Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Interim Meeting: Getting a horse to drink

This past week­end I gave a talk at the Arch Street Meet­ing­house after the Inter­im Meet­ing ses­sions of Phi­ladle­phia Year­ly Meet­ing. Inter­im Meet­ing is the group that meets sort-of month­ly between year­ly meet­ing busi­ness sess­sions. In an ear­li­er blog post I called it “the estab­lish­ment” and I looked for­ward to shar­ing the new life of the blog­ging world and Con­ver­gent Friends with this group. I had been asked by the most excel­lent Stephen Dot­son to talk about “Find­ing Fel­low­ship Between Friends Thru The Inter­net.”

I was curi­ous to return to Inter­im Meet­ing, a group I served on about half a decade ago. As I sat in the meet­ing, I kept see­ing glimpses of issues that I planned to address after­wards in my talk: how to talk afresh about faith; how to pub­li­cize our activ­i­ty and com­mu­ni­cate both among our­selves and with the out­side world; how to engage new and younger mem­bers in our work.

Turns out I didn’t get the chance. Only half a dozen or so mem­bers of Inter­im Meet­ing stuck around for my pre­sen­ta­tion. No announce­ment was made at the end of ses­sions. None of the senior staff were there and no one from the long table full of clerks, alter­nate clerks and alter­nate alter­nate clerks came. Eleven peo­ple were at the talk (includ­ing some who hadn’t been at Inter­im Meet­ing). The inti­ma­cy was nice but it was hard­ly the “take it to the estabish­ment” kind of event I had imag­ined.

The talk itself went well, despite or maybe because of its inti­ma­cy. I had asked Seth H (aka Chron­i­cler) along for spir­i­tu­al sup­port and he wrote a nice review on Quak­erQuak­er. Steve T, an old friend of mine from Cen­tral Philly days, took some pic­tures which I’ve includ­ed here. I videoed the event, though it will need some work to tight­en it down to some­thing any­one would want to watch online. The peo­ple who attend­ed want­ed to attend and asked great ques­tions. It was good work­ing with Stephen Dot­son again in the plan­ning. I would wish that more Philadel­phia Friends had more inter­est in these issues but as indi­vid­u­als, all we can do is lead a horse to water. In the end, the year­ly meet­ing is in God’s hands.


Below are obser­va­tions from Inter­im Meet­ing and how the Con­ver­gent Friends move­ment might address some of the issues raised. Let me stress that I offer these in love and in the hope that some hon­est talk might help. I’ve served on Inter­im Meet­ing and have giv­en a lot of time toward PYM over the last twen­ty years. This list was for­ward­ed by email to senior staff and I present them here for oth­ers who might be con­cerned about these dynam­ics.

 

GENERATIONAL FAIL:

There were about seventy-five peo­ple in the room for Inter­im Meet­ing ses­sions. I was prob­a­bly the third or fourth youngest. By U.S. cen­sus def­i­n­i­tions I’m in my eighth year of mid­dle age, so that’s real­ly sad. That’s two whole gen­er­a­tions that are large­ly miss­ing from PYM lead­er­ship. I know I shouldn’t be sur­prised; it’s not a new phe­nom­e­non. But if you had told me twen­ty years ago that I’d be able to walk into Inter­im Meet­ing in 2010 and still be among the youngest, well… Well, frankly I would have uttered a choice epi­thet and kicked the Quak­er dust from my shoes (most of my friends did). I know many Friends bod­ies strug­gle with age diver­si­ty but this is par­tic­u­lar­ly extreme.

WHAT I WANTED TO TELL INTERIM MEETING: About 33% of QuakerQuaker’s audi­ence is GenX and 22% are Mil­lenials. If Inter­im Meet­ing were as diverse as Quak­erQuak­er there would have been 16 YAFs (18 – 35 year olds) and 25 Friends 35 and 49 years of age. I would have been about the 29th youngest in the room – mid­dle aged, just where I should be! Quak­erQuak­er has an age diver­si­ty that most East Coast Friends Meet­ings would die for. If you want to know the inter­ests and pas­sions of younger Friends, Quak­er blogs are an excel­lent place to learn. There are some very dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tion­al and style dif­fer­ences at play (my post sev­en years ago, a post from Mic­ah Bales this past week).


