Archive for the 'Quakers' Category

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 Four more monthly meetings have withdrawn from the yearly meeting since we last met in November.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.

Out in the parking lot

It’s amazing how many people come by our meetinghouse every day, and how different they all are. There are the folks from the meeting, of course, who come to the office to see me, or to drop things off or pick things up. There are tradespeople who come to work on the copier, or inspect the fire extinguishers, or deliver packages. But there are lots of other people who come in the drive but never enter the meetinghouse.

There’s the photographer from a nearby architect’s office, for example. At least once or twice a week he pulls in and parks during lunch hour. He told me he likes it because it’s quiet, and he can eat his sandwich and listen to the birds and read his Bible in the middle of the day.

Then there are the police who often park right behind the brick gateway. Our meetinghouse sits at the top of a hill with a road curving down below, and it’s tempting for drivers to go speeding past. Our parking lot is a good place for the police to have a speed trap during the day, or for two patrol cars to meet for a coffee break in the evening. I often see them when I’m out walking the dog, and they roll down their window to visit.

A surprising number of people pull into the Springfield Friends parking lot to stop and make cell phone calls, or send text messages. Especially on Saturdays, I often see two cars pull in, the doors open, and one or two children walk from one car to the other – probably exchanging the children for weekend custody visits. Those always make me sad.

There’s a large historic cemetery next to our meetinghouse – the oldest graves go back to the late 1700’s – and we often get visitors who are tracing their family on the gravestones. They’re easy to spot because they almost always carry cameras and notebooks, and they apologize for coming by. I often help them find the place they’re interested in, using the excellent guidebook prepared by the Springfield Memorial Association, and a lot of the time the family wants to buy a copy.

One day, a pickup truck pulled in and parked right outside my office window. The driver got out, left the door open, and came around so that the truck screened him from the road. He proceeded to strip down to his underwear, wiped himself down with a washcloth and some bottled water, and put on clean clothes – he obviously thought no one was here, and he needed to change for a meeting or an interview.

The pedestrians are even more interesting than the cars. We have a lot of immigrants in our neighborhood, and every afternoon two older Pakistani women come walking up Elva Place from their home 200 yards away. They’re clearly getting their daily exercise and our meetinghouse is the turnaround point. They’re very shy and always turn back before I can greet them.

When we first moved here, there was a gaunt older woman with the high cheekbones and piercing eyes that said she came from the mountains, wearing a ragged dress and worn-out shoes, who walked past every afternoon. She said her doctor told her to walk 2 miles every day for her heart, so she would go twice around the large block made by Springfield Road, Brentwood, Fairfield and Bellemeade. Then one day she stopped coming, and I never found out what happened to her. I hope it was because she was able to move in with family, or find a better place to live.

Then there’s a very young African-American mother, still in her teens, who walks past pushing her baby in a stroller. We always smile and greet each other, and I always ask how the baby’s coming along, which earns me an extra grin.

It’s surprising how many people in the neighborhood don’t know who we are – one person told me she’s lived here all her life and thought we might be a church, but the sign said “Friends Meeting” and she didn’t know what that was.

We don’t interact nearly enough with the people in our neighborhood, and I think that’s true of most Friends meetings in other places as well. We come here on Sunday to worship, and occasionally for other gatherings, but we seldom talk with our neighbors, who live nearby and see our building every day.

This year we put up a new sign with 8-inch letters which can be changed easily, and we started putting up different messages each week. The new sign has drawn a lot of attention, and it’s even started a friendly marquee rivalry with the Methodist church down the street – a group we didn’t interact with before.

Several times a year our meeting holds big fundraising dinners which draw 200-300 people – a barbecue, a gigantic fish fry, a chili cook-off. Those are great, but the visitors seldom come back on Sunday morning. More recently, we’ve invited a local gospel group to come and sing during the dinner – here in North Carolina, the combination of gospel music and pork barbecue is nearly irresistible.

For much of our history, Quakers frowned on making a big deal of public holidays. But last year for the Christmas season, we put electric candles in all the windows of our meetinghouse facing the road, which drew a lot of attention. People slowed down to enjoy the lovely lights in the evening, and the lights also brightened their day in the dark of early morning as they went off to work or to school.

One of our members is trying to organize a Spanish Bible study here at the meetinghouse, and classes in English to help the new families in the neighborhood adjust to living here. Another member wants to start a 12-step group, which may not make our meeting grow right away on Sunday morning, but it’s a great ministry for us to support.

Growth is always tied to outreach – on the web, on the street, in the community, in the neighborhood. Quakers are a pretty introverted bunch – we need to shake loose and interact with the people who are all around us. It’s not enough to have a good write-up in the history books – we need to make history in our own generation, and find fresh ways to minister and witness to the love and light of God.

Update on North Carolina Yearly Meeting – II

In my last post, I gave you the bottom line – North Carolina Yearly Meeting, after 318 years of more-or-less unity, have decided that separation is inevitable. Depending on your perspective, this is cause for either grief or relief. According to some Friends, the bickering and fighting have been building up for the last 20 or 30 years.

