Quaker Ethics and the Seeds of Change

What is Quaker Process, Actually?

Quaker Process is a simple and difficult approach to spirituality wherein we cultivate practical wisdom in relationship, setting aside the ego so we may transform ourselves, our communities and the wider world. This practical wisdom, through discernment, informs our ethical choices, especially with regard to the appropriate uses of power and authority. Quaker Process defines a path on which we are ceaselessly re-discovering insight towards an ever more complete practice of justice and the good life.

Quaker Process is not a series of practices or decision-making procedures. It is not a set of norms, cultural attitudes or behavioral expectations. All of these things may emerge as a result of engaging in Quaker Process. The thing itself is profound, fundamental and often unelaborated or misunderstood. This essay attempts briefly to provide philosophical and theological groundwork to explain what Quaker Process actually is. There are three sections, which, when taken together, form a post-modern view, culminating in Quaker continuing revelation.

However, I illuminate the same primary colors, as it were, that have formed the foundations of the Quaker Way from its inception. I merely hope to give Quakerism a set of refreshed descriptors in order to push against some who would erroneously reduce it to particular practices, like business meeting, or particular principles, like the SPICES,[1] and thereby obscure the transformative potential of our venerable faith tradition, putting it in danger of vacuous meaninglessness.

Practical Wisdom as Quaker Process

We begin with the idea that Quaker Process defines a certain necessary approach to belief and practice. Instead of defining a set of metaphysical beliefs and practices, per se, Quaker Process asserts the terms of engagement with them. Benjamin Dandelion calls this orthocredence,[2] which is neither orthopraxy nor orthodoxy, but a synthesis of these more typical types of religiosity. This produces our first conundrum as to how a religion can include metaphysical ideas, while not requiring them.

Some theologians argue that preconceived notions pertaining to the nature of things,[3] which are often precursors to metaphysics, tempt one to force the world into a precise reflection of these notions. Such strict correspondence constrains violently what is known and unknown about ourselves and the universe.  Kevin Hector, a contemporary theologian, writes that, “we see this sort of violence at its most graphic when … [persons] of color [are] allowed to ‘show up’ only insofar as [they] fit within one’s prior conception of femininity, blackness, and so on, and when [their] attempts to transcend these conception boundaries are met with implicit or explicit resistance.”[4]

In response to this violent potential, the same theologians set themselves down a different terrain. Particularly regarding the nature of God, they askew ontology  and metaphysics altogether. They create distance between Godself and ourselves. Or they chalk God up to, “the great mystery of life,” the knowledge of which is attainable only through deep mystical experience. They become, in Hector’s words, “apophatic anti-metaphysics,”[5] intent upon preventing the violence of constraints by imposing a tyranny of structurelessness, borrowing a phrase from Jo Freeman,[6] or by supposing falsely the emptiness of secularism, as Saba Mahmoud critiques.[7]

All theology, theory, ethic, or observation (no matter its degree of specificity, precision, or scientificity) is deliverable only within a set of preconceived notions that constrain us—constrain subjectivity and action. We need not be concerned about constraints in and of themselves, but with constraints that claim to have a permanent place or to be all-encompassing (perhaps hegemonic). Therefore, preconceived notions also need never be metaphysical, static or even consistent to suffice in whatever purpose. A metaphysical framework (or anti-metaphysical one)[8] should never be a prerequisite for a sound set of principles or practices, nor should a story about the nature of things be required to produce wisdom. As Rorty would put it, intrinsic nature is a useless idea, the pursuit of which typically sends us down quite the rabbit hole.[9]

Kevin Hector’s theories help to illuminate how we might talk about God and make other theological, philosophical or ethical assertions in ways that avoid grounding such talk in any particular metaphysical framework, including anti-metaphysical apophatic frames. He proposes we think of God partly in terms of, “the Spirit of Christ,” which, “enters into ordinary discursive practices in order to appropriate human concepts, to judge and fulfill their meaning,” and thereby to enable speaking of and referring to God.[10] The particular form of this proposal is difficult to extend into the Quaker Way. The Quaker Way presupposes some things, but it does not consistently adhere to certain notions regarding the Spirit of Christ.

For what Hector calls the Spirit of Christ, we find more useful language in Judith Butler, who uses the term, “unthought known,” after Christopher Bollas or, simply, the unconscious—the part of ourselves, which persistently alludes our conscious awareness.[11] The periodic desire to understand fully one’s unconscious thereby to gain greater awareness of oneself, argues Butler, is impossible because the unconscious is a product of this very movement into oneself, to observe and to narrativize oneself.[12] In other words, a central conundrum of being alive is that we cannot know what led to our becoming aware of ourselves. This conundrum emerges through the development of the unconscious. Butler writes:

To understand the unconscious…is to understand what cannot belong, properly speaking, to me, precisely because it defies the rhetoric of belonging, is a way of being dispossessed through the address of the other from the start…The other is, from the start, too much for me, enigmatic, inscrutable. This ‘too-much-ness’ must be handled and contained for something called an ‘I’ to emerge in its separateness. The unconscious is not a topos into which this ‘too-much-ness’ is deposited. It is rather formed as a psychic requirement of survival and individuation, as a way of managing—and failing to manage—that excess and thus as the persistent and opaque life of that excess itself.[13]

To become aware of myself, I must fabricate a chasm within me, such that a dyadic relationship takes hold between me as myself and me as the other. A certain kind of overwhelm emerges in the instant that I fabricate this chasm and become aware of myself. I fear losing this awareness. For, losing awareness of oneself is akin to death—akin to annihilation. This fear is maintained and protected by ego (more on this later). I become dispossessed from myself as a, “psychic requirement of survival and individuation.”[14] The formation of my unconscious is the result. My unconscious is the part of me that doesn’t know who I am or even that I exist. My unconscious is me as the other, the perennially mysterious, unpredictable other. As I strive to learn more about it, I confront essential truths about life and death, which start me on a path toward further insight into who I am, where I belong, and what I am supposed to do while I still know that I am alive.

This idea of the existence and function of the unconscious drawn from Judith Butler[15] better establishes the possibility of God-talk for liberal Quakerism, outside of the metaphysics vs. anti-metaphysics debate, than Hector’s notion of the movement of the Spirit of Christ. Hector relies on the notion that the, “Spirit implicit in Christ’s own normative assessments was passed along from person to person.”[16] Following the operations of mutual recognition developed in his account of language, Hector establishes the possibility of passing on the essential ethical tenants of Jesus’s teachings so that,  “one answers to God by answering to one’s peers, [and] one’s invocation of God need not be thought to lift one’s claims above the fray of reason-giving, critique, and so on.”[17] Within the psycho-analytical frame centered on the unconscious, the “Spirit of Christ” becomes a metaphor for the unconscious, and for the ethical and moral exploration one conducts through certain self-work, charting the boundlessness of one’s relationship with oneself.

Butler characterizes the therapeutic relationship as that which mediates this exploration of oneself. Yet this exploration is actually mediated in all our relationships, be they with therapists, clients, dogs, friends, lovers, etc. This is a keystone point. One is only able to develop a narrative of oneself (albeit incomplete) and to use insights thereby generated as tools for making ever more ethical decisions in relationship.

Quaker Process is the development of practical wisdom, or phronesis, through community and relationship.[18] One answers to God (or God’s functional equivalent) by answering to one’s peers wherein we are therefore required to give an account of ourselves, to proffer, “reason-giving, critique and so on.”[19] Our blind spots ceaselessly persist, but, maybe together, we can bridge enough gaps to approximate that elusive thing called “the good life”.

Let Go Your Ego and be Transformed, Like Jesus Did

Setting aside the ego is an essential element of Quaker Process and phronesis. The ego maintains our fear of death, our need to survive, and thus the chasm between our conscious and unconscious being. To develop an ever more coherent narrative of ourselves, we must spelunk, as it were, the depths of our unconscious to recover those things we’ve forcefully forgotten as survival tools, which our egos resist. We have to let go the need to survive and lose ourselves thereby to gain further insights into our beings as tools for making ever more ethical choices. The life and death of Jesus of Nazareth teaches this.

The sheer mundanity of Jesus’ death, from the perspective of the Romans who killed him and the loss of those who loved him, makes for the sort of scene one might find in a good independent film. To me, Jesus’ story and how it ends is comparable to the likes of Donnie Darko. Donnie is a sad, irrelevant dude who sacrifices himself for others at a time when hardly anyone else is watching, and we are the cult following. To get nailed to the cross was a regular process; it was a thing the Romans did to people all the time. Making the cross the symbol of your religion would be like making the electric chair, the needle, or the night stick the symbol of one today. Even more remarkable, a petty criminal is the central Christian figure. Christian imagery begins utterly with the mundane, the profane, and also the inconsequential.

Politically, Jesus was nailed to the cross for attempting to make changes that would never come. In fact, the Roman empire appropriated his figure and used it to maintain the sort of order he was trying to disrupt. For the Romans, the crucifixion became an artifice, perched upon a myth about magical powers proffered through Jesus’ death to save us from our spiritual brokenness that the Church coopted in order to fasten us to its steeple for millennia.

Yet, I don’t think this is what we should glean from the crucifixion, because it’s not what Jesus’ example teaches. Jesus did not teach to a magically realized shift from the profane to the sacred through his death, requiring nothing from us but submission to authority, to dogma and orthodoxy (repentance). A couple of Bible verses spring to mind, like John 15:12-13:[20]

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

And 1 John 3:16:[21]

We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.

