Friday, October 4, 2013

Some Thoughts On The State Of Quakerism

I have thought a lot about the so called “state” of the Religious Society of Friends: whether we are in decline, whether our practices are still relevant, and whether we have some inherent problems in the process of identifying our leadership. These questions keep coming up so I will try to give one perspective.

Full Disclosure
I spent a good part of two decades learning about, serving, and volunteering for my Yearly Meeting. I have worked at almost every level including as an alternate clerk of the Yearly Meeting.  In recent years I have pulled away because, simply put, things weren’t going well and I did not feel like I was contributing to the solutions, only to the problems. Having written a number of screeds that will likely never be read by anyone; I have been trying to get to a place where I can share some helpful observations without succumbing to ego driven condemnations. In essence I am trying to have an amicable divorce from my Yearly Meeting where there are many people (including those I was in conflict with) who I still love very much. My opinions are certainly colored by an unsatisfying experience but hopefully I am now able to share something worthwhile to these concerns which are shared by many devout Quakers.

First: Is the Religious Society of Friends in decline?
Obviously I cannot speak for all of Quakerism, but I can share what I have seen happening in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. During my experience since 1987, we have been in a continual struggle to address fears about numbers. The most frequent questions asked at our annual sessions have been:

1.    How can we attract more young people?

2.    Why can’t we get our Monthly Meetings and their members to give more money beyond our annual covenant to support the work of our Yearly Meeting?

3.    Why can’t we get more people to volunteer for Yearly Meeting standing committees, working groups, and positions of leadership?

Certainly during discernment efforts we have asked how Spirit was leading us. But those three questions were the most consistent topics of concern even above and beyond our concerns for peace and environmental stewardship. These topics are certainly common to any religion today, particularly here in the United States. And, there are all kinds of excuses about them. The questions show that we are more focused on practical matters and less on matters of the Spirit. And, yes, they are evidence of a declining organization.

So what? The more we focus on our decline and those three related questions, the less attention we give to listening to that of God in one another and acting with love and integrity. They shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but because they are based in fear they are lacking in faith. They corrupt our good intentions. They corrupt our ability to act with love. The corrupt our understanding of God’s call to us.

Second: Are the practices of the Religious Society of Friends still relevant?
Another consistently expressed fear of Friends is that we have fewer long time Quakers and a greater percentage of new ones - who do not fully understand our practices and who misinterpret them to mean that we can easily change them. There is an apprehension of losing our traditions, of becoming more of a like-minded social club than a religious society.

In my experience the practice of discernment by the sense of the meeting in worship is still a relevant and powerful experience among Friends. It is central to who we are. Many meetings struggle to teach new attenders about how this works, but when they do, attenders who become members are more likely to embrace the practice than try to change it. It takes patience and intentional friendly attention.

However I, and many others, have come to the conclusion that this form of decision making (Quaker Process) works best in local Meetings and committees made up of the people who have to actually do the work or live into the decision being made. It does not work well with representative bodies. Too often we see decisions by Quarterly and Yearly Meetings enthusiastically embraced by those present at the business meeting and completely rejected by congregations at home. The process alone is not the problem. It is the scope and type of work we are attempting to do in these representative bodies. Our missions have become too complex and disconnected from the needs and leadings of our congregations.

This reality combined with questions about decline causes us to question of the role of representative bodies within our society. What is their purpose? They are most relevant and effective when they serve as a network for fellowship and common leadings, and as a source of education about the ways of Friends. Quakers have long rejected hierarchical organizations. From the beginning the philosophy has been to be organic, adaptable, and locally autonomous, in our structures. In other words responsive to God's continuing revelations.

Older Yearly Meetings like the one in Philadelphia have the added problem that they have old money in restricted trusts and old buildings to maintain. You need professional volunteers with the education of an accountant and an attorney to understand and make informed decisions about these. That work does not necessarily excite most people and seems far removed from the reasons they belong to the Religious Society of Friends: our meetings for worship; pastoral fellowship; and like minded leadings about theology, peace, justice, and stewardship.

Third: Do we have inherent problems in the process of identifying our leadership?
In a word - yes. Too often our nominating committees are forced to fill positions of leadership based on an exhaustive search just to find willing volunteers. They rarely have the luxury of choosing between individual candidates’ spiritual and leadership talents. Recognizing the difficulties they face, the recommendations of these committees are usually accepted without challenge. These things come up in our annual schedules in such a fashion that there is really little time to object and request an alternative name. So trust, faith, and term limits are required.

Unfortunately in many cases we burn out these willing victims or they stay way too long in their positions because no one else will step up to take a turn. Circumstances both within and beyond our control have led our Yearly Meetings to neglect developing an intentional Spirit-led approach to leadership choice and accountability. Likewise Monthly Meetings, doing the best they can, have been unable to commonly make specific efforts to nurture and encourage spiritual leadership among us. Some Meetings are better at this than others, but this does not seem like a very good way to choose our leaders; especially for a society who values intention and accountability as highly as we do.