It looks like the breakup may actually be happening now. There’s a lot of pressure for meetings to choose sides, even though the “sides” are poorly defined. Some meetings still don’t want to choose, or are still longing for a way to stay together.

The wedge issue which is seldom mentioned out loud but which has been effectively used to break up the yearly meeting is homosexuality. Problems with this issue aren’t unique to North Carolina Yearly Meeting or to Friends in general; churches across the United States have been trying to find ways to unite or divide.

The pressure is on for the yearly meeting to split into just two groups, and for monthly meetings to choose sides if they haven’t done so already. From many conversations with Quaker leaders, I think that the reality is that there are really three groups, which is making things more complicated.

To draw the picture with a very broad brush, though, here’s my view of the groups in North Carolina Friends.

Group A – meetings which were basically satisfied with what they see as a “traditional” yearly meeting. I’d call them the “centrist” group – many of these meetings have LGBT members but they’re basically keeping quiet and not making an issue of it.

Group B – meetings which embrace a more liberal theology; some are openly and enthusiastically accepting of LGBT members and are willing to hold marriages under their care without regard to sexual orientation.

Group C – meetings which want a much more evangelical statement of faith and want the yearly meeting to have both the ability and the resolve to kick out meetings and pastors which don’t agree with them. These meetings strongly reject homosexual practice and do not want to associate with Friends who tolerate or accept it.

Many of the meetings which were most outspoken in Group C withdrew early from the yearly meeting. Group B have mostly hung in, which has caused more Group C’s to withdraw or threaten to do so.

Originally, Group C wanted to kick out Group B, and drag the A’s along into their camp. A lot of the stridency in Group C appears to be coming from a fairly small group of pastors, while a lot of the cohesiveness in Group A and B seems to be rooted in the rank-and-file membership.

As this same kind of struggle has played out in other yearly meetings, the division has worked out differently, and a lot of the time it’s been a battle for the soul of the center. In Western Yearly Meeting a few years ago, some of the most outspoken meetings on both the liberal and evangelical sides left, and the center mostly held together.

In Indiana, about 60% of the members from the right and right-of-center managed to claim the title of “Indiana Yearly Meeting”, about 35% became the New Association of Friends, and about 5% of the membership wound up becoming independent.

Here in North Carolina, it’s unclear to me at this point how the numbers will work out. If monthly meetings were truly left to themselves to decide their own future, my guess is that Group A might be 40-50% of the membership, Group B might be 10%-20%, Group C might be 40%, and at least 10% might go independent.

Whether meetings will be allowed honestly to choose for themselves is still an open question. Most Friends are talking only in terms of 2 groups, not 3 (or more).

If Group A (the centrists) can agree to make acceptance of homosexuality a matter for local meetings to decide, or at least take it off the front burner, they could probably combine successfully with most of Group B for a while.

If Group C succeeds in making homosexuality the litmus test for the entire group, they may drag a few more of the Group A meetings along with them.

Most of the leaders I have spoken with from Group B meetings seem sincere in their desire not to split the yearly meeting. Their meetings’ support and acceptance of LGBT people is a matter of conscience and conviction, and many of these Group B leaders are widely respected outside their own monthly meetings.

Meanwhile, almost every time two Quakers from North Carolina get together, the question they can’t resist asking is, “What way is your meeting going to go?”

I believe in unity among Friends, to the greatest degree it’s possible to obtain, and I’ve spent most of my working career trying to bring Friends together. I’m still a newcomer to North Carolina, but I’ve seen similar struggles among Quakers from all across the United States, and they sadden me tremendously, almost beyond my ability to bear.

In my next post, I’ll be talking about the cost of separation – something which Friends only whisper about, but which deserves closer examination.

Report from Friends General Conference

This summer, I was invited to come to the Gathering of Friends General Conference to present a series of five daily workshops on the history of Friends in the 1800’s, as seen through the eyes of Allen Jay, who was one of the best known Quakers in the 19th century. Full disclosure: Allen Jay was also one of the founding member of West Richmond Friends, where I’ve been serving for the last 22 years, and a leader at Springfield Friends in High Point, NC, where I’m moving this summer.

Over 1,400 people were at the FGC Gathering, which was held at Western Carolina State University in Culhowhee, NC, high in the Smoky Mountains. At the opening session, people from all of the different yearly meetings and Quaker organizations were asked to stand. I stood when the New Association of Friends was called, and all week long people came up to me to ask about our group.

Nearly everyone I met at FGC knew about West Richmond’s welcoming and affirming minute – many FGC folks have been welcoming and affirming for much longer than our meeting. Everyone who spoke with me expressed support and prayers for our meeting.

The workshops I gave were extremely popular – I’d expected about 20 attenders, and wound up with 32! All of the copies of the Autobiography of Allen Jay were sold out at the bookstore on the first day of the gathering. The workshops met every morning from 9:00 to 11:45, and included worship, a hymn, an hour of lecture, discussion, and reading aloud from Allen Jay’s comments on the changes in Quaker life and practice in the 1800’s.

