Torching Meetinghouses Ctd.

Appar­ent­ly Mic­ah Bales wasn’t call­ing for twenty-something Friends to engage in a reign of ter­ror, of kerosene and match­es. He was engag­ing in some­thing called he calls metaphor. Mic­ah reminds us that the liv­ing church needs to be able to ask questions:

A liv­ing, breath­ing com­mu­ni­ty can­not be per­fect in this sense. True life is found in dynam­ic ten­sion. Liv­ing com­mu­ni­ties change and grow; they repro­duce them­selves in a diverse array of shapes and sizes, suit­ed to their own times and places.

I myself would have avoid­ed the burn-baby-burn pose, even rhetor­i­cal­ly, if only because I’ve had too much per­son­al expe­ri­ence of Quak­ers who com­plete­ly lack a sense of irony. But it’s cer­tain­ly not with­out prece­dent for Friends to chal­lenge our con­nec­tion to mate­r­i­al space (Mic­ah aint’ got noth­ing on Ben­jamin Lay!). This cri­tique is why we call them meet­ing­hous­es, not church­es, and it’s why their most promi­nent archi­tec­tur­al style in the Delaware Val­ley resem­bles noth­ing so much as a barn – the most gener­ic of open struc­tures in the eyes of the farm­ers who built them.

There have been some good reac­tions among the com­men­taries on Micah’s post. Isabel P. wrote from the per­spec­tive of a “spir­i­tu­al vagabond”:

For those of us with no meet­ing­hous­es, who wan­der from place to place try­ing to find a home for our wor­ship groups, this sort of hyper­bole (metaphor though it may be) is just painful. Is tra­di­tion and her­itage real­ly such an awful weight? Try being a spir­i­tu­al vagabond …

Else­where, Macken­zie paints the pic­ture of a not-atypical wealthy East Coast meet­ing that focus­es on structure:

The meet­ing room is larg­er than need­ed for how few peo­ple show up week­ly (about 70 on a “good” day, while the room can hold about 250). The cam­pus is larg­er than the par­tic­i­pants are will­ing to put in the sweat equi­ty to main­tain. You’d think work­ing togeth­er to main­tain it would go under the cat­e­go­ry of build­ing com­mu­ni­ty, which our First Day School claims is a tes­ti­mo­ny. Instead, the bud­get must be ever-expanded to hire some­one else to fix things up, rather than have any­one get their hands dirty. Nev­er mind that the meet­ing is run­ning on endow­ments from long-dead Friends as it is. So much paid main­te­nance puts a strain on the bud­get, mak­ing for per­sis­tent calls for more money.

Fur­ther down in that same thread, Tri­cia shares the heart­felt thank-you notes of Philadelphia-area Occu­py activists who found refuge in Quak­er struc­tures:

Dear­est Quak­er Friends, Thank you for har­bor­ing us in a safe place in your park­ing lot. We appre­ci­ate it, in sol­i­dar­i­ty — the 99%.

I’m so grate­ful that you opened your hearts and your space to us. (cat­a­stro­phe avert­ed!) I want to be a Quak­er. Love and Peace, Barbara.

There have also been some obnox­ious reac­tions, all too-typical dis­missals cit­ing some supposedly-inherent inabil­i­ty of younger Friends to be trust­ed in dis­cern­ment or lead­er­ship. Of course our own tra­di­tion proves this wrong. When we talk about Quak­er the­ol­o­gy, the start­ing point for Friends of all fla­vors is an essay writ­ten by a twenty-eight year old. When George Fox had his famous open­ing that “there is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy con­di­tion,” he was a twenty-three years old talk­ing about a son-of-God that nev­er left what Friends would call his “young adult” years. William Penn co-founded his first Quak­er colony at age 33, and even old Mar­garet Fell earned her nick­name “the moth­er of Quak­erism” for the orga­niz­ing work she began at age thirty-eight. By counter-example, I’m sure we find some old­er Friends who lack some­thing in the dis­cern­ment or self-control depart­ment. The moral of the exam­ples: age is not the most impor­tant fac­tor in Quak­er spir­i­tu­al discernment.

