Archive for the 'Leadership' Category

Quakers and applause

A couple of years ago our meeting hired a new choir director, a recent college graduate who did his best with our oddly-assorted group of Quaker singers (3 sopranos, 4 altos, 1 tenor and 1 bass). He also agreed to sing a solo once a month to liven up our music at worship.

The first time he sang, at the end of the piece he bowed very slightly and then waited, expecting some kind of response from the meeting. Being traditional Quakers, they bowed their heads in silence, which led into the unprogrammed or open worship time we have every week.

The choir director came to me afterward and asked if there was something wrong with what he did – why didn’t anyone applaud or say something? He was clearly hurt and anxious about whether he was about to be fired. People had come up to him and thanked him after meeting, but for him, the lack of response in the moment was very discombobulating.

I tried to explain the difference between performance and worship, but he was still very upset. We talked it over at the next choir practice and at Ministry and Counsel, and several people said that they had always been puzzled about our not applauding. We decided that it would be all right if people wanted to clap for musical solos or for the choir – we already clap for announcements about birthdays or happy events like a wedding announcement or the return of someone who has recovered from a serious illness.

It made me reflect that there is some part of the Quaker ethos which makes us reluctant to thank or congratulate each other openly, to acknowledge achievements or mark the milestones in each others’ lives. In Quaker communities, there seems to be a feeling that applauding will make the applaudee feel stuck-up, or that we’re honoring the individual rather than honoring God.

I have come across several accounts of prayer in meetings in the 1700’s and early 1800’s. Allen Jay describes the scene: “The stillness was sometimes broken by vocal prayer, during which the congregation rose, pulled off their hats, and turned their backs to the one who was engaged in vocal prayer. We were also expected to bow our heads, and, when he was through, to sit down with as little noise as possible.” (Autobiography of Allen Jay, 2010 edition, pp. 8-9) As a Quaker pastor, I’m certainly glad we have given up that practice! I’m not sure I could handle that every week.

I’ve been in several Quaker gatherings where someone has started to applaud, only to be severely eldered along the lines of “Quakers don’t do that!” In some settings, particularly at FGC, Friends have created an alternative “silent applause” (waving hands at shoulder height) which has always seemed a little contrived and cute to me.

Over the years I’ve picked up a similar reluctance by Quakers to highlight peoples’ achievements or recognize milestones in their lives or careers, to thank leaders for their service, or even to thank them for their hard work. I doubt that most Friends could identify Luke 17:10, but we seem to have taken it into practice – “When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless servants; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Or there may be a sort of understated snobbery in our lack of response – “We knew you would do the right thing, because that’s the sort of people we are.”

We sometimes unbend so far as to ask for a minute of thanks to be added to the minutes of a meeting – usually it’s done at the last minute and is worded as briefly as possible. The only time we really cut loose with our appreciation is in the memorial minutes which are published in Friends Journal and Quaker Life, when a eulogy can go on for pages.

By contrast, when I’ve been a part of African-American congregations, they’ve bent over backwards to acknowledge and applaud the smallest achievements, the littlest steps forward. It’s as though they know how difficult life is, how many barriers people face, that it’s the church’s responsibility to shelter and encourage every flicker of light and faith. The same kind of atmosphere is often found in 12-step meetings, where every achievement gets applauded.

I understand the risks of adulation, and I’ve been in groups where leaders bask in appreciation and people who do the scut work go unthanked. Quakers have instinctively shied away from showing our appreciation in public – but I think we take it too far. A little spontaneous applause now and then doesn’t hurt, and we could learn from the culture of appreciation which African-American churches and 12-step groups have built.

Say amen, somebody?

Causes of Quaker decline

Why are there fewer Quakers? Everybody has their own favorite explanation. I hear them all the time – people who say the problem is specific (“Quakers have too many splits”) and people who say the problem is generic (“we need to get prayer back into the schools”).

