Connecting Directly

This is first in a twelve-part series about living the Quaker faith in “such a time as this.”

In the earliest days of Quakerism, before we even had a name, George Fox professed that “Christ ha[d] come to teach his people for himself.”  He meant, in part, that all people had a direct connection to God, without need of an intermediary.  

This was a radical statement, then.  On its face, it’s less so, now.  Most people of faith, regardless of which tradition they claim, believe more or less that humans can commune with God without an intermediary.  There are exceptions.  Some people would say that we can only speak to, or hear from, the Divine with help of clergy; others would say that there are times when we can connect directly, but this has limits.  

But no one is shocked when Quakers say that people can connect directly with God.

It’s comforting, especially now, to know that physical isolation cannot prevent us from accessing God.  Alone in a room, we aren’t alone.  God’s there.  God hears.  God speaks.  Hooray!  

And yet . . .

In a couple of ways, this direct-connection-to-God thing can be deeply uncomfortable, especially now.  For one, if “Christ has come to teach his people for himself,” there is no guarantee whatsoever that those teachings are going to be pleasant ones.  Jesus of Nazareth was quite a grouch.  He had little patience for recalcitrant disciples.  He didn’t like to repeat himself.  And he spoke absolute truth about people’s flaws.

Similarly, early Friends taught us that in worship we are searched by the Light, and the Light—though it can be warm and comforting—just as often illuminates and makes plain our faults.  Remember this account from Samuel Bownas: “. . . a young woman, named Anne Wilson, was there and preached; she was very zealous, and fixing my eye upon her, she with a great zeal pointed her finger at me, uttering these words with much power: ‘A traditional Quaker, thou comest to meeting as thou went from it (the last time) and goes from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do in the end?’ This was so pat to my then condition, that, like Saul, I was smitten to the ground, as it might be said, but turning my thoughts inward, in secret I cried, ‘Lord, what shall I do to help it?’ and a voice as it were spoke in my heart saying, ‘Look unto me, and I will help thee;’ and I found much comfort, that made me shed abundance of tears.””

We are to expect to be challenged and changed in our encounters with God.  We aren’t yet perfect.  And that’s especially difficult to deal with in a moment when everything’s already in chaos.  Society seems to be structuring itself in such a way that more and more people are clinging to one extremist orthodoxy or another, rejecting anything that isn’t fully in line with that point of view, even verifiable facts. This is a natural psychological phenomenon in times of uncertainty.  There’s only so much uncertainty that we can deal with, so when society’s unreliable, we clamp down internally: at least I know I’m right.  At least I can depend upon my own judgment.

But that isn’t so.  If we really believe God speaks to us, it must be that God has something to say.  And God would only have something to say if we didn’t already know it all and weren’t already applying our knowledge perfectly.  To encounter the Divine is to open ourselves to change.  What a terrifying thing to do today!

Dear God, I am Your faithful servant.  But please don’t ask me to do anything else hard, because I’m already freaking out over here.

There’s another way in which this direct-connection principle doesn’t always feel good: if all humans can have a direct connection to God, that means all humans, even those ones, no matter which those ones come to mind for you.  God can be speaking truth to anybody.  How scary is that?

Let’s be clear.  This doesn’t mean that anything anybody says might be Truth.  People say a lot of things, and most of the time, it’s not from God.  We speak from ignorance, from fear, from misunderstanding.  Sometimes we speak nonsense.  We can even speak evil.  This is why we have to listen with God’s help—because otherwise, we might very well believe something that ought to be rejected or even condemned.

But there’s also a danger of rejecting or condemning something that actually comes from God.  Because every human being has the capacity to connect directly with the Divine, we can’t ever count anybody out completely.  That makes everything so much harder.  How much easier would our lives be if we could just throw a certain number of people on the trash heap and never have to pay attention to them again?  That’s not what the Quaker faith tells us, though, and that is really, really annoying.

There are, of course, times—such as in cases of abuse—when we as individuals must close ourselves to other individuals, for the sake of protecting the preciousness of our own connection to the Divine.  I know God understands and supports this.  It is okay to make it someone else’s job to look for the Light in our abuser. 

But we can’t shut out large numbers of people, and especially not forever.  