Now I want to turn back to the meet­ing­house ques­tion and put things in a bit of per­spec­tive. There are prob­a­bly only five or six dozen unpro­grammed meet­ings in North Amer­i­ca that are so large they couldn’t sim­ply squeeze into the near­est vol­un­teer fire hall. If calami­ty struck the meet­ing­house, the great major­i­ty of our con­gre­ga­tions could take a quick phone poll of mem­bers to deter­mine who has the largest liv­ing room and relo­cate there the fol­low­ing First Day. Yes, of course it’s nice to pro­vide space to the occa­sion­al pro­test­ers (and local yoga group, bat­tered women’s shel­ter etc.), but it’s fair to ask if this is what we’re called to do with this time and mon­ey. There would be cer­tain oppor­tu­ni­ties gained if a month­ly meet­ing sold or long-term leased its prop­er­ty and re-established itself as a net­work of house church­es. I don’t think it’s nec­es­sar­i­ly a good option for most meet­ings but it would be an intrigu­ing exper­i­ment. And it’s def­i­nite­ly worth imagining.

Should We Torch Our Meetinghouses?

Burn­ing down the meet­ing­house is a metaphor for the true free­dom that we find when we renounce all the things that we put before God. What would it look like for younger Friends to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for lead­er­ship with­in our Year­ly Meet­ings, not wait­ing for per­mis­sion or validation?

Resurrection with the Cross and Rabbi

Of course, that is not the part of the sto­ry that moti­vates me. I am not seek­ing to be abused and betrayed, let down by my best friends and hunt­ed by those in pow­er. I may rec­og­nize the neces­si­ty of suf­fer­ing, but by no means do I seek it out. I think most of us grav­i­tate towards the tri­umphant vic­to­ry and joy of Jesus\’ resurrection

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Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Interim Meeting: Getting a horse to drink

This past week­end I gave a talk at the Arch Street Meet­ing­house after the Inter­im Meet­ing ses­sions of Phi­ladle­phia Year­ly Meet­ing. Inter­im Meet­ing is the group that meets sort-of month­ly between year­ly meet­ing busi­ness sess­sions. In an ear­li­er blog post I called it “the estab­lish­ment” and I looked for­ward to shar­ing the new life of the blog­ging world and Con­ver­gent Friends with this group. I had been asked by the most excel­lent Stephen Dot­son to talk about “Find­ing Fel­low­ship Between Friends Thru The Inter­net.”

I was curi­ous to return to Inter­im Meet­ing, a group I served on about half a decade ago. As I sat in the meet­ing, I kept see­ing glimpses of issues that I planned to address after­wards in my talk: how to talk afresh about faith; how to pub­li­cize our activ­i­ty and com­mu­ni­cate both among our­selves and with the out­side world; how to engage new and younger mem­bers in our work.

Turns out I didn’t get the chance. Only half a dozen or so mem­bers of Inter­im Meet­ing stuck around for my pre­sen­ta­tion. No announce­ment was made at the end of ses­sions. None of the senior staff were there and no one from the long table full of clerks, alter­nate clerks and alter­nate alter­nate clerks came. Eleven peo­ple were at the talk (includ­ing some who hadn’t been at Inter­im Meet­ing). The inti­ma­cy was nice but it was hard­ly the “take it to the estabish­ment” kind of event I had imagined.

The talk itself went well, despite or maybe because of its inti­ma­cy. I had asked Seth H (aka Chron­i­cler) along for spir­i­tu­al sup­port and he wrote a nice review on Quak­erQuak­er. Steve T, an old friend of mine from Cen­tral Philly days, took some pic­tures which I’ve includ­ed here. I videoed the event, though it will need some work to tight­en it down to some­thing any­one would want to watch online. The peo­ple who attend­ed want­ed to attend and asked great ques­tions. It was good work­ing with Stephen Dot­son again in the plan­ning. I would wish that more Philadel­phia Friends had more inter­est in these issues but as indi­vid­u­als, all we can do is lead a horse to water. In the end, the year­ly meet­ing is in God’s hands.


Below are obser­va­tions from Inter­im Meet­ing and how the Con­ver­gent Friends move­ment might address some of the issues raised. Let me stress that I offer these in love and in the hope that some hon­est talk might help. I’ve served on Inter­im Meet­ing and have giv­en a lot of time toward PYM over the last twen­ty years. This list was for­ward­ed by email to senior staff and I present them here for oth­ers who might be con­cerned about these dynamics.

