Spiritual self-understanding as pretext to organizational renewal

Brent Bill is con­tin­u­ing his “Mod­est Pro­pos­al” series on Quak­er “revi­tal­iza­tion” on his blog Holy Ordi­nary. Today’s install­ment (part sev­en) is great but I’m not sure where it leaves us. He starts by talk­ing about how some Quak­er body’s books of dis­ci­plines (“Faith and Prac­tice”) are becom­ing more legal­is­tic as they pick up ideas from oth­er reli­gious bod­ies. He then chal­lenges year­ly meet­ings and oth­er Friends bod­ies to a “seri­ous exam­i­na­tion of their pur­pose and pro­grams” in which they ask a series of ques­tions about their purpose.

I agree with a lot of his obser­va­tion. But at the same time I’m not sure what a seri­ous exam­i­na­tion would look like or would pro­duce. In recent years my own year­ly meet­ing has devel­oped a kind of cir­ca­di­an rhythm of con­stant reor­ga­ni­za­tion, tin­ker­ing with orga­ni­za­tion­al charts, leg­isla­tive process­es design to speed up deci­sions, and chang­ing times and fre­quen­cies of events hop­ing to attract new peo­ple. And yet, as I wrote a few weeks ago, when I went to sit in on a meet­ing of the gov­ern­ing body, I was the third or fourth youngest per­son in a room of about 75 Friends. It was pret­ty much the same group of peo­ple who were doing it ten years and mul­ti­ple reforms ago, only now they are ten years old­er. We actu­al­ly ripped through busi­ness so we can spend an hour naval-gazing about the pur­pose of this par­tic­u­lar gov­ern­ing body and I can report it wasn’t the breath of fresh air that we might have hoped for.

A big part of the prob­lem is we’ve for­got­ten why we’re doing all this. We’ve split the faith from the prac­tice – and I don’t mean Chris­t­ian vs non-Christian, but the whole kit-and-kaboodle that is the Quak­er under­stand­ing of gospel order, a world view that is dis­tinct from that of oth­er Chris­t­ian denom­i­na­tions. Lloyd Lee Wil­son calls it the “Quak­er gestalt” in Essays on the Quak­er Vision of Gospel Order. When a spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tion has an inter­nal con­sis­ten­cy, and the process and the­ol­o­gy rein­force each oth­er. Archi­tec­ture and demeanor, cul­tur­al and busi­ness val­ues fit togeth­er. It’s nev­er per­fect, of course, and main­tain­ing the con­sis­ten­cy against new influ­ences and chang­ing cir­cum­stances is often the source of unnec­es­sary pet­ty squab­bling. But even some­thing as innocu­ous as a meetinghouse’s bench arrange­ments can tell you a lot about a group’s the­ol­o­gy and its bal­ance towards author­i­ty and individualism.

It’s our under­stand­ing of our faith and our con­cept of body-of-Christ com­mu­ni­ty which under­girds our insti­tu­tion­al struc­tures. When we don’t have a good grasp of it, we do things mere­ly because “we’re sup­posed to” and the process feels dry and spirit-less. We defend par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tions as nec­es­sary because they’re cod­i­fied in our books of doc­trine and lose our abil­i­ty to pos­i­tive­ly explain their exis­tence, at which point frus­trat­ed mem­bers will call for their aban­don­ment as unnec­es­sary bag­gage from a bygone age.

As an exam­ple, about sev­en years ago my quar­ter­ly meet­ing went through a naval-gazing process. I tried to be involved, as did my then-Quaker wife Julie. We asked a lot of big ques­tions but oth­ers on the vision­ing com­mit­tee just want­ed to ask small ques­tions. When Julie and I asked about divine guid­ance at ses­sions, for exam­ple, one fel­low con­de­scend­ing­ly explained that if we spent all our time ask­ing what God want­ed we’d nev­er get any­thing done. We real­ly didn’t know what to say to that, espe­cial­ly as it seemed the con­sen­sus of oth­ers in the group. One thing they were com­plain­ing about was that it was always the same few peo­ple doing any­thing but after a few rounds of those meet­ings, we ran scream­ing away (my wife right out of the RSoF altogether).