If we follow this line of thinking to its natural conclusion, if we really believe that every person has the capacity to connect directly to God, the implication is that we must be open and listening to a degree that’s beyond human ability.  We’ll always do this imperfectly, and that’s fine.  God, being God, knows we’ll screw up.

To me, the most important thing is to remember: we, as humans, have the capacity to connect directly to the Divine.  Isn’t that just astounding?  And God can change us.  Or change them.  Or, sometimes, change them by speaking through us—or even change us by speaking through them.  If we can stay open to it.  Praise God.

Dancing the Change

We know the world around us has changed and is changing.  Our circumstances have changed–for some, quite radically.  Personal and familial circumstances.  Community circumstances.  The condition of the world.

That’s hard enough to keep up with, but it’s also only half the story.  What’s around us has changed.

What’s inside us has, too.

Friends understand that spiritual gifts are not necessarily constants.  Sometimes, we’re given new gifts; gifts may be withdrawn; other gifts go dormant at times.  This is really a miracle.  Each community is given the right combination of gifts, distributed among its members, to do what God is calling it to do at any given time.  But the distribution of gifts will change as members of the community come and go and as the community’s calling or callings evolve.  When God needs the people to do something different, God will give the people a different set of gifts.

Being changed is disconcerting, even in the most positive contexts, even when we are feeling quite stable.  Most of us, right now, aren’t feeling terribly stable.  So it might be quite alarming to notice our gifts transforming, or disappearing, or materializing, or otherwise altering.

One of the ways in which we recognize our own giftedness is by noticing what functions come naturally and joyfully.  As a person who spent many childhood hours creating master schedules for imaginary boarding schools, I can say that my gift of administration has never been in doubt.  And each of you has your own giftedness.  Think back to those activities or actions or ways of being that have traditionally given you joy.  These are strong, though not totally reliable, indications of the presence of spiritual gifts.

Now ask yourself: are the same activities, or even thoughts about the same activities, still bringing me joy?  Still feeling as if they come naturally?  This might be a hard question.  For some of us, very few things are feeling joyful right now.  Maybe nothing is feeling joyful at all.

But probably, there is still a noticeable difference between what feels energizing and what feels draining.  And this is probably not exactly the same as it was before the pandemic.

Some of the changes are about circumstances. Trying to fill the same function in a different manner might not line up with your spiritual gifts or what feels energizing.  Maybe there are things you do really well in person that are not yours to do when they have to be done on the phone.  Maybe there are things you can easily do on the Internet that you don’t find easy to do in person.  These are changes we can pay attention to.

And some of the changes are about our being changed, internally.  Maybe it’s God.  Maybe it’s trauma.  Maybe it’s both.  But maybe you’re not exactly the same person you used to be.  Maybe there’s a good reason for that.  Maybe the world needs you differently than it used to.  Maybe you need to be cared for differently.  These are changes to pay attention to, too.

This is why, lately, I’ve started to think of this all as dancing the change.  We’re not unchanging people trying to function in a changing world; we’re not changing people trying to function in an unchanging world.  We are mid-transformation meeting mid-transformation.  Movement meeting movement will always be a dance.

The Brink of Everything

 

Today, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that New York state is officially “on pause.” All non-essential businesses closed. All non-essential travel banned. This is not a suggestion for good citizens, he said. This is enforceable by law. No end date.

And now I’m feeling a lot of things.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But this was also true before. Before, I wrote things down in my calendar. I assumed the things I wrote would occur. I assumed that other things would not. But I never knew any of this for sure. I chose to believe in my own plans because doing so brought some sanity. What can I put on my calendar now?

Wake up. Get dressed. Pray. Play. These are things I can plan to make happen.

I want to hug my family and friends. But this was also true before. Before, I figured I’d always have time. It wasn’t important to do it today. I could do it tomorrow, or maybe next week. Now I’m breathless with knowing that I cannot. My people are really far away.

Text. Call. Video. “I love you.”

I can’t trust a lot of my leaders. But this was also true before. Before, I ignored them as best I could, feeling embarrassed, hoping for change. Now I know that people will die. (And that was also true before.)

Speak. Organize. Plan. Prepare. I will be the leader I need.

