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.

Communities vs Religious Societies

Over on Tape Flags and First Thoughts, Su Penn has a great post called “Still Think­ing About My Quak­er Meet­ing & Me.” She writes about a process of self-identity that her meet­ing recent­ly went through it and the dif­fi­cul­ties she had with the process.

communitysocietyI won­dered whether this dif­fi­cul­ty has become one of our modern-day stages of devel­op­ing in the min­istry. Both Samuel Bow­nas (read/buy) and Howard Brin­ton (buy) iden­ti­fied typ­i­cal stages that Friends grow­ing in the min­istry typ­i­cal­ly go through. Not every­one expe­ri­ences Su’s rift between their meeting’s iden­ti­ty and a desire for a God-grounded meet­ing com­mu­ni­ty, but enough of us have that I don’t think it’s the foibles of par­tic­u­lar indi­vid­u­als or month­ly meet­ings. Let me tease out one piece: that of indi­vid­ual and group iden­ti­ties. Much of the dis­cus­sion in the com­ments of Su’s post have swirled around rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent con­cep­tions of this. 

Many mod­ern Friends have become pret­ty strict indi­vid­u­al­ists. We spend a lot of time talk­ing about “com­mu­ni­ty” but we aren’t prac­tic­ing it in the way that Friends have under­stood it – as a “reli­gious soci­ety.” The indi­vid­u­al­ism of our age sees it as rude to state a vision of Friends that leaves out any of our mem­bers – even the most het­ero­dox. We are only as unit­ed as our most far-flung believ­er (and every decade the sweep gets larg­er). The myth of our age is that all reli­gious expe­ri­ences are equal, both with­in and out­side of par­tic­u­lar reli­gious soci­eties, and that it’s intol­er­ant to think of dif­fer­ences as any­thing more than language.

This is why I cast Su’s issues as being those of a min­is­ter. There has always been the need for some­one to call us back to the faith. Con­trary to modern-day pop­u­lar opin­ion, this can be done with great love. It is in fact great love (Quak­er Jane) to share the good news of the directly-accessible lov­ing Christ, who loves us so much He wants to show us the way to right­eous liv­ing. This Quak­er idea of right­eous­ness has noth­ing to do with who you sleep with, the gas mileage of your car or even the “cor­rect­ness” of your the­ol­o­gy. Jesus boiled faith­ful­ness down into two com­mands: love God with all your might (how­ev­er much that might be) and love your neigh­bor as yourself.

A “reli­gious soci­ety” is not just a “com­mu­ni­ty.” As a reli­gious soci­ety we are called to have a vision that is stronger and bold­er than the lan­guage or under­stand­ing of indi­vid­ual mem­bers. We are not a per­fect com­mu­ni­ty, but we can be made more per­fect if we return to God to the full­ness we’ve been giv­en. That is why we’ve come togeth­er into a reli­gious society.

“What makes us Friends?” Just fol­low­ing the mod­ern tes­ti­monies doesn’t put us very square­ly in the Friends tra­di­tion – SPICE is just a recipe for respect­ful liv­ing. “What makes us Friends?” Just set­ting the stop­watch to an hour and sit­ting qui­et­ly doesn’t do it – a wor­ship style is a con­tain­er at best and false idol at worst. “How do we love God?” “How do we love our neigh­bor?” “What makes us Friends?” These are the ques­tions of min­istry. These are the build­ing blocks of outreach.

I’ve seen nascent min­is­ters (“infant min­is­ters” in the phras­ing of Samual Bow­nas) start ask­ing these ques­tions, flare up on inspired blog posts and then tail­dive as they meet up with the cold-water real­i­ty of a local meet­ing that is unsup­port­ive or inat­ten­tive. Many of them have left our reli­gious soci­ety. How do we sup­port them? How do we keep them? Our answers will deter­mine whether our meet­ing are reli­gious soci­eties or communities.

Packing our own bags at the checkout line

Over on Beppe­blog, “Lib­er­al Quak­erism is no longer Quak­erism”, the first of a multi-post series. In part one, Beppe looks at our dif­fi­cul­ty artic­u­lat­ing a col­lec­tive voice that might pro­claim “Truth.” Indi­vid­u­al­ism has real­ly tak­en a hit on Quak­ers, that’s for sure. In this day and age, how can a group set itself apart as a “reli­gious soci­ety” – a coher­ent com­mu­ni­ty of believ­ers? I don’t find ful­fill­ment in my own self and I’m an awful­ly slow learn­er when I try to fig­ure out things myself. I need other’s wis­dom but books and blogs only take me so far.

