Archive for the 'Leadership' Category

Adult education – a challenge for Quaker meetings

In my last post, I shared some of the background of the Sunday School movement, which began in the late 1700’s as a way to teach reading and writing to children of poor and working families. Sunday School has evolved a great deal since then, but it remains one of the primary ministries of many churches today.

Many Friends meetings enthusiastically adopted the goals and methods of the Sunday School – not very surprising, since Quakers have been strong supporters of education since our earliest days.

Sunday School was not just for kids. Many congregations organized large adult classes, which not only helped to educate their members, but provided a strong “glue” of fellowship and social interaction.

But Sunday School has been suffering for quite a while now. Up until the 1960’s, attendance at Sunday School was often equal to or greater than attendance at worship. By the 1980’s, a Sunday School was counted as strong if attendance reached 50% of the numbers at worship, and most churches struggled to reach 25%.

The “classic” adult Sunday School tended to recruit and group class members by similar ages. A new class would be started every few years, and people tended to stay in that class, growing old together, for the rest of their lives. Classes often depended on a strong, wise or charismatic teacher – here at Springfield Friends, adult classes were named after teachers who were revered for many, many years after they had passed on.

Besides learning material, adult classes socialized together, elected officers, raised money for mission and service work, helped out with the meeting budget, and were often very competitive with other classes in attendance, fund raising and other activities. They formed a “second family” and looked after each other. They rejoiced when children were born to members of the class, and grieved and supported each other when someone died.

This type of lifelong, age-grouped class created deep loyalties and strong friendships, as classes helped each other through thick and thin. It could also face big problems whenever there was a divorce and class members felt they had to choose sides. And a class could also face REALLY big problems when a long-serving teacher or group leader died, moved away or lost mental acuity.

The educational goal of most “classic” Sunday School classes has generally been to learn more about the Bible. Sometimes a gifted teacher would prepare their own lesson plans from scratch. More often, teachers relied on some type of prepared curriculum, either from a Quaker publishing house or some other source. Many used some form of the International Sunday School curriculum, which cycles through the major sections of the Bible on a 3-year basis. If your class used the ISS curriculum, you could visit any other class in the country when you were on vacation, and be assured that you would fit right in, with the same lesson folks were studying that Sunday at home.

Not all prepared curriculum is well done; a lot of it can become really boring. When I was recruited to write lessons for a Quaker press, I was given a list of Scriptures and topics to work on. I read through some samples and it was clear that they had never been “field tested” with an actual class. The questions for each lesson were intended to guide everyone to a pre-determined conclusion.

So, first I shared the Scriptures for each week with an actual class. I wrote down the questions they really asked, including the digressions and including the background where no one in the class understood what was going on. Only then did I try writing a lesson for publication. It turned out to be the best curriculum the press had published in a LONG time, and Quaker meetings from all over the U.S. asked for more.

Not all adult Sunday Schools use a prepared curriculum. Some typical alternatives include:

  • current events: needs a strong teacher who is able to keep the group focused. This kind of group can easily crash and burn when things get too controversial, or when one person dominates the discussion or holds too strong a POV (either too conservative or too liberal)
  • talk about the sermon: requires people who really pay attention. It can be a good way to give feedback, which many speakers complain about not getting. Unfortunately, it can also easily degenerate into a roast and can fuel division in the meeting.

Few meetings today are willing or able to sustain the kind of life-long age-based classes which used to be the norm. Most meetings which want to build a better adult experience have turned to
short-term study groups. The commitment varies according to the group – it can be for 2-3 weeks, a semester, or a year, but people aren’t expected to stay in it forever. I think it’s better to organize groups with a definite time frame, rather than simply let them go on till they die or just run out of gas. A time frame helps keep up enthusiasm and keeps things moving.

Most groups need some type of leader. In Quaker meetings, the leader is usually less an authoritative teacher and more of a moderator or facilitator. Training an abundance of such leaders, or helping them discover their leadership ability, needs to be a priority task for any meeting which wants to grow its education program.

There’s a lot of advantage to holding groups on Sunday morning (or whenever worship is held). More people are usually present, and the content and fellowship of the group can help build up the worship time. However, groups which meet at other times of the week, either at the meetinghouse or in homes or other places, can build a very strong sense of fellowship as well.

Another question is whether a group requires any advance reading or homework outside of the times it meets. A group where people can simply drop in can be very attractive to newcomers and visitors. But a “drop in” group with no additional expectations can also be shallow and unsatisfying to folks who come every week. If the meeting is large enough to sustain more than one group at a time, I recommend offering both a “drop in” group and one or more “longer term” groups which have higher expectations for reading and commitment.

