Humanity (11/37)

“Much literature on congregations is calculated to help them achieve the social task of moving on, not staying put…[it] mostly tries to smooth the way for a better fit between congregations and the master narrative of American culture: progress…[but] the loyalties, commitments, and passions of participants and leaders are only superficially addressed and marshaled by a framework of progress…thinking of a church as a system of productivity does not reach the depths of what the church is for or why people associate with churches. When participants recite a creed or sing a hymn from memory, when they kneel at an altar rail, when they give a Saturday to cook food for the homeless, something else is going on that can only be addressed with a narrative not of progress but of presence, not of productivity but of place…If I want to know you, I have to get beyond types and learn your story, the narrative through which you make your life in all its twists and turns, ambiguities and uncertainties.” 

– from The Soul of the Congregation by Thomas Edward Frank

There’s almost always a way to make the institution more efficient. And the conference can have better workshop facilitators. And the newsletter can be more visually pleasing. And the meeting can grow. And the garden can be prettier. 

But is that the point?

The purpose of most Quaker institutions is to support God’s work in our communities. But what’s the purpose of the communities? Why do groups of Friends exist?

I think we exist to discern and do the will of God, and that looks like a lot of different things. Historically, Friends have experienced God asking us to listen—asking us to preach—asking us to care for each other—asking us to bear witness in the world. Sometimes the purpose of the Quaker community is to join (or lead) the nonviolent protest, to stand face to face against injustice, to be arrested, to prevent harm or, at least, to shine a spotlight on that harm. And sometimes the purpose of the Quaker community is to make sure the parent who’s just had surgery doesn’t have to worry about dinner. Oftentimes, I think it’s both.

We also exist to recognize and nurture each other’s gifts and ministries, and if we’re doing that, we have to make space for Friends to learn. Sometimes we intentionally invite the less experienced speaker, rather than the more experienced speaker, because at this moment the nurture of the new gift is the most important thing. Sometimes we don’t hire the highly experienced, talented professional gardener because Diane loves to care for the flowers and because we all really love Diane. 

I think there’s real value in writing about institutions. If I didn’t, I’d stop doing it. But over time, I’ve learned that the most efficient “top ten steps to success” is not a complete answer for many communities. Because we’re not a business. We’re not making widgets. What we’re doing is making space for spiritual transformation.

When I work with specific communities close-up, rather than describing patterns from 20,000 feet, I try to understand first how things are working. What the handbook says is less interesting to me than what people are actually doing. Then, I wonder why the community is doing things in that way. Rather than immediately thinking we need to redesign the newsletter, I try to find out who designed that newsletter and what’s important to them and what need it met historically. Sometimes it turns out there’s a guy named Emmett who edits the newsletter who calls every member of the meeting once a month and asks how they’re doing and what he should write about, and it turns out Emmett is actually 75% of the meeting’s pastoral care system, and at that point, who cares about his word processing skills?

On the other hand, there is a temptation in our communities to give over our whole institution to whatever Emmett and Diane need. That’s not good, either, because sometimes the peculiarities of the system we’ve built are serving individuals at the cost of the rest of the community. We weigh Diane’s passion for gardening against what groups renting the building have to say about the state of the flowers. We often won’t agree on which to prioritize. Those of us whose spiritual gifts have a lot to do with one-on-one nurture will always tend to lean towards Diane. Those of us whose spiritual gifts have a lot to do with practical perspective will always tend to lean toward the professional gardener. We listen as deeply as we can to ourselves and to Spirit, and then we make the best choice we can. And repeat. 

Our institutions and our communities are never really the big picture we can describe. They are the culmination of many thousands of tiny decisions, like pointillism. And like painters using pointillism, we have to be aware simultaneously of the bigger picture we’re aiming for and the impact of each little human moment. It’s those little human moments that create the rest. Without them, any vision, no matter how beautiful, can never materialize. 

Spiritual Gifts, Institutions, and Communities (10/37)

Why don’t we all think about Quaker institutions the same way? Why is it that one Friend can perceive an urgent problem while another seems to think there’s no importance to the matter at all? How come some Friends participate actively in our committee systems while others appear to be disengaged?

We’re not designed to be alike. As I’ve written before, we have different spiritual gifts, and that’s because we’re meant to be interdependent. A covenant community works like a jigsaw puzzle. Everyone brings a piece or two. And God does not intend for everybody to do exactly the same things. We all have spiritual gifts, and these gifts are for the purpose of sharing in community.

It’s tricky to recognize spiritual gifts. We often don’t realize our gifts are gifts. They come so naturally to us that we think everyone must have that ability. And we can overlook other people’s gifts because sometimes they’re so outside our frame of reference that we don’t even perceive them. Or we might notice the annoying parts of someone else’s giftedness and never realize the positive ways in which that gift acts in our community.

I’m going to give some examples to help you know what I’m talking about, but please don’t read the following paragraphs as a complete list or limiting in any way. I’m not attempting to set up a full explanation of spiritual gifts here, just providing some context so I can make a deeper point.

Some gifts might be roughly categorized as seeing gifts. They change the ways in which we perceive the world. Some people may have knowledge or wisdom gifts. They tend to see the world with an understanding of facts or emotional dynamics. Some people have prophecy gifts and perceive Truth about people and situations. Some have mercy gifts and notice suffering in a way that others might not. Some have discernment gifts and have a natural recognition of spiritual dynamics. There are other possibilities.

Other gifts might be thought of as loving gifts. They change the ways in which our heart longs to touch other souls. A person with a gift of giving shows love by providing physical things, large or small. A person with a gift of hospitality shows love by inviting people in and making spaces. The gift of intercession draws a person to show love through prayer. A person with a gift of serving will show love by doing tasks for someone. Related, but not quite the same thing, are the gifts of exhortation, shepherding, and apostleship, which I’ve always thought of as closely related. Someone with the gift of exhortation tends to love the person right in front of them with their whole heart. Someone with the gift of shepherding tends to love a group. Someone with the gift of apostleship tends to love groups of groups, large systemic bodies of people in which they may not even know the individuals. Again, there are other possibilities, and of course, people have multiple spiritual gifts.

A third category of gifts might be thought of as doing gifts. These tend to drive our behavior in the world. Administration…this person organizes. Evangelism…this person spreads excitement. Exorcism…this person liberates. Healing…this person restores health (physical, emotional, spiritual). Leadership…this person shows the way. Speaking…this person makes words that inspire. Teaching…this person instructs and makes clear. And yes, there are other possibilities.

(When I talk about spiritual gifts, I draw heavily from the writings of Jan Wood, which I strongly recommend reading. My interpretation differs from hers in some cases, but I will always be grateful to her for introducing me to these ideas.)

I’m talking about spiritual gifts in this series because as hard as it can be to understand and perceive spiritual gifts in community, it can be even harder to do it in relation to our institutions. Our institutions are meant to support our covenant communities, to provide the procedures and patterns that make it possible for us to discern and do God’s will. The institution is not the same thing as the community. Thinking it is devalues certain gifts—and, by extension, certain individuals.

Let’s imagine a person—we’ll call her Ava—whose gifts include discernment (a natural recognition of spiritual dynamics), shepherding (a love for the group), and administration (responding to the world by organizing it). Quaker institutions lionize Ava. They tend to make her clerk of everything. And Ava will thrive, at least for a while, because Ava’s natural desire—and what she does best—is to work with groups, perceiving the spiritual dynamics and organizing the appropriate response. It’s like nominating a duck to the swimming committee.