I must find ways to hear more voices. But this was also true before. Before, I was patient with institutions, patient with “we’re not ready to change.” Even when somebody got left out. But now, opportunity. Everything’s changing. We are prying open the doors.

Wedge them. Block them. Throw myself bodily into those doors, so they can’t close again.

I cherish stories of love and connection. But this was also true before. Before, I held them in my heart, carried them from place to place, shared them when the moment seemed right. Now I realize I’m carrying thousands.

Tell. Give. Fill people up. That’s my work in the coming days.

Remembering: We Reunified

My yearly meeting, New York Yearly Meeting, split in the 1800s. I wasn’t there, of course. Officially, we split for reasons to do with theology, but it’s hard to get the story straight. There are lots of historical records, and the only thing that seems totally clear to me is that many people on both (or all) sides of the issue behaved pretty badly. I suspect there were elements of cultural difference and family ties and interpersonal difficulties tangled up in the split. And really, isn’t that always the case, that there’s more than one issue influencing these things?

We were separated, then, from the early 1800s until 1955. Six generations, at least. No one alive on the day we split was also present for the reunification. I wonder those who were present for the split could have even imagined reunification. The relationship between the groups was so venomous that, for decades, many were disowned from their meetings for “marrying among those others called Friends” or even just “worshipping with those others called Friends.”

They were thrown out of their covenant communities for worshipping with Quakers from the other side of the split. That any community would do this feels like a reflection of extraordinary pain, and of course, the action itself only caused additional trauma.

But somehow, over time, something changed. Hearts were softened. There’s not a lot, as far as I can tell, of historical records that tell the story of how we went from vehement animosity to mutual openness. I suspect that’s because it happened slowly, amongst many people, and a lot of it was forgetting some things, over the generations.

And then, in 1955, we reunified.

That was sixty-five years ago. We’re getting awfully close to the point when no living person remembers the reunification. We’re not there yet, but those who are still living were mostly children in 1955. Many are no longer Friends, or no longer in our geographic area. As our ancestors lost the collective memory of the split, we are soon to lose the collective memory of reunification.

So I like to go back to the letter we wrote. It’s an “epistle to Friends everywhere,” and I’d like to think that includes everywhen. I’d like to think my ancestors were writing to me. They had some wise things to say to me. I don’t want to lose the feeling of reunification, the deep spiritual knowing we had. I want to hold onto what we learned as a people.

Maybe what my ancestors said will also be useful to others today. After all, they were writing to “Friends everywhere,” so this is also a message for you.

 

Dear Friends:

This is the message of our love.

We have been united with you this week in closer fellowship which transcended our diversity, as New York Yearly Meeting became again one body of Friends.

We wish to share with you our joy that the way to unity has been found.

We shall continue to share our differences, which serve a useful purpose. God does not ask us for conformity, but calls us to unity, in obedience to the leadings of the spirit.

We seek to recapture the radiance of simple, uncomplicated love … such love as will resist evil without violence, without hatred of the wrongdoer, and without compromise.

To the false standards of our time we would offer the greatest opposition, combined with the greatest love. To the lonely seekers in this hurried and soul-hiding world, we would say, “Dear Friends, we are walking beside you … seekers, too.”

Have loving kindness toward one another. Have faith in the Lord, and he will help you.

– signed on behalf of New York Yearly Meeting,

Horace R. Stubbs, Alfred J. Henderson, clerks, August 4, 1955

 

Being Neighbors: Quaker Institutions and Quaker Meetings

In the past few years, I’ve traveled among liberal unprogrammed, conservative unprogrammed, pastoral, and evangelical Friends on several continents, and one of the blessings I’ve received is the chance to hear and carry stories. All kinds of stories—personal stories, ministry stories, meeting stories. Institutional stories. I learn a lot from the differences between our stories—how Friends from one place or one branch or one culture are different from Friends in another—but I learn even more from the stories that are the same. When I hear similar stories across branches, across cultures, and in multiple countries, it says something about the condition of the Religious Society of Friends.

I want to share one story that I’ve heard from Friends across our theological spectrum and throughout the United States and Britain and Ireland. (I haven’t heard this story in other parts of the world. It may or may not be happening elsewhere. I don’t know.)

