A Living, Breathing Blessing

Nothing is the same as two years ago. The general condition of the Religious Society of Friends seems hard to perceive. With few in-person visits, I rarely hear the unguarded moments over coffee pots where truth is told. Even formal reports are less accessible. That’s ironic; they’re all online now, so surely, they’d be more accessible, except I tire of videoconference events. My body and spirit long to be outside moving.
 
How are we, as Friends? My best sense: coping. Truth told, as organizations, we are barely doing that. Quaker institutions of all sizes struggle to find enough volunteers. Staff turnover seems high. Various groups are internally squabbling or fracturing. Some yearly meetings aren’t really functioning. Many pastoral meetings are looking for new pastors now or have just hired new ones. Monthly meetings don’t seem very sure of who they are.
 
I suspect this stems from us all as individuals. We’re tired. We’re aging considerably faster than the chronological calendar is moving…stress and isolation do that to people. Politically and culturally, quite a lot feels very scary, and it’s worth noting that this is true for people from nearly all political and cultural backgrounds. In this time of extraordinary fear, there’s a doctrine of ideological purity in which many have taken shelter. It tells us we must accept wholesale one set of beliefs or another and that moderation and compromise are fundamentally unethical, not to mention dangerous. And some who would be willing to engage and cooperate across differences are afraid to do so publicly because of the censure and ostracism that often result.
 
When I do witness joyful, beautiful, life-giving moments, they’re often small, between just a few people. Someone opens a door for someone else. Strangers watch a toddler discover gravity. Relative to international warfare, starvation, and human rights violations, such moments seem completely inconsequential. But they are not. We are social creatures made by God to live in community, and we require enormous amounts of ordinary kindness—both giving and taking—in order to thrive, not just cope, in this world. 
 
It makes me think about the famous Fox quotation.  We often say “there is that of God in everyone,” but what he really said was considerably more complex.
 
“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come…”  Not in just the right places, or the comfortable places, but wherever we happen to be.
 
“…that your carriage and life may preach…”  Not our words, but our carriage and life, including all the boring bits, like greeting the bus driver and retweeting a meme and answering phone calls from Aunt Sophia.
 
“…among all sorts of people, and to them…” Not people with whom we agree, not people we respect, not people we like, but all sorts of people.
 
“…then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world…” Remember what it’s like to walk cheerfully? There have been times in the last two years when I’ve found it nearly impossible to access that feeling. But Fox said that this can and will happen again, if we can practice being patterns and examples.
 
“…answering that of God in everyone…” Which presupposes, if we are answering, that that of God is speaking in others first. What an amazing presumption.
 
“…whereby in them you may be a blessing…” To answer that of God in everyone is to be a living, breathing blessing.
 
“…and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”  And to be a living, breathing blessing causes us to be blessed, too.

tl;dr

I listened to a podcast this week that reminded me of some research I’ve heard about before. In this case, the story began with the British parents of Muslim children who’d been born and raised in the United Kingdom, made it all all the way through medical school in London, and then astonished everyone by abruptly moving to the Middle East and joining ISIS. Their families were fearful for their children’s lives, horrified by their children’s actions, and extraordinary dismayed–how could this have happened? To their children, who’d gone to ordinary schools in a pluralistic society and worshipped at moderate mosques and faithfully called their parents every weekend? How could there have been no prior warning whatsoever?

A pair of sociologists filled in the details. They explained a research-based theoretical framework about extremist groups and young people. The basic idea is that, in such cases, the most powerful influence over a young person is their friends, and that influence becomes almost insurmountable when the friends articulate a particular kind of message. The unbeatable message is any message that talks about a greater purpose, a fight against oppressors, self-sacrifice, and glorious legacy. These med students had encountered other twenty-somethings who pitched the story of ISIS as a self-sacrificial freedom fight. The actual ideology of the group, according to these sociologists, was probably irrelevant to the students’ motivations. What hooked them was the promise of a dangerous greater purpose. (And once they’d physically entered ISIS camps, other forces kicked in, and they weren’t permitted to leave no matter what.)

Consider, the theory goes, the competing story from the students’ families. What did they preach? “Calm down; go slowly; use good sense and moderation.” That message is not exciting. And once the students had devoted themselves to the greater purpose narrative, such a message could not possibly reach them. Inherent in the extremist belief system is the idea that one’s greater purpose is more important than anything else, including one’s family and other personal relationships, and giving up these relationships only feeds the self-sacrificial feeling.

Wow. This concept resonates with me. I’ve never joined a terrorist group and would very much like to think I never would, but the search for a greater purpose (and the tendency toward self-sacrifice) is familiar. Some of you will understand my shorthand when I say that I’m an enneagram one. Not all people are motivated in precisely the same ways, but a fair share of us are drawn to big purpose and self-sacrifice (regardless of one’s enneagram type or whatever other personality test you want to reference). Many people would rather have meaning than comfort.

