Adult education – a challenge for Quaker meetings

In my last post, I shared some of the background of the Sunday School movement, which began in the late 1700’s as a way to teach reading and writing to children of poor and working families. Sunday School has evolved a great deal since then, but it remains one of the primary ministries of many churches today.

Many Friends meetings enthusiastically adopted the goals and methods of the Sunday School – not very surprising, since Quakers have been strong supporters of education since our earliest days.

Sunday School was not just for kids. Many congregations organized large adult classes, which not only helped to educate their members, but provided a strong “glue” of fellowship and social interaction.

But Sunday School has been suffering for quite a while now. Up until the 1960’s, attendance at Sunday School was often equal to or greater than attendance at worship. By the 1980’s, a Sunday School was counted as strong if attendance reached 50% of the numbers at worship, and most churches struggled to reach 25%.

The “classic” adult Sunday School tended to recruit and group class members by similar ages. A new class would be started every few years, and people tended to stay in that class, growing old together, for the rest of their lives. Classes often depended on a strong, wise or charismatic teacher – here at Springfield Friends, adult classes were named after teachers who were revered for many, many years after they had passed on.

Besides learning material, adult classes socialized together, elected officers, raised money for mission and service work, helped out with the meeting budget, and were often very competitive with other classes in attendance, fund raising and other activities. They formed a “second family” and looked after each other. They rejoiced when children were born to members of the class, and grieved and supported each other when someone died.

This type of lifelong, age-grouped class created deep loyalties and strong friendships, as classes helped each other through thick and thin. It could also face big problems whenever there was a divorce and class members felt they had to choose sides. And a class could also face REALLY big problems when a long-serving teacher or group leader died, moved away or lost mental acuity.

The educational goal of most “classic” Sunday School classes has generally been to learn more about the Bible. Sometimes a gifted teacher would prepare their own lesson plans from scratch. More often, teachers relied on some type of prepared curriculum, either from a Quaker publishing house or some other source. Many used some form of the International Sunday School curriculum, which cycles through the major sections of the Bible on a 3-year basis. If your class used the ISS curriculum, you could visit any other class in the country when you were on vacation, and be assured that you would fit right in, with the same lesson folks were studying that Sunday at home.

Not all prepared curriculum is well done; a lot of it can become really boring. When I was recruited to write lessons for a Quaker press, I was given a list of Scriptures and topics to work on. I read through some samples and it was clear that they had never been “field tested” with an actual class. The questions for each lesson were intended to guide everyone to a pre-determined conclusion.

So, first I shared the Scriptures for each week with an actual class. I wrote down the questions they really asked, including the digressions and including the background where no one in the class understood what was going on. Only then did I try writing a lesson for publication. It turned out to be the best curriculum the press had published in a LONG time, and Quaker meetings from all over the U.S. asked for more.

Not all adult Sunday Schools use a prepared curriculum. Some typical alternatives include:

  • current events: needs a strong teacher who is able to keep the group focused. This kind of group can easily crash and burn when things get too controversial, or when one person dominates the discussion or holds too strong a POV (either too conservative or too liberal)
  • talk about the sermon: requires people who really pay attention. It can be a good way to give feedback, which many speakers complain about not getting. Unfortunately, it can also easily degenerate into a roast and can fuel division in the meeting.

Few meetings today are willing or able to sustain the kind of life-long age-based classes which used to be the norm. Most meetings which want to build a better adult experience have turned to
short-term study groups. The commitment varies according to the group – it can be for 2-3 weeks, a semester, or a year, but people aren’t expected to stay in it forever. I think it’s better to organize groups with a definite time frame, rather than simply let them go on till they die or just run out of gas. A time frame helps keep up enthusiasm and keeps things moving.

Most groups need some type of leader. In Quaker meetings, the leader is usually less an authoritative teacher and more of a moderator or facilitator. Training an abundance of such leaders, or helping them discover their leadership ability, needs to be a priority task for any meeting which wants to grow its education program.

There’s a lot of advantage to holding groups on Sunday morning (or whenever worship is held). More people are usually present, and the content and fellowship of the group can help build up the worship time. However, groups which meet at other times of the week, either at the meetinghouse or in homes or other places, can build a very strong sense of fellowship as well.

Another question is whether a group requires any advance reading or homework outside of the times it meets. A group where people can simply drop in can be very attractive to newcomers and visitors. But a “drop in” group with no additional expectations can also be shallow and unsatisfying to folks who come every week. If the meeting is large enough to sustain more than one group at a time, I recommend offering both a “drop in” group and one or more “longer term” groups which have higher expectations for reading and commitment.

There are many different types of reading for a group to center around – the Bible, of course, but also journals, biographies or Quaker books. I’ve been part of some very successful groups which read books like:

  • The Journal of John Woolman
  • The Journal of George Fox
  • Autobiography of Allen Jay
  • Quaker Faith and Practice of Britain Yearly Meeting
  • Practicing Our Faith by Dorothy Bass
  • Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli
  • Social Sources of Denominationalism by Walter Rauschenbusch
  • Peculiar Treasures by Frederick Buechner
  • Money, Sex and Power by Richard Foster
  • Eighth Day of Creation by Elizabeth O’Connor
  • A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly
  • Sabbath by Wayne Muller

Book discussion groups require that all participants buy a copy. This can be a financial burden for students and people with low income. It can be a big help if the meeting can offer to quietly purchase books for those who can’t afford them, or have extra copies in the meeting library.