The crucifixion was actually about love and about suffering, love’s bedfellow. Sacrifice of who and what we love leads to transformation through suffering. Rex Ambler, after George Fox, calls this, “dying to ourselves.”[22] So do John (3:3-7), Matthew (16:24-25), Mark (8:34-35), Luke (14:27), and Paul (Romans 6:4-8; Galatians 2:20).[23] Love, suffering and sacrifice are required to change even the smallest things. But we do not sacrifice anything particularly laudable for anything particularly magnificent. Transformation is difficult, dirty, and anti-climactic.

If to set aside the ego is to die to oneself, then, using Butler’s terms, to set aside the ego requires a journey. We must leave behind the stability of the “I” established in the fabricated chasm of our beings. We must go spelunking, as it were, within the unthought known of the unconscious self. As it turns out, in the spiritual transformation I am citing here, the thing we sacrifice and thereby suffer is ultimately love for oneself. It is attachment to an idea of oneself that we have fabricated in order to survive, to make sense of an enigmatic world.

In this, we require accompaniment, because the journey is difficult and unceasing, and because, as Butler asserts, the self can never be characterized comprehensively.[24] We are simply incapable of knowing or even coming to terms fully with our actions, given the various normative demands that cohere the social world. We therefore profoundly require relationship in order to realize fully our ethical responsibilities. Butler asserts that, “we must recognize that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when…our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human.”[25] The story of Jesus of Nazareth is one of the more perfect examples of what this risk involves. Jesus emerges from within the various overlapping demands made upon him and the relationships he forges in response. His death is a metaphor for the profound vulnerability required for spiritual transformation, which is also paradoxical. For, becoming undone, it seems, allows us to bridge the fabricated chasm we construct between ourselves as ourselves and ourselves as the other. So we are resurrected not because of our desire to continue on living, but because of the other who demands it.

From within unknowingness, uncertainty, and death, relationship creates, sustains and defines us. Relationship also produces demands upon us, which constitute the operation of power and responsibility. Ethics, then, as personal responsibility in the contexts of practical wisdom primarily concern, in relationship, the proper or just operation of power. In Quaker Process, the determination of the proper or just operation of power (through love) is called discernment.

Discernment, Power and Justice

If we depend upon relationship with others in order to know ourselves, then a question regarding autonomy and freedom arises. What does it mean to be free if we also assert that we are never unbound from the other? To answer this question, we need to elaborate the operation of power in relationships. Specifically, we need to clarify equitable power dynamics—sometimes called “power-with” or “co-creative” mindsets—in relating with “the other” to achieve autonomy. Paul Ricoeur once wrote that, “the very idea of others bifurcates into two opposing directions, corresponding to two figures of the master: one, the dominator, facing the slave; the other, the master of justice, facing the disciple.”[26]  In this, I recall Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Please Master” wherein the shared, multilayered interplay of power enacted sexually is given and taken in dynamic turns. Lines such as, “please master can I have your thighs bare to my eyes,” or, “please master, please look into my eyes, / please master order me down to the floor,” indicate the various positions the narrator takes in relation to his lover of being director or directed.[27] Sex more easily, perhaps, exemplifies what all relationships involve, which is that we are at times giving orders and at other times following them. Simultaneously, “the directed” teaches the director how to direct.

In sex, justice is a matter of learning how to cause pleasure for one’s interlocutor(s) and then causing it. In other activities, it is a matter of learning in what ways to proffer insight (pursue a line of inquiry, achieve a collective goal, etc.) that best meet with the idiosyncratic dispositions of the particular humans engaged. The aimed-for type of power is one wherein engagement is shared (co-created) but this is far from meaning that there are no masters. Indeed, when the master of justice faces her disciple, she does so knowing that this general notion “justice” is not really taught but enacted within the particularities of the relationship between herself and that of her disciple, which includes a dynamic and reciprocal interplay of power. What does this look like?

Hello, reader.

If I choose to pay attention, I can see your love, beauty, kindness, and pain. Fundamentally, my task is to realize that these things are my things. Your suffering is my suffering. Your demands are inescapable for no other reason than because without them I am nothing. I therefore love you more profoundly, more viscerally than I can ever fully know. This is the sort of love about which Martin Luther King Jr. speaks, of agape,[28] but one which is grounded in the actual experience of connection with others. The sort of agape of which I speak is not highly intellectual; it is known spiritually and experientially. Discernment is the element of Quaker Process whereby I aim to sink into this visceral awareness of agape love such that I am capable of co-creation with you. Often times, this sinking into visceral love is only possible through paradox and tragedy.

