It’s My Language Now: Thinking About Youth Ministry

This past week­end I took part in a “Youth Min­istries Con­sul­ta­tion” spon­sored by Friends Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence. Thir­ty Friends, most under the age of 35, came togeth­er to talk about their expe­ri­ence of Quakerism.

Con­formed to the World

The issue that spoke most strong­ly this week­end was the expe­ri­ence of not being known. Young and old we longed for a nam­ing & nur­tur­ing of gifts. We longed to be seen as mem­bers one of anoth­er. Ear­ly on a young Friend from a well-known fam­i­ly said she often felt she was seen as her mother’s daugh­ter or con­fused with cousins and aunts. Anoth­er Friend with pedi­gree com­plained that as a young per­son inter­est­ed in Quak­erism he was seen by nom­i­nat­ing com­mit­tees as a gener­ic “Young Friend” who could be slot­ted into any com­mit­tee as its token youth rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Anoth­er young Friend agreed that, yes, there is “affir­ma­tive action for young Friends.”

Affir­ma­tive action?!? For young Friends?? At this state­ment my jaw dropped. Through­out most of my time as a twenty- and thirty-something Friend I have felt almost com­plete­ly invis­i­ble. I’d have to walk on water to be named to a com­mit­tee by my year­ly meet­ing (only in the last year has a year­ly meet­ing nom­i­nat­ing committee-member approached me). I can get pro­filed in the New York Times for my peace work but request as I try I can’t even get on the mail­ing list for my year­ly meeting’s peace committee!

And yet the deep­er issue is the same for me and the annoint­ed young Friends: we are seen not as our­selves but in rela­tion (or non-relation) to oth­er Friends. We are all tokens. As a small group of us met to talk about the issue of gift-naming, we real­ized the prob­lem wasn’t just lim­it­ed to those under forty. Even old­er Friends longed to be part of meet­ings that would know us, meet­ings that would see beyond our most obvi­ous skins of age, race and birth fam­i­ly to our deep­er, ever-changing and refresh­ing souls. We all long for oth­ers to give nur­tur­ing guid­ance and lov­ing over­sight to that deep­est part of our­selves! How we long to whis­per, sing and shout to one anoth­er about the Spirit’s move­ment inside us. We all long for a reli­gious soci­ety where expec­ta­tions aren’t lim­it­ed by our out­ward differences.

This isn’t about fill­ing com­mit­tees and find­ing clerks. What if we could go beyond the super­fi­cial com­mu­ni­ties of nice­ness main­tained in so many Meet­ings to find some­thing more real – a “cap­i­tal ‘C’ Com­mu­ni­ty” as one Friend put it? This is about liv­ing that beloved Com­mu­ni­ty. Con­sul­ta­tions and pro­grams are easy but the hard work is chang­ing atti­tudes and chang­ing our expec­ta­tions of one anoth­er, expec­ta­tions that keep us from hav­ing to get to know one another.

One Body in Christ

As the con­sul­ta­tion wrapped up we were giv­en an overview of the next steps: set­ting up com­mit­tees, doing fundrais­ing, sup­port­ing iden­ti­fied youth work. It’s all fine and good but it was a pret­ty gener­ic list of next-steps that could have been gen­er­at­ed even before the meeting.
Caught up in the idea of a “youth min­istries pro­gram” are assump­tions that the prob­lem is with the youth and that the solu­tion will come through some sort of pro­gram­ming. I don’t think either premise is accu­rate. The real change needs to be cul­tur­al and it needs to extend far past youth. Even most of the old­er Friends at the con­sul­ta­tion saw that. But will they bring it back to the larg­er orga­ni­za­tion? Last Novem­ber I shared some con­cerns about the Youth Min­istries ini­ta­tive with its orga­niz­ing committee:

I haven’t heard any apol­o­giz­ing from old­er Friends for the neglect and invis­i­bil­i­ty that they’ve giv­en my gen­er­a­tion. I haven’t heard any­one talk about address­ing the issues of Quak­er ageism or the the cul­ture of FGC insti­tu­tion­al nepo­tism. At [the FGC gov­ern­ing board’s annu­al meet­ing] I heard a state­ment that a youth min­istries pro­gram would be built on the ongo­ing work of half-a-dozen list­ed com­mit­tees, most of which I know haven’t done any­thing for youth ministries.