Some religious groups are in catastrophic decline due to scandals – mainly financial or sex-related. Friends have had our share of these, but our scandals are mostly local and haven’t affected Friends meetings across the board.

There’s a lot of distress about the gradual decline of Friends in North America, which has been about 1% per year in most yearly meetings for the last two or three generations.

I’ve lived and worked in four different yearly meetings – New England, New York, Indiana and currently North Carolina – and I’ve tried to figure out some of the reasons. Read these, take a look in the mirror, and see if any of them apply to your situation.

Some specific causes of Quaker decline in North Carolina include:

1) Mass migration of Friends to the Midwest because of opposition to slavery (1780’s to mid-1800’s)

2) Mass migration to other parts of the country because of economic hardship during and after the Civil War

Some causes of decline which may be shared by other yearly meetings:

1) Disownment, both because of failure to follow Quaker testimonies and especially for marrying out of meeting – this was a huge cause of decline in the 1700’s and 1800’s

2) Members joining other churches, usually ones with a more evangelical emphasis – starting in the 1800’s and continuing today

3) Conflicts over theology, worship style and music, different interpretations of the Bible, plus various social and political issues – ditto

4) Financial stress on yearly and local meetings – this is often the real cause underlying a lot of other conflicts, where the apparent cause on the surface may be something else

5) Focus on maintaining older, rural meetings rather than starting new ones in growing urban areas

6) Failure to build and maintain a pool of trained Quaker pastors and leaders – this one is really starting to bite hard, as fewer people want to spend their lives in this type of work, or can afford to spend money on professional training which will never be paid for

Causes of general church decline – things which are not specific to Friends:

1) Dying off of the “builder” generation, which supplied so many dedicated leaders and givers

2) Decline of the neighborhood church, which drew people simply because of location

3) Funding demands of denominations which can’t be sustained by local congregations

4) Decline in denominational loyalty

5) Erosion of respect for the church, for pastors and for the Bible

6) Growth of entertainment-based megachurches – this is a favorite punching bag for many smaller churches which aren’t facing up to their own problems

7) Explosion of competing interests during what used to be Sunday “church time” – work, sports, rest, etc.

8) Growth of “spiritual but not religious” segment of the population

9) Church music, sermons, Sunday School and traditional activities perceived as boring

10) High degree of physical mobility; fewer families with long-term commitment to staying in an area and building a congregation over several generations

11) Lower birth rate – families don’t contribute as much natural growth as they used to

12) Young adults moving away for college, work, etc. – this is one of the largest contributors to church decline

13) Change in attendance patterns from coming every week to only every 2-8 weeks – this is responsible for 30-50% of the drop in attendance in many otherwise healthy congregations

None of these needs to spell the end of the Quaker movement, but Friends DO need to work much harder, much smarter and in a much more focused way. In future posts, I’ll talk about some ways we can do this — and have fun along the way!

Legacy or burden?

Quakers are particularly good at raising up voices from the past – from the lives and ministry of people who have lived in faith and who are (we believe) now with the Lord.

We publish their journals. We have schools and scholarships in their names. We maintain historic properties and meetinghouses. We manage and distribute income from endowments. We have vast archives of family records, monthly meeting minutes, and genealogies.

Sometimes it’s more than just a little intimidating to be the custodians and caregivers of all this history. Many Friends meetings are afflicted with what I call “brass plaque syndrome” – we want to memorialize every person and every gift, so that even when the people who gave the gifts are long gone and no one in the meeting has any personal memories, the brass plaques will still be there as a reminder.

Springfield Friends Meeting, where I serve as pastor, has 42 brass plaques in the worship room alone. There are also two historic grandfather clocks, one of which was built by a Quaker cabinetmaker in 1797, traveled to Indiana and on to Washington during the great Quaker migrations, and was brought back here in the 1930’s.