The story comes from two perspectives. When I hear it from a Friend in a local or yearly meeting, it goes like this:

“Yeah, that [school/university/retirement home/hospital/community center] is supposed to be Quaker, but . . . well, years ago, when we [started/helped start/developed] it, we had a really good relationship. But over time, it [got bigger/took funding from other groups/hired non-Quakers/changed its mission], and now, even though we [provide some funding/have Quakers on the board/facilitate a volunteer program/know some of the staff], we’re [legally separated/thinking about separating/not as closely connected], and there’s a lot of bad feeling. Lots of hurtful things have been said and done over the years. And there’s mistrust. I’m not sure they’re really Quaker anymore, even though they’re still called that. I don’t know what to do.”

When I hear the story from a staff member of an institution (whether that person is Quaker or not), it goes like this:

“Yes, our Quaker identity is extremely important in this [school/university/retirement home/hospital/community center], and . . . well, years ago, when we first got started, we had a really good relationship with local Quakers. But over time, they [decreased in numbers/weren’t able to keep up with our funding needs/stopped volunteering/couldn’t make timely decisions], and now, even though we [receive some funding/have Quaker board members/have a couple regular Quaker volunteers/invite local Quakers to our events], we’re [legally separated/thinking about separating/not as closely connected], and there’s a lot of bad feeling. Lots of hurtful things have been said and done over the years. And there’s mistrust. I’m not sure how to be in relationship with the local Quakers these days. I don’t know what to do.”

What’s striking to me is the sense of helplessness on all sides. “I don’t know what to do.” To bridge the distance—and sometimes open animosity—between meetings and institutions is a challenge, and I think the key might be in reexamining how we define the relationship.

What is our model for the relationship between Quaker institutions (schools/hospitals/community centers/etc.) and Quaker meetings? We often use the phrase “under the care of,” but what does that mean? A parent/child analogy may be appropriate in the beginning, when an institution is just being established and is genuinely infantile and unable to fend for itself, but after a certain number of years, a parent/child dynamic is inappropriate and patronizing. And a marriage analogy seems like a bit much.

How about “neighbor?” Could Quaker meetings and Quaker institutions view themselves as neighbors? Not I-don’t-know-your-name-but-your-dog-barks-too-much neighbors. Neighbors in the Biblical sense of the word.

I ran a search in the Bible and found 180 references to neighbors, and they ran the gamut of human experience, as Biblical references often do. This is one reason I keep returning to the Bible (including the Apocrypha). In many ways, little has changed since the days of our spiritual ancestors.

I found a passage in Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus) that made me sad and that rang true at the same time. “Be fond of a friend and keep faith with him, but if you have betrayed his secrets, do not go after him any more; for, as one destroys a person by killing him, so you have killed your neighbor’s friendship, and as you let a bird slip through your fingers, so you have let your friend go, and will not catch him.” (Sirach 27:17-19) It reminds me that if we have lost our relationship with our neighboring institution or meeting, we have almost certainly let the relationship slip, let it go, whether by betrayal or by neglect. The loss of relationship is not an accident. It’s not a natural force against which we are helpless. It’s the result of action, or inaction, between neighbors over time.

And it’s not what the Bible says God asks of us. Instead, Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) And when I, as a Friend in a meeting, think of this commandment in the plural rather than the singular, I feel that “myself” would translate to “ourselves,” or my own local meeting. So . . . we ought to love the Quaker institution next door with the same fierceness that we love our meeting.

Wow.

But how?

Leviticus gives us a good place to start. “Do not go around slandering your people. Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed; I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:16) Not only should we not slander our neighboring institutions, then, but if we find ourselves being silent while somebody else does, that’s a problem, too.

And there’s this: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17) It’s hard not to envy when there’s an imbalance of resources—or reputation or loyalty or success. Can we resist dwelling in jealousy? Does it help if we remember that God provides abundantly, that we don’t have to compete for blessings doled out with scarcity?

