On Building Learning Networks

We Quakers could do a lot of things better than we do.

When I first felt a call to ministry, one of the things I realized right away was how little I knew. And I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had a vague sense that people who go to seminary must learn more than theology, that there must be some sort of practical training, but I wasn’t exactly sure what that would entail. So I went to the New York Public Library and started browsing through the religion section.

That’s when I found the Dewey Decimal System, classification numbers 253 & 254. Books with these numbers talk about pastoral theology, counseling and spiritual direction, religious use of communications media, faith-based public relations and publicity, and church finance. I also spent some time pulling from the sociology section and from the business leadership section. (I already had a background in education, or I would’ve gone there, too.) What I learned from this was not just the actual content of the books but the fact that there is a lot of information that Friends could really use.

Very few unprogrammed Quakers go to seminary or any other formal religious training. This dates back to early Friends’ strong belief that attending seminary and being ordained does not equal sanctification—that God calls and empowers the minister, and the church doesn’t have that power. I’m totally on board with that. (I don’t believe seminary and ordination to be fundamentally bad, just not necessary.)

Here’s the thing, though—not being formally educated as ministers does not mean that we shouldn’t be learning. Even aside from the pieces around deep spiritual reflection, there are practical skills involved in a wide variety of ministries that we don’t seem to recognize are things you can learn. Sometimes, the work we do, while heartfelt, isn’t very skilled. Pastoral care, property, religious education, outreach, finance, personnel, website development, communications—when Friends take on work without support in learning the skills they need, they’re often less effective than they otherwise might be, even if they have the right gifts and are living their callings. And sometimes, unintentionally, untrained Friends even cause harm.

The field of education tells us that different people learn in very different ways. For some, all we need is the right set of books.   But most people need some type of human interaction. The trouble is, there’s not time for most committees, in the course of regular committee meetings, to set aside other business and self-train. Also, the insularity of committees or even whole meetings discourages learning—if the knowledge doesn’t already exist within the insular community, how will it be discovered?

A few models are rising up among Friends—models of what I would call “learning networks.” A learning network is a group of people, each intentionally developing their skill sets, in which everyone is recognized as having a contribution, experts are acknowledged and openly invited to share, the door is open to people moving in and out of participation, and organizers create a safe space for questions and learning.

One such learning network is the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative. QREC deliberately crosses all branches of Quakerism. It is led by a “steering circle,” and it shares resources on its website and by newsletter, but it also hosts “conversation circles”—video conferences to which anyone is invited, each organized around a topic in the religious education field. QREC also has a yearly conference. QREC Friends describe themselves as “a grassroots network of Friends holding a sense of stewardship for life-long Quaker faith formation through religious education.” No one is nominated to QREC. There’s not a set term or a particular number of spots that must be filled. Friends are welcome to dip in and out, contribute what they have to share, and take away what they’re able to learn.

New York Yearly Meeting is near the end of a first year of experimenting with the Outreach Working Group. OWG invites Friends from NYYM monthly meetings who carry a concern for outreach to commit to the group for up to two years. It’s a voluntary commitment—no nominations. The group meets every couple of months by video conference. Each conference starts with a mutual sharing of what the members have been doing and learning, followed by a conversation about a particular outreach topic (often with an invited expert providing a presentation), and ending with each member of the group committing to one way in which they will use what they’ve just learned.

One more—the Quaker Communications and Outreach Facebook group. This group is open to anyone upon request, but the community maintains a sharp focus on mutual skill building in communications especially. Friends post questions and comments and offer one another feedback on their work. The top posts as I’m writing this blog include one that just says, “WordPress or SquareSpace?,” which has launched a multi-comment conversation about the merits of each; a post about using Meeting for Worship as a Facebook event (is this a good idea? should it be connected to Facebook ads? why or why not?); and info about a recent Quaker history webcast, which launched a discussion about the content of the webcast, best practices for webcasts in general, and the merits of various types of webcast-related technology.

Each of these learning networks has four elements in common:

1) No permanent commitment. You’re not nominated; you just join.

