Outreach as Retention

From Cal­lid Keefe-Perry, a vlog entry on the appar­ent dis­crep­ancy between what Friends think they want to be doing (out­reach) ver­sus what they think makes for a healthy meet­ing (deep wor­ship), as indi­cated by a just-released sur­vey from Friends Gen­eral Con­fer­ence, the umbrella orga­ni­za­tion for many of North America’s Lib­eral Friends.

Cal­lid says:

there’s a dis­con­nect between deep wor­ship as a mark of health, and out­reach as the most impor­tant thing to do. We try as peo­ple to make things hap­pen that are beyond our con­trol. If we really attended to deep wor­ship, if we attended to root­ing our com­mu­nies in a sense of dis­ci­ple­ship and dis­ci­pline, then out­reach and care for com­mu­nity, and lead­ing by exam­ple would come from that. Those things are fruits; their root is liv­ing in the pres­ence, liv­ing in gospel order. I’m con­cerned that in the hus­tle and bus­tle of out­reach and mak­ing things work we might miss that still small voice. [Loose tran­script, lightly edited]

There is much we can do to pro­mote com­mu­nity aware­ness of Friends (aka “out­reach”), but I sus­pect the great­est effect of our efforts is internal–raising our own con­scious­ness about how to be vis­i­ble and wel­com­ing. Friends are always get­ting free pub­lic­ity (just this morn­ing I fin­ished Jef­frey Eugenides’s The Mar­riage Plot, whose final pages are prac­ti­cally an ad for our reli­gious soci­ety, and there’s the seeker-producing mill of the Belief-o-Matic Quiz). What if vis­i­bil­ity isn’t our biggest prob­lem? Callid’s post reminds me of some­thing that Robin Mohr said when I inter­viewed her “Eight Ques­tions on Con­ver­gent Friends” for Friends Jour­nal:

Though it may be dif­fer­ent in other places, San Fran­cisco always had peo­ple vis­it­ing; there was no short­age of new vis­i­tors. The key was get­ting them to come back… I don’t think the Con­ver­gent Friends move­ment is nec­es­sar­ily going to solve our out­reach issues, but it can absolutely change the reten­tion rate.

What if we thought of out­reach as a reten­tion issue? How would it relate to the “deep wor­ship” the survey-takers lifted up?

Looking at North American Friends and theological hotspots

Over on Friends Jour­nal site, some recent stats on Friends mostly in the US and Canada. Writ­ten by Mar­garet Fraser, the head of FWCC, a group that tries to unite the dif­fer­ent bod­ies of Friends, it’s a bit of cold water for most of us. Offi­cial num­bers are down in most places despite what­ever offi­cial opti­mism might exist. Favorite line: “Per­haps those who leave are noticed less.” I’m sure P.R. hacks in var­i­ous Quaker orga­ni­za­tions are burn­ing the mid­night oil writ­ing response let­ters to the edi­tor spin­ning the num­bers to say things are look­ing up.

She points to a sad decline both in yearly meet­ings affil­i­ated with Friends United Meet­ing and in those affil­i­ated with Friends Gen­eral Con­fer­ence. A curios­ity is that this decline is not seen in three of the four yearly meet­ings that are dual affil­i­ated. These blended yearly meet­ings are going through var­i­ous degrees of iden­tity cri­sis and hand-wringing over their sta­tus and yet their own mem­ber­ship num­bers are strong. Could it be that seri­ous the­o­log­i­cal wrestling and com­pli­cated spir­i­tual iden­ti­ties cre­ate health­ier reli­gious bod­ies than mono­cul­tural groupings?

