Archive for the 'Indiana Yearly Meeting' Category

Have we learned anything?

Quakers don’t seem to learn. There have been several major divisions in the last few years over conflicts related to sexual issues and faith – in Western Yearly Meeting (2003-2009), Indiana Yearly Meeting (2008-2013), North Carolina Yearly Meeting (2016), and currently in Northwest Yearly Meeting.

I don’t know what your position is on these issues. Quakers are all over the map, which should be no surprise at all by now – an old joke goes that in any group of 10 Quakers, there will be at least 15 opinions.

What bothers me is that Quakers have refused to learn from experience – the experience of our own generation, repeated multiple times in numerous bodies. I’m not surprised that we don’t agree – I’m just surprised that we haven’t figured out that this disagreement is apparently normal, and that we keep hammering at each other in an effort to create and enforce a uniformity which isn’t about to happen any time soon.

I’m not pushing for anyone who reads this to agree with how I interpret the Bible on these issues. What I’d like to point out are the practical lessons which Quakers across the board in this generation haven’t figured out.

  1. Division means loss – fewer members for everyone. Friends who advocate division almost always claim that we will be stronger if we break into more theologically uniform groups. In practice, every division I’m aware of has led to a drastic loss of membership. When a yearly meeting divides, there aren’t just two groups – a bunch of Quakers simply leave altogether. In the two yearly meetings I’ve studied most closely (Indiana and North Carolina) there was an overall loss of nearly 30% of the total membership.
  2. In a division, many meetings choose to not to belong to any yearly meeting. We don’t know what their future will be. A few, with considerable effort, manage to retain their Quaker identity. Many eventually disband, or become generic community churches.
  3. Attacking individuals and meetings only makes things worse. I’ve seen a number of campaigns to “get rid of the problem” by attempting to rescind the credentials of Quaker ministers or expel local meetings which don’t toe the line. This makes sense to Friends who are intent on closing ranks and cleaning house, but it doesn’t work very well on a yearly meeting scale. Other Friends rush to their defense, and the whole conflict becomes personal and bogs down.
  4. When you start making threats to leave or withhold funds, the game is over. In several yearly meeting conflicts, large meetings have threatened to pull out if they don’t get their way, or groups of meetings have announced that they will hold back funds to the yearly meeting until the conflict is settled. These tactics are seen by other Friends as little more than playground bullying.
  5. Appealing to Faith and Practice as the “rule book” may work tactically, but it doesn’t fix the real conflict. I’ve seen this tried in almost every yearly meeting I’ve ever been a part of. It’s usually seen as manipulative by the losing side. Appealing to the rules may work for the moment, but it doesn’t bring Friends back together. Changing the rules to get what you want, or ignoring Quaker process altogether, is also always seen as unfair and makes division almost inevitable.
  6. In a division, ministries and missions always suffer. In spite of the fact that these are usually the most popular part of a yearly meeting, when Quakers start talking about division, funding and interest goes down, participation drops, and gifted mission workers and ministers and their families suffer. Youth programs, schools and cooperative efforts of all kinds which have taken generations to build can be destroyed.
  7. As a practical matter, time and generational change seem to be on the side of welcoming/affirming Friends. For most Quakers under the age of 40, this is a non-issue. And for many Quakers, it’s mostly about family or close friends or co-workers – they refuse to condemn people they love. They may not have any other agenda. Federal and state laws have changed, major employers pay no attention to sexual identity, a lot of society has moved on.
  8. Quakers aren’t the only ones dealing with these issues. Other denominations are having the same problems, and they’re often making the same mistakes and refusing to learn from them. Why we think we need to re-invent the wheel, have the same conflicts, and then be surprised by the outcome is really beyond me.

