Pareto opportunities for Friends?

Nate Sil­ver recent­ly ran a piece on Mar­co Rubio’s pres­i­den­tial chances has used the previously-unknown-to-me con­cept of the “Pare­to fron­tier” to line up poten­tial candidates:

In eco­nom­ics, there’s a con­cept known as Pare­to effi­cien­cy. It means that you ought to be able to elim­i­nate any choice if anoth­er one dom­i­nates it along every dimen­sion. The remain­ing choic­es sit along what’s called the Pare­to frontier.

Sil­ver then fol­lowed up with a real world exam­ple that speaks to my inter­est in food:

Imag­ine that in addi­tion to White Cas­tle and The French Laun­dry, there are two Ital­ian restau­rants in your neigh­bor­hood. One is the chain restau­rant Olive Gar­den. You actu­al­ly like Olive Gar­den per­fect­ly well. But down the block is a local red-sauce joint called Giovanni’s. The food is a lit­tle bet­ter there than at Olive Gar­den (although not as good as at The French Laun­dry), and it’s a lit­tle cheap­er than Olive Gar­den (although not as cheap as White Cas­tle). So you can elim­i­nate Olive Gar­den from your reper­toire; it’s dom­i­nat­ed along both dimen­sions by Giovanni’s.

These days we choose more than our din­ner des­ti­na­tions. Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty has become a mar­ket­place. While there have always been con­verts, it feels as if the pace of reli­gious lane-changing has steadi­ly quick­ened in recent times. Many peo­ple are choos­ing their reli­gious affil­i­a­tion rather than stick­ing with the faith tra­di­tions of their par­ents. For Quak­ers, this has been a net pos­i­tive, as many of our meet­ing­hous­es are full of “con­vinced” Friends who came in to our reli­gious soci­ety as adults.

Quak­ers are some­what unique in our mar­ket poten­tial. I would argue that we fall on two spots of the reli­gious “pare­to curve”:

  • The first is a kind of mass-market entry point for the “spir­i­tu­al but not reli­gious” set that wants to dip its toe into an orga­nized reli­gion that’s nei­ther very orga­nized nor reli­gious. Lib­er­al Friends don’t have min­is­ters or creeds, we don’t feel or sound too churchy, and we’re not par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned about what new seek­ers believe. It’s a per­fect fit for do-it-yourself seek­ers that are look­ing for non-judgmental spiritually-minded progressives.
  • Our sec­ond pare­to fron­tier beach­head is more grad-school lev­el: we’re a good spot for peo­ple who have a strong reli­gious con­vic­tions but seek a com­mu­ni­ty with less restric­tions. They’ve mem­o­rized whole sec­tions of the Bible and might have the­o­log­i­cal train­ing. They’re burned out by judg­men­tal­ism and spirit-less rou­tine and are seek­ing out a more authen­tic reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty of reli­gious peers open to dis­cus­sion and growth.

It seems we often reach out to one or the oth­er type of “pare­to” seek­er. I see that as part of the dis­cus­sion around Mic­ah Bales’s recent piece on Quak­er church plant­i­ng–do we focus on new, unaf­fil­i­at­ed seek­ers or seri­ous reli­gious dis­ci­ples look­ing for a dif­fer­ent type of com­mu­ni­ty. I’d be curi­ous to hear if any Quak­er out­reach pro­grams have tried to reach out to both simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. Is it even pos­si­ble to sucess­ful­ly mar­ket that kind of dual message?

The two-touch pare­to nature of Friends and pop spir­i­tu­al cul­ture sug­gests that meet­ings could focus their inter­nal work on being the bridge from what we might call the “pare­to entrances.” New­com­ers who have walked through the door because we’re not out­ward­ly churchy could be wel­comed into Quak­erism 101 cours­es to be intro­duced to Quak­er tech­niques for spir­i­tu­al ground­ing and growth – and so they can deter­mine whether for­mal mem­ber­ship is a good fit. Those who have come for the deep spir­i­tu­al ground­ing can join as well, but also be giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ties for smaller-scale reli­gious con­ver­sa­tions and prac­tice, through Bible study groups, region­al extend­ed wor­ships and trips to region­al opportunities.

If you add charts you don't understand to blog posts, people will think you're extra smart.
If you add charts to blog posts, peo­ple will think you’re super-duper smart.

