What went wrong with Friends?

As I have said in so many posts on this blog, a spirit of separation has taken over Friends. Once one of the most united bodies in the entire Christian family, Quakers in this generation have increasingly decided that they are better off not having anything to do with each other.

It’s been growing for quite some time. In early 1980’s, the worship wars were mainly over music. As years went by, Friends hardened positions over theology, politics, and sexuality until we reached the point where Friends decided we can’t be friends any more.

In my opinion, the change has been largely driven by pastors – most separations are driven by a small group of leaders rather than by a groundswell of broad feeling.

Separation has also been driven by sheer weariness – unending conflicts, relentless griping, non-stop fault-finding, nitpicking over details, and personal attacks against leaders.

Finances are also a major contributing factor to our breakdown – many more Quaker organizations all asking for money, plus the pressure of yearly meeting budgets based on head-count which actively discourages local meetings from adding new members. I have seen dozens of local meetings where the yearly meeting askings amounted to more than 15% of the local meeting budget – and I have heard hundreds of Friends asking what their yearly meeting is really doing for them.

Several yearly meetings have collapsed from the sheer weight of their books of Faith and Practice, which spell out in excruciating detail about structures which stopped functioning decades ago and battles over historical statements of faith which nobody reads.

Yearly meetings imploded when the number of appointments and committee slots to fill became greater (sometimes 2 or 3 times greater) than the number of people who were reluctantly willing to be appointed.

For more than 30 years, I was always the youngest member of any Quaker board I served on – a symptom that Quaker organizations were no longer attracting the energy or the interest of the next generation. It’s not that younger Friends don’t have concerns, but most of our Quaker organizations have failed dramatically in capturing their interest.

In much of my work with Friends, local meetings are widely scattered and isolated, and people are hungry for opportunities to worship together, build friendships and work on common concerns. Pastoral exchanges, traveling Friends, Young Friends events and visitors were so welcome! I’m still a newcomer in North Carolina, but my impression is that Friends here are reluctant to cooperate or visit. Meetings here are physically closer together, and Friends in North Carolina are scared that other meetings will poach or steal members from each other – a fear that is all too well-founded in some cases.

The life expectancy of many Quaker organizations is dwindling – even our yearly meetings, which for almost 400 years have been the bedrock of organized Quaker activity. Meetings are choosing sides and separating, or choosing to go it alone.

But to use John Donne’s famous phrase, “no man is an island” is equally true of local meetings. No congregation is an island, separate unto itself. We need each other to survive, to stay fresh, to remind ourselves of who we are, to do projects together which are too big for one small group. Friends who attack and destroy organizations without building something better are irresponsible.

What’s happened? Worshiping together stopped being the glue. Gatherings stopped being fun. We focused on building budgets rather than relationships, and we told people how much they had to give instead of asking what they could manage. We didn’t ask our young people what they wanted to do. We wasted endless time and energy on attacking leaders. We were afraid. We listened to people who wanted to divide, and we didn’t have faith that God wants to keep us together.

None of this was inevitable, and Quakers in different places are trying to rebuild. But it’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be a lot harder if we don’t learn from our mistakes.

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5 Responses to “What went wrong with Friends?”


  1. 1 wmgsmith59 February 24, 2017 at 11:53 am

    This true of “liberal” programmed yearly meetings as well. Social action without religious roots is common.

  2. 2 QuaCarol February 24, 2017 at 1:12 pm

    Josh, thank you for this. As I’ve been grappling with life in New York Yearly Meeting I’ve been wishing I had a copy of “You Can’t Get There from Here.” Any chance you could set up an online version, as well as the two manuscripts that followed?

  3. 5 Candy March 14, 2017 at 11:44 am

    We haven’t found a Friends Meeting yet that isn’t focused on the sexual orientation of acceptance. We believe in tolerance and to let God judge all. We won’t base our acceptance on who you identify with or who you are sleeping with. We want to worship with like minded people who love God and are willing to help others in need and to support causes that improve the lives of all of God’s children. We are ALL God’s children. Still searching in North Carolina


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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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