Here are a few positive lessons which I wish Quakers would pick up on:

  1. Being connected matters. Belonging and being active in some kind of organization is better than belonging to none. Friends may need to find ways to change or re-purpose our structures so that we can continue to pray together and to do ministry and mission together.
  2. Ignore the boundaries. When Indiana Yearly Meeting broke up, one of the first things that happened is that the United Society of Friends Women announced that they were going to continue to meet and work together. When everybody else is set on dividing, find new ways to work together, worship together, and get to know each other.
  3. Respect each other. During a conflict, Quakers usually try to follow this, but it often breaks down in private. I’ve heard a lot of vicious name-calling, demonizing and attributing of malicious intent during Quaker conflicts. Genuine respect for the motives of people I disagree with goes a long way towards keeping things on a more even keel.
  4. Choose your Bible texts carefully. Most of us are familiar with the texts having to do with sexuality, and we’re not likely to change each others’ minds about how they should be interpreted. If we want to find our way through conflict, maybe we need to look at some different Bible passages. My personal favorites which I recommend to Friends are Jesus’ prayer for unity (John 17:11), the description of how conflict was handled in Acts (Acts 10 and 11, also Acts 15:1-35), Paul’s counsel on handling disagreement (Romans 14-15), and Paul’s advice on discerning what spirit is present in a group (Galatians 5:13-23).

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.

Thoughts on division

Quakers are always going on about our interest in peacemaking, and our practice of making decisions on the basis of unity. The truth is, we have a long and unhappy history of division, and maybe we’d be better off if we acknowledged it.

Here in our area, Indiana Yearly Meeting was formed in 1821. For generations, Indiana was the largest yearly meeting in the world. The yearly meeting had scarcely started when the great Hicksite/Orthodox separation tore American Quakers apart in 1828. It left a legacy of suspicion, bitterness and mutual intolerance which we’re still dealing with today.

A series of healthier separations took place in the 1800’s, as Indiana Yearly Meeting “set off” a number of new groups as Quakers grew and expanded. Western Yearly Meeting (1858), Iowa Yearly Meeting (1863), Kansas Yearly Meeting (1872) and Wilmington Yearly Meeting (1891) are all “daughters” of Indiana Yearly Meeting.

Less  happy separations happened in the mid-1800’s, as “conservative” Friends resisted the more evangelical theology of a new generation of ministers. Conservative Friends remain as a group of small but spiritually lively yearly meetings in Iowa, Ohio and North Carolina.

While most Orthodox Quakers in the Midwest joined in the trend toward programmed worship and pastoral leadership in the late 1800’s, there were battles over just how far towards the evangelical right Friends should go. The Richmond Declaration of 1887 can be interpreted as drawing a line to keep Friends from abandoning our traditional rejection of water baptism and outward communion.

Friends also divided over many of the ideas of modern science, and in particular over the teaching of evolution, and Earlham was the center of an attempted “heresy trial” in the 1920’s. Many Friends continue to be divided over the acceptance of modern Bible scholarship and less-than-literal interpretation of the Bible.

As a result of these controversies, Central Yearly Meeting split off from the mainstream in Indiana, and Ohio Yearly Meeting moved more to the right over the years, eventually becoming Evangelical Friends International – Eastern Region.

This weekend (July 27-28) Indiana Yearly Meeting is planning to split again, with 18 monthly meetings leaving. 14 of them have agreed so far to join the New Association of Friends.

Although Friends on both sides are trying to avoid bitterness and public blaming, I can’t help but be sad about this new division. Well-meaning Friends are trying to spin this as a positive development, and maybe some of us will emerge strong and healthy again. But Indiana Yearly Meeting is a shadow of what it was – in numbers, in energy, in effective ministry, in vision.

Differences of opinion, differences in worship, and differences in understanding of the Bible don’t have to be causes of division. The primary cause is Friends who say, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and if you don’t agree, you should leave.”

Quakers would be more honest if we would admit to ourselves and each other that a big reason we care about unity is that our history is one of division. And our perspective on peacemaking might change if Quakers admitted how often and how bitterly we have fought with each other.

I feel a little hope from the past. In 1843, Indiana Friends disagreed strongly over whether it was right to help escaping slaves to freedom or not. No one supported slavery – that issue had been settled for Friends back in the mid 1700’s. But one group felt it was a moral imperative to help escaping slaves, while the other side felt bound to remain within the law. Indiana Yearly Meeting and Indiana Yearly Meeting of Anti-Slavery Friends existed separately for 13 years, until they finally re-united in 1856.

Maybe, someday, something like that will happen again here in Indiana, as society changes and as we all have new experiences. But I grieve for our lost unity, however fragile it may have been.
I plan to do whatever I can to help Friends in my own meeting to survive and thrive, and I am giving my full support to the New Association of Friends.

