Archive for the 'North Carolina Yearly Meeting' Category

The wars over Faith and Practice

Many of the battles among Quakers in the last 20 years have centered around Faith and Practice – what it means, how it’s interpreted, and who controls it. Bitter arguments, guerilla wars and last-ditch holding actions have been fought over who will win and who will lose if changes are approved.

First, a little background: many yearly meetings still use the “uniform” Faith and Practice which was created by Five Years Meeting (now Friends United Meeting) early in the 20th century as a way to build unity among Friends. Iowa, Western, Indiana, Wilmington and North Carolina Yearly Meetings all use very similar material, with very little difference in wording.

Baltimore and New England Yearly Meetings created their own books of Faith and Practice. New York Yearly Meeting uses some language from the “uniform” version for the business side, but adds some of their own material on the history and spiritual experience of Friends.

Contention often centers around the Richmond Declaration of Faith, written in 1887, and George Fox’s letter to the governor of Barbadoes, written in 1671, both of which were included in the “uniform” version. These are filled with Bible citations covering God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Bible, the creation and fall, justification and sanctification, the resurrection and the last judgment, baptism, communion, worship, religious liberty, marriage, peace, oaths and the Sabbath. For evangelical Friends, these two documents are an essential part of Faith and Practice. In particular, the section on the Bible in the Richmond Declaration is key:

“It has ever been, and still is, the belief of the Society of Friends that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were given by inspiration of God; that, therefore, there can be no appeal from them to any other (outward) authority whatsoever; that they are able to make wise unto salvation, through faith which is in Jesus Christ. ‘These are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His name’ (John 20:31). The Scriptures are the only divinely authorized records which we are bound, as Christians, to accept, and of the moral principles which are to regulate our actions. No one can be required to believe, as an article of faith, any doctrine which is not contained in them; and whatsoever anyone says or does, contrary to the Scriptures, though under professions of the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit, must be reckoned and counted a mere delusion.”

For these Friends, this is simply the last word on the subject. However, they often ignore the fact that Christians interpret the Bible in different ways. For example, Quakers are quick to recognize that we differed from other Christians on whether slavery was acceptable (because it’s accepted in many parts of the Bible) or whether slavery was an evil which must be resisted and fought against.

Are all sections of the Bible equally binding and valid today? If something was forbidden thousands of years ago, is it still forbidden now? It’s easy to come up with examples and exceptions. People tend to choose the texts which support their position, and often use those texts to browbeat and try to get rid of people who interpret the Bible differently – even if both sides claim to love the Bible.

When Friends in Indiana split several years ago, Friends fought over the section on “subordination”, which evangelical Friends argued gave them the authority to eject the more liberal monthly meetings. The actual language from Faith and Practice is worth reading:

“Subordination as used in this Faith & Practice does not describe a hierarchy but rather a means, under divine leadership, of common protection between Indiana Yearly Meeting and its Quarterly Meetings and Monthly Meetings. It is a relationship among Friends “submitting themselves to one another in the fear of God.” (Ephesians 5:21) In the spirit of Christ who “humbled himself and became obedient unto death” each member, each Monthly Meeting, each Quarterly Meeting and the Yearly Meeting submits to each other in the love of Christ.

Subordination is the assurance that no Monthly Meeting is alone, autonomous or independent. Thus Monthly Meetings recognize the legitimate role of the Yearly Meeting in speaking and acting for the combined membership.”

As far as evangelical Friends were concerned, the liberal meetings were in rebellion and refusing to submit to their authority, and therefore they were justified in tossing the liberals out. Very few Friends, however, seem to have read the sentences immediately following:

“Likewise the Yearly Meeting recognizes the freedom of Monthly Meetings and the validity of their prophetic voices. Each needs the other in order to be strong and vital, and both need the mediation of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Indiana Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 2015 edition, p. 96)

Those two paragraphs are intended to balance each other – the authority of the larger group balanced against the prophetic witness of monthly meetings.