 

GENERATIONAL FAIL:

There were about seventy-five peo­ple in the room for Inter­im Meet­ing ses­sions. I was prob­a­bly the third or fourth youngest. By U.S. cen­sus def­i­n­i­tions I’m in my eighth year of mid­dle age, so that’s real­ly sad. That’s two whole gen­er­a­tions that are large­ly miss­ing from PYM lead­er­ship. I know I shouldn’t be sur­prised; it’s not a new phe­nom­e­non. But if you had told me twen­ty years ago that I’d be able to walk into Inter­im Meet­ing in 2010 and still be among the youngest, well… Well, frankly I would have uttered a choice epi­thet and kicked the Quak­er dust from my shoes (most of my friends did). I know many Friends bod­ies strug­gle with age diver­si­ty but this is par­tic­u­lar­ly extreme.

WHAT I WANTED TO TELL INTERIM MEETING: About 33% of QuakerQuaker’s audi­ence is GenX and 22% are Mil­lenials. If Inter­im Meet­ing were as diverse as Quak­erQuak­er there would have been 16 YAFs (18 – 35 year olds) and 25 Friends 35 and 49 years of age. I would have been about the 29th youngest in the room – mid­dle aged, just where I should be! Quak­erQuak­er has an age diver­si­ty that most East Coast Friends Meet­ings would die for. If you want to know the inter­ests and pas­sions of younger Friends, Quak­er blogs are an excel­lent place to learn. There are some very dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tion­al and style dif­fer­ences at play (my post sev­en years ago, a post from Mic­ah Bales this past week).


DECISION-MAKING

 

The first part of the ses­sions was run with what’s called a “Con­sent Agen­da,” a leg­isla­tive mea­sure where mul­ti­ple agen­da items are approved en masse. It rests on the ide­al­is­tic notion that all seventy-five atten­dees has come to ses­sions hav­ing read every­thing in the quarter-inch pack­et mailed to them (I’ll wait till you stop laugh­ing). Inter­im Meet­ing lumped thir­teen items togeth­er in this man­ner. I sus­pect most Friends left the meet­ing hav­ing for­got­ten what they had approved. Most edu­ca­tors would say you have to rein­force read­ing with live inter­ac­tion but we bypassed all of that in the name of efficiency.

WHAT I WANTED TO TELL INTERIM MEETING: Quak­er blogs are won­der­ful­ly rich sources of dis­cus­sion. Com­ments are often more inter­est­ing than the orig­i­nal posts. Many of us have writ­ten first drafts of pub­lished arti­cles on our blogs and then pol­ished them with feed­back received in the com­ments. This kind of com­mu­ni­ca­tion feed­back is pow­er­ful and doesn’t take away from live meeting-time. There’s a ton of pos­si­bil­i­ties for shar­ing infor­ma­tion in a mean­ing­ful way out­side of meetings.


MINUTES OF WITNESS

 

Two “min­utes” (a kind of Quak­er statement/press release) were brought to ses­sions. Both were vet­ted through a lengthy process where they were approved first by month­ly and then quar­ter­ly meet­ings before com­ing before Inter­im Meet­ing. A minute on Afghanistan was nine months old, a response to a troop lev­el announce­ment made last Decem­ber; one against Mar­cel­lus Shale drilling in Penn­syl­va­nia was undat­ed but it’s a top­ic that peaked in main­stream media five months ago. I would have more appre­ci­a­tion of this cum­ber­some process if the min­utes were more “sea­soned” (well-written, with care tak­en in the dis­cern­ment behind them) but there was lit­tle in either that explained how the issue con­nect­ed with Quak­er faith and why we were lift­ing it up now as con­cern. A senior staffer in a small group I was part of lament­ed how the min­utes didn’t give him much guid­ance as to how he might explain our con­cern with the news media. So here we were, approv­ing two out-of-date, hard-to-communicate state­ments that many IM reps prob­a­bly nev­er read.

WHAT I WANTED TO TELL INTERIM MEETING: Blog­ging gives us prac­tice in talk­ing about spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Com­menters chal­lenge us when we take rhetor­i­cal short­cuts or make assump­tions or trade on stereo­types. Most Quak­er blog­gers would tell you they’re bet­ter writ­ers now than when they start­ed their blog. Spir­i­tu­al writ­ing is like a mus­cle which needs to be exer­cised. To be blunt­ly hon­est, two or three blog­gers could have got­ten onto Skype, opened a shared Google Doc and ham­mered out bet­ter state­ments in less than an hour. If we’re going to be approv­ing these kinds of thing we need to prac­tice and increase our spir­i­tu­al literacy.