Not all discussion groups read books – some read articles, or watch the QuakerSpeak videos which cover a wide variety of subjects (though QuakerSpeak tends to be heavily slanted towards unprogrammed meetings).

Less common (but very interesting) are groups which correspond with mission workers, do crafts, share their own writing or poetry, do maintenance, gardening or improvements, or focus on practical, hands-on types of ministry.

I’ve also been part of some great small groups focused on Quaker queries, the 7 deadly sins, exploring a new hymnal, the meeting’s history, theology of Friends, Quaker missions, prayer, and getting more out of unprogrammed worship. There are also thousands of other videos available on a dizzying range of topics – a video-based group will need to have a strong/fast internet connection, and it’s very helpful to have large smart TV.

One of the other key “missing pieces” for a strong adult education program, especially one built around short-term groups, is an active oversight committee. This group doesn’t necessarily need to be made up of teachers and facilitators, but it needs to include imaginative and widely-read people who are willing to plan several months ahead, and who will attend and be connected with different groups and classes and bring feedback to the planning committee.

Adult education is an immensely important part of the ministry of any meeting. It takes time, effort, and sometimes a modest amount of funding. But the payback in the life of the meeting can be enormous. Too many meetings have adult education programs which are dying from inertia, from lack of imagination, or from putting all their time and energy into other areas.

In my next post, I want to talk about other ways in which Quaker meetings can provide opportunities for people who want to want even deeper study and fellowship. As always, I welcome your questions and feedback!

Falling behind in (Sunday) school

OK, before 100 Quakers jump on me – some call it “Sunday School”, some call it “First Day School”, some call it “Christian Education”. I can live with any of these.

A lot of people think it’s just for kids – not surprising, since organizing an educational program for children takes a LOT of time, energy, resources (sometimes including money for materials) and especially people to make it happen.

Sunday School, as it was originally created in the late 1700’s, had a much more ambitious goal: literacy, and the formation of Christian character. In that era, very few families could afford to send their children to any kind of school. In rural areas, children were needed on the farm as soon as possible. In cities, the majority of working-class children grew up unable to read, and many never attended any kind of church.

Sunday School was just that – school on Sunday, for whoever wanted to learn. Most Sunday schools taught basic literacy, supplemented by lending libraries on a variety of subjects (books were scarce). In many places, attendance at Sunday School was considerably larger than the number of people who showed up for worship. (Most Sunday schools today draw less than 25% of the attendance at regular worship.)

The American Sunday School Union was an ecumenical, parachurch organization which distributed lesson plans, teacher training outlines, Bibles and other supplies. There was a heavy emphasis on memorizing Bible verses – as readers of Tom Sawyer will remember, students earned a small blue paper ticket for every 2 Bible verses they memorized. 10 blue tickets could be
exchanged for 1 red ticket; 10 red tickets equaled 1 yellow ticket; and as a reward for earning 10 yellow
tickets, students were given a Bible. If you do a little math, you’ll see that to get a Bible, students had to
memorize 2x10x10x10, or 2,000 verses of Scripture!

[Full disclosure: Springfield Friends Meeting, where I serve as pastor, organized the first Sunday School in the state of North Carolina in 1818, when Abigail Alberston began teaching children in her home. It grew quickly and was soon taken over as a ministry of the meeting. Hundreds of children – not all of them Quakers – learned to read here at Springfield, and Sunday School was often the only formal education they had in their lives.]

Sunday School also often taught social skills – cooperating with others, listening, politeness and grooming. It was the one place where kids were expected to show up scrubbed and clean once a week, with shoes if possible, and behave themselves. In the 1800’s, older kids in Sunday School were often encouraged to “take the pledge” against using alcohol and tobacco.

Today, Quaker kids are less likely to show up at Sunday/First Day school every week – especially during the COVID epidemic, which has caused havoc in Christian Education programs all over the country. Quaker kids are much less likely to get a solid grounding in the Bible, and are more likely to hear lessons on “Quaker SPICE” (the testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community and Equality).

Rather than offering serious spiritual or character formation, many Sunday School programs are a combination of child care plus a basic and inadequate religious teaching, in the vague hope that the kids will somehow absorb a smattering of ideas. (I still remember a parent at one meeting telling me frankly that they would drop their children off at Sunday School, and then drive home quickly and make love – it was the only private time they had all week!)

Most Sunday School programs suffer from a perennial shortage of teachers – very few adults are willing to commit to being here every week, with a prepared lesson, or to put up with little or not training, support or encouragement. I’ve known a very few meetings where adults were expected to take turns teaching Sunday School on a regular basis, either week by week or for a month or a semester at a time.

To be fair, I have also known number of loving and dedicated Sunday School teachers who were willing to do anything for the children under their care, for years and even decades on end. They are often retired teachers or other professionals who have spent a lifetime looking out for other people, and without them, most programs would fall apart in very short order.