2) Mixing groups of people who wouldn’t otherwise meet. A lot of times, the learning is about cross-pollenating. Many members of the Outreach Working Group, for example, have never met in person, and it’s possible they never will, because they’re nearly all Friends whose ministry is focused within their local meetings and neighborhood communities. But they exchange ideas and learn from one another all the time.

3) Topical focus. Everyone knows what the goal of the conversation is, and it’s not allowed to wander too far away from that goal.

4) Dedicated leadership. QREC calls it a steering circle; OWG calls them co-conveners; for QCO, they’re Facebook group administrators. But in each case, there’s leadership—one Friend, two Friends, a handful of Friends—dedicated to being present and creating a safe space.

You’ll notice that one thing I’m emphasizing is the agility of these groups, the non-commitment, the fact that you don’t have to be nominated and stick around for three years to participate. That’s very much unlike most of what happens within our Quaker institutions, which tend to very formal and structured around committees and handbooks and minimum time commitments. That type of structuring, I believe, is neither fundamentally better nor fundamentally worse. But I would argue that the purposes are different. The Quaker institution is about belonging, perpetuating, supporting, and linking—all words that imply permanence and stability. A learning network is about experimenting, growing, pushing ahead, and exploring—all words that imply change and agility. These different purposes, which exist in a state of creative tension, require different types of structures and different mindsets. We need both.

So what other learning networks exist, or could exist? Are there learning networks around pastoral care? Around property? Are there learning networks for meeting finances? For supporting ministry? If there aren’t, could there be?

How do we articulate the difference between the ideal and where we are?

At a recent gathering for extended worship, I felt called to pray:

Dear God—we are listening. Many of us are already faithfully doing all that we can imagine . . . help us to open up to what you might do that is beyond what we can imagine.

My yearly meeting recently adopted a set of six “leadings and priorities.” These six statements, derived from a multi-year process of visiting and listening to every one of our monthly meetings and worship groups, are meant to guide the work of the yearly meeting organization. And although these particular statements are New York Yearly Meeting specific, the spiritual callings behind them are not, so I feel comfortable saying that what I’m about to share will be applicable to other Friends.

They read as follows:

We envision a yearly meeting deeply grounded in the practice of our faith.

We envision a yearly meeting made up of strong, vital monthly meetings.

We envision a yearly meeting gathered together into one body.

We envision a yearly meeting that nurtures our children, youth, and young adults.

We envision a yearly meeting that supports and amplifies our witness.

We envision a yearly meeting that is accountable and transparent.

I identify with these priorities because they line up nicely with my own ministry, which I have come to know as hearth building. I am called to the work of creating a home for Friends, a community rich with opportunities that are so nourishing that each person can then turn around and minister unto the world, fully fed.

Here are some things I’ve heard from Friends since we adopted the leadings and priorities:

“Okay—we acknowledged that these things are important. But who decides how to make them happen?”

“And aren’t these things obvious, anyway? Isn’t this what we’ve been trying to do the whole time?”

“Clearly, we’re all doing the best we can. Nobody has two extra seconds to rub together, so we can’t do more.”

“We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves.  We’re pretty good at all this already.”

And now I’m going to say it.

No—we are not.  Although, in general, we are good people trying hard to be faithful, we’re not doing a phenomenal job, collectively, of being deeply grounded in the practice of our faith; of developing strong, vital monthly meetings; of gathering together into one body; of nurturing our children, youth, and young adults; of supporting and amplifying our witness; or of being accountable and transparent.

I say this because I can imagine the ideal, and I’m going to articulate my vision of what that would be. Visions matter–knowing where we might be someday.  I hope that in the comments, you’ll add your visions, as well.

We envision a yearly meeting deeply grounded in the practice of our faith. 

We will have reached this ideal when every Friend, regardless of age, is in worship almost every week; when every Friend, regardless of age, has a personal daily spiritual practice; when every Friend middle school and up has read Faith and Practice or learned about it in some other way; when committees arise and are laid down solely in response to the direction of Spirit; when all Friends understand what spiritual gifts are and make a practice of naming, nurturing, and supporting them; when all Friends know how to recognize and live faithfully into ministries; and when all Friends use discernment in all areas of their daily lives.

We envision a yearly meeting made up of strong, vital monthly meetings. 

