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.

AMA: Conservative and Liberal Friends?

Marlborough (Pa.) Friends meetinghouse at dusk. c. 2006.
A few weeks ago, reader James F. used my seldom-visited “Ask me anything!” page to wonder about two types of Friends:

I’ve read a little and watched various videos about the Friends. My questions are , is there a gulf between “conservative” friends and liberal? As well as what defines the two generally? I’m in Maryland near D.C. Do Quakers who define themselves as essentially Christian worship with those who don’t identify as such?

Hi James, what a great question! I think many of us don’t fully appreciate the confusion we sow when we casually use these terms in our online discussions. They can be useful rhetorical shortcuts but sometimes I think we give them more weight than they deserve. I worry that Friends sometimes come off as more divided along these lines than we really are. Over the years I’ve noticed a certain kind of rigid online seeker who dissects theological discussions with such conviction that they’ll refused to even visit their nearest meeting because it’s not the right type. That’s so tragic.

What the terms don’t mean

The first and most common problem is that people don’t realize we’re using these terms in a specifically Quaker context. “Liberal” and “Conservative” don’t refer to political ideologies. One can be a Conservative Friend and vote for liberal or socialist politicians, for example.

Adding to the complications is that these can be imprecise terms. Quaker bodies themselves typically do not identify as either Liberal or Conservative. While local congregations often have their own unique characteristics, culture, and style, nothing goes on the sign out front. Our regional bodies, called yearly meetings, are the highest authority in Quakerism but I can’t think of any that doesn’t span some diversity of theologies.

Historically (and currently) we’ve had the situation where a yearly meeting will split into two separate bodies. The causes can be complex; theology is a piece, but demographics and mainstream cultural shifts also play a huge role. In centuries past (and kind of ridiculously, today still), both of the newly reorganized yearly meetings were obsessed with keeping the name as a way to claim their legitimacy. To tell them apart we’d append awkward and incomplete labels, so in the past we had Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite) and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Orthodox).

In the United States, we have two places where yearly meetings compete names and one side’s labelled appendage is “Conservative,” giving us Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Over time, both of these yearly meetings have diversified to the point where they contain outwardly Liberal monthly meetings. The name Conservative in the yearly meeting title has become partly administrative.

A third yearly meeting is usually also included in the list of Conservative bodies. Present-day Ohio Yearly Meeting once competed with two other Ohio Yearly Meetings for the name but is the only one using it today. The name “Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative)” is still sometimes seen, but it’s unnecessary, not technically correct, and not used in the yearly meeting’s formal correspondence. (You want to know more? The yearly meeting’s clerk maintains a website that goes amazingly deep into the history of Ohio Friends).

All that said, these three yearly meetings have more than their share of traditionalist Christian Quaker members. Ohio’s gatherings have the highest percentage of plain dressing- and speaking- Friends around (though even there, they are a minority). But other yearly meetings will have individual members and sometimes whole monthly meetings that could be accurately described as Conservative Quaker.

I might have upset some folks with these observations. In all aspects of life you’ll find people who are very attached to labels. That’s what the comment section is for.

The meanings of the terms

Formal identities aside, there are good reasons we use the concept of Liberal and Conservative Quakerism. They denote a general approach to the world and a way of incorporating our history, our Christian heritage, our understanding of the role of Christ in our discernment, and the format and pace of our group decision making.

But at the same time there’s all sorts of diversity and personal and local histories involved. It’s hard to talk about any of this in concrete terms without dissolving into footnotes and qualifications and long discourses about the differences between various historical sub-movements within Friends (queue awesome 16000-word history).

Many of us comfortably span both worlds. In writing, I sometimes try to escape the weight of the most overused labels by substituting more generic terms, like traditional Friends or Christ-centered Friends. These terms also get problematic if you scratch at them too hard. Reminder: God is the Word and our language is by definition limiting.

If you like the sociology of such things, Isabel Penraeth wrote a fascinating article in Friends Journal a few years ago, Understanding Ourselves, Respecting the Differences. More recently in FJ a Philadelphia Friend, John Andrew Gallery, visited Ohio Friends and talked about the spiritual refreshment of Conservative Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting Gathering and Quaker Spring. Much of the discussion around the modern phrase Convergent Friends and the threads on QuakerQuaker has focused on those who span a Liberal and Conservative Quaker worldview.