Now imagine another person—we’ll call him Benjamin—whose gifts include prophecy (perceiving truth), service (he shows love by doing tasks), intercession (he also shows love through prayer), and healing (he restores health). Benjamin spends a lot of time in the meetinghouse kitchen. He shows up every week, sits in worship for the first half hour, and then goes downstairs to start the coffee. During social hour, he’s cutting the lemon squares and getting a head start on the dishes. Friends who’ve been around for a while know that when they’re distressed, the thing to do is go into the kitchen and chat with Benjamin. He doesn’t say a whole lot, but what he does say is always right on the money, and he listens so well that you can’t help feeling better. The community likes Benjamin very much. The institution less so, because Benjamin doesn’t do the sorts of things that keep the institution running, at least on paper. He might serve on a committee or two, but his name never winds up in the minutes. Historians probably won’t know there was a Benjamin. But he keeps the community going.

Our third imaginary person—let’s call them Cameron—has gifts of mercy (perceives suffering in a way that others do not), hospitality (invites people in and makes welcoming spaces), evangelism (spreads excitement), speaking (uses words to inspire), and leadership (shows the way). If Cameron is fairly new to our community, we notice immediately that they’re dynamic and personable and energetic and perceptive and articulate, and we’re very excited about asking them to serve in some institutional roles. Any committee would do. We have a shortage of people, and Cameron is clearly an asset.

But when we react this way to the Camerons among us, we’re missing the point. Because what Cameron actually wants to do—what they feel led to do—is open a drop-in center for people experiencing homelessness. If our attempts to suck them into committee service and clerking don’t get in the way, Cameron will establish a new non-profit, build relationships with funders and with potential clients, and convince two churches, one synagogue, and a Buddhist temple to sign on as co-sponsors and provide volunteer counselors and hot meals. 

Cameron does not need the opportunity to clerk the hospitality committee. It’s possible that Cameron can do this and do their work, too, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But clerking the hospitality committee is not the most authentic, most Spirit-led movement in Cameron’s life. What Cameron needs from the meeting is a chance to worship with us, experience spiritual grounding and re-centering, and receive unconditional love. They could probably use a highly functional support committee. And they might need financial support, especially in the beginning.

If we’re looking at Ava, Benjamin, and Cameron only through the lens of the institution’s needs, we can easily frame the situation this way: Ava is an asset to the institution, Benjamin is mildly helpful, and Cameron is a drain. Institutions naturally perpetuate themselves, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. If we forget to contextualize the institution in God’s wider design, then we will unintentionally devalue Cameron and probably Benjamin, as well. Or we’ll try to redirect their energy and gifts into running the institution—which may not be what God needs from either one of them.

I work with institutions because that’s where my spiritual giftedness leads me. But our institutions (our committee structures and our formal, documented procedures), though we need them, are not ends unto themselves. If an institution is not able to support and implement the discernment and nurture and leadings of the covenant community and the people within it, then that institution is interfering with God’s work. That’s the opposite of what we need it to do. And if the covenant community does not recognize and value Cameron and Benjamin as much as Ava, then we’re missing out. We’re narrowing the definition of God’s work, “and who is it that dare stop Christ’s mouth?

Everybody—every Friend—has a fundamental responsibility to participate in and contribute to our worship and corporate discernment. That’s how Quaker practice works. Every Friend also has a fundamental responsibility to serve the meeting. But I would argue that this is not the same thing as serving the institution. Ava, Benjamin, and Cameron are all serving the meeting. They’re just doing it in different ways…ways that are appropriate to their own gifts and callings. Ministry is always service to the meeting, even if it happens in the kitchen or far outside the meetinghouse walls.

One last thing. Ava’s probably tired. After all, we’re making her clerk everything. And let’s not burn her out, but my perspective is this: if we don’t have enough Avas, then let’s try to whittle down our institutional functions. We can usually do that, at least somewhat, and it feels more faithful than sacrificing other Spirit-led ministry on the altar of the institution. The institution is not the community, and it’s not the kingdom of God on Earth. It’s just a set of procedures that’s supposed to help us get things done.

No and Yes (9/37)

“If you can’t say no, then your yes is meaningless.”

A Friend said this to me years ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It seems to apply to a lot of things. I think about membership, for example, and how rarely a membership clearness committee returns with a recommendation that someone isn’t ready. I think about times when inappropriate behavior goes unaddressed or when it’s censured by dirty looks and not concrete statements or action. I think about budgetary processes, in which more is funded than we can afford because no one feels empowered to reject a request. 

It’s true that if we always say yes, our yes begins to lose its meaning. It stops being affirmation from the group, stops being a signal that our leading has been tested and found sound. It becomes, instead, a procedural hoop, in which the go-ahead comes not from corporate discernment but from filling out the paperwork correctly. A bureaucratic test is not what’s needed and tends to reward insiders and people who have time to spare.

When I talk about building a permission-giving culture, I frame this same concern a bit differently. I talk about how often Friends’ default answer is a negative one. No, we can’t make a statement about that thing. No, we can’t provide funding for that ministry. No, we can’t try that new idea, not unless it’s been approved by three committees first.

But where does that kind of no come from? It’s not a Spirit-led no, in most cases. It’s a bureaucratic, procedural no. We’ve built systems that make the no come automatically. Why? Because we’re afraid we can’t say it. If the system says no, we never have to. I’ve actually been in rooms where people have said, “This proposal is a good idea, but we can’t say yes to it. If we did, we’d have to approve every other proposal that looks like this, even the bad ones. So unfortunately, we just can’t do it.”

I really question this. Why on earth would we have to say yes to every proposal just because we’ve accepted one? Is it a misunderstanding of the testimony of equality? Do we not have the courage to rely on discernment? Or are we just that afraid of the person we might say no to?

There’s tension about interpreting the testimony of equality, especially among more theologically liberal Friends. Some say that the testimony of equality means that everyone’s contributions have exactly the same weight. Others say that the testimony of equality means everyone’s contributions are worthy of being received and that God may speak through anyone, but God does not necessarily always speak equally through everyone. I’m sure there are those who’d want to craft a third definition. Personally, I lean toward the God-may-speak-through-anyone interpretation. We all have gifts, and we all carry messages sometimes, but they are neither the same gifts nor the same messages, and equality means seeing what God has given each person and nourishing that within them. It does not mean treating everybody exactly the same (though it does mean treating everybody with the same respect, consideration, and tenderness).

Of course, if we’re not treating everybody exactly the same, then we’re relying on discernment—especially corporate discernment—to figure out the right response. And I think we have good reason to doubt our own corporate discernment abilities. Friends have a history and present condition of racism, sexism, classism, ableism…I think we’re doing better than our ancestors did, but we are a very long distance from perfect. “Isms” aside, other stuff gets in the way. Sometimes we discern wrongly out of ego, or fear, or exhaustion, or ignorance. This means that every time we rely on corporate discernment, we risk coming to the wrong conclusion.

We also risk making one or more people angry. What if we say no and somebody is upset? What if we say no and somebody leaves? It seems safer and easier to always say yes…except in areas where we can’t always say yes, in which case we solve the problem by always saying no.