We will have reached this ideal when every monthly meeting experiences deeply gathered worship; when every monthly meeting has robust religious education for all ages; when every monthly meeting has a highly functioning ministry and counsel; when every monthly meeting behaves in a spiritually grounded manner around questions of budget and property; when every monthly meeting is rigorously engaged in outreach; and when every monthly meeting plays a meaningful role in its neighborhood community.

We envision a yearly meeting gathered into one body.

We will have reached this ideal when neither age nor gender nor race nor class nor level of education is an obstacle in any way to a sense of full belonging in the Religious Society of Friends; when Friends from every monthly meeting are ready to ask for help from other monthly meetings and are able to fully trust that help will arrive as needed; when it is never necessary for any Friend to ask for financial assistance to attend a Quaker event; when the majority of Friends practice intervisitation or travel in the ministry at some point in their lives; and when Friends from pastoral meetings and Friends from unprogrammed meetings are equally assured of their full acceptance in all parts of our Beloved Community.

We envision a yearly meeting that nurtures our children, youth, and young adults.

We will have reached this ideal when 100% of Quaker gatherings are either multigenerational or include meaningful parallel programming for children and youth; when children, youth, and young adults are encouraged to participate in any Quaker activity they like and are provided the support they need to participate meaningfully; when older adults are welcomed into traditionally “younger” spaces and are provided the support they need to participate meaningfully; when we develop systems of communication that are genuinely accessible to younger generations; when we explain our Quaker terminology as we use it, without fail; and when programming for children and youth is designed to ensure that our young Friends have all the information and experiences they need to be full adult participants in our community by the time they turn eighteen.

We envision a yearly meeting that supports and amplifies our witness.

We will have reached this ideal when our Quaker culture puts multiracial culture, not white culture, in the center; when our decisions about allocating time and money are fully in keeping with our testimonies; when we speak truth with love in all times and in all places, both individually and collectively; when we learn to speak and live courageously; and when each one of us lives a life that is 100% climate-sustainable.

We envision a yearly meeting that is accountable and transparent.

We will have reached this ideal when our budgets are easy to understand; when our reports and presentations are comprehensible to all Friends pre-teen and older, regardless of level of education or length of time the person has been a Friend; when it is extremely easy to find answers to questions about committee structures or other institutional information online; when we respond to each other’s questions within days, not weeks or months; when newcomers to yearly meeting sessions are supported sufficiently to participate meaningfully in business meetings; and when every Friend knows, without doing extensive research, what is done with all financial contributions.

I’ll return to the prayer I started with:

Dear God—we are listening. Many of us are already faithfully doing all that we can imagine . . . help us to open up to what you might do that is beyond what we can imagine.

The obvious next question, when we’ve spelled out the ideal, is this: How do we get from here to there? But for this blog, at least, that’s not my point. Instead, the question I’m posing is this: Why have we stopped behaving as though we’re working toward the ideal? Why have we stopped comparing what is to what could be? Why is it that, instead, we compare what is to what was ten years ago, or what would be nice, or what seems doable?

Why do we not talk about what is in the context of what God would have us be?

Systems theory has an answer to this. It’s called eroding goals, and it connects back to a blog I posted a few days ago—A Conversation About Delay.

Humans find it uncomfortable to perceive a gap between what is and what could be. And if there is a gap, there are really only two ways to make it go away. One way is to change what is, but this is often difficult, and even if we can change what is effectively, it almost always involves delay. And delay itself leads to further discomfort. Am I really having an effect? Have I done enough? What if I’ve done too much? Ack! The uncertainty!

But there’s another way to solve the gap between what is and what could be, and that’s to simply change what could be. This is so much easier than changing what is, because after all, what could be is a theoretical (or in the case of Friends, a spiritual) thing. All we have to do is change the way we think about it, and—poof!—we’ve changed it! So we redefine what could be so that it feels like something that’s easier to reach. We equate what could be to what was before, or what would be nice, or what seems doable. And we do this again and again and again until our goals (and our vision) have eroded to something that barely compares to what we named originally.