DECISION-MAKING

 

The first part of the ses­sions was run with what’s called a “Con­sent Agen­da,” a leg­isla­tive mea­sure where mul­ti­ple agen­da items are approved en masse. It rests on the ide­al­is­tic notion that all seventy-five atten­dees has come to ses­sions hav­ing read every­thing in the quarter-inch pack­et mailed to them (I’ll wait till you stop laugh­ing). Inter­im Meet­ing lumped thir­teen items togeth­er in this man­ner. I sus­pect most Friends left the meet­ing hav­ing for­got­ten what they had approved. Most edu­ca­tors would say you have to rein­force read­ing with live inter­ac­tion but we bypassed all of that in the name of effi­cien­cy.

WHAT I WANTED TO TELL INTERIM MEETING: Quak­er blogs are won­der­ful­ly rich sources of dis­cus­sion. Com­ments are often more inter­est­ing than the orig­i­nal posts. Many of us have writ­ten first drafts of pub­lished arti­cles on our blogs and then pol­ished them with feed­back received in the com­ments. This kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion feed­back is pow­er­ful and doesn’t take away from live meeting-time. There’s a ton of pos­si­bil­i­ties for shar­ing infor­ma­tion in a mean­ing­ful way out­side of meet­ings.


MINUTES OF WITNESS

 

Two “min­utes” (a kind of Quak­er statement/press release) were brought to ses­sions. Both were vet­ted through a lengthy process where they were approved first by month­ly and then quar­ter­ly meet­ings before com­ing before Inter­im Meet­ing. A minute on Afghanistan was nine months old, a response to a troop lev­el announce­ment made last Decem­ber; one against Mar­cel­lus Shale drilling in Penn­syl­va­nia was undat­ed but it’s a top­ic that peaked in main­stream media five months ago. I would have more appre­ci­a­tion of this cum­ber­some process if the min­utes were more “sea­soned” (well-written, with care tak­en in the dis­cern­ment behind them) but there was lit­tle in either that explained how the issue con­nect­ed with Quak­er faith and why we were lift­ing it up now as con­cern. A senior staffer in a small group I was part of lament­ed how the min­utes didn’t give him much guid­ance as to how he might explain our con­cern with the news media. So here we were, approv­ing two out-of-date, hard-to-communicate state­ments that many IM reps prob­a­bly nev­er read.

WHAT I WANTED TO TELL INTERIM MEETING: Blog­ging gives us prac­tice in talk­ing about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Com­menters chal­lenge us when we take rhetor­i­cal short­cuts or make assump­tions or trade on stereo­types. Most Quak­er blog­gers would tell you they’re bet­ter writ­ers now than when they start­ed their blog. Spir­i­tu­al writ­ing is like a mus­cle which needs to be exer­cised. To be blunt­ly hon­est, two or three blog­gers could have got­ten onto Skype, opened a shared Google Doc and ham­mered out bet­ter state­ments in less than an hour. If we’re going to be approv­ing these kinds of thing we need to prac­tice and increase our spir­i­tu­al lit­er­a­cy.


THE ROLE OF COMMITTEES

 

The sec­ond part was Inter­im Meet­ing look­ing at itself. We broke into small groups and ask­ing three ques­tions: “What is the work of Inter­im Meet­ing,” “Are we sat­is­fied with how we do this now?” and “If we were to make changes, what would they be?.” I thought to myself that the rea­son I ever go to events like this is to see dear Friends and to see what sparks of life are hap­pen­ing in the year­ly meet­ing. As our small group went around, and as small groups shared after­wards, I real­ized that many of the peo­ple in the room seemed to agree: we were hun­gry for the all-to-brief moments where the Spir­it broke into the reg­i­ment­ed Quak­er process.