Terrence L. Johnson, writing about W.E.B. Dubois, asks, “What happens if we imagine persons as free, equal, and encumbered by inescapable histories? May we include subjugation and suffering as working vocabularies within our public reason, which in turn would inform our notions of political freedoms?”[29] It seems to me that, if we are necessarily bound to each other, the suffering, tragedy and subjugation of my fellow Americans of color, for example, are also my suffering, tragedy and subjugation. We are encumbered by inescapable histories with which we must grapple together. Johnson argues that as long as we marginalize a tragic sense of life from our ethical work, we are bound to imagine a flawed version of freedom and justice.[30] Tragedy is what binds us to each other, even as we resist and fall apart. Tragedy refuses, “to contribute a ‘solution’ to the conflicts made insoluble by fiction,”[31] and imposes upon us the reality of paradox, of the situationally contingent and often inconsistent choices we must make to compensate for utter and utmost contradiction. In the face of the soul-crushing and demonstratively evil foundations upon which Western societies are built, how, in fact, can we do anything other than construct for ourselves an ethical approach mirroring that of Dubois, of which Johnson writes in depth? It is called Tragic Soul Life.[32] As a white man, I have been socialized into hyper-individualism so extensively that, indeed, I am capable of severe ignorance to tragedy. For as long as my ignorance goes on, the present day social arrangements, which continue to keep people of color unfree do also go on.[33] And as long as someone is unfree, so am I.

Therefore, freedom exists only within relationship and community, and not outside of it. Freedom is produced by justice enacted reciprocally, such that “the golden rule” cedes itself to what some have called “the platinum rule,” which is to treat others how they want to be treated. As we set aside the ego and engage in power-with (rather than power over) we discover true freedom, which is only possible when power is acknowledged and expressed dynamically.  We are, in a word, each other’s masters. It would be accurate to assert that the realization of equitable and just communities requires formal masters of justice equipped to discipline us in the art of enacted, agape love. It would also be accurate to assert that we are all called at times into service as masters of justice and at other times as disciples of justice. Tomorrow, who will be your masters of justice? Who will be your disciples?

In the final analysis, power is enacted through the systematic, structured as well as situationally negotiated demands that we make of each other. Jeffrey Stout writes about power in this way[34] and so does Irving Goffman.[35] This is to say nothing about the many ways in which power can come to be enacted oppressively or repressively, when it operates outside of agape love.[36]  Precisely to avoid this, as Jo Freeman discusses,[37] power requires explicit delimitation and formalization through discernment, through agape love. This formalization, however, should take broad, systematic forms not easily deconstructed in a given situation. It should also take highly structured and apparent forms, as well as situationally specific and ephemeral forms.[38] It goes by many names, and therefore requires deep analysis and vigilant, continual elaboration.

This is how we come upon the assertions made at the beginning of this essay. Quaker Process is not a series of practices and norms. These things emerge as a result of engaging in Quaker Process, through discernment and practical wisdom achieved collectively.

Continuing Revelation: An Ending and a Beginning

Over three centuries, Quakers have gathered a massive amount of practices and norms meant to aid us in our collective phronesis and discernment. The gathered practices and norms are, indeed, particular arrangements of power, which we have agreed are the expression of our spiritual discoveries. Sense our discoveries are never ending, so too will our practices and norms change along with our principles and beliefs.

It is here where orthocredence embraces an alternative operation of practices, norms, principles and beliefs. We do not adhere to any set of practices as definitional for our faith (orthopraxy) nor do we adhere to a particular set of principles (orthodoxy). We do acknowledge that practices and principles have their place. We need them for our functioning. However, as new insights emerge through phronesis, practice, norms, principles or beliefs require continuing adjustment. Then when we adjust one, its change influences the others to change. Consider the following diagram:


As discernment reveals new insight (and feedback), principles are revised, and their corresponding practice adjusted. This then is integrated into our discernment where we, among other things, welcome feedback from peers, engage in mutual accountability, sink into agape love, and spelunk the depths of our unconscious (or experience movement of the Spirit). Then we further revise our principles, and so on and so forth. The cycle of continuing revelation ends up looking much more like a spiral, for, with each turning of the circle, a new path is drawn.

It might be said that we have a collection of principles (like the SPICES) and practices (like our business process) that serve us well. Yet over the last twenty years, our principles have evolved, and many people have come forth to critique our practices. For myself, I have critiqued the institution of membership, arguing for a radical transformation of it. I have also called for our concept of “unity” to be re-defined—and offered a new definition. As a participant in the Religious Society of Friends, I am engaging in the process I’ve just described wherein principles and practices change through discernment in a cycle of continuing revelation.

I anticipate further change, as it would seem a natural part of our faith, and also because I have looked into the eyes of my suffering Friends of color, Queer Friends, and Trans* Friends, and seen their need for change. I have felt the yearning cry of young adult and elderly Friends who need different types of access to membership and Quaker community. I have known the profound sense of solidarity, belonging, purpose and identity of a gathered meeting for worship in places that go unrecognized as “official” parts of the institutions that hold themselves as the care takers of our Faith. I have seen Friends on all sides of prevailing controversies flinging at each other words like, “this isn’t seasoned,” and, “that isn’t in alignment with process.” They carry attachments to things that are not the essential being of our faith tradition. So I offer this piece of dense writing as a groundwork for a renewed Religious Society of Friends, which reaches back into the same roots for new kinds of growth, blossom and beauty. I offer this not merely so that our Quaker institutions may find new life, not at all for this reason, but to ensure there remains a people who are gathered solely for the purpose of transforming themselves and the world.