I want to challenge us, instead, to hold the vision, to really, really, really hang onto what could be. This is uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s even painful. If it is, I’m asking us to sit in that pain. I’m asking us to remind ourselves again and again of what really could be, to articulate it, to repeat it, to share it, to treasure it. We should be striving toward a God-sized vision.

What vision are you carrying?

A Conversation About Delay

Let’s have a talk about “Quaker time.”

We’re all familiar with the concept. Our system is sluggish. Considering new ideas, answering questions, getting projects off the ground—all of these things seem to take forever.   Some of us even laugh about this. That’s a natural instinct; teasing ourselves about our own internal culture is one of the sociological phenomenon that help us experience belonging.

Sadly, it’s not funny.

“Quaker time” is not a thing. We’ve made it a thing. Discernment is not about doing things in “Quaker time,” it’s about doing things in God’s time, which is sometimes much slower than earthly time and other times faster. I don’t think early Friends, the Publishers of Truth, often wrote a pamphlet and then sat on it for six months because they weren’t completely sure about the placement of a comma.

Discernment is a sacred practice, but the systems around it aren’t, necessarily. We Quakers have an almost unbelievable number of cultural and systemic structures set up around discernment that slow us down again and again and again. In the world of systems analysis, this is referred to as “delay.” It’s not a verb, not something a person does deliberately; it’s a noun, a delay set up in the system, and that delay itself, when it interacts with human beings, causes all kinds of things to happen that nobody intended.

The classic example of this is a shower that’s too far away from the water heater. You turn on the shower, and the water is cold, so you crank up the heat. Ten seconds later, still cold. You adjust it to be hotter. Ten seconds later, you adjust it again, until a full minute after your initial adjustment, you’re suddenly scalded by near-boiling water. You screech, maybe even jump out, and yank the tap toward cold. But you’ve turned it too far, and soon the water is freezing again…

I’m going to use that shower to talk about Quaker systems.

If you’ve never used this particular shower before, you might assume it doesn’t work and get back out of it. Someone told me once, “Most seekers are in pain…you don’t come to a new religious group because you’re having a really good day.” The last thing a new person needs is to get caught up in our institutional sluggishness, and there are things we can do to make the system more responsive to newcomers. We can prioritize following up with visitors (by phone or by email) and get that done before we do any other committee work. And we can bend our rules a little bit. If the newcomer offers to bring cookies, does she really need to enter the social hour rotation and wait six weeks for her turn? (Really. Some meetings do things like this.)

When it takes forever to find the right temperature, we’re tempted to give up and settle for whatever. This happens among Friends all the time. When someone’s led to new work on behalf of the body, it often takes weeks, or months, or years to get the pieces into place, not because it actually takes that much time to do the discernment but because the such-and-such committee only meets on second Thursdays, and the other-relevant-committee just met last Monday and won’t meet again for two months…this kind of delay wears on people. Eventually, we decide that the bar is too high. We might not even be conscious of it, but we begin to weigh leadings differently—is this spark that I’m carrying really worth the amount of institutional work it will take? When institutional delay snuffs out one spark, that’s sad. When it snuffs out sparks routinely—and it does—that’s a spiritual crisis.

If the delay lasts long enough, it’s easy to believe that the temperature fluctuations have nothing to do with how you turn the handle—that essentially, you’re powerless, so why even try? From the yearly meeting perspective, this question often sounds like this: why is there such a distance between monthly meetings and the yearly meeting organization? From the monthly meeting perspective, the same question often sounds like this: why doesn’t the yearly meeting ever do anything?

I see a lot of this as deeply rooted in systemic delay. When something comes from a monthly meeting, whether it’s a new piece of business or a specific concern or a more general request for help, the yearly meeting organization is in motion pretty much right away—but not visibly. When Tinyberg Worship Group sends a piece of business to the yearly meeting, that piece of business might be referred to a committee. The committee might take a few weeks before its next meeting. Then it might refer the piece of business to another committee. That committee takes a few weeks to discern. Staff members weigh in. It goes on the yearly meeting sessions agenda. We run out of time, so it’s held over until the fall—and the Friends back in Tinyberg don’t see any of this and aren’t part of it. By the time the yearly meeting organization ultimately responds, often a year or two later, the Friends at Tinyberg have done eighteen other things, and the response feels irrelevant.

