Are Quakers wise givers?

This post is inspired by the article, “Doing Good Well” by Charles Schade, which appears in the February issue of Friends Journal. I think that many Friends organizations are long overdue for the kind of evaluation which he shares. It’s also very helpful that he presented the various organizations side-by-side so that readers could compare them (similar to my own post, What Does Your Yearly Meeting Web Site Say About You? ).

Quaker organizations don’t do transparency as well as we think – when I visited web sites like charitynavigator.org and greatnonprofits.org, not even the AFSC had a rating.

I have served for quite a few years in three different yearly meetings on committees which were responsible for setting the budgets for giving to large Quaker organizations. Charles Schades’s guidelines would have been very valuable to us. Many yearly meetings practice what I call “budgeting by inertia” – they simply give the same amount, unchanged year after year (sometimes decade after decade!) without question or discussion.

When I served as clerk, I tried to get Friends to think a little more about their giving to Quaker organizations. Here are some of the questions I ask:

  1. Has the group asked us for financial support? Have they asked for a specific amount? Have we given to this group previously?
  2. If we’ve given to them before, did they send us a receipt, thank-you or acknowledgment?

  3. Did they send us a copy of their budget or a financial report?

  4. Are we making a meaningful contribution? Does our gift make a difference? Or is ours just a token gift?

  5. Do we help publicize their work in our meeting? Are we educating ourselves about the work of this group, or about the conditions they are trying to help?

  6. What percentage of their budget is being spent on fundraising?

  7. Is the group effective? Has their work made any difference, either in the lives of individuals served or in the problems the group is trying to address?

  8. Are the goals or mission of the group in harmony with those of our meeting? Do any Friends have serious reservations about the goals, mission or activities of the group? If so, are we willing to labor with them?

  9. Have we had any personal contact with the group? Has anyone from our meeting visited there recently? Are they willing to send someone to visit with us?

  10. If our support for the group is ongoing, has our giving to them kept pace with inflation? Have we given the same amount for many years? What rationale is there for the amount we give?

Charles Schade’s article is addressed more towards the clarity and transparency of the receiving organization, while my questions are aimed more at the process and self-evaluation of the donor organization. In my experience, Quaker meetings tend not to be thoughtful donors (which means we aren’t very good stewards).

I hope Charles Schade’s article read and discussed widely, both by local and yearly meetings and (hopefully) by the organizations which ask us for support.

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,400 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Dreams and Visions

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m the kind of person who likes facts and numbers. Wishful thinking, ignoring trends and blindness to reality are anathema to me. I don’t deal very much with dreams and visions.

So I was pretty startled last week when I woke up with one of those persistent dreams which don’t make much sense. For some reason, I kept dreaming that we were making saw horses at the meetinghouse – really good ones which would be capable of holding a lot of weight, strong and level to do good work.

The dream stuck with me when I woke up, and I wasn’t sure what it meant or what to do with it.

Then, a few days later, I was up at the meetinghouse early on Sunday morning. I usually get there by 7:00 or 7:30 to make sure that the heat is turned on, and then I go around unlocking the doors for when people start to arrive an hour or so later.

Our meetinghouse was built in 1916, and the front entrance was built more to be impressive than accessible – it’s up a long flight of 13 concrete steps. Almost no one comes in that way any more – people mostly come in the side door on SW 7th Street, or else through the door on the other side of the building under the archway, where we have an elevator.

As I was unlocking the doors, I looked out the front door onto the new-fallen snow. There were no tracks outside, and the steps hadn’t been shoveled. I thought to myself, “Why bother? No one’s coming in this way anyhow.”

I turned away, and then I stopped and came back. What if someone new, someone who’s never been to our meeting before, tried to come to worship and the front door was locked? Maybe it won’t happen this week, or next week – in fact, I think it’s pretty unlikely. But I unlocked the door anyway, and next time it snows, I’ll make sure the steps are cleared off.

Last month, the small group which prepares for worship met to start planning for the New Year. At our meeting, we usually let whoever is the speaker that week choose their own topic and whatever Bible passage they want to use. As pastoral minister, I normally bring a prepared message twice a month, and on the other Sundays one of the other folks form the meeting or a guest speaker brings the message. We like the variety of messages this system brings, and we also treasure the “freedom of the pulpit” which is a strong part of our meeting’s tradition.

This time, though, we decided to try something different for a change. For each Sunday from New Year’s to Easter, we chose a series of passages from the gospel of Mark. We’re inviting the speaker to take that week’s passage and wrestle with it, and share whatever they can.

What do moments like these mean? I’m no expert in interpretation. But if I had to make a guess, I’d say:

1) We need to be ready to do some kind of building. I’m not sure if it’s just our meeting, or the New Association of Friends, or Quakers in general. But we’ve been cutting back and scaling down for years. Maybe it’s time to change to a different attitude. Instead of laying down meetings, we should be building new ones. Instead of cutting programs, we should see what new programs would serve our meetings and our communities. If old ones have served their usefulness and need to be laid down, that’s OK. But what new things could we be building?