Colorful Quakers

Hold onto your broad­brim hat! After 58 years of black and white, COLOR is on the way to Friends Jour­nal start­ing in AUGUST 2013. To announce it, FJ’s first Vine video:

This was what we were work­ing on last week, when I tweet­ed out ask­ing how many Quak­ers does it take to shoot a seven-second video!

How many Quakes?
The impromp­tu FJ video team: yours tru­ly, Gabe, Gail, and Sara.

As you might all expect, I’m real­ly hap­py with the move. Col­or won’t add very much to the over­all bud­get just 1.5 per­cent!) but it should help us reach new read­ers. I’m also hop­ing it will give lapsed read­ers a rea­son to open the mag­a­zine again and see what we’ve been doing the last few years. Sub­scrip­tions start at a very rea­son­able $25. If you sign up before July 8, you’ll get August’s very first col­or issue!

The secret decoder ring for Red and Blue states

Some­thing that fas­ci­nates me is the sur­pris­ing glimpses of Quak­er influ­ence in the wider world. Back in the Spring I drew out the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Quak­er con­nec­tion in Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s so-called “evo­lu­tion” on LGBTQ matters.

This week the New York Times Opin­ion­a­tor blog argues a Quak­er con­nec­tion in the geog­ra­phy of “Red” and “Blue” states – those lean­ing Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic in gen­er­al elec­tions. The sec­ond half of Steven Pinker’s “Why Are States So Red and Blue?” leans on David Hack­ett Fischer’s awe­some 1989 book Albion’s Seed. Sub­ti­tled “Four British Folk­ways in Amer­i­ca” it’s a kind of secret decoder ring for Amer­i­can cul­ture and politics.

Fis­ch­er argued that there were four very dif­fer­ent set­tle­ments in the Eng­lish colonies in the Amer­i­c­as and that each put a defin­i­tive and last­ing stamp on the pop­u­la­tions that fol­lowed. I think he’s a bit over-deterministic but it’s still great fun and the the­sis does explain a lot. For exam­ple, the Scot-Irish lived in law­less region along the English-Scottish bor­der, where peo­ple had to defend them­selves; when they crossed the ocean they quick­ly went inland and their cul­tur­al descen­dants like law and order, guns and a judg­men­tal God. Quak­ers from the British mid­lands were anoth­er one of the four groups, coöper­a­tive and peace-loving, the nat­ur­al pre­cur­sors to Blue states.

Now step back a bit and you real­ize this is incred­i­bly over-simplistic. Many Friends in the Delaware Val­ley and beyond have his­tor­i­cal­ly been Repub­li­can, and many con­tin­ue as such (though they keep qui­et among politically-liberal East Coast Friends). And the cur­rent Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dent per­son­al­ly approves U.S. assas­si­na­tion lists.

You will be for­giv­en if you’ve clicked to Pinker’s blog post and can’t find Quak­ers. For some bizarre rea­son, he’s stripped reli­gion from Fischer’s argu­ment. Why? Polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness? Sim­plic­i­ty of argu­ment. Friends are summed up with the phrase “the North was large­ly set­tled by Eng­lish farm­ers.” Strange.

But despite these caveats, Fis­ch­er is fas­ci­nat­ing and Pinker’s extrap­o­la­tion to today’s polit­i­cal map is well worth a read, even if our con­tri­bu­tion to the dis­tri­b­u­tion of the Amer­i­can map goes un-cited.

Spiritual self-understanding as pretext to organizational renewal

Brent Bill is con­tin­u­ing his “Mod­est Pro­pos­al” series on Quak­er “revi­tal­iza­tion” on his blog Holy Ordi­nary. Today’s install­ment (part sev­en) is great but I’m not sure where it leaves us. He starts by talk­ing about how some Quak­er body’s books of dis­ci­plines (“Faith and Prac­tice”) are becom­ing more legal­is­tic as they pick up ideas from oth­er reli­gious bod­ies. He then chal­lenges year­ly meet­ings and oth­er Friends bod­ies to a “seri­ous exam­i­na­tion of their pur­pose and pro­grams” in which they ask a series of ques­tions about their purpose.