There are many different types of reading for a group to center around – the Bible, of course, but also journals, biographies or Quaker books. I’ve been part of some very successful groups which read books like:

  • The Journal of John Woolman
  • The Journal of George Fox
  • Autobiography of Allen Jay
  • Quaker Faith and Practice of Britain Yearly Meeting
  • Practicing Our Faith by Dorothy Bass
  • Unplug the Christmas Machine by Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli
  • Social Sources of Denominationalism by Walter Rauschenbusch
  • Peculiar Treasures by Frederick Buechner
  • Money, Sex and Power by Richard Foster
  • Eighth Day of Creation by Elizabeth O’Connor
  • A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly
  • Sabbath by Wayne Muller

Book discussion groups require that all participants buy a copy. This can be a financial burden for students and people with low income. It can be a big help if the meeting can offer to quietly purchase books for those who can’t afford them, or have extra copies in the meeting library.

Not all discussion groups read books – some read articles, or watch the QuakerSpeak videos which cover a wide variety of subjects (though QuakerSpeak tends to be heavily slanted towards unprogrammed meetings).

Less common (but very interesting) are groups which correspond with mission workers, do crafts, share their own writing or poetry, do maintenance, gardening or improvements, or focus on practical, hands-on types of ministry.

I’ve also been part of some great small groups focused on Quaker queries, the 7 deadly sins, exploring a new hymnal, the meeting’s history, theology of Friends, Quaker missions, prayer, and getting more out of unprogrammed worship. There are also thousands of other videos available on a dizzying range of topics – a video-based group will need to have a strong/fast internet connection, and it’s very helpful to have large smart TV.

One of the other key “missing pieces” for a strong adult education program, especially one built around short-term groups, is an active oversight committee. This group doesn’t necessarily need to be made up of teachers and facilitators, but it needs to include imaginative and widely-read people who are willing to plan several months ahead, and who will attend and be connected with different groups and classes and bring feedback to the planning committee.

Adult education is an immensely important part of the ministry of any meeting. It takes time, effort, and sometimes a modest amount of funding. But the payback in the life of the meeting can be enormous. Too many meetings have adult education programs which are dying from inertia, from lack of imagination, or from putting all their time and energy into other areas.

In my next post, I want to talk about other ways in which Quaker meetings can provide opportunities for people who want to want even deeper study and fellowship. As always, I welcome your questions and feedback!


Covid reflections 3 – Positive things

The COVID-19 epidemic has done appalling things to our nation, to our economy, to our educational system, to our health care system, and to our churches and Friends Meetings. At the latest count (November 2021) more than 741, 000 people have died from COVID here in the United States – that’s more than the 620,000 who died in the American Civil War, and more than World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and 9/11 combined. More than 45 million people have had COVID.

Tens of thousands of churches and congregations scrambled to move their services online. Some are holding in-person services again, but many have found that people are reluctant to come back. In-person attendance in many cases is 50% or less of what it was pre-COVID. (The good news is that online services can significantly boost participation – here at Springfield Friends, we actually have more people watching online than we saw most Sundays before the epidemic!) A lot of people seem to enjoy coming to church in their jammies at home with a cup of coffee by their side.

It’s also important for church groups to make positive use of the “down time” during the epidemic. At Springfield Friends, we’ve used the past 22 months to do some pretty cool things.

