Burnt Ubers and Reluctant Ranters

Inter­est­ing read­ing today about how our Quak­er struc­tures can choke the Spir­it and hem in our com­mu­ni­ties. Johan M is no stranger to Quak­er insti­tu­tions, but in “Clerk Please” he writes:

But who will see and pro­claim these things to new audi­ences if we are so busy try­ing to sort out our struc­tures, nom­i­na­tion process­es, and inter­per­son­al ani­mosi­ties that we don’t take the time to dis­cern and hon­or lead­ings?

Susanne K echos some of these themes in her lat­est post, “Quak­erism and Struc­ture”:

One of the key parts of George Fox’s rev­e­la­tion was that reli­gious struc­tures can kill the free move­ment of the Spir­it… My Ffriend R has advo­cat­ed the prac­tice of dis­band­ing the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends every 50 years. He believes that the spark of the ini­tial vision and pas­sion of reli­gious groups only sur­vives for about 50 years before devel­op­ing struc­tures start to choke the move­ment of the Spir­it.

It’s been about eigh­teen months since I was side­lined from the pro­fes­sion­al Quak­er world (I work for some Quak­ers now, but on a con­tract basis and the rela­tion­ship is much dif­fer­ent). A year or two before this, my month­ly meet­ing melt­ed down and more or less devolved into a wor­ship group and while I’ve found a more active meet­ing to attend, it’s not par­tic­u­lar­ly close and I haven’t joined.

The result of these two changes is that I haven’t sat in a staff meet­ing for over a year; I don’t attend busi­ness meet­ings; I don’t belong to any com­mit­tees; I don’t rep­re­sent any group at con­fer­ences. After years of being what Evan Welkin called an uberQuak­er, I’m an unin­volved slack­er. Bad Mar­tin, right?

Except I’m not unin­volved of course. I feel I’m doing as much now to help peo­ple find and grow into Quak­erism than I did when I was paid to do this. I don’t spend much time with that 2% skim of Quak­er élite who attend all the same con­fer­ences and appoint each oth­er to all the same com­mit­tees, but then cater­ing to their needs was pret­ty high main­te­nance and was nev­er some­thing I thought of as the real mis­sion.

Suzanne talks about the “Sab­bat­i­cal Year” meme, and of course lots of elec­trons fly about the blo­gos­phere about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the Emerg­ing Church move­ment. There’s a hunger for a dif­fer­ent way of being a Friend. I know one Quak­er who threat­ens to burn down the famous meet­ing­house he wor­ships in because he feels that the build­ing has become an emp­ty icon, a weight of bricks upon the Spir­it (I’ll leave him anony­mous in case some­thing mys­te­ri­ous hap­pens to the meet­ing­house tonight!). How trag­ic would it be, real­ly, if some of insti­tu­tion­al bag­gage was laid down and we had to find oth­er ways to con­firm and sup­port one another’s min­istries?

I love teach­ing Quak­erism, I love help­ing Quak­ers use the inter­net for out­reach and I love reach­ing out to poten­tial Friends with my writ­ing. I’m doing all that with­out com­mit­tees or staff meet­ings. No bud­gets to fight over, no mis­sion state­ments to write.

Half a decade ago now I wrote about the “lost Quak­er gen­er­a­tion,” active and vision­ary Gen X Friends who seemed to be drop­ping out in droves. We’re all keep­ing in bet­ter touch now via Face­book but I haven’t noticed much jump­ing back into the fray. What I have noticed is a phe­nom­e­non where Friends half a gen­er­a­tion old­er are tak­ing on Quak­er respon­si­bil­i­ties only to drop away from active meet­ing involve­ment when their terms end­ed. 

If we could pull togeth­er all of the dropouts togeth­er and start meet­ings that focused on wor­ship, reli­gious edu­ca­tion and deep-community activ­i­ties, I think we’d see some­thing inter­est­ing. I envy those with less-musty, Gen-X heavy meet­ings near­by (Robin M show­cased her meet­ing recent­ly). And don’t get me wrong: I also love the old Quak­er ide­al of the strong local Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty and the bonds of the com­mu­ni­ty on the indi­vid­ual, etc., etc. But I don’t see meet­ings like that any­where near­by and the only clear lead­ing I real­ly have is to con­tin­ue this “free­lance” teach­ing, writ­ing and orga­niz­ing. It’s not the sit­u­a­tion I want but it’s the sit­u­a­tion I have and at this point I have to just trust the lead­ings as they come step by step and have faith they’re going some­where. Boy though, I wish I knew where all this was head­ing some­times!