One star­tling tes­ti­mo­ni­al came from a mem­ber of the out­reach com­mit­tee. She explained that her com­mit­tee, like many in PYM, is an admin­is­tra­tive one that’s not sup­posed to do any out­reach itself – it’s all sup­posed to stay very “meta.” They recent­ly decid­ed to have a pic­nic with no busi­ness sched­uled and there found them­selves “going rogue” and talk­ing about out­reach. Her spir­it rose and voice quick­ened as she told us how they spent hours dream­ing up out­reach projects. Of course the out­reach com­mit­tee wants to do out­reach! And with state PYM is in, can we real­ly have a dozen peo­ple sequestered away talk­ing about talk­ing about out­reach. Shouldn’t we declare “All hands on deck!” and start doing work? It would have been time well spent to let her share their ideas for the next thir­ty min­utes but of course we had to keep mov­ing. She fin­ished quick­ly and the excite­ment leaked back out of the room.


FOLLOW-UP THOUGHTS AND THE FUTURE OF THE YEARLY MEETING

 

Now I need to stress some things. I had some great one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions in the breaks. A lot of peo­ple were very nice to me and gave me hugs and asked about fam­i­ly. These are a com­mit­ted, hope­ful group of peo­ple. There was a lot of faith in that room! Peo­ple work hard and serve faith­ful­ly. But it feels like we’re trapped by the sys­tem we our­selves cre­at­ed. I want­ed to share the excite­ment and direct­ness of the Quak­er blog­ging world. I want­ed to share the robust­ness of com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­niques we’re using and the pow­er of dis­trib­uted pub­lish­ing. I want­ed to share the new spir­it of ecu­men­ti­cal­ism and cross-branch work that’s hap­pen­ing.

I’ve been vis­it­ing local Friends Meet­ings that have half the atten­dance they did ten years ago. Some have trou­ble break­ing into the double-digits for Sun­day morn­ing wor­ship and I’m often the youngest in the room, bring­ing the only small kids. I know there are a hand­ful of thriv­ing meet­ings, but I’m wor­ried that most are going to have close their doors in the next ten to twen­ty years.

I had hoped to show how new com­mu­ni­ca­tion struc­tures, the rise of Con­ver­gent Friends and the seek­ers of the Emerg­ing Church move­ment could sig­nal new pos­si­bil­i­ties for Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing. Toward the end of Inter­im Meet­ing, some Friends bemoaned our lack of resources and clerk Thomas Swain remind­ed them that with God there is no lim­i­ta­tion and noth­ing is impos­si­ble. Some of the things I’m see­ing online are the impos­si­ble come to life. Look at Quak­erQuak­er: an unstaffed online mag­a­zine run­ning off of a $50/month bud­get and get­ting 10,000 vis­its a month. It’s not any­thing I’ve done, but this com­mu­ni­ty that God has brought togeth­er and the tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­ture that has allowed us to coör­di­nate so eas­i­ly. It’s far from the only neat project out there and there are a lot more on the draw­ing boad. Some year­ly meet­ings are engag­ing with these new pos­si­bilites. But mine appar­ent­ly can’t even stay around for a talk.

  • for­rest curo

    Well, you know you’ve got my sym­pa­thy!!!

    Some­times it’s painful that God works slow­ly; but that’s the way to do it right.

