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What went wrong with Friends?

As I have said in so many posts on this blog, a spirit of separation has taken over Friends. Once one of the most united bodies in the entire Christian family, Quakers in this generation have increasingly decided that they are better off not having anything to do with each other.

It’s been growing for quite some time. In early 1980’s, the worship wars were mainly over music. As years went by, Friends hardened positions over theology, politics, and sexuality until we reached the point where Friends decided we can’t be friends any more.

In my opinion, the change has been largely driven by pastors – most separations are driven by a small group of leaders rather than by a groundswell of broad feeling.

Separation has also been driven by sheer weariness – unending conflicts, relentless griping, non-stop fault-finding, nitpicking over details, and personal attacks against leaders.

Finances are also a major contributing factor to our breakdown – many more Quaker organizations all asking for money, plus the pressure of yearly meeting budgets based on head-count which actively discourages local meetings from adding new members. I have seen dozens of local meetings where the yearly meeting askings amounted to more than 15% of the local meeting budget – and I have heard hundreds of Friends asking what their yearly meeting is really doing for them.

Several yearly meetings have collapsed from the sheer weight of their books of Faith and Practice, which spell out in excruciating detail about structures which stopped functioning decades ago and battles over historical statements of faith which nobody reads.

Yearly meetings imploded when the number of appointments and committee slots to fill became greater (sometimes 2 or 3 times greater) than the number of people who were reluctantly willing to be appointed.

For more than 30 years, I was always the youngest member of any Quaker board I served on – a symptom that Quaker organizations were no longer attracting the energy or the interest of the next generation. It’s not that younger Friends don’t have concerns, but most of our Quaker organizations have failed dramatically in capturing their interest.

In much of my work with Friends, local meetings are widely scattered and isolated, and people are hungry for opportunities to worship together, build friendships and work on common concerns. Pastoral exchanges, traveling Friends, Young Friends events and visitors were so welcome! I’m still a newcomer in North Carolina, but my impression is that Friends here are reluctant to cooperate or visit. Meetings here are physically closer together, and Friends in North Carolina are scared that other meetings will poach or steal members from each other – a fear that is all too well-founded in some cases.

The life expectancy of many Quaker organizations is dwindling – even our yearly meetings, which for almost 400 years have been the bedrock of organized Quaker activity. Meetings are choosing sides and separating, or choosing to go it alone.

But to use John Donne’s famous phrase, “no man is an island” is equally true of local meetings. No congregation is an island, separate unto itself. We need each other to survive, to stay fresh, to remind ourselves of who we are, to do projects together which are too big for one small group. Friends who attack and destroy organizations without building something better are irresponsible.

What’s happened? Worshiping together stopped being the glue. Gatherings stopped being fun. We focused on building budgets rather than relationships, and we told people how much they had to give instead of asking what they could manage. We didn’t ask our young people what they wanted to do. We wasted endless time and energy on attacking leaders. We were afraid. We listened to people who wanted to divide, and we didn’t have faith that God wants to keep us together.

None of this was inevitable, and Quakers in different places are trying to rebuild. But it’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be a lot harder if we don’t learn from our mistakes.

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).

Update on North Carolina Yearly Meeting

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that North Carolina Yearly Meeting has been going through a major struggle for several years.

Leaders in many of the more evangelical meetings have been calling for a separation, and at least 20 meetings have already withdrawn from the yearly meeting. The yearly meeting’s finances have been in free fall, and there has been great anxiety about the future of Friends in North Carolina.

At the Representative body meeting earlier this summer, Friends agreed in principle to a separation into two group, with the Executive Committee to draft a proposal in time for Yearly Meeting on August 12-14.

Take a step back for a minute: internal tension and calls for separation have been taking place across yearly meetings in the U.S. for many years since the early 20th century. More recently, Western Yearly Meeting lost a number of meetings but remained largely intact, while Indiana Yearly Meeting split into two groups, about 60% keeping the old name and about 40% forming the New Association of Friends.

I attended the business session of North Carolina Yearly Meeting last weekend, and the draft plan for separation was presented. The plan received initial approval, and we broke into a number of small groups to discuss the plan before lunch.

After lunch, before the decision making resumed, we heard a number of reports – from Quaker Lake Camp, from mission workers, from Friends Disaster Relief – and it was clear that Friends are still deeply interested in continuing and supporting these efforts. No one wants to see our youth and mission work suffer because of a division.

