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.

Passing the Faith, Planet of the Quakers Style

There’s that famous scene in the 1968 movie “Plan­et of the Apes” when our astro­naut pro­tag­o­nist Charl­ton Hes­ton real­izes that the space­ship that brought him to the land where apes rule didn’t trav­el in space but in time. He’s escap­ing the pri­mate theoc­ra­cy, head­ing north along the coast, when he rounds a cor­ner to see the charred ruin remains of the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty lying in the sand. He falls to his knees and screams out “YOU MANIACS! YOU BLEW IT UP!” He real­izes that it was his own peo­ple who had destroyed every­thing they loved with their inat­ten­tion and pet­ti­ness.

Yes­ter­day my old friend Chris Park­er post­ed a com­ment to “The Lost Quak­er Gen­er­a­tion” essay where he won­dered if “the Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty has lost its vital­i­ty” (scroll down to third entry). I first met Chris at a 1997 con­fer­ence in Burling­ton NJ for “Quak­er Vol­un­teer Ser­vice, Train­ing, & Wit­ness”. I had been excit­ed by the prospect of a group of peo­ple deep­en­ing and explor­ing the roots of Quak­er wit­ness and wasn’t dis­ap­point­ed with the con­ver­sa­tions and new friend­ships. Chris a recent MDiv from the Earl­ham School of Reli­gion now now work­ing at the Amer­i­can Friends Ser­vice Com­mit­tee; he left the con­fer­ence pas­sion­ate about help­ing to cre­ate some­thing new. While work­ing with AFSC, he start­ed pulling togeth­er a nation­al Quak­er net­work of vol­un­teer oppor­tu­ni­ties. This was a min­istry, pure and sim­ple, from one of the more active, vision­ary and hard­work­ing twenty-something Friends I’ve known. But frus­tra­tions mount­ed, sup­port evap­o­rat­ed. As I remem­ber even his month­ly meet­ing couldn’t uni­fy around sup­port­ing this min­istry. The project even­tu­al­ly fell apart as our email cor­re­spon­dence grew sketchy.

A mon­th or so ago I got an email from Chris with his new address, a yoga retreat cen­ter in New Eng­land. I respond­ed back with per­son­al news but also with regrets that Quak­erism had appar­ent­ly lost him. Part of his com­ments from yes­ter­day:

Well, I’m one of the­se thir­ty some­things that has drift­ed away. I’m sure each of us has our own sto­ry. I did try to help orga­nize, but that turned out to be a bit­ter and unsuc­cess­ful expe­ri­ence. A long sto­ry for anoth­er time. But the spir­it flows in many direc­tions and if the Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty has lost it’s vital­i­ty or doesn’t work for some peo­ple, there are oth­er places there. Hold­ing on too tight­ly to Quak­erism is to hold on to a human cre­ation.

I am now liv­ing and work­ing at Kri­palu yoga cen­ter, a place that many call a spir­i­tu­al home. We have 60,000 peo­ple on our mail­ing list, of whom about 68% have come here as a guest. There are about 30,000 unpro­grammed Quak­ers.

He’s right of course: Kri­palu undoubt­ed­ly touch­es more spir­i­tu­al lives than unpro­grammed Quak­erism. But the real lesson is that Kri­palu knows what a gem they have in Chris: they’ve given him the kind of respon­si­bil­i­ties and encour­age­ment that Quak­ers didn’t.

Chris was one of those involved Friends I had hoped to grow old with. I had imag­ined us run­ning into each oth­er in half a dozen com­mit­tees over the next fifty years. We could have gone on back­pack­ing trips togeth­er, invit­ed each oth­er to our kids’ wed­dings, had catch-up lunch­es at Quak­er con­fer­ences, con­soled each oth­er through grief, thought about how to “trans­mit our faith” to the next gen­er­a­tion of Friends. Chris Park­er was worth more to Quak­erism than any num­ber of out­reach ini­tia­tives or peace net­works. Chris was the real deal: a com­mit­ted, impas­sioned Friend. And now he’s one of Quakerism’s scarred and rust­ed stat­ues, trib­utes to what could have been.