The point was hit home by an old­er Friend at the con­sul­ta­tion dur­ing a small-group break­out. He explained the all-too-familiar ratio­nale for why we should sup­port youth: “because they are an invest­ment in our future, they’re our lead­er­ship twen­ty and thir­ty years from now.” I sus­pect that a num­ber of Friends on gov­ern­ing boards – not just of FGC but of our ser­vice pro­grams and year­ly meet­ings – look at “youth min­istries” in a similarly-condescending, dis­mis­sive way, as invest­ment work in the future. Why else would younger Friends be so under-represented in most Quak­er com­mit­tees and pro­gram work?

The prob­lems tran­scend Quak­er insti­tu­tions. But Friends Gen­er­al Con­fer­ence is in a par­tic­u­lar­ly good posi­tion to mod­el the work. Will FGC cre­ate a youth min­istries ghet­to or will it do the hard work of inte­grat­ing its com­mit­tees? Will it final­ly start spon­sor­ing young min­is­ters in its Trav­el­ing Min­istries pro­gram? Will FGC ini­ti­ate out­reach efforts specif­i­cal­ly tar­get­ed at 20-somethings (the demo­graph­ic of the great major­i­ty of seek­ers who come to our doors)? Will there ever be a Friend under thirty-five invit­ed to give a major Gath­er­ing ple­nary talk?

Trans­formed by the Renew­ing of Our Minds

The con­sul­ta­tion was just 30 Friends. Most of the most excit­ing young Friends I know weren’t even invit­ed and real­ly couldn’t be with such a lim­it­ed atten­dance cap. One old­er Friend tried to sum up the week­end by say­ing it was the start of some­thing impor­tant, but that’s the wrong way to look at it. It’s real­ly only anoth­er step along the way, the con­tin­u­a­tion of work that’s been going on for 100 years, 350 years, 2000 years or more depend­ing on your frame of ref­er­ence. This is work that will con­tin­ue to be done over the course of gen­er­a­tions, in hun­dreds of meet­ing­hous­es and it will involve every­one in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends in one way or another.

Lurk­ing unnamed in the back­ground of the Youth Min­istries Con­sul­ta­tion is the pop­u­lar “Quak­er” sweat lodge, which became so pop­u­lar pre­cise­ly because it was part­ly orga­nized by young Friends, gave them real lead­er­ship oppor­tu­ni­ties and knew–knew with a cer­tain­ty–that they could expe­ri­ence the divine and share that expe­ri­ence with their peers. If FGC’s pro­grams can’t match those cri­te­ria, then FGC will suf­fer the loss of yet anoth­er generation.
What was impor­tant to me were the trends rep­re­sent­ed. There was a def­i­nite inter­est in get­ting more deeply involved in Quak­erism and in explor­ing the reli­gious side of this Soci­ety of Friends.

Grace Giv­en Us

One strug­gle we’re going to con­tin­ue to have is with lan­guage. For one small-group break­out, the orga­niz­ing com­mit­tee broke issues down by top­ics. One was dubbed “Lead­er­ship Train­ing.” With that moniker it was sure­ly going to focus on some sort of delim­it­ed, sec­u­lar – and quite frankly bor­ing – pro­gram that would be based on an orga­ni­za­tion­al design mod­el. It wasn’t the con­cern I had heard raised so I asked if we could rename it to a “nam­ing of gifts” group; thank­ful­ly the sug­ges­tion was eager­ly accept­ed. Renam­ing it helped ground it and gave the small group that gath­ered per­mis­sion to look at the deep­er issues involved. No one in our small group point­ed out that our dis­cus­sion uncon­scious­ly echoed Paul’s let­ter to the Romans:

Do not be con­formed to this world, but be trans­formed by the renew­ing of your minds, so that you may dis­cern what is the will of God – what is good and accept­able and per­fect… For as in one body we have many mem­bers, and not all the mem­bers have the same func­tion, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and indi­vid­u­al­ly we are mem­bers one of anoth­er. We have gifts that dif­fer accord­ing to the grace giv­en to us. Romans 12.

This uncon­scious Chris­tian­i­ty is very strong among our branch of Quak­ers. As our small group dis­cussed nam­ing of gifts we turned to the roles of our month­ly meet­ings and start­ed label­ing their func­tions. As the mis­sion state­ment was worked out point by point, I noticed we were recre­at­ing gospel order. I sug­gest­ed that one was to “for­give each oth­er our tres­pass­es,” which was an idea the small group liked. Even so, a few mem­bers didn’t want to use that language.

We were talk­ing gospel order, but with san­i­tized lan­guage; it’s an odd­i­ty that we mod­ern lib­er­al Friends turn so often to sec­u­lar vocab­u­lary: we talk of child­hood devel­op­ment mod­els, we use orga­ni­za­tion­al design lin­go, we speak in the Quak­er committee-speak.