“And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb.” (Exodus 12:4) This one’s a more complicated, but what it implies is pretty cool. What the Lord is describing here—the chapter begins with “the Lord said to Moses”—is the celebration of Passover. It’s the practice of religious ritual, both a celebration of the Lord and the Lord’s miracles and a common history as one people, and in it, there’s an allowance made for what to do if one household has a greater abundance than can be consumed. In this context, God asks the people to share both the religious practice and the resources that make the religious practice possible. How often do our meetings and institutions, as neighbors, share worship? Discernment? Prayer? Scripture study? Consideration of queries? How often do we talk about our understandings of these various practices, thus sharing the resources (the personal experiences and wisdom) that make these practices possible?

And don’t forget Luke. “When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” (Luke 15:6) In this, the last verse of the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus reminds us that neighbors rejoice with one another when one neighbor has a reason to celebrate. In fact, Jesus reminds us of this multiple times, since the parable of the lost coin and the parable of the prodigal son also end with the neighbors being invited for a celebratory party.

Here’s an interesting passage: “If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag.” (Deuteronomy 23:24) This one makes me laugh because it seems to imply that it’s okay to steal from your neighbor as long as you only do it a little. But I wonder if that’s my personal cultural lens talking. Maybe it’s something more along the lines of, “Neighbors should expect to contribute to one another’s needs without having to be asked, as long as what’s taken isn’t unreasonable.”

And in case what’s taken seems like it might be unreasonable, take a look at these next two passages:

“Question your friend, he may have done nothing at all; and if he has done anything, he will not do it again. Question your neighbor, he may have said nothing at all; and if he has said anything, he will not say it again. Question your friend, for slander is very common, do not believe all you hear.” (Sirach 19:13-15)

“What your eyes have seen do not hastily bring into court, for what will you do in the end, when your neighbor puts you to shame? Argue your case with your neighbor himself.” (Proverbs 25:8-9)

There will be times when our neighbor’s behavior seems unreasonable. In those times, it’s best to ask—“hey, what’s going on?” Because it’s entirely possible that we’re mistaken, that what we think is true is a misunderstanding or a rumor. But if it turns out there really is a problem, we’re not obliged to just roll over and accept what’s been done. “Argue your case with your neighbor”—in other words, it’s okay to be clear about what’s not okay. It’s our duty as neighbors to argue our case . . . but that doesn’t guarantee that we won’t have to compromise.

“Do not resent your neighbor’s every offense, and never act in a fit of passion.” (Sirach 10:6) There’s sure a lot of advice about what to do when our neighbors get annoying. I find that comforting, really. Bumpy spots are to be expected.

And yet: “Let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” (Ephesians 4:25) Notice that this says “speak the truth,” not “be nice.” But what’s especially striking is the members of one another part. Why should we speak the truth with our neighbors? Because we are members of one another. I confess to finding that phrase a little fuzzy—like “under the care of”—but it definitely tells me that we’re inextricably entwined.

Just a few more. “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” (Romans 15:1-2) It’s tempting to read this as implying that one neighbor is strong and one neighbor is weak. But that feels overly simple and flatly inaccurate. More likely, we each have moments of strength and moments of weakness. In our moments of strength, do we use that strength to build up our neighbor? Or do we use that strength—just for an instant—to feel self-righteous about our neighbor’s weakness?

This is hard. It’s all hard, and it’s harder when—as is often the case—there are historical bad feelings, often stemming from genuinely hurtful actions by one or both neighbors. When that’s true, I suggest we look to what Deuteronomy has to say: “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2)

Most people carry around a feeling of indebtedness at least sometimes. “She did such-and-such, so I’m owed such-and-such…I am owed an apology…I have a right to a bit extra next time…” And you’ll note that even in Deuteronomy, it’s okay to hang onto that for awhile. But eventually, we’re encouraged to grant release, to practice forgiveness, to stop trying to exact the debt from our neighbor. The idea here was that everybody gets a clean slate. Including us. We get a clean slate, too.

“And who is my neighbor?” a man once asked (Luke 10).

Jesus didn’t respond simply. He told a story instead, the story of the Good Samaritan, a story in which traditionally “good” characters are behaving badly and traditionally “bad” characters are behaving kindly, and he ends by turning the question back on the man: “Which [person] do you think proved to be a neighbor?”

“The one who showed mercy,” the man answered.

Can we go and do likewise?

 

Queries for Quaker Meetings

If our relationship has deteriorated with our neighboring institution, do we reflect on how our own actions or inactions have contributed to this?

