Update on North Carolina Yearly Meeting

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that North Carolina Yearly Meeting has been going through a major struggle for several years.

Leaders in many of the more evangelical meetings have been calling for a separation, and at least 20 meetings have already withdrawn from the yearly meeting. The yearly meeting’s finances have been in free fall, and there has been great anxiety about the future of Friends in North Carolina.

At the Representative body meeting earlier this summer, Friends agreed in principle to a separation into two group, with the Executive Committee to draft a proposal in time for Yearly Meeting on August 12-14.

Take a step back for a minute: internal tension and calls for separation have been taking place across yearly meetings in the U.S. for many years since the early 20th century. More recently, Western Yearly Meeting lost a number of meetings but remained largely intact, while Indiana Yearly Meeting split into two groups, about 60% keeping the old name and about 40% forming the New Association of Friends.

I attended the business session of North Carolina Yearly Meeting last weekend, and the draft plan for separation was presented. The plan received initial approval, and we broke into a number of small groups to discuss the plan before lunch.

After lunch, before the decision making resumed, we heard a number of reports – from Quaker Lake Camp, from mission workers, from Friends Disaster Relief – and it was clear that Friends are still deeply interested in continuing and supporting these efforts. No one wants to see our youth and mission work suffer because of a division.

When we took up the question of separation again, the clerk asked if the meeting would wait in prayer while the Executive Committee met to work on a modification of the plan. There was some visiting and conversation while the committee went out, but many Friends were praying quietly.

When the committee came back, they brought a rough draft of a new proposal:

  1. That the yearly meeting remain intact
  2. That the yearly meeting hold title to the physical properties and financial assets
  3. That two groups be formed, with each group being responsible for its own statements of faith and belief, as well as membership, recording of ministers, quarterly meeting organization, and internal administration
  4. That the yearly meeting continue to be a channel for mission work, youth programming, ministers’ retirement and other matters of common interest

In essence, the yearly meeting would become an “umbrella organization” or a “big tent” which will let us work together in places where we can agree, and which will let us work separately in areas where we can’t agree at present.

Neither of the two new groups would be responsible for the beliefs of the other or have disciplinary power over the other.

In many ways, North Carolina Yearly Meeting would become more like Friends United Meeting, which is a very diverse body of yearly meetings from around the world, which comes together to support Christian work in the name of Friends.

This new proposal was approved and will go back to the monthly meetings for discussion. It’s too early to tell whether this will allow us to keep together in a new way, or whether hardline Friends will insist on a complete separation.

I think that the new plan could work – but only if Friends are willing to make it work. It would allow each group to have its own space, and it would help us to maintain a measure of unity and allow us to support Christian work which we all value and enjoy. For many reasons, it may be better for Friends to re-organize than to divide.

Things to think about in North Carolina

As Friends in North Carolina move towards a formal separation, I hope that they will do more than heave a sigh of relief that maybe the fighting can be over. Friends also need to look carefully at the many legal and practical issues which separation involves.

Problems which Friends need to face up to include:

  1. Who owns the property? Many meetings have “reversion clauses” in their deeds, so that if their local meeting is ever laid down, the property goes to the yearly meeting. At a minimum, local meetings need to look at their property deeds, trust funds and other assets to make sure that their assets will go where they want them to go. When Indiana Yearly Meeting broke up, the yearly meeting paid to have the deeds of all of the departing meetings examined by an attorney, and provided “quit claim deeds” so that the yearly meeting would have no ownership or reversion of the departing meetings.
  2. Work out a fair formula to deal with assets. This can be handled well or badly – dividing the various trust funds and endowments is a complicated legal task. The intent of the donors needs to be respected, and both sides should receive a fair share.
  3. Deal with debts. Arrangements need to be made with meetings which have borrowed money from the yearly meeting for repairs and improvements. Other debts must be repaid, written off or assigned. This isn’t something which can be done quickly or easily.
  4. Agree to share resources. Both groups will probably want to continue to use Quaker Lake camp, and neither side probably has the ability to support the camping program on its own. Historians and genealogists from both groups will want to share access to historical records and minutes.
  5. Consider a new name for both groups. This can become a major bone of contention, as both groups claim to be the “real” North Carolina Yearly Meeting. It would be much healthier in the long run to lay down the old name – to retire the number on the T-shirt – and have each group start out with a fresh name.
  6. Membership matters – will individual Friends be able to move freely back and forth between the two groups? In the rest of the Quaker world, membership transfers take place almost automatically, with little or no friction. North Carolina Friends should be careful of setting up new and divisive standards for membership transfer between meetings.
  7. Recorded ministers – in the same way, most yearly meetings allow recorded ministers to transfer fairly easily, though most yearly meetings require that ministers agree to support the Faith and Practice of the meeting they’re moving into. A good deal of the hostility and bitterness among Friends in the U.S. today has risen from problems with pastors and recorded ministers. Careful thinking ahead of time can help shape our future around this issue.
  8. Retired ministers – North Carolina Friends have put a great deal of effort and resources into providing for their retired ministers. If the yearly meeting splits, arrangements need to be made so that ministers and yearly meeting staff who have devoted their lives to serving Friends will not suffer. Current pastors need to have their years of service count towards any future participation in retirement funds.
  9. Faith and Practice – Over the next few years, many adjustments will need to be made, but both sides will probably want to continue to use North Carolina’s current Faith and Practice, and both sides should be allowed to do so.
  10. Don’t try to make other Quakers take sides. So far, local groups from the United Society of Friends Women International (USFWI) are continuing to meet and work together regardless of the yearly meeting split (maybe they know something the rest of us don’t!). Quaker Men may well do the same. When Indiana Friends divided, Friends United Meeting moved quickly to recognize both groups and welcomes representatives from both groups to the Board. Other Friends may be sympathetic to our situation, but don’t expect them to choose one side or the other. Missionaries who we’ve supported for many years are especially at risk — they depend on us for their support! Don’t involve them in our unhappiness.

Whether we like it or not, separating is complicated. It can be done well or badly — a fair-minded division of assets and careful attention to detail will go far to helping the future of all Friends in our area. As we saw when Friends divided in 1828, a hostile separation will sow seeds of bitterness which can last for a hundred years.

Counting the cost

My last two posts have been about the conflict among Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting. At the last Representative Body meeting on June 4th, they approved the recommendation of the Executive Committee that the yearly meeting move towards a formal separation.

One of the things Jesus said was to count the cost before starting anything big (Luke 14:28). Here are just a few of the costs – some are financial, some involve relationships, some are spiritual, and all of them are important.

Things which will suffer immediately in a separation:

  • Support for missions will decrease – missions are one of the main reasons Friends gather in larger bodies, and mission support is one of the biggest casualties in any breakup
  • Youth ministry – the loss here will be both financial and in the numbers of Young Friends who are able to get together for camping, youth programs, trips and events
  • Education – yearly meeting support for Quaker colleges has been flatlined or declining for years, and the breakup will only make this situation worse
  • Yearly meeting staffing – every yearly meeting which breaks up winds up cutting staff dramatically. (In other posts, I’ve estimated that it takes roughly 2,500 to 3,000 local meeting members to support 1 yearly meeting staff person.)
  • Division of funds – hopefully there will be a fair division of the assets of the yearly meeting, which both sides can agree to. In many church break-ups, arguments over money have gone on for years, and the bitterness has lasted for generations.
  • “Lost” monthly meetings – during the controversy, some meetings choose to become community churches or become independent Friends meetings
  • Reputation of Friends – Quakers in North Carolina will no longer speak with one voice. This hurts us here in our own communities and in other parts of the Quaker world.

