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.

Quakers and the ethics of fixed pricing

From a 1956 issue of the then-newly rebrand­ed Friends Jour­nal, an expla­na­tion of the ethics behind pro­vid­ing a fixed price for goods:

Whether the ear­ly Quak­ers were con­scious­ly try­ing to start a social move­ment or not is a moot point. Most like­ly they were not. They were mere­ly seek­ing to give con­sis­tent expres­sion to their belief in the equal­i­ty of all men as spir­i­tu­al sons of God. The Quak­er cus­tom of mark­ing a fixed price on mer­chan­dise so that all men would pay the same price is anoth­er case in point. Most prob­a­bly Friends did this sim­ply because they want­ed to be fair to all who fre­quent­ed their shops and give the sharp bar­gain­er no advan­tage at the expense of his less skilled broth­er. It is unlike­ly that many Quak­ers adopt­ed fixed prices in the hope of forc­ing their sys­tem on a busi­ness world inter­est­ed only in prof­it. That part was just coin­ci­dence, the coin­ci­dence being that Friends hit upon it because of their con­vic­tions; the sys­tem itself was a nat­u­ral suc­cess.
 — Bruce L Pear­son, Feb 4 1956

 

What does it mean to be a Quaker?

Craig Bar­nett tries to define Friends:

“I want to sug­gest that there is a liv­ing tra­di­tion of spir­i­tu­al teach­ing and prac­tice that makes up the Quak­er Way, which is not defined by a par­tic­u­lar social group, behav­ioural norms, or even val­ues and beliefs.”

As usu­al Craig clear­ly artic­u­lates his premise: that Friends have become some­thing of a content-less, lowest-common-denominator group that fears mak­ing belief state­ments that some of our mem­ber­ship would object to.

I agree with most of his analy­sis, though I would add some pieces. I don’t think one can under­stand what it means to be a Quak­er today with­out look­ing at dif­fer­ent types of def­i­n­i­tions. Belief and prac­tices is one part but so is self-identification (which is not nec­es­sar­i­ly mem­ber­ship). We are who we are but we also aren’t. There’s a deep­er real­i­ty in not being able to sep­a­rate Quak­er phi­los­o­phy from the peo­ple who are Quak­er.

In this light, I do wish that Craig hadn’t resort­ed to using the jar­gony “Quak­er Way” ten times in a short piece. For those who haven’t got­ten the memo, lib­er­al Friends are no longer sup­posed to say “Quak­erism” (which implies a tra­di­tion and prac­tice that is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the denom­i­na­tor of our member’s indi­vid­u­al the­olo­gies) but instead use the vaguer “Quak­er Way.” In my obser­va­tion, it’s most­ly a bureau­crat­ic pref­er­ence: we want to imply there is sub­stance but don’t want to actu­al­ly name it for fear of start­ing a fight. Con­tent­less lan­guage has become its own art form, one that can suck the air out of robust dis­cus­sions. A truly-vital liv­ing tra­di­tion should be able to speak in dif­fer­ent accents.

Mix up a little Evangelical fire and liberal progressivism and you get?

There are a lot of good con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen­ing around Rachel Held Evans’s lat­est piece on the CNN Belief Blog, “Why mil­len­ni­als are leav­ing the church.” One cen­ters on the rela­tion­ship between Evan­gel­i­cals and Main­line Protes­tants. As is often the case, the place of Quak­ers in this is com­pli­cat­ed.

Some his­to­ri­ans cat­e­go­rize the orig­i­nal Quak­er move­ment as a “third way” between Catholi­cism and Protes­tanta­n­tism, com­bin­ing the mys­ti­cism of the for­mer and the search for per­fec­tion of the lat­ter. It’s a con­ve­nient the­sis, as it pro­vides a way to try to explain the odd­i­ties of our lack of priests and liturgies.

But Quak­ers trad­ed much of our pecu­liar­i­ty for a place set­ting at the Main­line Protes­tant table a long time ago. The “Quak­er val­ues” taught in First-day schools aren’t real­ly all that dif­fer­ent than the lib­er­al post-Christian val­ues you’d find post­ed on the bul­let­in board in the base­ment of any pro­gres­sive Methodist, Pres­by­te­ri­an, or Epis­co­palian church. We share a focus on the social gospel with oth­er Main­line denom­i­na­tions.

In a follow-up post, Evans re-shares a piece called The Main­line and Me that tries to hon­est­ly explain why she finds the­se church­es admirable but bor­ing. The lack of artic­u­la­tion of the why of beliefs is a big rea­son, as is the the fire-in-the bel­ly of many younger Evan­gel­i­cals and a cul­ture adverse to step­ping on toes.

One of the peo­ple she cites in this arti­cle is Robert E. Web­ber, a reli­gious Evan­gel­i­cal of anoth­er gen­er­a­tion whose spir­i­tu­al trav­els brought him back to Main­line Protes­tantism. I first dis­cov­ered him ten sum­mers ago. The cross-polination of that book helped me bridge the Quak­er move­ment with the pro­gres­sive Evan­gel­i­cal sub­cul­ture that was start­ing to grow and I wrote about it in the Younger Quak­ers and the Younger Evan­gel­i­cals.

I sup­pose I should find it heart­en­ing that many of the threads of GenX loss and redis­cov­ery we were talk­ing about ten years ago are show­ing up in a pop­u­lar reli­gion blog today (with the sub­sti­tu­tion of Mil­lenials). But I won­der if Friends are any more able to wel­come in pro­gres­sive seek­ers now than we were in 2003? I still see a lot of the kind of lead­er­ship that Web­ber iden­ti­fied with the “prag­mat­ic” 1975 – 2000 gen­er­a­tion (see chart at the end of my “Younger Quak­ers” post). 