    May it be like some­thing Sufi Sam Lewis wrote:

    “I feel like a gar­den­er who plant­ed a bunch of seeds and noth­ing came up; and again the next year he plant­ed a bunch more seeds and noth­ing came up, and again the next year more seeds with the same result; and so on and so on. And then this year, he plant­ed a bunch of seeds; not only did they all come up, but all the seeds from the pre­vi­ous year came up and all the seeds from the year before, and so on. So I’ve just been fran­ti­cal­ly try­ing to har­vest all the plants until Allah came to me and said, ‘Don’t wor­ry. Har­vest what you can and leave the rest to Me.’ ”

  • Rose­mary Gould

    I haven’t got­ten involved yet with Bal­ti­more Year­ly Meet­ing, but I expect it looks pret­ty sim­i­lar. In my month­ly meet­ing I notice that there are a num­ber of women between 30 and 50 (most of them moms) grad­u­al­ly tak­ing on more and more lead­er­ship roles. Most of their hus­bands don’t attend and only 2 or 3 take any roles in meet­ing. Very few oth­er adults in this age group.

  • Anne Stansell

    I believe that sit­u­a­tion is reflect­ed in many meet­ings also​.In a meet­ing for wor­ship with atten­tion to busi­ness I attend­ed (or maybe its the oth­er way around) that was the case, but I’d say the meet­ing didn’t have any­one under fifty.I guess I won­der why those who are the “estab­lish­ment” don’t show much inter­est? Hon­est­ly I have had more sense of com­mu­ni­ty with the online Quak­erQuak­er then I have anywhere.There have been things I ques­tioned that oth­er Quak­ers were forth­com­ing in explain­ing their lead​ing​.My beliefs have been tak­en seri­ous­ly, even if not shared or agreed with.I have not been con­de­scend­ed to.Anne Stansell

  • Stephen Dot­son

    Friend speaks my mind! Thanks so much for that pre­sen­ta­tion and for this follow-up! I’m going to share it with oth­ers in the office here, so that they’re more aware of the dis­cus­sion that is hap­pen­ing out­side the year­ly meet­ing struc­tures.

    • Hi Stephen: I had meant to send you an email as I post­ed this but it end­ed up being one of those 5-minute good inten­tions that nev­er quite hap­pened!… The orig­i­nal ver­sion of this was about twice as long and fleshed out the “glimpses of issues that I planned to address after­wards in my talk.” Maybe I’ll send it along. 

  • Heart­gar­den

    A friend once asked me if Quak­ers were still rel­e­vant. I said we have always been small in num­ber for the amaz­ing work that gets gen­er­at­ed by Friends. How­ev­er, I am begin­ning to won­der if our con­nec­tion to the Divine is fad­ing or if our insti­tu­tions are like oth­er orga­ni­za­tions and strug­gling to adapt to a very rapid­ly chang­ing envi­ron­ment.
    There are those, par­tic­u­lar­ly on nom­i­nat­ing com­mit­tees, who are aware of this issue. Our YM’s and Friends orga­ni­za­tions need younger Friends on our com­mit­tees and boards. We are look­ing into as I write with­in BYM. It would be nice if this were an FGC work­shop next year and tak­en on the road to YM’s, QM, and MM.

    • Lizopp

      Funny, but every now and then, I come across some writing by an early Friend... or writing by a contemporary Friend about early Friends... and a number of them point to very similar questions:

      Is our faith's connection to the Divine as strong as it once was?

      Why are there so many Friends who think that "good ideas" [aka "notions"] are the same as Divinely inspired leadings?

      Why does it seem as if only a few individual Friends are doing so much of the work?

      In fact, when I feel down-and-out about the current state of the Religious Society of Friends, I often start reading some of the earlier Friends, and I take heart: while it may be true that the more things change, the more they stay the same, but this time, it's MY turn to either be part of God's message or not.

      Quaker blogs and the friendships that have emerged from them have helped me stay faithful and loving, despite the flaws that exist within our modern-day faith community.

      Blessings,
      Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

      • Chris­tine

        @Liz — Thanks for the reminder… Stephen Crisp’s Jour­nal and Let­ters of admo­ni­tion always pull me back to the real­iza­tion that ear­ly Friends also had chal­lenges of dis­ci­pline.

