Why become a member?

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:

  1. communion, that is, meeting for worship, the regular opportunity to share the presence of the Spirit;
  2. community, f/Friendship in the Spirit, which includes
  3. pastoral care; and (in my understanding)
  4. 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.

“Best Practices” for Quaker Meetings

January 7, 2017 § 1 Comment

My meeting (Central Philadelphia Meeting, CPM *) does a number of things that I think are very important quite well. This has inspired me to think about “best practices” for Quaker meetings in general. I have organized these examples from my meeting and other meetings according to the various aspects of meeting life:

  • Outreach, membership, and attention to attenders
  • Spiritual nurture—support for spiritual gifts and ministries
  • Meeting for worship
  • Meeting for business in worship
  • Pastoral care

To cover all these aspects at once would make for too long a post, so I start with outreach, membership and attenders.

Outreach, membership, and attention to attenders

Best practices:

  • Clear visibility, both on the street and online.
  • A welcoming fellowship with structures in place to ensure a connection with visitors to meeting for worship.
  • A website with the basic information.
  • Information on how to apply for membership and what membership means to the meeting that’s easy to find.
  • Some structure for meeting attenders’ needs and helping them to integrate into the life of the meeting.

Signage

Central Philadelphia Meeting is an urban meeting and the meetinghouse, large as it is, is somewhat obscured and visually confusing to visitors coming by both car and foot because it’s attached to Friends Center, an even larger building. The whole complex is hard to miss but the actual entrance is harder to find; it’s set back in a courtyard behind rather high walls quite a distance from the street. Thus the meeting sets out on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to the courtyard an A-frame sign that’s about three feet tall. It’s simple, visible, and inviting.

Welcoming visitors

Greeters meet everyone as they enter the meeting room, and they are ready to answer any visitor’s questions. At the rise of meeting, visitors are invited to introduce themselves. The gathered body calls out a welcome to each person who does so, and someone in the meeting is very likely to approach them personally as we adjourn to the social room. There they can usually find a visitors table with a person to answer questions and some literature to take home.

Website

The meeting has a nice QuakerCloud website. Every meeting should have a website. This is how people find us nowadays. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should have the basics: a welcome, where and when meeting for worship takes place, including at least a full address for those using a GPS device to find you, if not a Google Map, and information on how to contact the meeting. CPM’s website includes lots of other resources focused on answering seekers’ questions and needs for information.

Seeker-focused information

The home page is very friendly to seekers visiting the site. It prominently displays a link to “Learn more about Central Philadellphia Monthly Meeting” [see * below]. This link takes you to a quite thorough Frequently Asked Questions page. In the sidebar on this page are links to a lot of other valuable resources for seekers, including . . .

  • resources on various essential aspects of the Quaker way,
  • a document that describes how to apply for membership, and
  • a document that explains what membership means to the meeting,
  • plus other useful resources.

Membership

I would like to modify these documents offered to newcomers on membership (and in fact, they are in review), but it is really important, I think, that they exist in the first place and that they be easy to find. The process for becoming a member should not be a mystery.

Attenders

CPM has an Attenders committee that is charged with meeting the needs of attenders and fostering their welcome and integration into the life and fellowship of the meeting.

 

* A note on “monthly” meeting

I would note that most members of the meeting refer to Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting (this is the title of the meeting on the home page), or they shorten it to CPMM. Note also that the meeting’s domain name is cpmm.org. I use CPM rather than CPMM and never say Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting because I believe local meetings should never use “monthly meeting’ in their public communications, and that it’s not even good practice with your internal audiences. Saying “monthly” meeting may lead newcomers to think that we meet only once a month to worship, at least until they see some indication otherwise. Then they will wonder what “monthly” actually means. Then you have to explain it, which is irrelevant to their real concerns as visitors and a distraction from our core message to newcomers. I think this peculiar usage is potentially off-putting as insider language. Eventually, this odd detail in our jargon will come clear if newcomers stay for a while, but why put a hurdle in their way when they are first inquiring? Unfortunately, CPM is stuck with their domain name, cpmm.org—changing that would be a real mess. But in my opinion as a professional Quaker website manager and communicator, at the least, the title on a meeting’s home page and its practice in other public communications should not refer to “monthly” meeting.

