The Year of the Onion Flower

My roommates unearthed it, so to speak, from the back of the vegetable crisper. The carrots had started to liquefy—that’s a thing that carrots do—but the onion had developed roots.

In Tanzania at the World Council of Churches, a young woman stands center stage and tells us, “Since I am fifteen, I have a call to be a pastor. But they say to me, you cannot be a minister because you are a woman. I find another church. They say, what can she tell us, she is so young? Because I am a woman, because I am young, I fight twice.” 

This comes two days after another young woman—this one in my Bible study group—is nearly kidnapped and dragged into a van. But she shows up at Bible study the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

 On the last day of the conference, I sit on the steps and talk about women in ministry with an Egyptian Orthodox priest in full vestments. He thanks me for my faithfulness, and I thank him for his.

We placed the onion in a wine carafe and left it on the bookshelf. In a couple of weeks, it sprouted a stem. Attracted by the evidence of life, we moved it to the windowsill…sunshine, right?

At Ramallah Friends School, I meet a little boy with developmental delays and a passionate love for classical music. We listen together to Beethoven, Bach, and Pachelbel, and we practice speaking in English about each. Then, just for something new, I play him “I Got Rhythm” sung by Judy Garland. Laboriously, he writes in my notebook:

IT’s very very very GooD music becauze It is my favorate.

A couple weeks later, I sprawled on the floor reading aloud from a Wikipedia article about onion reproduction while Roommate A washed dishes and Roommate B roasted a chicken.

I read the Bible and the Harvard Business Review, Lloyd Lee Wilson and Malcolm Gladwell and old minutes from yearly meeting sessions. I study systems analysis, sociology, marketing, fundraising, economics and more. I experiment with social media and analyze survey data and consider how discoveries in neuroscience might shed light on community building and culture change. And then, sometimes, I listen to showtunes—in fact, Fiddler on the Roof’s “Anatevka” inspired The Grief and the Promised Land.

Turns out you can force an onion to bloom if you stick it in a refrigerator and then let it out in the warmth of a kitchen. The onion thinks—yup, it “thinks”—that winter’s over and spring has come, so of course it’s time to make vegetable babies.

In Samburu, I hear the story of Loko, where Kenyan Friends built a meetinghouse, a health facility, and a school in 2002. But following tribal clashes in 2006, the structures were destroyed and the building materials carried away.

Three years ago, Friends returned to Loko and started a nursery school there. They’re also using that nursery school as a worship place. The Samburu people are slowly returning.

The day I arrive to visit, twelve children dance to the beat of a drum and teach me to count to five in their language. The community honors me with a warm can of soda. This is living the resurrection.

Within the month, the onion blossomed. No water, no soil, just sunshine and stored-up energy. The stem burst open with a hundred tiny flowers.

I’m in Notre Dame mostly because a flight home from Palestine is cheaper if I spend twenty hours in Paris. It’s December, and a brilliant Christmas star hovers above us all inside the cathedral. I take some time to sit and consider in silence the glorious non-specificity of God’s invitation: “Come and see,” He says. “Follow the Light I’m showing you. Just—come and see.”

That onion flower stayed with us for weeks. Eventually, it wilted, and it’s long since gone. But I can almost see it even now, right there on the windowsill, across the table as I write.

A Song of Peace

Where I’ve Been (November)

I fixed a child’s hair bow. The clip had broken, and I had bobby pins. I pulled one out of my ponytail and slid it through the little red ribbon and reaffixed the bow to its four-year-old owner. If I’ve done nothing else here, I know that I’ve done that.

That’s not meant to sound despairing. It’s just that travel in the ministry is much like any other bit of life, and it’s not always clear what we’ve achieved—so it helps to celebrate little things, like fixing a tiny bow.

I have a little chart next to the light switch in “my” bedroom, here in Palestine. It tells me what time to set the alarm each day. Some days start earlier than others, and no two are the same, so I made myself a chart to simplify things. Of course, this is a chart of normal, and normal rarely happens here, not with the government reorganizing social security, which has led to regular city-wide protests on top of the usual half-days and parties and holidays of school life.  I do the best I can to keep up.