There are also two large, ornate and no doubt historically significant earthenware jars, an organ, a piano, a pulpit, pew card holders and a dozen replacement energy-efficient windows with names on them, plus two large cast-bronze plaques on the outside of our “new” 1927 meetinghouse, on the covered walkway leading to our “old” 1858 meetinghouse, which now holds a delightful Museum of Old Domestic Life, filled with things in daily use in Quaker homes from the 1800’s.

Other legacy items are less historic but full of emotion. Last week one of our older members said, “I want you to have my son’s guitar. He died of cancer when he was 16. I want you to play it.” When someone offers you a gift like that, you can’t say no.

On a shelf in my office is a small stuffed toy bear, which I keep as a personal reminder of a member of West Richmond Friends who lost her husband of almost 70 years and clung to the bear for months, crying and helplessly calling his name. Marie’s bear is going to be with me for a while.

It’s a great privilege to care for so many pieces of faithful lives. I’ve re-edited one of the great Quaker journals, The Autobiography of Allen Jay, a minister who Rufus Jones called “the best loved Quaker in America,” and given dozens of talks and workshops. I discovered for myself and shared the first-hand stories of Quaker suffering during the Civil War which Stanley Pumphrey, an English Friend, recorded from the simple North Carolina Friends who lived through it.

More than most other religious groups, Quakers constantly refer to our past – the “historic testimonies” of simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality are regularly featured in Quaker circles. Pound for pound, we quote our founding leaders more than anyone else I know.

There are times when Quakers feel that our past is more of a burden than we want to bear. I have visited many Quaker meetings which keep on using historic benches which are really uncomfortable, or furniture which is worn and ugly. I have visited dozens of meeting libraries which are filled with books which haven’t been taken off the shelves since the Eisenhower administration, but which no one has the nerve to throw away.

One issue to which I am particularly sensitive is how our obsession with the past comes across to newcomers. Some people (especially those with Quaker ancestors) are excited by our history, while other people are turned off or simply puzzled by Quaker jargon and Quaker genealogies, which they experience as a serious barrier to being included.

I’m a great believer in the value of mission work and have given many hundreds of hours to supporting it. I’ve also heard Quaker leaders complain about what they call “legacy missions” which they feel are draining energy and money and which keep us from stepping out in new directions.

What do we do about this? There will always (or at least for a while) be Quakers who want to preserve, protect and enshrine our past. There will also be Quakers who are more-or-less oblivious to the precious but moth-eaten chair that a certain beloved minister sat in for 40 years, who are much more concerned with new ministries should take precedence over Quaker antiquities.

How have you wrestled with this problem in your own life, in the life of your meeting, and in the life of Quaker organizations? When does learning from the past cross over the line and become deifying it? How do you physically handle all that historic stuff? I look forward to some lively responses.

Trash talk

Every now and then, when I’ve got a free half hour and need a break, I grab a couple of big black garbage bags and a set of nabbers and walk along the roads that bound our meeting’s property. It still amazes me, the things people throw out.

Today I filled two large bags in no time at all. Dozens and dozens of bottles – North Carolina doesn’t have a bottle and can deposit law. Hard liquor, malt liquor, soft drinks, go cups, soda cans, bottled water, baby food, energy drinks, you name it. I know every fast food place in this part of town, and I could probably tell them all what their customers’ favorites are. I picked up soda straws, empty cigarette and cigar packages (Newport Menthol appears to be the favorite around here), snuff containers, paper bags, styrofoam trays and lottery tickets.

Some things were too big to pick up or drag back, and will have to wait till our meeting’s Clean Up Day next month – a shopping cart, old tires, a TV set, old window frames. Down at the corner by the cemetery, this week somebody abandoned a Chevy 3500 van in the ditch. Whoever did it left the license plate on, so when I called it in the police will have something to go on. Maybe it was stolen or taken for a joyride.