Quaker-pocalypse—Advancement: Fellowship

May 24, 2015 § 3 Comments

When newcomers come to a meeting, the first thing they encounter is the culture of the meeting, the way it feels and the way it operates. Even if they go directly into the meeting room, even here they are surrounded by the unspoken assumptions and agreements about identity, behavior, and relationship that comprise a community’s fellowship.

But hopefully, they don’t get a chance to go directly to the meeting room (unless that’s what they want to do) because someone has greeted them at the door and  then the greeter and the rest of the Friends in the gathering space offer them the meeting’s hospitality.

If we want our meetings to grow, we must be warm, welcoming, and interested in new people. Fellowship is the second item under “a vital religious life” in my list of the three essentials for Quaker advancement.

Hospitality. Is your community warm and welcoming to all? Do you have greeters who meet newcomers at the door on First Day and help them find their way into worship, mentally, emotionally, and physically? Do all the members take responsibility for making newcomers feel welcome, well informed, and comfortable, not just when they first come in the door, but also after worship, and when they return, if they do?

Inclusiveness. How homogenous is your meeting population and are people of all races, all classes, all sexual orientations, and all cultural styles welcome in your meeting? Is your meetinghouse accessible? Is your bathroom? Do you have equipment for the hearing impaired? Do you welcome children into your worship?

Pastoral care. Do the Friends charged with pastoral care in your meeting feel confident in their roles and responsibilities? If not, how can you help them? Does your meeting regularly encourage the members and attenders to come to the pastoral care committee with their concerns and do members know whom to approach? Are you prepared with a network of mental health and other professionals who can give your committee advice or to whom they can refer Friends when the concern seems too deep or difficult for the committee, or seems to require professional attention?

Membership. Is there any meaningful difference between being a member and being an attender of your meeting? Is your meeting clear about what membership in your meeting means and what it expects from its members? Are your clearness committees for membership clear about these things? Is it easy for attenders to find out what membership means in your meeting, what the meeting expects from them, and how to apply for membership? Does your meeting think of membership as a covenant, as a set of mutual promises and responsibilities in which members expect to contribute to the spiritual and material life of the meeting and in which members invite the meeting to proactively engage with their spiritual lives? Or is your meeting too afraid to intrude to be proactive in its spiritual nurture and/or do your members consider their religious lives to be a completely private domain in which the meeting has no business?

Willingness to change. New people bring new energy to the meeting, energy that might change the culture of your meeting. Does your meeting reflexively resist change? Is your meeting overly attached to the way your meeting “feels” today and its unspoken assumptions and agreements?

Eldering authority and mandate. Does someone in your meeting have clear authority and a clear mandate to protect your fellowship from inappropriate behavior? Are you and they clear about what “inappropriate behavior” deserves attention? Do these Friends feel equipped to act with some confidence when needed?

Conflict. Does your meeting forthrightly address conflict when it arises in the meeting? Do you have members who are not attending because of some conflict with the meeting or with other members? If they have left because of some difficult person, is that person still attending? (If your meeting has lost even one member because of a disruptive person, you might as well have lost the disruptive person.) Does your meeting seek outside help if it finds it too difficult to deal with a conflict on its own? Is your quarterly or regional meeting and/or your yearly meeting prepared to respond to such a request for intervention with people who have the gift of mediation and with resources? (See the video and other resources available from New York Yearly Meeting’s Conflict Transformation Committee.)

Emotional blackmail. Do you let members hold the meeting hostage with their emotions, threatening to leave or to do something else if the meeting does “x” or doesn’t do “y”, especially in meeting for worship with attention to the life of the meeting?

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.

A Living Economic Testimony: Debt

October 13, 2011 § 9 Comments

I woke up yesterday morning thinking about debt, the linchpin of our current economic crisis, about the systematic assaults on the compassionate and indeed rational management of debt that began with the Reagan administration, and about what Jesus’ teachings and our other Quaker testimonies have to offer as places to start in articulating a living testimony on debt.

Amongst ourselves: contemporary and historical practice

Friends historically have urged each other to avoid debt when possible and, since credit is essential to business, to be very careful not to become overextended with the debt you must incur. They saw this as a breach of what we call today the testimony of integrity; then, they said it broke Jesus’ injunction to let your yea be yea and your nay be nay—that is, when you defaulted on your debts you were breaking your word. During the 18th and 19th centuries, Friends kept a close watch on each other’s finances and disciplined those who defaulted on their debts. For a while, some meetings read people out of meeting for going bankrupt, especially in the 19th century. Nevertheless, meetings sometimes also arranged bailouts, covering the outstanding debts of bankrupted members, especially when the creditors were not Friends, in order to do right by the creditors and to protect the Society’s reputation. It also was not too uncommon for meetings to refinance such a Friend, especially if their business had failed through no fault of their own.

