Quaker-pocalypse—Spiritual Nurture & Advancement

June 3, 2015 § 6 Comments

If we want to reverse our decline and fulfill our calling in the world, our meetings need to enjoy a vital religious life. In recent posts, I have offered queries for meetings to assess how well they are doing in the areas of worship and fellowship. People coming to a meeting for the first time or for the first few times will first experience the quality of the worship and its vocal ministry and get a first impression of the community, so these two aspects of meeting life impact the growth or decline of a meeting directly.

Spiritual nurture for individuals and families has a less direct impact on meeting growth because it takes a while for newcomers to experience and appreciate whatever efforts a meeting makes to recognize and nurture the members’ spiritual gifts and their ministry, and the meeting’s religious education programs for youth and adults.

I fear, however, that most of our meetings do not try to name our members’ spiritual gifts or nurture them in any proactive way. Too often we are left to our own devices when it comes to maturing in the life of the spirit. As a result, the collective life of the spirit, the spiritual maturity of the meeting, suffers. So, when people come to our meeting for the first time or for a handful of times, is there a there there?

I believe that recognizing and nurturing spiritual gifts is an absolute essential for a vital meeting’s religious life. If, as I said in my series on What is Quakerism for?, our mission as meetings is to bring people to God and God into the world, why would we leave our members and attenders on their own in finding God, in finding a personal spiritual practice that works for them (spiritual formation *)? And why would we deny our meetings the blessings of a membership that is confident and mature in its gifts and equipped to serve the meeting and the waiting world with their gifts’ unfolding?

We are not without resources. Several yearly meetings have spiritual nurture or spiritual formation programs, we have the School of the Spirit, and we have our conference centers that hopefully have programs along these lines. And even if meetings do not have anyone with substantive experience in spiritual nurture and spiritual formation, the meeting still has some good options. But first we have to ask ourselves some questions.

Recognizing and Nurturing Spiritual Gifts

  • Does your meeting have a list in its collective head of spiritual gifts, so that you would recognize them when you saw them? (I plan a subsequent post or series of posts in which I provide such a list and some context for understanding them, using the gifts of the spirit in Paul’s letters (Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, and Ephesians 4) as a starting point.)
  • Does your meeting do anything to help its members and attenders recognize their own gifts in the spirit? Does your ministry committee take the time to discuss the gifts of each member and attender with an eye to how they might be nurtured?
  • Or do you leave this task to nominating committee? Does your nominating committee go beyond just its charge to fill slots in the roster with people who who have a gift in a certain area, to recognize where some gifts may lie unrecognized or unexpressed because there is no committee for that gift, and to help Friends recognize and grow their gifts, regardless of whether they choose to bring those gifts to a committee in service?
  • Do your other committees think in terms of the gifts that the Friends who serve on them bring? In addition to the tasks involved in the committee’s charge, do your committees take time to be laboratories for the exploration of the gifts of its members, to name those gifts, and to be nurturing gardens in which the gifts of the committee’s members may grow, regardless of whether they directly serve the tasks laid upon the committee?
  • Does your meeting record gifts in ministry, or do anything else to collectively name and recognize your members’ spiritual gifts for the meeting? Or do you have members who fear that somehow recognizing gifts in ministry elevates the minister in ways that violate the testimony of equality? If this fear does prevail in your meeting, then why? Do you have direct, concrete experience of harmful exaltation of recognized ministers? If this fear does not come from direct experience, then where does it come from?
  • Does anyone or any committee in your meeting proactively watch for emerging gifts and emerging ministries, so that you are ready to serve as an elder or mentor when you see them?
  • Has your meeting considered helping someone in the meeting to attend the School of the Spirit or some other spiritual formation program or conference?
  • Does your meeting invite members to share their spiritual practice, either in an open discussion gathering or, in the case of Friends who have some experience or a personal practice of some kind, in a more formal teaching mode? Does you meeting know of Friends outside the meeting with these skills that you could invite in?
  • If you think your meeting lacks the resources to do some of these things, have you considered hosting a study group that reads books on spiritual formation together? The books that come to my mind are Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, Patricia Loring’s two volume Listening Spirituality; anything written by William Taber or Lloyd Lee Wilson; Martha Paxson Grundy’s Tall Poppies: Supporting Gifts of Ministry and Eldering in the Monthly Meeting, a Pendle Hill Pamphlet. I have not read the following books, but they are available from QuakerBooks.org and they look promising: Connecting with God: A Spiritual Formation Guide, by Lynda Graybeal and Julia Roller; Light to Live By: An Exploration in Quaker Spirituality, by Rex Ambler; Living the Way: Quaker Spirituality and Community, by Ursula-Jane O’Shea.