  • Hi Mar­tin,
    I’ve def­i­nite­ly felt the pull to com­mit in a com­mit­tee man­ner, which to me is dif­fer­ent than com­mit­ting to the reli­gion. I’m resist­ed the pull to be a Quak­er and am try­ing to just be Alli­son. I searched and found my per­son­al Mid­dle Way which is to be on the Wel­com­ing com­mit­tee. One foot in, one foot out. I think my idea of Wel­com­ing is dif­fer­ent than stand­ing at the front door and sign­ing peo­ple in, and I think I will be bring­ing up those ideas lat­er on.
    You prob­a­bly share that idea, since I think the inter­net nowa­days is one por­tal for Seek­ers.

    • Mar­tin,
      I find it very inspir­ing when­ev­er I see sev­er­al peo­ple blog­ging on the same theme — just as we some­times know a cov­ered Meet­ing by the uni­ty of min­istry. (Not so long ago it was on diver­si­ty in Quak­er Meet­ings, now it’s on structure/vision/leadership.) The uni­ty of voic­es tells me that the Spir­it is deeply at work: Some­thing is brew­ing deep in the heart of Quak­erism, and we need only wait for that Some­thing to become more vis­i­ble! Add to that that the Gen X phe­nom­e­non in many ways takes spir­i­tu­al­i­ty beyond the orga­ni­za­tion and into rela­tion­ships and com­mu­ni­ty — that’s what I see in your post-Quaker work and in so many oth­ers: God’s Spir­it bub­bling and burst­ing forth all around, not just in the Quak­er Meet­ings. Who knows what new life will burst forth in our Meet­ings when the time is ripe? Our long­ing and yearn­ing for some­thing new is a guar­an­tee that it will con­tin­ue to take form in the depths. For­tu­nate­ly, as peo­ple of faith, we can start to enjoy the new cre­ation and pro­claim it before we ful­ly see it and can name it. So let’s rejoice in God’s work in and around us and joy­ful­ly antic­i­pate the day when its form is so sol­id that we can name it.

  • Mar­tin Kel­ley

    @Allison: From what I can tell now I think the inter­net is the prime por­tal for Quak­er out­reach. I rarely hear any recent con­vince­ment sto­ries that don’t include Google or Wikipedia. That said, there’s usu­al­ly some Quak­er in the seeker’s past who always made a good impres­sion, plant­ed a seed, and helped inspire the seek­er to type “quak­er” into the com­put­er. If I were going to start a local wor­ship group the oth­er essen­tial would be a fly­er at the super­mar­ket. Very high tech and very low tech.
    The sec­ond part is giv­ing peo­ple a rea­son to come back. I think most Quak­er meet­ings (cer­tain­ly urban ones that I’ve known) have tons of vis­i­tors com­ing by. If the meet­ing were able to “con­vert” one tenth of them (I’m using “con­ver­sion” more in the mar­ket­ing sense than the the­o­log­i­cal one) then any meet­ing in the coun­try would be burst­ing at the seams with­in a few years. If I were to orga­nize some­thing, I try for an ongo­ing Quak­erism 101 course every week. A prob­lem we have is that vis­i­tors can come and even become rel­a­tive reg­u­lars with­out hav­ing a clue what we’re all doing there (or worse yet think they know but be way off; some meet­ings even let them become mem­bers in that state!).
    @Suzanne: I’m rejoic­ing yes, but I’m also sur­pris­ing­ly alone. As I said if not for the Inter­net I’d be the mod­el of the semi-uninvolved burnt out Quak­er. I’ve got my old books (right now I’m in Clark­son, pub­lished 202 years ago) but because of dis­tance I only see my live fel­low­ship for about three hours a month if lucky. This isn’t just Quak­erism, it’s the nature of the con­tem­po­rary hour-a-week Protes­tantism which most Friends have bought into. There are winds of change in the greater reli­gious world, yes, but few I know of in my local Friends meet­ings.