We can do better, and I believe faithfulness obliges us to. Every time Friends in a monthly meeting fill out a form or write a report and submit it to any part of the yearly meeting organization, they should get multiple responses. After submitting a State of the Meeting report, for example, the monthly meeting should be receiving contacts based on what they had to say. First Day School is going well? The Youth Committee should be asking if Friends from that monthly meeting have any tips for other meetings. The meeting is experiencing a lot of conflict? At the very least, Ministry and Counsel could write back and say, “We’re praying for you.” This sounds like a lot of work, and it can be, but less so if the committee empowers individual Friends to do this rather than trying to do it all as a full committee. And finally, in the name of transparency, why should yearly meeting clerks and general secretaries not be publishing monthly updates for all Friends about what specific work is happening throughout the yearly meeting organization, with ways for Friends to follow up for more information or participation?

If you’ve never experienced a sluggish shower—if your shower works just fine—then it’s hard not to get impatient with the person who’s taking forever. “Quaker time” often prevents us from working effectively with other groups and organizations. If every decision takes a full month because we have to bring it to the next committee or business meeting, our partners—community organizations, schools, other faith groups—will eventually leave us behind. Can we experiment with methods to empower spiritually grounded individuals to make decisions on our behalf in these situations, providing spiritual support and accountability by asking them to report back to and regularly check in with the body?

Sometimes the hot water is needed right now, and if it takes too long, the moment has passed, and it doesn’t matter anymore. For this one, we have a success story. Both New York Yearly Meeting and New England Yearly Meeting have recently empowered their clerks and general secretaries to issue public statements in response to current events, in the name of the body, without waiting for approval from the yearly meeting body. We call these “interim actions,” and I’ll quote someone I know from the Massachusetts Council of Churches: “I am so grateful you Friends did that, because before, your voice couldn’t be part of things as they were happening, and now it can be—and the world needs the Quakers.”

Maybe the most important thing to understand about delay is that it makes it very hard to know whether we’re actually making a difference. The cause and effect can be so far apart in time that it’s hard to be sure they’re connected, and that makes it impossible to learn anything. I don’t believe God ever intended this for us. I believe God has something better in store. I don’t believe God sees a conflict between spiritual groundedness/faithfulness and agility/efficiency.

How can we identify the systemic sources of delay—the specific practices or structures that cause things to take a very long time?

How can we differentiate between our institutional traditions and our spiritual callings—that is, separate in our minds the how we do things from the why?

How can we trust one another, and trust God, enough to experiment with new ways of doing things?

Are we open to new Light, from whatever source it may come?

I have a great love for systems analysis—that is, the discipline of looking at complicated systems of people, cultures, practices, demographics, etc.; noticing patterns; and discovering how to influence those patterns. I mention this up front because I believe systems analysis, just like prophecy or discernment or clerking or music, is a gift that can be used in a spiritually grounded manner to serve the family of Friends and the world more broadly.

And yet, I have sometimes encountered Friends—a minority, but not an insignificant one—that disagree when I identify systems analysis as a useful spiritual gift. Here are some things that I have actually heard: You’re missing the point. It’s not about that. Spiritual work is all about relationships. This intellectual stuff doesn’t really matter.

When I attempt to be faithful and I share my gifts with Friends and that’s the response, I feel deeply and personally rejected. God has made me, Emily, with certain specific spiritual gifts, and these gifts are what I have to share with my community. If those gifts are not valued, what does that mean about how my community values me?

And yet, I’m guilty, too, of undervaluing spiritual gifts that I don’t understand. I remember working once with a Friend who is deeply mystical. Sometimes, our conversations went something like this:

Me: What about [insert logical idea here]?

Friend: No. It doesn’t feel right.

Me: But why? It feels like a good fit to me because [insert logical reason here].

Friend: But it doesn’t feel right.

We were speaking two different languages, and hers was not less viable than mine. I didn’t always treat her as kindly or as respectfully as I might. I couldn’t always figure out how to value both her contribution and mine, and that’s something I’ve regretted ever since.