Many readers have written to me here on these pages, expressing your care and concern. Please keep us all in your prayers.

What does your yearly meeting web site say about you?

I started looking at yearly meeting web sites out of curiosity. My monthly meeting is part of the New Association of Friends who are no longer part of Indiana Yearly Meeting, and we are setting up a web site this spring. I thought I’d look at what other yearly meetings have done and see what works and what’s attractive.

Nearly all yearly meetings in North America have a web site – that’s a big change from 10 years ago, when web sites were still new to many church organizations. There’s a lot of variation among Quaker sites, both in appearance and features. After visiting 8 or 10 yearly meeting sites I started making notes, which turned into a full-fledged review.

I wound up visiting the web sites for 34 yearly meetings in North America, most of them several times. I covered Friends from all across the spectrum – FGC, FUM, Evangelical, Conservative and independent, plus Britain Yearly Meeting for good measure. If I missed yours, I’m sorry – let me know, and I’ll be happy to check it out. Click here for a chart of all the features I checked, or click here for specific comments about each site I visited.

Full disclosure: I am not a professional web site designer, or even that much of a computer geek. I spend a lot of time on the Internet, mainly on religious/spiritual sites.

What are the differences? Some yearly meeting web sites are more visually attractive than others. Some have more features. Most of all, some web sites have a better flavor – after visiting them, you feel you’d like to meet the people connected with them. Other sites are a total turn-off – which is a pity, since the Friends behind them are probably quite nice.

Think of me as a “mystery shopper” – someone who drifts in quietly and makes notes, sort of like the Michelin guide. Most of my comments are subjective, but they’re not personal. If I didn’t like your yearly meeting’s web site, that doesn’t mean I don’t like you.

In today’s world, your web site is your front door. It’s the first place people look for you! They want to find basic information, and they usually want to find it quickly. If it isn’t there, they’ll go away in a matter of seconds.

Appearance matters. With the tools available today, any site can be colorful, well-organized and visually attractive. There’s no excuse for unreadable print, photos which are out of focus, or text which scrolls off the edge of the screen.

So does navigation – how you find things and move from one section of the site to the other. As a rule of thumb, most professional designers say that nothing on a web site should be more than 3 clicks away. If you have to burrow down through layers of links which don’t make intuitive sense, your visitors will leave. Many of the yearly meeting sites I visited also have links which are outdated or lead nowhere – there are simple tools available to check this!

Who is the site for? This is the single biggest question a web designer needs to answer. Is the web site mainly for members of the yearly meeting – “insiders” who already know the organization? Or is the web site mainly there to attract seekers, visitors, or new Friends – “outsiders”? Most yearly meeting web sites are hybrids, trying to serve both groups on a single site.

Many sites would make little or no sense to a non-Friend – they’re filled with acronymns, Quaker jargon, and references to programs and gatherings which mean nothing to an outsider. It’s a good idea to have a skeptical non-Quaker look over your site and say, “What’s that mean? What do those initials stand for? Who cares about that?” Pay attention, and make some changes. Your site will improve!

The sites for Evangelical yearly meetings tend to handle this issue better. Theologically and practically, they want new people to join, and they don’t mind if visitors aren’t already Quakers – in fact, they expect it! It’s an attitude which is reflected in the whole look and feel of their web site, and it’s something which other Friends need to work on. Visit MidAmerica Yearly Meeting to see how welcoming a web site can be.

Some hybrid sites have a login area which can be used by clerks, leaders or committee members to access documents and reports which are not for general circulation. “Member login” is unfriendly; “User login” is better. Better still is a navigation feature which directs this kind of user off the main page into a special area.

Many yearly meeting web sites have problems with consistency in appearance across all their pages. This happens when you try combine an “old” site (maybe only 3-5 years old) with a “new” home page. It may save time and effort, but it’s visually confusing for visitors who feel they’ve been booted off the site into a different place. Good sites use themes or style sheets to make sure all their pages have a similar appearance.