The big news is in the south: “His­panic Friends Churches” in Mex­ico and Cen­tral Amer­ica are boom­ing, with spillover in el Norte as work­ers move north to get jobs. There’s sur­pris­ingly lit­tle inter­ac­tion between these newly-arrived Spanish-speaking Friends and the the old Main Line Quaker estab­lish­ment (maybe not sur­pris­ing really, but still sad). I’ll leave you with a chal­lenge Mar­garet gives readers:

One ques­tion that often puz­zles me is why so many His­panic Friends
con­gre­ga­tions are meet­ing in churches belong­ing to other denom­i­na­tions.
I would love to see estab­lished Friends meet­ings with their own
prop­erty shar­ing space with His­panic Friends. It would be an
oppor­tu­nity to share growth and chal­lenges together.

Hey who am I to decide anything

Over on Non­the­ist Friends web­site, there’s an arti­cle look­ing back at ten years of FGC Gath­er­ing work­shops on their con­cern. There was also a post some­where on the blo­gos­phere (sorry I don’t remem­ber where) by a Pagan Friend excited that this year’s Gath­er­ing would have a work­shop focused on their concerns.

It’s kind of inter­est­ing to look at the process by which new the­olo­gies are being added into Lib­eral Quak­erism at an ever-increasing rate.

  • Mem­ber­ship of indi­vid­u­als in meet­ings. There are hun­dreds of meet­ings in lib­eral Quak­erism that range all over the the­o­log­i­cal map. Add to that the wide­spread agree­ment that the­o­log­i­cal unity with the meet­ing is not required and just about any­one believ­ing any­thing could be admit­ted some­where (or “grand­fa­thered in” as a birthright member).
  • A work­shop at the Friends Gen­eral Con­fer­ence Gath­er­ing and espe­cially a reg­u­lar work­shop at suc­ces­sive Gath­er­ings. Yet as the very informed com­ments on a post a few years ago showed, the­ol­ogy is not some­thing the plan­ning work­shop com­mit­tee is allowed to look at and at least one pro­po­nent of a new the­ol­ogy has got­ten them­selves on the decid­ing com­mit­tee. The Gath­er­ing is essen­tially built on the non­de­nom­i­na­tional Chau­taqua model and FGC is per­fectly happy to spon­sor work­shops that are in appar­ent con­flict with its own mis­sion statement.
  • An arti­cle pub­lished in Friends Jour­nal. When the the Quaker Sweat Lodge was strug­gling to claim legit­i­macy it all but changed its name to the “Quaker Sweat Lodge as fea­tured in the Feb­ru­ary 2002 Friends Jour­nal.” It’s a good magazine’s job to pub­lish arti­cles that make peo­ple think and a smart mag­a­zine will know that arti­cles that pro­voke a lit­tle con­tro­versy is good for cir­cu­la­tion. I very much doubt the edi­to­r­ial team at the Jour­nal con­sid­ers its agree­ment to pub­lish to be an inoc­u­la­tion against critique.
  • A web­site and list­serv. Fif­teen dol­lars at GoDaddy​.com and you’ve got the web address of your dreams. Yahoo Group is free.

There are prob­a­bly other mech­a­nisms of legit­i­macy. My point is not to give com­pre­hen­sive guide­lines to would-be cam­paign­ers. I sim­ply want to note that none of the actors in these deci­sions is con­sciously think­ing “hey, I think I’ll expand the def­i­n­i­tion of lib­eral Quaker the­ol­ogy today.” In fact I expect they’re mostly pass­ing the buck, think­ing “hey, who am I to decide any­thing like that.”

None of these decision-making processes are meant to serve as tools to dis­miss oppo­si­tion. The orga­ni­za­tions involved are not hand­ing out Impri­maturs and would be quite hor­ri­fied if they real­ized their agree­ments were being seen that way. Amy Clark, a com­menter on my last post, on this summer’s reunion and camp for the once-young mem­bers of Young Friends North Amer­ica, had a very inter­est­ing comment:

I agree that YFNA has become FGC: those pre­vi­ously involved in YFNA have taken lead­er­ship with FGC … with both pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive results. Well … now we have a chance to look at the legacy we are cre­at­ing: do we like it?

