Who killed Quarterly Meeting?

One of the Great Mysteries of Life among Friends in the U.S. is why we continue to have quarterly meetings. Many yearly meetings have dropped them entirely, or re-packaged them as “regional” or “area” meetings. With rare exceptions, they exist mainly on paper, and are poorly led, poorly financed, and poorly programmed. Ask a newbie at any Friends meeting what they know about quarterly meeting, and the answer is likely to be, “Huh?”

Quarterly meetings used to have a lot more clout. In many yearly meetings, they controlled finances, made important decisions, recorded ministers, ran schools, started new meetings, sponsored missionaries, and did many of the things which yearly meetings now do.*

A good argument could be made that what killed quarterly meetings was the automobile. Quarterly meetings traditionally included all the local meetings which could reach each other within, say, a couple of hours of travel time. Most quarterly meetings were set up during the horse-and-buggy era. As cars got cheaper and roads got better, the yearly meeting centralized more functions and the quarters got weaker.

On the other hand, yearly meeting sessions were never a gathering of neighbors, and Friends lost much of our sense of “neighborliness” as the centralization of yearly meetings grew. Many of our yearly meeting sessions have become places where strangers come to lash out at each other over positions and ideas they fear that other people have.

Is there still a role for quarterly meeting? Or, as Indiana Yearly Meeting pursues the path to division, could the old-style, functional and active quarterly meeting provide a model for us?

A group of like-minded Friends from the same geographical area can do a lot together. Many local meetings are too small to have a good youth program. Peacemakers in our meetings are eager to work together. Women’s groups like the USFWI delight in working together on projects. Many Friends with special interests or ministries would be strengthened by each others’ presence. Pastors, recorded ministers and Friends in public ministry especially benefit from conversation, study, and prayer together.

What makes a good quarterly meeting – or a good small yearly meeting – work?

  • Number of meetings – somewhere between 2 and 10 monthly meetings feels right. More would make it difficult to know or care about each other.
  • Size of the group – again, somewhere between 100 and 500 Friends makes a diverse group with plenty of energy and individual gifts, but small enough to form a network of relationships.
  • Budget – a quarter should have real, and not just ceremonial power to handle money. For its own needs, a quarter budget could start quite modestly – $3 or $5 per member should be adequate for speakers, social events, and financial assistance.
  • Leadership – this a key “missing piece” in many failed quarterly meetings, where the person who becomes clerk is often the last person to refuse the job. A good organization recruits leaders, instead of letting leadership happen accidentally. And a good organization creates and maintains a core of dedicated and motivated people who make the group a priority.
  • Worship – people really respond to a good meeting for worship which speaks to their hearts and minds. Planning ahead and setting this up every time needs to be the #1 priority for the leaders.
  • Program – a group like this can get by with one business meeting a year to set priorities; a couple of gatherings a year for education, fun and fellowship; and one gathering a year set aside for a retreat or specialized workshop.
  • Ministries – depending on the size of the quarter, it can support simple one-time work projects, longer-term relief efforts, or something as ambitious as a Quaker school or ministry in a nearby prison. One of the key ideas here is that Friends in the quarter have a meaningful ministry together – we need to undo the idea that only the yearly meeting is big enough to do ministry.

A smaller group like this is much better positioned to provide help in times of conflict, or to encourage intervisitation. Recorded ministers can easily move back and forth as they are needed to help nearby meetings. A group of local meetings like this is the ideal size for Friends to get to know each other and work together.

Quarterly meetings were one of our greatest tools for building the Society of Friends; they can also be one of our greatest tools for re-building it as well.

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* – OK, full disclosure: Several elderly Friends have told me that back when Friends only married other Friends, that quarterly meeting also served an important (unofficial) purpose as a place where young Friends could meet potential spouses and go courting!


12 Responses to “Who killed Quarterly Meeting?”

  1. 1 Tom Smith February 1, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    As Clerk of West Branch QM as it was “laid down” in favor of Regional Meeting back in the late 60’s I gave a statement which I entitled “The Myth of Midwestern Quakerism” which was published in “Quaker Life” and I have posted in my blog Seeker… More than 40 years later I feel much the same way.

  2. 2 Roger Dreisbach-Williams February 1, 2012 at 8:21 pm

    Whether it is called a Quarterly, Regional, or Half-Yearly Meeting doesn’t matter as much as the connections among Friends from different Monthly Meetings and the value they find in working together. The Meeting will be restored when Friends discover a reason for it to exist. These efforts continue and your suggestions point in a useful direction.