* Spiritual nurture and spiritual formation
Readers may not be clear what I mean by “spiritual formation” and what the difference is between spiritual formation and spiritual nurture. By spiritual nurture, I mean anything that fosters a deeper spiritual life. By spiritual formation I mean programs to impart a spiritual practice, or, in the broader sense, an organized effort to help Friends find the spiritual practice that works for them.

Quaker-pocalypse: Spiritual Lukewarmness & Spiritual Formation

March 7, 2015 § 8 Comments

Note: My dear readers, I’ve been away for a while—had a knee replaced and have only just been finding the time to focus clearly on this blog. (I am recovering well.) Thanks for your patience.

Also, this post is very long—too long, really, but I didn’t want to chop it up into pieces. So I’ve made it available as a pdf file, since I hope some Friends and meetings might find it useful in that format. Click the following to download Quaker-pocalypse: Spiritual Lukewarmness & Spiritual Formation.

Spiritual lukewarmness

I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. (Revelation 3:15)

In my original post on Quaker-pocalypse, I listed among the signs of our decline, the decline of personal and family devotional life, shallowness in the meeting for worship, and a corresponding infrequency of gathered meetings for worship. In a phrase—spiritual lukewarmness: The meeting feels good; nobody is really unhappy. Nobody is really going anywhere, spiritually, either. No one—or too few—are on fire with the holy spirit. Nobody can remember when the last gathered meeting was. Some Friends aren’t really sure what that even means. But members do enjoy a precious sense of contentment that is hard to find in the world. This certainly is sweet.

However, Quaker renewal needs more. Mere contentment leads to continued decline, if only through the attrition brought on by the passing of our elders. Renewal needs a pentecost, an in-breaking of the holy spirit. And a pentecost needs minds and hearts and souls prepared.

Spiritual formation

In my earlier series on What is Quakerism for? I answered that question with a simple statement: to bring people to God and to bring God into the world. In the context of this series on Quaker decline and renewal, I would say that the way to Quaker renewal is not to focus so much on ourselves and on our problems, but rather to get busy bringing people to God, to the holy—helping make people whole—and by healing the hurts of the world.

So how do we bring people to God? How can our meetings help our members and attenders and our children and the people who come to us as seekers find the holy in their lives and become more whole? What more can we do to invite the pentecost?

The first three prerequisites, I believe, are: prayer, worship, and earnest desire for G*d in our lives, our personal lives and our collective lives as meetings. These are non-programmatic. You just do it. And it works. It worked for George Fox and it worked for those Seekers he convinced at Firbank Fell to jump-start our movement. They just earnestly prayed and worshipped.

However, I do think there is a place for “program”, for programs of “spiritual formation”—programs designed to help members and attenders discover the form or path in which to pursue the life of the spirit as a Friend in a way that speaks to their own condition.

We each have our own past and our own past experiences, our own wounds and our own wonderful milestones, and what I will call our own spiritual temperament. Though we each possess the potential for any spiritual path, most of us specialize. Most of us find ourselves focusing on or getting more out of certain aspects of spirituality. The three temperaments that we Friends readily recognize, I suspect, are the spiritualist/mystic, the social concern activist, and the Friend who seeks the communion of community. I think this idea of spiritual temperament deserves more attention than we can give it here, so I plan to return to the topic of religious temperament in a later post.

What I’m getting at is that no one size or shape of spirituality fits all. Ideally, the spiritual nurturers in the meeting would know the members well enough that it would be relatively clear what kinds of resources to put into a given individual’s hands.