As a Christian, I know I’m supposed to be non-judgmental, but picking up hundreds of pounds of other people’s litter every year gets to be kind of old. I mentioned this to the head of our House and Grounds committee, a native of the area famous for his bluntness, who said, “Hell, they don’t care! They just drivin’ on down the road and phwtt! out the window she goes!”

Quakers are supposed to be advocates for world peace and non-violence, and I don’t think I would actually do any physical harm to these jerks. But it’s depressing to think that there is simply no way anyone on earth could reason with people who throw their trash by the roadside. They really don’t care, and I doubt that anyone will ever make them care.

There are much worse sins than littering, but in a way it’s symptomatic of the way human beings are broken. How could people who are made in God’s image, who were formed for the garden of Eden, who were told by God to be stewards of this earth, act this way?

Could be that their parents didn’t teach them. Could be that they’re so poor that they don’t feel any sense of ownership or belonging or responsibility for the community they live in. But I have a feeling that until people care enough to quit littering, we won’t have peace in this part of North Carolina. And if we keep filling up the world with garbage and don’t care who has to deal with it, we may not have peace with our neighbors, or with the world.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep on picking up trash in our neighborhood.

Why does growth happen?

Most of the time we don’t think about why a Friends meeting grows. It happens, or it doesn’t, and we’re glad about it, or we complain about it. But we don’t often stand back and try to figure out what’s going on.

There are a lot of different models or patterns out there competing for our attention. For example, some Friends think that growth happens mainly as a result of prayer. I agree – but I don’t agree with the way it’s usually done.

Just one prayer, tacked on as an afterthought to whatever else we happen to be doing, isn’t going to make much difference. I don’t think we need to ask God to get interested in church growth. Rather, we need to ask God to help get us interested in growing!

Praying for growth needs to become one of our core concerns. We need to lift it up to God regularly, and ask God for guidance in season and out of season, over a long period of time. Praying to grow needs to be both something we do privately and individually, and also publicly as part of our worship, in our committee meetings, in our newsletters and social media.

Other people think that growth happens as a result of programs. Whether you call them “ministries,” “community services,” or just “things we do,” programs offered by the church can be an open door for new people to enter.

And again, high-quality programs don’t just happen on their own. They need planning, prayer, and practical support. Too many church programs run on inertia – “we’ve always done it that way” – rather than intentionality – “this is what we really want to happen.”

Some churches grow because they have charismatic leadership. I guess the meeting where I serve is off the hook on that one – my leadership style is very low-key, and people tease me and say that I sound more like Mister Rogers than Billy Graham. Still, a meeting with leaders who are depressed or full of angst are probably less likely to grow than meetings where the leaders are upbeat and positive.

Some folks think that church growth takes place when worship is exciting and up-to-date. This is the push behind a lot of contemporary church music, multi-media and new church architecture.

I’m not against change or experimenting with new things – but my question is always, “are people being spiritually fed?” New things can become just as boring as the old ones they replace. Growth comes from nutrition, not novelty.

Another way to encourage church growth is through small groups. Many people enjoy having a small circle of friends who they can get to know better. Too many Quaker meetings promote acquaintanceship, not friendship. Sunday School classes, prayer circles, supper groups, work teams, study groups are all places where people can make deeper friendships. It’s often easier to start a new group than to incorporate people into an existing one.

A lot of importance is attached to the beliefs which are held and promoted by Friends. Some meetings go to great lengths to spell out in detail what they believe (or, more likely, what the leaders think their members should believe!) Well-thought-out intellectual beliefs are important, and Quakers do have a few beliefs which set us apart from the rest of the pack. In the long run, though, belief is more a matter of trust in God than anything else.

My hunch is that growth happens because of all of these things, working together to make our meeting an open and inviting place. And it happens when we pay attention to individuals – when we listen to people’s stories, learn about their lives, encourage them to share their gifts, and welcome their ideas.