THE ROLE OF COMMITTEES

 

The sec­ond part was Inter­im Meet­ing look­ing at itself. We broke into small groups and ask­ing three ques­tions: “What is the work of Inter­im Meet­ing,” “Are we sat­is­fied with how we do this now?” and “If we were to make changes, what would they be?.” I thought to myself that the rea­son I ever go to events like this is to see dear Friends and to see what sparks of life are hap­pen­ing in the year­ly meet­ing. As our small group went around, and as small groups shared after­wards, I real­ized that many of the peo­ple in the room seemed to agree: we were hun­gry for the all-to-brief moments where the Spir­it broke into the reg­i­ment­ed Quak­er process.

One star­tling tes­ti­mo­ni­al came from a mem­ber of the out­reach com­mit­tee. She explained that her com­mit­tee, like many in PYM, is an admin­is­tra­tive one that’s not sup­posed to do any out­reach itself – it’s all sup­posed to stay very “meta.” They recent­ly decid­ed to have a pic­nic with no busi­ness sched­uled and there found them­selves “going rogue” and talk­ing about out­reach. Her spir­it rose and voice quick­ened as she told us how they spent hours dream­ing up out­reach projects. Of course the out­reach com­mit­tee wants to do out­reach! And with state PYM is in, can we real­ly have a dozen peo­ple sequestered away talk­ing about talk­ing about out­reach. Shouldn’t we declare “All hands on deck!” and start doing work? It would have been time well spent to let her share their ideas for the next thir­ty min­utes but of course we had to keep mov­ing. She fin­ished quick­ly and the excite­ment leaked back out of the room.


FOLLOW-UP THOUGHTS AND THE FUTURE OF THE YEARLY MEETING

 

Now I need to stress some things. I had some great one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions in the breaks. A lot of peo­ple were very nice to me and gave me hugs and asked about fam­i­ly. These are a com­mit­ted, hope­ful group of peo­ple. There was a lot of faith in that room! Peo­ple work hard and serve faith­ful­ly. But it feels like we’re trapped by the sys­tem we our­selves cre­at­ed. I want­ed to share the excite­ment and direct­ness of the Quak­er blog­ging world. I want­ed to share the robust­ness of com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­niques we’re using and the pow­er of dis­trib­uted pub­lish­ing. I want­ed to share the new spir­it of ecu­men­ti­cal­ism and cross-branch work that’s happening.

I’ve been vis­it­ing local Friends Meet­ings that have half the atten­dance they did ten years ago. Some have trou­ble break­ing into the double-digits for Sun­day morn­ing wor­ship and I’m often the youngest in the room, bring­ing the only small kids. I know there are a hand­ful of thriv­ing meet­ings, but I’m wor­ried that most are going to have close their doors in the next ten to twen­ty years.

I had hoped to show how new com­mu­ni­ca­tion struc­tures, the rise of Con­ver­gent Friends and the seek­ers of the Emerg­ing Church move­ment could sig­nal new pos­si­bil­i­ties for Philadel­phia Year­ly Meet­ing. Toward the end of Inter­im Meet­ing, some Friends bemoaned our lack of resources and clerk Thomas Swain remind­ed them that with God there is no lim­i­ta­tion and noth­ing is impos­si­ble. Some of the things I’m see­ing online are the impos­si­ble come to life. Look at Quak­erQuak­er: an unstaffed online mag­a­zine run­ning off of a $50/month bud­get and get­ting 10,000 vis­its a month. It’s not any­thing I’ve done, but this com­mu­ni­ty that God has brought togeth­er and the tech­no­log­i­cal infra­struc­ture that has allowed us to coör­di­nate so eas­i­ly. It’s far from the only neat project out there and there are a lot more on the draw­ing boad. Some year­ly meet­ings are engag­ing with these new pos­si­bilites. But mine appar­ent­ly can’t even stay around for a talk.

Quakermaps: DIY Friends FTW!

A few weeks ago Mic­ah Bales IM’ed me, as he often does, and asked for my feed­back on a project he and Jon Watts were work­ing on. They were build­ing a map of all the Friends meet­ing­hous­es and church­es in the coun­try, sub-divided by geog­ra­phy, wor­ship style, etc.