My feel­ing is that lib­er­al Friends do want to be reli­gious. But we’ve spent a gen­er­a­tion replac­ing any word that hints of reli­gion with sec­u­lar­ized alter­na­tives and that now we often can’t think past this self-limited vocab­u­lary. One word that needs to be exer­cised more is “God.” If you want to be a mod­ern day Quak­er min­is­ter, just refor­mu­late every sec­u­lar­ized Quak­er­s­peak query you see to include “God.” When Friends ask “How can my month­ly meet­ing meet my needs,” nice­ly sug­gest that we also ask “How can my month­ly meet­ing meet God’s needs.” I found myself con­stant­ly refor­mu­lat­ing queries over the week­end. It’s kind of odd that the word “God” has become so absent from a Peo­ple gath­ered in the knowl­edge that “Christ has come to teach the peo­ple Him­self,” but that’s the Soci­ety we’ve inher­it­ed and this is where our min­istry must start.

Near the end of the con­sul­ta­tion one college-age Friend explained a moment when her Quak­erism was trans­formed from out­ward iden­ti­ty to an inward knowl­edge. “It’s my lan­guage now” she declared to us. Yes, it is. And that’s youth min­istry and elder min­istry, the good news that there’s a God we can name who will reveal what is “good and accept­able and per­fect.” That’s our work today, that is the min­istry of our ages.

More Read­ing:

FGC pub­lished a Good News Bul­letin about the Youth Min­istries Consultation.

  • Speak­ing as a 40-something Friend, I am soooo glad you took the time to write about your expe­ri­ence. There are far too many things I agree with you about for me to men­tion, but what I’ll offer here is: Were you faith­ful to your mea­sure of Light in your participation?

  • Liz with the good ques­tion (but of course!). Yes, actu­al­ly I do feel I was faith­ful. I was able to stay in that space that was loose and open to the Spirit’s instruc­tions. Just now I was moved by a jolt of recog­ni­tion by your descrip­tion of the teach­ing clerk in your Meet­ing: “its clerk was the type who took advan­tage of ‘teach­able moments,’ mak­ing trans­par­ent for me and for oth­ers just what we were doing as Friends and why we doing it the way we were.” I feel I was patient to wait for the moments. I might have been play­ing that sort of a role! What joy!
    It could have been dif­fer­ent. After all, I wasn’t just chal­leng­ing a branch of Friends that I gen­er­al­ly love and respect. I was also at times chal­leng­ing the very insti­tu­tion “that employs me”:http://​www​.fgc​quak​er​.org/​i​n​f​o​/​s​t​a​f​f​.​h​tml. But I tried to speak as led, with­out wor­ry­ing about inter­nal FGC pol­i­tics (for­tu­nate­ly the Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary of FGC Bruce Bir­chard has lift­ed up a mod­el of a leader who has sea­soned judg­ment, the inner strength, and the open style which earns them con­sid­er­able trust and respect from their col­leagues, so it was fine to be open).
    I have been just a lit­tle wor­ried that teach­ing this summer’s Gath­er­ing work­shop, “Strangers to the Covenant”:/quaker/strangers to an audi­ence of 18 – 35 year-olds might not be as smooth as the “Quak­erism 101”:http://​www​.non​vi​o​lence​.org/​m​a​r​t​i​n​k​/​a​r​c​h​i​v​e​s​/​0​0​0​4​1​8​.​php class I taught at Med­ford Month­ly Meet­ing last fall. But I real­ly felt com­fort­able in the consultation’s small groups and I’m real­ly excit­ed by the ener­gy, enthu­si­asm and insight of the “young adult Friends”:http://​www​.quak​er​.org/​y​f​n​a​/​n​e​t​w​o​r​k​.​php there.

  • Julie DeMarchi Heiland

    You didn’t even men­tion that you post­ed any­thing new! I liked this piece a lot. Unfor­tu­nate­ly I think the answer to your var­i­ous ques­tions about whether or not any­thing will change insti­tu­tion­al­ly, bring­ing younger Friends into com­mit­tees and actu­al­ly under­stand­ing the prob­lems that cur­rent­ly exist is “No,” “No,” and “No.” I’d bet mon­ey on it. It won’t hap­pen. There were plans going into the con­sul­ta­tion and ideas about what need­ed to be done. These plans remained after the week­end was over. I don’t see the pow­ers that be in FGC as even *remote­ly* “get­ting it,” or giv­ing a crap when younger employ­ees can’t make ends meet because of their insuf­fi­cient salaries for that mat­ter… even though I know you are slight­ly more opti­mistic. I think that’s because I don’t see them even try­ing to lis­ten or rec­og­nize cul­tur­al prob­lems in their insti­tu­tions. More impor­tant­ly, I don’t see them as real­ly and tru­ly open to the will of God, and that’s where it starts and ends in any and all cas­es, right? (I’m not just pick­ing on FGC here – I think PYM, many Month­ly Meet­ings, and oth­er Quak­er insti­tu­tions have the same prob­lems.) A real­ly good piece though, so thanks. I hope some old­er adult Friends came away changed.