  • Chris­tine

    I had a sim­i­lar expe­ri­ence com­ing to Philadel­phia YM at the age of 40 some­thing, after serv­ing as clerk of a Half-Yearly Meet­ing in Cana­da. I was over 50 when I was asked to serve on Inter­im (then rep­re­sen­ta­tive) meet­ing. (Is 50 the new “age of major­i­ty?”)

    The younger (40 – 50 some­thing — now 60 – 70 some­thing) Friends with whom I began to serve aren’t around any more. Some are active in spir­i­tu­al endeav­ors out­side PYM — or felt dis­missed when they sug­gest­ed greater spir­i­tu­al ground­ing to the point where they left Friends. 

    A cou­ple of years ago, I felt I had a call­ing to the nom­i­nat­ing com­mit­tee… I know quite a few younger Friends, and began to sug­gest names. The only Friend who even­tu­al­ly was invit­ed to serve on a stand­ing com­mit­tee was a well known Friend’s grand­son… For oth­ers, “do they have enough expe­ri­ence the the com­plex­i­ties of PYM?” Per­haps we might have a sim­pler struc­ture…? Oth­er Year­ly Meet­ings seem to do well enough with­out the num­bers of com­mit­tees and work­ing groups and staff. (I yearn for the days of Inter­moun­tain Friends Gath­er­ing, which I encoun­tered when I first came to Friends in my 20s.)

    I have stepped down from com­mit­tee ser­vice for a time. I can encour­age folks in oth­er ways to bet­ter effect, I hope… That, too is in God’s hands. I may come back on to nom­i­nat­ing com­mit­tee after a year or so, but at the moment, it does not seem right­ly ordered. 

    And I real­ly like the Sufi image of the seeds all com­ing up at once. 

    • @Christine: I didn’t real­ize that this phe­nom­e­non was such a long­stand­ing Philadel­phia tra­di­tion. It is out­right ageism. And it’s short-sighted. 

      Nepo­tism is the rule rather than the excep­tion when it comes to ask­ing younger Friends t serv­er. Almost every­one under 40 who I saw involved in FGC com­mit­tees was the child of a well-known Friend. That’s an incred­i­bly nar­row pool and doesn’t pro­vide much diver­si­ty of expe­ri­ence (espe­cial­ly impor­tant when we con­sid­er out­reach). When­ev­er some young­ster came on the scene, Julie would sar­cas­ti­cal­ly ask “who’s kid is it?” While this sounds like cyn­i­cism, the fact that I could give her an answer her nine times out of ten made it just real­i­ty.

      In my twenty-four years of involve­ment with Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing, I have been con­tact­ed by Nom­i­na­tions once – about five years ago. No one could ade­quate­ly explain what the com­mit­tee actu­al­ly did. It’s kind of sad that so many involved Friends are just put the work into these lay­ers of bureau­cra­cy. PYM is tiny by the stan­dards of reli­gious insti­tu­tions. Sure­ly we can be engaged in more direct work.

      • Chris­tine

        @Martin — Well, thee has only four years’ more expe­ri­ence here than I do. Per­haps the rea­sons are not so appar­ent to those of us from “away”… either geo­graph­i­cal­ly or spir­i­tu­al­ly.

        I came to Inter­moun­tain Friends Gath­er­ing at a very good time… The meet­ing I attend­ed was pop­u­lat­ed by folks from the east (or Britain), and the meet­ing that had met in my under­grad advisor’s liv­ing room out­grew that, then out­grew (with­in about 2 – 5 years) the mod­est build­ing north of town — now expand­ed.

        Old­er (40 – 50 year old) Friends not only took peo­ple to lunch, they invit­ed them home for lunch — after which we spent after­noons alter­nate­ly ask­ing ques­tions, going for hikes, or tak­ing care of the kids — some­times all three at once. That pat­tern was con­tin­ued in Cana­di­an Year­ly Meet­ing.