Archive for the 'Organizational questions' Category

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 A large, disorganized group of meetings which have withdrawn completely from the yearly meeting.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.

Church keys

One of the most moving moments in starting work at a new meeting is being given the keys to the meetinghouse. It’s a symbol of trust, of having arrived, of being one of the meeting leaders.

Many years ago I attended an unprogrammed Friends meeting in a rural area. Seven miles out in the country. After I’d been coming for about a year, I was asked to come early each Sunday and unlock the meetinghouse and turn on the heat. The key was kept at the neighbor’s house about 200 yards away. It hung on a nail on the door leading from the garage into the kitchen, and anyone who needed to get into the meetinghouse knew where to find it.

When I came here to North Carolina, I acquired a new set of keys – one to the meetinghouse door, and one to the office. That’s plenty for me – I hate carrying around a heavy, bulky key ring. But over the next few months, I found out that different people in the meeting had other keys that I didn’t have – a key to the back door, a key to the kitchen door, and so on.

There was a moment of panic in January when the fuel oil for the meetinghouse ran out, and nobody knew where the key to the oil tank was. We could get more oil delivered – but without the key, we couldn’t put it in the tank! I finally called the former handyman, who told me where it was hidden in the boiler room in the basement.

I kept finding places for which I didn’t have the key, and no one could tell me where to find one. In the office there were three large key rings with dozens of unmarked keys – probably over half for locks which don’t exist any more.

So I spent an hour going round the meetinghouse with the key collection. As I discovered a key that worked, I tagged it with one of those round metal-rimmed tags and a Sharpie marker.

A couple of people in the meeting thought it was a mistake to put tags on the keys. “What if someone broke into the office? They’d take the keys and be able to get in anywhere?” These folks would rather have an anonymous collection of keys, and be able to choose the right well-worn key from memory – even if it means that the new pastor can’t find anything!

It made me think that there must be many other “keys” in the meeting – not just physical keys, but ways to open people’s hearts and memories, their longings and fears and dreams. Just because I’ve got the key to the meetinghouse doesn’t mean I can get in anywhere I want.

Sometimes it’s a matter of knowing the right phrase, the right prayer, code or password. I’ve had to wait and listen to people for a while before they let me into what they’re really thinking or feeling.

A key is a complicated thing – a carefully shaped piece of metal, with a unique pattern of ridges and grooves which lets it move the invisible pieces inside the lock and free it to turn and open the door. Compared to the size of the door, or the whole building, a key is a tiny thing – but if it’s lost or missing, a whole church can be kept waiting outside till it’s found.

Sometimes a physical key can unlock a door into a chapter in the meeting’s past – no one knew where the key was to a large room which was used for many years for a school aftercare program. The program was laid down at least 10 years ago, but it’s still an important memory for many people who came to this meeting because of it. Now that I’ve found the key again, maybe we could re-purpose the room for a new ministry that will help bring life here again.

In some churches, the key is a symbol of power and control – the person who has it doesn’t want anyone to come in, or to have access to whatever they’re fiercely protecting. Fortunately, the meeting where I am now doesn’t have many locked areas.

I expect to keep finding more church keys – ones which open my understanding of the budget, unlock the hurts in an extended family, or open the doorway to all kinds of gifts and ministries. One key doesn’t work in every situation, and sometimes I have to call in a locksmith.

What are the keys to your meeting?

 


P.S. – just as an historical and cultural note, when I was growing up in Vermont, a “church key” meant something else entirely. It was an item at the bottom of the fishing tackle box which came in handy on a hot day. This meaning has gone out of common use since the invention of pop-tab cans.

can opener

 

Dreams and Visions

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m the kind of person who likes facts and numbers. Wishful thinking, ignoring trends and blindness to reality are anathema to me. I don’t deal very much with dreams and visions.

So I was pretty startled last week when I woke up with one of those persistent dreams which don’t make much sense. For some reason, I kept dreaming that we were making saw horses at the meetinghouse – really good ones which would be capable of holding a lot of weight, strong and level to do good work.

The dream stuck with me when I woke up, and I wasn’t sure what it meant or what to do with it.

Then, a few days later, I was up at the meetinghouse early on Sunday morning. I usually get there by 7:00 or 7:30 to make sure that the heat is turned on, and then I go around unlocking the doors for when people start to arrive an hour or so later.

Our meetinghouse was built in 1916, and the front entrance was built more to be impressive than accessible – it’s up a long flight of 13 concrete steps. Almost no one comes in that way any more – people mostly come in the side door on SW 7th Street, or else through the door on the other side of the building under the archway, where we have an elevator.

As I was unlocking the doors, I looked out the front door onto the new-fallen snow. There were no tracks outside, and the steps hadn’t been shoveled. I thought to myself, “Why bother? No one’s coming in this way anyhow.”

I turned away, and then I stopped and came back. What if someone new, someone who’s never been to our meeting before, tried to come to worship and the front door was locked? Maybe it won’t happen this week, or next week – in fact, I think it’s pretty unlikely. But I unlocked the door anyway, and next time it snows, I’ll make sure the steps are cleared off.

Last month, the small group which prepares for worship met to start planning for the New Year. At our meeting, we usually let whoever is the speaker that week choose their own topic and whatever Bible passage they want to use. As pastoral minister, I normally bring a prepared message twice a month, and on the other Sundays one of the other folks form the meeting or a guest speaker brings the message. We like the variety of messages this system brings, and we also treasure the “freedom of the pulpit” which is a strong part of our meeting’s tradition.

