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?
April 1, 2014 § 5 Comments
The Quaker movement was born in a time of tremendous economic upheaval and hardship and one of the main reasons that meetings and membership rolls were formally established in the first place was to deal with the financial crises we faced. I have discussed this at length in early posts on Quakerism and Capitalism.
At the very beginning in the late 1640s and the 1650s, most Children of Truth were yeoman farmers or tradespeople in small towns and villages. Within a generation, most Friends had abandoned their land or been driven off and had entered commerce, as part of the great transition from a mostly agrarian economy toward capitalism. By 1700, this transition was virtually complete among Friends and already British commercial capitalism was beginning to evolve into an economy that combined trade with manufacture and industry, an evolution driven in considerable part by Quaker energy, innovation, and investment.
In the meantime, beginning in the early 1660s and lasting officially until the mid-1690s, the state, the church, and local authorities conducted a campaign of economic persecution against Quakers that took an enormous financial toll on the movement.
Quaker meetings were established in this period in great part to organize and manage the funds for sufferings that ministered to the financial hardships of their members. At the time, this was one of the more important answers to the question, What is the Religious Society of Friends for? : financial care of its members.
The same was true for the earliest followers of Jesus. I have never seen evidence that early Friends deliberately based their faith and practices of financial care on the model found in Christian scripture, but I suspect that the reason is that I just am not well enough read yet. For the model is quite visible in its basic thrust. It’s a little less obvious how completely ministering to financial hardship permeates the teachings of Jesus, or how central it was to his prophetic mission.
In the fourth chapter of Luke, after having been baptized and tempted in the wilderness, Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth and is invited to read from the prophets in the synagogue. He reads Isaiah 61:1-2:
- The spirit of Yahweh God is upon me,
because Yahweh has anointed me (“Christed” me, “messiahed” me);
he has sent me to bring good news (evangelion) to the poor/oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted (those who have lost their family farm to bankruptcy),
to proclaim liberty to the captives (possibly debt slaves),
and release to the prisoners (ditto);
to proclaim the year that Yahweh favors (the jubilee year).
After reading these words, Jesus declared that in his listener’s hearing, this prophecy was being fulfilled.
In this passage, Jesus declares himself the messiah and defines his role as the Christ as ministering to the sufferings of the poor, mainly by declaring a Jubilee. The Jubilee, from Leviticus 25, did four things:
- It cancelled all debts.
- It set free all debt slaves, people who were working off their debts as indentured servants.
- It returned all families to their ancestral farms, families that had lost their inheritances to foreclosure.
- It required a sabbath fallow, that all fields remain fallow for the year.
Once you learn to recognize the covenantal language for debt, poverty, the Jubilee release, inheritance, and other related “legal” “economic” terminology, you see it everywhere you look in the teachings and actions of Jesus: most of the most famous sayings, half of the parables, most of his curing miracles, many of his other miracles, and much what he actually did in the narratives relate his teachings about the poor and demonstrate his plan for relieving their burdens of debt. Read in this light, the (Synoptic) gospels and Acts lay out a faith and practice of financial care for the poor that was the obligation of the local congregation.
Thus both the primitive Christian church that early Friends sought to restore, and the measures that Friends themselves undertook served to make sure that no one in the community suffered from poverty.
Financial care today
I think most of our meetings do have a concern for the financial welfare of their members, but we do not hold this as one of our core missions, as Jesus’ followers and our own Quaker forebears did. Why?
For one thing, as I write in Quakerism and Capitalism, and as Doug Gwyn describes so well in The Covenant Crucified, Friends in England soon became fabulously wealthy in spite of the intense persecutions, and they abandoned the original covenant they had built on the foundations of their radical eschatological expectations. We became one of the wealthiest communities in Great Britain. This didn’t begin to change in Britain until the 20th century.
Quakers in America were always more diverse in all ways, including economically. Many Friends in the New World continued to be farmers, for instance. But the new nation so often delivered on its promise of opportunity in those days that poverty among American Friends was also rather rare, as far as I know.
In our own time, many of us are middle class, and we don’t really know poverty or even see much of it in our day-to-day lives.
Nevertheless, many of our meetings probably have members who live close to the edge. Some may be underwater in their mortgages or carrying a lot of credit card debt. Our culture encourages us to hide these things from others, so we often do not know how our fellow Quakers are doing financially. So here are my questions:
If someone in our meeting were suffering under a crushing burden of debt, would we know? And if we did know, what would we do about it? Is ministering to each other’s financial distress still a core mission of the Quaker meeting, as it was for early Friends and for the early followers of Jesus? Should it be?
March 28, 2014 § 3 Comments
Human life is quite full of human suffering. One of the most important roles for the Quaker meeting is to minister to one another in our suffering. Thus pastoral care is for Friends a form of ministry.