As Dave Carl reminds us in the com­ments, the inward Christ is avail­able to all, every­where. But just because you can have a vis­i­ta­tion while stand­ing in the super­mar­ket check­out line doesn’t make the super­mar­ket a reli­gious soci­ety or the cashier a min­is­ter. Many of our meet­ings are good for the casu­al seek­er who wants a stress-free med­i­ta­tion cen­ter. The RSOF seems to serve many seek­ers as an in-between point: a place of entry back into the Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion (for those who have been alien­at­ed by false prophets) but not a final des­ti­na­tion in itself. If you want to get seri­ous you often have to leave. That’s a shame, not only for the lost seek­er, but for our own reli­gious soci­ety which sees a con­stant “brain drain” leaking-out of gift­ed ministers.

I turn on the TV and radio and hear all sorts of per­ver­sions of the gospel being spout­ed out (yesterday’s Memo­r­i­al Day pap was par­tic­u­lar­ly annoy­ing – hasn’t any of these Chris­tians read the Ser­mon on the Mount?!?). The world still needs the kind of rad­i­cal, back-to-the-roots Chris­tian­i­ty that Quak­ers have long held up as an alter­na­tive. But how can we unite to speak with that prophet­ic voice if we have no col­lec­tive voice.

I’m not as pes­simistic as all this sounds. I think most Friends want some­thing more. We’re con­stant­ly lif­ing up the exam­ple of dead Friends with prophet­ic voic­es and there’s a strong pride in our his­to­ry of social jus­tice. Our mod­ern cul­ture of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty blinds us to how these voic­es got nutured and how those old-timey Friends were able to come togeth­er to speak out these truths. But Friends have often been lured away from our call­ing and every age has had faith­ful Friends who have been will­ing to hit their heads against the brick walls of frus­tra­tion time and time again in order to remind us of who we are. The back-and-forth of reach­ing out into the world and pulling back into our tra­di­tion is actu­al­ly itself part of our tra­di­tion and Quak­er bod­ies have often seen health­i­est when we’ve been able to hold both together.

PS: Check here for Beppe’s sec­ond post, which argues that “Lib­er­al Quak­erism con­tin­ues to be Quakerism.”

What’s God Got to Do, Got to Do With It?

This essay is my hes­i­tant attempt to answer the ques­tions James R. post­ed a few weeks ago, I Am What I Am.

Lov­ing God with All Our Hearts

My reli­gion teach­es me that the first com­mand­ment is to love God above all else. The pri­ma­ry mis­sion of a reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty is to serve God and to facil­i­tate the spir­i­tu­al growth and dis­cern­ment of its mem­bers in their search for God. For me, this needs to be an explic­it goal of my meeting.

I very much appre­ci­ate James’s hon­esty that for him to use the term of “God” would be “mis­lead­ing, even dis­hon­est.” One of the cen­tral open­ings of Quak­erism is that we should not pro­fess an abstract under­stand­ing of God. We believe in the neces­si­ty for “deep and repeat­ed bap­tisms” and for every tes­ti­mo­ny and act in the min­istry to come from the “imme­di­ate influ­ence of his Spir­it” in a “fresh annoint­ing” (won­der­ful lan­guage from a Irish memo­r­i­al minute for Job Scott). I would wish that more Friends would fol­low James’s exam­ple and not speak with­out that imme­di­ate direct knowl­edge of the divine. (How many ple­nary speak­ers at Quak­er events are read­ing from a pre­pared speech? How many of us real­ly find our­selves turn­ing to prayer when con­flicts arise in busi­ness meeting?)

I don’t think one does need an expe­ri­ence of God to be a part of a Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty. Many of us go through dry spells where the Spirit’s pres­ence seems absent and this cer­tain­ly doesn’t dis­qual­i­fy us for mem­ber­ship. But God is the cen­ter of our faith and our work: wor­ship is about lis­ten­ing to God’s call; busi­ness meet­ing is about dis­cern­ing God’s instruc­tions. This has to be under­stood. For those who can’t name God in their lives, it must be just a bit bizarre to come week after week to par­tic­i­pate with a group of peo­ple pray­ing for God’s guid­ance. But that’s okay. I think all that is good in our reli­gious soci­ety come from the Great Mas­ter. We are known by our fruits and the out­ward forms of our wit­ness­es con­stant­ly point back to God’s love. This is the only real out­reach we do. I’m hap­py spend­ing a life­time labor­ing with some­one in my com­mu­ni­ty point­ing out to the Spirit’s pres­ence in our midst. All that we love about Quak­ers comes from that source but part of my dis­ci­pline is the patience to wait for God to reveal Her­self to you.