An even deeper and more serious weakness is that most Friends meetings today are short on adults who are knowledgeable about the subjects we expect them to teach – Bible, Quaker history, spirituality and social issues. As an old saying goes, “no spring can rise higher than its own source” – you can’t teach what you don’t know yourself. Problems with children’s education often reflect serious failings in adult education. Very few people have taken the time to really know enough about the Bible, about prayer and the inner life, about the great and wonderful tapestry of Quaker saints, or other subjects, in order to create their own lessons and teach them to different ages.

Instead, most congregations rely on a mix of craft activities, pre-printed puzzles and coloring pages, and curriculum supplied by various Christian publishers. Kids may (or may not) wind up learning anything useful or enduring from these materials, which is very discouraging both for the parents and for the teachers.

It’s not all bad or wrong – some of the most essential lessons children can ever learn are that God loves them, that church or meeting is a safe place, that different adults outside their families care about them very much, and that the Bible can be a source of varied and interesting stories. That’s all very, very good – but it could be so much more!

In my next post, I want to talk about the challenges and serious failings of adult education in Friends meetings today.

As always, these posts are meant to encourage discussion and questions. Comments are welcome!

Covid reflections 3 – Positive things

The COVID-19 epidemic has done appalling things to our nation, to our economy, to our educational system, to our health care system, and to our churches and Friends Meetings. At the latest count (November 2021) more than 741, 000 people have died from COVID here in the United States – that’s more than the 620,000 who died in the American Civil War, and more than World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and 9/11 combined. More than 45 million people have had COVID.

Tens of thousands of churches and congregations scrambled to move their services online. Some are holding in-person services again, but many have found that people are reluctant to come back. In-person attendance in many cases is 50% or less of what it was pre-COVID. (The good news is that online services can significantly boost participation – here at Springfield Friends, we actually have more people watching online than we saw most Sundays before the epidemic!) A lot of people seem to enjoy coming to church in their jammies at home with a cup of coffee by their side.

It’s also important for church groups to make positive use of the “down time” during the epidemic. At Springfield Friends, we’ve used the past 22 months to do some pretty cool things.

  • We caught up with a lot of deferred maintenance – painting spaces which are normally heavily used, which would otherwise be difficult to work on. Our custodian was able to re-direct many hours of his time to “catching up” on long-overdue projects.
  • With so many kids being kept home from the classroom and having to do independent reading at home, we greatly expanded our children’s library. Throughout the epidemic, families took out books to use for school reading, book reports or just for fun. We took the opportunity to add dozens of books showing multicultural families, girls and women doing brave and interesting things, Quaker books, the Underground Railroad, families going through divorce and other topics. Some books were donated or bought at yard sales, but we also added many brand-new high-quality books with Caldecott and Newberry awards, as well as books recommended by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
  • We put a lot of effort into energy conservation, recognizing that every dollar which goes to utility bills is a dollar we can’t spend on ministry. One major project was to renovate most of the 40-year-old fluorescent light fixtures in our building. At least 1/3 of them had burned-out ballasts, broken sockets or other problems. We bought case after case of high-efficiency LED replacement bulbs and repaired or re-wired dozens of light fixtures. Our meetinghouse is a LOT brighter and more cheerful, and our electric bills have gone down!
  • To help our younger kids remember our meeting, we produced half a dozen short 16 or 20-page pamphlets, illustrated with photos from our meetinghouse: The Bears Come to Springfield, The Church Mice Visit Springfield, Everybody Loves a Wedding!, plus two coloring books, Christmas ABC’s and The Springfield Coloring Book. We printed a few copies of each, and we also sent the books in PDF format to families so they could print them at home.
  • Another big project we finished during our “down time” was to install WiFi throughout our entire meetinghouse. Because our building has a lot of brick and concrete walls, we had to string Ethernet cable and install extension routers in some places and satellite WiFi units in others. All this work means that we can use WiFi in many new and exciting ways for worship, Sunday School, special events and rentals. We also purchased a large screen “smart TV” and turned a vacant Sunday School room into a media space.
  • Early in 2021, a tornado struck our neighborhood. No one was hurt, but two of the meeting’s roofs were damaged – skilled volunteers showed up in less than an hour to cover them with emergency tarpaulins. Almost a dozen trees were knocked down on the meeting’s property, including some which toppled headstones in our cemetery and seriously damaged our playground. Our meeting’s monthly work days cut and split several of the trees up for firewood (being used to make delicious North Carolina barbecue!) while other trees with straight trunks were cut into 12′ lengths and sold to a local sawmill, bringing some much-needed funds into the meeting treasury.
  • Springfield Friends has a building next to our current meetinghouse. It was built in 1858, just before the Civil War, and served as our meetinghouse till 1927. It houses the Museum of Old Domestic Life, a wonderful collection of locally-made tools, quilts, farm implements and things were used in everyday living in Quaker homes in the 1800’s. During the lockdown, we renovated several of the old exhibits and created a very special new one to display a large stone which came from a Quaker farm. It has a large arrow scratched into its surface, and according to meeting history, it served as a marker to point escaping slaves to the next station on the Underground Railroad.
  • The Museum also has a large collection of old documents, minutes, photographs and other fragile materials which needed better care. We cleaned and painted another vacant room in the meetinghouse, located several used filing cabinets, and moved 90% of the material from the unheated Museum into climate-controlled storage. We’re in the process of placing the most delicate materials into new acid-free archival storage, so that they can be preserved for the future.
  • Springfield will be 250 years old in 2013. Growing out of the document preservation project, we created the first in what we hope will be a 3-volume set of books about our meeting. The first book, Springfield Friends: 250 Years – the People of Springfield was published last summer, and we sold enough copies to pay for the initial cost of printing and to go into a second print run as well.