During the division currently taking place in North Carolina Yearly Meeting, both sides say they want to keep using the 2012 edition of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice. I re-read it last week, and I wonder if Friends on either side have read the opening words of the book:

“Human understanding is always subject to growth. This basic principle also underlies the development of the organizations and institutions through which the spirit of Christianity is made operative in life. While fundamental principles are eternal, expressions of truth and methods of Christian activity should develop in harmony with the needs of the times. God, who spoke through the prophets, and supremely in Jesus Christ, still speaks through men and women who have become new creatures in Christ, being transformed by the renewing of their minds and, therefore, able and willing to receive fresh revelations of truth.

Frequently, however, we see ‘through a glass, darkly’ and may misinterpret or make incorrect applications. Therefore, as the stream of life flows on, bringing new conceptions, insights, and situations, it is necessary to strive constantly for a clearer comprehension of divine truth that will enter vitally into personal experience and become a creative factor for the redemption of human character and the remolding of society on the Christian pattern. “A religion based on truth must be progressive. Truth being so much greater than our conception of it, we should ever be making fresh discoveries.” [North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 2012 edition, p. 9 – quote at the end is noted as being from London Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice (1960)]

Note that these two opening paragraphs are only found in the North Carolina and Wilmington versions of Faith and Practice, and are not included in the version used by most other yearly meetings.

At different times and in different yearly meetings, Quakers have fought to keep Faith and Practice “just the way it is”. Soon after Indiana split, though, a new section was added:

SECTION 90. PROHIBITION OF SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
Friends have traditionally held marriage to be a matter for which the whole meeting shares in oversight and responsibility. It is recognized that pastors are authorized by the state to solemnize marriages and are often authorized by the Monthly Meeting to officiate.

Given Indiana Yearly Meeting’s understanding of marriage as a union between one man and one woman, and given Indiana Yearly Meeting’s position describing the practice of homosexuality to be contrary to the will of God as revealed in Scripture, no Indiana Yearly Meeting Monthly is authorized to give oversight to same-sex ceremonies under its care, and no Indiana Yearly Meeting minister is authorized to officiate any same-sex ceremony. Ministers in Indiana Yearly Meeting are responsible to adhere to the agreed standards for marriage. Failure to do so, by officiating a same-sex union, will be understood as grounds for dismissal from a ministry position and/or rescission of status as a recorded minister. Monthly Meetings providing for same-sex ceremonies under the care of their meeting will be subject to discipline from Indiana Yearly Meeting.

Now that Friends in North Carolina are in the process of dividing, the more evangelical group are also calling for an immediate revision to Faith and Practice. This new section has been proposed:

“The Yearly Meeting has power to decide all questions of administration, to counsel, admonish, or discipline its subordinate Meetings, to institute measures and provide means for the promotion of truth and righteousness, and to inaugurate and carry on departments of religious and philanthropic work.”

For liberal and progressive Friends, or for those who simply cherish spiritual freedom, the issue isn’t whether they’re Christian or not. Overwhelmingly, they identify themselves as Christian. They love and follow Jesus. They value the Bible and seek guidance from it. The Bible speaks loudly and clearly to them on a wide variety of issues.

But they disagree with evangelical Friends on some other issues, and they’re not willing to let evangelical Friends dictate to them. I saw the entire conflict in a nutshell last week at Representative Body, when a frustrated evangelical leader asked, “Why do you want to belong if you don’t accept our discipline?”

In nearly every yearly meeting, Faith and Practice isn’t set up to handle the situation when Quakers disagree strongly with one another. Time after time, in yearly meetings around the U.S., conflict and frustration have arisen because:

  1. a yearly meeting is unable to make a decision or move ahead when Friends are not in unity. We suffer from an inability to “agree to disagree,” especially in changing times.
  2. a yearly is unwilling to take back (rescind) the recording of ministers for teaching or writing ideas which other Friends dislike. There is a mechanism for rescinding, but most yearly meetings have not been able to unite on doing so. In other cases, a yearly meeting has been unwilling to discipline leaders or meetings for celebrating physical sacraments.
  3. there is no mechanism or acceptable precedent for laying down or expelling an entire monthly meeting because of perceived disagreement over issue of faith or practice; trying to force an expulsion has repeatedly led to division

Quakers treasure unity, and the strength which comes from making united decisions. The wisdom of the group is often greater than the wisdom of any individual. However, we also treasure the spiritual integrity of individuals and the right of people to disagree, and Quaker history is filled with examples of times when an individual or a minority has been right.