  3. 3 Lois Jordan February 1, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    Josh, your description of quarterly meeting reminds me very much of the way it seemed to me when I was a young Friend in Dublin Quarterly Meeting. The business at Q.M. was important. For example, I remember one year when a meeting in our quarter couldn’t make their “assessment.” So the rest of us chipped in. I knew people from the other meetings in our quarter as friends/Friends. We had good attendance. We looked forward to meeting in the different, but nearby meetinghouses. Then I saw it fade in relevance and interest.

  4. 4 Tom & Sandy Farley February 15, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    Our QM [College Park QM] in Northern California/Nevada regularly has 120 to 140 people at each gathering. It has an active M&O committee, youth programs, and 3 Quaker corporations under its care.

  5. 5 Nat Case February 16, 2012 at 12:21 am

    I think scale is a matter of spiritual intimacy. Where there are fewer gathered, we feel more intimate, This can be a problem when things get testy—no anonymous crowd to melt back into, no second meeting for worship to slide over into. But I think there’s more potential for the depth of worship and clarity in perceiving leadings in a smaller group.

    It would be worth spending some serious time and energy looking at what works and what doesn’t work at different sizes of meeting, both monthly and quarterly, and consider developing conscious mechanisms to divide and combine meetings based at least in part on scale.

    As a member of an urban meeting scattered over a broad urban area, I also feel a yearning for a meeting community that really is within “horse and buggy” distance, or even walking distance, of one another. Again, scale matters. I feel awkward about needing to drive 15 minutes in my car just to reach my home meetinghouse…

  6. 6 Aaron Levitt February 16, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    I don’t know how common or uncommon it is, but a long-standing and very knowledgeable member of the monthly meeting I attend just raised the concern that our *quarterly* meeting is relatively well-funded, while our *yearly* meeting is really struggling.

  7. 7 pamelamaggie February 18, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    Our Quarter on the East Coast is in the process of attempting to revitalize itself and we would like to publish this blog post on our website or send it out to members and attenders as part of our discussion. Would this be alright?

  8. 9 Robin Mohr February 19, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    As a member of the same Quarterly Meeting as Tom & Sandy Farley (above) I’d like to point out what CPQM does not have: a budget or extensive reserves. We raise the money we need as we go along for QM sessions. We try to keep enough money in the bank to pay for the next sessions, but not much more than that. It’s a weekend retreat for Quakers of all ages, with some folks who come every time, and some newcomers every time. It was a support for our family, to see the extended family of Quakers every few months, with unprogrammed worship and worship sharing, some religious education, very broadly defined, some fun & outdoors time, big community meals, and that’s it. In between, there have been programs to support meetings in difficult times, or to build on the strengths that they have. It was tremendously valuable to us and we miss it now that we are too far away to attend.

  9. 10 Lu Harper February 20, 2012 at 12:33 pm

    Farmington-Scipio Regional Meeting of NYYM, formed from 2 quarters many years ago, meets 3 times a year, with the Spring Gathering being a residential weekend that routinely draws Friends from elsewhere within the YM. Because the region covers all of western NY, our gatherings are a vital place to connect with Friends throughout the region, especially when many other YM events take place at 5-6 hour distance.

  10. 11 Christine Greenland February 20, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    Thanks, Josh for the useful comments and insights. Roger is correct, it doesn’t matter what the entity is called.

    I’ve been part of one half-yearly meeting and two quarters, all of which worked well together. In terms of spiritual initimacy, these have been quite good for meetings of varying sizes. The half-yearly meeting was in Canadian Yearly Meeting; the quarters were in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting; I think the key is being willing to work together, which is not a “given” in all cases.

    On paper, anyway, our Quarter’s membership is over 1200 Friends. About 50% are not local.

    The quarter I’m in had a thought-provoking inter-generational program at our last Quarterly Meeting — 101 people attended. The topic was spiritual support for younger Friends, no matter where they attended school.

    Two weeks later, our quarter’s worship and ministry invited Doug Gwyn to lead a workshop on the gospel of John, which grew out of his sermons at First Friends in Richmond IN.

    Most of our workshops have had between 30 and 45 Friends in attendance. We also visit meetings and worship groups. It keeps us mindful of the need for prayer for all Friends in the Quarter. We also learn a lot from smaller meetings.

    In the past, we have collaborated with the AFSC on projects.

    What we do less well is nurture possible new clerks/recording clerks. But in terms of pastoral care, finance, and children’s programs, we seem to be doing well. Not all Quarterly Meetings have the same passion for being “members one of another.”

    Our yearly meeting is struggling. I suspect it’s a lack of opportunity to engage with the work, since it appears to have a “professional”/volunteer divide that trips us up. If Friends feel their efforts are put to good use, the support will follow.

  11. 12 parcelhus Albertslund January 7, 2013 at 3:51 am

    Nice post. I learn something new and challenging on blogs I stumbleupon on a daily basis.
    It’s always exciting to read through content from other authors and use a little something from their web sites.

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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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