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