I agree with a lot of his obser­va­tion. But at the same time I’m not sure what a seri­ous exam­i­na­tion would look like or would pro­duce. In recent years my own year­ly meet­ing has devel­oped a kind of cir­ca­di­an rhythm of con­stant reor­ga­ni­za­tion, tin­ker­ing with orga­ni­za­tion­al charts, leg­isla­tive process­es design to speed up deci­sions, and chang­ing times and fre­quen­cies of events hop­ing to attract new peo­ple. And yet, as I wrote a few weeks ago, when I went to sit in on a meet­ing of the gov­ern­ing body, I was the third or fourth youngest per­son in a room of about 75 Friends. It was pret­ty much the same group of peo­ple who were doing it ten years and mul­ti­ple reforms ago, only now they are ten years old­er. We actu­al­ly ripped through busi­ness so we can spend an hour naval-gazing about the pur­pose of this par­tic­u­lar gov­ern­ing body and I can report it wasn’t the breath of fresh air that we might have hoped for.

A big part of the prob­lem is we’ve for­got­ten why we’re doing all this. We’ve split the faith from the prac­tice – and I don’t mean Chris­t­ian vs non-Christian, but the whole kit-and-kaboodle that is the Quak­er under­stand­ing of gospel order, a world view that is dis­tinct from that of oth­er Chris­t­ian denom­i­na­tions. Lloyd Lee Wil­son calls it the “Quak­er gestalt” in Essays on the Quak­er Vision of Gospel Order. When a spir­i­tu­al tra­di­tion has an inter­nal con­sis­ten­cy, and the process and the­ol­o­gy rein­force each oth­er. Archi­tec­ture and demeanor, cul­tur­al and busi­ness val­ues fit togeth­er. It’s nev­er per­fect, of course, and main­tain­ing the con­sis­ten­cy against new influ­ences and chang­ing cir­cum­stances is often the source of unnec­es­sary pet­ty squab­bling. But even some­thing as innocu­ous as a meetinghouse’s bench arrange­ments can tell you a lot about a group’s the­ol­o­gy and its bal­ance towards author­i­ty and individualism.

It’s our under­stand­ing of our faith and our con­cept of body-of-Christ com­mu­ni­ty which under­girds our insti­tu­tion­al struc­tures. When we don’t have a good grasp of it, we do things mere­ly because “we’re sup­posed to” and the process feels dry and spirit-less. We defend par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tions as nec­es­sary because they’re cod­i­fied in our books of doc­trine and lose our abil­i­ty to pos­i­tive­ly explain their exis­tence, at which point frus­trat­ed mem­bers will call for their aban­don­ment as unnec­es­sary bag­gage from a bygone age.

As an exam­ple, about sev­en years ago my quar­ter­ly meet­ing went through a naval-gazing process. I tried to be involved, as did my then-Quaker wife Julie. We asked a lot of big ques­tions but oth­ers on the vision­ing com­mit­tee just want­ed to ask small ques­tions. When Julie and I asked about divine guid­ance at ses­sions, for exam­ple, one fel­low con­de­scend­ing­ly explained that if we spent all our time ask­ing what God want­ed we’d nev­er get any­thing done. We real­ly didn’t know what to say to that, espe­cial­ly as it seemed the con­sen­sus of oth­ers in the group. One thing they were com­plain­ing about was that it was always the same few peo­ple doing any­thing but after a few rounds of those meet­ings, we ran scream­ing away (my wife right out of the RSoF altogether).

Re-visioning isn’t just decon­struct­ing insti­tu­tions we don’t under­stand or tin­ker­ing with some new process to fix the old process that doesn’t work. If you’ve got a group of peo­ple active­ly lis­ten­ing to the guid­ance of the Inward Christ then any process or struc­ture prob­a­bly can be made to work (though some will facil­i­tate dis­cern­ment bet­ter). Our books of “Faith and Prac­tice” were nev­er meant to be inerrant Bibles. At their core, they’re our “wiki” of best prac­tices for Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty dis­cern­ment – tips earned through the suc­cess­es and fail­ures of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions. I think if we under­stand our spir­i­tu­al roots bet­ter we’ll find our musty old Quak­er insti­tu­tions actu­al­ly still have impor­tant roles to play. But how do we get there? I like Brent’s ques­tions but I’m not sure you can just start with them. Any­one want to share sto­ries of spir­i­tu­al deep­en­ing in their meet­ings or faith com­mu­ni­ties and how that fed into a renewed appre­ci­a­tion of Quak­er bod­ies and process?