This tendency might be even stronger in adolescents and twenty-somethings, whose prefrontal cortexes often haven’t finished developing. It means they’re more likely to make decisions using impulsive centers in the brain. They’re also unlikely to accurately assess risk to their own safety. Various scientists have different ideas about why our prefrontal cortexes develop so late, but I like the woolly mammoth theory (that’s my own phrase, not anything you’re going to find in a peer-reviewed journal). Back when we were hunter-gatherers, it was to the community’s advantage if young people were mildly stupid risk-taking glory seekers. Somebody had to be willing to hunt the woolly mammoth. Doing it might get the hunters killed, but if they succeeded, the whole community would eat for the entire winter. So young people’s brains evolved to prioritize glory over caution.

Or–it could’ve been God’s idea. It does still have advantages today. Young people do all kinds of wild things, some of which result in innovations that benefit all of society.

Anyway…for most people who are hungering for greater purpose, regardless of age, “calm down; go slowly; use good sense and moderation” is not a message that’s likely to get through. But at this moment in time, I think it’s essential. Yes, we face enormous injustices that need to be resolved yesterday. Yes, God calls us to speak and act prophetically. But at the same time, I don’t see much convincing evidence that extreme and unyielding ideas, alliances, and actions are at all effective in addressing most issues. Extremism seems to breed more extremism, on both the same and the opposing side. If we can’t talk about things, acknowledge complexity, and compromise, we don’t move forward from an oppositional stalemate.

(And right there is where my message gets boring. “Acknowledge complexity?” tl;dr)

Except.

Acknowledging complexity? It’s dangerous.

You want to risk being ridiculed? Try acknowledging complexity on Twitter. Looking to flirt with ostracism? Publicly affirm the fact that the opposing side has some reasonable arguments. Mercy, empathy, and compromise are not rewarded in today’s society. Bizarrely, it does seem possible nowadays to be self-sacrificially moderate. (Avoiding extremes of behavior or expression: observing reasonable limits; calm, temperate; not violent, severe, or intense.)

A meeting I joined this week was talking about being a non-anxious presence. I think that’s part of this, too. A single, persistently non-anxious presence can change the whole tenor of a room or an organization. Could there be such a thing as being deliberately, prophetically, self-sacrificially and publicly…calm?

Pastoral Care

Rufus Jones called local worship communities “the ganglia and arterial fountains of our spiritual life.”  Our meetings and churches are the primary places, the most basic groups, in which we gather to listen to God.  They are the communities in which we take on tasks too big for one person, designed to provide mutual spiritual and temporal care.  Our meetings are where we are married, where our children are accepted into membership, where we expect our memorials to be held.  And they are the place we go, habitually, for weekly worship and periodic potlucks, through all of the ordinary and extraordinary moments of living.

When a meeting is closing, its members will naturally have questions.  They’ll have need of pastoral care.  This can be provided by other members of the meeting, by loving outsiders, or—most likely—by some combination thereof.

Is there space for our grief?  To lose a meeting is to lose something precious, even if laying the meeting down is absolutely the right thing to do.  Friends are likely to need formal and informal opportunities to share their grief.  This can happen in special meetings for worship, in worship sharing, in prayer gatherings, in small group conversations, and more.  Because the process of closing a meeting is likely to take quite some time, there will need to be multiple opportunities for grief.  Friends should also anticipate grief happening on its own timetable.  It will come out at inconvenient moments and will need to be recognized and affirmed.  Some Friends might want to write a memorial minute for the meeting itself, just as we do for individuals.  There could even be a memorial meeting for worship.

Is there opportunity for us to celebrate?  Not everything about laying down a meeting is sad!  If the meeting has former members who have moved away, or if there are children and grandchildren of deceased members, the meeting might designate a particular day to gather (in person or online) for a celebration of the meeting and of each other.  In such a celebration, Friends can share favorite memories of the meeting and old photographs.  They might sing songs or participate in activities that have traditionally been part of the meeting’s culture.  Some meetings will want to invite the people in their neighborhood to such a celebration; neighbors might also have joyful memories to share.  Celebrations might also include announcements about what will happen next with the meeting’s assets.  For example, if the meeting is going to make a significant donation to a local nonprofit, the meeting might invite a representative of that nonprofit to the celebration.

Where will we worship?  Some meetings, when they close, will have stopped being a regular worship community already.  But in other cases, Friends are still attending worship regularly.  While individuals can certainly make their own arrangements for new worship communities, it might help for the group to have some conversations about this.  Is there a meeting nearby where we can worship?  If not, is there a meeting that we can join online?  Or might we gather for worship occasionally in someone’s living room?  The institutional end of a meeting does not prevent anyone from inviting personal friends to gather around a kitchen table.