What’s under the hood? Most people who aren’t designers don’t care about the hidden computer code which powers the site. But there are significant differences, and to some extent you get what you pay for. The top-rated sites are custom built and professionally maintained. They’re expensive, and they’re full of well-designed features. The sites for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and Britain Yearly Meeting are good examples of expensive, complex projects where professional design and maintenance has paid off with a great site.

A large proportion of yearly meeting web sites today are built using pre-made or slightly customized themes from companies like Microsoft or services like WordPress. These can look very good with a little thought and effort. One of the best Conservative sites, Ohio Conservative Yearly Meeting, uses a WordPress design which perfectly and attractively expresses the simplicity which is dear to these Friends.

Color schemes can be too subtle as well as too garish. A number of sites use very pale colors to indicate hyperlinks, which can cause problems on laptops or when viewing the screen from an angle or in strong light. Give it a little contrast.

How long does it take your site to load? Several sites froze or locked up when I re-visited them. Some sites may be hosted on someone’s home PC or on a badly-run server, rather than on a commercial or institutional server. If the site crashes, locks up, doesn’t load or generates error messages, guess what? People won’t come back.

Another big distinction is whether a site is static or dynamic. Does it just sit there like a billboard, unchanging from month to month? Or is there new material being posted all the time? Give people reasons to come back to your site – articles, newsletters, online surveys, and other resources. A small number of sites include .MP3 audio files to share talks, sermons and lectures, or include links to YouTube videos of special events.

One important reason for people to visit a yearly meeting web site is to find a local meeting near them or where they’re traveling. Nearly all the sites do this in some way. Most use Google Maps, which allows the web designer to use colored “push pins” to mark the exact location of all the local meetings, or even color-code them by quarterly or regional meeting. Better yearly meeting sites also include links to the local meeting site, a map, information about worship times and First Day/Sunday school, e-mail and phone number, handicap accessibility, and other things which first-time visitors want to know about.

One of my pet criticisms is sites which are stuffed with PDF files, which are widely used because they can be read by nearly everyone using the free version of Adobe Acrobat Reader. (Several sites include a link to download Adobe.) However, .PDF files take up a lot more file space than web pages, which means they load slowly. Also, a .PDF file is a “dead end” on a web site – you don’t usually go forward from a .PDF, you have to back out. Only use .PDF’s for large, long files like reports, minutes and back issues of newsletters.

Don’t make your good stuff hard to find! New England Yearly Meeting has a really exciting resource page of visiting Friends and Quakers offering workshops, but it’s in tiny print and it’s buried far down in the site.

Most sites include a master calendar of yearly meeting-sponsored events, and the majority of them use Google Calendar. Unfortunately, these calendars wind up with a lot of empty space, giving the impression that there isn’t much going on. Better web sites list upcoming individual events with bars or banners which you can click to learn more.

All but a handful of sites include a link to their Faith and Practice, and most of them aren’t very useful. Many are in .PDF format which creates ginormous files. Some sites have their Faith and Practice broken down into sections to make it load faster – and makes it that much harder to search. Take the next step and convert your Faith and Practice to .HTM which is much smaller and loads faster. Most important, please include hyperlinks throughout the whole document. To see what I’m talking about, visit Faith and Practice on the Canadian Yearly Meeting web site.

Nearly all sites include contact information for yearly meeting clerks and staff. Be careful about including personal contact information – names, addresses, phone numbers and e-mails. Consider setting up generic e-mails for yearly meeting staff and leaders (clerk@youryearlymeeting.org) so that their personal e-mail account at gmail or yahoo isn’t flooded with spam.

What makes your yearly meeting unique? Your web site should help people know who Friends in your yearly meeting really are. Well-chosen photos, short quotations, headlines for current news and events, can all help visitors get a taste of who you are. Be selective! Several yearly meetings have home pages which are stuffed with randomly chosen, out-of-date material. Others have photos showing only older Friends – intergenerational pictures are fine, but a couple of sites look like advertisements for Quaker retirement communities.

Many sites include a “make a donation” link. I can’t evaluate how much money these yearly meetings are raising this way – only your yearly meeting treasurer knows for sure. However, I predict that sites which are visually boring, static and feature-hungry are probably not helping their yearly meeting’s budget along.