Do we love our neighboring institution with the same fierceness that we love our own meeting?

Do we avoid slandering our neighboring institution? Do we speak up when we hear other people doing it?

Do we recognize and hold in the Light those moments when we covet our neighboring institution’s resources, reputation, loyal participants, or success?

Do we worship, discern, pray, study, and reflect with our neighboring institution? Do we speak with one another about our personal experiences and our spiritual understandings in order to develop our ability to do these things together?

When we have something to celebrate, do we invite our neighboring institution to the party?

Do we expect to share what we have, within reason, with our neighboring institution, even without needing to be asked?

When we think that our neighboring institution has wronged us in some way, do we ask them about it directly?

When something about our neighboring institution’s behavior is hurting or bothering us, do we speak up about it promptly, specifically, and bravely?

Do we expect to be annoyed sometimes by our neighboring institution? When that happens, do we do our best to let the little things go? Do we avoid responding in a fit of passion?

Do we speak the truth to our neighboring institution?

Do we remember that we and our neighboring institution are “members of one another?”

Do we use our strengths to build up our neighboring institution?

Do we practice mutual forgiveness with our neighboring institution, including corporate forgiveness for historic wounds?

In our ongoing relationship with our neighboring institution, do we look for opportunities to show mercy?

 

 

Queries for Quaker Institutions

If our relationship has deteriorated with our neighboring meeting, do we reflect on how our own actions or inactions have contributed to this?

Do we love our neighboring meeting with the same fierceness that we love our own institution?

Do we avoid slandering our neighboring meeting? Do we speak up when we hear other people doing it?

Do we recognize and hold in the Light those moments when we covet our neighboring meeting’s resources, reputation, loyal participants, or success?

Do we worship, discern, pray, study, and reflect with our neighboring meeting? Do we speak with one another about our personal experiences and our spiritual understandings in order to develop our ability to do these things together?

When we have something to celebrate, do we invite our neighboring meeting to the party?

Do we expect to share what we have, within reason, with our neighboring meeting, even without needing to be asked?

When we think that our neighboring meeting has wronged us in some way, do we ask them about it directly?

When something about our neighboring meeting’s behavior is hurting or bothering us, do we speak up about it promptly, specifically, and bravely?

Do we expect to be annoyed sometimes by our neighboring meeting? When that happens, do we do our best to let the little things go? Do we avoid responding in a fit of passion?

Do we speak the truth to our neighboring meeting?

Do we remember that we and our neighboring meeting are “members of one another?”

Do we use our strengths to build up our neighboring meeting?

Do we practice mutual forgiveness with our neighboring meeting, including corporate forgiveness for historic wounds?

In our ongoing relationship with our neighboring meeting, do we look for opportunities to show mercy?

 

Preparing for Change

It doesn’t really matter what kind of change a meeting is trying to make; the first thing to do is simply prepare for change.  If we skip that part, the change making eventually stagnates.

So what indicates that a meeting is ready for change?  Below, you’ll find my suggestions in a format traditional to Friends: advices and queries.  These can be used in worship sharing, in committee meetings, in meetings for business, or in private reflection.

Click on any of them to read about the concept in more detail.

These advices and queries are a product of my own experiences working with Friends, distilled during some work I did as a consultant New England Yearly Meeting.  My process of developing them included interviewing members of the staffs of New England and New York Yearly Meetings, reading research done by nonprofit organizations (including Project Include), and considering principles gleaned from a Massachusetts Council of Churches podcast interview with Marty St. George, executive vice president for commercial and planning at JetBlue Airlines.

ADVICES

  1. A meeting that is prepared for culture change will commit to clear communication and mutual transparency.Nothing gets hidden under the rug. An unknown future is difficult enough; we can’t engage with the unknown future when we’re also using energy to deal with an unknown present or an unresolved past.
  2. A meeting that is prepared for culture change will value relationship and function over structure and process.This will mean understanding that no structure or process is “one-size-fits-all” and that a commitment to relationship and function will require ongoing (not one-time-only) willingness to adjust/adapt structure and process.
  3. A meeting that is prepared for culture change will take joy in experimentation, understanding that long-term growth requires patient devotion to perpetual learning.
  4. A meeting that is prepared for culture change will bravely ask for specific new information, new tools, and new skills from sources outside of the meeting.

