January 3, 2021 § 1 Comment
In an earlier post in this membership series, I ended by posing three basic questions about membership in the Religious Society of Friends, which should form the context for considering alternatives to our current faith and practice regarding membership, especially for young adult Friends. But there should have been four questions:
- What is membership for?
- What is religious community for?
- What holds a religious community together?
- And, as the foundation for these three concerns, What do we mean by the life of the Spirit in the first place?
Let’s start with the foundation: What do we mean by the life of the Spirit? This is the question that anybody seeking an alternative to regular membership in a monthly meeting should be asking themselves. Well, people seeking monthly meeting membership should ask these questions, too. And for that matter, so should meetings.
We can put the question another way that elicits a different kind of answer: What is the spiritual life for? What do we hope to get out of it?
My own opinion is that the life of the Spirit flows from a temperament. It’s not a choice, but rather more of a drive, something one feels impelled to pursue. For me this impulse expresses itself as a yearning for the transcendental, for experience that transcends the usual directions and boundaries of our everyday lives. It has a lot in common with the artistic temperament, the drive to create.
Furthermore, as their art is for many artists, spirituality is integral to the spiritual person’s identity. It is essential to one’s sense of self and one’s relation to the world and to one’s experience.
And what do we hope to create with the life of the Spirit? My answer: I do not just seek transcendental experience; I seek to transcend my self. I seek my true self, my whole self, my higher self. I seek inner transformation for the better.
And I feel instinctively that this transformation is to be found in the transcendental, in God, in that Spirit, that Mystery Reality that I sense lies within me at the center of my little-“s” self and that I experience in the gathered meeting.
My true self is free of ego investments in my behavior. My true self is free of habitual behavior, programmed and conditioned behavior. The true self is who I am at the center of all that armor.
My whole self includes the broken parts of my self, the parts that are healing and the parts that aren’t healing yet, and even the parts that will never heal. My whole self includes the scars and the burden of the things my un-healed self has done. But my whole self is aspirational, also: it is who I would be if I could wholly heal and become whole.
That is, the life of the spirit draws me into my higher self. It is the path of making the world a better place by being a better me.
Thus the purpose of the spiritual life is to illuminate that path, to project an image of the destination, and to be a walking stick and compass—to provide inward and outward aids for the journey.
The destination is within us; it is to stand within the Light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world. And the destination is among us; it is to stand together in the embrace of that Spirit that gathers us as a people of God.
The walking takes place within us, turning ever toward that Light that guides us. And the walking takes place together, not alone, but as members one of another.
For the individual, this means that Quaker membership is a declaration of unity with the way this community defines the path and an embrace of the tools Quakerism provides for the journey. For the meeting, this means that you clearly define that path and you provide the community and the tools that bring support and joy to the journey. You help make members whole.
Now, while Quaker meetings do have a collective spirit and consciousness, it is individuals who actually do the work of supporting members in these ways. This is the genius of the Quaker way, that we minister to each other. So membership means responsibility, not primarily for financial support or committee service or attendance at meetings for business, but for turning ourselves toward the Light, for fostering the gathered meeting, for caring for each other, and for employing our own gifts of the Spirit in the service of each other’s journeys.
January 1, 2021 § 1 Comment
Presumably, for people who seek membership in the Religious Society of Friends, the life of the Spirit is important to them, they feel they need to pursue it in the embrace of a community, and the Society of Friends looks like the right community.
None of that requires membership in a monthly meeting. But it does require community. A community that is capable of embracing your spiritual life in a meaningful way. That is, a community that can give you the things I outlined in the second post in this series, namely communion, community, pastoral care, spiritual nurture, and religious identity.
Many of our monthly meetings are not doing that great a job at providing these things. Gathered meetings are infrequent. Opportunities for community may be confined to two hours on Sundays and a local meeting may not have a critical mass of young adults to meet the need for a community of peers. Pastoral care can be spotty, depending on how well you’re known in the community. Proactive, confident, effective spiritual nurture is just as uncommon as gathered meetings. Religious education may or may not take place or have a clear and useful focus.
Yearly meetings are even less equipped to provide these things, because of their population size, geographical scope, and infrequency of shared worship. (I analyzed the problems with yearly meeting membership in more detail in my previous post.) I think many young adult Friends gravitate to the yearly meeting because that is where they build community with their peers; yearly meetings are big enough to provide a critical mass of young people for community.