I have the feel­ing that the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of lib­eral Quaker lead­er­ship doesn’t quite believe it’s lead­ing lib­eral Quak­erism. By “lead­er­ship” I don’t mean the small skim of the pro­fes­sional Quaker bureau­cracy (whose mem­bers can get _too_ self-inflated on the lead­er­ship issue) but the com­mit­tees, clerks and vol­un­teers that get most of the work done from the local to national lev­els. We are the inher­i­tors of a proud and some­times fool­ish tra­di­tion and our actions are shap­ing its future but I don’t think we really know that. I have no clever solu­tion to the issues I’ve out­lined here but I think becom­ing con­scious that we’re cre­at­ing our own legacy is an impor­tant first step.

Why would a Quaker do a crazy thing like that?

Look­ing back at Friends’ responses to the Chris­t­ian Peace­maker hostages

When four Chris­t­ian Peace­mak­ers were taken hostage in Iraq late last Novem­ber, a lot of Quaker orga­ni­za­tions stum­bled in their response. With Tom Fox we were con­fronted by a full-on lib­eral Quaker Chris­t­ian wit­ness against war, yet who stepped up to explain this modern-day prophetic wit­ness? AFSC? FCNL? FGC? Nope, nope and nope. There were too many orga­ni­za­tions that couldn’t man­age any­thing beyond the boil­er­plate social jus­tice press release. I held my tongue while the hostages were still in cap­tiv­ity but through­out the ordeal I was mad at the exposed frac­ture lines between reli­gious wit­ness and social activism.

When­ever a sit­u­a­tion involv­ing inter­na­tional issues of peace and wit­ness hap­pens, the Quaker insti­tu­tions I’m clos­est to auto­mat­i­cally defer to the more polit­i­cal Quaker orga­ni­za­tions: for exam­ple, the head of Friends Gen­eral Con­fer­ence told staff to direct out­siders inquir­ing about Tom Fox to AFSC even though Fox had been an active leader of FGC-sponsored events and was well known as a com­mit­ted vol­un­teer. The Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee and Friends Com­mit­tee on National Leg­is­la­tion have knowl­edge­able and com­mit­ted staff, but their insti­tu­tional cul­ture doesn’t allow them to talk Quak­erism except to say we’re a nice bunch of social-justice-loving peo­ple. I appre­ci­ate that these orga­ni­za­tions have a strong, vital iden­tity and I accept that within those con­fines they do impor­tant work and employ many faith­ful Friends. It’s just that they lack the lan­guage to explain why a gro­cery store employee with a love of youth reli­gious edu­ca­tion would go unarmed to Badg­dad in the name of Chris­t­ian witness.

The wider blo­gos­phere was totally abuzz with news of Chris­t­ian Peace­maker Team hostages (Google blogsearch lists over 6000 posts on the topic). There were hun­dreds of posts and com­ments, includ­ing long dis­cus­sions on the biggest (and most right-leaning) sites. Almost every­one won­dered why the CPT work­ers were there and while the opin­ions weren’t always friendly (the hostages were often painted as naïve ide­al­ists or disin­geneous ter­ror­ist sym­pa­thiz­ers), even the doubters were moti­vated by a pro­found curios­ity and desire to understand.

The CPT hostages were the talk of the blo­gos­phere, yet where could we find a Quaker response and expla­na­tion? The AFSC responded by pub­li­ciz­ing the state­ments of mod­er­ate Mus­lim lead­ers (call­ing for the hostages’ release; I emailed back a sug­ges­tion about list­ing Quaker responses but never got a reply). Friends United Meet­ing put together a nice enough what-you-can-do page that was tar­geted toward Friends. The CPT site was full of infor­ma­tion of course, and there were plenty of sto­ries on the lefty-leaning sites like Elec­tron­i­cI­raq and the UK site Ekkle­sia. But Friends explain­ing this to the world?

The Quaker blog­gers did their part. On Decem­ber 2 I quickly re-jiggered the tech­nol­ogy behind Quak​erQuaker​.org to pro­vide a Chris­t­ian Peace­maker watch on both Non​vi​o​lence​.org and Quak­erQuaker (same list­ings, merely rebranded for slightly-separate audi­ences, announced on the post It’s Wit­ness Time). These pages got lots of views over the course of the hostage sit­u­a­tion and included many posts from the Quaker blog­ger com­mu­nity that had recently congealed.