Relying on the Holy Spirit is not an especially safe activity. It’s exciting and powerful, but it leads to mistakes. The thing is, when we make mistakes, we learn from them, and the next time we can hope to do better. When we strive for perfection in every decision, we do very little and learn even less.

We say that we believe in continuing revelation. Living as if we believe this is scary. But our institutions are intended to support our leadings from God. They are not intended to protect us from them. It’s time to unfetter corporate discernment from institutional safeguards—at least a little bit—and to do that, we’ll have to practice saying no and yes, even understanding that we will make mistakes.

Trust (8/37)

How do you decide who to trust? If you’re like me, that’s not a simple question. I can think of many times, looking back, when I’ve trusted someone too easily. Sometimes I’ve relied on someone to do something, and they haven’t come through. Sometimes I’ve assumed someone knew what they were talking about, and they didn’t. Occasionally I’ve trusted someone who literally turned out to be dangerous to me. Everyone’s had at least a few trusted-too-much experiences.

But we can’t trust nobody. Not if we’re going to live in community. A certain degree of trust is required just to cross the street. We have to believe that strangers will stop at red lights.

The concept of covenant community requires a very high degree of trust indeed. Which is not to say that God would ask us to trust every Quaker immediately and entirely. Abuse can and does happen in Quaker communities. And even when it doesn’t, there are many other ways to violate trust.

So we need some way to know who is trustworthy and to what degree. It’s vital, especially because we’re meant to be nurturing one another spiritually, and that requires legitimate vulnerability. 

One way to go about this is simply knowing each other for a long time. We have small interactions. We trust each other with little things. That works out well, we try again. We pay attention to people’s reputations. We get a sense of one another. This isn’t a perfect system, but it’s one we practice our whole lives long, and it tends to work the majority of the time.

The trouble is, in large local meetings, or when we get to things like regional and yearly meetings, we simply can’t know everybody. So how do we know who is trustworthy?

As far as I can tell, the first time Quakers asked this question was back in the age of Second Day Meeting. This was pretty early Quakerism, when it used to be possible for most or all of the traveling ministers in England to gather on Mondays and discuss what had happened in worship the day before. These ministers reflected informally on the state of the Society and made decisions about who would go where for the next week. 

After a while, though, some rather odd people started to show up for Second Day Meeting. Maybe they didn’t really know much about Quakerism, or maybe they weren’t very spiritually centered, or maybe they were outright disruptive, or maybe they seemed to have a shadowy agenda of some kind. Since the traveling ministers didn’t all know each other, and since new traveling ministers were feeling called all the time, they couldn’t just identify who belonged on sight. So these Friends instituted a rule that each attender at Second Day Meeting had to have something in writing from their own home worship community saying, essentially, “This person’s legit.”

This was the origin of recording.

Later on, when Quakers were more spread out, the ministers couldn’t all gather for Second Day Meeting. For a while, there were tons of traveling ministers, and they were going all over the world. Each carried with them a travel minute, a letter from their home meeting saying that the work they were doing was of God. These letters were the way in which receiving communities knew to trust them. The letter was proof that the Friend had been through a process of corporate discernment, and they hadn’t just gone off on a whim. And these travel minutes were endorsed by each community visited. In other words, people wrote back to the home meeting, letting them know if everything went all right. It was extra layer of evidence that this Friend should be trusted to travel again.

There came a point, though—we are fast forwarding through more than a hundred years of history and crossing the Atlantic Ocean here—when traveling ministers began to differ from one another in significant theological ways. The messages they carried often conflicted directly. This was the seed of the Orthodox-Hicksite division. And after the division happened, Orthodox Friends trusted Orthodox Friends and Hicksite Friends trusted Hicksite Friends. Your travel minute and recording were irrelevant if they’d been issued by “those other Quakers.”

The crack in our Society runs deep. My own yearly meeting, New York, reunited in the 1950s, and there are Friends alive who still remember that (barely). Once, in a small all-age group of Friends, I was leading a game that involved two small stuffed animals. Since we were a reunified yearly meeting, I named the two critters Hicks and Hoag—after Elias Hicks (famous Hicksite minister, now stuffed tiger) and Joseph Hoag (famous Orthodox minister, now stuffed lion). Most of us thought this was fun. But one older man gave the tiger a new name before he would touch it. He didn’t like the Hicksites. Not even in play.

Reunification wasn’t easy. I’ve read the minutes. They make me cry. There’s a beauty in their coming back together, but it wasn’t immediate and total healing. There were a lot of things that Friends then just didn’t talk about. If they did, they quarreled. So they stayed silent. And they formed committees.

Committees modulate the degree of trust necessary. We approve or disapprove of nominations. The nominations happen for a limited time. Big steps still have to be approved by the whole body. We know that committees can’t do anything radical. So we don’t have to worry very much about trusting.

I think that’s one way we manage trust nowadays. The other way we seem to do it is by saying, “I trust you because you are like me.” Most Quaker communities I visit, including my own, have certain key words or phrases they seem to look for. Using them functions as a shibboleth. Some are theological. Some are cultural. Some are sociological. Some are literally familial, in the sense of, “Oh, I knew your grandpa.”

Other words and phrases are essentially forbidden. If used, they communicate, “I am other. Not to be trusted.” And yes, we have phrases that are shibboleth in one place and forbidden in another. As a traveling minister, I’ve learned to be conscious of these. I never lie, but I police my speech depending on where I am because experience has shown me that not doing so can snap budding relationships.

I have a travel minute from my meeting. I’m extremely grateful for it. It’s evidence of corporate discernment of a ministry, and I needed that for my own sake if no one else’s, especially in the earliest days. But travel minutes are no longer evidence of trustworthiness among Friends in the 21st century. Today, trustworthiness comes from reputation. Speaking. Writing. Interacting. Facilitating. It involves a lot of branding and marketing principles. I hated all that for a very long time because it felt dishearteningly worldly.

I complained about this once to a Quaker minister with many more decades of experience than I have, and he smiled sort of gently and said, “Thee must demonstrate thy faithfulness over time.” It stopped me in my tracks. Because of course that’s right

I’m not sure that Quakers have ever had a magical solution to the trust problem. Maybe we invented travel minutes because we were living in an era of letters of introduction, and writing a letter for someone to carry with them was the culturally normal way to establish trust. These days, it seems like it’s done with a blog. And social media networks. And personal contacts. Which is the 21st century’s culturally normal way. I trust you because I’ve gotten to know you…if not in person, then by reading your website.

In all of this, I have four main points.

#1: All institutions have to solve the problem of “how do we know who to trust?” A common solution is hierarchy, but we have rejected that. Still, Quaker institutions have solved this trust problem multiple times. Each time, they’ve done it in a manner appropriate for their historical era. 

#2: Some of our historical models, such as travel minutes and recording, don’t have the trustworthiness effect that they used to, even though these processes haven’t been laid down officially in most places. Why? Perhaps the practices are less well known. Or perhaps they’re less appropriate in the modern era. I have a suspicion that it also has something to do with our current manner of practicing corporate discernment, but I’ll say more about that later.

#3: One solution for the trustworthiness question is committees. But in my opinion, this is less about trusting people and more about a structure in which people don’t need to be trusted as much. And a side effect is slowing, sometimes preventing, powerful ministry. 