There are other Friends with other gifts who’ve talked to me about feeling undervalued in their communities. I hear it from Friends who work with children—“Nobody cares what I’m doing in First Day School.” I hear it from Friends who are children—“I have things to say, but nobody ever asks me.” I hear it from quiet, dedicated Friends who sharpen pencils and make coffee and replace the toilet paper in the bathrooms—“It would be nice if somebody noticed my contributions, just once in a while.”

Paul knew what he was doing when he compared the body of the church to a human body in 1 Corinthians 12. The body works as a unit, and the various parts function in ways that are mutually complementary. But imagine being a kidney. If you were a kidney, you might have some idea what the bladder does, or what the liver does, or what the stomach does, or what the blood does. But would you even be able to imagine what it might be like to be an eye? If you were a kidney, wouldn’t it be tempting to say, “This ‘seeing’ thing…I don’t know…I’ve never experienced it. Is it even really a thing? If it is, it can’t be worth much. I mean, I get along just fine without it.” And you could very easily go back to being a kidney and never think much about the eyes again.

Those of us who are kidneys should be kidneys. We should be the best kidneys we can be. But I wonder what would happen if we all took a minute to step back, to look at our whole communities, and ask ourselves—and each other—what do we each contribute? How can we listen better, even to languages that we don’t understand? Can we trust that someone’s experience is their experience and that our inability to relate to it doesn’t make it less true?

Can we make it a practice to say to one another: I’m grateful you’re here. I’d like to know you better. What can I do to support you?

Eight Changes Your Meeting Can Make Right Now

We can escape the death spiral.

This article from Thom Rainer appeared in my Facebook feed yesterday.  (If you haven’t read it yet, you probably should now.)  Rainer lists eight signs of a church that might be closing soon.  Then he suggested that any church exhibiting four or more of these signs must change or die.

Almost every Quaker meeting I know exhibits at least six.

What Rainer says rings true.  We face a choice – do we change, or do we die?  Sometimes, when Friends talk about change, I hear helplessness in their words or their tone.  Change what?  How?  Why?

Here’s my answer to those questions.  Please feel free to add your own.

1. Value people. Send occasional handwritten cards to everyone in your directory.  Ask visitors for an email or phone number and follow up every time.  Develop a practice of telling each person in your meeting what you appreciate about them.  Invite people to meeting events personally, individually, and by name.

2. Be meaningfully present in your community. Participate in town events.  Organize work days to help at the local school or library.  Prioritize local giving in your meeting budget.  Listen to your neighbors.  Study white privilege and systemic racism.  Learn about gender inclusion.

3. Take actions to make participation easy for young adults and young families. Provide childcare at every meeting activity.  Have a dedicated space for teens to gather, even if your meeting doesn’t have any teens right now.  Pay the way for young adults to attend Quaker gatherings.  Develop a meaningful presence on social media.  Explain Quaker jargon and processes clearly, briefly, frequently, and at the moment they are relevant – whether that’s in business meetings, in discussions, or even at social hour.

4. Assume that joy and play are as sacred as struggle and lamentation. If the meeting spends two hours laboring over the budget, it should also spend two hours playing games or singing.  If you don’t have time for that, you’re doing too much laboring.

5. Develop a permission-giving culture. The default answer to every new idea is “yes, and how can I help?”  Save “no” and “maybe” for those moments when there’s a truly compelling reason.  If you send an idea to committee for seasoning, ask yourselves – is more discernment essential, or are we doing this out of habit?

6. Start your budget process with giving. Allot the funds for donations and meaningful programming first, with a preference for things happening outside the walls of your meetinghouse.  Then, set aside what’s essential for facility maintenance. If anything is left, assume you haven’t given enough away.

7. Seriously consider getting rid of your building. If the meetinghouse is a source of conflict, if it’s a money pit, or if it’s in a geographically inconvenient location, you can sell it and go someplace else.  Really.  That’s a thing you can do.

8. Perform holy experiments. Try things that might fail.  Move ahead even when you’re not 100% sure.  Trust one another.  Give yourselves permission to make mistakes.  Ask God to lead you to radical places.

I believe that Quakerism is as relevant as it’s ever been, but many of our institutions are not.  The Spirit of God is unchanging–we, however, are not meant to be.