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:

Diagram_Unity_Diatribe

[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”.

The Next Five Years for Liberal Quakerism

My take on the goals Liberal Quakers should be setting across organizations for the next five years.

1. Work Together

It is time to acknowledge that the future and life of Liberal Quakerism rests in our coordination. Organizations have become siloed, but this is easily remedied. Our yearly meetings, external organizations, and educational institutions need to begin setting broad strategy together. We can grow our funding base this way, and, more importantly, we can change the world this way. In five years’ time, we should have convened with as broad a representation as possible at least twice to begin this collective work.

2. Do Research and then Do More Research

We lack a keen sense of how we are truly perceived by the larger society within any demographic. We need to conduct market research that helps us understand how we are perceived and what campaigns we need to initiate to augment or dismantle wider perceptions. Britain Yearly Meeting is our case study in this work. Come to mention it, a marketing research project is the perfect locus upon which broader collaboration between heretofore siloed Quaker organizations could come together. We also need to embrace a more general practice of conducting regular demographic and evaluative research. How are we to know whether our local communities are thriving, or our projects successful, if we lack the proper metrics? The answer is, we can’t know! These metrics should be developed in tandem with many other organizations so that results are shareable and comparable. In five years’ time, we should have come together across organizations to conduct an unprecedented, broad-based marketing and demographic study. We should also have begun to develop metrics in the evaluation of programs that are shared and thus commonly understood so every yearly meeting, external organization, and educational institution can benefit from anyone’s research.

3. Build Networks and Collaboratives

The old model has served us well, and it will continue to serve us for a time. Monthly, Quarterly, and Yearly Meetings bring us institutional memory, financial stability, and seasoned methods for spiritual discernment. However, it is increasingly difficult to see beyond our fences and come together within specific areas of ministry or interest. Our Faith relies heavily on this fundamental tendency to convene over certain causes. For unclear reasons, we are less able to do this now than we have in the past. Therefore, it is time we augment the old model with new concepts that utilize recent technological developments. Networks and collaboratives that bring people together across local Quaker communities within certain areas of ministry and interest are the next step toward building the beloved community on this earth, now. Within five years’ time, several networks and collaboratives should be burgeoning at all levels of our spiritual community. Our leaders should be doing all they can to encourage and support their emergence.

4. Cultivate Relationships with Media

We should begin to come out from the shadows and start announcing our work in tangible ways. We should be letting our leaders be interviewed, and we should be writing op-eds. We should be announcing our big decisions and stances on foreign and domestic policy, for example, widely, and with an organized voice! In five years’ time, at least three General Secretaries or Clerks should be interviewed by a journalist somewhere. At least three Quaker thought leaders should be published in the New York Times, and at least three stances on our government’s policies should be mentioned in National news media outlets.

5. Start Talking a Lot More About God, Gifts, and Ministry

We need to start exploring how we actually practice worship, what we actually believe, and, yes, what we actually think about God. How are we to be a Faith community if we don’t at least discuss with each other the ultimate questions: Who am I? Where do I belong? What is the purpose of my life? Secondly, Quakerism is unique in part because we require members of our communities to orient their attention inwardly. Every Quaker is a minister; there is no laity in Quakerism. We move together toward discovering the power in each of us; the spiritual gifts we are led to use in ministry. We support each other and celebrate with each other in this process of discovery. We galvanize and inspire each other into lives that express our individual and collective ministries. It all starts with a much greater willingness to talk about God. In five years’ time, God-talk should be happening everywhere; taking Quaker twitter by storm! It doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other, it means we have to go deep with each other.