How will we survive the conflicts of this generation? Will our young people or will seekers who come to us value our conflicts, or will they turn away and look somewhere else for communities of truth and love?

Counting the cost of division

I attended the North Carolina Yearly Meeting Representative Body on March 4th. If you’ve been following this blog, many recent posts have reported that the same spirit of division which has overcome several other yearly meetings has also damaged North Carolina Yearly Meeting.

I’m still a newcomer to North Carolina, but I see a real generational factor at work in the divisiveness at work among us. When I arrived at Representative Body, I estimated a little over 200 people were present. I looked carefully around the room, and I estimate that fewer than 20 people in the room were under the age of 40; the majority of the group were probably over the age of 60.

For readers who are not members of North Carolina Yearly Meeting, this report may help you to understand the stark cost of division among Friends. The figures quoted are from reports at Representative Body last weekend:

  • During the last 3 years, North Carolina Yearly Meeting has gone down from having 72 monthly meetings to only 46, a decrease of 36%. Four more monthly meetings have withdrawn from the yearly meeting since we last met in November.
  • Our membership has decreased from 7,565 members 3 years ago to 4,214, a decrease of 44%
  • As programs have been cut and staff have been laid off, yearly meeting budget askings have gone from roughly $923,000 5 years ago to about $432,000, a decrease of 53%.
  • Actual giving to the yearly meeting budget was only $303,000, an additional 33% reduction.

In every yearly meeting I have observed, division has a catastrophic effect on ministry and mission. North Carolina is only the latest example.

The pension fund for pastors is being discontinued; retired pastors and surviving spouses will receive a lump-sum payment proportionate to the years they served. Health insurance is no longer offered. North Carolina Yearly Meeting has become dramatically less attractive as a place for pastors to serve. This will affect the quality of leadership we can expect in years to come, and will make it difficult for many meetings to attract any new leadership at all.

During this difficult period, the yearly meeting superintendent, Don Farlow, has voluntarily reduced his own salary. This personal sacrifice has helped to keep the yearly meeting going – but it also means that it will be difficult to raise the budget again if we ever want to have a full-time person in the yearly meeting office.

Under the current scenario, this may not take place – if the yearly meeting becomes a financial “shell organization”, we may only have a single part-time staff person in the yearly meeting office, or perhaps farm out the responsibilities to an accounting firm. Each of the new “associations” which belong to the yearly meeting would be responsible for hiring whatever staff they can afford (if any).

Quaker Lake Camp currently receives about $160,000 – about 40% of its annual funding – as a subsidy from the yearly meeting. Quaker Lake is a very popular program which nearly everyone in the yearly meeting supports and does not wish to see hurt. At Representative Body, we had a first look at several different scenarios for how funding for Quaker Lake can be achieved:

  1. by diverting income from all possible trust funds to support the camp; this would drastically reduce income available for other ministries and missions
  2. by dramatically increasing the amount we take from yearly meeting trust funds each year; over time, this would drain the principal from the trust funds
  3. by undertaking long-term major fundraising for Quaker Lake to increase its trust funds; by my calculation, Quaker Lake would need a total endowment, including existing funds, of roughly 4 million dollars to fully replace the yearly meeting subsidy (assuming a 4% average annual income)

According to an outside attorney who has been hired as a consultant to assist with the legal and financial aspects of the breakup, Quaker Lake Camp may need to become an independent 501(c)3 organization, which would own or lease the camp property.

The advertising for the 2017 summer camping program at Quaker Lake takes no notice of the division. Seems as though kids aren’t interested in the squabbles of the older generation – and I sincerely hope that the camp will continue to be a fun and exciting place for young people no matter where they’re from!

On a more encouraging note, the North Carolina president of United Society of Friends Women International said that Quaker women plan to continue to work and worship together without regard for the division. This follows similar decisions in some of the other divided yearly meetings. Maybe Quaker women have more love, or more sense, than the rest of us!

Friends Disaster Service, another popular and much appreciated ministry, also plans to continue welcoming volunteers without regard to the division. Everyone celebrated a major bequest of $162,000 to FDS last weekend from a Friend who left most of his estate to the work of rebuilding homes after disasters.