So I don’t think yearly meeting membership is the answer. A yearly meeting can offer community, communion, and spiritual or religious identity to a degree (more on the difference later), but not meaningful spiritual nurture or pastoral care.
The YAF community itself is really the only “organization” that can minister to all of these member needs in a meaningful way. Thus I propose that yearly meeting YAF communities be given meeting status, with a new set of characteristics that will differentiate them from the traditional monthly meeting:
- Membership. Membership would mean whoever happens to be there. No clearness committees for membership. This fluidity would mean doing away with the usual responsibility of the meeting recorder (the keeper of the meeting records, not the office of the recording clerk, who keeps the minutes) to report numbers to the yearly meeting. I still think the YAF meeting (shall we call it a pod?) should keep number records for its own self-knowledge and they might report an average annually to the yearly meeting for the YM minutes, but not for the official YM records.
- Business. The YAF pod would conduct its business in meetings for worship with attention to the life of the pod under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, as monthly meetings do, meeting whenever they can, rather than monthly, presumably, online some of the time, at YAF gatherings, and at YM sessions.
- Gospel order. The YAF pod would relate to the YM organization and business body as if it were a monthly meeting (MM), in all areas of gospel order—facilitating transfer of formal membership to a monthly meeting when and if a “member” seeks membership in a monthly meeting, but perhaps with a careful explanatory letter; seasoning minutes and epistles that are passed on to the YM for approval; providing discernment for leadings and ministries and support for the ministries it endorses; writing minutes of travel and service for its “members” when their ministry takes them outside the pod; endorsing applications by its members for grants from YM funds; recommending members to YM nominating committee for service on YM committees; providing the YM with an annual State of the Pod report, if their YM writes an annual State of the Society Report; encouraging financial support among its “members” for its own activities; passing a portion of its budget on to the YM for support of the YM’s operations as if it were a monthly meeting; and so on.
- Ministry. The YAF pod would take responsibility for the spiritual nurture of its “members” as it sees fit, providing for its members eldership in all its forms—discernment and support for leadings and ministries,, programs and other efforts towards spiritual formation, spiritual pastoral care, and religious education.
- Pastoral care. Likewise with pastoral care for the outward lives of its “members”, as they are able.
- Have I missed anything? I think you get the idea.
January 1, 2021 § 2 Comments
The one concrete effort I know of to meet YAF needs is New York Yearly Meeting’s approval of individual membership in the yearly meeting itself, as an alternative to monthly meeting membership. However, I worry that a yearly meeting, at least one as big as NYYM, won’t be able to meet those needs either.
A yearly meeting can provide community and a sense of identity and inclusion, which the alternative-seekers yearn for, but it can only do this passively. To a deal-breaking degree, yearly meetings are incapable of ministering effectively, let alone proactively, to the deeper needs of individuals.
If I read the PhYM YAF epistle and other documents from these seekers correctly, these individuals want to be included. They want their gifts acknowledged and employed in meaningful ways, not just through placement on committees as token young people. They bristle at “bureaucratic” membership and seek “spiritual membership”.
But I see three kinds of problems with the yearly meeting membership alternative:
- First, yearly meetings are not likely to be able to meet YAFs’ stated needs.
- Second, and more important, I think these seekers have not fully understood their own needs, and yearly meetings are even less equipped to meet these deeper, more important needs.
- Third, trying to meet them would strain yearly meetings structurally until they fail.
If a yearly still uses clearness committees for membership, I’m not sure how they will avoid the pitfall of “bureaucratic” membership. I suspect that yearly meetings are likely to be even more “bureaucratic” than monthly meetings, because they are too big to be flexible enough to recognize nuances and special circumstances. Recognizing this, NYYM has relegated all aspects of the “bureaucracy” to a committee for Ministry and Pastoral Care, cutting the gathered body and the business meeting out of the deal altogether, which I understand is structurally necessary, but irregular as gospel order.