Answering

One of the most popular phrases in the Quaker grab bag is “answering that of God in everyone”. It dates back to George Fox and the first generation of Friends in the 1650’s. The idea is that wherever we go, we have opportunities to speak to people and listen to their hearts. Whatever our differences, we will find something in common – a spark of God – which is similar to the fire in our own hearts.

Last month I had several experiences of this. The first was when I found a serious leak in one of the drain lines in the basement at the parsonage. Somehow, when the building was being renovated last year, one of the workers must have cut off the line and instead of closing up the cutoff end, just left it and went on to some other task. Every time we took a shower, the water was coming out in a little waterfall down in the crawl space.

I called the plumber and he came the next day. It wasn’t a difficult repair, maybe 10 or 15 minutes. I sat on the basement steps and talked with him while he fixed the drain. He knew that I’m a Quaker pastor, and he talked about a conflict which had left him deeply shaken – so much so that while he still believed in God, he could no longer pray or go to his church.

He talked, and I listened. I said a few things which seemed to help. He asked me to pray for him, so we prayed together down in the basement – maybe that’s where the best prayers need to take place. When he left, his heart seemed a lot lighter. I want to call him in a few days and see how he’s doing.

Last Sunday morning, my wife called me just before Sunday School was about to start. She said she thought she saw someone standing under the tree in our back yard. Our neighborhood has a lot of good people in it, but it also has a lot of crime and other bad things, so she didn’t want to check it out herself.

I walked over, and saw a woman huddled down on the ground under our tree. Many of the families in our neighborhood are immigrants from Pakistan, who came here to work in the factories in our area. This woman was dressed in traditional clothing, and she was crying uncontrollably – the kind of wracking, heart-stopping grief that you read about but seldom see.

I walked up slowly, and got down on the ground a few feet away. I didn’t want her to be scared, and most Muslim women in this area are careful not to speak to men. I spoke as gently as I could and said, “My sister, what is the matter? Can I help?”

She shook her head and kept crying. After a minute, she said, “My English not so good. I cannot explain.”

I said, “Is someone ill? Has someone died?”

She sobbed some more and said, “No. It is my oldest son. He. . .it is not good with him. He is smoking.”

I asked, “Is it tobacco? Or something else? Is it drugs?” She nodded hard. Her son, in his 20’s, has started using drugs, and she was heartbroken.

I couldn’t help much because of the language barrier, but I said that God is merciful (one of the shared beliefs in both Christianity and Islam), and perhaps God will help. She clung to that like a life preserver and said, “Pray for me.”

People in our community are often afraid of our Pakistani neighbors, but when I told folks at meeting for worship that morning, they all agreed to pray. Another opportunity, another opening.

After meeting was over, I went out to see if she was still there, and she had gone. But two people came strolling out of the meeting cemetery, looking around with interest. I walked up to them and introduced myself. One was a middle-aged African-American woman who said she lived just down the street, and the other was a friend of hers from Connecticut who was visiting. They had seen the old buildings and wanted to know what went on here.

I gave them the two-minute elevator speech about Friends that I’ve given so many times, and they asked more questions. I offered to give them a tour of the meetinghouse, and they were excited – neither of them had ever been in a Quaker place of worship. They asked more and more questions – about the Underground Railroad, about women’s rights, about discernment and Quaker migrations and peace and quiet prayer. Not bad for a casual encounter.

One way for Friends to grow again is for us to be more open to the opportunities to reach out and listen, to be ready and willing to pray, to have prepared ourselves with basic information for people who want to know about us, to share the love of God on a simple human level.

As George put it so well, so many years ago:

“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”

P.S. – the plumber never sent me a bill.

What do Quaker pastors do?

To a lot of people, the words “pastor” and “Quaker” don’t belong in the same sentence. I don’t know how many times in the last 40 years I’ve been told, “Quakers don’t have pastors!” Even though many Quaker meetings have had pastors since the 1870’s, and even though more than 2/3 of the Quaker meetings in the world are programmed, there’s still a great deal of ignorance about what Quaker pastors do.