The bottom line: division is already a devastating loss to many yearly meeting programs and ministries.

We do care about our children, and the camping program remains popular. Funding will be a big challenge in the long term.

Ministries and fellowships which are independent from the yearly meeting are continuing to do their own thing and are not allowing the division to affect them.

The next few months and years will continue to show whether division was a good idea – or not.

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.

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.

Update on North Carolina Yearly Meeting

Quakers in North Carolina have been pressured for years to take sides and separate from each other. The issues have shifted from time to time and haven’t always been stated openly. Sometimes it’s been over music and worship, sometimes it’s been about accepting gay and lesbian people as members.

A lot of the time the stated issues – particular points in Faith and Practice, arguments over nominations or hiring staff, whether to allow membership in more than one group – seem to have been a cover or proxy to the real disagreement.

For many years the majority of Friends in North Carolina were determined not to separate, but more recently the arguments have become louder and (according to many witnesses) more hateful. Attendance at yearly meeting sessions has dropped as many Friends just decided to stay home.

More pressure on the yearly meeting came during this last year, as first 3, then more, and now a total of 17 monthly meetings have withdrawn from the yearly meeting.

Last weekend, the Executive Committee acknowledged to the representative body “the differences among Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting that are continuous and unabating regarding the use of Scripture and the freedom available to interpret Scripture through leadings of the Holy Sprit; the autonomy of individuals and individual meetings within the broader authority of the Yearly Meeting; and whether the Yearly Meeting has or should have authority to discipline meetings for what are determined to be departures from Faith and Practice.”

The Executive Committee recommended that “the member meetings of North Carolina Yearly Meeting patiently commit to an orderly, deliberate, compassionate and mutually respectful plan of separation into two yearly meetings, and in that plan of separation, allow each meeting, if it chooses, to join either of the two new yearly meetings, however organized.”

This recommendation was discussed for more than 4 hours at Representative Body on June 4th, and was approved. There are no specifics for how the separation will take place, but the Executive Committee’s report says that Friends must “consider matters of (1) faith (2) organization (3) property and (4) law.”

I’ve observed similar divisions taking place in Western and Indiana Yearly Meetings, and they have been painful. In my next post, I’ll reflect on things which North Carolina Friends may want to think about – lessons I’ve learned from the way this has gone elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I hope that folks will be careful not to feed the rumor mill, make unfounded accusations, or do anything to make things worse. If separation does take place, I hope it will be done cleanly, fairly, and at the minimum level necessary, so that friendships built over many generations will not be broken.

It IS different here!

My wife and I moved to North Carolina last fall after many years of living and working with Quakers in Indiana, the Adirondacks, and New England. Quick take: it’s a little different here.

I’d been impressed for many years by the Friends from North Carolina who showed up at FUM Board meetings. Their gentleness, discernment, good humor and dedication made me wonder what it would be like to live and work there.

North Carolina culture – both in general and among Quakers – is different. The accent is definitely Southern, but it’s far from what people from the rest of the U.S. think of as Southern. It’s a soft accent, easy on the ears.

People use old-fashioned words in everyday conversation – yonder, young ‘un, y’all (I quickly learned that “y’all” is singular, while “all y’all” is plural). You don’t turn off the A/C, you cut it off. There’s a big difference between the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) and the Triad (High Point, Greensboro, Winston-Salem).

When I made an unworkable suggestion to the head of the House and Grounds committee, he turned me down with a smile, saying, “That dog won’t hunt”. Dinner is still the noontime meal here, supper is what you eat at sundown. The standard everyday greeting here is “Hey!”, used to and by people of all ages.

There’s a difference between “fixin’” (getting ready to do something) and “fixin’s” (the side dishes of pinto beans, slaw, biscuits, fries, etc. which accompany a meal). “Right quick” means pretty soon – maybe in an hour, maybe next week, maybe later this year, depending on circumstances. But “directly” means right now, immediately, no fooling around, no side trips or stopping to chat with friends (“Y’all come home directly!”)

One of my favorite phrases here is “might could”, which expresses just the right amount of possibility or indecision in any situation. “Do you aim to go to the mountains next weekend?” “Might could, if the car don’t break down.”