Similarly, yearly meeting nominating committees are even more over-burdened and distant from the whole membership of the yearly meeting than monthly meeting nominating committees are from their membership. Nominating committees do their best, but the truth is that nominating committees are not well equipped to know and nurture the membership’s spiritual gifts and leadings, and it isn’t their charge, anyway. They fill positions on committees. NYYM’s Ministry and Counsel Committee and its Ministry and Pastoral Care Committee would be the body charged with recognizing and nurturing spiritual gifts. But their charge is to employ those gifts on behalf of the yearly meeting, not to mentor and support the spiritual lives of individuals. That’s the role of a monthly meeting committee for worship and ministry. Yearly meetings are not designed to minister to individuals.
Which brings me to point number two. I think the Friends seeking an alternative to monthly meeting membership have not quite thought through their needs, just as most meetings have not really thought through how they might meet them. Young adults, especially, presumably seek support with their spiritual formation. Having decided to be Quakers, presumably they want immersion in our tradition and some level of direct personal attention to their individual journey. Yearly meetings are not equipped to provide these things.
Now, to be honest, neither are monthly meetings. But that’s because monthly meetings tend to view membership from only one side of the relationship—what the member owes the meeting. They tend to forget about what the meeting owes the member. But at least a monthly meeting could provide meaningful spiritual nurture, if they applied their imaginations and their resources. Yearly meetings just can’t; their scale, structure, and mission make this almost impossible.
And that’s just the matter of spiritual nurture, which is usually the most overlooked of all of a meeting’s responsibilities to its members. But pastoral care has the same problem—scale prevents a yearly meeting from knowing its broader membership at all, let alone well enough to minister to a Friend who needs pastoral care. NYYM has 4000+ members maybe? 125 regularly attend sessions and work on committees, a number that shrinks every year, while the work only grows. A member in distress will likely go unnoticed, let alone properly cared for.
Reason number three for why yearly meeting membership is not a good alternative to monthly meeting membership: it overburdens the yearly meeting. This is not just a matter of resources, especially human resources and even spiritual resources, though these burdens are already breaking the backs of many yearly meetings. It’s a structural problem. Yearly meetings just are not designed to minister to individual needs. By definition, they minister to the needs of meetings and act on their behalf in the ways that monthly meetings cannot do themselves. Yearly meetings focus on local meetings and on the wider world.
I suspect that yearly meeting membership will turn out to be a good faith effort that proves unsatisfactory in the long term. Something else is required.
I want to make a proposal about that in the next post.
December 6, 2020 § Leave a comment
New York Yearly Meeting has been working for several years on this problem of traditional membership not satisfying the needs of some Friends, so we now have some information about how the rest of the Yearly Meeting feels about it. Some were not happy.
The resistance to alternative pathways to membership has in some quarters been quite intense. The fact of intense resistance highlights the underlying fact that our current approach to membership is, in fact, in trouble. People fight back hardest when they think you’re trying to take something away when they believe it’s already under threat. The intensity of the pushback is directly proportional to the intensity of the perceived threat. So, while any given proposal for an alternative may have its problems, the resistance signals the need to do something.
Here are some of the questions they have raised, as reported in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s “Threshing Session on Membership Report”, and my condensed summaries of their answers:
- Monthly meetings are the basic unit of our Society. Doesn’t that mean that membership should always live there? Well, this is not true for some Friends, and alternatives take nothing away from the sacredness of monthly meeting membership.
- What about all the practices linked to MM membership (e.g., marriage)? This will have to be worked out.
- Are the alternative seekers trying to circumvent our tradition? No, they are just seeking a pathway that meets their needs.
- Won’t this drain people from already struggling monthly meetings? No, we are talking about people who would not be active in a monthly meeting anyway.
- What does accountability look like without the monthly meeting? Membership in the yearly meeting (the alternative chosen by NYYM) will provide the “services” that monthly meetings provide their members.
- Will other pathways follow? Who knows. More radical alternatives were considered by NYYM, but the report does not say what those were. Nor am I personally aware of other pathways under consideration by PhYM.
Basically, the NYYM pathway just replicates the process and obligations of membership in a monthly meeting for membership in the yearly meeting. The yearly meeting is still in the process of filling in the details of how it will actually work, beyond naming its Ministry and Pastoral Care Committee as the body responsible for clearness committees, affirming membership (the YM body does not affirm applications, as a monthly meeting for business does), and everything else.
Most importantly, the decision to establish membership in the yearly meeting does not address the basic questions about what membership means, what I call the “ur”-questions. For me, these are:
- What is membership for?