We don’t do sacraments like baptism or communion — or at least, the great majority of us don’t. On the other hand, a lot of pastoral work is sacramental, using the classic definition that a sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible reality”. Pastors and ministers try to help people see that God is real, that God is very near, and that the same love, grace and healing which it talks about in the Bible are available to everyone today.

Most pastors preach — trying to share a full range of Scripture, sharing accurately what the Bible says, bringing God’s word alive for people today. Good pastors preach in such a way that other people will be drawn to speak. Good messages  give permission for people to ask honest questions, and good pastors respect sincere doubt.

Pastors make calls and visits in an unimaginably varied range of circumstances. I visit people in homes, hospitals, at their place of work, anywhere I can find them. I’ve done pastoral calls in prison cells, crawling in the basement carrying a flashlight with service techs, in supermarket aisles, on roof tops, in class rooms, in law offices and banks, sitting on the dock by the lake, eating watermelon on the back porch. Go where the people are.

Pastors teach – sometimes to people who aren’t interested in learning. I teach Bible studies, Quaker history, how to run committees, prayer classes, marriage clearness groups, all kinds of interesting subjects. If I wasn’t a full-time pastor, I’d probably be a teacher.

Pastors listen  a lot — to people, to the Holy Spirit, to oneself, to the world, to the meeting. Most of the mistakes I’ve made in pastoral work happened when I wasn’t listening enough.

Even though it’s not sacramental in the traditional sense, pastors hear a lot of confessions and carry all sorts of confidences.

Pastors pray — pray often, pray deeply, pray for ourselves and for others. Sometimes my prayers “work” (what I prayed for happens), but a lot of the time prayer is more about just being there and asking God to be here with us. My prayers aren’t better than anyone else’s, but I do try to pray a lot.

Pastors need to study, long after whatever training program they take is “completed”. Even a master’s-level program is just the beginning of all pastors need to read, learn, reflect, and write about. The learning really never ends, since the world keeps changing (and keeps staying the same).

Depending on their personal gifts and calling, Quaker pastors can be involved with peacemaking, truth telling, reconciliation, counseling and referral, writing, chaplaincy, prison ministry, youth work, evangelism and missions, ministry with the poor, retreats and conferences, motivational speaking, translation, historic preservation, ecumenical ministry, pilgrimage, hospice, mental health and addiction, agriculture, environmental concerns, and a few dozen other things. Just about every Quaker pastor I know covers the “main things” (worship, pastoral care, organization) but also has some kind of special schtick that God has called them to. Really good pastors work to support the ministries of others in the meeting.

Representing the meeting to the community and to other Friends — we’re the ones they turn to for information about Friends,and for the “Quaker position” on all kinds of subjects we know nothing about. We get tapped to serve on community boards, ministerial associations, charity events, and historical tours. We spend hundreds of butt-numbing hours on boards and committees.

Many pastors spend a lot more time than they want to on maintenance. It’s always demanding, it’s often neglected, and it can easily take over our time and define our ministry in ways we’d rather not spend so many hours on. I’ve overseen the installation of roofs and elevators, pumped out flooded basements, fixed sound systems, done janitorial work, painted every room in the meetinghouse and the parsonage, dealt with mice and cockroaches in the meetinghouse kitchen, sealed leaks, planted flowers, and cleaned gutters, usually because there was no money, it really needed to be done and no one else was available to deal with it.  Personally, I like to fix things — things that are broken, things that don’t work well, things that could bring beauty and life to the meeting.

 

Pastors are supposed to understand and uphold Quaker beliefs, be the local experts on Quaker history, know where to find things in Faith and Practice, have memorized all the major Quaker journals and be able to quote from them at a moment’s notice. The pastor is frequently the contact person, educator and fund raiser for Quaker missions; I’ve been lucky enough to go and see a few mission sites for myself.