He put his sto­ry up on a web­site way back when. I’m just going to exten­sive­ly quote it here:

I feel an urgen­cy about this project because it has come to me that Quak­ers are about to be need­ed by the larg­er cul­ture. Under­neath the ills we face as a nation is a spir­i­tu­al prob­lem of vio­lence and dom­i­nance over oth­er peo­ple and life. Friends have a tra­di­tion that presents an alter­na­tive. The essen­tial gem of Quak­erism is the knowl­edge that each per­son is part of the divine, that we need to treat every­body as equal and sacred. While I am com­fort­able with more wit­ness than Friends usu­al­ly muster, I do believe that faith is more eas­i­ly caught than taught. Ser­vice has been an expe­ri­ence where many are exposed to Quak­ers, with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to inspire and bring trans­for­ma­tions.

But the Soci­ety of Friends is not in great shape. Friends are unfo­cused and tired. Often young adult Friends are miss­ing. I have lis­tened jeal­ous­ly to an ear-lier gen­er­a­tion tell how AFSC work­camps formed them and taught them how to be lead­ers. While Quak­erism is very good for seek­ers, my gen­er­a­tion seems to need an expe­ri­ence given to them, which is a dif­fer­ent ener­gy. My friends from Brethren Vol­un­teer Ser­vice were inspired and equipped for a life of com­mit­ment they prob­a­bly wouldn’t have oth­er­wise choosen.

My inspi­ra­tions have assem­bled slow­ly over the last six years. I went to Earl­ham School of Reli­gion to pre­pare to be of ser­vice. There I was inspired by friends who had par­tic­i­pat­ed in Breth­ern Vol­un­teer Ser­vice. At the same time I worked as Assis­tant Direc­tor of a peer coun­sel­ing pro­gram where I watched the teens blos­som and trans­form when trust­ed with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to help oth­ers and have a real impact.

Can Quak­erism sur­vive if we can’t keep Friends like this?

The Lost Quaker Generation

The oth­er day I had lunch with an old friend of mine, a thirty-something Quak­er very involved in nation-wide paci­fist orga­niz­ing. I had lost touch with him after he entered a fed­er­al jail for par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Plow­shares action but he’s been out for a few years and is now liv­ing in Philly.

We talked about a lot of stuff over lunch, some of it just move­ment gos­sip. But we also talked about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. He has left the Soci­ety of Friends and has become re-involved in his par­ents’ reli­gious tra­di­tions. It didn’t sound like this deci­sion had to do with any new reli­gious rev­e­la­tion that involved a shift of the­ol­o­gy. He sim­ply became frus­trat­ed at the lack of Quak­er seri­ous­ness.

It’s a dif­fer­ent kind of frus­tra­tion than the one I feel but I won­der if it’s not all con­nect­ed. He was drawn to Friends because of their mys­ti­cism and their pas­sion for non­vi­o­lent social change. It was this com­bi­na­tion that has helped pow­er his social action wit­ness over the years. It would seem like his seri­ous, faith­ful work would be just what Friends would like to see in their thirty-something mem­bers but alas, it’s not so. He didn’t feel sup­port­ed in his Plow­shares action by his Meet­ing.

He con­clud­ed that the Friends in his Meet­ing didn’t think the Peace Tes­ti­mony could actu­al­ly inspire us to be so bold. He said two of his Quak­er heroes were John Wool­man and Mary Dyer but real­ized that the pas­sion of wit­ness that drove them wasn’t appre­ci­at­ed by today’s peace and social con­cerns com­mit­tees. The rad­i­cal mys­ti­cism that is sup­posed to dri­ve Friends’ prac­tice and actions have been replaced by a bland­ness that felt threat­ened by some­one who could choose to spend years in jail for his wit­ness.

I can relate to his dis­ap­point­ment. I wor­ry about what kinds of actions are being done in the name of the Peace Tes­ti­mony, which has lost most of its his­toric mean­ing and pow­er among con­tem­po­rary Friends. It’s invoked most often now by sec­u­lar­ized, safe com­mit­tees that use a ratio­nal­ist approach to their decision-making, meant to appeal to oth­ers (includ­ing non-Friends) based sole­ly on the mer­its of the argu­ments. NPR activism, you might say. Reli­gion isn’t brought up, except in the rather weak for­mu­la­tions that Friends are “a com­mu­ni­ty of faith” or believe there is “that of God in every­one” (what­ev­er the­se phras­es mean). That we are led to act based on instruc­tions from the Holy Spir­it direct­ly is too off the deep end for many Friends, yet the peace tes­ti­mony is fun­da­men­tal­ly a tes­ti­mony to our faith in God’s pow­er over human­i­ty, our sur­ren­der to the will of Christ enter­ing our hearts with instruc­tions which demand our obe­di­ence.