- What is religious community for?
- What holds a religious community together?
December 6, 2020 § Leave a comment
I’ve been reading the documents produced by New York and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings as they have worked to understand and address the concerns some Friends have raised regarding our traditional understanding of and processes for membership (and watched a great PhYM recording of a panel on the topic). My original goal was to identify what these concerns were. But my research has raised a bunch of other questions:
- Who—who has these concerns?
- What—what are their concerns?
- Why—what do they want?
- But—what kind of resistance have they met?
- How—what alternatives to traditional membership have emerged?
- And—what “ur”-questions lie behind these other questions? What root questions must be answered as context for the discernment.
For reasons of space, I’m going to break up my discussion of these queries into blocks, starting with numbers one and two.
1. Who finds that our traditional faith and practice of membership doesn’t work for them?
Dissatisfaction with our current practice of membership began with young adults, but deeper exploration has revealed other groups who carry the concern:
- Young adults, including participants in Quaker youth programs who have no relationship with any Quaker meeting; 35% of YAFs in one survey said they don’t have a home in a monthly meeting, though many of them actually hold membership in one.
- The incarcerated.
- Parents with young children.
- Friends at a distance from their home meetings or are too far away from any local meeting.
- Caregivers and others whose schedules or circumstances limit how much they can participate in meeting life.
2 & 3. What doesn’t work for these Friends in our current practice and what do they want?
Certain structural and circumstantial barriers prevent some from feeling they belong to their meeting: incarceration, transience, schedules, personal circumstances, differences in culture and/or theology from a local meeting, and distance.
But the deeper concern, especially on the part of young adults and members of marginalized communities, seems to be a feeling of exclusion fostered by inflexible attitudes and the strictures and constraints of Quaker “bureaucracy”. They want accessibility and a voice, particularly in yearly meetings, without having to “check the box” of meeting membership. They want inclusion, not membership. To quote the PhYM* Young Adult Epistle, they want their community to say: “We know you, and the Spirit is within you, and we acknowledge you.” They want their gifts to be recognized, welcomed, and included in the community’s governance and work, irrespective of their membership status. They want “spiritual membership” as opposed to “bureaucratic membership”. And they want the barriers that hinder the full inclusion of marginalized persons to come down.
In support of these desires, they know from their own experience of YAF gatherings that you don’t need “membership” in any form to feel you belong in a nurturing spiritual community, or for that community to grow and act under the guidance of the Spirit.
* Friends on the East Coast tend to use PYM as their anagram for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, but so does Pacific Yearly Meeting. I prefer PhYM for Philadelphia YM because it seems to me better than PaYM for Pacific YM, and in order to, in some small way, try to reorient the attitudes of East Cost Quakers. Unfortunately, PhYM already owns the domain name pym.org, so my gesture only goes so far.
December 3, 2020 § 1 Comment
Meetings tend to define membership only in terms of the member’s obligations to the meeting. Here, I want to look at what meetings offer their members.
This affects our consideration of alternative forms of membership in three ways. First and most obviously, it starts to answer whether monthly meetings and yearly meetings can meet the needs of the alternative seekers. But it also invites the alternative seekers to reconsider what they are looking for. Maybe they haven’t yet identified all their needs. And thirdly, it challenges meetings at both the monthly and yearly meeting levels to reconsider their mission
Ideally, I see meetings offering members five kinds of things, which together define the body of Christ:
- Communion—that is, worship, the opportunity to share the joys, the healing, the renewal, the guidance, of the Holy Spirit—in community.
- Community—the joys and challenges of fellowship in the Spirit, including mutual support of those areas of outward personal life in which the worshipping community can be of service, but also the joys and challenges of knowing one another and being known “in the things that are eternal”, in that deep way that is distinctive to religious community. Plus, religious community offers the following special ways in which the community can minister to its members:
- Pastoral care—being there for each other in meaningful ways in times of joy and sorrow and transition.
- Spiritual nurture—that is, eldership, support and nurture of the member’s spiritual journey, including mutual accountability for one’s walking on the path, and help with discernment and support for one’s callings, the work we feel led to do in the world.
- Religious identity—content and context for understanding who we are in the world, a tradition and a community that can ground our sense of self and guide our development in the life of the Spirit.