How will we stay connected to our beloved Friends?  Perhaps the meeting’s members will be going separate ways for worship in the future.  This does not necessarily mean that they can’t continue to have social relationships.  Monthly in-person gatherings, simple email lists, and occasional video calls all allow for ongoing social connection.  Friends can continue to share recipes, help each other with yard work, and celebrate the birth of new grandchildren after the end of the meeting, but it helps to speak openly about whether this is desired.  Maintaining social connections will take some deliberate effort, and it’s good to know for sure that it’s wanted.

Will our meeting be forgotten?  A meeting needn’t be forgotten.  Minutes, documents, and photographs can be gathered and archived.  Also, Friends can record their memories of the meetings on paper, in sound files, or on video.  If the intention is to store these personal memories in archives, they’ll need to be put together in particular ways, but it might be the case that personal memories are mostly preserved for meeting members themselves to watch, plus their children and grandchildren.  Finally, remember: even if the name and history of the meeting itself is forgotten, its effects will continue to ripple through the world for who-knows-how-long, in ways that no human could ever trace.

f you’re looking to navigate the rest of this series, here it is in order: (1) The Life Cycle; (2) Acceleration; (3) Shame and Stigma; (4) Thriving and Declining; (5) All or Nothing; (6) The Meeting Member; (7) The Loving Outsider; (8) Practical Steps; (9) Pastoral Care.

Practical Steps

Suppose your Quaker meeting is clear to lay itself down.  What next?  What are the practical decisions and logistical steps that must be made, and who is responsible for them?

First, as I’ve heard over and over in talking with experts, you will need a lawyer.  You might need to hire this lawyer yourselves, or there might be a lawyer prepared to volunteer on behalf of your quarterly or yearly meeting.  But it will help a lot to have one in place early in the closure.

If your meeting is legally established as its own nonprofit, there will be multiple steps to take in terms of filing paperwork, and there will be specific and possibly tricky regulations about to where and in what way your finances and property can be transferred.  If your meeting is not its own nonprofit organization, then its assets are probably owned by a larger nonprofit already (such as a quarterly or yearly meeting), which makes things considerably easier.

In some places, if you are established as a non-profit, then you already have something written down somewhere about what happens to your assets if the meeting closes.  This is because many places require a plan to be established and filed at the time that the non-profit opens.  If your meeting is old enough that its establishment pre-dates living memory, you might be surprised by the plan that is legally filed.  In any case, you will need to know what that plan is and consult with a legal expert to find out what you must do next.

If you have some wiggle room about where your major assets go, it’s time to consider your meeting’s legacy.  What have historically been the major ministries and concerns of your meeting?  How can your assets be used in a way that supports and perpetuates those ministries and concerns?  For example, a meeting with a long history of running a food bank might set up an endowment for a long-standing local food security organization.  A meeting with ties to a mission in another country might donate its assets to the organization that runs that mission.  A meeting with ecumenical ministries might be able to donate its building (or sell it for a low price) to a local church that is growing rapidly.

Most meetings also own property that is relatively small, such as office supplies, books, artwork, and furniture.  Again, carefully check your local laws.  A meeting probably cannot, legally, simply say to its members, “Take whatever small things you’d like to have to remember the meeting.”  However, it might be possible to have a sale that is open to the public, with prices deliberately set at an affordable level, so that members of the meeting (and others) are able to purchase some small things.

Consider your meeting’s historical archives.  Even if you don’t have them compiled in a formal, systematic fashion, you probably do have minutes and membership records and other documents detailing marriages, births, adoptions, deaths, and so forth.  These may be of interest to future historians and genealogists.  Your yearly meeting is probably the best place to start in asking where and how to store your archives.

In addition to whatever legal procedures are in place, there will be a Quaker procedure, and this might come before, after, or during the legal process.  The first place to look for information about meeting closures from this perspective is your yearly meeting’s Faith and Practice, if you have one.  Some yearly meetings also have an entirely separate book of business procedures.  If there is a process in place, try to follow it.

If your yearly meeting does not have a Faith and Practice, or if there is no mention of a process for laying down a meeting, you might have to make it up.  Consider how to make sure the rest of the yearly meeting is aware of what’s happening.  At a minimum, can you send a minute from your business meeting to your quarterly or yearly meeting?  Might this include an invitation for other Friends to be holding your meeting in prayer as you go through the closing procedure?