  • Dear Val­ued Wife Julino,
    Well, you’ve cer­tain­ly earned your cyn­i­cism. I agree that insti­tu­tion­al change will lag far behind any emerg­ing con­scious­ness by younger Friends.

  • Rob

    Hi Mar­tin: Thank you for your pro­found thoughts on the strengths/status/position of young adult Friends with­in FGC. I hear great strug­gle in your words, and want you to know there are many of us out here who find insight and under­stand­ing in your expe­ri­ences. It sounds like you deal with FGC and Quak­er hier­ar­chy far more than most of us, and I cer­tain­ly sym­pa­thize with your/our frus­tra­tions. I lend a cau­tion­ary note on seek­ing apolo­gies from old­er Friends. We each share in the work that needs to be done; for­give­ness requires no apol­o­gy. Mov­ing on; how­ev­er, appears to at least require acknowledgement.
    Your upcom­ing FGC work­shop sounds excit­ing. You have my encour­age­ment. I hope to attend!

  • Robin Mohr

    Dear Mar­tin,
    I’m not clear what kind of pro­gram­ming you or FGC mean by Youth Min­istries. Maybe they aren’t either? Accept­ing that pro­gram­ming alone isn’t enough, what do you think would be helpful?
    Is it accept­able to include in a com­ment a ques­tion relat­ed to Young Friends but not posed in your post?
    Among the issues that Pacif­ic Year­ly Meet­ing is talk­ing about regard­ing Young Friends is the ques­tion of mem­ber­ship among a high­ly tran­sient pop­u­la­tion. How do young men and women become mem­bers of a par­tic­u­lar Month­ly Meet­ing when they have grown up in one place, are now spend­ing four years in anoth­er place 100‑3000 miles away, and expect to move after that to pos­si­bly a third loca­tion equal­ly dis­tant that may or may not have a local Quak­er Meet­ing? What are the oblig­a­tions of a Meet­ing to nur­ture a young Friend who will only be here for a year? How can we make the tran­si­tions between Meet­ings easier?
    One of my per­son­al con­cerns: How does this affect our tra­di­tions of mar­riage, i.e. how can a Meet­ing take a mar­riage under its care if the cou­ple has been here for two years but is mov­ing away in six months? (a seri­ous prob­lem in my per­son­al experience)
    One of my lead­ings is that we (my Month­ly Meet­ing at least and prob­a­bly every­body else:) should work more close­ly with our young teens to con­sid­er mem­ber­ship when they are still firm­ly liv­ing in their home com­mu­ni­ty, and the rela­tion­ship can be still go both ways — the Meet­ing teaching/supporting/holding account­able the young per­son and the young per­son serv­ing the Meet­ing (on com­mit­tees, etc.) and teaching/supporting/holding account­able the oth­er folks. And then when they do move on, they would go as Mem­bers of our Meet­ings, with let­ters of intro­duc­tion to what­ev­er Meet­ing is clos­est to wher­ev­er they will be.
    I think we need to grab them and focus on them right when they are most like­ly to duck the oth­er way. Some/many oth­er reli­gions have tra­di­tions like this. Maybe Quak­ers didn’t need one when peo­ple didn’t move so often, but I think we have to con­tin­u­al­ly find new ways to meet this gap­ing need. I think ado­les­cence is a good time to ask peo­ple to con­sid­er their spir­i­tu­al lean­ings, to think about their lives in terms of what God expects of them, and a mem­ber­ship clear­ness com­mit­tee is a time-honored means of doing this.
    I think if we com­mit­ted to hav­ing these con­ver­sa­tions in our Month­ly Meet­ings, it would change how young peo­ple see the pur­pose of Year­ly and Quar­ter­ly Meet­ings. From not just a social high­light of the year and a chance for pup­py piles, but to real­ly stretch their under­stand­ing of their own spir­i­tu­al selves. I hear both yearn­ings among our Junior Year­ly Meet­ing folks — they want to be known, they want to know Friends who are work­ing deeply in their own spir­i­tu­al fields, but when it comes right down to a choice between a meet­ing for wor­ship and swim­ming, well, it’s hard. But then, that’s one of the roles of elders and par­ents. To lis­ten to the com­plain­ing, to just sit there and take it, and still hold our youngers to their high­est potential.
    What do you think? Would this help?