But here’s the inter­est­ing part: I was able to do this only because there was an active Quaker blog­ging com­mu­nity. We already had gath­ered together as a group of Friends who were will­ing to write about spir­i­tu­al­ity and wit­ness. Our con­ver­sa­tions had been small and inti­mate but now we were ready to speak to the world. I some­times get painted as some sort of fun­da­men­tal­ist Quaker, but the truth is that I’ve wanted to build a com­mu­nity that would wres­tle with these issues, fig­ur­ing the wrestling was more impor­tant than the lan­guage of the answers. I had already thought about how to encour­age blog­gers and knit a blog­ging com­mu­nity together and was able to use these tech­niques to quickly build a Quaker CPT response.

Two other Quak­ers who went out of their way to explain the story of Tom Fox: his per­sonal friends John Stephens and Chuck Fager. Their Freethe​cap​tives​now​.org site was put together impres­sively fast and con­tained a lot of good links to news, resources and com­men­tary. But like me, they were over-worked blog­gers doing this in their non-existant spare time (Chuck is direc­tor of Quaker House but he never said this was part of the work).

After an ini­tial few quiet days, Tom’s meet­ing Lan­g­ley Hill put together a great web­site of links and news. That makes it the only offi­cial Quaker orga­ni­za­tion that pulled together a sus­tained cam­paign to sup­port Tom Fox.


So what’s up with all this? Should we be happy that all this good work hap­pened by vol­un­teers? Johan Mau­rer has a very inter­est­ing post, Are Quak­ers Mar­ginal that points to my ear­lier com­ment on the Chris­t­ian Peace­mak­ers and doubts whether our avoid­ance of “hireling priests” has given us a more effec­tive voice. Let’s remem­ber that insti­tu­tional Quak­erism began as sup­port of mem­bers in jail for their reli­gious wit­ness; among our ear­li­est com­mit­tee gath­er­ings were meet­ings for sufferings–business meet­ings focused on pub­li­ciz­ing the plight of the jailed and sup­port the fam­ily and meet­ings left behind.

I never met Tom Fox but it’s clear to me that he was an excep­tional Friend. He was able to bridge the all-too-common divide between Quaker faith and social action. Tom was a healer, a wit­ness not just to Iraqis but to Friends. But I won­der if it was this very whole­ness that made his work hard to cat­e­go­rize and sup­port. Did he sim­ply fall through the insti­tu­tional cracks? When you play base­ball on a dis­or­ga­nized team you miss a lot of easy catches sim­ply because all the out­field­ers think the next guy is going to go for the ball. Is that what hap­pened? And is this what would hap­pen again?

Sharing our Quaker event photos

Over on the photo shar­ing ser­vice Flickr, I’m notic­ing a bunch of pho­tos from this week’s Britain Yearly Meet­ing ses­sion. One con­trib­u­tor has tagged (labelled) all her pho­tos with “britainyearlymeeting06” which means they’re all avail­able on one page. Cool, but what would be even cooler is if every Flickr user at the event used the same tag. We’d then have a nearly real-time group photo essay of the yearly meet­ing sessions.

So this year I’m going to tag all my per­sonal pho­tos from next month’s Friends Gen­eral Con­fer­ence Gath­er­ing of Friends as “FGCgathering06″. I invite any other Flickr-using atten­ders to do the same. While I do work at FGC, please note this is not any sort of offi­cial FGC deci­sion, it’s just my own idea to share pho­tos and to see how we can use these online net­works to share and pro­mote Quak­erism. In a few weeks you’ll start see­ing entries via flickr and tech­no­rati. I’ll prob­a­bly start with a few pic­tures of the book­store truck being loaded for its cross-country trek. Update: one embed­ded below.
Blog posts:
If your blog­ging sys­tem doesn’t sup­port the use of tags, then sim­ply add this line in the bot­tom of each of your Gathering-related posts:

Update: here’s one:

Deepening the intervisitation of Gathering

The pro­gram for this year’s FGC Gath­er­ing of Friends went online at mid­night yesterday–I stayed up late to flip the switches to make it live right as Third Month started–right on sched­ule. By 12:10am EST four vis­i­tors had already come to the site! There’s a lot of inter­est in the Gath­er­ing, the first one on the West Coast.