Your web site probably has external links to missions you support, schools or colleges, other Quaker organizations like FUM, FGC, EFCI and so on. It’s great to include links to them, but make sure they return the favor – if you support a mission or concern and help to publicize their work, ask them to put a link to your yearly meeting on their site.

Here’s a surprise question: does your yearly meeting have an entry on Wikipedia? Less than a quarter of the yearly meetings I surveyed have Wikipedia entries. Wikipedia free, and it’s where a lot of visitors will look for you first. Wikipedia entries are editable, so you can update them easily – but they are also can be changed by any reader who takes the time to do so.

Plan on giving your yearly meeting site a complete makeover every 3-5 years – update your appearance, re-do the navigation, ditch sections which aren’t being used. Choose the features you really want. Don’t skip the ones you really need. All sites can be improved!

Let’s talk about money

Quakers in Indiana would almost rather talk about sex. Money is such a non-subject for discussion, but it’s been building up almost as much tension over the last 10 or 20 years as the battles over sexuality which are the “official” reason for our division.

For the last hundred years we have been locked in to a system of assessments based on the number of members in each local meeting. As assessments have relentlessly gone up, this has led many meetings to reduce the number of members, or even discourage people from joining, because each new member also meant adding another $150 to the yearly meeting assessment.

This is the first time in a generation when we have really been free to start over and think fresh. We are free to imagine a new organization, a whole new way of being Friends. We have no budget, which means we are free to think about what we really want to do.

There was general agreement that we don’t want or need to re-create the old structure, staff, and programs of Indiana Yearly Meeting. For years we heard Quakers complain, “What has the yearly meeting done for us?” Now we need to turn that around and plan a new organization which will do what we want. We need to live within our means, but also spend mo more than we are ready and willing to.

Not all yearly meetings are funded by a per capita assessment based on the number of members, though that is the most common practice. Some ask for a percentage of the local meeting’s budget, while other yearly meetings ask meetings to pledge whatever they can.

I’d like to suggest that instead of continuing with a tax based on the number of members, that we use an average of membership and worship attendance. This would help to remove the disincentive for meetings to add members, and include the folks who come to worship but haven’t joined yet. (To see what these numbers might be like, see “What Numbers Are We Talking About?”, posted last November.)

I’m not suggesting that Friends go all the way to zero. Most of our meetings have a long-standing interest in missions, and Quaker missions depend on steady funding, no matter what conniptions Indiana Quakers are going through.

The Indiana Yearly Meeting budget for the last few years has been built on an assessment of $75 for yearly meeting expenses and $75 for missions. As meetings move out of Indiana Yearly Meeting, they’re asking what they should be doing during this time of transition. Some meetings are probably calling it a “tax holiday” and enjoying a little relief in their local finances. Other meetings are including the old assessment in their 2013 budget and setting the funds aside, assuming they will contribute a similar amount to whatever new group they join.

As the New Association of Friends (that’s at least our interim name) start thinking about who we are and what we want to do, we could simply continue the old pattern of $75 for organizational costs and $75 for missions. But here are some other possibilities:

  • $50 for organizational costs
  • $50 for missions
  • $50 for development – intervisitation, scholarships to attend workshops and conferences, visiting speakers, advertising, programs for youth and young adults

Or:

  • $50 for missions
  • $50 for local programs
  • $50 to build up some new long-term funds

Or:

  • $50 for missions
  • $25 for Quaker organizations
  • $75 for organizational costs

Or:

  • $50 for missions
  • $25 for youth and young adult programs
  • $25 for outreach and advertising
  • $50 for part-time staff

Whatever we decide, let’s have some lively discussion from our meetings about what things we really want to do and want to support. Let’s see what we’re willing to contribute, and plan what we positive things we can do with the funds we have. Let’s think about growing, not declining. Let’s not be tied down by the past, but freed for our future.

Update on the New Association of Friends

Friends from 14 meetings gathered at First Friends Meeting in Richmond, IN on Sunday, January 27th to discuss plans for a new association of Friends, to be made up of meetings which will no longer be part of Indiana Yearly Meeting.

At least 90 Friends were present, which means that more than 10% of the possible membership of the new association showed up. This compares with recent gatherings of Indiana Yearly Meeting, which typically draw less than 2% of the total membership at business sessions.