Web­ber might not have been right, of course, and Evans may be wrong. But if they’re on to some­thing and there’s a pro­gres­sive wave just wait­ing for a Main­line denom­i­na­tion to catch a lit­tle of the Evangelical’s fire and artic­u­late a clear mes­sage of lib­er­al pro­gres­sive faith, then Friends still have some inter­nal work to do.

Bits and pieces, remembering blogging

I real­ly should blog here more. I real­ly should. I spend a lot of my time the­se days shar­ing oth­er people’s ideas. Most recent­ly, on Friends Jour­nal you can see my inter­view with Jon Watts (co-conducted with Megan Kietzman-Nicklin). The three of us talked on and on for quite some time; it was only an inflex­i­ble train sched­ule that end­ed my par­tic­i­pa­tion.

The favorite part of talk­ing with Jon is his enthu­si­asm and his tal­ent for keep­ing his sights set on the long pic­ture (my favorite ques­tion was ask­ing why he start­ed with a Quak­er fig­ure so obscure even I had to look him up). It’s easy to get caught up in the bustle of dead­li­nes and to-do lists and to start to for­get why we’re doing this work as pro­fes­sion­al Quak­ers. There is a real­i­ty behind the word counts. As Friends, we are shar­ing the good news of 350+ years of spir­i­tu­al adven­tur­ing: obser­va­tions, strug­gles, and imperfect-but-genuine attempts to fol­low Inward Light of the Gospels.


My nine year old son Theo is blog­ging as a class assign­ment. I think they’ve been sup­posed to be writ­ing there for awhile but he’s real­ly only got­ten the bug in the last few weeks. It’s a full-on Word­Press site, but with cer­tain restric­tions (most notably, posts only become pub­lic after the class­room teacher has had a chance to review and vet them). It’s cer­tain iron­ic to see one of my kids blog­ging more than me!


Enough blog­ging for today. Time to put the rest of the awake kids to bed. I’m going to try to have more reg­u­lar small posts so as to get back into the blog­ging habit. In the mean­time, I’m always active on my Tum­blr site (which shows up as the side­bar to the right). It’s the buck­et for my inter­net cura­tions – videos and links I find inter­est­ing, and my own pic­tures and mis­cel­lanea.

Outreach gets people to your meetinghouse / Hospitality keeps people returning.

Over on Twit­ter feed came a tweet (h/t revrevwine):

seo - Google SearchTo trans­late, SEO is “search engine opti­miza­tion,” the often-huckersterish art of trick­ing Google to dis­play your web­site high­er than your com­peti­tors in search results. “Usabil­i­ty” is the catch-all term for mak­ing your web­site easy to nav­i­gate and invit­ing to vis­i­tors. Com­pa­nies with deep pock­ets often want to spend a lot of mon­ey on SEO, when most of the time the most viable long-term solu­tion to rank­ing high with search engi­nes is to provide vis­i­tors with good rea­sons to vis­it your site. What if we applied the­se prin­ci­ples to our church­es and meet­ing­hous­es and swapped the terms?

Out­reach gets peo­ple to your meet­ing­house /
Hos­pi­tal­i­ty keeps peo­ple return­ing.

A lot of Quak­er meet­ing­hous­es have pret­ty good “nat­u­ral SEO.” Here in the U.S. East Coast, they’re often near a major road in the mid­dle of town. If they’re lucky there are a few his­tor­i­cal mark­ers of notable Quak­ers and if they are real­ly lucky there’s a highly-respected Friends school near­by. All the­se meet­ings real­ly have to do is put a nice sign out front and table a few town events every year. The rest is cov­ered. Although we do get the occa­sion­al “aren’t you all Amish?” com­ments, we have a much wider rep­u­ta­tion that our num­bers would nec­es­sar­i­ly war­rant. We rank pret­ty high.

But what are the lessons of hos­pi­tal­i­ty we could work on? Do we provide places where spir­i­tu­al seek­ers can both grow per­son­al­ly and engage in the impor­tant ques­tions of the faith in the mod­ern world? Are we invi­ta­tion­al, bring­ing peo­ple into our homes and into our lives for shared meals and con­ver­sa­tions?

In my free­lance days when I was hired to work on SEO I ran through a series of sta­tis­ti­cal reports and redesigned some under­per­form­ing pages, but then turned my atten­tion to the client’s con­tent. It was in this realm that my great­est quan­tifi­able suc­cess­es occurred. At the heart of the con­tent work was ask­ing how could the site could more ful­ly engage with first-time vis­i­tors. The “usabil­i­ty con­sid­er­a­tions” on the Wikipedia page on usabil­i­ty could be eas­i­ly adapt­ed as queries:

Who are the users, what do they know, what can they learn? What do users want or need to do? What is the users’ gen­er­al back­ground? What is the users’ con­text for work­ing? What must be left to the machine? Can users eas­i­ly accom­plish intend­ed tasks at their desired speed? How much train­ing do users need? What doc­u­men­ta­tion or oth­er sup­port­ing mate­ri­als are avail­able to help the user?

I’d love to see Friends con­sid­er this more. FGC’s “New Meet­ings Tool­box” has a sec­tion on wel­com­ing new­com­ers. But I’d love to hear more sto­ries about how we’re work­ing on the “usabil­i­ty” of our spir­i­tu­al com­mu­ni­ties.