Are there any solutions?
As a died-in-the-wool Quaker, my leadings always bring me back to our form of worship where we gather in silent expectation of God’s revelations to us. Our weekly worship is at the heart of all we do. It is what defines us as a religious society as opposed to an activist organization. Simply listening for God has been our clarion call since 1652. God has been and continues to call us to focus on our worship and on being in faith community with each other. We can best support our activists answering a leading to work for peace, justice, and an earth restored, by giving them strong stable spiritual homes. Monthly, Quarterly, and Yearly Meetings should set aside their efforts to build or maintain organizations and concentrate on worship, and on providing religious education and a supportive network of spiritual fellowship.

Some will say - “That is what we have been doing. These things have evolved taking the form of more and more complex organizations.” This brings to mind the Bauhaus philosophy of design: “Form follows function.” The forms we have created no longer function as leadings of the Spirit. It is time to simplify. Get back to our center: our worship and our love of that of God in each other. Rather than worrying about our decline we should embrace a receding complexity. We can do that by making our communities welcoming to all and simplifying our mission to: worship, religious education, and fellowship.
Quakers at all meeting levels need to develop a more intentional model for recognizing and nurturing leadership and an accountable process for naming clerks and other positions. There is perhaps not a one size fits all solution. But some gifted friends should gather and come up with some real word strategies that our faith communities can use.

Change is not an easy process. Like any growing it is painful. I am watching from the sidelines for now as my Yearly Meeting tries to do these things. I am not sure when or if I will ever again have any significant gifts to offer them. They have given me much. I continue to hold them affectionately in the Light.


  1. I've been reading your blog with interest. I've got lots of questions and don't really know where to start. I some similar questions about my own denomination. ( Church of the Brethren) and then there are questions about Friends in general. I read the Journal of John Woolman a few years ago and was so moved to see that there could be so much power in simply having conviction. I've recently stepped back from my involvement with my local congregation. I've had poor health for almost a year. But I also have problems with confusion about my relationship with our local congregation, our clergy, and the denomination itself. I actually think I'm more interested in the denomination that our congregation is. I'd love to discuss more with you in person, although I fear that my own confusion could be frustrating. Call me at 703-431-5250 if you like. I'm in Salisbury.

  2. A very insightful essay! It seems to me that you are calling for a return to "basics", with a focus on the local meeting. Am I correct?

    Did you happen to see James Schultz's blog on "The Necessary Tripod" on QuakerQuaker?
    James offers a model of "basics" for local meetings. I would like to know what you think of his tripod concept.

    1. Thanks Bill,

      I am calling for a return to basics. I read Friend James' post with interest. He suggests that Quakers should consider three necessary parts of our spiritual society: "identity, community and mission."

      These are helpful things. But without worship, we are just another nonprofit. Without love we cannot build community. And without integrity our mission will be a hollow attempt to make the ends justify the means.

      So, I would suggest that the three legs of our Quaker tripod should be: Worship, Love, and Integrity. Worship means not only our weekly religious service in the manner of Friends, but an active relationship with the Divine. The way to true community is through Love as expressed through tolerance, compassion, steadfastness, and forgiveness. And Integrity is the basis for all good works. It is a commitment to be intentional in all our actions and all our relationships whether temporal and Divine.

      I would also suggest that our society is in decline partly because we are confused about our core belief in God's continuing revelation. In that Light, we have been over thinking our identity and mission. I have watched my yearly meeting and others in an unending and contentious search for these; grasping to find a common definition of who we are and what our purpose is. In the process we have not been intentional about building community thereby losing many Friends in the process.

      God will continue to call us as a community by revealing matters of concern that we should take up. “As a Religious Society we are more than a collection of people who meet together - we meet as we do because we believe that gathered together we capable of greater clarity of vision.” (Quaker Faith & Practice - Britain Yearly Meeting)

      We therefore will come to know what our evolving mission is through our practice of Spirit-led discernment. “Let us try now what love will have us do.” (William Penn)

      Finally, our identity will emerge in hindsight by what we do. “By your works you shall be known.” (Matthew 7:16)

      in faith & service,

  3. Thank you for share these thoughts. Here is what your words evoked:

    Please tolerate my struggles to express the living gospel. Please, feel free to labor with me in this struggle.

    Friend, Betsey Purington, wrote to John Wilbur in 1832 saying: watch ... lest “the mess of pottage slip between” ... (you and your) ... “Divine Master.” All the outward issues over the state of things Quaker, or the state of the world of men in general, are “pottage” and the concern of the Divine Master. To give in to the pottage is to turn one’s gaze from the inner light. The pottage of the outward world is not our concern individually. The calling of the individual is surrender to the inner light in all things; to Be in the Presence in all things and in all moments, in the bad outward events and in the good outward events. It pains me to say this, John Wilbur himself often became too focused on the pottage; resulting in the dimming of the light within. It is so easy to judge the state of outward things, to judge and resist the outward, and in doing so become bewitched by the outward and become outward. The inner Light, the Presence is sufficient; it is self-sustaining ... the admonishment is to sustain the Presence and trust in the Divine Master to work out the outward. The extent to which the individual holds to the Presence, is the extent to which the Kingdom of Heaven manifests and the power of the Divine Master flows. Personally embrace the Presence, hold to the living Gospel in all things and “Watch” ... then such wonder will manifest.