Re-visioning isn’t just decon­struct­ing insti­tu­tions we don’t under­stand or tin­ker­ing with some new process to fix the old process that doesn’t work. If you’ve got a group of peo­ple active­ly lis­ten­ing to the guid­ance of the Inward Christ then any process or struc­ture prob­a­bly can be made to work (though some will facil­i­tate dis­cern­ment bet­ter). Our books of “Faith and Prac­tice” were nev­er meant to be inerrant Bibles. At their core, they’re our “wiki” of best prac­tices for Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty dis­cern­ment – tips earned through the suc­cess­es and fail­ures of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. I think if we under­stand our spir­i­tu­al roots bet­ter we’ll find our musty old Quak­er insti­tu­tions actu­al­ly still have impor­tant roles to play. But how do we get there? I like Brent’s ques­tions but I’m not sure you can just start with them. Any­one want to share sto­ries of spir­i­tu­al deep­en­ing in their meet­ings or faith com­mu­ni­ties and how that fed into a renewed appre­ci­a­tion of Quak­er bod­ies and process?

  • Doug Sloan

    How many of us have seen or par­tic­i­pat­ed in plac­ing a hand on the wall of the sanc­tu­ary and then say­ing, “This is not the church.” With this act, we are try­ing to illus­trate that it is the peo­ple of our faith com­mu­ni­ty who are the church and not the build­ing. Do we have any idea what we just said? If the build­ing is not the church, why do we spend so much time and effort deal­ing with it? If the build­ing is not the church, why is it so impor­tant to us? After we have said, “This is not the church,” have we ever tak­en a far look in the direc­tion we just point­ed? What hap­pens when we extend that thought?

    What do cap­i­tal cam­paigns and 6- or 7- or 8-digit mort­gages (or any mort­gage amount) and sanc­tu­ar­ies with high vault­ed ceil­ings and prop­er acoustic res­o­nance and stained glass win­dows and bas­ket­ball courts and din­ing halls and sculpt­ed altars and carved pul­pits and custom-built com­mu­nion tables and dec­o­ra­tive car­pet and import­ed floor tiles and plen­ti­ful paved park­ing lots and metic­u­lous­ly man­i­cured gar­dens have to do with liv­ing and shar­ing the Good News? – Nothing.

    What do fund rais­ers and all the accom­pa­ny­ing effort and both­er and time and find­ing and orga­niz­ing the required work­ers have to do with liv­ing and shar­ing the Good News? – Nothing.

    What do praise bands and church orches­tras and bell choirs and octaves of tuned bells and multi-rank pipe organs and grand pianos and syn­the­siz­ers and adult choirs and chil­dren choirs and choir audi­tions and choir robes and music fold­ers and the search and review and selec­tion analy­sis and pur­chase of new music and multi-line PA sys­tems and multi-screen video sys­tems and live broad­casts and record­ed broad­casts and hours of rehearsal time and church bul­letins and church bul­letin art work and church bul­letin paper and design­er fonts and newslet­ters and mail­ing lists and adver­tis­ing and adver­tis­ing place­ment and multi-media web sites and vis­its by unique IP address­es and the use of and the pres­ence on new media have to do with liv­ing and shar­ing the Good News? – Nothing.

    What do mem­ber­ship dri­ves and atten­dance num­bers and bap­tism num­bers and tithing and bequeaths and endow­ments and litur­gi­cal employ­ees and non-liturgical employ­ees and salaries and ben­e­fits and com­mit­tees and com­mit­tee meet­ings and church boards and church board meet­ings and the con­se­quen­tial and unavoid­able church pol­i­tics have to do with liv­ing and shar­ing the Good News? – Nothing.

    Much of what we call suc­cess­ful Chris­tian­i­ty and suc­cess­ful wor­ship and suc­cess­ful con­gre­ga­tions has noth­ing to do with liv­ing and shar­ing the Good News.

