Archive for the 'Organizational questions' Category

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.

Looking backward

Years ago, I was hosting a fellow Quaker pastor from Kenya for a week. He was here in the U.S. to study, and while he was on fall break he wanted to visit a local meeting. We drove around to see the sights in our area, and stopped at an historic Quaker meetinghouse in the upper Hudson valley.

The meetinghouse was closed, but we peered in the window and walked round the cemetery, which dated back to the late 1700’s. My friend from Kenya was very impressed, and asked how many members the meeting had. I told him about 25.

He thought a minute, and then in a half-joking/half-serious voice he said, “This is the problem with Quakers here in the United States. Too many of your members are under the ground, and not enough of them are above the ground!”

We laughed and moved on, but he had a real point. Quakers have a rich, fascinating and prophetic past – but on the whole we are not very actively involved with our future. We are the heirs and custodians of an enormous heritage of Quaker literature, buildings, spiritual struggle and historic witness, but we are investing less and less in the needs and interests of the next generation or even in the generation around us.

Too many of our meetings are weighed down with the financial care and historic responsibility for older meetinghouses, which we love but which are often the wrong size or the wrong configuration for our needs.

As an example, a Quaker meeting I knew in Indiana spent years maintaining an enormous meetinghouse which was capable of holding over 1,000 people, when their regular Sunday worship attendance was close to 100. The problem solved itself eventually when the city building inspector discovered that a roof leak had caused the wooden beams spanning the worship room to rot. It was the last straw – fixing the roof would have cost well over $250,000.

Even then, the meeting wrestled for quite a while before deciding to let the old historic building go. They tore it down, sold the land, and worked together to build a much better building with room for growth but much more appropriate for their needs.

I’ve known dozens of meetings which insist on keeping their “historic” Quaker benches for worship, even though everyone in the meeting acknowledges how uncomfortable they are. And I’ve known even more meetings which keep their benches bolted firmly to the floor in configurations which may have fit worship in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, but which don’t fit the way a younger generation would like to sit and worship together today.

One of my first moves at any new meeting I go to is to clear out as much junk as possible. At Adirondack Friends, I found a 15′ x 15′ room stacked right to the ceiling with generations of broken furniture, worn-out toys, discarded curriculum materials and office equipment that didn’t work. At West Richmond Friends, more than half of the books in the meeting library hadn’t been taken out and read since the Eisenhower administration – I recruited two new librarians and we threw them out mercilessly. Here at Springfield Friends, I took more than 60 boxes of old bills, check registers, receipts, committee minutes and other useless paper to be shredded. Not once has anyone ever wished that we had kept any of this stuff. It’s one thing to guard the treasures of the past, and it’s another thing to be a pack rat. Hoarding is a disease, and Quakers are all too vulnerable to it.

Just as stifling as the outward, physical baggage and historic refuse we so lovingly maintain is the inward, spiritual and mental junk we cling to. There’s an old bittersweet joke that the Seven Last Words of the Church are, “We’ve Never Done It That Way Before.” Are we afraid to try new ideas, experiment with new approaches, or strike out in new directions? Those “early Friends” who we admire so much were much more willing than we are to try something new.

One of the situations which makes me weep is when Friends divide and cast each other out rather than listen to each others’ point of view, and agree to work and worship together (a frequent subject of posts here on this blog.) But another situation which raises my blood pressure is that when Friends have divided our old yearly meetings, we rush to re-create the same structures which were already falling down of their own weight. I’ve personally seen this as Indiana Yearly Meeting and North Carolina Yearly Meeting divided, and I’m sure it’s happened in other places as well.

I think there must be dent marks on the pew from banging my head, as well-meaning Friends have insisted that we have the same committees, the same Faith and Practice which almost no one ever read before, the same appointments to the same Quaker organizations, the same funding patterns, and worst of all, the same kind of energy-draining, inconclusive agenda when we meet together. There are times when I’m just about ready to give up on Quakers altogether, but I keep hoping we’ll change. (Or is that the definition of “insanity” that I read about somewhere else?)

At a recent meeting “to plan for our future” I looked round the room. Out of roughly 60 people present, I guessed that only 2 were under the age of 50, and at least a third were in their 80’s. This is a situation I’ve seen many times before in Quaker yearly meetings, organizations and boards of various kinds. Do the math: groups like this are looking at a very limited life span. All too often, they are preoccupied with preserving the way they’ve always done things before, and they’re not asking the younger generation of Friends what concerns and experiences they are bringing to the table.