Some meetings sent representatives, while others came as observers. At the beginning of the session, clerk pro tem Catherine Griffith asked us to share some idea of where our meetings are in this process – fully engaged in joining the new association, still making up their minds, or just “dating” to see what the new group is like.

During a time of free and open discussion, we identified a number of goals for the coming year:

• transition out of Indiana Yearly Meeting
• setting up at least a minimum organization and a legal entity to receive startup funds from IYM
• have FUN together!
• worship and fellowship
• get to know each other better
• build up communications between our meetings
• work together on service and mission projects
• embrace the diversity of Friends in our new group
• pray for each other
• maintain the credentials of recorded ministers and pastors
• encourage new ministers
• explore ways we can be active in Friends United Meeting

There was much discussion about how much organization we need at this point. Everyone agreed that we don’t need to re-create the complex structure of the old yearly meeting. We appointed a nominating committee to find a clerk, recording clerk and treasurer, a “nuts and bolts” committee to work on legal issues, and a steering committee to work on long-term plans. The steering committee will include a representative from each monthly meeting which is involved in the new association.

The next gathering will be held in mid-March here at West Richmond Friends Meeting

What kind of leadership?

As we look toward the formation of a new group of Friends in eastern Indiana, we need to give serious thought to what kind of leadership we need.

Several Friends have written to say that they don’t want a traditional superintendent. (The title of “superintendent” was borrowed in the 1880’s from the Methodist church.) A few Friends have said they want to have a “field secretary”. Others have suggested a “released Friend”. Others have talked about someone who will be a “servant leader”.

These different job titles suggest that we need to ask ourselves what we want a leader/staff person to do. Here are some roles or tasks to think about:

• We need someone who will encourage communication and fellowship between local meetings. Most of our meetings are starving for meaningful contact with each other.

• We need someone who will encourage us to worship more deeply. Sometimes this means coming as an inspiring and inspired guest speaker; sometimes it means asking questions about whether what we’re doing on Sunday is really reaching people’s hearts and minds.

• We need someone to remind us of the wider Quaker world of missions, service opportunities, schools, gatherings, special events and organizations. It’s too easy for us to focus on the needs of our own local meeting and forget what’s out there.

• We need someone who will encourage all of our meeting’s leaders – the pastors, certainly, but also the clerks, youth ministers, committee leaders and emerging new ministers. A good leader keeps an “incubator list” of people to encourage, and helps them find ways to use their gifts.

• We need someone who can engage with our young people, and especially with our young adult Friends. This isn’t so much a matter of age as outlook and energy – we need someone who can hear what our younger members are saying, and encourage them.

• Most of all, we need someone who is a good listener – as one of my own mentors used to say, who can “listen us into our truth”. Sure, I’d like a great preacher and teacher – but I think we need a good listener most of all.

The old Indiana Yearly Meeting has an unbroken tradition of male superintendents. It shouldn’t matter whether the person who leads our new group is a man or a woman.

We don’t need a central office. A post office box can handle the paper mail. For many of today’s leaders, their “office” is wherever they can connect to the Internet or make a phone call. Let’s not build our identity around a single location.

We probably can’t start with a full-time person. In an earlier post, I said that most yearly meetings struggle to afford one full-time staffer for every 2,500-3,000 members. We will probably start out with 600-700, so we will either need a volunteer or a part-time person.

A couple of people have suggested to me that we might try to find an intern or seminary student. Although this idea has some good points, I think we need the continuity of a leader who can stay with us for at least 2 or 3 years. It would be great for us to make use of the gifts and talents of a seminary student or minister in training for short-term, focused special projects.

Finding the right person with the right mix of skills and attitudes will be challenging.

• able to help plan and organize exciting special events – gatherings for worship, workshops, leadership training and educational events

 computer literate – we can’t afford to hire someone who can’t use today’s tools

experienced with a variety of worship styles, and willing to participate in both pastoral and unprogrammed worship

knowledgeable about Quaker history and beliefs, the Bible, and the wider Christian church

be able to travel around our scattered meetings

• an extra language is a definite plus

non-defensive and open to the experiences of others

Good leadership doesn’t “just happen”. We need to ask ourselves what kind of leaders we want and need, and then start looking and praying.