While the COVID-19 epidemic has been truly terrible – and we wouldn’t ever have wished for it. – our meeting has worked hard to turn the lockdown into positive time instead. COVID handed us a whole lot of lemons, but we’ve been busy making lemonade!

COVID reflections 2 – Technology

At first we all thought that the quarantine was only going to last for a couple of weeks. Then it stretched out to a month. Then six weeks. Then – nobody knew, just that it was a long time. Fear, hardship and hopelessness became the order of the day.

Thousands of churches closed their doors for good. Other churches laid off staff and drastically cut the services they offered. Donations plummeted.

Some congregations defied (or denied) the COVID-19 epidemic. A couple of miles from Springfield Friends, an evangelical congregation went ahead with services – dozens of people including the pastor got sick and 3 died.

Many churches experimented with technology to share worship services, using Zoom, FaceBook, YouTube, Vimeo or other programs. At Springfield Friends, we use FaceBook to post weekly worship messages and Bible studies.

Our experience has been mixed. Our posts have been extremely simple, recorded with a smart phone and posted with minimal editing or visual effects. A few times we made videos of hymns and children’s messages. Once we started holding in-person worship again, we tried making live recordings of worship but the video and especially the sound quality was very poor, and we didn’t have either the money to invest in better equipment or a group of volunteers to run it and do the necessary editing on a regular basis every week.

We did have great success with a couple of special videos which lifted the spirits of everyone in the meeting. One of our traditions at Easter, going back for many years, is the “Flowering Cross”. It’s a large, ugly cross covered with chicken wire, with a crown of thorns perched at an angle on top. On Easter morning, people bring hundreds of flowers, and during a special part of the service they come up to the front of the worship room and decorate the cross, turning it from a symbol of death into a symbol of life and beauty.

We couldn’t do the Flowering Cross in 2020 or 2021 because of the need to maintain safe social distancing, so one of our members, Tom Terrell, came up with an alternative. Tom took hundreds of photos as another member put the flowers on one by one, then combined them into a 5-minute stop-action video with a sound track of Easter music. Hundreds of people enjoyed it! You can watch this video at: https://business.facebook.com/143503930290/videos/221143925778424/

We tried using Zoom for small groups and committee meetings for a while with mixed success – during the darkest days of the epidemic it was wonderful to see peoples’ faces again, but few people in our meeting have either the equipment, tech savvy or reliable WiFi connections to make this a workable option. And for a while, when millions of people were scrambling to work or take classes from home, new web cams were almost unavailable.

Our Young Friends group struggled to stay strong together during the pandemic. Erratic school closings, canceled sports events and the difficulty of trying to learn put a lot of extra pressure on our young people. We tried holding youth meetings using Zoom and Facetime, but it wasn’t too successful. Our youth minister spent many hours talking individually with kids by phone and Instagram, listening to their fears and frustrations and encouraging them as much as possible.

Zoom has worked out well for tech-savvy committees, board meetings and other groups. I’ve really enjoyed a weekly Zoom conference of Quaker pastors from around the country, hosted and moderated by Scott Wagoner. Being able to pray together, share ideas, ask questions and challenge each other to get out of our “stuck” spots has been an absolute godsend during this difficult time.

Even more than worship, the heart of our meeting has always been eating together – fellowship meals, social events, fund raisers and family gatherings. Nearly all of this wonderful social life had to be cut off during the epidemic, and everyone’s spirits suffered. Many families or close friends formed their own “bubbles” for sharing meals and holidays. (Full disclosure: a number of people in our meeting tried holding larger family gatherings or vacations and got sick. Fortunately, there were no deaths, but there were a lot of scares.)

Many older members of our meeting faced a much more personal challenge – how to shop safely during the epidemic. Some stores offered special shopping hours just for seniors. My wife and I rearranged our menus to shop every other week. For almost a year we would drive to the store just at opening time, shop as quickly as possible, and leave as soon as we could. Back at home, everything was wiped down, or left for 3 days before handling. Other seniors called in grocery orders to stores, which were bagged and brought out to their cars.

It’s been a long, drawn-out difficult time – almost 2 years as this is being written. In my next post, I plan to talk about some of the creative and inspiring things our meeting has done to try and make the best of this time and build for the future.

COVID Reflections 1 – Keeping people safe and connected

Hey there, Friends!

It’s been a long time since I posted to this blog. Frankly, things were just too busy, and way too crazy, for me to stop and think very hard about the future of the Quaker movement in the 21st century.

I can clearly remember the day back in March of 2020 when things finally shut down. The news about the new COVID-19 epidemic had been getting worse and worse every day. Our family had filled our freezer, stockpiled pet food and toilet paper. We canceled travel plans, bought a box of face masks, and checked our shelf full of favorite DVD’s, and thought we were ready to face what we thought might be a 2 or 3-week quarantine.