Afternoons for me were filled with workshops and interest groups, visits to the bookstore, rest and reading. Late one afternoon I was playing my hammered dulcimer out by the fountain in the plaza near our dorm. I looked up and found that a group of 12-15 Quakers had joined me and were all doing tai chi nearby, standing on one foot like a flock of Friendly flamingoes!

I especially enjoyed workshops on how to promote your meeting on social media, theological diversity among Friends, and a deeply moving presentation by an elder from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee people, who have a reservation near the campus where we were meeting.

Max Carter also led a standing-room-only interest group where he shared recent developments in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM), which is facing pressure to divide the yearly meeting, mainly over the issue of homosexuality. I was asked to share our meeting’s experience with the breakup of Indiana Yearly Meeting.

In the evening plenary sessions, we listened to two attorneys from North Carolina talk about their work to oppose mass incarceration of African-Americans; an inspiring talk by educator and writer Parker Palmer; and a great concert by Indiana Quaker songwriter Carrie Newcomer.

My wife often criticizes me for not standing and cheering at concerts. I think I was the first person in the auditorium on my feet for the standing ovation after Carrie’s song, I Heard An Owl, with its chorus:

So don’t tell me hate is ever right or God’s will,
These are the wheels we put in motion ourselves,
Though shaken I still believe
The best of what we all can be
The only peace this world will know
Can only come from love

My room mate, Eric, was an African-American Quaker from Atlanta, Georgia, who phoned home twice a day to his wife and joked with me constantly about how Quakers take themselves too seriously. He was deeply interested in what I had to tell him about the Alternatives to Violence Project and about Open Arms Ministries, a group of 15 churches in Richmond who work together to help people who have fallen between the cracks of other programs.

Unlike many Quaker groups, FGC does not hold business sessions at its annual gathering – which may be one reason why so many people enjoy it! As Parker Palmer commented, “People are leaving religion because of theological food fights…” He also commented that “conflict is not the end of community”, and quoted Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, who said – “Community is a continual act of forgiveness…”

As a Quaker pastor at an overwhelmingly unprogrammed gathering, I had expected to be challenged by angry Friends lecturing me about how “Quakers don’t have pastors!” (this is an experience I’ve had at a number of FGC yearly meetings). Instead, all through the week, people kept asking to sit down with me at meal times to ask about the New Association of Friends, to learn more about Allen Jay, or to talk about their ministries or challenges in their lives and meetings.

Did I agree with everyone I met at FGC, or with everything I heard? Of course not – I never expected that! But there were so many opportunities for prayer and worship, for conversation and listening, for learning about how different people are following their leadings, for making new friends, for browsing delicious books at the bookstore, for seeing new forms of art, for seeing how lively and diverse Quaker faith can be.

My favorite Quaker quotes

Hello again — I’ve been “off the air” and haven’t posted for a while. I thought I would share some of my favorite classic Quaker quotations of all time.

Quakers are highly quotable, and Friends have always enjoyed saving and sharing these great snippets and one-liners with each other. I’m sure I have missed some of your favorites — feel free to post them in your comments.

  1. “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness: and in that also I saw the infinite love of God…” – George Fox
  2. “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?…” – George Fox
  3. “There is that near you which will guide you. O, wait for it, and be sure to keep to it…” – Isaac Penington
  4. “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand.” – Isaac Penington
  5. “There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself…” – James Nayler
  6. “Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts, which are the leadings of God.” – London Yearly Meeting
  7. “The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers…” – William Penn
  8. “A good end cannot sanctify evil means; nor must we ever do evil that good may come of it…let us then try what love will do…” – William Penn
  9. “Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but for that reason it should be most our care to learn it…” – William Penn
  10. “…the Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us form a thing as evil, and again to move unto it; and we certainly know, and testify to the world, that the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons…” 1660 Declaration to King Charles II
  11.  “We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government, nor are we for this party nor against the other…but we are for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom, that these may be exalted in our nation…” – Edward Burrough
  12. “For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people I felt a secret power among them which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up…” – Robert Barclay
  13.  “…to turn all the treasures we possess into the channel of Universal Love becomes the business of our lives…” – John Woolman
  14. “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again…” – Stephen Grellet
  15. “You are never tempted by a devil without you, but by a devil within you…” – Elias Hicks
  16. “It is an honor to appear on the side of the afflicted…” – Elizabeth Fry
  17. “I give myself this advice: Do not fear truth, let it be ever so contrary to inclination and feeling. Never give up the search after it; and let me take courage, and try from the bottom of my heart to do that which I believe truth dictates, if it lead me to be a Quaker or not…” – Elizabeth Fry
  18. “Those who go forth ministering to the wants and necessities of their fellow beings experience a rich return, their souls being as a watered garden, and a spring that faileth not…” – Lucretia Mott
  19. “I long for the day my sisters will rise, and occupy the sphere to which they are called by their high nature and destiny.” – Lucretia Mott
  20. “Has a separation ever caused more people to hear the Gospel? Ever enlarged the Church? Ever shown to the world more of the gentleness and meekness of Christ? Has a separation ever caused the world to exclaim, `See how those Christians love one another?'” – Allen Jay

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!


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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