The faith and practice of pastoral care, the roles and responsibilities of both the individual and the meeting, are not different for pastoral care ministry than they are for vocal ministry or witness ministry, or any other form of ministry:
As individuals, to always seek to be open to the promptings of the Spirit to serve, in the knowledge that any one of us at any time could be called to be there for someone in pain; that you do not have to have professional training to do this.
As meetings, to teach the spiritual practice of Quaker ministry, including pastoral care as one of its forms, thus encouraging all members and attenders to be available to the Holy Spirit, and to each other as pastoral caregivers; and to create a fellowship in which Friends know each other well enough to recognize when someone needs our care.
Pastoral care as ministry
As with all other forms of ministry, the goal is to bring someone to G*d and to bring G*d into their life. To seek to awaken the sufferer to the Comforter within them and to give them whatever kinds of support seems appropriate.
The one sure vehicle for doing this is love. For whatever else “God” is, most of us can agree that G*d is love, that loving is as close as we can normally get to the divine. This love is taught in a Masters program that no outward schooling in counseling can replicate, though it can facilitate.
Just as this love is inwardly learned without outward instruction, so it is outwardly expressed without specific forms. That is, when we encounter someone in pain, the first thing we can do is to be still inwardly and listen for how we might be led. We can seek to act and to speak in the situation in answer to that of G*d within our Friend, and to heed that of G*d within ourselves, waiting as it were to be led into action and speech by the Holy Spirit, by the Mystery Reality that binds us together in love. We can settle into the feelings we have for our Friend, our care for them, our wish for their well-being, and in the fullness of that silence, find a way forward revealed. Thus simply sitting together for a time, in the silence, in the light, in that love, can often be the best first action.
We may, in fact, end up employing professional skills and tools in the situation, just as a Bible passage may find its way into our vocal ministry, or our knowledge of hydrofracking may inform our tactics in our earthcare ministry. But love is the first motion, and along with that, expectant listening, knowing that we can be inspired to right action if we attend to the light within us and within others.
But pastoral problems often are—well, usually are—complex and hard to deal with. They often feel bigger than our meager knowledge or skills or gifts. And they are so fraught with tension that it is hard to silence our fears and sense of helplessness, our reluctance to intrude or the tendency to seek a solution, so that it can be very hard to hear that little voice inside or feel that little nudge toward right action. And very often, there really isn’t much we can do, as an individual or as a meeting or pastoral care committee, to actually solve these difficult situations.
We can try. We should try to do something, even if we are not clearly led, I think. The trying is its own act of love. But at the least, we can love and we can pray. We can just be there, and say that we are there. We can listen. And we can minister to the heart, even when we cannot minister to the situation. We all know what a difference it makes to know that the meeting cares, to get those flowers and cards and visits and covered dishes. These things any pastoral care committee can do, whether it has trained professionals or not.
We often do put people on our pastoral care committees who are mental health professionals or professional mediators, people whom we recognize have already realized their gifts and their calling in this area. But even when these Friends are bringing their professional training and skills to a pastoral need in the meeting, they also are bringing the gifts and the calling that led them to their profession, they are bringing the love and the healing of G*d, the giver of those gifts, the source of that calling.
Gifts of pastoral ministry
And what are the gifts of pastoral ministry?
- The gift of attention, of being consciously open to the signs of suffering in others;
- of listening, of really being present to someone when they are speaking;
- of empathy, making a habit of imagining what someone else is going through as though it were you;
- of compassion, making a habit of turning from the awareness of some problem to the resolve to do what you can to help;
- of discernment, a deep openness to G*d’s inspiration as to the source of someone’s suffering, or the solution to the situation, or to the possible role of the meeting;
- of prayer, the practice of bringing others into our devotional life;
- of presence, the willingness to simply be with someone on their own terms, without any expectation of outcome and without fretting too much about the awkwardness;
- of healing, one of the rarer gifts, of channeling healing power, knowing what to do or what to say or how to help in the moment of counsel, beyond even the great gift of just being present.
These gifts are universal, a natural capacity we all possess, though we each possess them in different measure. Some people seem quite naturally to possess some of these gifts in greater measure, but I believe we can cultivate them within ourselves, we can raise them up or strengthen them, with a little practice.
I want to emphasize the value of prayer. The gift of prayer is one of the most endangered in the liberal Society of Friends. But ironically, its very rarity among us enhances its power when we use it. And it has tremendous power to start with. Even “holding someone in the Light” has real power when through the practice we descend into our own depths and send forth our love.
I have seen the truth of this many, many times. In my own meeting just recently more than one Friend has testified to how important the meeting’s prayers were to them and how they could feel the meeting’s love at work within them. I have seen miracles.