#4: We don’t have strong methods in place to decide who’s trustworthy across yearly meetings. For instance, a Friend’s service on a committee in California doesn’t mean much to a Friend in Uganda. So instead, we use theological and cultural commonalities to judge trustworthiness. This plays into an us/them dynamic that is threatening our Society and the world at large. It’s also a terrible way of assessing actual trustworthiness. It causes us not to engage in relationship with many faithful Friends, and it makes plenty of space for people who say the right things but are actually unreliable or even abusive.

I wish I had an easy answer here, a simple proposal we could all accept. But the truth is, our current methods for deciding who to trust are getting in our way, and possibly in God’s way. At the same time, our historical models may not be appropriate answers to the trustworthiness question in modern times. Ignoring the problem also isn’t working. So what will the solution be?

Why We Have Worth (7/37)

I spend a lot of time thinking about Quaker institutions from 20,000 feet. The wide perspective comes naturally to me. But when we get right down to it, there’s no such thing as an abstract Quaker institution. And for many reasons of messy humanness, it’s not easy for real-life people to make theoretically sensible changes.

One of the reasons change is hard is the desperate human need to have worth. This is a rough one because, of course, we all have infinite inviolable worth. As Quakers, we know this. We say it to each other. And yet, and yet…and yet…

Many of us find this hard to believe. Or if we believe we have abstract worth, we might still feel insecure about our value in the context of community. I first learned about this in a workshop on aging. We talked about the fact that many people, as a matter of natural progression, begin to lose certain abilities as they age. Perhaps there’s a reduction in cognitive capacity; perhaps there’s a general decrease in energy. If the people in their community have only ever complimented this person on their work—you’re a great notetaker, I love the soup you make, thanks for setting up the benches today—then that person has a reason to believe they’ll be loved less by their community when they become less able to do things.

There’s nothing wrong with complimenting people’s work or thanking them for the service they give. But it’s important that we also show we value people’s beings—I appreciate your kindness, hearing you laugh makes me happy, you are my friend, I love you. It can be easy to skip over that bit. Expressing those feelings might feel less comfortable, or maybe we assume people already know. The truth is, it often isn’t clear.

Think about your own connection with various communities. What is it that you know people value about your presence there? You, as an individual?

In the context of Quaker institutions, people’s sense of worth can function almost like teeny-tiny landmines. A meeting that owns an old building might need to sell it—but that will be hard if George is deriving a sense of his value from being the only one who knows how to fix the furnace. It might be time to shut down the monthly regional potluck, especially if the energy we’re spending on it is preventing the group from being able to explore new ministries—but Margaret will find that impossible to imagine, because she’s been making the apple pie every month for forty-five years, as did her mother before her.

Neither George nor Margaret is to be blamed. Nearly all of us do this sort of thing, and sometimes we don’t even realize we’re doing it. A George or a Margaret might throw up enormous resistance to a proposal for change without explicitly identifying this sense of worth as a problem. It’s up to the rest of us to pay attention and walk alongside them until we understand what’s happening.

It will take time and tact and deep listening and Spirit-led presence to help George and Margaret understand that we love them and that our love is not conditional upon particular functions. They also need to know that our new configuration, whatever that might be, will have a place for them. This is part of what it means to be covenant community. 

It’s worth noting, however, that loving Margaret and George does not mean permitting them to prevent the rest of us from making a needed change, once we know what that change must be. The tyranny of one is not corporate discernment, and it’s also not how we show healthy love.

What Has Life (6/37)

Does this have Life?

Not long ago, I sat around a table with a Baptist, a Presbyterian, an Episcopalian, and a Disciple. This is not the beginning of a joke. They were talking about theologies of communion. Does the bread have to be blessed? Can it be crackers? How about potato chips? How important is dipping versus sipping versus gulping? Grape juice or wine? Wafer or Wonder Bread? It was a cheerful conversation with lots of laughter, more congenial and sympathetic than it was a debate. There was a moment of silence when somebody mentioned the Catholics…not because anybody objected to Catholics but because they felt sorry them. Catholics went many months without communion during the pandemic because their theology absolutely requires the bread to be blessed in person by a priest, and a lot of Catholics deeply grieved this.

Finally, the question was raised. “How do Quakers do communion?”

It always takes me a second to respond to this question, not because I don’t know the answer but because I feel like I have to answer twice. Most Quakers would say that we don’t do communion. But that wasn’t actually our original theology. Instead, we used to say that our communion is spiritual, that it happens in the act of expectant worship when we, together, consume the presence of God.

I’m not 100% sure whether early Friends would have called physical communion evil or just unnecessary. But the objection, as I understand it, was primarily about empty forms. If an action wasn’t done with the power of Christ, with the direct prompting of the Holy Spirit, then it became an empty form and, thus, not of God.

Early Friends thought most parts of established religions were empty forms, which doesn’t feel fair to me. Many people, for example, still derive enormous spiritual meaning from taking physical communion. But the idea of not doing it if it doesn’t have Life…that does resonate with me.

I’ve heard of some Friends who took this to an extreme. They wouldn’t, for example, pray or read the Bible unless they felt directly prompted by God to do so. And I think we have to strike a balance. It would be a problem, for example, if we said that no one would pay the meetinghouse’s water bill unless they felt a prompting from the Holy Spirit, because honestly I think God doesn’t micromanage toilets.

Still, it’s a useful question: does this task have Life?

As I’ve said before, there are almost no situations in which we Friends do things without an historical reason. But because institutions perpetuate patterns, it’s often very hard to make ourselves stop doing something, even if the historical reason is obsolete. In other words, we have forms without Life.

I’m the farthest thing there is from a botanist, but even I know that sometimes plants are pruned because their nourishment and energy are stretched too thin. If the lifeless pieces aren’t cut away, the entire plant can die. So, too, can Quaker communities die because we’re drained by empty forms. Keeping things going takes spiritual energy, to say nothing of the physical and mental and financial. 

Giving energy to that which does not have Life can come at the cost of what does have Life. We can fail to respond to the Holy Spirit because we’re busy maintaining what God needed us to do three generations ago. Which can lead to enormous frustration, especially for Friends who are feeling inspired. Their inspiration is often squashed because the community has no energy to spare. 

I’ve run into a few Friends whose reaction to this is not “we should prune” but “we should cut down the whole tree”—which is a perspective I can sympathize with, but we do need some kind of institutions. 

Does this have Life? If not, can we skip it? Sometimes the answer is no, we can’t—but I think it’s question worth asking more often.

Does this have Life? If it does, can we nourish it? We could say yes a lot more often if we cut out some of our empty forms. And I strongly suspect our Quaker ancestors would approve.

Yearly Meetings and Traveling Ministry (5/37)

In the 21st century, how do yearly meetings practice corporate discernment?

In most cases, new pieces of business rise from yearly meeting committees, though they can come from monthly or regional meetings. The question at hand is first explained in some kind of written form, in a document that’s sent by email to the Friends who have registered for the yearly meeting gathering. Monthly meetings can also access these documents ahead of yearly meeting, theoretically, and consider them in worship, but most don’t—perhaps because they don’t have time, perhaps because the pieces of business aren’t thoroughly explained, or perhaps because the proposals don’t feel relevant.

When the yearly meeting gathering happens, Friends in attendance—often fewer than 2% of the number of members of the yearly meeting—hear an ultra-refined version of the proposal at hand. Some committee or group of people has worked hard to develop a presentation that will be as clear as possible while not taking up too much time on the agenda.  The body then has a few minutes—ten, maybe twenty, an hour for something really big—to consider the matter in worship.