The one thing meetings do for sure is host the meeting for worship. But offering a roof over the head of worship is not enough. The meeting owes its members gathered meetings for worship. It should offer real holy communion, direct experience of the spirit of Christ, that is, with the spirit that unites us, transforms us, heals us, forgives us, inspires us, guides us, awakens us to our inner truth and our truer selves. The meeting should deliver its members into the quaking joy and transcending gratitude that collective baptism in the Well of Life bestows.
I’ve discussed what fosters the gathered meeting in my Pendle Hill Pamphlet The Gathered Meeting, but here I want to raise up the importance of vocal ministry. The meeting owes its members truly Spirit-led vocal ministry. This means much more proactive nurture of vocal ministry than most meetings provide.
Being members one of another involves so many things, and these have been well discussed in our written tradition, including in the Pendle Hill Pamphlet with that title, so I won’t go into detail here. Ideally, meeting for worship and the coffee hour afterwards, meeting for business and committee work actually go a long way toward building deep, Spirit-bound community. But meetings should not stop there, but do other things that build community, especially things that meet the needs of families. And they need to deal effectively and lovingly with conflict.
We’re not professionals. For deeply troubled people, we can only try to get them professional help. So we should be prepared with resources in this area.
But for most pastoral care needs, the charge is sometimes daunting but nevertheless fairly clear. First, to try to be aware enough of each other’s lives to know when need arises. Then, to respond as we are able. Some of us have pastoral gifts; the rest of us do our best. As with all forms of ministry, the way forward is to stand still in the Light and to work from the heart. And to be as proactive as possible. Like most meetings I know, my meeting has a Membership Care committee that meets monthly. Each of us is assigned a list of members under our care. We are more or less good at keeping in touch with them. But ideally, meetings offer members a kind of caring that they could not get anywhere else.
I think this role falls into three categories—spiritual formation, the care of gifts, leadings, and ministry, and eldership, properly defined.
Spiritual formation. Many members come to us not yet fully formed. They may not have a settled personal devotional life, or be very clear about what spiritual life means to them. The meeting has an important role in helping members clarify what spiritual disciplines work for them, what they “believe”, and what gifts they have.
Some of us come with more fully developed faith and practice, which usually have been formed outside the Quaker tradition. The meeting’s role then is to help the member integrate the spiritual life they bring with them into the religious life of the Quaker meeting.
All of this assumes, of course, that people join a meeting because the life of the spirit is important to them and Quakerism seems like the place to pursue it. The clearness committee for membership’s role is to become clear about both of these things.
Nurturing ministry. Within the Quaker tradition, the meeting owes its members discernment, support, and oversight of their spiritual gifts, their leadings, and their ministries, especially their vocal ministry.
Eldership. If the goal of spiritual life is personal transformation, and the goal of religious life is the transformation of the community—BIG if’s—then membership becomes a covenant in which we become accountable to each other under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Do we clarify with applicants how much they welcome our engagement with their spiritual lives and how much we’re willing to become engaged? These are deep questions that meetings tend not to ask, of their applicants or of themselves. We should.
Not everyone comes to a meeting seeking personal transformation. Most, perhaps, seek community, often as a refuge, a recharging station, as a place to get away from the demands of the world. They seek the silence, the peace, the people—not the crucible. Most of us are individualists and we like things our way.
On the other hand, most people seeking to join a religious community presumably do so because they think it will help them realize their higher selves, whatever that means. So how do these spiritual desires, however they are defined, match up with how the meeting understands its religious role or mission?
Which leads us to . . .
People seek membership in part because they have come to realize that they are already Quakers in some degree, they already identify with this Way, and they want to take this identity to a new level, which membership in a meeting promises to confer. But what does “being a Quaker” mean?
The meeting has a role in nurturing and developing its members’ growth into this identity. Put in concrete terms, this means equipping members to answer with confidence and integrity the kinds of questions that people might ask when a member tells somebody that they’re a Quaker. This means spiritual formation, spiritual nurture, eldership as mentorship, as discussed above, and religious education—programs and efforts through which they can learn to answer these questions for themselves.
If we want to become good cellists, we expect to study music, to practice the instrument, and to have teachers. If we want to become good Quakers, we should expect to study Quakerism and to practice the Quaker way. And meetings should offer religious education.