2) We need to make sure that all the doors are open and inviting, and that there are plenty of different ways for people to come to our meetings. Those “doors” may be real and physical – our meeting experienced real growth when we made the effort a few years ago to make our building more accessible to everyone. But open and inviting doors are often a metaphor for the kind of attitudinal work and program changes we need if new people are going to feel welcome when they come to our meetings. Very few people want to spend their religious lives in museums – they want a spiritual home where they can feel welcome, unpack the things they’ve brought, and be free to move the furniture around a little. Every Quaker meeting I’ve ever known needs to do more work in this area.

3) We need to spend more time with the stories of Jesus, and be willing to let new people take a try at explaining them to us. I’m convinced that people really are hungry for the presence of God, and that they won’t be satisfied with worn-out and recycled stuff. Tradition and testimony are important, but so is listening to what is in people’s hearts and minds today. And if we really want to be Friends of Christ, we need to be listening more to Jesus.

Best wishes for a blessed Christmas season, and for the New Year in 2014!

Like clockwork

I realize that this is a total departure from what I usually post on this blog, but maybe it’s time for a little theology.

Every year during Advent I put candles in the front windows of our house, as a symbol of our welcome for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas. The candles are electric, with little 7-watt night light bulbs which look pretty and festive.

I used to go  around every evening and plug them in, and then unplug them before I went to bed. Then I invested in a bunch of inexpensive electric timers, which turn the window candles on from 6:00 to 8:00 in the morning, and then again from 4:00 in the afternoon till about 11:00 at night.

The timers aren’t very accurate – I can only set them very roughly within about 15-30 minutes of the actual time. And because of friction inside the timers, or possibly because of original sin, they tend to fall behind a few minutes a day.

So, about once a week I have to go round the house and tweak the timers a bit – setting one 15 minutes faster, or adjusting the little knobs that control the on/off cycle, or sometimes replacing a light bulb. It takes a few minutes to get them all where they need to be, and then they’re all set for another week.

Years ago, in the 18th and 19th century, people tried to come up with a new way to understand God, a way which would incorporate all of the new scientific knowledge which was flooding the world at that time. People were learning about the laws which govern the movement of the stars and planets, about the hidden world of chemistry, the process of evolution, and the great depths of time during which mountains and continents had been formed and re-shaped.

It seemed impossible to them that God could be in charge of the movement of every atom in a universe which was bigger than they had ever imagined. So, many people gave up the idea of a “personal God”, and said that the world was more like a giant mechanism which God had created and set in motion. God created the world and the laws which govern it, the laws which scientists were discovering. Many theologians compared the world to an enormous clock, and the phrase “a clockwork universe” entered peoples’ imagination.

In some ways, that makes God seem removed and impersonal (“transcendent”, to use another theological word). In this metaphor, God is a “hands off” kind of creator, who doesn’t interfere with the workings of the world.

Well, tinkering again this year with our window candles and unreliable timers gave me a fresh sense of how things may work. As we work to get ready our welcome, some of the timers need frequent adjustment. Some of our light bulbs need to be replaced, so they can get back to their work of shining in the darkness. Sometimes the window shades need to be pulled up, so that the light doesn’t just glow in the guest bedroom, but so that it can shine out for everyone to see, and so that Jesus will know that He is welcome in our home.

And maybe, just maybe, God isn’t a hands-off Omniscient Designer in a perfect, eternal clockwork universe. Maybe the etnernal laws of nature have some slippage built in, or maybe things wear out and need to be adjusted or replaced. Maybe God goes around adjusting things, tweaking things, or nudging things along from time to time. Maybe God has to work a little bit now and then.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the season of Advent, and I hope you’ll take some time this season to prepare for the coming of Christ into our world.

Membership – II

Last week I ran into someone at a community event, who told me with great pride that he was a “birthright Quaker”, even though he doesn’t belong to a Friends meeting and hasn’t gone to meeting for worship in more than 50 years.

This happens fairly often, and it always puzzles me, since most yearly meetings in the U.S. removed birthright membership from their Faith and Practice early in the 20th century. Before then, if you were born in a Quaker family, then you were automatically considered to be a Quaker.

It was a great way to keep up the membership numbers, especially in the days of large families. And it’s nice to think of people handing down their sense of belonging, sort of like a family heirloom or a precious jewel. I’ve known many people who have proudly told me that they were “birthright Friends” because one of their Quaker grandparents told them when they were little.

The reality, though, is that birthright membership no longer exists, and it hasn’t for quite a while. No one is “automatically” a member. Quakers are more in line now with other groups which insist that to be a member, you have to make a positive declaration that you want to be one – usually as an adult or at least as a teen.

Many yearly meetings have a provision for junior members – children who are allowed to join if their parents make a request for membership on their behalf. It’s almost the same as the old birthright membership, and it can be a loving way for meetings to welcome younger children.

Unfortunately, the experience of many Quaker groups is that the majority of these young Friends drift away some time during their late teens or young adulthood. It’s probably better for us to look at other paths to membership if we really want to grow.

A big part of the cultural and theological struggle among Friends today centers around membership questions – What do people have to do to join? Who is “acceptable” as a Friend? Who sets the rules – the local meeting or the yearly meeting? Is someone who joins Friends in one meeting automatically acceptable by another meeting?