Most days, I work with three or four or five or six kids. With some, my job is to teach some English. With a few of the smallest, it’s help with behavior management. Little S only wants to play with toys (forever). Little L tends to hit. And kick. And spit. Little T is a sweet thing cloaked in dignity; she permits me to assist with homework, but not cuddle. Young A, a middle schooler, is learning that not everyone wants to hug. Last week he told me very clearly to move my chair back “because personal space.” And my new friend B is near graduation. Some academics are out of reach, but she might be a greeter or a clerk in a store. She is learning to say “excuse me” and “how are you?” at all the right times, and in two languages.

Ramallah bustles. I don’t know how to describe this place. Begin with the color gray; then add a great many yellow cabs. Lots of people. The occasional donkey cart. Hundreds or thousands of little shops, many with automated barkers, tape recorders playing through megaphones, “pajama ten shekel, pajama ten shekel,” and the tape recorder never gets tired so it never, never, ever stops. Call to prayer five times a day. Onions three shekels for half a kilo; when I just want one, the vendor laughs at me and says, “Just take it.” With a cone, you automatically get three kinds of ice cream.

I’ve made some new friends. Sometimes I find myself sitting and listening. Grief or frustration or wistfulness—a traveling minister is safe to talk to. One day, I made a Christmas tree out of glitter paper. Another day, I sharpened three hundred colored pencils. Every Friday, some local friends (small ‘f’) feed me and a handful of others some breakfast, pita and hummus and olive oil and vegetables.

Sundays are worship days. Ramallah Friends Meeting has a meetinghouse made—I think—of 1500 stones, not counting the floor, but it’s possible my multiplication is wrong. It feels very safe. The space around the meetinghouse is brilliantly green. “A Song of Peace” is the meeting’s sort of unofficial anthem.

I’m tied to home. This month, from Ramallah, I’ve run Facebook groups and answered emails and clerked committee meetings (thank you, Skype) and worked for New England Yearly Meeting and scheduled fundraising travel for Friends United Meeting. I’ve blogged less often because my writing energy is going into a book. This one’s about Quaker culture and faith. Another one, later, will be about travel in the ministry.

The school’s amazing. I won’t tell you it’s perfect—and if I did, you very sensibly wouldn’t believe me—but it’s really quite wonderful. The families are dedicated. The kids work hard. The teachers care. Last week the college counselor, who lives down the hall, pulled up a photo on his phone to show me this year’s first college acceptance. “And he still has interviews for Harvard and Columbia,” he told me proudly.

It’s easy to forget the occupation…that is, easy for me. I know I can leave this place anytime I like, and if I want to visit Jerusalem, I can take the 218 bus. But my Palestinian friends can’t come with me. I haven’t been to Jerusalem.


Where I’m Going (December)

My flight out of Tel Aviv is December 9, and I’ll stop in Paris for twenty hours on the way home. (Believe it or not, this was the cheapest option!) I’ll be home for a little more than a week and then go see family for the Christmas holiday.

October-November 2018

Where I’ve Been (October)

October was packed in a wonderful way. I started the month by speaking to the lower school at Friends Seminary in Manhattan. My subject was “being a bridge,” and I spoke for about forty minutes on bridging cultures and on education as a bridge. I showed the kids some of the work that I did in a classroom in Samburu, Kenya, where the students are eager but the materials are few. We also talked about engineering and how two pieces leaning against one another are stronger than one piece stretching over a big gap—so, who do you lean on?


The next day, I headed for New Jersey to be part of a group building a strategic plan for outreach in New York Yearly Meeting. The weekend planning session was the end of two years of background work on the part of many Friends, and it was really exciting to see everything come together. The group developed a strategy by which we could do research, build resources, work directly with meetings to connect them to the resources, and tell inspiring stories all at the same time.

A quick trip to Texas meant spending some time with my aunt and uncle (and another aunt, and another aunt, and a handful of assorted cousins), and my dad met me there too, which was a bonus. Then up to Indiana for a Friends United Meeting board meeting. We heard some really extraordinary stories about work happening around the world.


FUM’s advancement committee (of which I am a member) also got plans in place for me to do some storytelling/fundraising work for FUM in the month of February—woohoo! I look forward to traveling through Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa in that month and would love to stop at your church or meeting if yours is somewhere in that area.


I also connected with the FUM Press about a new common core-aligned workbook (sixth grade) to accompany the middle school book Luke’s Summer Secret.  Coming soon!