Respect is a big part of the culture in North Carolina. I have never been called “sir” so many times before in my life, often several times in a single sentence. I strongly suspect that children in North Carolina get whomped upside the head by their parents for not using “sir” or “ma’am”. It takes some getting used to, especially since I always thought that Quakers didn’t use titles.

Many people are addressed by both their first and middle names – and it’s astonishing how many people here have “Lee” as a middle name. Quite a few women are addressed by their middle name, usually a treasured family name, whether or not the middle name is typically female. Some women are often called “Miss Ruby” or “Miss Helen”, which can indicate a) age b) status c) love and respect d) all of the above, and has nothing to do with whether they are or ever have been married.

People here still pull over to the side of the road whenever a funeral procession goes by. Cemeteries are meticulously maintained, with flowers changed regularly several times each year. Even though Baptists make up a very large percentage of churchgoers, they come in for a good deal of kidding – people here tell Baptist jokes in the same way people told Polish jokes and Italian jokes when I was growing up in Buffalo.

There’s also a great deal more publicly expressed faith here – the first week we were here, we were startled to have the check-out clerk at the supermarket, the cashier at the bank, the attendant at the gas station and the waiter at the restaurant all say, “Have a blessed day!” I’m not sure who’s teaching people to say this, but it’s nearly universal.

“Bless your heart” is different – it can be used in a straightforward and warmly sentimental way, but it’s also used with irony to suggest that the person being blessed is slightly stupid. “Special” can also be a put-down, depending on the emphasis given by the speaker. “Isn’t that special?” can be a real zinger.

Food is a big deal here (isn’t it everywhere?) and in North Carolina the staples are sweet tea and barbecue. I find sweet tea almost cloyingly sweet and usually opt for ice water – another local alternative is a carbonated beverage called Cheerwine (similar to Cherry Coke).

Barbecue is something people here love to compare and argue about endlessly. Old-timers swear it’s best cooked over a hickory fire (even though 90% of restaurants now use an electric oven). Here in the Triad, they favor a vinegar-based sauce, and scorn the ketchup-based sauce preferred in the eastern part of the state. Last week, one of the elders of the meeting took me to his favorite barbecue place, Speedy’s in Lexington. He worships there at least once a week, and claims it’s the best in the whole state.

Fried chicken runs a close second to barbecue in the hearts (and appetites) of people from North Carolina. Home-made is best, but Bojangles is a favorite place for families to take their kids after meeting on Sunday.

Other North Carolina foods to try include pimento cheese (used as a dip or as a sandwich spread), hush puppies (cornbread mixed with grated onion and deep fried), nabs (snack packs of peanut butter crackers, originally made by Nabisco), ‘maters (fresh tomatoes) and of course Krispy Kremes (freshly made doughnuts with an almost toxic level of sugar).

It sounds as though my first impressions of North Carolina mainly revolve around food, and you’re right. People here love to eat! Almost every conceivable occasion involves food, often jokingly referred to as Quaker communion. The standard meal at the meetinghouse is a “carry-in” (known to Midwest Quakers as a “pitch-in” and Quakers in most other parts of the U.S. as a “potluck”).

The old ways of speech and the old culture have been affected by the hordes of people who have moved to North Carolina from out of state, attracted by the climate, jobs or the more rural atmosphere. It saddens me to see the old ways fading, and to meet kids who have never heard the lovely, haunting ballads of the Appalachians which I’ve learned and shared for years.

For generations, the economy of this area centered around furniture, textiles and tobacco. All three have taken major blows in the last few years. During the Reconstruction, a couple of Quaker families started a small factory making chairs. This grew and grew until High Point, North Carolina became the furniture-making capital of the entire country.

Today, much of the manufacturing has shifted to China, and many of the remaining jobs are taken by immigrants from Mexico and Pakistan (at the Allen Jay Elementary School, the first language of over 50% of the students is Urdu). This fuels a lot of low-key resentment in the community, although Quakers are trying to reach out and start new community ministries.

It’s a different world, and I’ve still got a lot to learn. The Friends here are great, and they’ve accepted me in spite of my ignorance and lack of experience. I’ll post some other impressions as time goes on, but meanwhile, thanks for the welcome!

What does your yearly meeting web site say about you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Disclaimer

All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.

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