I love Friends, and I love Quaker history. I publish books and write articles and give public lectures and workshops about our past — but I only do that in my spare time. I think there ought to be a limit – maybe Quaker meetings could only spend, say, 10% of their time and energy on our glorious history, and maybe we could only use the phrase “early Friends” about once every other year. Maybe we could use about 60% of our time and energy on worship and on concerns related to the present – a lot of Quaker meetings don’t even do that. And maybe we could invest the remaining 30% of our time and energy inviting new people into our meetings, listening without interruption to their stories, asking where the Holy Spirit is leading them, and walking into the future together.

 

 

Will the real Quakers please stand up?

It used to be fairly easy to tell people who the Quakers are. Quakers were born in the English Reformation. We got started in the 1650’s, and a lot of Quakers moved to the American colonies, and we’re all descended one way or another from these first Friends.

As history, that’s still true, but it doesn’t really tell about the bewildering variety we find among the many branches of the Quaker family.

Another way to tell people who the Quakers are is to say, there are the unprogrammed Friends (the ones who worship in silence) and everybody else. If you ask an unprogrammed Quaker, that’s still the way they tend to see it. Unprogrammed Friends are the ones who don’t have pastors, don’t have a creed, and don’t have a pre-arranged form of worship. Quite a lot of unprogrammed Friends feel pretty strongly that they are the only REAL Quakers, and that all of those “other” Friends don’t really count – even though those “other” Friends make up the overwhelming majority of the Quaker family worldwide.

For a long time, it was convenient to divvy up Quakers according to which umbrella organization they belonged to. In North America, unprogrammed Friends (mostly) belonged to Friends General Conference. Mainstream Friends (mostly) belonged to Friends United Meeting. And more evangelically-minded Friends (mostly) belonged to Evangelical Friends International.

That neat division ignored quite a few independent and unaffiliated meetings, as well as the small but spiritually very strong groups of Conservative Friends. It also ignored the fact that some yearly meetings (New York, New England, and Baltimore) belong to both FUM and FGC.

But in the last 10 years, the Quaker landscape here in the U.S. has been changing. Three of the powerhouse FUM yearly meetings – Western, Indiana and most recently North Carolina – have undergone serious divisions, which have drastically reduced their membership and destroyed yearly meeting ministries which had lasted for 100 years or more. These yearly meetings have been greatly weakened, and it may take generations for Friends in these areas to rebuild.

One of the major wedge issues has been support for (or opposition to) full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in our meetings – as members and attenders, as leaders, as families, and as couples who can be married under our care. Many of the recent divisions among Friends have been sparked by this issue, which is not unique to Friends – it’s also being played out in nearly every mainstream denomination in the country.

A lot of unprogrammed Friends tend to be pretty self-righteous about gay and lesbian issues, conveniently forgetting how much controversy their meetings lived through during the 1960’s and early 1970’s. My own personal observation is among most Friends under the age of 40, of nearly every branch of Friends, it’s a non-issue – polls show that more than 50% of people in the U.S. think that gay and lesbian people should enjoy the same rights as all the rest of us. In 20 years, this may be a non-issue for nearly all Friends in North America.

Another way to divide us up is into “Christ-centered” and “universalist” Friends. It’s pretty hard to dismiss this division, which many Friends feel goes to the core of who we are. I’ve heard and read dozens of presentations and books by Quakers who are passionately convinced that George Fox and the early Friends were unquestionably Christian, and by others who see the Quaker movement as having been universalist from its very beginnings.

The more excited Quakers get about this, the more ready we are to excommunicate one another and write each other out of the book. The lines have been dug very deeply into the landscape, and especially for evangelical Friends there can be no compromise whatsoever. On the other end of the spectrum, I have often encountered a lot of smug superiority among universalist Friends, who feel that they are not only right, but that in a few generations (if there are any Quakers left) history will judge that only they were correct. I find it pretty irritating, and perversely intolerant for a group which usually claims tolerance as one of their main beliefs.

I’m a Christian – or at least I try to be – and a Quaker pastor, which some Quakers see as a contradiction of their understanding of Friends’ beliefs. Probably 80% of my messages on Sunday are drawn from the gospels, and I see Jesus as my Savior. But there are all kinds of people out there, and I see Quakers as a big tent which welcomes all kinds of folks. I’m not inclined to close people out.