Ambler, Rex. The Quaker Way: A Rediscovery. Winchester, UK: Christian Alternative Books, 2013.

Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.

Coogan, Michael D., Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version. 3 Revised. Oxford University Press, USA, 2007.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd Edition. Vintage, 1995.

———. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Freeman, Jo. “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” JoFreeman.com, September 30, 2016. http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm.

Ginsberg, Allen. Allen Ginsberg: Selected Poems 1947 to 1995. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.

Goffman, Erving. “On Face-Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction.” In Interaction Ritual – Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, 1st Pantheon Books ed. Pantheon, 1982.

Hector, Kevin. Theology Without Metaphysics: God, Language and the Spirit of Recognition (Current Issues in Theology, No. 8). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Johnson, Terrence. Tragic Soul-Life: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Moral Crisis Facing American Democracy (Imagining the Americas). Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. Strength to Love. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1981.

Mahmoud, Saba. “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation.” Public Culture 18, no. 2 (Spring 2006): 323.

Pink Dandelion, Benjamin. “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-Culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps.’” In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Benjamin Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, 22–37. Newcastle [England]: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.

Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. University Of Chicago Press, 1995.

Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Stout, Jeffrey. Democracy and Tradition. Princeton University Press, 2005.

“The Movement for Black Lives.” Platform, October 2, 2016. https://policy.m4bl.org/platform/.

[1] SPICES are a common acronym to describe what is called Quaker testimony, or particular principles that generally characterize the insights upon which we’ve arrived over the centuries. The SPICES stand for simplicity, peace & social justice, integrity, community, equality & equity, and stewardship & sustainability.

[2] Pink Dandelion, “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-Culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps,’” 23.

[3] Notions pertaining to the nature of things are usually called ontological notions.

[4] Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics, 11.

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”

[7] Mahmoud, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire,” 326.

[8] Anti-metaphysical is still metaphysical; it is a metaphysics of non-metaphysics.

[9] Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 8–9.

[10] Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics, 39.

[11] Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 54–58.

[12] After Heidegger, this is an expression of Ricoeur’s appresentation of the self Oneself as Another, 333..

[13] Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 54.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Although, in all likelihood, Butler would disagree with my interpretation of her writing here.

[16] Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics, 39.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 352. Phronesis is an originally Aristotelian concept.

[19] Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics, 39.

[20] Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ambler, The Quaker Way: A Rediscovery, 23.

[23] Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version.

[24] Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 51, 66, 72.

[25] Ibid., 136.

[26] Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 276.

[27] Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg: Selected Poems 1947 to 1995, 202.

[28] King, Strength to Love, 50.

[29] Johnson, Tragic Soul-Life, 158.

[30] Ibid., 160.

[31] Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 247.

[32] Johnson, Tragic Soul-Life, 70–71.

[33] “The Movement for Black Lives.”

[34] Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 272.

[35] Goffman, “On Face-Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction.”

[36] Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic; Foucault, Discipline & Punish.

[37] Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”

[38] To ask one’s sex partner, for example, “what they are ‘into,’” just before engaging in sex acts is situationally and possibly ephemerally to formalize the power that necessarily emerges in the sexual intercourse.

I am An Amateur Quaker

An Alignment of Leadings

The study and the work that I do is grounded in the value of connection. Through connection, we are more powerful, and life is more meaningful. To those who know me well, I’ve become a broken record on this point. Likely due to confirmation bias, I have lost count of the many times this core message has been reaffirmed in my own experience. It has burgeoned (or is in the process of burgeoning) into what Quakers call a leading—to work against the apparent isolation pervading our society and all that is detrimental to which it has been shown to lead, like issues regarding health and stigma.

We are experiencing the culmination of a sort of fragmenting about which post-modern social theorists lamented as the beginning of a more meaningless and phrenetic existence. I don’t think we are at a permanent loss for meaning, however, but we are challenged to find meaning anew. Social media and other technological advancements provide some hope and also tremendous risk. I do not ascribe to the argument that social media only exacerbates social isolation, because I think it can be a tool for making connections more robust. Yet it can in many cases end up perturbing an already stressed socio-economic conundrum in the West, as the middle class shrinks, economic inequality grows, and racial disparities persist. Each can be causes in various ways of social isolation, where simply working to bring people together to cultivate relationship and connection in person is part of a broader set of solutions.

For the future that I am able to foresee, with all its uncertainties, my service on staff as Associate Secretary for Program and Religious life of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) affords me the privilege to align my leadings with PYM’s current mission and vision. I will be paid to do this work for as long as my service remains a sensible way to help forward this vision and mission. I bring gifts and skills to the role, which I would be happy to apply to other positions should the time come. These other positions need not be with Quakers. My spiritual journey, my leading of connection, is grounded in the Quaker Way, but I am not a servant of Quakers, per se. The Quaker community helps keep me accountable to my leadings, it helps keep my integrity intact, and it helps me set aside my ego. Quakers help me remain a servant of God, no matter what I do for money, and which happens to mean, for this moment, that I am hired to help Quakers give life to the leadings under the weight of which they (and I) follow.