Also, especially in the last ten years or so, there is an increasing number of independent meetings—that is, meetings and churches not affiliated with any larger organization.  This does not mean that the wider body of Friends will not care if your church or meeting is closing.  If it feels right, consider sending a minute (or even a less formal letter) about the closure to an umbrella organization, such as Friends World Committee for Consultation, and/or to other churches and meetings in your local area, even if you are not affiliated with them in any way.  If it feels appropriate, invite them to worship with you or hold you in the Light.

Finally, consider how the closure of your meeting might affect your immediate neighbors.  Make sure that people who live or work in your immediate area are aware that you will be closing.  I’ll have more to say about this in my next (and final) post on this subject, which will focus on pastoral care.

If you’d like to see an example of a legal guide for church closure, you might look at this document about how to close a church in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.  The laws will differ from laws relevant to your own location, but it might give you an idea of the sorts of things to be looking for and questions that you might ask your lawyer.

f you’re looking to navigate the rest of this series, here it is in order: (1) The Life Cycle; (2) Acceleration; (3) Shame and Stigma; (4) Thriving and Declining; (5) All or Nothing; (6) The Meeting Member; (7) The Loving Outsider; (8) Practical Steps; (9) Pastoral Care.

The Loving Outsider

Many denominations have full-time institutional ministers who work to support faith communities working through congregational closure.  As far as I can tell, Friends do not.  Our long-standing testimony against “hireling ministry” started as a recognition that academic degrees or denominational appointments do not qualify a person for ministry; instead, the immediate call of the Holy Spirit does.  But this has had some long-term cultural side effects.  One is our tendency to disregard subject-area-specific expertise in our faith communities even when it would be very helpful.  Another is our disinclination to provide financial support for people to live into genuine ministries.  For those reasons and others, we don’t have end-of-meeting-life experts with many years of experience who are prepared to help wherever needed.

This means that outside assistance usually comes in the form of people whose job descriptions might not explicitly include end-of-meeting-life support.  Most often, this is quarterly/area/regional meeting clerks. Sometimes, it might be yearly meeting clerks or staff members.  It could be trustees of the wider organization.  In theory, it could also be umbrella organization staff or committee members, though support for end-of-meeting-life does not seem to be a specifically articulated part of the mission of any national or international Quaker organization of which I am aware.

In theory, theologically speaking, Friends might say that the responsibility to minister to a meeting that’s closing belongs to whomever God calls to do it.  This resonates with me.  The trouble is, because Friends have a rightful concern about corporate discernment of significant calls to ministry, we tend to set up structures that eventually function as permission-based systems.  A person who is not in any particular institutional position, either volunteer or staff, might not feel as though they have permission from the wider body of Friends to intercede.  It gets tricky.

The whole thing is further complicated by issues of trust.  Every long-term congregational closure institutional minister with whom I’ve spoken so far (all of which have either been United Church of Christ or Church of Christ—Disciples) has brought this up.  They have all encountered situations where a local congregation has had bad experiences, or not enough experiences, with members of their denomination outside the local community.  When this happens, they often do not make fine distinctions in their emotional reactions.  They do not say, “Bernadette from Organization Y treated us badly, and therefore we do not trust Bernadette or Organization Y.”  They say, “Bernadette from Organization Y treated us badly, and therefore we do not trust outsiders.”  This may or may not be a conscious thought process, but either way, the result is the same.  It will be very difficult for any person outside the local community to provide meaningful support with an end-of-meeting-life process.

So—what is the loving outsider to do?  The Friend with genuine, Spirit-led call to help a community that is struggling?

First: recognize who you are in terms of your relationship with the meeting. 

Are you holding an institutional position?  Is it possible that accepting the institutional position has given you the responsibility of working with meetings at the end of their life cycles, whether you realized that before or not?  Do the members of the meeting know you?  Do you know them?

Or, if you are not holding an institutional position but you recognize a call to walk alongside a meeting that’s nearing the end of its life cycle, do they know you?  Do you know them?  Will they perceive you as a companion or as an interloper?  Is there anything you can do, or need to do, to be in right relationship?  For example, do you need to enter a discernment process and obtain a minute of travel?  Or, less formally, do you need to have a conversation with someone who does hold an institutional position to make sure that your concern is rightly led and will be welcomed?

Second: focus on trust.

Even if the need for action might be years down the road, you can focus on trust.  Trust is built differently in different communities, often because the local culture is different.  On a surface level, trust can come from things like “does this person talk like us?” or “does this person eat/dress like us?” or “does this person believe like us?”  Some communities need ongoing social connection to build trust.  Others are more likely to build trust through shared work on a project.  Still others will build trust only over time based on whether a person fulfills their commitments—which is complicated, because trust evaluation happens based on what the community perceives your commitments to be, which might not align with what you thought they were.

