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.
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).
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.