the role of the community in nurturing the spiritual lives of its members and attenders. I want to revisit some of those themes here and to expand on them to include more of the corporate worship life and fellowship of the meeting itself. Here’s the excerpt from the outline:

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Spiritual nurture in covenantal community: Engage in each other’s spiritual growth through a robust and nurturing culture of eldership; protect the communal fellowship and the community’s worship.

Take responsibility for the corporate side of personal spiritual nurture; that is, work together to name each other’s gifts and discern and support each other’s ministry.

By “covenantal community” I mean a meeting in which the members invite the meeting to actively participate in their spiritual lives and offer their own active participation in the life of the meeting. In concrete terms, this means:

  • Sharing your spiritual and religious experience with the meeting. Does anyone in your meeting know what your spiritual practice is? How you came to Quakerism? Why you stay? What you want from the meeting and whether you are getting it? If you were going through a crisis or a dry period in your prayer life, your family life, your work life, your creative life, would your meeting know? If you were facing an important decision and didn’t see clearly what to do, would you ask for a clearness committee?
    • If you asked for a clearness committee, would the meeting know what to do? Would your meeting welcome deeper knowledge of your spiritual life? Would they be prepared to help you with a crisis in your spiritual or prayer life? Does your meeting have elders whose own depth of religious experience would equip them to mentor you or help you with your spiritual life? Are you yourself such an elder, at least potentially? Do you look for opportunities to serve the members of your meeting in these ways?
  • Eldering. Do you feel that there are people whose behavior disturbs your meeting’s worship or fellowship? Do conflicts trouble your meeting? If you were yourself bringing conflict or disturbance to your meeting, would you welcome loving eldering—the meeting’s caring attention to your behavior?
    • Does your meeting act with confidence to protect the worship from inappropriate behavior? Does your meeting act with confidence to protect the fellowship of the meeting? Is your meeting in denial of the conflicts that trouble it? Does your meeting bring accountability up in any way with applicants for membership in its committees for clearness on membership?
  • Inviting the meeting to help you deepen your spiritual gifts, your vocal ministry, and the other ministries to which you feel called. Have you identified your gifts of the spirit? Are you engaged in some activity outside of meeting that is a ministry, that the meeting doesn’t know about? Do you think of it as a ministry yourself? Do you speak fairly often in meeting? Do you want to deepen your vocal ministry? Do you feel some obstacle to speaking in meeting?
    • Would your meeting welcome knowledge of your leadings? Does your meeting do anything concrete to name each other’s gifts of the spirit? Does your meeting know the faith and practice of Quaker ministry well enough to take responsibility for it? Do they know how to conduct a clearness committee for discernment of leadings? Does your meeting provide opportunities to discuss ministry, especially vocal ministry, in general? Does your meeting provide its ministers with committees of support or oversight, or engage with them in any other way?

What if your answers to some of these questions are no? If our “no”s involve the personal queries about our own relation to the meeting, we can start thinking about how to reengage with the meeting. But often, our reticence stems from our sense that our meeting will not be there for us. So what then? What do we do when our meeting does not meet our spiritual needs, either because it does not have the resources, especially the human resources, or it doesn’t have the interest or the will?

Meetings often lack the will to be a true covenantal community in the way I am describing (that is, to work with their members and attenders in a meaningful way to enrich their spiritual lives) because it isn’t in unity about it whether to do it, let alone about how to do it. Some Friends just wouldn’t want to go there, and through tacit understanding, it just never even comes up. And we are so cautious about possibly hurting people or driving them away. In my experience, very often a solid majority of people in the meeting would be uncomfortable with this kind of meeting life, for a variety of reasons.

People come to a meeting and to religious life wanting different things. Most want comfort, support, spiritual companionship, renewal, recharging—peace. Far fewer want transformation, let alone the fire of the spiritual crucible. And yet a meeting should try to meet all these needs, both the comfortable and the uncomfortable.