Other costs will show up more over the long term – say, in the next 5-10 years:

  • Long-term giving – until all of the legal issues and trusteeship of the yearly meeting funds are settled, very few people will want to make major bequests or large capital gifts.
  • Visitation between meetings – this has already declined, as people haven’t been certain about whether they’re welcome or not.
  • Leadership – one of the biggest casualties of this kind of breakup is when ministers and pastors are no longer accepted by each others’ groups. Retirement, insurance and education programs for ministers will also be a major casualty – which means that fewer people will be willing to commit to long-term involvement as pastors and ministers. As a result of this conflict, we may find it very difficult to attract talented Friends even to apply for leadership positions in our yearly meeting.
  • Burned out individuals – many of our best people, who have tried to mediate the conflict or who have stood faithfully, are simply worn out. We may lose dozens of our best clerks, ministers, committee members and staff people who have given years of their lives trying to build up and preserve North Carolina Yearly Meeting.
  • Young adult Friends – Quaker organizations across the country have been having problems for more than 30 years trying to get Boomers, Millennials and X-ers involved. North Carolina Friends have done better than most in this area, but it’s going to be much harder now. Where will our next generation of leaders, teachers, ministers and worshipers come from?

It may be a genuine relief for yearly meeting sessions not be dominated by quarreling, and I certainly hope that we will recover some of our joy again. Friends will continue, somehow. But we won’t be as strong, not for a long while.

It may be too late for North Carolina Friends to turn back – but I hope we count the cost!

Update on North Carolina Yearly Meeting – II

In my last post, I gave you the bottom line – North Carolina Yearly Meeting, after 318 years of more-or-less unity, have decided that separation is inevitable. Depending on your perspective, this is cause for either grief or relief. According to some Friends, the bickering and fighting have been building up for the last 20 or 30 years.

It looks like the breakup may actually be happening now. There’s a lot of pressure for meetings to choose sides, even though the “sides” are poorly defined. Some meetings still don’t want to choose, or are still longing for a way to stay together.

The wedge issue which is seldom mentioned out loud but which has been effectively used to break up the yearly meeting is homosexuality. Problems with this issue aren’t unique to North Carolina Yearly Meeting or to Friends in general; churches across the United States have been trying to find ways to unite or divide.

The pressure is on for the yearly meeting to split into just two groups, and for monthly meetings to choose sides if they haven’t done so already. From many conversations with Quaker leaders, I think that the reality is that there are really three groups, which is making things more complicated.

To draw the picture with a very broad brush, though, here’s my view of the groups in North Carolina Friends.

Group A – meetings which were basically satisfied with what they see as a “traditional” yearly meeting. I’d call them the “centrist” group – many of these meetings have LGBT members but they’re basically keeping quiet and not making an issue of it.

Group B – meetings which embrace a more liberal theology; some are openly and enthusiastically accepting of LGBT members and are willing to hold marriages under their care without regard to sexual orientation.

Group C – meetings which want a much more evangelical statement of faith and want the yearly meeting to have both the ability and the resolve to kick out meetings and pastors which don’t agree with them. These meetings strongly reject homosexual practice and do not want to associate with Friends who tolerate or accept it.

Many of the meetings which were most outspoken in Group C withdrew early from the yearly meeting. Group B have mostly hung in, which has caused more Group C’s to withdraw or threaten to do so.

Originally, Group C wanted to kick out Group B, and drag the A’s along into their camp. A lot of the stridency in Group C appears to be coming from a fairly small group of pastors, while a lot of the cohesiveness in Group A and B seems to be rooted in the rank-and-file membership.

As this same kind of struggle has played out in other yearly meetings, the division has worked out differently, and a lot of the time it’s been a battle for the soul of the center. In Western Yearly Meeting a few years ago, some of the most outspoken meetings on both the liberal and evangelical sides left, and the center mostly held together.

In Indiana, about 60% of the members from the right and right-of-center managed to claim the title of “Indiana Yearly Meeting”, about 35% became the New Association of Friends, and about 5% of the membership wound up becoming independent.

Here in North Carolina, it’s unclear to me at this point how the numbers will work out. If monthly meetings were truly left to themselves to decide their own future, my guess is that Group A might be 40-50% of the membership, Group B might be 10%-20%, Group C might be 40%, and at least 10% might go independent.

Whether meetings will be allowed honestly to choose for themselves is still an open question. Most Friends are talking only in terms of 2 groups, not 3 (or more).

If Group A (the centrists) can agree to make acceptance of homosexuality a matter for local meetings to decide, or at least take it off the front burner, they could probably combine successfully with most of Group B for a while.