When we took up the question of separation again, the clerk asked if the meeting would wait in prayer while the Executive Committee met to work on a modification of the plan. There was some visiting and conversation while the committee went out, but many Friends were praying quietly.

When the committee came back, they brought a rough draft of a new proposal:

  1. That the yearly meeting remain intact
  2. That the yearly meeting hold title to the physical properties and financial assets
  3. That two groups be formed, with each group being responsible for its own statements of faith and belief, as well as membership, recording of ministers, quarterly meeting organization, and internal administration
  4. That the yearly meeting continue to be a channel for mission work, youth programming, ministers’ retirement and other matters of common interest

In essence, the yearly meeting would become an “umbrella organization” or a “big tent” which will let us work together in places where we can agree, and which will let us work separately in areas where we can’t agree at present.

Neither of the two new groups would be responsible for the beliefs of the other or have disciplinary power over the other.

In many ways, North Carolina Yearly Meeting would become more like Friends United Meeting, which is a very diverse body of yearly meetings from around the world, which comes together to support Christian work in the name of Friends.

This new proposal was approved and will go back to the monthly meetings for discussion. It’s too early to tell whether this will allow us to keep together in a new way, or whether hardline Friends will insist on a complete separation.

I think that the new plan could work – but only if Friends are willing to make it work. It would allow each group to have its own space, and it would help us to maintain a measure of unity and allow us to support Christian work which we all value and enjoy. For many reasons, it may be better for Friends to re-organize than to divide.

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.

Counting the cost

My last two posts have been about the conflict among Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting. At the last Representative Body meeting on June 4th, they approved the recommendation of the Executive Committee that the yearly meeting move towards a formal separation.

One of the things Jesus said was to count the cost before starting anything big (Luke 14:28). Here are just a few of the costs – some are financial, some involve relationships, some are spiritual, and all of them are important.

Things which will suffer immediately in a separation:

  • Support for missions will decrease – missions are one of the main reasons Friends gather in larger bodies, and mission support is one of the biggest casualties in any breakup
  • Youth ministry – the loss here will be both financial and in the numbers of Young Friends who are able to get together for camping, youth programs, trips and events
  • Education – yearly meeting support for Quaker colleges has been flatlined or declining for years, and the breakup will only make this situation worse
  • Yearly meeting staffing – every yearly meeting which breaks up winds up cutting staff dramatically. (In other posts, I’ve estimated that it takes roughly 2,500 to 3,000 local meeting members to support 1 yearly meeting staff person.)
  • Division of funds – hopefully there will be a fair division of the assets of the yearly meeting, which both sides can agree to. In many church break-ups, arguments over money have gone on for years, and the bitterness has lasted for generations.
  • “Lost” monthly meetings – during the controversy, some meetings choose to become community churches or become independent Friends meetings
  • Reputation of Friends – Quakers in North Carolina will no longer speak with one voice. This hurts us here in our own communities and in other parts of the Quaker world.

Other costs will show up more over the long term – say, in the next 5-10 years:

  • Long-term giving – until all of the legal issues and trusteeship of the yearly meeting funds are settled, very few people will want to make major bequests or large capital gifts.
  • Visitation between meetings – this has already declined, as people haven’t been certain about whether they’re welcome or not.
  • Leadership – one of the biggest casualties of this kind of breakup is when ministers and pastors are no longer accepted by each others’ groups. Retirement, insurance and education programs for ministers will also be a major casualty – which means that fewer people will be willing to commit to long-term involvement as pastors and ministers. As a result of this conflict, we may find it very difficult to attract talented Friends even to apply for leadership positions in our yearly meeting.
  • Burned out individuals – many of our best people, who have tried to mediate the conflict or who have stood faithfully, are simply worn out. We may lose dozens of our best clerks, ministers, committee members and staff people who have given years of their lives trying to build up and preserve North Carolina Yearly Meeting.
  • Young adult Friends – Quaker organizations across the country have been having problems for more than 30 years trying to get Boomers, Millennials and X-ers involved. North Carolina Friends have done better than most in this area, but it’s going to be much harder now. Where will our next generation of leaders, teachers, ministers and worshipers come from?

It may be a genuine relief for yearly meeting sessions not be dominated by quarreling, and I certainly hope that we will recover some of our joy again. Friends will continue, somehow. But we won’t be as strong, not for a long while.

It may be too late for North Carolina Friends to turn back – but I hope we count the cost!

Update on North Carolina Yearly Meeting – II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update on North Carolina Yearly Meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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