I am No Professional Quaker

So, no, I am not a professional Quaker. I do not aspire to work for Quakers for the rest of my life, and I did not aspire to work for Quakers when I started doing so. The notion of a professional Quaker maligns the intent of paid service. If we ask people, usually skilled and highly competent people, to help our communities with our work and witness and to help us full-time, we should pay them to do so.

Yet cultivating a field of people who have a habit of working for Quakers not as a ministry, per se, but as a career in itself is not healthy for our religious tradition. The Quaker Way, among other things, is premised upon the dynamic interplay of faith and practice. We are ever evolving in our continued revelation, and this should usually mean that when we choose to pay someone to help us with our work and witness, we do so because their gifts, skills and leadings are in alignment with what we require for this, our next adventure—whatever that may be. People who get paid to do work for or on behalf of Quakers are not professional Quakers, they are just the opposite. They are amateur Quakers, who’ve chosen to set aside their egos in service of a broader community and a larger vision. The true professional Quakers are all the others, who have to balance service with the many other parts of their lives, including, for many, their careers.

So, yes, I am an amateur Quaker. My role in the body of Friends is to help us see all that we might accomplish when we are together, and this means, for example, that I highly limit my own voice and curtail my active participation in governance decisions. We usually leave these things up to the professionals.

Towards Dynamic Membership 

In 2014, I wrote a rather dense exposition of Emily Higgs’ Friends Journal article.

I want to highlight aspects of that exposition in a more specific way here.

The landscape of existence in this world is increasingly hyper-individualist, prizing individual actualization, branding and expression without regard for the welfare of the many whose contributions make possible the essence of our own. This leads to a deeply felt sense of isolation so engrained in our routines that we forget the possibility of connection, and we become inured to the reality of loneliness.

Perhaps I’ve experienced these elements of our society acutely because my life has been a series of transitions—a repetition compulsion of one city and set of relationships to the next. Roots torn from the ground, I would scale the journey back in, once again.

It begins expensively—introducing myself to everyone, saying yes to every invitation. The end of each day is a review of who looks like, acts like, and feels like those whom I knew, the people who are still mine in a world of strangers. Long distance phone calls (and eventually Skypes) with friends miles away, text messages, and “likes” on Facebook produce a dissipating nutrient pool for the stamina required to simultaneously turn toward and away.

We moved from Alabama to Pennsylvania, then across PA small towns every few years, landing finally in Elkton, Maryland in 2003. I graduated from High School three years later, and spent the longest period of time in one place on the campus of Haverford College. By then, the particular arrangements one makes with his body and mind to account for the conundrum of home had fallen flat.

The latest community in which I had discovered a sense of connection and fellowship had been the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Young Friends Program. Yet as a burgeoning adult in college, the rules of the game had changed. It took me many years to discover that most of this change had happened inside me—new sorts of boundaries, desires, and ambitions I didn’t learn to integrate until leaving once again for Boston and grad school.

If the journey of transition could be fully scaled, the anxiety of change would soon ware down and become a new landscape of potential and realized intimacies. I found them in various contingent, fleeting ways. Even today, I live for these island-like moments. Over the years, I also collected a few old friends—those rare people whose love endured beyond transition. They were the most dynamic of my relationships, changing to fit the time, while remaining steadfast in their essential, unwavering love.

This, Friends, should be the nature of Quaker community, grounded simply in the sort of love that extends intimacy to all who enter its range of influence. When Friends worship with us for one day, one week, one month, one year, or many years, they should experience the same rhythm of celebration.  Any who enter have power and potential whose essential expression is only actualized in the context of community. It is always an incredible opportunity when a new nexus of gifts and ministry walks through our door. Our excitement should inspire in those who show up to give the commitment we ask of them in return for celebrating their potential. Commitment is demonstrated through the character and quality of a new person’s engagement alongside the quality and character of the community’s embrace.

I should say, as an aside, that I am not discussing the sort of excitement that arises in the presence of a new person out of the hope that they’ll single-handedly save our community from the pervasive, enervating sense that our vitality is waning. When we salivate over new energy and younger members who can carry on the baton, as it were, we are celebrating for the wrong reasons, indeed! I am also not discussing what I would refer to as a damaging approach to inclusivity that suggests we are incapable of setting healthy, regularly scrutinized boundaries for how we expect people to behave when we are together.

Love is a dynamic force, changing to fit the time and space through which we move.

If this is the case, then we can accommodate the transience of people in my generation, those we call young adult Friends, by acknowledging that when the fire of love has caught, then so have we clasped each other in mutual support across space and time.

This requires young adults to stop thinking or saying the following things:

“I’m only in town for a year or so; not long enough to find a new spiritual community.”