Stu­dents of late-20th Cen­tury Quaker his­tory can see the pro­gres­sion of Friends Gen­eral Con­fer­ence from a very Philadelphia-centric, provin­cial body that had its annual gath­er­ing at a South Jer­sey beach town to one that really does try to serve Friends across the coun­try. There’s losses in the changes (alumni of the Cape May Gath­er­ings all speak of them with misty eyes) but over­all it’s been a needed shift in focus. In recent years, a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of Gath­er­ing work­shop lead­ers have come from the “inde­pen­dent” unaf­fil­i­ated yearly meet­ings of the West. It’s nice.

Joe G has been send­ing me emails about his selec­tion process (it’s almost real-time as he weighs each one!). It’s help­ful as it saves me the trou­ble of sort­ing through them. It’s usu­ally tough to find a work­shop I want to take. A lot of Friends I really respect have told me they’ve stopped going to the Gath­er­ing after awhile because it just doesn’t feed them.

It’s a shame when these Friends stop com­ing. The Gath­er­ing is one of the most excit­ing annual coming-together of Quak­ers in North Amer­ica. It’s very impor­tant for new and/or iso­lated Friends and it helps pull all its atten­ders into a wider Fel­low­ship. Inter­vis­i­ta­tion has always been one of the most impor­tant tools for knit­ting together Friends and the Gath­er­ing has been fill­ing much of that need for lib­eral Friends for the last hun­dred years.

I’ve been hav­ing this sense that Gath­er­ing needs some­thing more. I don’t know what that some­thing is, only that I long to con­nect more with other Friends. My best con­ver­sa­tions have invari­ably taken place when I stopped to talk with some­one while run­ning across cam­pus late to some event. These Oppor­tu­ni­ties have been pre­cious but they’re always so fran­tic. The Trav­el­ing Min­istries Pro­gram often has a won­der­ful evening inter­est group but by the time we’ve gone around shar­ing our names, sto­ries and con­di­tions, it’s time to break. I’m not look­ing for a new pro­gram (don’t worry Liz P!, wait it’s not you who has to worry!), just a way to have more con­ver­sa­tions with the Quak­erQuaker Con­ver­gent Friends–which in this con­text I think boils down to those with some­thing of a call to min­istry and an inter­est in Quaker vision & renewal. Let’s all find a way of con­nect­ing more this year, yes?
_For those inter­ested I’ve signed up for these work­shops: “Blessed Com­mu­nity in James’ Epistle”:http://FGCquaker.org/gathering/workshops/work14.php (led by “Max Hansen”:http://alphamind.maxhansen.net/ of “Berke­ley Friends Church”:http://www.berkeleyfriendschurch.org/), “Deep­en­ing the Silence, Invit­ing Vital Ministry”:http://FGCquaker.org/gathering/workshops/work20.php (20), and “Find­ing Our­selves in the Bible”:http://FGCquaker.org/gathering/workshops/work22.php (22)._
h4. Related Entries Else­where:
* “Robin”:http://robinmsf.blogspot.com/2006/03/FGC-gathering-registration-begins.html
* “LizOpp”:http://thegoodraisedup.blogspot.com/2006/03/posters-themes-and-historyof-FGCs.html