The distinction between Conservatives and Liberals can become quite evident when you observe how Friends conduct a business meeting or how they present themselves. It’s all too easy to veer into caricature here but Liberal Friends are prone to reinventions and the use of imprecise secular language, whileConservative Friends are attached to established processes and can be unwelcoming to change that might disrupt internal unity.

But even these brief observations are imprecise and can mask surprisingly similar talents and stumbling blocks. We all of us are humans, after all. The Inward Christ is always available to instruct and comfort, just as we are all broken and prone to act impulsively against that advice.

Worshipping?

Finally, pretty much all Friends will worship with anyone. Most local congregations have their own distinct flavor. There are some in which the ministry is largely Christian, with a Quaker-infused explanation of a parable or gospel, while there are others where you’ll rarely hear Christ mentioned. You should try out different meetings and see which ones feed your soul. Be ready to find nurturance in unexpected places. God may instruct us to serve anywhere with no notice, as he did the Good Samaritan. Christ isn’t bound by any of our silly words.

Thanks to James for the question!

Do you have a question on another Quaker topic? Check out the Ask Me Anything! page.

Friends on Giving

The new issue of Friends Journal is available online. This month looks at Giving and Philanthropy. There’s some good reflections from Friends on why they give to the causes and institutions they do. There’s also a nice piece from Quaker fundraiser Henry Freeman on the “language of Quaker values.” If you’re trying to unpack what it means to be Quaker, this on-the-ground perspective is one way to parse out the reality of Quaker testimonies.

Chatting with Greg Woods

Yes­ter­day I had a nice video chat with my friend Greg Woods, whose arti­cle, Orga­niz­ing Young Adult Friends Online, appeared in November’s Friends Jour­nal. Greg and I have been hav­ing vari­a­tions on this con­ver­sa­tion for years. Back in 2011, we worked togeth­er alongside Stephen Dot­son to put togeth­er a now-dated Young Adult Friends web­site (watch us eat in double-time in its pro­mo­tion­al video!). I believe it was the fourth YAF orga­niz­ing web­site I had built since the mid-90s. Greg is now putting togeth­er a net­work of Quak­er cam­pus min­istries. It’s one of those obvi­ous needs that I hope Friends will sup­port.

New from Neil Young

And in all this crazi­ness I missed that Neil Young had just dropped a new tune on us.

And appar­ent­ly, this is just one of four new songs:

Famed rock­er Neil Young has played hun­dreds of towns and cities all over the world since start­ing his illus­tri­ous career in the ’60s, but last night marked his first per­for­mance in the beau­ti­ful moun­tain town of Tel­luride, Col­orado. Neil Young and Promise Of The Real treat­ed fans to a 21-song per­for­mance as part of their first of two con­sec­u­tive shows at Town Park in Tel­luride on Fri­day.

Seeing how it goes

It seems a lot of con­ver­sa­tions I’m in the­se days, on social media and IRL revolve around how we should be respond­ing to Trump’s elec­tion. I know there’s a cer­tain dan­ger in being too deter­min­is­tic, but a lot of answers seem to match where indi­vid­u­als are in the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty scale. Some are coun­sel­ing patience: let’s see how it goes after the inau­gu­ra­tion. May­be we don’t know the real Don­ald Trump.

Well, I think we do know the real Trump by now, but what I don’t think we know is the actu­al fla­vor of a Trump pres­i­den­cy. Have we ever seen a pres­i­dent elect who was so thin on actu­al pol­i­cy? Trump rode his lack of pol­i­cy expe­ri­ence to vic­to­ry, of course, cit­ing his inde­pen­dence from the peo­ple who gov­ern as one of his chief qual­i­fi­ca­tions. But it’s also his per­son­al­i­ty: on the cam­paign trail and in his famous 3am tweets from the toi­let he often con­tra­dict­ed him­self.

He’s a man of high-concept ideas, not detailed pol­i­cy. This means the actu­al poli­cies – and the gov­er­nance we should and shouldn’t wor­ry about – will depend dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly on the peo­ple he hires. Right now it seems like he’s trolling lob­by­ists and a hand­ful of neo­con dinosaurs that start­ed the Iraq War on forged doc­u­ments. He’s bring­ing the alli­ga­tors in to “drain the swamp” and in the last 24 hours they’ve already sig­naled that a lot of key cam­paign pledges are open for recon­sid­er­a­tion. How much we have to wor­ry – and just what we have to wor­ry about – will be clear­er as his team assem­bles.