If Group C succeeds in making homosexuality the litmus test for the entire group, they may drag a few more of the Group A meetings along with them.

Most of the leaders I have spoken with from Group B meetings seem sincere in their desire not to split the yearly meeting. Their meetings’ support and acceptance of LGBT people is a matter of conscience and conviction, and many of these Group B leaders are widely respected outside their own monthly meetings.

Meanwhile, almost every time two Quakers from North Carolina get together, the question they can’t resist asking is, “What way is your meeting going to go?”

I believe in unity among Friends, to the greatest degree it’s possible to obtain, and I’ve spent most of my working career trying to bring Friends together. I’m still a newcomer to North Carolina, but I’ve seen similar struggles among Quakers from all across the United States, and they sadden me tremendously, almost beyond my ability to bear.

In my next post, I’ll be talking about the cost of separation – something which Friends only whisper about, but which deserves closer examination.

Update on North Carolina Yearly Meeting

Quakers in North Carolina have been pressured for years to take sides and separate from each other. The issues have shifted from time to time and haven’t always been stated openly. Sometimes it’s been over music and worship, sometimes it’s been about accepting gay and lesbian people as members.

A lot of the time the stated issues – particular points in Faith and Practice, arguments over nominations or hiring staff, whether to allow membership in more than one group – seem to have been a cover or proxy to the real disagreement.

For many years the majority of Friends in North Carolina were determined not to separate, but more recently the arguments have become louder and (according to many witnesses) more hateful. Attendance at yearly meeting sessions has dropped as many Friends just decided to stay home.

More pressure on the yearly meeting came during this last year, as first 3, then more, and now a total of 17 monthly meetings have withdrawn from the yearly meeting.

Last weekend, the Executive Committee acknowledged to the representative body “the differences among Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting that are continuous and unabating regarding the use of Scripture and the freedom available to interpret Scripture through leadings of the Holy Sprit; the autonomy of individuals and individual meetings within the broader authority of the Yearly Meeting; and whether the Yearly Meeting has or should have authority to discipline meetings for what are determined to be departures from Faith and Practice.”

The Executive Committee recommended that “the member meetings of North Carolina Yearly Meeting patiently commit to an orderly, deliberate, compassionate and mutually respectful plan of separation into two yearly meetings, and in that plan of separation, allow each meeting, if it chooses, to join either of the two new yearly meetings, however organized.”

This recommendation was discussed for more than 4 hours at Representative Body on June 4th, and was approved. There are no specifics for how the separation will take place, but the Executive Committee’s report says that Friends must “consider matters of (1) faith (2) organization (3) property and (4) law.”

I’ve observed similar divisions taking place in Western and Indiana Yearly Meetings, and they have been painful. In my next post, I’ll reflect on things which North Carolina Friends may want to think about – lessons I’ve learned from the way this has gone elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I hope that folks will be careful not to feed the rumor mill, make unfounded accusations, or do anything to make things worse. If separation does take place, I hope it will be done cleanly, fairly, and at the minimum level necessary, so that friendships built over many generations will not be broken.

It IS different here!

My wife and I moved to North Carolina last fall after many years of living and working with Quakers in Indiana, the Adirondacks, and New England. Quick take: it’s a little different here.

I’d been impressed for many years by the Friends from North Carolina who showed up at FUM Board meetings. Their gentleness, discernment, good humor and dedication made me wonder what it would be like to live and work there.

North Carolina culture – both in general and among Quakers – is different. The accent is definitely Southern, but it’s far from what people from the rest of the U.S. think of as Southern. It’s a soft accent, easy on the ears.

People use old-fashioned words in everyday conversation – yonder, young ‘un, y’all (I quickly learned that “y’all” is singular, while “all y’all” is plural). You don’t turn off the A/C, you cut it off. There’s a big difference between the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) and the Triad (High Point, Greensboro, Winston-Salem).

When I made an unworkable suggestion to the head of the House and Grounds committee, he turned me down with a smile, saying, “That dog won’t hunt”. Dinner is still the noontime meal here, supper is what you eat at sundown. The standard everyday greeting here is “Hey!”, used to and by people of all ages.