Through the twentieth century, Friends assumed many of ‘the world’s’ practices, including attitudes toward debt, while banks extended more and more credit to the individual consuming household. Today, if the Quaker community reflects trends in the wider society, as it almost certainly does, then presumably, quite a few Friends are underwater with their mortgages and in trouble with their credit card debt. But how would we know? And what would we do about it if we did know? We no longer monitor each other’s finances and we do not step in with help when members get into financial trouble. Should we? I think so.

In fact, ideally, perhaps Quaker meetings could function like the Church of the Savior in Washington DC (and the early Christian church; see the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5) when it comes to finances: ask for a financial statement as part of the membership process and for a covenantal relationship with the meeting regarding money. This would go a long way toward solving our meetings’ problems with their own insolvency, though it would drive out some members and thus reduce income, as well. For its part, meetings could also establish relief funds, the way the Mormons do, and perhaps even ‘mandatory’ periodic social service to each other, also along the lines of Mormon practice, as a way to protect and to reboot a struggling household’s fortunes.

Of course this will never happen. It will never even come up. Despite the many sociological studies that show that demanding more of your believers actually grows a congregation, Friends will almost certainly see such a practice as invasive and coercive, never mind that we did it for almost 200 years. Nevertheless, I think we should do everything we can to encourage our members to tell us when they’re in trouble and to help to the degree that we can. As niggardly as Friends are towards contributions to our meetings and institutions, we often respond quite generously to direct appeals for specific and personalized causes. Perhaps the best way to build up a fund that could help struggling members is to run something akin to a capital drive to raise funds for a new meetinghouse or for major repairs to an existing one. Without such a fund and without a clear willingness on the part of the meeting to help, deeply indebted members are not likely to come forward.

During the persecutions, Friends managed to help each other out against terrible, sustained and concerted financial assault. Likewise, the early apostolic church was organized around care for the poor, vividly dramatized in Acts 2 and 4. Do we share such a fellowship today?

Is Quakerism in Decline?

August 25, 2011 § 14 Comments

Along with budget documents, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting released at this year’s annual sessions a sheet outlining membership statistics for the past twenty years. Declining membership is one of the factors driving PYM’s current financial crisis. I want to look at these figures in some detail in future posts, but for me they raise a bunch of questions I want to look at first:

  • Is Quakerism in decline?
  • What do we (what do I) mean by “decline”?
  • What factors would we consider to be reliable indicators of decline?

Declining membership is the most obvious indicator and I think it’s worthwhile to try to understand its patterns and especially its causes. Hence the posts that will follow analyzing PYM’s data. But I would like to propose some other indicators and ask my readers to add theirs. I would also like to hear comments on these indicators from members of yearly meetings besides the two I have some knowledge of—PYM and New York Yearly Meeting: Are other yearly meetings in basically the same condition as these two East Coast yearly meetings? Are there noticeable differences between FGC and FUM and Conservative yearly meetings (also Britain Yearly Meeting) in their experience of these indicators? I would like to start a worldwide project of self-evaluation using roughly the same set of parameters to determine whether Quakerism is in decline and, if so, perhaps why.

My instincts tell me we are in decline in a number of ways, but going over PYM’s membership statistics made me wonder why I felt that way and whether there was real evidence for such a subjective feeling. Was it possible to get past personal anecdotal impressions to a more rigorous conclusion? So I’m hoping we can use the blogosphere to begin answering these questions.

Here’s my list of indicators:

  1. Membership—what are the trends and patterns?
  2. Financial support—what are the trends and patterns?
  3. Gathered meetings—how many meetings are experiencing gathered meetings and how often? (I would leave the definition of ‘gathered meeting’ up to the meeting or the commentator, rather than try to define it myself for others.) I believe this is the most important indicator we have.
  4. Seasoned Friends—how many monthly meetings have Friends whose knowledge of Quakerism is deep enough to teach it either in an adult RE program, or to recognize when the meeting is acting in ignorance of our traditions?
  5. Quaker ministers—how many meetings have members whose work, either among Friends or in the world, has either been formally recorded or is generally recognized in the meeting and/or supported by the meeting in some way?

Got any more?

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