The Friends gathered (again, often fewer than 2% of the number of members of the yearly meeting) discern way forward as faithfully as they’re able, given limited time and numbers and information. A minute is written. Friends in local meetings who were not present at yearly meeting gathering may or may not eventually hear about whatever the decision was. When they do, they may or may not feel it has anything to do with them.

Generally speaking, every person in the system I’ve outlined above is doing the absolute best they can, and generally they all have honorable intentions. There are, however, several fundamental flaws within the system—things that don’t function well organizationally and/or aren’t consistent with Quaker theology. I’m going to point out a few. Perhaps you’ll think of more.

First—new items of business often arise from yearly meeting committees. There’s nothing really wrong with that if the committee is making a proposal that’s consistent with the work they’ve specifically been charged to do and if that charge is consistent with the discernment of the whole yearly meeting. But often, one or both of those things is not the case, which means that the yearly meeting is suddenly considering a proposal that’s coming from a very small group of Friends and hasn’t had any yearly-meeting-wide discernment before appearing on the agenda. 

Second—the question at hand is explained in written form ahead of time, in some form of advance documents, and this is often the first and only time that most Friends will hear about it before beginning corporate discernment at the yearly meeting gathering. We talk about items of business as having been “seasoned” by the committee that presents it, and what we usually mean by that is that the idea has been questioned and developed and prayed over and refined. Which is good. But there’s something I’m wondering about seasoning. It seems to me as though the process of seasoning a proposal actually has two purposes. One is to prepare the proposal. The other is to prepare our hearts and minds to accept it. When we’re called to some new thing by God, those of us who aren’t part of the seasoning process often struggle to accept the idea. Because we have missed the formative process. Even if the proposal may be perfect, we have not been given the benefit of the journey to that perfection, and therefore, we’re not in a place to approve it.

Third—monthly meetings often don’t consider matters of business before the yearly meeting sessions. If those Friends who attend yearly meeting are supposed to be discerning on behalf of the whole yearly meeting body, surely those Friends who are present should have some sense of how the non-present 98% of the body is feeling about the particular matter at hand, even if they are not intended to function as literal representatives of their monthly meetings. But they often have no idea what other Friends feel. So they’re not really doing discernment that takes into consideration the wisdom and leadings of the whole yearly meeting. They’re doing discernment that represents the 2%…not because they’re unfaithful but because that’s all they have access to.

Fourth—the time available on the yearly meeting agenda is so limited that Friends hear only a brief overview of the proposals, then have limited time to hold those proposals in worship. We Friends say that things happen in God’s time, not our time, and God’s time is not necessarily slow. Nor is God’s time always containable in a period of twenty minutes. Moreover, there’s a natural tendency toward anxiety and conflict because there are a few Friends who have had much longer than twenty minutes to hold the proposal in worship…namely, the Friends who are making the proposal. For them, the moment in business meeting is often the culmination of months or years of labor. It is almost impossible for a group that has been through that amount of work and discernment to have patience for a larger group that’s doing the best it can but is, ultimately, still in a very early stage of the discernment process, working through initial emotional reactions and very basic logistical questions. We also all know that either the thing must be approved today or it must wait for months or even a full year until the next opportunity. No matter how spiritually mature and centered we might be, that’s a lot of pressure.

Fifth—the minute that is eventually approved and sent to monthly meetings feels distant to Friends who weren’t present at the yearly meeting gathering. These Friends haven’t just had limited time to discern. They haven’t had any time at all. And yet, this minute is said to represent the yearly meeting’s discernment. Is it any wonder that Friends who aren’t active in their yearly meeting gatherings and committee structures often feel that yearly meetings are some other thing unrelated to them? But we know that’s not meant to be the case. The yearly meeting is meant to be a covenant community engaged in corporate discernment and mutual care.

On the whole, I really question our 21st century institutional systems and whether our yearly meetings, as currently designed, have any ability to fulfill their purpose, which is to support the entire yearly meeting’s corporate discernment and to provide an institutional structure that can implement that discernment after it’s done.

But people don’t design flawed systems on purpose. We do things the way we do them for a reason. I have some guesses about how we got where we are.

Why do new items of business often arise from yearly meeting committees? Because the Friends on these committees have a legitimate spiritual leading to do work among Friends in a broader setting than their local meetings. And yearly meeting committee service is the most obvious way to do that.

Why are new items of business distributed in written form, pre-seasoned by committees? Because we know there isn’t time to start from scratch when the yearly meeting gathering happens, and this is the most obvious method available to get a head start on the discernment and save time.

Why do monthly meetings usually not consider items of business before yearly meeting gatherings? Because there’s no sensible reason to do so. Friends in local meetings are smart enough to know that if a local meeting does do such discernment, there is no pathway built into our systems by which their discernment can make any difference to the ultimate decision. A monthly meeting might write a minute of support or objection. Or a Friend from that monthly meeting might attend yearly meeting and express that support or objection in worship. But ultimately, this carries very little weight. Officially, it carries no weight at all. Because Friends’ discernment is done by those who are physically (or virtually) in the room at the time the proposal is presented. We can’t design the process otherwise because, if we do, Friends who are not in the room can hold us back from moving forward. That would be wrong because we know that new spiritual understanding often happens in the actual process of sitting in worship together.

Why is the time on the yearly meeting agenda so limited? Because we have so many items of business to get through and so few days to be together. Almost all work done by yearly meetings is done by committees (who need approval for significant actions) or by staff (who are given specific and limited scopes of authority). Each major action must be discerned on the floor of the yearly meeting gathering to move forward.

And why are minutes simply sent to local meetings afterward? Because by that stage in the process, there’s nothing else we can do.

The system by which yearly meetings function today simply doesn’t work very well. It is slow and often tedious and tends to represent the discernment of a relatively small number of self-selected people. 

What’s the alternative? I can think of two, and I hope we’ll try both. 

When there’s work that we know needs to be done, and when we’re all pretty clear on what that work is, it makes a lot of sense to employ staff. Yearly meetings that have enough resources already do. There are things I could say about job descriptions and ethical treatment of staff and what right relationship means in terms of our theology, and I intend to say those things, but on another day. Still—when it comes to running the website, or cutting checks, or providing emergency support to local meetings, or writing the newsletter, or organizing gatherings, or any one of a number of clear, specific, and necessary functions—staff seems to be an excellent solution.

But the other piece we’re missing is recognizing ministry.

Why do new items of business often arise from yearly meeting committees? Because the Friends on these committees have a legitimate spiritual leading to do work among Friends in a broader setting than their local meetings. And yearly meeting committee service is the most obvious way to do that.

But it’s not the only way. Because we could recognize ministry.

Ever since our historical period of divisions and reunifications, we have struggled with issues of trust and ministry. Committees are safer. We know what committees are going to do. We know that we have control over who serves on them. We know that if they want to take a major step, they’ll have to come back for our approval. We know that they’re likely to meet once a month and write reports and, in general, take steps that are relatively small and predictable. Because those are the steps that they can get approved.

Because committee service is our default form of work, most Friends called to work beyond their local meetings will join yearly meeting committees. But that’s not how we used to do it. It used to be that a Friend experiencing that call would bring the leading to their monthly meeting. They would ask for a travel minute. Friends would say “yes” or “no” or sometimes “wait.” That third option generally meant that the person wasn’t yet fully clear about their call or that we sensed they needed to learn more first. And usually, given a little time and spiritual discipline, that “wait” would become a “yes.”