QUERIES

Knowing Where We Are

Last November, New York Yearly Meeting had a number of potentially difficult pieces of discernment to do.  The fall sessions agenda almost had the look of a list of greatest hits in terms of “things Quakers get passionate about, and not all in the same direction.”  I was a little keyed up going into it.  So were a lot of people.

Spoiler alert–we did just fine.  But one of my favorite moments was when a Friend rose during meeting for business and asked a super-articulate, obviously thoughtful, extremely specific question that made no sense at all.  It stopped the room cold.  It wasn’t the fact that she wasn’t making sense; Friends often say things that don’t make much sense.  But her tone and vocabulary were so rational, so measured, that it seemed like she should be making sense.  So it was weird.

After a moment, someone ventured, “Um . . . is it possible you’re talking about the wrong agenda item?”

She was.  We were on Item #2; her question referred to Item #3.  And in that context, it would have made perfect sense (and did, twenty minutes later, when she repeated it).  We all laughed, including the Friend who had made the mistake.  The confusion, in that case, was harmless.

But often, confusion isn’t harmless.  In the past few weeks, I’ve been sharing elements that need to be in place for meetings before they are ready for culture change.  The fourth and final one is this: A meeting that is prepared for culture change will commit to clear communication and mutual transparency.  Nothing gets hidden under the rug.  An unknown future is difficult enough; we can’t engage with the unknown future when we’re also using energy to deal with an unknown present or an unresolved past.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but I want to emphasize the last sentence, which says that we can’t engage with an uncertain future (change) if we’re also spending physical, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual energy on our anxiety about either the present or the past.

If we’re not communicating clearly and transparently–in other words, if some of us have one understanding about what’s going on while others have a different understanding–then we’re creating anxiety about the present.  We demand sameness, or lack of change, moving forward because we’re so busy feeling uncertain about what’s happening now that we can’t possibly deal with uncertainty about the future as well.

And if we have buried conflicts, things we’ve never resolved, in our past, we’re spending emotional energy on keeping those buried.  Our energy is going toward dealing with the past, so we can’t summon enough to engage meaningfully with the future.  Therefore, again, we demand sameness, or lack of change, so that at least we know what to expect down the road.

A meeting that’s prepared for culture change will have dealt with its past and made its present transparent.  Then, Friends will be equipped to dive into the future, the (only remaining) unknown.

(In other words, if you’re looking at Agenda Item #2, make sure that everybody else is, as well.)

Fixing a Broken Balloon

A good friend of mine had his fifth birthday last year, and I got to thinking about some of my favorite memories of him.

Once, when he was two, he brought me a limp yellow balloon.  “Bwow up, pwease?” he implored.

I tried.  I put it to my lips (despite not knowing where it might have been) and blew, but there was a hole in the balloon.  “I’m sorry, love,” I told him.  “I can’t do it.  It’s broken.”

He considered this seriously and toddled away.  A few minutes later, he brought me a hammer and said, “Dat’s okay. You fix it!”

I loved this little boy’s absolute faith in me.  He was also doing an admirable job of asking for what he needed.  “Bwow up, pwease.”  The directions were clear.  “You fix it.”  Again, no questions about intent.

On the other hand, I wasn’t doing a very good job of expressing my needs.  “It’s broken,” while simple enough for my friend to understand, wasn’t specific.  No wonder he brought me a hammer!  How was he supposed to know what the real problem was if I didn’t tell him?

Instead, I should have tried this: “I can’t blow up this balloon because there’s a hole in it, and I can’t fix it.  But if you bring me a new balloon, I can blow up the new one.”

In my past couple of posts, I’ve been sharing elements that need to be in place before a meeting can engage in change.  Today’s blog is the third of four on this theme, and it has a lot to do with the balloon and the hammer.

I’ve had a number of experiences in working with meetings as an outside facilitator, and I’ve noticed that some meetings succeed in changing with outside help while others don’t.  At a certain point, it occurred to me to go back and look at the requests for help themselves retrospectively, after I know what sort of success the meeting actually had, to see whether there’s anything about the request itself that might predict ultimate success.  And I did discover some predictive elements, one of which is the specificity of request.  If a meeting asks for something very specific – “bwow up, pwease” – they tend to do better than meetings that just ask for help generally – “it’s broken.”  And interestingly, the meeting doesn’t necessarily have to correctly identify what they need.  There’s something about the self-reflection and asking process itself that indicates readiness.