What I’d really like

OK, let me dream a little.  We’re in the early stages of setting up a new association of Friends, and there are a lot of ideas floating around on various blogs and discussion groups. Here are some ideas for what I would really like.

I want worship to be the real center of activity and purpose for this new association. I want opportunities to worship with Friends from other meetings. I’d like these opportunities to happen several times a year, held at different locations so I can see their space and get a sense of their life together. I need to get out of my own meetinghouse, and stop thinking that the world of Friends centers around where I worship every Sunday.

Too often, in the old Indiana Yearly Meeting, worship times became just another battleground, another place for us to disagree. I want a sense that when we come together to worship, that everyone truly is welcome. Whatever style of worship we have, whether programmed, semi-programmed or unprogrammed, I want a sense each time that we are offering our best to God, and that no one there is judging the style of worship, the music, the speaker or anything else that day.

I want lots of opportunities for Friends of similar interests to get together. Some of these may take the shape of ongoing committees (hopefully few) while other opportunities may take the shape of workshops or interest groups which meet for a season and can be continued or laid down without a lot of fuss.

Regardless of their job description or task, I want committees where the main purpose is to encourage and advise, rather than regulate and control.

And while I’m on the subject of committees, Friends, we really need to change the culture of how committees function. I like the idea of committees being broadly representative, but I’m much more interested in having committees which are energizing and active. In my experience, smaller groups often function better than larger ones – half a dozen people are often more effective than twenty, if everyone on the committee works and contributes to the discussion.

I think that committees need their own life of worship and fellowship, and I think it’s well worth it for committees to spend plenty of time in prayer and getting to know each other at a deep level. The real “business” of a committee often isn’t what’s on it’s agenda.

That said, a well-prepared agenda is important, and leadership is crucial. I’ve wasted too many hours on yearly meeting committees which have no idea what they’ve done, what their business is, what resources they have, who they should report to, or even who is in charge of the meeting. Clerks should be nominated, and should be the best person available – if you leave it to the committee to choose its own leader, the clerk winds up being the last person to say “no” to the job.

I’m willing to experiment with alternative ways of holding committee meetings and interest groups. I’d rather use Skype than conference calls, so we can see each others’ faces as well as hearing voices. But I’m also willing to experiment with holding retreats and weekend work/worship gatherings. Anything to get away from the pointless, clueless, lifeless meetings I’ve attended for 20 years, sitting on tiny chairs in Sunday School rooms, where no one is excited about being there and no one has done the things they signed up to do last time.

Frankly, Friends, our work ethic sucks. We often bring concerns half-prepared to business sessions, and then expect other people to take over our concerns, fund them, publicize them, and make them happen. “Support” is a very cheap word, and I’d be happy to ban it from general use for a few years till we rediscover the reality of what it means.

I want to contribute to Quaker mission and service work, but I’d like to change what that means. I have spent more than 30 years on committees which sent money to Quaker organizations, and most of the time we simply sent whatever amount we sent the year before. It would be fun – and sobering – to be on a group responsible for promoting mission and service work which spent most of its time understanding what that work is about. And I’d like to see us emphasize sending our own people on mission and work trips to see with our own eyes, and worship there in person, before we send money.

I’d like us to do a few things really well, even if it means sacrificing a lot of things we’ve traditionally done. This is our golden opportunity to re-invent what a group of meetings can do together. I understand (and love) Quaker tradition, but if all we do is replicate the old yearly meeting, I’m not interested. Let’s do something new.

The Ghost of Denominations Past

Denominations are a Protestant thing. For hundreds of years, Protestants have divided into groups based on distinctive practices, writings, worship styles, and ethnic, economic or social backgrounds.

Quakers started out as a denomination. We trace our roots back to 17th-century England and to 18th and 19th-century America. We spend a lot of time talking about how “we are not like those other churches.” We have a collection of famous Quaker writers we like to quote, a distinctive style of doing church business, and several closely-related styles of worship.

Most of all, we enjoy identifying ourselves as Quakers or Friends. We may not agree with what those “other” Quakers do sometimes, but we have invested a great deal of energy and effort into our identity and self-image as Quakers, and we get upset whenever anyone else tries to monkey with it.