    Once we begin to think of our faith in terms of large­ness instead of largess or in terms of mea­sur­able suc­cess or sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ments or com­mu­ni­ty stature or sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant gains or busi­ness mod­els or con­gre­ga­tion­al mod­els or appro­pri­ate bud­get process­es or cash flow direc­tion or gen­er­al­ly accept­ed account­ing prac­tices or inde­pen­dent audits or admin­is­tra­tive require­ments or man­age­r­i­al trans­paren­cy or prop­er lead­er­ship roles and bound­aries or mem­ber­ship trends or effec­tive orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­tures or a cur­rent and accu­rate vision state­ment – at that point, we have become the mon­ey chang­ers – we have lost our faith and deserve to be dri­ven away for we are nei­ther liv­ing nor shar­ing the Good News.

    What would hap­pen if the church uni­ver­sal – every con­gre­ga­tion­al prop­er­ty, every region­al office, every nation­al office, every sem­i­nary, every camp – was sold and the net pro­ceeds were used to estab­lish a trust fund endow­ment to sup­port nutri­tion­al, med­ical, legal, and edu­ca­tion­al ser­vices for the poor, the lost, and the hurt?

    When you want a new sta­tus quo – a sta­tus quo dif­fer­ent than the cur­rent sta­tus quo – you are ask­ing for rev­o­lu­tion. When you desire rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion – you are ask­ing for rev­o­lu­tion. When you are tired of cap­i­tal cam­paigns for more struc­tur­al imagery; nau­se­at­ed by con­tro­ver­sy over who is fit to be a church mem­ber, dea­con, or elder; repulsed by the aggre­ga­tion and pro­tec­tion of author­i­ty that defines nar­row rigid paths to ordi­na­tion; griev­ous­ly hurt by the aban­don­ment and refusal to acknowl­edge con­gre­ga­tions who dare to be excit­ed by their pro­claim­ing and liv­ing the Good News; or sick of choos­ing bet­ter orga­ni­za­tion over bet­ter out­reach – you are ask­ing for revolution.

    “Doing” has to be the new def­i­n­i­tion of faith. A “new def­i­n­i­tion” will not be state­ments of purpose/mission/vision or polit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion or pub­lic stances on issues or styles of wor­ship. It will be spe­cif­ic activ­i­ties; spe­cif­ic ways of liv­ing that are the new def­i­n­i­tion. Par­tic­i­pat­ing in CODA or Life­Line or Habi­tat for Human­i­ty will not be an out­reach activ­i­ty; it will be what we do and defin­i­tive of who we are. Sup­port­ing a free clin­ic or a food pantry or a shel­ter for the home­less will not be the focus of an annu­al fund-raising event; it will be part of our con­tin­u­ous­ly active and vis­i­ble the­o­log­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al DNA. Wor­ship will not be every Sun­day morn­ing – it will be when­ev­er and wher­ev­er 2 or 3 (not 200 or 300, not 2,000 or 3,000, not 20,000 or 30,000) are gath­ered to live, study, and con­tem­plate the Good News. Indeed, “doing” will be about liv­ing and being the Good News, not sched­ul­ing it as a repet­i­tive activ­i­ty on our dig­i­tal cal­en­dar on the same day at the same time that always occurs at the same loca­tion and always fol­lows the same sequence. “Doing” our faith does not require cap­i­tal cam­paigns; local, region­al, or nation­al gov­ern­ing boards; sem­i­nar­ies; or licensing/ordination policies.

    “Doing” our faith has to be seen as a rad­i­cal, counter-cultural, defi­ant way of liv­ing. By its very nature, our faith is not sup­posed to be insti­tu­tion­al­ized and not mea­sured by large­ness, cul­tur­al per­va­sive­ness, or author­i­tar­i­an­ism. Our faith is sup­posed to be per­son­al and divine­ly humane. Our faith­ful doing is to be deliv­ered person-to-person, face-to-face, one-to-one – not by an invis­i­ble face­less remote com­mit­tee or col­lec­tive. “Doing” our faith can be accom­plished only with more per­son­al involve­ment and not with more tech­nol­o­gy that is bet­ter, more per­va­sive, more inva­sive, and increas­ing­ly remote and detached.