So–a meeting that is prepared for culture change will bravely ask for specific new information, new tools, and new skills from sources outside the meeting.

Stopping for the Elmo Potty

A few weeks ago, I visited Westbury Friends School, a Long Island Quaker school for preschoolers through second-graders.  It was assembly day.  The children were learning about equality and fairness.  They explained to their parents that the two ideas are not the same.  Equality means that everyone gets the same thing, and fairness means that everyone gets the same opportunity to be successful.  “We will always try to be fair, but it won’t always feel equal.”

It’s pretty amazing to hear four-year-olds explain the difference.  As the various students raised their hands, we heard lots of repetition, a considerable amount of “just be kind,” and a couple of long, rambling stories.

This section of the assembly was only meant to last about ten minutes, but it went on for at least twenty because–as the lead teacher later explained–the children were excited and sharing.  In fact, at one point, we stopped everything when a three-year-old raised his hand and announced, “My mommy says I don’t need the Elmo potty anymore.”

We all clapped.

In other words, we didn’t stick too close to the plan.  The needs of the people in the room were more important.  In my last blog post, I told you that some research I’ve done with others seems to indicate that there are four elements that need to be in place prior to culture change.  The second of the four is this: A meeting that is prepared for culture change will value relationship and function over structure and process.  This will mean understanding that no structure or process is “one-size-fits-all” and that a commitment to relationship and function will require ongoing (not one-time-only) willingness to adjust/adapt structure and process.

Does your meeting stop for the Elmo potty?

Are you able to be flexible about process based on the needs of the people in the room?

One-Way Tickets

A few weeks back, I found myself taking a New Jersey transit train for the first time in quite awhile.  I used to travel from NYC to various parts of New Jersey pretty frequently, and accessing the ticket machine and navigating Penn Station again brought up a series of memories.  Specifically, I found myself pondering one-way tickets.

Round-trip tickets are sometimes cheaper than two one-ways, and they’re certainly more efficient.  One financial transaction.  One time waiting in line.  But when I started traveling in the ministry, I learned that buying round-trip tickets often didn’t work out.  I’d find myself in the Hudson Valley or New Jersey or out on Long Island and plans would change.  I’d be asked to attend an extra event, or I’d be offered overnight hospitality somewhere, and suddenly I found myself navigating an unexpected pathway.  The second half of my round-trip ticket was wasted.

So I started buying one-way tickets when I traveled.  These were practical but also had spiritual resonance.  They represented my commitment to flexibility and opportunity, and I learned to find that openness genuinely exciting.

Flash forward.  In 2019, I had a contract with a Quaker organization to process some data from a multiyear project and compile the conclusions into usable documents.  One such document had to do with culture change.  By looking at the data from the project, conducting interviews, and cross-referencing with research done by other organizations, I found evidence that there are four conditions that must be met before a Quaker meeting can seriously engage in culture change.

The first is this: A meeting that is prepared for culture change will take joy in experimentation, understanding that long-term growth requires patient devotion to perpetual learning.

In other words, they invest in one-way tickets.  How does the meeting enter new experiments?  You don’t want to place dynamite on the track behind you, because it’s certainly possible that you’ll want to go back.  But you also want to stay open to the possibilities.  Are the members of the group purchasing one-way tickets or round-trip?  Are you entering the adventure fully prepared for whatever happens, thinking it likely that one experiment will lead to another and to another, or are you trying one new thing with the basic assumption that you’ll probably return to the status quo?

In other words, if your first experiment doesn’t work out, will that be a reason to attempt another experiment, or will that be a reason to return to safety and say “well, we tried?”

(Incidentally, just this week, I realized I was doing this–dabbling in a particular situation with my safe, round-trip ticket and then comforting myself by saying “I tried.”  So I enact this pattern, too, and that’s a thing for me to recognize.)

When we’re entering into a change, are we nervously clutching our round-trip tickets, or are we “patiently devoted to perpetual learning?”