In all cases, trust building will be easier if a community is already inclined to trust outsiders, or already inclined to trust outsiders from some particular institution.  This comes from pre-existing or historical relationships.  Unfortunately, meetings that are nearing the end of their life cycle are less likely than others to have living memory of strong relationships with outsiders, simply because meetings nearing the end of their life cycle are likely to have less energy and to use that limited energy in a mostly inward direction.

A community nearing the end of its life cycle will likely accept support, and especially intercession, only from someone they already trust.

Third: meet the community where it is.

An outsider can often see things that members of a meeting cannot.  It can be tempting for the outsider to start by naming what can be seen, but before doing so, it might help to take some time and listen deeply.  As is the case for every type of ending and transition, laying down a meeting involves a lot of emotional work, and particularly grief.  Often, people cannot move forward effectively with endings until after they’ve had some opportunities to engage with their grief—not resolve it entirely, but at least begin to engage.  

Community members may need to worship, may need to feel angry, may need to feel sad, may need to try wild last-ditch efforts to “save” the community, may need to do any number of things before they are ready and able to make identifiable forward motion toward considering end-of-meeting-life.  If a meeting is not ready for the end-of-meeting-life conversation, the loving outsider might be able to gently encourage the group in that direction, but forcing the issue is almost guaranteed to backfire.  

Besides—to attempt to create, or enforce, a timeline and direction for a meeting would also not be in keeping with Friends’ understanding of discernment.  Like any other piece of work, the community needs to step toward end-of-meeting-life work at the point when it is able to reach a sense of the meeting to do so.

If you are a loving outsider wondering about how to walk alongside a meeting, you might be interested in this document from a Presbyterian Church.  It is very long, and there will be parts that you want to skim, but it tells the true story of a congregation that was not ready to close when the denomination thought it should be.  There’s much to be learned from the ways in which the local congregation and the institutional ministers interacted.  

Or—for a less logistical but spiritually relevant resource, consider reading New England Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice section on “Death, Dying, and Bereavement.”  As you read, try imagining how this text might apply to the “death” of a meeting.

f you’re looking to navigate the rest of this series, here it is in order: (1) The Life Cycle; (2) Acceleration; (3) Shame and Stigma; (4) Thriving and Declining; (5) All or Nothing; (6) The Meeting Member; (7) The Loving Outsider; (8) Practical Steps; (9) Pastoral Care.

The Meeting Member

In a previous essay, I talked about some possible signs of a meeting’s thriving or declining.  Suppose your own meeting is showing many signs of declining.  What do you do?

Among yearly meetings that have written procedures for laying down a meeting—many do not—almost all assume that the initiative for laying down a meeting will come from within the meeting itself.  This is difficult to do under any circumstances and impossible to do if meeting members wait to act until they no longer have any energy.  

The act of closing a meeting includes a number of steps, each of which requires spiritual, physical, and emotional energy.  They may or may not happen in precisely this order:

#1 – Noticing and acknowledgement: does our meeting seem to be in an ongoing state of decline?  How do we know?  How do we feel about that?

#2 – Discernment: how are we led to be together as a meeting at this time?  Are we led to continue precisely as we are for a bit longer?  Or are we led to make changes to our structure to reflect our current state more accurately, such as changing to an online-only meeting or shifting to be a worship group or combining with another meeting?  Or are we led to, and able to, invest large amounts of energy in growth and change?  Or are we led to begin the process of laying our meeting down faithfully?

#3 – Asking for help: if we are laying ourselves down, or if we are seriously considering laying ourselves down, then it is time to contact our quarterly or yearly meeting.  We will also need to contact a lawyer who understands nonprofit law in our state or country.

#4 – Reflection: what ministries or concerns have always been important to us as a meeting?  What would we hope to make space for as we lay down the meeting?

#5 – Pastoral care: let’s reach out to our members and to others who might have strong feelings about this meeting reaching the end of its life cycle.  We can help each Friend decide where and how they will worship and maintain social relationships after this meeting has closed.

#6 – Practical concerns: what will happen to all of the physical assets in our building? What will happen to our building and grounds themselves? What legal forms need to be filed? What will be done with the financial resources of our meeting?  This is the point as which you will most need the help of a lawyer.  It’s also the time when you need to understand your meeting’s legacy.  Affirming the ministries or concerns that have always been important to you as a meeting will help you know how best to use your practical assets as the meeting itself closes.

#7 – History: where is the best place to send our historical records?  Do we want to record our memories or collect photographs for ourselves?

#8 – Celebration: let’s gather for worship and a social time, bringing together everyone who loves this meeting.  We can share our memories and gratitude for its existence.

I don’t offer the list above for the purpose of overwhelming anyone.  These things do not have to be done all at once; they can happen over time.  The point is to emphasize that, if the meeting waits too long to work through these steps, the few meeting members that remain may find themselves powerless to tend to a faithful ending in the manner they would wish.

