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!


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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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