So a meeting should try to accommodate those of us who want more engagement around our spiritual lives, but hopefully in ways that don’t threaten others, or force them to change in ways they don’t want to, or that pulls the community rug out from under them. This is a delicate balance and hard-to-achieve. Any experiments along the path toward greater engagement and accountability between members and the meeting would inevitably meet obstacles and inevitably, we would make some mistakes.

I’m not sure what to do about this. Naturally, we can’t force our meeting to change just for us, especially if we really are in the minority about this sort of thing. Some meetings might be led in this direction over time—a long time, probably—given some deft leadership.

But it’s awkward—and not often successful—to try to be the leader yourself, the person who teaches the meeting to how meet your needs; to teach the meeting how to conduct clearness committees for discernment, for instance, when you are the one who needs help with discernment; or to teach the meeting how to write a minute for travel when you are the minister who feels the leading to travel.

And it’s even more complicated when eldering is called for, when conflict or inappropriate behavior or weak clerking trouble the meeting. In these cases, bold and wise leadership is called for, and it’s not easy to take the initiative, especially if you’re not serving on a committee that would normally deal with such things.

Very often, in fact, the nominating process is one of the sources of the problem—people appointed to positions for which they lack the depth or knowledge of the Quaker way, or who in areas in which they have a strong opinion or an axe to grind that would obstruct the committee’s effective action. I have seen more than one committee on worship and ministry with a member or two who either know very little about Quaker ministry and/or are uncomfortable with its faith and practice, especially with the role of eldering, and would resist action in these areas. I am not sure what to do in these situations, except perhaps speak with nominating committee about one’s concerns, and see what the next cycle of nominations brings about.

In the easier case of personal ministry and spiritual nurture, the only thing I can think to do is to try the meeting first, to see how far you can go. And then, if it looks like the meeting isn’t going to be able to respond to your needs in a timely fashion, to try to create for one’s self, with others of like mind, a non-formal structure for spiritual exploration, support, nurture, and accountability independent of the meeting’s formal structures. For many Friends in smaller meetings or meetings less amenable to these ideas, this will mean some kind of regional group. In New York Yearly Meeting, the networking for this kind of engagement is quite lively at the Yearly Meeting level, but it hasn’t moved down into the regional meetings very much, as far as I know.

What I’m getting at is that, in many yearly Meetings, there might be opportunities for grassroots networking at the local meeting level around this kind of spiritual nurture that could converge with similar efforts taking place at the yearly meeting level, which could then be relocated at the regional meeting level without too much difficulty. New York Yearly Meeting is too big geographically and meets too seldom as a yearly meeting body to host groups that serve these kinds of spiritual needs very well. But a New York City spiritual nurture group, or an outer Long Island group, or a central or northern New Jersey or Finger Lakes group might be able to meet more regularly.

The model here might be the Experiment with Light groups, which are usually organized, if I am not mistaken, at the local meeting level, but often with participants from nearby meetings; and the spiritual nurture groups formed by the School of the Spirit and by the spiritual nurture programs sponsored by Baltimore and other yearly meetings.

And what would such groups do? The following ideas assume that the local meetings are not willing or able to serve your needs in these ways:

  • Hold extended periods of open worship, hopefully without a programmed time to end.
  • Provide opportunities to share the joys, challenges, and evolution of each others’ inner lives, personal practice, and the life of the spirit in general.
  • Conduct clearness committees for discernment of leadings.
  • Name each others’ spiritual gifts in some way, and find ways to help each other mature in your gifts.
  • Share your spiritual practices with each other and provide mentoring in them, if you feel qualified and others show interest.
  • Create structures for sharing and learning together the faith and practice of Quaker ministry and Quaker spirituality.
  • Provide support and oversight committees for those following a leading, especially those led to travel in the ministry or to pursue some specific service, and for those who feel called to vocal ministry.
  • They would not, however, intervene in local meeting situations that require eldering. This, I think, remains the prerogative of the meeting, even if it’s dysfunctional in this area.