I grew up with family stories about epidemics – the polio epidemic that I just missed as a child (I was one of the first to get the new Salk vaccine), the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 which killed more people than WWI did, the endemic typhoid in New Orleans which killed members of my family. My dad, who was a history teacher, told us about how the Black Death killed a third of the population of Europe in the 1300’s.

I knew that COVID was going to be rough. I just didn’t know how rough or how scary and depressing it was going to be. On the Friday when the quarantine started, I remember a line from Shakespeare which kept running through my head – “The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.”

That first week, our meeting set up a phone tree to help everyone stay in touch with each other. I immediately started recording my Sunday worship messages and weekly Bible studies to post on Facebook. 22 months later, I’m still doing two recordings every week! (True confession: I’ve been doing it all this time in my office using my iPhone, an old camera tripod, and a music stand from the choir room to hold my notes.)

Almost all of our meeting’s special events, fellowship meals and other social activities got canceled. For four months, we didn’t even try to hold meeting for worship in person. During the summer of 2020, we started holding worship outdoors in front of the meetinghouse – people either sat in their cars, or in widely-spaced groups of chairs in the shade under the trees. When the weather got cold in October, we cautiously moved back inside.

In-person, indoor worship during COVID has been a big challenge. We wear masks. We encouraged safe social distancing by simply removing the cushions from every row of pews. Because singing was shown to be a highly efficient way of spreading the virus, we gave up singing hymns – that one really hurt!

Attendance slowly built back up, but we’re still only at about 50% of the number of people who came regularly every Sunday before COVID. (More true confession: we’re actually getting more people watching the videos than we were getting here at worship or in person for Bible study before COVID!)

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because the same stuff played out in congregations all over the place.

Pastoral care was a really difficult challenge. Normally I spend 4-8 hours a week visiting folks in the hospital, at retirement facilities, or in homes or their places of work. It’s an important part of the “glue” that holds our meeting together, and the presence and prayers bring a lot of comfort and encouragement to people and to their families.

All of a sudden, visitors were banned and health care facilities of all kinds were locked down. Many of our old members became virtual prisoners in solitary confinement for weeks and months on end. That kind of isolation can and does trigger major depression and mental illness, and a lot of people really went off the rails in nursing homes during the lockdown.

The meeting newsletter and weekly e-mails took on a lot of extra importance. We share news about each other, resources for reading and family activities, as well as the latest updates and practical guidance from the health department. Most people in the meeting welcomed the latter, but a few people were irritated by what they felt was an overreaction which was hurting schools, churches and businesses.

Our primary goal from the beginning was to keep people safe. We tried new things and adapted old ones, or put them on hold for the time being. In my next catch-up blog post, I want to share some of the things we learned and tried during the ordeal – 22 months and counting! – which has been COVID.

Welcome!

Welcome!

I often wonder what exactly other people think about our Quaker meetings. What do they really know about us? What kind of welcome do we extend? How hard do we really try to share it?

I first found out about Quaker meeting when my first year college room mate, an inveterate explorer of whatever type of spirituality he could find, came home enthusiastically one day. I was a convinced dropout from the Catholic church (ask me about that some other time) but I was reading my Bible and open to new ideas.

“Hey, Brown!”, my room mate said in his raspy voice. “You ought to come and check out this Quaker meeting!” Not having anything else to do on Sunday morning, I came along.

I found a quiet welcome at Mt. Toby Friends Meeting. Nobody asked me who I was, where I came from, or why I was there. The quiet worship felt like the home I’d been looking for all my life. I came back the next week, and the week after that, and for the rest of my four years of college. I got to know them, and they got to know me. I poked around in the library and found some books and Pendle Hill pamphlets. A couple of families invited me over for a meal (a huge plus for a college student!). Another family asked me to join them for a weekly evening of folk singing (another story).

They didn’t have a big outreach program, but they welcomed me in their own way. I’ve been in a lot of Quaker meetings since then. Some were warm and welcoming, others felt cold and unattractive. I won’t name any names.

Welcome has always been a big concern of mine. At different times, I’ve focused on whether the meeting has been ready to welcome people with different abilities, who spoke different languages, who came from other countries, or whose sexual orientation wasn’t exactly like mine.

I’ve wrestled with the question of whether the meeting I’m in should be more open to the way visitors and newcomers worship – should we change, or should they get used to our tradition? Most of the time, the meeting has opted not to change or even experiment, and the other people have moved on. Sometimes I think that’s OK, other times I think we’re poorer.

Many Quaker meetings send out invisible (or sometimes not-so-invisible) signals about whether they accept people of different political beliefs, dietary expectations or spiritual journeys. (Full disclosure: the meeting where I’m currently serving is somewhat divided politically and most Friends have agreed to disagree, except on Facebook. They hold a huge pork shoulder barbecue every November, which would make some Quakers faint, and what’s more, they serve it on Styrofoam plates. Still working on that one. They are also some of the kindest, most hospitable and genuinely welcoming people in this part of North Carolina.)

They have had LGBT members for over 100 years (including having them in major positions of leadership) and not made a fuss about it. Most don’t drink, but some do, and it’s not an issue. Older members reminisce about helping relatives raise and harvest tobacco. People used to come in their “Sunday best”, but today they wear just about anything, and almost everyone gets complimented about how nice they look. Some have tattoos and dye their hair interesting colors.