The practice of ministry carries with it all kinds of implications. We have to have the spiritual strength and willingness to tell each other yes and no. We have to be willing to support ministry, to name and cultivate elders who are capable of nurturing ministry (even if we don’t record those elders), and to trust the ministers and hold them accountable. All of that is potentially quite scary, and yes, there’s room for things to go wrong.

But if we did it, how would yearly meetings function differently?

New items of business on yearly meeting agendas would never appear to come from nowhere. They’d come from monthly meetings, who’d be considering the matters in worship on a regular basis because they’d be sending and receiving traveling ministers. Those traveling ministers would be carrying concerns from one meeting to another. This travel could happen physically or virtually. Conversations would happen about new movements of Spirit over coffee, on walks, in cars, and in front of fireplaces. The ideas would be seasoned one meeting at a time, in the natural process of travel, and we ourselves would be seasoned by those ideas as that happened.

When a proposal was ready to come to the floor of the yearly meeting, having already been in business meetings in at least a few different monthly meetings and regional meetings, almost no one would be present who hadn’t already encountered the new idea. We would not be starting with the first twenty minutes of discernment. There’d be many conversations and periods of worship already in place. We’d know how Friends generally, across the yearly meeting, were feeling led. We’d be able to engage deeply, fully prepared.

The agenda would also be shorter. We would have given most of the routine work to staff and then trusted those staff members to do the work they’d been given. And our ministers would be trusted to do the work they were called to do, held accountable by their local meetings and/or support committees, probably reporting to us but not needing permission from the whole yearly meeting for each new step. Because we’ve discerned already that they are following a genuine call faithfully, and therefore, we trust the work they’re doing.

And when Friends in local meetings received minutes afterward, those Friends would recognize the decisions made at yearly meeting as the Spirit-led result of a long discernment process in which they themselves had been involved.

How do we get to this? By dismantling the assumption that the default response to a spiritual call is to make or join a committee. This wouldn’t be easy. Most monthly meetings have not recognized and supported a call to ministry in living memory. It is really, really hard to know how to do it—intellectually, but also spiritually and emotionally. It requires mutual trust and a willingness to hold each other accountable. Sometimes it requires financial support. These are areas that aren’t comfortable for many of us. We will make mistakes. 

I still believe it’s an experiment worth trying. Most of us never laid down the concept of traveling ministry. We just stopped doing it. We can try again. Was it a perfect system? Heck, no, it wasn’t. But neither is the system that we’re trying to make work today.

The Calcification of Committees (4/37)

The best thing that institutions do is perpetuate patterns. The worst thing that institutions do is perpetuate patterns.

Suppose that a Friend—let’s call her Prudence—develops a concern for the health and welfare of zebras. This is a genuine, Spirit-led concern. She feels led to make an ongoing study of zebras, to raise money for their preservation, and to lobby governmental officials on their behalf. Prudence brings the concern to her meeting. Her authentically inspired words touch many Friends in the meeting quite deeply. Soon, it’s clear that several Friends share Prudence’s concern for zebras. 

The meeting approves a minute establishing a Zebra Committee under the care of the monthly meeting. The Zebra Committee is charged with (1) studying the health and welfare of zebras; (2) raising money for the preservation of zebras and donating these funds to appropriate organizations; (3) lobbying government officials on issues related to the welfare of zebras, and (4) making a report on the committee’s progress to the business meeting twice a year.

Within three months, six Friends are serving on the Zebra Committee, having been duly appointed by nominating. Prudence is clerk. For the first three years of the committee’s existence, all is well. The Friends are able to raise quite a lot of money, and they “adopt” two zebras through the International Zebra Fund, at a cost of $120 per month. They report their progress to the meeting twice a year. The meeting is pleased, and Prudence and other Friends have been faithful.

In the fourth year, however, the clerk of the meeting steps down, and a new clerk is appointed. This new clerk has only recently transferred his membership to the meeting. He has not read the entire handbook and therefore doesn’t realize that the Zebra Committee, unlike other committees, is charged to report to the business meeting every six months. A full year goes by before it occurs to anyone that the Zebra Committee hasn’t reported in a while. Someone mentions this to the clerk, but the conversation happens at social hour over a particularly good cake, and three more people mention three other things to the clerk before he finishes eating, so he forgets.

Prudence and the rest of the committee, meanwhile, are getting on with the good work of advocacy on behalf of zebras. When they send a letter to a local politician, they hear back that the politician is already working quite hard on preservation of both zebras and wildebeests. This strikes a chord with committee members because they already know that the two species are reliant upon one another in several ways in the wild. Although the committee’s fundraising has gone less well in the past year that it had previously, there is a small pool of unspent money. The committee decides to “adopt” a wildebeest in addition to its two zebras. The monthly costs for animal support now total $170.

Three more years go by. The meeting has not heard any reports from the zebra committee, and by this point, no one remembers that they were ever supposed to. Prudence has occasionally put a brief update about the zebra committee’s work in the newsletter, but very few Friends actually read the newsletter in full, so the meeting’s general awareness of zebra-related concerns is quite low, and most Friends have no idea that the committee is also working to support wildebeests. Four of the original six members have left the committee, but nominating has only found one new member, so they’re down to three Friends. Most people are not led to join the zebra committee partly because they have no experiential knowledge of what the committee is doing or why.

Two more years pass. It has now been nine years since Prudence’s original leading and report to business meeting. Prudence’s health is deteriorating as she ages. She is no longer able to clerk the zebra committee nor to do active fundraising on its behalf. But the Spirit-led concern for zebras and wildebeests is still very much on her heart. The meeting as a whole can no longer honestly say that it has a corporate leading to work for the preservation of zebras. But they do love Prudence, and the concern is very important to Prudence, so no one is willing to lay down the committee.

The $170/month in donations adds up quickly, and with no one actively fundraising for the concern anymore, the $2040/year winds up coming out of the meeting’s general budget. Because the meeting is having difficulty covering its financial obligations overall, a new attender suggests cutting the amount in half. This is approved. Prudence, who is no longer able to attend business meeting because of mobility and transportation concerns, is deeply hurt when she reads the minutes.

The story could go on. There are decades-old “zebra committees” in many, many Quaker institutions. And in some cases, the situation gets far worse than the imaginary scenario I detailed above.

The thing I want to point out about this story is that Prudence had a genuine, God-given concern for zebras. And the meeting, when it first heard her speak, felt this and recognized it and had a genuine, God-given leading to support Prudence’s concern. Whatever problems came later weren’t a result of anyone’s lack of faithfulness. They were a result of Friends who thought the only possible institutional response was a committee.

Let’s rewind to the day that Prudence brought her concern to business meeting. What other responses were available to Friends?

Maybe what was needed was a Zebra Working Group. Working groups are clustered around a specific concern rather than a specific task or set of tasks. They may or may not have a formal charge. They almost certainly wouldn’t have a handbook page. Working groups are composed of people who volunteer because they share a common concern. They figure out, together, how they’re led to respond to that concern, and when they need approval for a proposal, they bring it back to whomever formed them—in this case, the monthly meeting. Working groups can lay themselves down when they feel finished, or they can be laid down by the group that formed them if interest seems to have waned. 