A number of yearly meetings belonging to FUM state, rather dryly, “Friends receive into adult membership those whose faith in God and in Jesus Christ as personal Savior and Lord is manifest in their lives and who are in unity with the teachings of Christian truth as held by the Religious Society of Friends.”

Although this statement covers a lot of ground, many Friends have adopted other “tests” for membership, usually unwritten – is this person sufficiently evangelical, or sufficiently liberal, to get along with us? Is this person straight, or do we accept gay and lesbian people as Friends?

Another big question is, how difficult should it be to become a member of our meeting? Some Quaker groups set the bar fairly high – they expect people to have read several Quaker books, perhaps go to a couple of retreats or go to a series of classes. Other Quaker groups set the bar fairly low – they accept anyone who says they have accepted Jesus as their savior, or perhaps if they know the words to the George Fox song.

Many local meetings have nearly given up the whole idea of membership – if you come to meeting 2 or 3 times, you’re considered a member, until you stop coming. That’s it.

The majority of Friends in the world today undoubtedly think of themselves as Christians, and I certainly fall into that group. However, I have also known many wonderful Friends who are not able to do so, for a variety of personal or deeply-principled reasons. I guess I’m not inclined to be part of the “theological police” – even though I’m a Christian, I don’t have the itch to throw other people out.

I’m sure that there will be readers of this blog who want to hold out for a “high” view of membership – members of Friends should be well-read in the Bible and in Quaker writings, deeply committed in their Christian life, widely-traveled in Quaker gatherings, active donors to many Quaker causes, regular writers of letters to Congress and to their local newspaper, and so on. I admire Friends who fit this picture, but they will probably make up a fairly small minority in most meetings.

In practical terms, members:

1) attend worship regularly, unless they’re unable to do so
2) take part in the life and activities of the meeting
3) love and accept the other people in their meeting
4) continue to test and shape their religious beliefs and daily practices, and help others to do the same
5) help the meeting to discern God’s will in monthly meetings for business
6) support the meeting financially to the best of their ability

 I’m sure there will continue to be fairly wide differences among Friends who want a more consistent theological characterization of membership — probably one which matches up with their own theology, whatever it is. 

While I want to encourage a lively and ongoing discussion of beliefs and experiences among Friends, I think that it’s best if our working definition of membership is simple, accessible, and behavioral, and as open as possible. 

Membership – I

Few topics get Quakers talking as much as membership. For some people, knowing “I’m a member” is terribly important. It’s like being married, or like being a citizen of a country. Being a member is a statement to oneself and to the rest of the group about faith and commitment and things like that.

For other people, membership isn’t too important. And that’s not a put-down, either – it’s always surprising to find out how many of the best people in our meeting aren’t members. These are people who “belong” because of what they do, not because of what the membership roll says.

To some extent, membership is a choice, a voluntary move; people choose to be Friends rather than Methodists, or Catholics, or Buddhists, or whatever.

In another way, though, membership is not a choice. Many people report joining Friends out of a feeling that “this is where I belong, this is my place.” For these people, membership isn’t a choice, but rather a discovery of where they’ve belonged from the beginning. I have met many people who’ve told me, “The moment I walked into Quaker meeting, I knew I was home.”

Many churches of all denominations have been reporting declines in membership for a long time – 40 or 50 years. Sometimes this has been a drastic drop in response to a crisis, a scandal, or a policy change in the denomination. More often, the decline reflects a shift in population from rural to urban areas, or a move to some other part of the country.

In some cases, this decline in formal membership has been paralleled by a decline in the number of people at worship on Sundays. In many yearly meetings where I have been able to study the numbers in detail, though, I’ve seen a different trend: membership has declined, but attendance at worship has remained much more stable.

It’s a commonplace that people born after the Baby Boom tend to be less interested in being members of a church. In response, some churches have done away with membership altogether, and focus entirely on the number of people who show up at worship. Most Quaker meetings have tended to blur the distinction between “members” and “attenders”, and membership carries no special perks with it.

In spite of these larger trends, Quakers still argue passionately about membership. In my next post, I’m planning to talk about some of these distinctively Quaker quirks and quibbles. I’m looking forward to some lively feedback – and to hearing lots of questions from readers.

Hello again!

Sorry to have been silent for so long – partly I’ve been busy on other projects, and partly I was sitting out the last rumbles of the separation of Friends in this part of the Midwest into Indiana Yearly Meeting and the New Association of Friends.

For those of you who have been on the sidelines, Indiana Yearly Meeting now has 44 local meetings and a membership of about 2,300, with several full and part-time staff members and a brick-and-mortar headquarters in Muncie, Indiana. The New Association of Friends has 15 local meetings, about 900-1,000 members, and is totally decentralized with no office and no staff – but a very hard-working clerk and many active volunteers.

Look here soon for a new series of posts on topics such as membership, demographic trends, Quaker weddings, recording of gifts, and many others. Suggested topics welcome!


Disclaimer

All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of West Richmond Friends Meeting or any other meeting or organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.

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