Young adults and new people of any age need to prepare themselves for the journey of transition. With openness and generosity of spirit, new people have a responsibility to discern whether they are ready and willing to love in the manner of Friends.

Likewise, monthly meetings need to articulate clearly what loving in the manner of Friends means! They should fill their ranks with ready elders who are prepared to begin clearness committees at any moment. This requires us to train and develop our entire population in the art of welcome, hospitality and openness.

In fact, it requires a comprehensive grounding in spiritual formation; the development of a dynamic understanding of membership that can only be felt when we are truly in unity.

Let’s get to it! Our lonely, isolated society needs us.

From Congregation to Community

Towards Community Organizing

As twenty-first century Friends, our task today is remarkably similar to that of the Quaker progressive thought leaders who modernized the Religious Society of Friends at the beginning of the twentieth century.[1] As we strive to make our religious community accessible to all who seek a direct spiritual experience of the divine, structural deficiencies, associated with an earlier religious vision, stand in our way.

In the 1920’s Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) Friends worked to change their institutional governance from one in which stalwart elders and trustees held tight control to one wherein authority was shared more broadly among members.[2] In changing institutional governance, our thought leaders met a pressing need to focus Quaker institutions upon universal, spiritual insights that could attract the energy and interest of younger generations.[3] As a result of these efforts, the Northeast, unprogrammed Quaker tradition began a process of decentralizing power and institutional authority.

Eventually, this renewal movement led to rapidly burgeoning yearly meeting membership and the formation of many new monthly meetings. By the late twentieth century, the progressive trend toward greater decentralization led to the de facto adoption of a congregational model of religious organization. While this model functioned fairly adequately for many decades, over the latter half of the past century, it became progressively less effective as a means of maintaining institutional cohesion across a newly suburbanized geographic and regional PYM landscape.

Today, our monthly meetings often regard themselves as stand-alone and isolated congregations, which has led many of us to lose sight of the fact that we require a broader community to help deepen our practice, grow our numbers, and bring about societal changes. Therefore, PYM leadership, under the weight of a new vision heralded by our Five Year Plan, has set itself the task of shifting our institutional practice and understanding from the congregational model to a new way of associating, which we are beginning to call the Community Organizing Model.

The community organizing model is premised upon connecting Friends’ communities across our geography toward collective work and witness. In this model, our approach is fundamentally characterized by partnerships wherein yearly meetings work alongside their various constituencies to set and meet goals. Yearly meeting staff and volunteer leaders proffer operational expertise so that we can achieve our goals efficiently and effectively. Staff and leaders also build lines of communication and organization between constituencies that more resemble the connections on a circuit board than the straight lines of an organizational chart. Lastly, staff works with volunteer leaders to create diverse spaces and multiple entry points for engagement of many different types of people at various levels. Through the community organizing model we reemphasize community, reignite efficient organization, and recommit to our historic mission of ushering the Kingdom of God on Earth.

*George Schaefer of Abington Meeting was of great help to me in composing this section.

Why Community Organizing?

The traditional view of community organizing is that it gives disenfranchised communities the ability to collectively stand up for themselves—to gain power by coming together. Through gaining power in this way, communities may then act to change the situations that cause their disenfranchisement.

Liberal Quakers do not face disenfranchisement per se, we face the isolation, inefficiency, and seeming powerlessness that comes from extreme decentralization. We presently live in a bottom-up/top-down model wherein the only vehicles for communication and action are through the traditional monthly and quarterly meeting structures, which have continually failed us in achieving relevancy, in growing our numbers, and in accomplishing the mission Fox and Fell left us. This is the atrophy of the congregational model in (especially liberal) Quaker institutions. Within the community organizing model, Friends are renewed in their ability to come together across monthly and quarterly meetings. The yearly meeting’s task is to proffer new ways for converging and organizing.

What will these new ways be? The coming shifts in the governance structure of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) go much beyond rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, so to speak. If PYM is successful in implementing its new governance structures, then communities will have found new ways of constituting purpose and power to follow their divine leadings. It will no longer be the task of the yearly meeting to implement divine leadings itself, as a centralized institution headquartered in Philadelphia. Instead, we will all be tasked with supporting each other in the work we are led to do. The yearly meeting will be a body that seeks and creates common connection and ground toward broader social change, vibrant local meetings, and growing relevancy in the twenty-first century. I am excited to take part in this great experiment in the Spirit!

[1] Henry Wilbur, Jesse Holmes and others. See: Chuck Fager, How Progressive Friends Changed Quakerism and Helped Save America (Durham, NC: Kimo Press, 2014), 181–184, 111–112.

[2]Lucretia Mott, J.W. Rowntree, Rufus Jones, Jane Rushmore, Henry Hodgkin, and others. See: Emily Cooper Johnson, Under Quaker Appointment: The Life of Jane P. Rushmore (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 149; Benjamin Pink Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 119–128.

[3] Cooper Johnson, Under Quaker Appointment: The Life of Jane P. Rushmore, 175.

