The Quaker Ecosystem

An upcoming theme of Friends Journal is one I’m particularly interested in. It’s called “Reimagining the Quaker Ecosystem” and addresses countless conversations I think many of us have had over the years. Here’s the description:

Many of our traditional decision-making structures are under tremendous stress these days. There are few nominating committees that don’t bemoan the difficulties finding volunteer leadership. In the face of this, a wave of questioning and creativity is emerging as Friends reinvent and regenerate Quaker structures. Previously unasked questions about power and decision-making models are on the agenda again.

I think this begs the question of the whole why and how of our organizing as a religious society. One of the most read posts on my blog in 2003 was a based on a review of a book by Robert E. Webber called The Younger Evangelicals. Webber was talking about mainstream Evangelicals, who he divided into three generational phases,

  • Traditional Evangelicals 1950-1975
  • Pragmatic Evangelicals 1975-2000
  • Younger Evangelicals 2000-

I was working at Friends General Conference back in 2003 and Webber’s descriptions felt surprisingly familiar despite the very different context of liberal Quakerism.

Take for example youth ministry: Webber says Pragmatic Evangelicals tend to prefer “outreach programs and weekend fun retreats,” which is what the eventual FGC Youth Ministries Program mostly morphed into (before going into permanent hiatus). Webber suggests that the Younger Evangelicals cohort sought “prayer, Bible study, worship, social action” and sure enough many progressive spiritual types in Philly left meetinghouses for the alternative Circle of Hope church. Quakerism lost a lot of momentum at that time (Betsy Blake see also: Betsy Blake's account). It took the creation of a whole new organization, Quaker Voluntary Service, to get a lively and sustainable youth ministries running (you can read QVS’s Ross Hennesy’s journey from the 2013 FJ to see Webber’s chart come to life).

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think many Quaker orgs are stuck in a rut trying everything they can to make the Pragmatic Evangelical model work. There’s a hope that just one more reorganization will solve their systemic longterm problems—new people will come into committee service, meetinghouses will start filling, etc. But the more we try to hold onto the old framework, the more creative energy dissipates and Friends get lost or leave.

My personal hunch is that structure (almost) doesn’t matter. What we need is a shift in attention. How can we back up and ask the big questions: Why are we here? What is our prophetic role and how do we encourage and support that in our members? How do we care for our church community and still reach beyond the meetinghouse walls to serve as healers in the world?

A few years ago I dropped in on part of my yearly meeting sessions. In one room, mostly-older members were revising some arcane subsection of Faith and Practice while across the hall mostly-younger members were expressing heartbreak about a badly-decided policy on trans youth. The disconnect between the spirit in the rooms was beyond obvious.

I think we need to be able to stop and give attention to direct leadings of needed ministry. I often return to the Good Samaritan story. In my mind's eye the Levite is the Friend who can’t stop because they’re late for a committee meeting. If we could figure out a way to get more Friends to pivot into Good Samaritan mode, I suspect we’d find new life in our religious society. Perennial questions would transform.

Signs of new life are abundant but unevenly distributed. How do you imagine the ecosystem in 10, 20, or 50 years? Submission due date 3/6 officially though we may have a chance to review later pieces.

Betsy Blake and “He Lives!” at Pendle Hill

A busy Quak­er week. On Tues­day I heard North Car­oli­na Friend Bet­sy Blake give a talk called “He Lives” at Pendle Hill, the sto­ry of how “Jesus has been her rock” to quote from the pro­gram descrip­tion. It was a great talk and very well received.

Bet­sy is a grad­u­ate of the Quak­er pro­gram at Guil­ford (so she was a
good fol­lowup for Max Carter’s talk this week­end) and she helped
orga­nize the World Gath­er­ing of Young Friends a few years ago. The talk was record­ed and should be up on the Pendle Hill short­ly (I’ll add a link when it is) so I’ll not try to be com­pre­hen­sive but just share a few of my impres­sions.

Bet­sy is the kind of per­son that can just come under the radar. She starts telling sto­ries, fun­ny and poignant by turn, each one a Bet­sy sto­ry that you take on its own mer­its. It’s only at the end of the hour that you ful­ly real­ize she’s been tes­ti­fy­ing to the pres­ence of Jesus in her life in all this time. Real-life sight­ings, com­fort­ing hands on shoul­ders fam­i­ly tragedy, intel­lec­tu­al doubts and expand­ed spir­i­tu­al con­nec­tions all come togeth­er like dif­fer­ent sides of the ele­phant.

One the­me that came up a few times in the question-and-answer sec­tion is the feel­ing of a kind of spir­i­tu­al tired­ness – a fatigue from run­ning the same old debates over and over. It’s an exhaus­tion that squelch­es curios­i­ty about oth­er Friends and some­times moves us to fol­low the easy path in times of con­flict rather than the time-consuming & dif­fi­cult path that might be the one we need to be on.

The last time I was in the Pendle Hill barn it was to lis­ten to Shane Clai­borne. I’m one of those odd peo­ple that don’t think he’s a very good speak­er for lib­er­al Quak­ers. He down­plays the reli­gious instruc­tion he received as a child to empha­size the pro­gres­sive spir­i­tu­al smörgås­bord of his adult­hood with­out ever quite real­iz­ing (I think) that this ear­ly edu­ca­tion gave him the lan­guage and vocab­u­lary to ground his cur­rent spir­i­tu­al trav­els. Those who grow up in lib­er­al Quak­er meet­ings gen­er­al­ly start with the dab­bling; their chal­lenge is to find a way to go deep­er into a speci­fic spir­i­tu­al prac­tice, some­thing that can’t be done on week­end trips to cool spir­i­tu­al des­ti­na­tions.

Bet­sy brought an appre­ci­a­tion for her ground­ed Chris­tian upbring­ing that I thought was a more pow­er­ful mes­sage. She talked about how her mom was raised in a tra­di­tion that could talk of dark­ness. When a fam­i­ly mem­ber died and doubt of God nat­u­ral­ly fol­lowed, her moth­er was able to remind her that God had healed the beloved sis­ter, only “not in the way we want­ed.” Pow­er­ful stuff.

The sounds at Pendle Hill were fas­ci­nat­ing: the sound of knit­ting needles was a gen­tle click-clack through the time. And one annoy­ing speak­er rose at one point with an annoy­ing ser­mon­et­te that I real­ized was a modern-day ver­sion of Quak­er singsong (lib­er­al Friend edi­tion), com­plete with dra­mat­ic paus­es and over-melodious deliv­ery. Fun­ny to real­ize it exists in such an unlike­ly place!

And a plug that the Tues­day night speaker’s series con­tin­ues with some great Friends com­ing up, with North Carolina’s Lloyd Lee Wilson at bat for next week. Hey, and I’ll be there with Wess Daniels this May to lead a work­shop on “The New Monas­tics and Con­ver­gent Friends.”