I joined Friends via the fair­ly com­mon route of peace activism. I could sense that there was some­thing else at work among the Quak­er peace activists I knew and want­ed to taste of that some­thing myself. It’s tak­en me years to be able to name and artic­u­late the divine pres­ence I sensed fif­teen years ago. That’s okay, it’s a nor­mal route for some of us.

The oth­er piece that the com­ments have been danc­ing around is Jesus. I’m at the point where I can (final­ly) affirm that Chris­tian­i­ty is not acci­den­tal to Quak­erism. As I’ve delved deep­er I’ve real­ized just how much of our faith and work real­ly does grow out of the teach­ings of Jesus. I don’t want to be part of a Friends meet­ing where our Quak­er roots are large­ly absent. I want to know more about Friends, which means delv­ing ever deep­er into our past and engag­ing with it. We can’t do that with­out fre­quent­ly turn­ing to the Bible. Lib­er­al Friends need to start explor­ing our Chris­t­ian roots more ful­ly and need to get more seri­ous about read­ing Quak­er writ­ings that pre­date 1950. There have been many great fig­ures in human his­to­ry, but what­ev­er you think about the divin­i­ty of Jesus, he has had much more of an impact on Quak­erism than all of the heroes of Amer­i­can lib­er­al­ism com­bined. We’ve got a Friend in Jesus and we’ve got to get on speak­ing arrage­ments with him again if we’re going to keep this Quak­erism going.

Shak­ing the Sandy Foundation

James asked if the reg­u­lars at Quak­er Ranter want­ed a purg­ing. I cer­tain­ly don’t want to kick any­one out but I don’t think some of the peo­ple cur­rent­ly involved in Quak­erism would be with us if we were truer to our call­ing. We need to start talk­ing hon­est­ly and have a round or two of truth-telling and plain speak­ing about what it means to be a Friend. Yes, there are some del­i­cate peo­ple who are offend­ed by terms like God and wor­ship, Christ and obe­di­ence. And many have good rea­sons to be offend­ed (as Julie point­ed out to me this week­end, one of the great­est sins our reli­gious and polit­i­cal lead­ers have done over the cen­turies is to com­mit evil in the name of God, for they not only com­mit­ted that evil but have so scarred some seek­ers that they can­not come to God). One can know Jesus with­out using the name and God does hold us in His warm embrace even through our doubts. But for those of us lucky enough to know His name shouldn’t be afraid to use it.

Many peo­ple come to us sin­cere­ly as seek­ers, try­ing to under­stand the source of Quak­ers’ wit­ness and spir­i­tu­al ground­ing. I appre­ci­ate James’s ask­ing “why I feel so irrestibly drawn to a com­mu­ni­ty and reli­gious soci­ety in which the cen­tral term is God.” As long as that’s where we start, I’m hap­py to be in fellowship.

But fel­low­ship is an imme­di­ate rela­tion­ship that doesn’t always last. There are peo­ple involved in Quak­erism for rea­sons that are inci­den­tal to the mis­sion of our reli­gious soci­ety. We know the types: peace activists who seem to be around because Quak­ers have a good mail­ing list; Friends from ancient Quak­er fam­i­lies who are around because they want to be buried out with great-grandma in the ceme­tery out back; twenty-something lib­er­al seek­ers who like the open­ness and affa­bil­i­ty of Quak­ers. These are sandy foun­da­tions for reli­gious faith and they will not nec­es­sar­i­ly hold. If Quak­ers start­ed artic­u­lat­ing our beliefs and recom­mit­ting our­selves to be a peo­ple of God, we will have those who will decide to drift away. They might be hurt when they real­ize their attrac­tion to Quak­erism was misplaced.

