Full DisclosureI 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.