Some Quaker pastors evangelize — preach in public and try to convert people (yes, there are Quaker evangelists!). Nearly all Quaker pastors try to share the good news, help save people who are lost or confused, and encourage people to grow in faith, hope and love.

Pastors are often called on to give thanks for old ministries and meetings, and help with gracefully laying them down when their day is done. Much more fun, we’re called to be midwives and assist at the birth of new ones.

Even though there are many pastoral Quaker meetings, there are fewer people who are willing to spend their working lives as pastors. I often wonder if Quaker pastors are a dying breed. Fewer meetings have the financial resources to support a full-time pastor, and a lot of young potential Quaker pastors have or want to have a family. Most Quaker pastors need things like a home, a car, health insurance, retirement savings, and income to pay off their educational loans.

Still, it’s an interesting and (mostly) rewarding calling, and I encourage readers to ask questions or suggest new ways that Quaker pastoral work can be done in today’s world.

 

 

What, if anything, is a yearly meeting?

Early in the 21st century, many yearly meetings are in transition. New York and New England Yearly Meetings, where I worked in the 1970’s and 1980’s, claim to include both pastoral and unprogrammed Friends – but the number of pastoral meetings, and the percentage of members in pastoral meetings, have been dropping steadily since the 1950’s. They’re not as inclusive as they like to think they are.

A number of yearly meetings have divided or are in the process of dividing. In Western Yearly Meeting the “center” remained more or less intact, but they lost monthly meetings from both the liberal and evangelical sides. Indiana Yearly Meeting lost about 1/3 of its membership, now mostly joined with the New Association of Friends.

North Carolina Yearly Meeting is in the process of becoming a sort of umbrella organization, which will serve as trustee for the property and administer the investments. Most of the monthly meetings will become part of either the “authority” group (which favors a stronger central authority) or the “autonomy” group (which wants more freedom for monthly meetings in interpreting and applying Faith and Practice). A third group of North Carolina meetings were unwilling to wait around for the division to take place, or just weren’t involved very much with the yearly meeting, and have opted out completely.

Yearly meetings used to act a lot like denominations, with a central office, full-time staff in a variety of ministry areas (Christian Education, peace, youth work and missionary work were all common), elaborate training programs for ministers, health insurance and pension funds, the whole works.

Shrinking and aging membership, economic inflation, and new, rapidly expanding Quaker organizations competing for attention and funds, have all taken a tremendous toll on yearly meetings as they used to exist 40 or 50 years ago.

In one of the first studies I made of Friends, You Can’t Get There From Here (1985) I calculated that most yearly meetings needed at least 1,500 active members in local meetings in order to support 1 full-time equivalent yearly meeting staff person. That was an optimistic figure at the time, and most yearly meeting staffs have shrunk dramatically since then.

Many yearly meetings have given up having a central office, and full or part-time staff now work from their own homes or use space donated by a local meeting. Yearly meetings have been forced to drop health insurance and retirement plans, and many Quaker camps, schools, colleges, retirement communities and missions have been laid down or spun off as independent organizations.

It’s time for Friends to drop the charade and ask ourselves, “What is a yearly meeting today? What are we trying to preserve? What can we build for the next generation?”

In one of the earliest yearly meeting descriptions we have, Friends in Great Britain wrote 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.” (Quaker Faith and Practice, Britain Yearly Meeting, 1995, section 6.02)

This is still one of the simplest and most heart-felt reasons for having a yearly meeting – stripped of the generations of tradition and controversy, without the heavy layers of financial and institutional commitment. Unless we have in our hearts a real longing to see one another, to worship together, and listen to each other, yearly meetings will continue to implode.

Friends in the newly-divided yearly meetings are being forced by circumstances to travel more lightly, to be nimbler and less institutional, to live with smaller budgets and focus on worship and fellowship as their primary activities.

In coming posts, I want to share some other ideas about what yearly meetings can be in order to serve a new generation.

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.


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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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