The first step for a meeting member might be informal conversations with other members: how do you think we’re doing?  What do you think our meeting’s future might look like?  Later, there might be a more formal conversation in a worshipful setting.  If you’re ready for a step-by-step guide (either to work through or simply to get an idea of what might be involved, try this manual from the United Church of Christ.

One final note.  It’s often the case that one or two Friends will feel strongly that a declining meeting can or should be revitalized and grow again.  You might encounter such Friends.  You might be such a Friend.  As the group discerns, try to pay attention to the true sense of the meeting.  Rather than pinning hopes on one or two individuals, notice: what is the energy level of the meeting as a whole?  Are you collectively led to change and grow?  If not, consider speaking bravely and honestly about the truth of where you really are.

f you’re looking to navigate the rest of this series, here it is in order: (1) The Life Cycle; (2) Acceleration; (3) Shame and Stigma; (4) Thriving and Declining; (5) All or Nothing; (6) The Meeting Member; (7) The Loving Outsider; (8) Practical Steps; (9) Pastoral Care.

All or Nothing?

A meeting in a natural state of decline may not be ready to close entirely.  Friends know, from many years of experience, that very few choices in life are truly binary.  We may not have to say, “Are we ready to lay the meeting down entirely?”  It may instead be a matter of, “What would be the most faithful reflection of what God is calling us to at this time?”

Perhaps a meeting is finding it hard to handle normal business.  Friends are grateful for worship together and find that worship inspired and deep.  But given the life circumstances and the energy level of Friends, the idea of coordinating events, accepting new members, running a First Day School, and so forth seems impossible.  This meeting might be most faithful by transitioning to a worship group.  It can release its responsibilities for doing business and holding membership, placing these functions—and the ownership of any property it holds—into the hands of a monthly meeting that is thriving.

Perhaps a meeting is struggling to fill nominating slots, and Friends are feeling overburdened and tired.  This meeting might be ready to reassess its committee structure.  Can Friends move to a less formal manner of getting things done?  Lay down some committees and reorganize the truly necessary work of the meeting in a way that meets the skills and gifts of individual Friends?

Perhaps a meeting is composed entirely of older adults, and while the Friends care for one another deeply, they are unsure how they will continue to care for their property and meet their budget five years from now.  This meeting might be ready to lay itself down formally, while Friends still have energy to think about legacy—but that doesn’t mean the spiritual relationships have to come to an end.  These Friends could continue to meet regularly for social connection and worship in one another’s homes as long as they wanted to.

Perhaps a meeting’s demographics don’t resemble the demographics of the immediate neighborhood, and Friends in the meeting travel long distances to access the meetinghouse.  This meeting might be ready to sell or donate its building to a community organization that is active and highly relevant in the neighborhood.  The meeting itself could continue as a virtual meeting, simply not owning or renting property.

Perhaps a meeting is shrinking in numbers, and attendance at meeting for worship is less than half of what it was ten years ago.  This meeting might combine with another nearby meeting.  If the property of one meeting or the other is sold, that income could be used to support the ministries of the combined group for many years.

Sometimes, even when we are brave enough to ask the question “can our meeting keep going?” it does not occur to us that we, in fact, have many potential ways forward.  The trick is to trust ourselves and God as we walk along pathways we had not expected.

If you’re looking for a way to start this conversation in your meeting, you might examine this resource from the Presbyterian Church.  In particular, the Bible passage and queries at the end of the page provide a metaphorical entry point as you explore what God might do with your community next.  

f you’re looking to navigate the rest of this series, here it is in order: (1) The Life Cycle; (2) Acceleration; (3) Shame and Stigma; (4) Thriving and Declining; (5) All or Nothing; (6) The Meeting Member; (7) The Loving Outsider; (8) Practical Steps; (9) Pastoral Care.

Thriving and Declining

By their very nature, life cycles are kind of slow, and it can be difficult to tell when a meeting is declining.  Friends who have been part of a meeting community for many decades might be aware of an extreme change when comparing modern day to thirty years ago, but at what point does a very gradual event become immediately important to deal with?  And Friends who are relatively new to a meeting community generally have nothing to compare it to.

Over the years, I’ve heard many Friends say, “Well, there’s always been a cyclical nature to our meeting life.  There are times when the meeting is healthier and more active, and times when it is less so.  We always rebound.”  I suspect, though, that in some cases, these cyclical patterns are more like a roller coaster, in which every summit is lower than the summit that goes before.  (On a roller coaster, they have to be.  Otherwise the cars have insufficient momentum to climb the next hill.)

So what are some of the signs of thriving and declining?  Here’s a partial list, culled from a number of writings and resources, most of which I’ll link to below.  As you read, see if you can put yourself in a place of curiosity.  What might your reflections be telling you about where your meeting is in its natural life cycle?