Nam­ing the Trolls

We’ve all met peo­ple who have walked into a meet­ing­house with seri­ous dis­agree­ments with basic fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of Quak­erism. This is to say we attract some loonies, or more pre­cise­ly: vis­i­tors who have come to pick a fight. Most reli­gious insti­tu­tions show them the door. As Friends we have a proud tra­di­tion of tol­er­ance but we’re too quick nowa­days to let tol­er­ance trump gospel order and destroy the “safe space” of our meet­ing­house. This is a dis­ser­vice to our com­mu­ni­ty. Every so often we get some­one who stands up to angri­ly denounce Chris­t­ian lan­guage in a Quak­er meet­ing. It’s fine to chal­lenge an in-group’s unex­am­ined pieties but I’m talk­ing about those who try to get the meet­ing to cen­sor ideas by claim­ing vic­tim­hood sta­tus when­ev­er they hear a Chris­t­ian world­view expressed. The person’s moti­va­tions for being there need to be ques­tioned and they need to be lov­ing­ly labored with. We attract some peo­ple who deeply hurt and come with axes to grind. Some of them will use non-theism as their ral­ly­ing call. When they are eldered they will claim it’s because of their phi­los­o­phy, not their action. These kind of con­flicts are messy, unpleas­ant and often con­fus­ing but we need to address them head on.

There are plen­ty of pro­fess­ing Chris­tians who also need to be called on their dis­rup­tive behav­ior. They too would claim that any elder­ship is a reac­tion to their Chris­t­ian the­ol­o­gy. (Actu­al­ly, I know more pro­fess­ing Chris­tians than pro­fess­ing non-theists who should be chal­lenged this way (Julie asked “who?” and I came up with a list of three right off the bat)). But there are dis­rupters of all fla­vors who will trum­pet their mar­tyr­dom when Friends final­ly begin to take seri­ous­ly the prob­lems of detrac­tion (a fine Quak­er con­cept we need to revis­it). If we suf­fer unfair­ly we need to be able to muster up a cer­tain humil­i­ty and obe­di­ence to the meet­ing, even if we’re sure it’s wrong. Again, it will be messy and all too-human but we need to work with each oth­er on this one.

Shar­ing the Treasure

The real prob­lem as I see it is not respect­ful non-theists among us: it’s those of us who have tast­ed of the boun­ty but hoard the trea­sure for our­selves. We hide the open­ings we’ve been giv­en. A few weeks ago I was at year­ly meet­ing ses­sions attend­ed by some of the most rec­og­nized min­is­ters in Philadel­phia when a woman said she was offend­ed by the (fair­ly tame) psalms we were asked to read. She explained “I’m used to Quak­erese, Light and all that, and I don’t like all this lan­guage about God as an enti­ty.” No one in that room stood to explain that these psalms _are one of the sources_ of our Quak­erese and that the “Light” Friends have have been talk­ing about for most of the past three and a half cen­turies is explic­it­ly the Light _of Christ_. I don’t want to make too big a deal of this inci­dent, but this kind of thing hap­pens all the time: we cen­sor our lan­guage to the point where it’s full of inof­fen­sive double-meanings. Let’s not be afraid to talk in the lan­guage we have. We need to share the trea­sure we’ve been given.

Relat­ed Reading:

This post was inspired by James R’s com­ment, which I titled I Am What I Am. He was respond­ing orig­i­nal­ly to my essay We’re All Ranters Now. I remain deeply grate­ful that James post­ed his com­ment and then allowed me to fea­ture it. These are not easy issues, cer­tain­ly not, and its easy to mis­read what we all are say­ing. I hope that what I’m con­tribut­ing is seen through the lens of love and char­i­ty, in whose spir­it I’ve been try­ing to respond. I’m not try­ing to write a posi­tion paper, but to share hon­est­ly what I’ve seen and the open­ings I feel I have been giv­en – I reserve the right to change my opin­ions! From what I’ve read, I’d be hon­ored to be in fel­low­ship with James.

Liz Oppen­heimer has opened up with a thought­ful, ten­der piece called My Friend­ly jour­ney with Christ.

You know the dis­claimer at the bot­tom that says I’m not speak­ing for any Quak­er orga­ni­za­tion? I mean it. I’m just take phone orders and crank out web pages for a par­tic­u­lar orga­ni­za­tion. This isn’t them speaking.

History of Non​vi​o​lence​.org, 1995 – 2008

Non​vi​o​lence​.Org was found­ed by Mar­tin Kel­ley out of a home office way back in 1995. Over the 13 or so years of its exis­tence, it won acco­lades and atten­tion from the main­stream media and mil­lions of vis­i­tors. It’s arti­cles have been reprint­ed in count­less move­ment jour­nals and even in a fea­tured USAToday edi­to­r­i­al.