The unique value of a religion, as opposed to a spiritual life pursued on one’s own, is that having a tradition allows you to go deep, usually much deeper than you could on your own. A tradition provides some great music, an instrument, and teachings, if not teachers. Our tradition has already sunk a shaft into the depths and it offers ideas, tools, people, stories, and promise as guides to those depths.
Meetings should transmit our traditions as a ministry to our members’ religious identity.
In the next post, I want to lay out how I understand the concerns of those who seek alternatives to traditional membership in a monthly meeting.
December 3, 2020 § Leave a comment
Membership should be a three-way covenant in which the reciprocal gift-giving between member and meeting is done under the guidance and blessing of the Holy Spirit. Exploring alternatives to our traditional practice of membership in a monthly meeting raises several questions:
- What do people seeking alternatives to our current practice want from their Quakerism, and why does our current practice fail to satisfy?
- What do meetings want from their members?
- What do monthly meetings offer their members? And what can yearly meetings offer, since it is to yearly meetings that the alternative-seekers are looking for answers to their concerns?
- How do the answers to these queries connect?
- And finally, what are the foreseeable consequences of embracing the alternatives?
One would naturally start with the first query, but I’m not ready to do that yet. I have a sense of what the alternative seekers want from some conversations I’ve had, but I want to look more carefully at the already published resources about this in order to be as fully informed as possible.
We already know what meetings want from their members: participation and money. In my last post, I suggest focusing on the inward gifts we would like members to bring to us.
In the next post, I want to look at what meetings offer their members. In later posts, I’ll consider numbers four and five.
November 30, 2020 § Leave a comment
Quaker membership operates on two planes, the spiritual plane and the social organizational plane—membership in the “body of Christ” and the reciprocal responsibilities and benefits of meeting life. Dive deeper into either of these dimensions of membership and you inevitably come to a set of ur-questions, which the Quaker clearness process for membership is designed to answer:
- What is the life of the spirit for? How does the person seeking (or practicing) membership in a Quaker meeting understand their spiritual journey?
- Where does a meeting community fit in? What do members come to the meeting for, and what do they come to the meeting with?
- And finally, do their answers align with the answers offered by the meeting?
Of course, this last question assumes that the meeting has a relatively clear answer about what the life of the spirit is for, what they want from members, and what they offer.
Meetings tend to define membership in terms of what they want from members. Everybody pretty much agrees about these four: participation in worship, participation in the business of the meeting, including committee service, and financial support.
But these are all “outward” commitments. They speak to the inner life of the member not at all. We’re missing an absolute essential: We also want their spiritual gifts. We want their leadings and their ministries, especially their Spirit-led vocal ministry. We want their prayers. We want them to enrich our collective religious life with their individual spiritual stories and gifts and strengths—and their spiritual weaknesses, their seeking spirits, their inner cryings-out.
But what does the meeting offer in return? Meetings often fail to consider this side of the membership covenant. (More about “covenant” later.) My next post explores what I think meetings should be offering their members.
November 30, 2020 § Leave a comment
Philadelphia Yearly Meeting is threshing out a potentially new understanding of membership, as are a number of other yearly meetings. Young adults are driving this exploration, having become clear that the traditional membership framework is not working for them in many ways in many cases.
I think this may be the beginning of a profound movement toward renewal in the Religious Society of Friends, just as young adults drove earlier reformations, in the 1870s and ‘80s toward programmed worship and pastoral meetings, and in the 1890s toward what we now call liberal Quakerism. Therefore, I think this development deserves serious attention to how the Spirit may now be moving among us.
So this is the first post in a series about membership that tries to clarify the issues and identify the ways that the spirit of Christ may be opening before us; that is, how the spirit of direct communion with the Mystery Reality that lies behind or within our religious experience may be speaking to us through our experience.
I’m still developing ideas as I go, but these subjects are already clear to me:
- Clearness about the roots of membership.
- What meetings (should) offer members.
- How do we meet the needs expressed by our young adults?
- Membership as covenant.
Next pos: Clearness about membership.
March 29, 2017 § 4 Comments
Why would an attender apply for membership in a Quaker meeting?