  • Hi Robin,
    I don’t think it’s hard. When a young per­son comes to you, you sup­port them. You don’t care about their mem­ber­ship sta­tus. You don’t care how long they’ve been there. You don’t care how long they’ll be there. For­mal mem­ber­ship is the hob­gob­lin of lit­tle Quak­er bureau­crat­ic minds. Quak­ers are Quak­ers and Quak­ers should sup­port Quakers.
    It is our duty as Friends and Chris­tians to reach out to every­one who reach­es out to us in the Light. It’s very sim­ple really.

  • Robin Mohr

    I think that mem­ber­ship is one of the issues that Friends have unof­fi­cial­ly laid down and to our own detriment.
    I think Friends have tra­di­tion­al­ly, and we should again, dis­tin­guish between peo­ple who sim­ply choose to wor­ship with us and those who wish to make a com­mit­ment to our community.
    I think we should have ram­pant seek­ers’ class­es for new­com­ers and oth­er forms of wel­com­ing and move peo­ple who are inter­est­ed along to mem­ber­ship. I think this has been and is a cur­rent lame­ness among Friends, but it doesn’t have to be. The for­mal process for apply­ing in Pacif­ic Year­ly Meet­ing is real­ly min­i­mal. In my Month­ly Meet­ing, we are actu­al­ly work­ing at mak­ing the process more mean­ing­ful for peo­ple. I don’t mean more dif­fi­cult, but rec­og­niz­ing it as a pow­er­ful step in the spir­i­tu­al jour­ney of a seek­er, young or old, and not giv­ing it short shrift, so to speak.
    I think we need to make a more seri­ous invest­ment in our mem­bers. I think we should have more spir­i­tu­al sup­port com­mit­tees and class­es that are par­tic­u­lar­ly aimed, not at the beginner’s lev­el, but at those who want to go deep­er. I think that deep­er lev­els of spir­i­tu­al devel­op­ment require deep­er lev­els of inti­ma­cy and that requires a cer­tain degree of exclu­siv­i­ty. Not every­one who enjoys meet­ing for wor­ship wants to con­vert to plain dress and the stricter tes­ti­monies on sim­ple and sus­tain­able and peace­able liv­ing, and that’s okay for them. They are wel­come to wor­ship and potluck with us, but I want a deep­er lev­el of engage­ment. I think that dis­cern­ing God’s will and hold­ing each oth­er account­able is very dif­fi­cult with peo­ple I don’t know (yet). Nam­ing gifts and elder­ing peo­ple into lead­er­ship and sup­port­ing emerg­ing min­is­ters will be part of that. I think that mem­ber­ship is not a final rest­ing place but a step across the thresh­old into the covenant community.
    We (SFMM and broad­ly) have been unwill­ing to define the respon­si­bil­i­ties of mem­ber­ship at even basic lev­els of atten­dance. We are usu­al­ly unable to state what are the spir­i­tu­al ben­e­fits of mem­ber­ship. If we are to wres­tle with what God is call­ing us to do, this is going to be part of the work.
    I think that the fact that Friends have lost sight of what mem­ber­ship means is part of the prob­lem. We are unable to say, this Friend speaks for us, and that non-Friend doesn’t. I think that being able to artic­u­late what we believe and define who we are are two parts of the same process.

  • Hi, Mar­tin.
    I had com­ment­ed ear­li­er to this post, and I’m re-reading what you’ve writ­ten because of your ref­er­ence in a lat­er post. While re-reading this essay, I remem­bered a com­ment that I had want­ed to make orig­i­nal­ly but didn’t.
    It’s about the spe­cif­ic mus­ing you had, Will there ever be a Friend under thirty-five invit­ed to give a major Gath­er­ing ple­nary talk?
    In 1996 in Hamil­ton, Ontario, I believe, a pan­el of young adult Cana­di­an Friends pro­vid­ed the ple­nary one night. I believe Eva­lyn Par­ry and Jane Ori­on Smith were among the pan­elists. Though it was only my sec­ond Gath­er­ing and I had not embraced Quak­erism ful­ly then, I recall the pow­er of the tes­ti­mo­ny and sto­ries of these Friends.
    I’m sure you’ll have some response that may “dis­qual­i­fy” that par­tic­u­lar ple­nary ses­sion from what you intend­ed in your ques­tion, but I wish to affirm that I have heard from Friends near­ly 10 years lat­er how that par­tic­u­lar evening still lives with­in them…
    Liz, The Good Raised Up