Sign of thriving?  We often talk about the future of our meeting—what we might try doing next month, next year, or five years down the road. Or sign of declining?  We spend more than half our time talking about the history of Quakerism or about our memories of our meeting in the past.

Sign of declining?  It seems hard to get the basic functions of the meeting done.  Some of us feel overburdened and tired. Or sign of thriving?  Most of us serve the meeting community in ways that we enjoy and that match our gifts and skills.

Sign of thriving?  The number of people in worship each Sunday has grown or stayed about the same in the past ten years. Or sign of declining?   The number of people in worship each Sunday is much smaller than the number of people in worship ten years ago.

Sign of declining?   Our building is often unoccupied, and we worry about how we will continue to pay for its upkeep. Or sign of thriving?  We consistently use our building to serve the purposes of our meeting and to help our neighborhood community.

Sign of thriving?  A good portion of the meeting’s time, money, and energy goes into projects that support the neighborhood community in some way.  We often hold activities outside or participate in activities that other neighborhood organizations are sponsoring. Or sign of declining?   Most of the meeting’s time, money, and energy goes into projects that support the members’ and meeting’s own needs or wants.

Sign of declining?   We feel a sense of separation from our quarterly meeting and/or yearly meeting.  Either we don’t know much about them, or we simply don’t participate in them, or possibly they are non-functional. Or sign of thriving?  We feel like we are really part of our quarterly meeting and/or yearly meeting.

Sign of thriving?  When we talk about our budget, we talk about what God wants us to do. Or sign of declining?   When we talk about our budget, we talk about how we’ll make ends meet.

Sign of declining?   Handling normal meeting business seems hard. Or sign of thriving?  We handle normal meeting business.  As needed, we can accept new members, consider proposals coming from other groups of Friends, respond to communications from seekers and visitors, host memorial meetings, take marriages under our care, and set up clearness committees.  And we can do this all in a timely manner.

Sign of thriving?  Within our meeting, we have participants of all ages who we see regularly: older adults, middle-aged adults, younger adults, teens, children, and toddlers/babies. Or sign of declining?   We are all or nearly all older adults.

Sign of declining?   The demographics of our meeting are very unlike the demographics of our immediate neighborhood. Or sign of thriving?  The demographics of our meeting (class, race, primary language, ethnicity, etc.) are roughly similar to the demographics of our immediate neighborhood.

Sign of thriving?  When conflicts happen within the meeting, we deal with them openly. We are comfortable saying no to people and setting boundaries. Or sign of declining?  When conflicts happen within the meeting, we find this distressing and try to avoid or cover up the disagreements.

Top sign of declining:  When, as a meeting, we realize we aren’t doing something very well, our normal reaction is to feel powerless about changing it. 

Top sign of thriving: When, as a meeting, we realize we aren’t doing something very well, our normal reaction is to experiment with new and different ways of going about it.

And this is key.  A meeting can have any number of the so-called signs of declining and still be a thriving, vital meeting, if the meeting is willing and able to engage in trying new things.  If the meeting as a whole (not just a few individuals) is not willing and able to engage in trying new things, then it might be time to consider: are we nearing the end of our meeting’s life cycle?  What does that mean to us?

If you’re interested in looking at some resources specifically designed for assessment, I suggest this guide from the United Church of Christ; in particular, look at chapter two.  Philadelphia Yearly Meeting also has a lengthy checklist that some Friends might actually find too detailed for an initial conversation—but it’s worth a look.

f you’re looking to navigate the rest of this series, here it is in order: (1) The Life Cycle; (2) Acceleration; (3) Shame and Stigma; (4) Thriving and Declining; (5) All or Nothing; (6) The Meeting Member; (7) The Loving Outsider; (8) Practical Steps; (9) Pastoral Care.

Shame and Stigma

The stories we tell about endings matter.  Here’s one that I’ve heard told:

Years ago, there was a Quaker meeting that got smaller and smaller until, finally, there was only one remaining member, an old man who continued to come to worship every First Day, always bringing along his sheepdog.  The old man would open up the meetinghouse and go inside, taking the bench closest to the wood stove, and sitting in silent prayer for an hour.  His dog would settle down at his feet.

Then, the old man died.  (He was presumably buried by distant relatives who somehow didn’t notice the existence of the dog, but that part doesn’t come into the story.)

Despite the death of the old man, the sheepdog continued to arrive at the meetinghouse every First Day in time for worship.  Not having thumbs to open the door, he was fated to stand on the porch, whining.  