In a lot of meetings I know, the only thing it gets you, really, is the privilege of serving on some new committees and maybe some more deeply internalized sense of responsibility to attend meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship, and to support the meeting financially. In a word, you’re signing up for responsibility. Not to denigrate the quite wonderful sense of belonging that membership brings for most of us, I suspect.
So we may be fairly clear about the member’s responsibilities to the meeting (or not). But what is the responsibility of the meeting to the member? This is what I want to focus on.
I think our meetings pay too little attention to their side of the covenant with members, to what they owe the members, beyond providing a roof for meeting for worship and some coffee afterwards. What does the member get out of the deal that is different from being just a faithful attender?
I think we can name with some confidence three things that meetings try to offer. I would then add a fourth, one that I think is extremely important, but I’m not so confident that we have this one covered. Meetings offer members:
- communion, that is, meeting for worship, the regular opportunity to share the presence of the Spirit;
- community, f/Friendship in the Spirit, which includes
- pastoral care; and (in my understanding)
- spiritual nurture—active, proactive, even focused nurture of spiritual gifts, opportunities for personal spiritual exploration and formation, and discernment and support of leadings and ministries.
The first three we take seriously already, though it’s not always so easy to do well. Most meetings have committees dedicated to this work and they try hard. But for all intents and purposes, we offer worship, community, and pastoral care equally to both attenders and members. Nothing here changes with the status of meeting membership.
The fourth service is the only one that we would not necessarily give to attenders in the ways that I personally desire from covenantal community—that is, meaningful engagement in one another’s spiritual/religious lives. And for me, this is one of the central missions of a Quaker meeting, one of its main reasons for existing.
For me, covenantal community means that the community is willing to engage with me, actively and proactively, in the nurture of my spiritual gifts, the support of my leadings and ministry (including my vocal ministry), and in the formation and nurture of my spiritual life in general.
It’s the proactive part that differentiates membership from “attender-ship”. I think we would not presume to get intimately involved in someone’s spiritual life without her or his express wish. Thus, the difference between being an attender and being a member is that you invite the meeting into your spiritual life, recognizing that, in the Quaker way, the spiritual life only fully flourishes in the embrace of community.
This applies to both aspects of eldership, both positive spiritual nurture and accountability. Put another way, we promise to protect the meeting’s worship and its fellowship on behalf of all its members and attenders, so that all can feel welcome, spiritually nurtured, and safe in our community. In essence, we notify members that we will hold them accountable for their negative behavior. In practical terms, this means we bring up our commitment to protect the worship and the fellowship in our clearness committees for membership.
For it’s in the clearness committee that the rubber hits the road. It is here that we ask an applicant what their spiritual life consists of and just how involved we can get in helping them put it together and deepen it. Many people come to us without a very clear idea yet of what the life of the spirit means or consists of for them. Do they want help in exploring and clarifying that? For those who are already on a fairly clear path, how can we help?
The one area that obtains for all applicants in this regard is vocal ministry. Our clearness committees should ask what the applicant thinks and feels about vocal ministry—their own in particular, and vocal ministry in general. Do they welcome our attention, support, and even correction in their vocal ministry? Do they consider it a sacred calling that deserves and even needs the community’s involvement?
All this presupposes, however, that the meeting is actually going to engage with members in the ways I’m talking about and that it is equipped to be of service in these ways. I don’t think I’ve ever known a meeting that is clear about its role in members’ spiritual lives or prepared to be proactive in the ways I’m talking about. Even my own meeting is hesitant and it has a Gifts and Leadings Committee specifically charged with with this role. Many also do not have seasoned Friends who could be good resources and mentors to others in their spiritual lives and who are also willing to serve in this way.
So, for a meeting to offer something substantive and distinguishing to attenders considering membership, the meeting must have a rather deep conversation about its mission, about its role in members’ lives. It needs to be clear with its membership care and clearness committees about what it expects of them. And it needs to be prepared to deliver on its promises if it’s going to make any in the first place.
If it does not have the spiritual and human resources to nurture its members’ spiritual lives, it needs to reach out to other meetings and to the wider Quaker network. Can it bring people in? Can it help to send members to nearby retreat centers? Can it at least hold viewings and discussion of the many great videos now available on QuakerSpeak.org, or discussion groups on Quaker readings, Pendle Hill Pamphlets, its Faith and Practice?
This, in my opinion, is an essential calling of a Quaker meeting and what we owe our members.