My first reac­tion was “huh?” I war­i­ly respond­ed: “you do know about FGC’s Quak​erfind​er​.org and FWCC’s Meet­ing Map, right?” I had helped to build both sites and attest­ed to the amount of work they rep­re­sent. I was think­ing of a kind way of dis­cour­ag­ing Mic­ah from this her­culean task when he told me he and Jon were half done. He sent me the link: a beau­ti­ful web­site, full of cool maps, which they’ve now pub­licly announced at Quak​ermaps​.com. I tried to find more prob­lems but he kept answer­ing them: “well, you need to have each meet­ing have it’s own page,” “it does,” “well but to be real­ly cool you’d have to let meet­ings update infor­ma­tion direct­ly” (an idea I sug­gest­ed to FGC last month), “they will.” There’s still a lot of inputting to be done, but it’s already fabulous.
Two peo­ple work­ing a series of long days inputting infor­ma­tion and embed­ding it on Word­Press have cre­at­ed the coolest Meet­ing direc­to­ry going. There’s no six-figure grants from Quak­er foun­da­tions, no cer­ti­fied pro­gram­mers, no series of orga­niz­ing con­sul­ta­tions. No Sales­force account, Dru­pal instal­la­tions, Ver­ti­cal Response signups. No high paid con­sul­tants yakking in what­ev­er consultant-speak is trendy this year.
Just two guys using open source and free, with the cost being time spent togeth­er shar­ing this project – time well spent build­ing their friend­ship, I suspect.
I hope everyone’s notic­ing just how cool this is – and not just the maps, but the way it’s come togeth­er. Mic­ah and Jon grew up in two dif­fer­ent branch­es of Friends. As I under­stand they got to know each oth­er larg­er­ly through Jon’s now-famous and much-debated video Dance Par­ty Erupts dur­ing Quak­er Meet­ing for Wor­ship. They built a friend­ship (which you can hear in Micah’s recent inter­view of Jon) and then start­ed a cool project to share with the world.
Con­ver­gent Friends isn’t a the­ol­o­gy or a spe­cif­ic group of peo­ple, but a dif­fer­ent way of relat­ing and work­ing togeth­er. The way I see it, Quak​ermaps​.com proves that Quak​erQuak​er​.org is not a fluke. The inter­net expos­es us to peo­ple out­side our nat­ur­al com­fort zones and pro­vides us ways to meet, work togeth­er and pub­lish col­lab­o­ra­tions with min­i­mal invest­ment. The quick response, flex­i­bil­i­ty and off-the-clock ethos can come up with tru­ly inno­vat­ed work. I think the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends is enter­ing a new era of DIY orga­niz­ing and I’m very excit­ed. Mic­ah and Jon FTW!
Read more:

Young Adult Friends Conference in Wichita this Fifth Month

I’ve been lucky enough to have two house­guests this week: Mic­ah Bales and Faith Kel­ley (no rela­tion). They’ve come up to the Philadel­phia area to help pub­li­cize a gath­er­ing of young adult Friends that will take place in Wichi­ta in a few months. Before they left, I got them to share their excite­ment for the con­fer­ence in front of my webcam.

Inter­view with Faith Kel­ley & Mic­ah Bales, two of the orga­niz­ers of the upcom­ing young adult Friends con­fer­ence in Wichi­ta Kansas.

FAITH: This is an invi­ta­tion for a gath­er­ing for young adult Friends ages 18 – 35 from all the branch­es of the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends from all across the con­ti­nent. It’s going to be in Wichi­ta Kansas from May 28 – 31. It’s a time to get togeth­er and learn about each oth­er, to hear each other’s sto­ries and wor­ship togeth­er. We’re real­ly excit­ed by this oppor­tu­ni­ty to have peo­ple who have nev­er been to these before and to have peo­ple who have been to oth­er gath­er­ings to come back.
MICAH: A lot of the advance mate­r­i­al is already up online so you can get a good idea what this con­fer­ence is going to be about and to get a sense of how to pre­pare your­self for a gath­er­ing like this. We’ll be get­ting togeth­er with folks from all over the coun­try, Cana­da and Mex­i­co – we’re hop­ing a lot of His­pan­ic Friends show up and we’ve already trans­lat­ed the web­site into Span­ish. Reg­is­tra­tion is set up already; ear­ly reg­is­tra­tion goes until April 15. Air­fare to Wichi­ta is look­ing pret­ty good at the moment; if you reg­is­ter ear­ly you’re like­ly to get a fair­ly decent plane tick­et out.
FAITH: We’re hop­ing peo­ple will choose to car­pool togeth­er. So get orga­nized, reg­is­ter ear­ly and look at the advance mate­ri­als online. 

FOR MORE INFORMATION:
2010 Young Adult Friends Conference