I wish that more Quaker meetings (including mine) would have the nerve to print some version of the following welcome, which has been circulating around the internet for a while and was originally attributed to a Catholic congregation:

We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, lesbian, not sure, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or can’t carry a tune in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians and junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.

If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!

Just how welcoming are we?

Quakers and applause

A couple of years ago our meeting hired a new choir director, a recent college graduate who did his best with our oddly-assorted group of Quaker singers (3 sopranos, 4 altos, 1 tenor and 1 bass). He also agreed to sing a solo once a month to liven up our music at worship.

The first time he sang, at the end of the piece he bowed very slightly and then waited, expecting some kind of response from the meeting. Being traditional Quakers, they bowed their heads in silence, which led into the unprogrammed or open worship time we have every week.

The choir director came to me afterward and asked if there was something wrong with what he did – why didn’t anyone applaud or say something? He was clearly hurt and anxious about whether he was about to be fired. People had come up to him and thanked him after meeting, but for him, the lack of response in the moment was very discombobulating.

I tried to explain the difference between performance and worship, but he was still very upset. We talked it over at the next choir practice and at Ministry and Counsel, and several people said that they had always been puzzled about our not applauding. We decided that it would be all right if people wanted to clap for musical solos or for the choir – we already clap for announcements about birthdays or happy events like a wedding announcement or the return of someone who has recovered from a serious illness.

It made me reflect that there is some part of the Quaker ethos which makes us reluctant to thank or congratulate each other openly, to acknowledge achievements or mark the milestones in each others’ lives. In Quaker communities, there seems to be a feeling that applauding will make the applaudee feel stuck-up, or that we’re honoring the individual rather than honoring God.

I have come across several accounts of prayer in meetings in the 1700’s and early 1800’s. Allen Jay describes the scene: “The stillness was sometimes broken by vocal prayer, during which the congregation rose, pulled off their hats, and turned their backs to the one who was engaged in vocal prayer. We were also expected to bow our heads, and, when he was through, to sit down with as little noise as possible.” (Autobiography of Allen Jay, 2010 edition, pp. 8-9) As a Quaker pastor, I’m certainly glad we have given up that practice! I’m not sure I could handle that every week.

I’ve been in several Quaker gatherings where someone has started to applaud, only to be severely eldered along the lines of “Quakers don’t do that!” In some settings, particularly at FGC, Friends have created an alternative “silent applause” (waving hands at shoulder height) which has always seemed a little contrived and cute to me.

Over the years I’ve picked up a similar reluctance by Quakers to highlight peoples’ achievements or recognize milestones in their lives or careers, to thank leaders for their service, or even to thank them for their hard work. I doubt that most Friends could identify Luke 17:10, but we seem to have taken it into practice – “When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless servants; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Or there may be a sort of understated snobbery in our lack of response – “We knew you would do the right thing, because that’s the sort of people we are.”

We sometimes unbend so far as to ask for a minute of thanks to be added to the minutes of a meeting – usually it’s done at the last minute and is worded as briefly as possible. The only time we really cut loose with our appreciation is in the memorial minutes which are published in Friends Journal and Quaker Life, when a eulogy can go on for pages.

By contrast, when I’ve been a part of African-American congregations, they’ve bent over backwards to acknowledge and applaud the smallest achievements, the littlest steps forward. It’s as though they know how difficult life is, how many barriers people face, that it’s the church’s responsibility to shelter and encourage every flicker of light and faith. The same kind of atmosphere is often found in 12-step meetings, where every achievement gets applauded.

I understand the risks of adulation, and I’ve been in groups where leaders bask in appreciation and people who do the scut work go unthanked. Quakers have instinctively shied away from showing our appreciation in public – but I think we take it too far. A little spontaneous applause now and then doesn’t hurt, and we could learn from the culture of appreciation which African-American churches and 12-step groups have built.

Say amen, somebody?

Leadership – perils and potholes

For years I’ve heard Quaker pastors, yearly meeting superintendents and organization leaders moaning that “Quakers don’t respect leaders – they don’t want to be led.” That hasn’t been my experience, but I’ve picked up a few thoughts about this subject along the way.

When I ask these folks what they mean – “give me some actual examples!” – it often boils down to complaints like these:

  • They wouldn’t approve the funding for a project I want
  • They won’t agree to a suggestion, plan or recommendation I made
  • They always move me to the last place on the agenda, when half the people have left
  • They complain all the time but won’t make changes to address the complaints
  • They spend more time talking about their favorite sports team than they spend praying
  • They won’t show up for activities I’ve planned, publicized and prepared for
  • They don’t read the report/newsletter/bulletin/web site I spent so much time on

These complaints can be valid – there are frequently serious consequences for failing to pay attention to our leaders. Quaker leaders are also prone to frustration, discouragement and burnout. Very few Quaker leaders have much in the way of active support; many feel they spend a lot of time shouting down a barrel.

On the other hand, it’s easy for those of us in leadership positions to forget some very basic things. Here are a few, in no particular order. You may have your own thoughts to add!

