Strangely enough, the Philadelphia Inquirer has published a front-page article on leadership in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, “Friends frustrate some of their flock, Quakers bogged down by process, two leaders say”. To me it comes off as an extended whine from the former PhYM General Secretary Thomas Jeavons. His critiques around Philadelphia Quaker culture are well-made (and well known among those who have seen his much-forwarded emails) but he doesn’t seem as insightful about his own failings as a leader, primarily his inability to forge consensus and build trust. He frequently came off as too ready to bypass rightly-ordered decision-making processes in the name of strong leadership. The more this happened, the more distrust the body felt toward him and the more intractible and politicized the situation became. He was the wrong leader for the wrong time. How is this worthy of the front-page newspaper status?
The “Making New Friends” outreach campaign is a central example in the article. It might have been more successful if it had been given more seasoning and if outsider Friends had been invited to participate. The campaign was kicked off by a survey that confirmed that the greatest threat to the future of the yearly meeting was “our greying membership” and that outreach campaigns “should target young adult seekers.” I attended the yearly meeting session where the survey was presented and the campaign approved and while every Friend under forty had their hands raised for comments, none were recognized by the clerk. “Making New Friends” was the perfect opportunity to tap younger Friends but the work seemed designed and undertaken by the usual suspects in yearly meeting.
Like a lot of Quaker organizations, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting has spent the last fifteen years largely relying on a small pool of established leadership. There’s little attention to leadership development or tapping the large pool of talent that exists outside of the few dozen insiders. This Spring Jeavons had an article in PYM News that talked about younger Friends that were the “future” of PYM and put the cut-off line of youthfulness/relevance at fifty! The recent political battles within PYM seemed to be over who would be included in the insider’s club, while our real problems have been a lack of transparency, inclusion and patience in our decision making process.
Philadelphia Friends certainly have their leadership and authority problems and I understand Jeavons’ frustrations. Much of his analysis is right. I appreciated his regularly column in PYM News, which was often the only place Christ and faith was ever seriously discussed. But his approach was too heavy handed and corporate to fit yearly meeting culture and did little to address the long-term issues that are lapping up on the yearly meeting doorsteps.
For what it’s worth, I’ve heard some very good things about the just-concluded yearly meeting sessions. I suspect the yearly meeting is actually beginning a kind of turn-around. That would be welcome.
- The Inquirer has an interesting comment thread on the article
- More blog chatter via these technorati links: Here and here (stupid blog-unfriendly Inquirer URL system)