I do believe that healing prayer stands a much better chance if practiced in conjunction with some deepening exercise. At least that’s been my experience. Something happens when you take the time to really center down before praying for someone, and when you stay in that deep place for a good time, allowing your lovingkindness to sink you ever deeper as you reach out across the ocean of light with G*d’s love. Oh, it feels sublime and it has great power.
I believe that the Quaker meeting has a special role to play in ministering to the financial suffering of its members. This was the central mission of the church that Jesus built and it was a central mission of the Quaker meeting in the earliest times for Friends. But this post is long enough. This discussion will have to wait until my next post.
December 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
Foster loving, supportive, and joyful community.
One of the most valuable and unique contributions Friends have made to the religious landscape is the faith and practice of Quaker community.
- We believe that the life of the Spirit flourishes best in the bosom of loving and supportive community and in community we share its joys and difficulties.
- We believe—because we have experienced it—that the worshipping community, like the individual, is capable of direct, unmediated communion with G*d; we call this the gathered meeting for worship.
- We believe that through this communion, the worshipping community can be called into collective ministry, just as individuals are called into individual ministries of service of various kinds.
- We believe that the meeting has an indispensable role to play in nurturing, supporting, and overseeing the gifts and ministry of its members.
- We believe that the meeting also should offer its members loving pastoral care, helping when able in matters temporal, emotional, and spiritual, sharing love in times of both trouble and joy. In particular, meetings conduct meetings for marriage and memorial meetings for those who have died.
- We believe that the community helps us fulfill the commandments of love—to love G*d, to love one another, and to love our enemies.
- And we rejoice in the fellowship of the Spirit that manifests in the gathered meeting for worship and our love for each other.
- We conduct our business affairs in meetings for worship, seeking to find divine guidance for our corporate life in that communion. We also conduct marriages and memorials as meetings for worship.
- We have evolved tests and tools for the discernment and support of individual ministry and for pastoral care.
I am supremely grateful for the wisdom and care of Margaret Fell and others like her who modeled for early Friends and for us how to nurture religious community; and for the genius of George Fox, who ushered in the infrastructure for Quaker community when he began “bringing gospel order” in the 1660s by organizing monthly meetings and other aspects of our corporate life.
I also believe that loving, welcoming community is one of the three essentials required for the growth of our meetings—for holding onto newcomers who come to test for themselves whether we are their new spiritual home. The other two are a ready and substantive welcome to young families—a first day school that does not require parents to teach their own children instead of joining the worship; and spirit-filled meetings for worship—the deep silence of communion and spirit-filled vocal ministry.
To fulfill this vision of Quaker community, we need:
- clerks who know what they are doing;
- members who also know “Quaker process”;
- Friends with the gift of eldership, who are equipped to provide support and oversight for ministry, including vocal ministry, and spirit-led pastoral care;
- Friends with the gift of hospitality, who know how to make everyone feel welcome and at home in the meeting’s fellowship;
- Friends with the gift of administration, who know how to run the more mundane aspects of meeting life with joy, humility, and grace;
- Friends with the gift of pastoral care, who know how to recognize the needs of our members and attenders and minister to them in good ways; and
- the requisites for experiencing the gathered meeting (discussed here),
For many Friends, it seems to me, community is what they are here for. People have different religious temperaments and, while Quakerism is not equipped to fulfill some temperaments, we do offer those with a temperament for community life a uniquely fulfilling spiritual home. Because we have no paid professionals, we must do all the work of the meeting ourselves, and this provides abundant opportunities for Friends who have the community temperament to share their gifts.
This is true for all the spiritual gifts. What a tremendous blessing it is to belong to a community that recognizes our gifts and provides opportunities for their use. It is one of the great joys of my life that my meeting welcomes my gifts, and I am proud of the way my meeting tries to do the same for all its members.
Does your meeting provide opportunities for you and others to exercise their spiritual gifts? Is your worshipping community a rich environment for spiritual fulfillment?
Finally, membership—arguably the most important aspect of Quaker community, and yet one about which we are perennially confused and even dysfunctional. I have written about this before (Membership, and On Clearness Committees for Membership).
Membership in a Quaker meeting used to commit you to a covenant in which you invited (or at least expected) the meeting to engage with you regarding your spiritual life. That culture of eldership was quite intrusive and eventually (maybe fairly soon) became abusive and self-destructive. In revolt and for good reasons, we abandoned the communal discipline and mutual accountability that discipleship used to entail.
But now we are on our own with our spiritual lives, and it’s hard to follow the life of the spirit without help, at least when it becomes intense or when you are called into ministry. We are not meant to do it alone.
So I think we need to recover some new approach to helping each other along the Way. And that starts with how we conduct our clearness committees for membership.
Well, as I said, I’ve written at length about this before. But I do think that reforming our approach to membership is one of the most important imperatives for renewing the Religious Society of Friends.