Quaker-pocalypse—Nominations and Meeting Renewal

October 11, 2015 § 8 Comments

The goal

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

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

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

The challenge

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

In the long term:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 11, 2015 § 4 Comments

Part One: Quaker “Decline” and the Committee System


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

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

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

Past solutions

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

In the past, meetings have tried the following:

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

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

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

The real problem(s)

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

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

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

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

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