Excitement outside fgc

The offices of Friends Gen­eral Con­fer­ence are across the street from the Penn­syl­va­nia Con­ven­tion Cen­ter, which is this week host­ing a biotech con­ven­tion. The streets out­side are host­ing a bit of a counter-convention led by a group named “BioDemoc­racy 2005″:http://www.biodev.org/. Here are some shots from a mêlée out­side our front door a few min­utes ago.
*Update:* appar­ently one of the police offi­cers at the cen­ter of this scuf­fle “suf­fered a heart attack and has since died”:http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/business/special_packages/bio2005/11949070.htm. I’m not even sure how to com­ment on that. From my van­tage point it cer­tainly seemed like the police offi­cers were using undue vio­lence. But while I was ten feet away I don’t know who threw the first punch and what exactly hap­pened in that sea of bod­ies. What­ever hap­pened, it’s quite appro­pri­ate to hold him and his fam­ily in our prayers.

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.

Vanity Googling of Causes

A poster to an obscure dis­cus­sion board recently described typ­ing a par­tic­u­lar search phrase into Google and find­ing noth­ing but bad infor­ma­tion. Repro­duc­ing the search I deter­mined two things: 1) that my site topped the list and 2) that the results were actu­ally quite accu­rate. I’ve been hear­ing an increas­ing num­ber of sto­ries like this. “Cause Googling,” a vari­a­tion on “van­ity googling,” is sud­denly becom­ing quite pop­u­lar. But the inter­est­ing thing is that these new searchers don’t actu­ally seem curi­ous about the results. Has Google become our new proof text?

Con­tinue read­ing

We Quakers should be cooler than the Sweat Lodge

I have just come back from a “Meet­ing for Lis­ten­ing for Sweat Lodge Con­cerns,” described as “an oppor­tu­nity for per­sons to express their feel­ings in a wor­ship­ful man­ner about the can­cel­la­tion of the FGC Gath­er­ing sweat lodge work­shop this year.” Non-Quakers read­ing this blog might be sur­prised to hear that Friends Gen­eral Con­fer­ence holds sweat lodges, but it has and they’ve been increas­ingly con­tro­ver­sial. This year’s work­shop was can­celled after FGC received a very strongly worded com­plaint from the Wampanoag Native Amer­i­can tribe. Today’s meet­ing intended to lis­ten to the feel­ings and con­cerns of all FGC Friends involved and was clerked by the very-able Arthur Larrabee. There was pow­er­ful min­istry, some pre­dictable “min­istry” and one stun­ning mes­sage from a white Friend who dis­missed the very exis­tance of racism in the world (it’s just a illu­sion, the peo­ple respon­si­ble for it are those who per­ceive it).

I’ve had my own run-in’s with the sweat lodge, most unfor­get­tably when I was the co-planning clerk of the 2002 Adult Young Friends pro­gram at FGC (a few of us thought it was inap­pro­pri­ate to trans­fer a por­tion of the rather small AYF bud­get to the sweat lodge work­shop, a request made with the argu­ment that so many high-school and twenty-something Friends were attend­ing it). But I find myself increas­ingly uncon­cerned about the lodge. It’s clear to me now that it part of another tra­di­tion than I am. It is not the kind of Quaker I am. The ques­tion remain­ing is whether an orga­ni­za­tion that will spon­sor it is a dif­fer­ent tradition.

How did Lib­eral Friends get to the place where most our our younger mem­bers con­sider the sweat lodge cer­e­mony to be the high point of their Quaker expe­ri­ence? The sweat lodge has given a gen­er­a­tion of younger Friends an oppor­tu­nity to com­mune with the divine in a way that their meet­ings do not. It has given them men­tor­ship and lead­er­ship expe­ri­ences which they do not receive from the older Friends estab­lish­ment. It has given them a sense of iden­tity and pur­pose which they don’t get from their meet­ing “community.”

I don’t care about ban­ning the work­shop. That doesn’t address the real prob­lems. I want to get to the point where younger Friends look at the sweat and won­der why they’d want to spend a week with some  white Quaker guy who won­ders aloud in pub­lic whether he’s “a Quaker or an Indian” (could we have a third choice?). I’ve always thought this was just rather embar­rass­ing.  I want the sweat lodge to wither away in recog­ni­tion of it’s inher­ent ridicu­lous­ness. I want younger Friends to get a taste of the divine love and char­ity that Friends have found for 350 years. We’re sim­ply cooler than the sweat lodge.