But we don’t worship in ideal meetings. Knowing everyone that well in a large meeting is just impossible. Knowing each other even in small meetings takes effort; you have to do it. It takes time, patience, repetition, and some wisdom for us to get past the superficial and come to know each other “in that which is eternal”, as early Friends liked to put it. So programs have their place.

I imagine that if our meetings had lots of members who were clear about their way to God and were doing something about it, our meetings would also become more whole; the decline we experience would reverse, we would attract more people and grow. Though attracting people and growing are not the goals. Wholeness is the goal; the goal is the holy. Our mission is to bring people to God, not get new members.

So let’s get to it. What else could we be doing?

I imagine that if our meetings were offering our members and attenders, our children and our newcomers opportunities for spiritual sharing, learning, and exploration—programs focused on spiritual nurture—we would find ourselves renewed. Let me be more specific. I propose developing “programs” in our meetings for . . .

Sharing—opportunities to share . . .

  • our personal spiritual experiences, especially the ones that have been formative for us, in open discussion groups, in worship sharing, or whatever; and opportunities to share
  • our personal spiritual practice—what we do at home, if anything, in our personal devotional life; what we do during our time in meeting for worship; what vocal ministry means to us, and how we test our messages before speaking in meeting.

Learning—religious education programs on . . .

  • Quaker ministry—programs on its faith and practice.
  • Quaker spirituality—study groups that focus on spiritual classics and Quaker classics, biographies and journals, and Quaker faith and practice in the areas of personal spirituality.
  • Quaker corporate religious life—programs on traditional gospel order, the gathered meeting, Quaker dialog, clearness committees, corporate discernment, meeting for worship and vocal ministry, meeting for worship with attention to the life of the meeting, the Advices & Queries, clerking and recording . . . etc.—the full, rich panoply of our peculiar and amazing shared tradition, but with, among other areas, a focus on the unique aspects of Quaker collective spirituality, the spiritual life of the meeting.

Experiencing—hands-on workshops or other opportunities to explore the life of the spirit more directly, as in . . .

  • Experiment with Light—many Friends are finding the groups using Rex Ambler’s reconstruction of early Quaker spirituality very rewarding. He’s written several books.
  • Traditional spiritual disciplines—especially, prayer, meditation, study, simplicity, solitude, and service, which seem especially suited to Friends practice (but see also Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline for good stuff on fasting, confession, spiritual guidance (more about this in a moment), and celebration; Foster was a Friend, after all). That is, study groups using written resources and workshops led by people who have experience in these disciplines, aimed at giving members and attenders exposure to a decent range of spiritual techniques, so that each person might find something that works for them.
  • Deepening techniques, from self-hypnosis, yoga (including both meditation techniques and breathing exercises), and especially, centering prayer, since it comes from the Christian tradition, is very easy and very effective, and very compatible with Quaker practice. I recognize that, as Thomas Kelly put it in “The Gathered Meeting”, all that is needed for the authentic religious life is to genuinely turn toward the Light; no special techniques are required for that. However, there is no denying that deepening techniques do enrich the life of the spirit, and a little bit of training—or even just some reading—go a long way toward equipping the faithful with a kind of fast track to the depths within them.
  • Healing circles—Does your meeting have any doctors, social workers, or therapists, people who clearly possess the gift of healing, and who have channeled their gifts through the traditional Western healing arts? Or people who practice alternative healing modalities? Or people who just feel called to pastoral care and healing work in general? How can you nurture their gifts as gifts of the spirit? Also, I know from personal experience that healing circles, however they are conducted, can channel healing energy to sometimes miraculous effect, even when the participants do not necessarily feel they have a special gift.
  • Proactive Quaker eldership. By this I mean the traditional Quaker calling of some Friends to a ministry of raising up ministers. Some Friends (all Friends, potentially, and any Friend now and again) have a gift for recognizing and nurturing the gifts of others. The person in your meeting who realizes Friend Sally would probably get a lot out of a certain Quaker classic, or who urges someone who is holding back to speak in meeting, or who suggests a certain conference to Friend John . . .  or whatever. Is your meeting recognizing and nurturing its elders, in addition to its ministers? Just as strong nonprofits will have a committee dedicated to building up its board of trustees, finding people to serve who have legal or accounting expertise, for instance, so every Quaker meeting should be proactively building up its capacity for spiritual nurture. You can do this with . . .
  • Spiritual nurture programs like that which the School of the Spirit and some yearly meetings now offer. In many ways, we live now in a golden age of spiritual nurture among Friends, because there are so many places and resources for it. Meetings should do everything in their power to help members take these courses, which often require real commitment in terms of time, money, and meeting participation. The reward to the meeting of even one person deepening their spiritual life through such an experience is hard to overestimate.
  • Spiritual direction and spiritual friends. Resident students at Pendle Hill meet with an advisor once a week and I found this mentoring program extremely rewarding when I was there. The formal pairing of mentor and student for “spiritual direction” is fairly common in many religious traditions and in some seminaries, but far less so among Friends. We have turned instead to spiritual friendships, which are oriented more toward mutual sharing and caring than toward some “vertical” “direction”. Still, spiritual direction as a “movement” has been growing in popularity, I think, and becoming more accessible and ecumenical, if you will, less tied to institutions and traditional definitions. However we do it, our meetings should be encouraging those members who clearly have a thirst for more to get together for mutual encouragement. I imagine this might often work best in the wider network of a quarterly or regional meeting, especially if your own meeting is rather small; more on this at the end.
  • Conferences and workshops. The Quaker world is rich these days with conferences, workshops, and consultations that can deepen your spiritual life. Meetings should advertise these opportunities and help our members and attenders and children take advantage of them. I have mentioned Pendle Hill, which is outside of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. There are also Quaker conference centers in northern New York State, Indiana, California, western Massachusetts, and probably other places I’m not aware of. Yearly Meetings and even local meetings sponsor these events, or have staff that can offer them locally. If not, yearly meeting worship and ministry committees, if they exist, could do the same. Friends General Conference has a lot of resources, not least the annual Gathering.
  • Traveling Friends. Do you have a leading to enrich the spiritual lives of Friends or meetings? Is there someone in your meeting who clearly has such a leading—or at least a gift in this area—who has not yet thought of it as a prompting to travel with it to other meetings? Sometimes all that is needed for such a leading to mature is a little nudge, a little encouragement from someone they trust, a simple question: “Hast thee thought of traveling with this gift you have?”