Hopefully, within some meetings, such non-formal groups would prove to be seeds for a more robust culture of eldership based in the meeting, once members saw how it worked and how valuable it was for its participants. So these groups should not hide their light under a bushel. Nor should they evangelize out of spiritual pride. But they should be open and inviting to any who would want to participate. For this is one of the things that the Religious Society of Friends is for—corporate nurture and support of personal ministry and spiritual life.

The Gift of Healing

August 3, 2013 § 2 Comments

Several years ago I studied the passages in Paul’s letters on gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12–14, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4) and developed a workshop in which Friends mapped Paul’s extensive list to their own Quaker experience, expanded it to include things he had not considered, and most important, helped each other identify each other’s gifts.

Paul seems to think that the gift of prophecy is the most important, but I came away from my research and the experience of doing the workshop feeling that the gift of healing was the most important. It is the most concrete of them all, it does the most to relieve real suffering in the world.

At the time, I lamented to myself that the gift of healing was also the most rare these days. But I was wrong. The gift of healing is alive and well among Friends; at least it is in New York Yearly Meeting and certainly at the annual Gathering of Friends General Conference, I have attended the Gathering only once and only for one day, but I am well-acquainted with New York Yearly Meeting.

New York Yearly Meeting’s annual Summer Sessions are held at a historic YMCA resort on Lake George. The campus is large and beautiful and it has several pavilions, single-story buildings about twenty feet on a side, with glass windows all around and a sizable porch. For several years, NYYM Friends have used one of these pavilions as a healing center, modeled, I believe, on the healing center at the FGC Gatherings, and the place is well-used.

Healers practicing a wide range of healing modalities sign up for time slots that fit their schedule and clients either sign up or just show up. Every time I passed the healing center, the place was abuzz. I have never gone myself, either as a healer or a client. One day . . .

Moreover, conferences held at the Yearly Meeting’s conference center, Powell House, very often have someone who offers healing work during the breaks and rest times. Powell House has also offered conferences for healing, regularly bringing in John Calvi, and occasionally hosting weekends intended for the deepening and sharing of this wonderful gift among our members.

As a community, New York Yearly Meeting welcomes and nurtures the gift of healing.

I have not heard of any miraculous cures. But Friends are serving because they believe they are doing some good and Friends are going because they believe they are being done some good. And all of this is being done in the spirit of Quaker ministry. I think it’s a great blessing.

It is a blessing not just because people are being healed. One of the greatest blessings in my own religious life as a Friend has been to live and worship in a community that recognizes spiritual gifts and that provides opportunities to people who have a call to ministry to use their gifts and pursue their call. In its gatherings, New York Yearly Meeting does a pretty good job of this.

I am not so sure about our local meetings, though. I am afraid that many of our local meetings do not even think about spiritual gifts, let alone actively work to identify them in their members and attenders and then help to deepen them and support the ministries that arise from them. For this, meetings would need elders, people equipped to do this work of service to ministers, and a vital culture of eldership that supports the naming and nurture of spiritual gifts and ministries.

How many meetings have healers amongst them? Most meetings, I would guess, at least in the Liberal branch that I know fairly well, since we have so many members in medicine and the social services. Do we encourage our nurses and doctors, our therapists and social workers, to see their work in the world as a ministry, as service to G*d (whatever that means to them)? Do we make ourselves available to them for support? Do we help to make their services available to our own membership?

I know that my meeting’s pastoral care committee works with the therapists and social workers in our meeting—they serve on the committee and they serve as consultants when the committee needs advice. I’m not sure whether they think it’s professionally advisable to offer services to the membership, because we all know one another so well. But Philadelphia Yearly Meeting maintains a roster of such Friends on whom my meeting or a member could call at need. (I’m a member of Yardley Meeting in Philadelphia YM; I don’t think New York Yearly Meeting has such a list or provides this service.)

What about your local meeting? or your regional or yearly meeting? How fares the gift of healing among you?

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