It so happened that, one particular Sunday, a young man who was new to town noticed the dog standing on the porch and scratching at the meetinghouse door.  The next Sunday, he noticed the same dog at the same time, and—figuring that the dog must have some good reason for wanting to enter—he went over to the meetinghouse and let him in.  The sheepdog entered and immediately settled on the floor next to the bench closest to the wood stove.  Figuring the dog would probably be cold, the young man started a fire, and as the room warmed cheerfully, he himself settled down for a few minutes of quiet.  A peaceful feeling came over his soul.

The next week, the young man brought his wife, and the week after that, they invited some neighbors.  By summertime, two dozen people—and one sheepdog–gathered for silent worship every First Day, and so the meeting was revived.

This is a fabulous story, and we can enjoy the humor and celebrate the concept of the unlikely hero.  However, there’s an excellent chance that most Quaker meetings will not be revitalized by a sheepdog.  Relying entirely on a last-minute miracle most often leads to meetings that are closed at the point that the remaining members (if there are any) don’t have enough energy or resources to do the work of closing well.  The result is long legal entanglements, resources such as money and property that wind up being used for things that might or might not line up with the meeting’s prior ministries, and little or no cohesive effort to preserve a record of the meeting’s history.   

The idea of closing a meeting can feel extremely hard, especially if we have been part of that community for a long time.  Maybe we remember becoming members of the meeting.  Maybe we met loved ones there or watched our children play on the grounds.  The meeting might have held our marriage under its care or might have arranged the memorial service for a parent or close friend.  We may have put many hours of work into the meeting for years, maybe even decades.

Grief is an expected response, and we can honor that grief by making space for it.  Friends are likely to need opportunities to share memories, to worship together and in the familiar physical meeting space, to touch the objects that have been in the building, and to make decisions—not rushed—about where and how things should be moved, donated, or sold.  Members of the meeting, or people who have long been familiar with the meeting, might want to record some of their favorite stories about it.  This recording does not need to be polished or formal as long as it works.  The act itself is the most important part of honoring the meeting’s history.

Sometimes, when Friends consider closing a meeting, they also experience feelings of shame.  It can help to remember that all meetings die.  If our meeting comes to its natural end during our lifetime, that is not an indication that we have done something wrong.  It is simply a call to good and faithful discernment: how do we make space for what God does next?

If you’re curious to know what a faithful legacy approach might look like, try reading this story from the Church of Christ–Disciples. In it, the pastor of a church in California describes the joy of a congregation discerning well what might be done with its property and funding after its closure.

f you’re looking to navigate the rest of this series, here it is in order: (1) The Life Cycle; (2) Acceleration; (3) Shame and Stigma; (4) Thriving and Declining; (5) All or Nothing; (6) The Meeting Member; (7) The Loving Outsider; (8) Practical Steps; (9) Pastoral Care.

Acceleration

As I write these words in early 2022, I’m deeply aware of two years of pandemic conditions (the definition of “pandemic conditions” varying widely depending upon one’s location) and societal instability of numerous kinds.  Loneliness, anxiety, depression, and feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm are widely present.  Most people are struggling at least somewhat, including those of us who are telling ourselves, “Oh, it’s not too bad for me.”  And some of us are suffering to an extreme degree.

Our brains, bodies, and spirits were not designed for long-term conditions such as these.  There are very real limits on our human capacity.  For this reason, many Quaker meetings and churches are encountering difficulty.  For the most part, what the last two years have done is revealed and accelerated pre-existing trends.  Aging meetings have aged faster.  Shrinking meetings have shrunk faster.  Meetings that had a hard time including families have, any many cases, lost track of those families.  Groups with underlying conflict may have experienced that conflict surfacing in destructive ways.

There are certainly exceptions.  There are meetings that are now doing as well as they were in early 2020.  There are even meetings that have grown and that are thriving.  But in other cases, meetings and churches that were a decade or two away from the end of their life cycles are suddenly closer than they expected to be.

If you’re wondering whether that’s true for your meeting or a meeting that you know, then you are not alone.  But for meetings that have shifted—theoretically temporarily—to a hybrid or virtual model, it might be hard to assess where you really are in your life cycle.  Are you in a long-term growth pattern or a short-term burst of energy?  Are you experiencing short-term struggles or needing to start talking about the end of your meeting?

It is likely worth setting aside some time to share with one another in your Quaker community.  Try giving each Friend a chance to respond to a couple of queries:

Are you anticipating a return to “normal” for our meeting at some point?   When you imagine “normal,” what is most important to you about what that looks like and feels like?

What do you think your meeting will be like in five years?

f you’re looking to navigate the rest of this series, here it is in order: (1) The Life Cycle; (2) Acceleration; (3) Shame and Stigma; (4) Thriving and Declining; (5) All or Nothing; (6) The Meeting Member; (7) The Loving Outsider; (8) Practical Steps; (9) Pastoral Care.