But back to my friend, the ex-Friend. I feel like he’s just anoth­er eroded-away grain of sand in the delta of Quak­er decline. He’s yet anoth­er Friend that Quak­erism can’t afford to loose, but which Quak­erism has lost. No one’s mourn­ing the fact that he’s lost, no one has bare­ly noticed. Know­ing Friends, the few that have noticed have prob­a­bly not spent any time reach­ing out to him to ask why or see if things could change and they prob­a­bly defend their inac­tion with self-congratulatory pap about how Friends don’t pros­e­ly­tize and look how lib­er­al we are that we say noth­ing when Friends leave.

God!, this is ter­ri­ble. I know of DOZENS of friends in my gen­er­a­tion who have drift­ed away from or deci­sive­ly left the Soci­ety of Friends because it wasn’t ful­fill­ing its promise or its hype. No one in lead­er­ship posi­tions in Quak­erism is talk­ing about this lost gen­er­a­tion. I know of very few thirty-something Friends who are involved nowa­days and very very few of them are the kind of pas­sion­ate, mys­ti­cal, obedient-to-the-Spirit ser­vants that Quak­erism needs to bring some life back into it. A whole gen­er­a­tion is lost – my fel­low thirty-somethings – and now I see the pas­sion­ate twenty-somethings I know start­ing to leave. Yet this exo­dus is one-by-one and goes large­ly unre­marked and unno­ticed (but then I’ve already post­ed about this: It will be in decline our entire live).


 

Update 10/05

I feel like I should add an adden­dum to all this. As I’ve spo­ken with more Friends of all gen­er­a­tions, I’ve noticed that the atten­tion to younger Friends is cycli­cal. There’s a thirty-year cycle of snub­bing younger Friends (by which I mean Friends under 40). Back in the 1970s, all twenty-year-old with a pulse could get recog­ni­tion and sup­port from Quak­er meet­ings and I know a lot of Friends of that gen­er­a­tion who were given tremen­dous oppor­tu­ni­ties despite lit­tle expe­ri­ence. A decade lat­er the doors had start­ed to close but a hard-working faith­ful Friend in their ear­ly twen­ties could still be rec­og­nized. By the time my gen­er­a­tion came along, you could be a whirl­wind of great ideas and ener­gy and still be shut out of all oppor­tu­ni­ties to serve the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends.

The good news is that I think things are start­ing to change. There’s still a long way to go but a thaw is upon us. In some ways this is inevitable: much of the cur­rent lead­er­ship of Quak­er insti­tu­tions is retir­ing and I think they’re start­ing to real­ize it. There are prob­lems, most notably tokenism – almost all of the younger Friends being lift­ed up now are the sons & daugh­ters of promi­nent “com­mit­tee Friends.” The biggest prob­lem is that a few dozen years of lax reli­gious edu­ca­tion and “roll your own Quak­erism” means that many of the mem­bers of the younger gen­er­a­tion can’t even be con­sid­ered spir­i­tu­al Quak­ers. Our Meet­ing­hous­es are seen as a place to meet oth­er cool, pro­gres­sive young hip­sters, while spir­i­tu­al­i­ty is sought from oth­er sources. We’re going to be spend­ing decades untan­gling all this and we’re not going to have the sea­soned Friends of my gen­er­a­tion to help bridge the gaps.


Relat­ed Read­ing

  • After my friend Chris post­ed below I wrote a follow-up essay, Pass­ing the Faith, Plan­et of the Quak­ers Style.
  • Many old­er Friends hope that a resur­gence of the peace move­ment might come along and bring younger Friends in. In Peace and Twenty-Somethings I look at the gen­er­a­tional strains in the peace move­ment.
  • Beck­ey Phipps con­duct­ed a series of inter­views that touched on many of the­se issues and pub­lished it in FGCon­nec­tions. FGC Reli­gious Edu­ca­tion: Lessons for the 21st Cen­tu­ry asks many of the right ques­tions. My favorite line: “It is the most amaz­ing thing, all the kids that I know that have gone into [Quak­er] lead­er­ship pro­grams – they’ve dis­ap­peared.”

Con­tin­ue read­ing