There’s a difference between “fixin’” (getting ready to do something) and “fixin’s” (the side dishes of pinto beans, slaw, biscuits, fries, etc. which accompany a meal). “Right quick” means pretty soon – maybe in an hour, maybe next week, maybe later this year, depending on circumstances. But “directly” means right now, immediately, no fooling around, no side trips or stopping to chat with friends (“Y’all come home directly!”)

One of my favorite phrases here is “might could”, which expresses just the right amount of possibility or indecision in any situation. “Do you aim to go to the mountains next weekend?” “Might could, if the car don’t break down.”

Respect is a big part of the culture in North Carolina. I have never been called “sir” so many times before in my life, often several times in a single sentence. I strongly suspect that children in North Carolina get whomped upside the head by their parents for not using “sir” or “ma’am”. It takes some getting used to, especially since I always thought that Quakers didn’t use titles.

Many people are addressed by both their first and middle names – and it’s astonishing how many people here have “Lee” as a middle name. Quite a few women are addressed by their middle name, usually a treasured family name, whether or not the middle name is typically female. Some women are often called “Miss Ruby” or “Miss Helen”, which can indicate a) age b) status c) love and respect d) all of the above, and has nothing to do with whether they are or ever have been married.

People here still pull over to the side of the road whenever a funeral procession goes by. Cemeteries are meticulously maintained, with flowers changed regularly several times each year. Even though Baptists make up a very large percentage of churchgoers, they come in for a good deal of kidding – people here tell Baptist jokes in the same way people told Polish jokes and Italian jokes when I was growing up in Buffalo.

There’s also a great deal more publicly expressed faith here – the first week we were here, we were startled to have the check-out clerk at the supermarket, the cashier at the bank, the attendant at the gas station and the waiter at the restaurant all say, “Have a blessed day!” I’m not sure who’s teaching people to say this, but it’s nearly universal.

“Bless your heart” is different – it can be used in a straightforward and warmly sentimental way, but it’s also used with irony to suggest that the person being blessed is slightly stupid. “Special” can also be a put-down, depending on the emphasis given by the speaker. “Isn’t that special?” can be a real zinger.

Food is a big deal here (isn’t it everywhere?) and in North Carolina the staples are sweet tea and barbecue. I find sweet tea almost cloyingly sweet and usually opt for ice water – another local alternative is a carbonated beverage called Cheerwine (similar to Cherry Coke).

Barbecue is something people here love to compare and argue about endlessly. Old-timers swear it’s best cooked over a hickory fire (even though 90% of restaurants now use an electric oven). Here in the Triad, they favor a vinegar-based sauce, and scorn the ketchup-based sauce preferred in the eastern part of the state. Last week, one of the elders of the meeting took me to his favorite barbecue place, Speedy’s in Lexington. He worships there at least once a week, and claims it’s the best in the whole state.

Fried chicken runs a close second to barbecue in the hearts (and appetites) of people from North Carolina. Home-made is best, but Bojangles is a favorite place for families to take their kids after meeting on Sunday.

Other North Carolina foods to try include pimento cheese (used as a dip or as a sandwich spread), hush puppies (cornbread mixed with grated onion and deep fried), nabs (snack packs of peanut butter crackers, originally made by Nabisco), ‘maters (fresh tomatoes) and of course Krispy Kremes (freshly made doughnuts with an almost toxic level of sugar).

It sounds as though my first impressions of North Carolina mainly revolve around food, and you’re right. People here love to eat! Almost every conceivable occasion involves food, often jokingly referred to as Quaker communion. The standard meal at the meetinghouse is a “carry-in” (known to Midwest Quakers as a “pitch-in” and Quakers in most other parts of the U.S. as a “potluck”).

The old ways of speech and the old culture have been affected by the hordes of people who have moved to North Carolina from out of state, attracted by the climate, jobs or the more rural atmosphere. It saddens me to see the old ways fading, and to meet kids who have never heard the lovely, haunting ballads of the Appalachians which I’ve learned and shared for years.