Stretching a Metaphor to Explain Standing Aside

Quaker Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business (a.k.a Business Meeting) resembles the construction of a delicious pizza. We put toppings on the pizza, and sometimes they are toppings we’d never have imagined for ourselves, but which somehow work to make the flavor great. Sometimes at the last minute, when we sense that we’ve completed the collection of toppings, a new one gets added that seems totally unlike the other toppings. We have to decide as a community whether that new one should go on the pizza or not. This is like when someone has an objection to the sense of the meeting that is about to be reached. We weigh this objection in the context of all our other considerations and decide together whether the reasons that inform the objection are such that we need to rearrange our toppings. Sometimes, we decide that, although the objection is important, we will, “leave it off the pizza,” as it were. That is, sometimes we decide that even when someone expresses they want to stand in the way of a decision, the group, after hearing their reasons, can move forward anyway. Doing this should be done with a heavy heart because usually when such objections are raised, they are valuable and should prompt us to stop and do some more waiting before deciding. In any case, whether or not the topping makes it on the pizza or the objection sways the direction of the decision, it can still be considered to have achieved integration in our discernment. That is, even if an objection is set aside eventually, we do so after devoting our hearts and minds to considering it in the context of all the other elements that we have digested throughout the Business Meeting.

Here’s a chart:

Standing Aside Diagram PNG

Brief Diatribe on Unity

We have traditionally used the word “unity” to mean that we have reached a decision or some closure in our discernment. We have traditionally avoided using the word “agreement” because it has seemed to mean that everyone has to agree perhaps through compromising on interests or positions. Agreement seems to go more with consensus process, and unity seems to fit better with sense-of-the-meeting process. I find the distinction meaningless. Bracketing the traditional origins, the two words denote fairly similar things. In fact, unity, on its surface, seems to imply that we are all supposed to achieve extreme agreement, even unanimity. Of course, this is not the precise goal of a Quaker Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business.[1] Experienced Friends will note that we can disagree with each other’s positions and interests yet still be, “in unity.” They mean that while our minds and intellects may be somewhat at odds, a deeply felt and possibly mystical, spiritual, shared awareness has emerged that we are ready to move forward. I suppose that, “unity,” has less of a pedestrian feel than agreement. It sounds and feels more mystical. Surely there are better reasons for using a term.

The use of “unity” also confuses Friends who are newer to the faith by obscuring the intent of Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business. I would prefer to use the term “unity” as a synonym for “the gathered meeting” or “the covered meeting” or “solidarity.” That is, we cannot reach decisions together until we have undergone relationship building and spiritual formation thereby to worship in authentic community, wherein we are primed toward vulnerability and mutual understanding. Then, when we worship, we are much more likely to probe the depths of our collective, human condition and come into a space together that is gathered, covered, held in love by something greater than the sum of our many members. We call forth our ancestors, feel the roots of our beings fixed in the universe, the expanse of our infinitesimal beings, and the infinite love that characterizes life and death. We know Christ beyond the word, “Christ.” It is ineffable experience; the conviction and convincement of which George Fox spoke. In this state, we are one; we are in unity before one iota of business is mentioned or even anticipated. For me, this is the true meaning of unity.

When we have finally come to a point at which we are putting words into minutes, making decisions, and moving on to the next agenda item, almost all the work has (or should have been) already completed. It begins with “unity.” Then the agenda is passed out, and hopefully Friends have already prepared by reading the reports and proposals listed on the agenda. The agenda is like a liturgy. We could think of this analogously to programmed worship wherein Bible verses are listed alongside hymn numbers, and those in the service have prepared by having already studied the verses and sung the hymns many times before. Then we enter a cognitive realm and our many divergent perspectives on particular issues are raised in the spirit of worship. After this period we are well used to settle and remind ourselves and each other of our unity through a short bout of unprogrammed worship. Then we enter the groan zone wherein we strive to bring the divergent perspectives into convergence. In this transition from divergence to convergence, we achieve a shared framework of understanding wherein everyone is aware of everyone else’s views on the matter(s) at hand. We come to a point at which we have put ourselves in each other’s shoes, as it were. We then return to our unity again in unprogrammed worship and wait for the mystical emergence of the sense of the meeting—the ah ha! This is a point at which we develop a shared spiritual awareness that we are ready to move forward, but no one has verbalized this yet. Our Clerk tests the sense of the meeting by being the first to verbalize it and to ask Friends if her version resonates with others’. She articulates it in the form of an integration of all the elements we’ve considered as we waded through the groan zone. Some unnamable thing has happened when God put our converging views and our shared framework of understanding in a God-machine and out popped a sense of the meeting, which is articulated as the integration. The integration becomes the minute of action—that Friends approved this or that thing. Then we identify the action steps for following through on whatever we approved. Below is a chart:


[1] It is also called, “Meeting for Worship with a Concern for Business,” and there are likely many other variations on the theme. The operative elements are: “Meeting for Worship” and “Business”.