  • We caught up with a lot of deferred maintenance – painting spaces which are normally heavily used, which would otherwise be difficult to work on. Our custodian was able to re-direct many hours of his time to “catching up” on long-overdue projects.
  • With so many kids being kept home from the classroom and having to do independent reading at home, we greatly expanded our children’s library. Throughout the epidemic, families took out books to use for school reading, book reports or just for fun. We took the opportunity to add dozens of books showing multicultural families, girls and women doing brave and interesting things, Quaker books, the Underground Railroad, families going through divorce and other topics. Some books were donated or bought at yard sales, but we also added many brand-new high-quality books with Caldecott and Newberry awards, as well as books recommended by the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
  • We put a lot of effort into energy conservation, recognizing that every dollar which goes to utility bills is a dollar we can’t spend on ministry. One major project was to renovate most of the 40-year-old fluorescent light fixtures in our building. At least 1/3 of them had burned-out ballasts, broken sockets or other problems. We bought case after case of high-efficiency LED replacement bulbs and repaired or re-wired dozens of light fixtures. Our meetinghouse is a LOT brighter and more cheerful, and our electric bills have gone down!
  • To help our younger kids remember our meeting, we produced half a dozen short 16 or 20-page pamphlets, illustrated with photos from our meetinghouse: The Bears Come to Springfield, The Church Mice Visit Springfield, Everybody Loves a Wedding!, plus two coloring books, Christmas ABC’s and The Springfield Coloring Book. We printed a few copies of each, and we also sent the books in PDF format to families so they could print them at home.
  • Another big project we finished during our “down time” was to install WiFi throughout our entire meetinghouse. Because our building has a lot of brick and concrete walls, we had to string Ethernet cable and install extension routers in some places and satellite WiFi units in others. All this work means that we can use WiFi in many new and exciting ways for worship, Sunday School, special events and rentals. We also purchased a large screen “smart TV” and turned a vacant Sunday School room into a media space.
  • Early in 2021, a tornado struck our neighborhood. No one was hurt, but two of the meeting’s roofs were damaged – skilled volunteers showed up in less than an hour to cover them with emergency tarpaulins. Almost a dozen trees were knocked down on the meeting’s property, including some which toppled headstones in our cemetery and seriously damaged our playground. Our meeting’s monthly work days cut and split several of the trees up for firewood (being used to make delicious North Carolina barbecue!) while other trees with straight trunks were cut into 12′ lengths and sold to a local sawmill, bringing some much-needed funds into the meeting treasury.
  • Springfield Friends has a building next to our current meetinghouse. It was built in 1858, just before the Civil War, and served as our meetinghouse till 1927. It houses the Museum of Old Domestic Life, a wonderful collection of locally-made tools, quilts, farm implements and things were used in everyday living in Quaker homes in the 1800’s. During the lockdown, we renovated several of the old exhibits and created a very special new one to display a large stone which came from a Quaker farm. It has a large arrow scratched into its surface, and according to meeting history, it served as a marker to point escaping slaves to the next station on the Underground Railroad.
  • The Museum also has a large collection of old documents, minutes, photographs and other fragile materials which needed better care. We cleaned and painted another vacant room in the meetinghouse, located several used filing cabinets, and moved 90% of the material from the unheated Museum into climate-controlled storage. We’re in the process of placing the most delicate materials into new acid-free archival storage, so that they can be preserved for the future.
  • Springfield will be 250 years old in 2013. Growing out of the document preservation project, we created the first in what we hope will be a 3-volume set of books about our meeting. The first book, Springfield Friends: 250 Years – the People of Springfield was published last summer, and we sold enough copies to pay for the initial cost of printing and to go into a second print run as well.

While the COVID-19 epidemic has been truly terrible – and we wouldn’t ever have wished for it. – our meeting has worked hard to turn the lockdown into positive time instead. COVID handed us a whole lot of lemons, but we’ve been busy making lemonade!

COVID reflections 2 – Technology

At first we all thought that the quarantine was only going to last for a couple of weeks. Then it stretched out to a month. Then six weeks. Then – nobody knew, just that it was a long time. Fear, hardship and hopelessness became the order of the day.

Thousands of churches closed their doors for good. Other churches laid off staff and drastically cut the services they offered. Donations plummeted.

Some congregations defied (or denied) the COVID-19 epidemic. A couple of miles from Springfield Friends, an evangelical congregation went ahead with services – dozens of people including the pastor got sick and 3 died.

Many churches experimented with technology to share worship services, using Zoom, FaceBook, YouTube, Vimeo or other programs. At Springfield Friends, we use FaceBook to post weekly worship messages and Bible studies.

Our experience has been mixed. Our posts have been extremely simple, recorded with a smart phone and posted with minimal editing or visual effects. A few times we made videos of hymns and children’s messages. Once we started holding in-person worship again, we tried making live recordings of worship but the video and especially the sound quality was very poor, and we didn’t have either the money to invest in better equipment or a group of volunteers to run it and do the necessary editing on a regular basis every week.

We did have great success with a couple of special videos which lifted the spirits of everyone in the meeting. One of our traditions at Easter, going back for many years, is the “Flowering Cross”. It’s a large, ugly cross covered with chicken wire, with a crown of thorns perched at an angle on top. On Easter morning, people bring hundreds of flowers, and during a special part of the service they come up to the front of the worship room and decorate the cross, turning it from a symbol of death into a symbol of life and beauty.

We couldn’t do the Flowering Cross in 2020 or 2021 because of the need to maintain safe social distancing, so one of our members, Tom Terrell, came up with an alternative. Tom took hundreds of photos as another member put the flowers on one by one, then combined them into a 5-minute stop-action video with a sound track of Easter music. Hundreds of people enjoyed it! You can watch this video at:

We tried using Zoom for small groups and committee meetings for a while with mixed success – during the darkest days of the epidemic it was wonderful to see peoples’ faces again, but few people in our meeting have either the equipment, tech savvy or reliable WiFi connections to make this a workable option. And for a while, when millions of people were scrambling to work or take classes from home, new web cams were almost unavailable.

Our Young Friends group struggled to stay strong together during the pandemic. Erratic school closings, canceled sports events and the difficulty of trying to learn put a lot of extra pressure on our young people. We tried holding youth meetings using Zoom and Facetime, but it wasn’t too successful. Our youth minister spent many hours talking individually with kids by phone and Instagram, listening to their fears and frustrations and encouraging them as much as possible.