  1. It’s not “my” meeting to control. The people of the meeting were here a long time before I got here. They will be here long after I leave.
  2. If I get what I wish for 25% of the time, I figure I’m ahead of the game
  3. A lot of people are following God in their own way. Maybe I need to ask people how they want to follow God.
  4. One of the key missing skills in many leaders is the ability to make prayer deeply inviting to others.
  5. Another key missing skill is the ability to thank people sincerely and spontaneously for what they’ve done or tried, without even hinting that I wish they’d done what I wanted.
  6. It’s a very old truth, but worth repeating – it’s much more important that I follow Jesus myself, that I share his words and not my own, that I bring his love alive in people’s hearts, that I look for ways to be faithful myself, instead of scolding people about not doing all these things.
  7. Another aching truth is that Quakers overwhelmingly are volunteers and amateurs. We’re not dealing with professionals most of the time – these are folks who haven’t read the books, haven’t taken the courses or workshops and who rely for 99% of the time on their own experience and their fuzzy desire to feel good about themselves. It doesn’t help to judge people for what they’re not; it’s better to help them take small, memorable steps toward what they want to be.
  8. Sometimes money is the problem. But sometimes it’s not. Poor communication, conflict, and disengagement from the basic purpose of the organization, are often much more important problems.
  9. Quaker organizations habitually budget on inertia – “this is what we approved last year, let’s just do it again.” Or they budget on optimism – “let’s go ahead with this figure and hope the money comes in”. Or they budget on guilt – “if everyone would just give $1 a week more, we would reach our goal.” They very seldom have the patience or courage to take an entire budget back to zero and start over, and almost never remember that paid staff need cost-of-living increases, too.

In most congregations, there will only be a handful of people who care deeply and passionately about:

a) the peace testimony
b) what early Quakers believed
c) actually changing the world
d) properly caring for old books and papers
e) taking care of the children
f) inviting new people to come and worship
g) dealing with climate change
h) helping to make the meeting more welcoming to LGBT people or diverse ethnic groups
i) making urgently needed repairs to the meetinghouse
j) helping to create the very best possible website and outreach materials
k) correcting the minutes (let alone reading the minutes)
l) doing a labyrinth walk
m) planning a meeting-wide retreat
n) other (fill in the blanks)

Sometimes there will be overlap in groups A-M. Other times each of these groups will be isolated from each other, but tolerated by the meeting as a whole even though not everyone gets involved. As a leader, you will almost never get everyone involved in any one of these for a sustained period of time.

I would rather work with a few highly motivated people, than a whole meeting full of only somewhat motivated people.

And as a leader, these people have to put up with my passion for A-M and beyond, when they have their own legitimate concerns to work on. Quaker leaders aren’t always the easiest people to get along with!

Causes of Quaker decline

Why are there fewer Quakers? Everybody has their own favorite explanation. I hear them all the time – people who say the problem is specific (“Quakers have too many splits”) and people who say the problem is generic (“we need to get prayer back into the schools”).

Some religious groups are in catastrophic decline due to scandals – mainly financial or sex-related. Friends have had our share of these, but our scandals are mostly local and haven’t affected Friends meetings across the board.

There’s a lot of distress about the gradual decline of Friends in North America, which has been about 1% per year in most yearly meetings for the last two or three generations.

I’ve lived and worked in four different yearly meetings – New England, New York, Indiana and currently North Carolina – and I’ve tried to figure out some of the reasons. Read these, take a look in the mirror, and see if any of them apply to your situation.

Some specific causes of Quaker decline in North Carolina include:

1) Mass migration of Friends to the Midwest because of opposition to slavery (1780’s to mid-1800’s)

2) Mass migration to other parts of the country because of economic hardship during and after the Civil War

Some causes of decline which may be shared by other yearly meetings:

1) Disownment, both because of failure to follow Quaker testimonies and especially for marrying out of meeting – this was a huge cause of decline in the 1700’s and 1800’s

2) Members joining other churches, usually ones with a more evangelical emphasis – starting in the 1800’s and continuing today

3) Conflicts over theology, worship style and music, different interpretations of the Bible, plus various social and political issues – ditto

4) Financial stress on yearly and local meetings – this is often the real cause underlying a lot of other conflicts, where the apparent cause on the surface may be something else

5) Focus on maintaining older, rural meetings rather than starting new ones in growing urban areas

6) Failure to build and maintain a pool of trained Quaker pastors and leaders – this one is really starting to bite hard, as fewer people want to spend their lives in this type of work, or can afford to spend money on professional training which will never be paid for

Causes of general church decline – things which are not specific to Friends:

1) Dying off of the “builder” generation, which supplied so many dedicated leaders and givers

2) Decline of the neighborhood church, which drew people simply because of location

3) Funding demands of denominations which can’t be sustained by local congregations

4) Decline in denominational loyalty

5) Erosion of respect for the church, for pastors and for the Bible

6) Growth of entertainment-based megachurches – this is a favorite punching bag for many smaller churches which aren’t facing up to their own problems

7) Explosion of competing interests during what used to be Sunday “church time” – work, sports, rest, etc.

8) Growth of “spiritual but not religious” segment of the population

9) Church music, sermons, Sunday School and traditional activities perceived as boring

10) High degree of physical mobility; fewer families with long-term commitment to staying in an area and building a congregation over several generations

11) Lower birth rate – families don’t contribute as much natural growth as they used to

12) Young adults moving away for college, work, etc. – this is one of the largest contributors to church decline

13) Change in attendance patterns from coming every week to only every 2-8 weeks – this is responsible for 30-50% of the drop in attendance in many otherwise healthy congregations

None of these needs to spell the end of the Quaker movement, but Friends DO need to work much harder, much smarter and in a much more focused way. In future posts, I’ll talk about some ways we can do this — and have fun along the way!