Or maybe the meeting should have set up a Zebra Concern Task Group. That’s an appropriate reaction if the meeting needs a specific short-term job done, including research into possible next steps. They could have written a minute asking Prudence and two other Friends to learn more about zebra conservation and bring suggestions for action to the meeting. A task group is automatically laid down when it finishes its defined task, so there’s rarely a problem of the structure sticking around after it no longer has life.

Or maybe Prudence just needed permission to take on a volunteer role. It’s absolutely possible that Prudence only needed the meeting to affirm her concern and ask her to keep them up to date. They could have suggested she use a small bulletin board in the lobby to create a display, or add zebra-related books to their library, or pose zebra conservation announcements in the meeting’s social media group, or offer an intergenerational forum about zebras one Sunday afternoon. Not every concern we have requires a formal, institution-oriented response.

Or maybe Prudence was being led into ministry. Maybe, had the meeting thought to offer Prudence a clearness committee, they would have discovered that she had a genuine leading to travel among Friends (or among people in general) speaking and teaching about the health and welfare of zebras. Perhaps the world had need of a Spirit-led zebra advocate and God had been nudging Prudence in that direction, but the meeting had no experience in recognizing that kind of call.

Committees are not a fundamentally bad approach. They’re exactly the right approach for certain kinds of circumstances. Committees are the most rigidly structured form of organization available to Friends…an exact number of members, a nominating process and approval, a written charge, regular reports, the assumption that they’ll continue in perpetuity. What committees do best is the same thing over and over. They’re perfect for easily defined (not necessarily easy) bodies of work that need to be done repeatedly or continuously. But they don’t work well for concerns that are immediate or that require creative, agile responses. And they’re not very helpful when we’re not sure how to define the scope of work. 

The last thing I want is for anybody to codify in their handbooks the exact differences between committees and working groups and task groups and volunteer roles and ministries and then sketch a discernment flow chart that must be followed precisely. But ideally, somebody in Prudence’s meeting would have been comfortable enough offering alternatives to say, “Gee willikers, this sounds like a job for a working group!” Or something like that.

The alternative, which is consistently forming committees, means consistently choosing the least flexible, most permanent response available to us. It also means, as I talked about in my last essay, that we’re defaulting to not recognizing that sometimes a concern is the start of a call to ministry. The theoretical purpose of our institutions is to support our ability to discern and respond to revelation, and getting caught up in rigid structures actively undermines that.

Recording vs Nominating (3/37)

“Rejection of hierarchical positional spiritual authority is deeply embedded in Quaker DNA.” That was the first sentence of my last post, and I stand by it, but there’s a reason why the statement has so many adjectives.

Let’s try it some other ways. 

“Rejection of hierarchical positional spiritual authority is deeply embedded in Quaker DNA.” No. While lots of Quakers aren’t fans of hierarchical positional authority, we don’t have a corporate testimony against it. We function all the time in secular companies and organizations that are hierarchical. We understand the concept of bosses and employees. We’re even prepared, in many cases, to have hierarchical staffs within Quaker organizations, in which one staff member manages other staff members. Our problem is specifically with deriving spiritual authority from hierarchical positions. We believe spiritual authority comes from God, not as a result of any earthly decision or education or ceremony. It’s why we don’t have bishops or cardinals.

“Rejection of hierarchical positional spiritual authority is deeply embedded in Quaker DNA.” Sort of. I’d argue you can have belief in a hierarchical spiritual authority without that authority being reliant on a position. For example, you might claim that older people have more spiritual authority than younger people or that North American and European people have more spiritual authority than African and South American people. While those types of hierarchical beliefs are officially in conflict with our theology—we do say that God might speak through anyone—we have not always acted as though this particular truth were true. We still mess this up. So I’m not sure it’s deeply embedded in our DNA.

“Rejection of hierarchical positional spiritual authority is deeply embedded in Quaker DNA.” No. Emphatically no. And this is the statement I’m focusing on today.

Actually, traditional Quakerism emphasized positional spiritual authority, and I would argue that there are still traces of this in our theology, but for various reasons, we don’t fully practice it in modern day. I’m talking about positional spiritual authority as it manifests in recorded ministers, elders, and overseers, as well as in Quaker pastors.

It’s a very fine line, the difference between the positional spiritual authority of a Friend with a recorded role and the hierarchical positional spiritual authority that comes with ordained clergy in many faith traditions. But there is a theological difference. 

My understanding is that in most other Christian denominations, the act of ordination in itself conveys spiritual power. It’s not done willy-nilly these days. Most churches ask clergy to go through lots of discernment and education and preparation. Unlike what often happened in the 1600s, when the church might have been seen as a career path for third sons of noble families, both Protestantism and Catholicism expect their modern clergy to experience a genuine calling. But still, there is a moment before ordination when the person does not have spiritual authority and then a moment afterward when they have more spiritual authority or power than other people do. The ceremony itself initiates a cause-and-effect, hierarchical change.

Not so in Quaker theology. The recording of an overseer, elder, or minister, including the recording of a minister who is specifically a pastor, is simply the community recognizing something that God has already made true. For example, the recorded elder already is an elder before the recording. We’re just writing it down. And these are not hierarchical roles.

But if not hierarchical, what were or what are they?

Let’s start with overseers. First, I recognize that the word overseer has historical associations with slavery and that it’s a word we generally do not use in Quakerism—for good reason—today. I use it here only because its original Quaker meaning is an important concept, and the word does not have a synonym in the English language. An overseer was a person that God had called to care for the physical and temporal needs of God’s community. Overseers were responsible for ensuring that all Friends in the Meeting were fed and housed. They visited the sick and the imprisoned. They checked to be sure that all our children were educated. Early Quakers didn’t exactly live in an economically communal, sharing-everything kind of system, but those who needed financial help received it. Overseers watched over that process and sometimes also cared for the Meeting’s property, such as meetinghouse buildings.

An elder was a person (of any age) that God had called to care for the spiritual needs of God’s community. At their best, elders prayed with individual members, recognized and nurtured their spiritual gifts, encouraged them, comforted them, challenged them, and possibly healed them. Elders watched over meeting for worship and, when necessary, intervened if something had gone spiritually awry. They also enforced Spirit-led community norms, and doing this too strictly and with too little mercy is what eventually led to elders being viewed as dictatorial. But they were never intended to be.

A minister was a person that God had called to preach and/or teach. In the earliest days of Quakerism, most ministers were evangelists. A bit later, the majority were traveling ministers, who sometimes evangelized but most often visited established Quaker communities. In addition to their Spirit-led speaking in meetings for worship, ministers prayed with individual families and helped to recognize and nurture young ministers. And over meals and in front of firesides, they served as a circulatory system, bringing news and inspiration from one Meeting to another. 

Friends’ pastors, who were not named as such in our systems in early Quakerism but began to be integrated in some branches in the 1800s, were (and are) recorded in keeping with similar theology. Among Friends, a pastor is often charged to preach, teach, and provide spiritual accompaniment and visitation. They are not ordained. They are recorded—that is, officially recognized by the group as serving the community in the role that God has already given them.

I started this section by saying that Friends traditionally did not reject positional spiritual authority. And we didn’t. It’s just that we recognized it can only come from God. Our ministers, elders, overseers, and pastors each have or had spiritual authority of whatever particular kind we knew God had given them, and recording was about being sure we were all clear on this. 