Zoom has worked out well for tech-savvy committees, board meetings and other groups. I’ve really enjoyed a weekly Zoom conference of Quaker pastors from around the country, hosted and moderated by Scott Wagoner. Being able to pray together, share ideas, ask questions and challenge each other to get out of our “stuck” spots has been an absolute godsend during this difficult time.

Even more than worship, the heart of our meeting has always been eating together – fellowship meals, social events, fund raisers and family gatherings. Nearly all of this wonderful social life had to be cut off during the epidemic, and everyone’s spirits suffered. Many families or close friends formed their own “bubbles” for sharing meals and holidays. (Full disclosure: a number of people in our meeting tried holding larger family gatherings or vacations and got sick. Fortunately, there were no deaths, but there were a lot of scares.)

Many older members of our meeting faced a much more personal challenge – how to shop safely during the epidemic. Some stores offered special shopping hours just for seniors. My wife and I rearranged our menus to shop every other week. For almost a year we would drive to the store just at opening time, shop as quickly as possible, and leave as soon as we could. Back at home, everything was wiped down, or left for 3 days before handling. Other seniors called in grocery orders to stores, which were bagged and brought out to their cars.

It’s been a long, drawn-out difficult time – almost 2 years as this is being written. In my next post, I plan to talk about some of the creative and inspiring things our meeting has done to try and make the best of this time and build for the future.

COVID Reflections 1 – Keeping people safe and connected

Hey there, Friends!

It’s been a long time since I posted to this blog. Frankly, things were just too busy, and way too crazy, for me to stop and think very hard about the future of the Quaker movement in the 21st century.

I can clearly remember the day back in March of 2020 when things finally shut down. The news about the new COVID-19 epidemic had been getting worse and worse every day. Our family had filled our freezer, stockpiled pet food and toilet paper. We canceled travel plans, bought a box of face masks, and checked our shelf full of favorite DVD’s, and thought we were ready to face what we thought might be a 2 or 3-week quarantine.

I grew up with family stories about epidemics – the polio epidemic that I just missed as a child (I was one of the first to get the new Salk vaccine), the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 which killed more people than WWI did, the endemic typhoid in New Orleans which killed members of my family. My dad, who was a history teacher, told us about how the Black Death killed a third of the population of Europe in the 1300’s.

I knew that COVID was going to be rough. I just didn’t know how rough or how scary and depressing it was going to be. On the Friday when the quarantine started, I remember a line from Shakespeare which kept running through my head – “The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.”

That first week, our meeting set up a phone tree to help everyone stay in touch with each other. I immediately started recording my Sunday worship messages and weekly Bible studies to post on Facebook. 22 months later, I’m still doing two recordings every week! (True confession: I’ve been doing it all this time in my office using my iPhone, an old camera tripod, and a music stand from the choir room to hold my notes.)

Almost all of our meeting’s special events, fellowship meals and other social activities got canceled. For four months, we didn’t even try to hold meeting for worship in person. During the summer of 2020, we started holding worship outdoors in front of the meetinghouse – people either sat in their cars, or in widely-spaced groups of chairs in the shade under the trees. When the weather got cold in October, we cautiously moved back inside.

In-person, indoor worship during COVID has been a big challenge. We wear masks. We encouraged safe social distancing by simply removing the cushions from every row of pews. Because singing was shown to be a highly efficient way of spreading the virus, we gave up singing hymns – that one really hurt!

Attendance slowly built back up, but we’re still only at about 50% of the number of people who came regularly every Sunday before COVID. (More true confession: we’re actually getting more people watching the videos than we were getting here at worship or in person for Bible study before COVID!)

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because the same stuff played out in congregations all over the place.

Pastoral care was a really difficult challenge. Normally I spend 4-8 hours a week visiting folks in the hospital, at retirement facilities, or in homes or their places of work. It’s an important part of the “glue” that holds our meeting together, and the presence and prayers bring a lot of comfort and encouragement to people and to their families.

All of a sudden, visitors were banned and health care facilities of all kinds were locked down. Many of our old members became virtual prisoners in solitary confinement for weeks and months on end. That kind of isolation can and does trigger major depression and mental illness, and a lot of people really went off the rails in nursing homes during the lockdown.

The meeting newsletter and weekly e-mails took on a lot of extra importance. We share news about each other, resources for reading and family activities, as well as the latest updates and practical guidance from the health department. Most people in the meeting welcomed the latter, but a few people were irritated by what they felt was an overreaction which was hurting schools, churches and businesses.

Our primary goal from the beginning was to keep people safe. We tried new things and adapted old ones, or put them on hold for the time being. In my next catch-up blog post, I want to share some of the things we learned and tried during the ordeal – 22 months and counting! – which has been COVID.

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.


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.


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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