Real diversity

In my work as a Quaker pastor, I see many different kinds of people.

This weekend, I spent Saturday morning working beside a guy who is making some repairs to our historic meetinghouse. He is highly skilled at what he does, and he volunteers one weekend every month on projects which most of us would have no idea how to accomplish. He’s one of the hardest-working guys I know. Most of my so-called “help” on these projects involves fetching things, holding things, cleaning up and mostly staying out of his way while he does the work of 5 or 6 ordinary people.

A lot of Quaker meetings might not appreciate him, because he loves hunting. He has a hunter’s watchful eyes and he notices absolutely everything. He loves the outdoors and he’s happiest whenever he can spend time just being with nature. He can name every tree, almost every kind of wildlife, and tell you where to find things in every season. He brings home 6 or 7 deer every fall, and whatever he and his family can’t fit in their freezer, he donates to the local food pantry.

He’s a lot more politically conservative than most of the people you’d find in an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, but he’s thoughtful and he cares a lot more about character in people than about political affiliation. He’s unflinchingly honest, utterly reliable, and keeps his word about everything – while he wouldn’t put it in the same words as George Fox, Truth is at the heart of his spirituality.

This weekend, he brought his 7-year-old grandson with him to our monthly work day. It was a gift to watch the two of them together. He glowed with love and pride as he showed his grandson how to do simple tasks, and you could see the hope shining in his face that his grandson would learn the skills he has.

On Sunday morning I usually save the hour before meeting for worship begins to visit with people who arrive early. This Sunday, I talked for nearly an hour with one of our oldest greeters. He’s in his mid 80’s, and his great love in life is gospel music. He follows gospel groups the way other people follow sports teams – he knows their names, their hits, their life stories and concert tours.

This Sunday he brought in a laptop which his daughter handed down to me. He confessed that he didn’t know how to run it. He said he’d heard about the Internet, and wondered if any of his gospel music groups might be on it. We turned his laptop on, connected it to the meeting WiFi, and headed for YouTube.

As you might expect, it only took a few seconds before we found dozens of videos. As soon as one song finished, he’d name another that he wished he could see. After 4 or 5 gospel groups had showed up, there were tears of joy rolling down his cheeks. He said he’d heard there was some “really bad stuff” on the Internet, and that people have to be careful, but he said that being able to watch and hear his beloved music was “a miracle” to him.

I talked for a few minutes before meeting with another member, a retired police officer who just lost his daughter-in-law this week. In broken words, he said that “it wasn’t supposed to be this way” – that she shouldn’t have died so young.

I talked with our clerk of Ministry and Counsel, a wonderful guy from Brazil who is still homesick for his native country after 20 years of living in the U.S. A deeply spiritual person with a beautiful voice, he often enriches our worship with his singing and guitar.

The elder who sat with me on the facing bench is a middle-aged woman who left school at age 16 to work as a florist. April is her busiest time of the year and she was pretty tired last Sunday. For our meeting’s Easter breakfast, she brought a 5-gallon bucket full of flowers, and in 15 minutes she effortlessly whipped up a dozen gorgeous table decorations, which we later used for our Flowering Cross during Easter worship. One of her other gifts is that she offers the most beautiful and sensitive prayers of anyone in the entire meeting. I always feel privileged to listen when she prays.

What’s my point? Quakers talk a good game about diversity, but in the real world we often come up short. Just like everyone else, we like to be comfortable, and one easy path to comfort is to hang out with people who look and think just the way we do. Most Quaker meetings wind up with a remarkably homogenous makeup. Whether it’s a liberal unprogrammed meeting, an evangelical meeting, a university-centered meeting, or a rural meeting, there tends to be relatively little real diversity within the group.

Most meetings would be better off with a wider range of experiences and life journeys, and nearly all meetings would be better off ditching the countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways we make people feel like outsiders when they “don’t fit” our meeting’s profile. Real diversity – the kind that welcomes people as they are, and eagerly listens to their stories and welcomes their gifts – is one of the most wonderful things we can offer.

Besides the usual Quaker assortment of teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers and counselors, the meeting I’m fortunate to serve includes:

  • an environmental attorney
  • the daughter of a famous NASCAR driver, who runs our local food pantry
  • a woman who ran a successful hot air balloon business
  • a blind programmer who worked for NASA
  • a family who are all professional rodeo riders
  • a transgendered wood carver
  • a retired restaurant owner who also attends Pentecostal services
  • a Mexican immigrant who runs a successful landscape business
  • a young sawmill owner and his wife

We are blessed to have so many different people! Even though we seldom agree about politics, solutions to social problems, and many other things, we have discovered a unity which comes from a much deeper place.

“. . .though the way seem to thee divers, yet judge not the way, lest thou judge the Lord, and knowest not that several ways (seeming to reason) hath God to bring his people out by, yet all are but one in the end. . .Deep is the mystery of Godliness. . .”

–  George Fox, Epistle, 1653


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 the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.

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