Okay, but . . .

Many meetings will not have the resources to do a lot of the things I’ve described above. They may be too small, or just too lacking in the human resources required. I see two solutions for this problem.

The first is to make it a collective project. My old meeting is doing this with great success, I think. Don’t have somebody who really knows about meditation, or vocal ministry. Ask for a couple of people to volunteer to do some studying. Go to quakerbooks.org and do a search for your topic. Rifle through your meeting’s library—if it doesn’t have what you need, order it. Then, when they are ready, have a gathering and share. Keep doing this and in a while, everybody who attends these gatherings will know more and the Friends who took on the study will know quite a lot.

The second solution is to bring in outside resources. Somebody in your quarter or your yearly meeting probably has the knowledge and experience you are looking for. Finding them might be a little difficult, but every quarter or yearly meeting has some Friends who are natural networkers, who seem to know everybody and to know what’s going on. Those Friends will be easier to find and they might be able to point you in the right direction.

To get practical about all this, here is a condensed version of programs that meetings might try to deepen the spiritual lives of their members, attenders, and children and youth.

Spiritual Nurture Meeting Checklist

Sharing

  • Simple gatherings in which you invite a Friend to share their spiritual journey, or their spiritual practice. or
  • in which, in worship sharing format, groups of you can share these things.

Learning

  • Religious education programs on
    • spiritual gifts
    • Quaker ministry
    • Quaker spirituality
    • Quaker corporate religious life

Experiencing

  • Experiment with Light groups
  • Workshops on
  • traditional spiritual disciplines
  • deepening techniques
  • Healing circles
  • Recognize and encourage your elders, and point those appointed to your worship and ministry committee in the direction of more proactive eldership, in the positive sense of spiritual nurture
  • Help members attend spiritual nurture programs and conferences
  • Encourage spiritual friendships
  • Seek out traveling Friends, both within your own meeting (they may only be potential travelers) and those who might travel to you

What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Corporate Spiritual Nurture

December 29, 2013 § 4 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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