    Should con­gre­ga­tions be small groups meet­ing for wor­ship in the homes of dif­fer­ent mem­bers? Just imag­ine: Church with no offer­ings, no church gov­ern­ing boards and no board meet­ings, no com­mit­tees and no com­mit­tee meet­ings, no rehearsals, no fund rais­ers, no cap­i­tal cam­paigns, no finances, no build­ings, no prop­er­ty, no main­te­nance or repairs or replace­ments, no employ­ees, no mem­ber­ship dri­ves. Just imag­ine: Church as only wor­ship, only study­ing, only wit­ness­ing in word and ser­vice to each oth­er and the world.

    excerpt from RECLAIMING CHURCH by Doug Sloan

  • Treegestalt

    >explained that ‘if we spent all our time ask­ing what God want­ed we’d nev­er get any­thing done’

    This cer­tain­ly explains how we keep get­ting so much done with­out accom­plish­ing any­thing: We should maybe rename our­selves ‘The Soci­ety of Mary the Busy Kitchen-Help’?

    What to do with peo­ple who keep say­ing: “That’s just intel­lec­tu­al stuff; what mat­ters is Doing!”?

    Some­times I feel like react­ing as you say your wife did! I think we were drawn/called to the RSoF for some pur­pose that escapes me– because in the tra­di­tion and some of the peo­ple I see great poten­tial for car­ry­ing out God’s pur­pos­es. But some­times these pur­pos­es seem inscrutable indeed!

  • simon marc

    Let us not for­get the Inward Light of the Christ, rest­ing in the SOUL of these
    Meet­ings, and yes, upon, in, and around every must old navel present. We do our best, flawed as it may be.
    Thee needs to remem­ber; it’s only a Meet­ing, Year­ly, month­ly, 1st Day’s. Chill. Behold thou the face of Christ. For­get not thy first Love.
    simon marc

  • Mar­garet Katranides

    I’m one who has occa­sion­al­ly respond­ed to a new ini­tia­tive with, “That’s not the way Quak­ers do it.” Part­ly that came out of per­son­al­i­ty, but also part­ly because of my great admi­ra­tion for a sys­tem that seemed a healthy, holy blend of the spir­i­tu­al lead­ing the prac­ti­cal. It was easy for me to let the admi­ra­tion verge on idol­a­try – laud­ing the struc­ture per se, with­out stay­ing down in the Spir­it to be sure it was doing what we thought it was.
    I do see fre­quent signs of the world creep­ing in, the MBA-ification of Quak­er struc­tures, with mis­sion state­ments, task forces, effi­cien­cy goals, etc. The time pres­sure you refer to is an exam­ple; we don’t need to take time just for the sake of tak­ing time, but we do need to take all the time the Spir­it needs to get its mes­sage through our thick skulls. Peo­ple who pay atten­tion to their inter­nal tides become aware of how our sense of time is speed­ed up in a fast-moving envi­ron­ment, and then slows down when we sit qui­et­ly under our per­son­al bod­dhi tree.
    It will nev­er hap­pen, but I’d like to ask the man who said we’d nev­er get any­thing done if we wait­ed to hear God’s input on it, if he would like to have a clear­ness com­mit­tee to con­sid­er whether he is enough in tune with Friends’ faith and prac­tice to be ready to be a member.

  • Eliz­a­beth

    Mar­tin, this is dif­fi­cult for me to artic­u­late, but I think you are right. When we get away from the big ques­tion of “What does God want us to do?” Ffriends can end up in a sec­u­lar process that has no enliven­ing juice. One rea­son I believe my meet­ing is thriv­ing is that we keep com­ing back to lead­er­ship of the Holy Spir­it. It’s a holy quest. Some­times we flub up and get side-tracked, but there real­ly is an effort to look at each oth­er, the world at large and our work togeth­er with spir­i­tu­al eyes. 

    Bless­ings Abound,