Human beings, fallible as we are, probably never did all this perfectly. But the recording system functioned fairly well for a good long while. Eventually, our systems of mutual accountability kind of fell apart. Elders (generalizing, as a group) became dictatorial. Ministers (generalizing, as a group) became loose cannons who fought among themselves. I’m honestly not sure what happened to overseers. But in the United States, we went through a hundred-year period of divisiveness, splitting, and reunification. In the process, we lost a huge number of members, and when we came back together, we mostly stopped recording. 

It was the 1960s, rebellion in the air, equality at the forefront of minds. Furthermore, Friends had just been through a multi-generational, trust-shattering spiritual crisis. And for all these reasons, or maybe none of them, we started to change the way we do things. For the most part, instead of naming and recording, we started nominating Friends to committees.

There is a huge difference between being recorded and being nominated to a committee. When a Friend is recorded, the message given is, “We recognize that this is the person God has made you to be.” When a Friend is nominated, the message given is, “We are asking you to do this particular set of tasks for the next few years.” It was an enormous shift in our institutions. I’m not sure whether anyone recognized that at the time. 

Furthermore, I wonder how the change relates to our theology. What happened to people being made, each differently, like in 1 Corinthians 12, to function in covenant communities? Do we still believe that? If we do, how is that reflected in our committee structure, where a person might be asked to do pastoral care for six years, then budgets for three, then property for six, then religious education for two, and then back to pastoral care? Is this, as some have told me, a manifestation of greater certainty about the testimony of equality? Or is it us being afraid to recognize and honor the God-made differences between us, for fear we won’t be able to do that faithfully? We have reason to be afraid. We’ve messed it up before.

One more question—what does our committee structure do in terms of spiritual authority? We used to recognize spiritual authority positionally. Not hierarchical positional spiritual authority. But the knowledge that an elder could be trusted in spiritual matters related to being an elder. And an overseer could be trusted in spiritual matters related to being an overseer. And a minister could be trusted in spiritual matters related to being a minister.

Do we believe, now, in our institutions, that committee members have spiritual authority? If so, then it follows by historical theology that the budget committee member must have been given budget-related spiritual authority before we placed them on the budget committee, and approving their nomination was a recognition of that spiritual authority. Is that how we think of it? I don’t. 

Does that mean, then, that we’ve decided there is no such thing as spiritual authority? What would that imply about trust, about the charges we give to committees, about spiritual giftedness, about covenant community generally?

I should clarify that I’m not attempting to strike down all committees. I’m just wondering whether we made a massive change without working through its theological implications. And while continuing revelation is a crucial part of Quakerism, I don’t think that forgetting what we used to believe is what continuing revelation means. If we suspect our theology has changed, then we need to grapple with that.

But I still think God calls individual Friends to specific purposes. I still believe in leadings. And where in our institutional structures do we have space to recognize these?

Covenant Communities (2/37)

Rejection of hierarchical positional spiritual authority is deeply embedded in Quaker DNA. George Fox told us that “Christ Jesus has come to teach His people for Himself.” It was part of a powerfully counter-cultural movement in which Friends declared no need for an intermediary between any human and God. 

The implications of this were extraordinary…in England in the 1600s. The very concept that Anglican ministers were unnecessary, even an impediment to relationship with God, disturbed the social and moral and economic framework of the country. There is a reason early Friends so often found themselves in prison.

Fox wasn’t the first person in that context to advocate for direct relationship with the Divine. Other small spiritual movements already existed, including Ranterism, in which adherents believed they needed no guidance but that which came directly from the Holy Spirit. The reason (I think) that Quakerism survived the next few centuries while Ranterism didn’t is that we hit upon a secondspiritual insight.

Turns out that when individuals all listen directly to Jesus, they hear different and sometimes conflicting messages. It’s incredibly easy for heightened emotions, lack of experience, ego, and desire to get in the way of hearing from God, which can cause us to do things that are truly bizarre. (On the opposite end of the spectrum, it’s incredibly easy for devotion to logic, feelings of certainty, habit, and exhaustion to get in the way of hearing from God, which can cause us to be stuck in lifeless patterns and indifference. But that is not the problem that early Friends had.)

The second spiritual insight of the early Friends was mutual accountability and corporate discernment. Yes, I can hear directly from God. But when I hear something that may seem a little out there, I test what I’ve heard with the rest of my community. We listen better collectively than separately.

I’ve written about corporate discernment at length before, but one question it raises is how I’ll react when my community comes to a different conclusion than I would individually. Do I stick with this group of people only when it tells me what I want to hear? Or am I prepared to trust and accept no for an answer? If I assume our relationship is going to be long-term, then I’m making a commitment to stick it out, even when things aren’t going my way.

Early Friends formed local groups—what many of us call monthly meetings—for collective worship, corporate discernment, and mutual care. They were communities of the convinced, of people who’d had or were having a spiritual transformation. And because they were living in a society that was hostile to them (and, to be fair, to which they were hostile), they were very highly motivated to cling together.

In time, as Quakerism spread, we established more and more monthly meetings, and then we developed (I’m skipping very rapidly over some things) quarterly and yearly meetings. The local community worshipped every week and held a meeting for business monthly. A little bit larger group—about as big as the distance you could travel in a day on a horse—gathered for worship and business quarterly. And a bigger area still gathered for worship and business annually.

Why didn’t we just keep to our local monthly meetings? Because isolated groups, just like isolated individuals, will eventually drift apart culturally and theologically. If we only know the Friends in our local meeting and no one else, we will naturally start to lose our connection to the wider Religious Society of Friends. And we did believe ourselves to be a Society. We did believe there were things God would lead us to do. All of us. As a Society.

(Do we still believe there are things God will lead us to do? All of us? As a Society?)

We did not go to sleep one night with groups of people who worshipped together and wake up the following morning with interconnected institutions. The transition didn’t happen that way. But we codified a few behaviors, named some functions, established some rules…years later, wrote some of these codifications down as Books of Discipline…years later, became legal entities…years later, some of us hired staff…

There’s no question these days that our various meetings and umbrella organizations are institutions, with the possible exception of a few of our smallest local groups, some of which have no legal status or handbooks or property. And it’s okay to be institutions. Institutions are important. They perpetuate patterns, and without them, we have to reinvent our processes every time. That takes way too much spiritual energy.

But our institutions get out of control when too many of us forget that they are also covenant communities. My quarterly meeting is not a thing over there. It is a group of people with whom I’ve entered a relationship of mutual care and accountability. My yearly meeting isn’t a nonprofit that does things. It is a group of people with whom I’ve entered a relationship of mutual care and accountability. The umbrella organization isn’t an abstract distant establishment. It is a group of people with whom I’ve entered a relationship of mutual care and accountability.

All of us who are connected with the Religious Society of Friends are in at least one, probably several, of these covenant relationships. That is part of the definition of being a Quaker. And we can forget, or decline to remember, these relationships in a couple of ways. Those of us who are less involved in one institution or another might say, that other group has nothing to do with me. Those of us who are deeply involved and emotionally invested might say, those other people clearly don’t know or care what we’re doing on their behalf.

I’m not, here, implying that everybody must be involved in everything, nor trying to make any of us feel guilty. I’ll talk more about all of this in future entries. But when our institutions fail to support God’s purposes, it is often because we’ve stopped treating them as though they are covenant communities. It can help us a lot to dig down to our theological roots: Christ Jesus has come to teach His people for Himself, and we listen better together than separately.