For most of the 1800’s and 1900’s, being a denomination meant outward signs of group success – holding large conferences, having a publishing house, a mission organization, schools and colleges, youth programs, institutions for the training and recognizing ministers. Denominations also usually need a good deal of money to build and maintain. It also implied having a strong central authority which could define and enforce what being a member of that denomination means.

Denominations have been beaten up for the last hundred years by theologians, economic forces, evolving worship styles and changing social attitudes. There has been a lot of new competition from independent groups and megachurches, which emphasize that they’re “not denominations” (and don’t have to pay denominational dues, a big plus for their finances).

Indiana Yearly Meeting tried for many years to have its own denominational ministries – we had our own college (Earlham), our own seminary (Earlham School of Religion), a camp (Quaker Haven), a retirement community (Friends Fellowship), a conference center (Quaker Hill), and a social ministry (White’s Family Services). We often shared ownership of these ministries with other Quaker groups in order to spread the cost. In recent years, nearly all of these ministries have gone independent. We also had a central organization with an office, staff, and committees for missions, publishing, youth work, and so on.

Quakers in Indiana have never really been large enough to play in the denominational big leagues. Early in the 1900’s, Indiana Yearly Meeting claimed a paper membership of over 12,000, which was probably about double the number of active Friends. Today we claim less than 4,000 members, and it’s been increasingly impossible for us to continue to be a denomination. We don’t have either the money or the members to stay in the game.

Most of all, the current struggle in Indiana Yearly Meeting shows that we don’t have the ability to enforce what it means to be a Quaker. We can’t do it with definitions, with minutes, with threats or with pressure politics. There’s no Quaker pope or high court either side can appeal to, and no network of alliances strong enough to make the other side knuckle under.

It’s time for us to give up the ghost of denominations past. It’s time for us to come up with something more workable and realistic, affordable and adapted to today’s needs and interests. We aren’t a denomination any more. What can we be together?

Starting out right

Two worship experiences over the holiday season reminded me strongly of the things I hope for in this new association of Friends.

On Christmas Eve, four congregations – three Quaker, one Brethren – gathered for a simple service hosted by First Friends here in Richmond. There was lovely music interspersed with a series of readings by folks from each congregation. At the end, we left our seats and formed a large circle round the room. Each person was given a candle, and as the candles were lit, a circle of light grew, and we sang Silent Night together. It was a lovely example of how a simple worship service can draw people together.

West Richmond Friends values both prepared messages and open worship. Any month where there are five Sundays, we set aside the 5th Sunday for completely unprogrammed worship. So on December 30th, we gathered in the library for a more intimate setting, and spent our last Sunday of the year in traditional quiet prayer. We always welcome vocal ministry, but we never feel disappointed if a whole hour passes in silence, with no one speaking, and last Sunday was one of those special occasions when we were blessed by being gathered quietly in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Both times, after the rise of meeting, no one wanted to leave. Everyone stayed to talk, to visit with friends, to hear news and share what’s been going on in their lives.

There’s a lot of discussion going on among Friends about the structure, budget, and possible staffing of our new group. I hope that our new association – whatever we call it, whatever shape it takes – is built first and foremost on worship.

For way too many years, Indiana Yearly Meeting has felt like a battleground. Even at our best moments, there has been jockeying for position, judging of one another in our expressions of worship and in our spiritual convictions. Back in November, I quoted from London Yearly Meeting in 1668:

“We did conclude among ourselves to settle a meeting, to see one another’s faces, and open our hearts one to another in the Truth of God once a year, as formerly it used to be.”

For me, the central purpose of our new gathering is to get together as often as possible for worship – deep worship, grounded in a sense of gratefulness that we are together, and setting aside any other agenda except being gathered and led by the Spirit.

Other things may grow out of worship – I confidently expect they will. But the old yearly meeting – its power struggles, overburdened finances, mutual distrust and general tiredness – became the tail that tried to wag the dog. Let’s not do that again!

If we set up any kind of committees, I’d like the first one be a committee to plan and encourage times when we can worship together – as two or three meetings in a convenient area, as individuals under shared concerns, as people hungry for fellowship and glad to spend time together.

Let’s be Friends, before we do anything else.


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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