This time, though, we decided to try something different for a change. For each Sunday from New Year’s to Easter, we chose a series of passages from the gospel of Mark. We’re inviting the speaker to take that week’s passage and wrestle with it, and share whatever they can.

What do moments like these mean? I’m no expert in interpretation. But if I had to make a guess, I’d say:

1) We need to be ready to do some kind of building. I’m not sure if it’s just our meeting, or the New Association of Friends, or Quakers in general. But we’ve been cutting back and scaling down for years. Maybe it’s time to change to a different attitude. Instead of laying down meetings, we should be building new ones. Instead of cutting programs, we should see what new programs would serve our meetings and our communities. If old ones have served their usefulness and need to be laid down, that’s OK. But what new things could we be building?

2) We need to make sure that all the doors are open and inviting, and that there are plenty of different ways for people to come to our meetings. Those “doors” may be real and physical – our meeting experienced real growth when we made the effort a few years ago to make our building more accessible to everyone. But open and inviting doors are often a metaphor for the kind of attitudinal work and program changes we need if new people are going to feel welcome when they come to our meetings. Very few people want to spend their religious lives in museums – they want a spiritual home where they can feel welcome, unpack the things they’ve brought, and be free to move the furniture around a little. Every Quaker meeting I’ve ever known needs to do more work in this area.

3) We need to spend more time with the stories of Jesus, and be willing to let new people take a try at explaining them to us. I’m convinced that people really are hungry for the presence of God, and that they won’t be satisfied with worn-out and recycled stuff. Tradition and testimony are important, but so is listening to what is in people’s hearts and minds today. And if we really want to be Friends of Christ, we need to be listening more to Jesus.

Best wishes for a blessed Christmas season, and for the New Year in 2014!

Membership – II

Last week I ran into someone at a community event, who told me with great pride that he was a “birthright Quaker”, even though he doesn’t belong to a Friends meeting and hasn’t gone to meeting for worship in more than 50 years.

This happens fairly often, and it always puzzles me, since most yearly meetings in the U.S. removed birthright membership from their Faith and Practice early in the 20th century. Before then, if you were born in a Quaker family, then you were automatically considered to be a Quaker.

It was a great way to keep up the membership numbers, especially in the days of large families. And it’s nice to think of people handing down their sense of belonging, sort of like a family heirloom or a precious jewel. I’ve known many people who have proudly told me that they were “birthright Friends” because one of their Quaker grandparents told them when they were little.

The reality, though, is that birthright membership no longer exists, and it hasn’t for quite a while. No one is “automatically” a member. Quakers are more in line now with other groups which insist that to be a member, you have to make a positive declaration that you want to be one – usually as an adult or at least as a teen.

Many yearly meetings have a provision for junior members – children who are allowed to join if their parents make a request for membership on their behalf. It’s almost the same as the old birthright membership, and it can be a loving way for meetings to welcome younger children.

Unfortunately, the experience of many Quaker groups is that the majority of these young Friends drift away some time during their late teens or young adulthood. It’s probably better for us to look at other paths to membership if we really want to grow.

A big part of the cultural and theological struggle among Friends today centers around membership questions – What do people have to do to join? Who is “acceptable” as a Friend? Who sets the rules – the local meeting or the yearly meeting? Is someone who joins Friends in one meeting automatically acceptable by another meeting?

A number of yearly meetings belonging to FUM state, rather dryly, “Friends receive into adult membership those whose faith in God and in Jesus Christ as personal Savior and Lord is manifest in their lives and who are in unity with the teachings of Christian truth as held by the Religious Society of Friends.”

Although this statement covers a lot of ground, many Friends have adopted other “tests” for membership, usually unwritten – is this person sufficiently evangelical, or sufficiently liberal, to get along with us? Is this person straight, or do we accept gay and lesbian people as Friends?

Another big question is, how difficult should it be to become a member of our meeting? Some Quaker groups set the bar fairly high – they expect people to have read several Quaker books, perhaps go to a couple of retreats or go to a series of classes. Other Quaker groups set the bar fairly low – they accept anyone who says they have accepted Jesus as their savior, or perhaps if they know the words to the George Fox song.

Many local meetings have nearly given up the whole idea of membership – if you come to meeting 2 or 3 times, you’re considered a member, until you stop coming. That’s it.

The majority of Friends in the world today undoubtedly think of themselves as Christians, and I certainly fall into that group. However, I have also known many wonderful Friends who are not able to do so, for a variety of personal or deeply-principled reasons. I guess I’m not inclined to be part of the “theological police” – even though I’m a Christian, I don’t have the itch to throw other people out.

I’m sure that there will be readers of this blog who want to hold out for a “high” view of membership – members of Friends should be well-read in the Bible and in Quaker writings, deeply committed in their Christian life, widely-traveled in Quaker gatherings, active donors to many Quaker causes, regular writers of letters to Congress and to their local newspaper, and so on. I admire Friends who fit this picture, but they will probably make up a fairly small minority in most meetings.

In practical terms, members:

1) attend worship regularly, unless they’re unable to do so
2) take part in the life and activities of the meeting
3) love and accept the other people in their meeting
4) continue to test and shape their religious beliefs and daily practices, and help others to do the same
5) help the meeting to discern God’s will in monthly meetings for business
6) support the meeting financially to the best of their ability

 I’m sure there will continue to be fairly wide differences among Friends who want a more consistent theological characterization of membership — probably one which matches up with their own theology, whatever it is. 

While I want to encourage a lively and ongoing discussion of beliefs and experiences among Friends, I think that it’s best if our working definition of membership is simple, accessible, and behavioral, and as open as possible. 


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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