I’ve been a minister in yearly meetings which were predominantly liberal (New York and New England) as well as yearly meetings which are theologically more conservative (Indiana and North Carolina). I haven’t changed my own beliefs that much, and I’ve managed to reach people and speak to their hearts and minds everywhere I’ve been.

Outside the hothouse of universalist Quaker workshops, the majority of Friends worldwide identify themselves as Christians. Particularly among East African and Latin American Friends, who outnumber North American Friends of all persuasions by nearly 3 to 1, there is little or no question on whether Quakers are Christians.

Here in North America, Quakers are overwhelmingly white and mostly middle class. We talk a good game about diversity, but the reality is – well, not so much. I don’t think that this means that Quakers are bad people, but we tend to clump together with people who are like us. People argue about how intentional this is. But North American Friends have never really had a sustained, effective outreach to people in our own country who weren’t already pretty close to us.

Quakers are somewhat diverse, but we don’t really handle diversity very well. It makes us nervous the moment we encounter Quaker who really don’t think the way we do. Quakers talk a lot about unity, but the record shows that we have a sorry history of division over the last 200 years.

I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see Quakers give up drawing lines in sand and pretending that they can lock the doors of Heaven against people who disagree with them. I’d like to see us defined both by our deep faith and by our genuine welcome to people who may have taken a different journey to arrive where they are. I’d like to see our meetings reflect more of the racial and social diversity of our society. And I’d like Quakers to laugh more and divide less. For me, that would be a lot more fun than where we are right now.

 

Update on North Carolina – IV

Something new is being born in North Carolina this spring.

If you’ve been following this blog and listening to news on the Quaker grapevine, you know that North Carolina Yearly Meeting is breaking up after 300+ years. The reasons for the breakup go back for many years, and many Friends strongly wish it weren’t happening.

There are at least 3 groups of meetings:

  1. A large group of meetings which want a strong, authoritative yearly meeting, with power to discipline monthly meetings
  2. A small group of monthly meetings which want to work together, but want freedom to interpret Faith and Practice according to their conscience (more about this group in just a minute)The first two groups will maintain ties with North Carolina Yearly Meeting, which in August will become a foundation type of body, holding title to Quaker Lake Camp and distributing income from various trust funds. The two groups will otherwise be completely independent of each other. There is also:
  3. A large, disorganized group of meetings which have withdrawn completely from the yearly meeting. Some may affiliate with more evangelical yearly meetings; some will simply be independent.

I’ve been following developments with the second group, which is calling itself the North Carolina Fellowship of Friends.

In its first meetings, they have found unity and approved the following statement of principles:

  • We are a Christ-centered fellowship of Quaker meetings. We affirm the autonomy of each meeting in Quaker faith and practice
  • We will operate using the 2012 version of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, as printed, for reference and counsel
  • We will worship and serve our local community without interference form other meetings or a higher level organization
  • We will respect the right of other meetings to do the same
  • We will focus on common ministries rather than theological nuances
  • We will closely resemble North Carolina Yearly Meeting in its most peaceful form
  • We agree that we will have differences, but they will not stay us from our common Christ-centered fellowship

The Fellowship of Friends is starting the process of legal incorporation, has appointed co-clerks and a treasurer, is meeting regularly and forming task groups to deal with various challenges.

During the conflict, the finances of North Carolina Yearly Meeting have been in free fall. The yearly meeting has promised start-up funds to both groups, but these may not be available for a while. Neither group is likely to be able to afford much in the way of staff. The Fellowship of Friends is taking this opportunity to re-envision itself as a less centrally-controlled, less staff-dependent and more volunteer-driven body. It probably won’t look much like a traditional yearly meeting, and may function more like a large quarterly meeting.

Encouragingly, a number of other groups have not taken sides, and Friends from both sides of the split continue to be involved with ministries of common interest. The United Society of Friends Women, Quaker Men, Friends Disaster Service, Quaker Lake Camp and other ministries are continuing to meet and function as though the split hasn’t happened. If Friends United Meeting follows the precedent it set when Indiana Yearly Meeting broke up, both of the North Carolina groups will be welcome to participate in FUM.