* * * *

And what really is the sweat lodge all about? I don’t really buy the cul­tural appro­pri­a­tion cri­tique (the offi­cial party line for can­cel­ing it argues that it’s racist). Read founder George Price’s Friends Jour­nal arti­cle on the sweat lodge and you’ll see that he’s part of a long-standing tra­di­tion. For two hun­dred years, Native Amer­i­cans have been used as mythic cover for thinly dis­guised European-American philoso­phies. The Boston pro­test­ers who staged the famous tea party all dressed up as Indi­ans, play­ing out an emerg­ing mythol­ogy of the Amer­i­can rebels as spir­i­tual heirs to Indi­ans (long dri­ven out of the Boston area by that time). In 1826, James Fen­i­more Cooper turned that myth into one of the first pieces of clas­sic Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture with a story about the “Last” of the Mohi­cans. At the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, the new boy scout move­ment claimed that their fit­ness and social­iza­tion sys­tem was really a re-application of Native Amer­i­can train­ing and ini­ti­a­tion rites. Quak­ers got into the game too: the South Jer­sey and Bucks County sum­mer camps they founded in the nineteen-teens were full of Native Amer­i­can motifs, with cab­ins and lakes named after dif­fer­ent tribes and the chil­dren encour­aged to play along.

Set in this con­text, George Price is clearly just the lat­est white guy to claim that only the spirit of purer Native Amer­i­cans will save us from our Old World Euro­pean stodgi­ness. Yes, it’s appro­pri­a­tion I guess, but it’s so trans­par­ent and clas­si­cally Amer­i­can that our favorite song “Yan­kee Doo­dle” is a British wartime send-up of the impulse. We’ve been stick­ing feath­ers in our caps since forever.

In the Friends Jour­nal arti­cle, it’s clear the Quaker sweat lodge owes more to the Euro­pean psy­chother­apy of Karl Jung than Chief Ock­an­ickon. It’s all about “lim­i­nal­ity” and ini­ti­a­tion into mythic arche­types, fea­tur­ing cribbed lan­guage from Vic­tor Turner, the anthro­pol­o­gist who was very pop­u­lar circa 1974. Price is clear but never explicit about his work: his sweat lodge is Jun­gian psy­chol­ogy over­laid onto the out­ward form of a Native Amer­i­can sweat­lodge. In ret­ro­spect it’s no sur­prise that a birthright Philadel­phia Friend in a tired yearly meet­ing would try to com­bine trendy Euro­pean pop psy­chol­ogy with Quaker sum­mer camp them­ing. What is a sur­prise (or should be a sur­prise) is that Friends would spon­sor and pub­lish arti­cles about a “Quaker Sweat Lodges” with­out chal­leng­ing the author to spell out the Quaker con­tri­bu­tion to a pro­grammed rit­ual con­ducted in a con­se­crated teepee steeplehouse.

(Push the influ­ences a lit­tle more, and you’ll find that Vic­tor Turner’s anthro­po­log­i­cal find­ings among obscure African tribes arguably owes as much to his Catholi­cism than it does the facts on the ground. More than one Quaker wit has com­pared the sweat lodge to Catholic mass; well: Turner’s your miss­ing philo­soph­i­cal link.)

* * * *

Yes­ter­day I had some good con­ver­sa­tion about gen­er­a­tional issues in Quak­erism. I’m cer­tainly not the only thirty-something that feels invis­i­ble in the bull­dozer of baby boomer assump­tions about our spir­i­tu­al­ity. I’m also not the only one get­ting to the point where we’re just going to be Quaker despite the Quaker insti­tu­tions and cul­ture. I think the ques­tion we’re all grap­pling with now is how we relate to the insti­tu­tions that ignore us and dis­miss our cries of alarm for what we Friends have become.