From 2006:

The past eleven years have seen count­less inter­net projects burst on the scene only to with­er away. Yet Non​vi​o​lence​.org con­tin­ues with­out any fund­ing, attract­ing a larg­er audi­ence every year. As the years have gone by and I’ve found the strength to con­tin­ue it, I’ve real­ized more and more that this is a min­istry. As a mem­ber of the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends I’m com­mit­ted to spread­ing the good news that war is unnec­es­sary. In my per­son­al life this is a mat­ter of faith in the “pow­er that takes away occas­sion for all war.” In my work with Non​vi​o​lence​.org I also draw on all the prac­ti­cal and prag­mat­ic rea­sons why war is wrong. For more per­son­al moti­va­tions you can see at Quak​er​Ran​ter​.org, my per­son­al blog.

A Non​vi​o​lence​.org Timeline

Screenshot from 1996 via
Screen­shot from 1996 via Archive​.org

In 1995 I was edi­tor at an activist pub­lish­er strug­gling to adapt to a rapid­ly chang­ing book world. Many of the inde­pen­dent book­stores that had always sup­port­ed us were clos­ing just as print­ing costs were ris­ing. The need to re-invent activist orga­niz­ing and pub­lish­ing for the 1990’s became obvi­ous and I saw the inter­net as a place to do that. One of the ear­li­est man­i­festos and intro­duc­tions to the Non­vi­o­lence Web was an essay called The Rev­o­lu­tion Will be Online.

I began by approached lead­ing U.S. peace groups with a crazy pro­pos­al: if they gave me their mate­r­i­al I would put it up on the web for them for free. My goal was to live off of sav­ings until I could raise the oper­at­ing funds from foun­da­tions. “Free type­set­ting for the move­ment by the move­ment” was the ral­ly­ing cry and I quick­ly brought a who’s-who of Amer­i­can peace groups over to Non​vi​o​lence​.org. I knew that there was lots of great peace writ­ing that wasn’t get­ting the dis­tri­b­u­tion it deserved and with the inter­net I could get it out faster and more wide­ly then with any tra­di­tion­al media. For three years I lived off of sav­ings, very part-time jobs and occa­sion­al small grants.

Through 1998, Nonviolence.ommarg devel­oped into a web “por­tal” for non­vi­o­lence. We would fea­ture the most provoca­tive and time­ly pieces from the NVWeb mem­ber groups on the newly-redesigned home­page, dubbed “Non­vi­o­lence Web Upfront.” A online mag­a­zine for­mat loose­ly mod­eled on Slate and the now-defunct Feed Mag­a­zine, it also con­tained orig­i­nal mate­r­i­al and links to inter­est­ing threads on the inte­grat­ed dis­cus­sion board. With these pop­u­lar fea­tures, the Non​vi​o​lence​.Org became a “sticky” site, one which attract­ed reg­u­lar vis­i­tors. The com­bined vis­i­bil­i­ty for mem­ber groups was much greater than any­one could obtain alone and we earned plen­ty of awards and links. There was a New York Times tech pro­file (boy was that a weird pho­to shoot!) and I was invit­ed to write the guest Op/Ed in USA Today.

But this mod­el couldn’t last. A big prob­lem was mon­ey: there’s were too few phil­an­thropists for this sort of work, and estab­lished foun­da­tions didn’t even know the right ques­tions to ask in eval­u­at­ing an inter­net project. Non​vi​o​lence​.Org was kept afloat by my own dwin­dling per­son­al sav­ings, and I nev­er did find the sort of mon­ey that could pay even pover­ty wages. I took more and more part-time jobs till they became the full-time ones I have today. At the same time, inter­net pub­lish­ing was also chang­ing. With the advent of “Blogs” and open-source bul­letin board soft­ware, Non​vi​o​lence​.org has con­tin­ued to evolve and stay relevant.


Non​vi​o​lence​.org con­tin­ued to be one of the most highly-visible and vis­it­ed peace web­sites, being high­ly ranked through the first Gulf War II, the biggest U.S. mil­i­tary action since the web began. This mod­el of inde­pen­dent activist web pub­lish­ing was still crit­i­cal. The Non​vi​o​lence​.org mis­sion of fea­tur­ing the best writ­ing and analy­sis con­tin­ued until 2008 when Mar­tin final­ly moth­balled the Non​vi​o​lence​.org project and sold the domain.