Both of the two organized groups are planning to continue using North Carolina Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice. Early indications are that the first (authority-centered) group may adopt a few changes to tighten discipline and provide a clearly-stated process to eject dissenting monthly meetings.

Recognizing that there are many individual Friends who feel cut off from their preferred group by the division, the Fellowship of Friends welcomes individuals as well as monthly meetings as members. At its April gathering, they also approved monthly meetings which want to have dual membership. There is no word yet whether the “authority” group will allow dual membership or not.

It will also be interesting to see how the two groups will handle recording of ministers, and whether they will allow recorded ministers to transfer from one group to the other. If both groups follow Faith and Practice this will not be a problem, but much of the conflict among Friends in recent years has centered around whether certain ministers and their ideas are acceptable or not.

Things are still shaking out in North Carolina and among Friends in many other parts of the United States. Stay tuned for developments!

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.

Have we learned anything?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things to think about in North Carolina

As Friends in North Carolina move towards a formal separation, I hope that they will do more than heave a sigh of relief that maybe the fighting can be over. Friends also need to look carefully at the many legal and practical issues which separation involves.

Problems which Friends need to face up to include:

  1. Who owns the property? Many meetings have “reversion clauses” in their deeds, so that if their local meeting is ever laid down, the property goes to the yearly meeting. At a minimum, local meetings need to look at their property deeds, trust funds and other assets to make sure that their assets will go where they want them to go. When Indiana Yearly Meeting broke up, the yearly meeting paid to have the deeds of all of the departing meetings examined by an attorney, and provided “quit claim deeds” so that the yearly meeting would have no ownership or reversion of the departing meetings.
  2. Work out a fair formula to deal with assets. This can be handled well or badly – dividing the various trust funds and endowments is a complicated legal task. The intent of the donors needs to be respected, and both sides should receive a fair share.
  3. Deal with debts. Arrangements need to be made with meetings which have borrowed money from the yearly meeting for repairs and improvements. Other debts must be repaid, written off or assigned. This isn’t something which can be done quickly or easily.
  4. Agree to share resources. Both groups will probably want to continue to use Quaker Lake camp, and neither side probably has the ability to support the camping program on its own. Historians and genealogists from both groups will want to share access to historical records and minutes.
  5. Consider a new name for both groups. This can become a major bone of contention, as both groups claim to be the “real” North Carolina Yearly Meeting. It would be much healthier in the long run to lay down the old name – to retire the number on the T-shirt – and have each group start out with a fresh name.
  6. Membership matters – will individual Friends be able to move freely back and forth between the two groups? In the rest of the Quaker world, membership transfers take place almost automatically, with little or no friction. North Carolina Friends should be careful of setting up new and divisive standards for membership transfer between meetings.
  7. Recorded ministers – in the same way, most yearly meetings allow recorded ministers to transfer fairly easily, though most yearly meetings require that ministers agree to support the Faith and Practice of the meeting they’re moving into. A good deal of the hostility and bitterness among Friends in the U.S. today has risen from problems with pastors and recorded ministers. Careful thinking ahead of time can help shape our future around this issue.
  8. Retired ministers – North Carolina Friends have put a great deal of effort and resources into providing for their retired ministers. If the yearly meeting splits, arrangements need to be made so that ministers and yearly meeting staff who have devoted their lives to serving Friends will not suffer. Current pastors need to have their years of service count towards any future participation in retirement funds.
  9. Faith and Practice – Over the next few years, many adjustments will need to be made, but both sides will probably want to continue to use North Carolina’s current Faith and Practice, and both sides should be allowed to do so.
  10. Don’t try to make other Quakers take sides. So far, local groups from the United Society of Friends Women International (USFWI) are continuing to meet and work together regardless of the yearly meeting split (maybe they know something the rest of us don’t!). Quaker Men may well do the same. When Indiana Friends divided, Friends United Meeting moved quickly to recognize both groups and welcomes representatives from both groups to the Board. Other Friends may be sympathetic to our situation, but don’t expect them to choose one side or the other. Missionaries who we’ve supported for many years are especially at risk — they depend on us for their support! Don’t involve them in our unhappiness.

Whether we like it or not, separating is complicated. It can be done well or badly — a fair-minded division of assets and careful attention to detail will go far to helping the future of all Friends in our area. As we saw when Friends divided in 1828, a hostile separation will sow seeds of bitterness which can last for a hundred years.


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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