For generations, the economy of this area centered around furniture, textiles and tobacco. All three have taken major blows in the last few years. During the Reconstruction, a couple of Quaker families started a small factory making chairs. This grew and grew until High Point, North Carolina became the furniture-making capital of the entire country.

Today, much of the manufacturing has shifted to China, and many of the remaining jobs are taken by immigrants from Mexico and Pakistan (at the Allen Jay Elementary School, the first language of over 50% of the students is Urdu). This fuels a lot of low-key resentment in the community, although Quakers are trying to reach out and start new community ministries.

It’s a different world, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. The Friends here are great, and they’ve accepted me in spite of my ignorance and lack of experience. I’ll post some other impressions as time goes on, but meanwhile, thanks for the welcome!

Church keys

One of the most moving moments in starting work at a new meeting is being given the keys to the meetinghouse. It’s a symbol of trust, of having arrived, of being one of the meeting leaders.

Many years ago I attended an unprogrammed Friends meeting in a rural area. Seven miles out in the country. After I’d been coming for about a year, I was asked to come early each Sunday and unlock the meetinghouse and turn on the heat. The key was kept at the neighbor’s house about 200 yards away. It hung on a nail on the door leading from the garage into the kitchen, and anyone who needed to get into the meetinghouse knew where to find it.

When I came here to North Carolina, I acquired a new set of keys – one to the meetinghouse door, and one to the office. That’s plenty for me – I hate carrying around a heavy, bulky key ring. But over the next few months, I found out that different people in the meeting had other keys that I didn’t have – a key to the back door, a key to the kitchen door, and so on.

There was a moment of panic in January when the fuel oil for the meetinghouse ran out, and nobody knew where the key to the oil tank was. We could get more oil delivered – but without the key, we couldn’t put it in the tank! I finally called the former handyman, who told me where it was hidden in the boiler room in the basement.

I kept finding places for which I didn’t have the key, and no one could tell me where to find one. In the office there were three large key rings with dozens of unmarked keys – probably over half for locks which don’t exist any more.

So I spent an hour going round the meetinghouse with the key collection. As I discovered a key that worked, I tagged it with one of those round metal-rimmed tags and a Sharpie marker.

A couple of people in the meeting thought it was a mistake to put tags on the keys. “What if someone broke into the office? They’d take the keys and be able to get in anywhere?” These folks would rather have an anonymous collection of keys, and be able to choose the right well-worn key from memory – even if it means that the new pastor can’t find anything!

It made me think that there must be many other “keys” in the meeting – not just physical keys, but ways to open people’s hearts and memories, their longings and fears and dreams. Just because I’ve got the key to the meetinghouse doesn’t mean I can get in anywhere I want.

Sometimes it’s a matter of knowing the right phrase, the right prayer, code or password. I’ve had to wait and listen to people for a while before they let me into what they’re really thinking or feeling.

A key is a complicated thing – a carefully shaped piece of metal, with a unique pattern of ridges and grooves which lets it move the invisible pieces inside the lock and free it to turn and open the door. Compared to the size of the door, or the whole building, a key is a tiny thing – but if it’s lost or missing, a whole church can be kept waiting outside till it’s found.

Sometimes a physical key can unlock a door into a chapter in the meeting’s past – no one knew where the key was to a large room which was used for many years for a school aftercare program. The program was laid down at least 10 years ago, but it’s still an important memory for many people who came to this meeting because of it. Now that I’ve found the key again, maybe we could re-purpose the room for a new ministry that will help bring life here again.

In some churches, the key is a symbol of power and control – the person who has it doesn’t want anyone to come in, or to have access to whatever they’re fiercely protecting. Fortunately, the meeting where I am now doesn’t have many locked areas.

I expect to keep finding more church keys – ones which open my understanding of the budget, unlock the hurts in an extended family, or open the doorway to all kinds of gifts and ministries. One key doesn’t work in every situation, and sometimes I have to call in a locksmith.

What are the keys to your meeting?

 


P.S. – just as an historical and cultural note, when I was growing up in Vermont, a “church key” meant something else entirely. It was an item at the bottom of the fishing tackle box which came in handy on a hot day. This meaning has gone out of common use since the invention of pop-tab cans.

can opener

 


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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