Then I hopped a plane to Chicago, then Amman, then Tel Aviv, all followed by a taxi to Ramallah. The trip wasn’t flawless but wasn’t as tricky as it might have been. I spent my first couple of weeks in Palestine going from disorientation (I’m sorry, I’m supposed to do what to cross the street?) to basic competence (pretty sure I can find the grocery store…) to comfort (one o’clock pita time!)

Ramallah Friends School is an extraordinary place. The community is welcoming, and the teachers are passionate and highly competent. There are fourteen grades, from lower kindergarten through twelfth, and the lower, middle, and high schools are all International Baccalaureate curriculum. In kindergarten and lower school, the language of instruction is Arabic, with English as an additional course, but in the upper school, the language of instruction is primarily English, and kids graduate fully bilingual. The school is also inclusive of children with special needs.44112840_10156176070339086_3525572738699755520_n

I’m still keeping a number of plates spinning at home—three cheers for the Internet—and I’ve signed on to do some consulting work (mostly writing-related) for New England Yearly Meeting over the next year.


Where I’m Going (November)

In November, I’ll have a full month to spend at Ramallah Friends School. I have a pretty regular routine going—get up, do some work on at-home projects online, eat breakfast, spend a day teaching, buy pita, come home, eat lunch, do some more work on at-home projects, go to the corner and buy a fancy juice or some ice cream, read, sleep, rinse, repeat. It’s a surprisingly spacious schedule.

Mondays I’m at the upper school. I work with two tenth grade students early in the morning, both in special education, but very different from one another. One is vision impaired but has excellent conversational English, and the other has very little English. After that, I visit two middle school English classes and assist a few kids who are having a hard time, and then I work one-on-one with a twelfth grader, also in special education.

Tuesdays are lower school days, and there I have four children, each one-on-one, over the course of the morning and afternoon. These are two second-graders, one fourth-grader, and one-fifth grader, and they’re dealing with various combinations of ADHD, dyslexia, and developmental delays. One is still working on letter recognition; the most advanced of them is working on writing complete sentences.

Wednesdays, it’s off to kindergarten! I spend most of the day in English classes, where my focus is support for kids who are having a particularly hard time, mostly behaviorally. Kindergarteners are young enough that no matter what the neurological or psychological condition might be, it tends to manifest as behavior problems, so it takes careful observation to figure out which ones are having sensory integration problems and which aren’t processing language well and which might be on the autism spectrum…once you’ve figured out the cause of the trouble, you can often intervene in a helpful way. The school does have experts in this field—and they are more experienced than I am—but an extra pair of eyes comes in handy, or at least I hope so.44930619_10156198573549086_243013132258115584_n

Thursdays are back to the upper school, where I have one-on-ones or one-on-twos all day. My youngest on Thursday is sixth grade, and my oldest is tenth grade. Again, it’s a wide range of exceptionalities, everything from “still learning English phonics” to “needs help organizing essays.”

Friday, NO SCHOOL! Or as we say in kindergarten—and you have to imagine this in a sing-song voice like nanny-nanny-poo-poo—“Friday is a day off, Friday is a day off, no school on Fridays!” Friday, of course, is the Muslim holy day, and Sunday is the Christian holy day, and some of the students are Muslim and some Christians, so . . .

Saturday is a school day, which sort of means that I feel like a hobbit here, with “first weekend” and “second weekend.” It’s another day of kindergarten, very similar to Wednesdays, except I also pull some kids out of class for a few minutes at a time to work on fine or gross motor control. Up the stairs…down the stairs…hop on one foot…catch the ball…up the stairs…down the stairs…seriously, though, did I mention these kids are really cute?


Fun with Google

I found that I didn’t have a whole lot very profound to say this afternoon, but I thought it might be fun to play with Google’s autocomplete function. So I gave Google some question starters and figured I would answer whatever it came up with. And then, so that it wouldn’t become a totally academic exercise, I set myself a thirty minute time limit to answer all of the questions below. Also access to the Internet, so I could fact check myself.

How do

How do Quakers dress? Quakers dress all kinds of ways. A few Quakers are still Plain, which means they will dress in unadorned pants, dresses, suspenders, hats, etc., sort of like the Amish but not exactly like the Amish. Most Quakers dress a lot like the people around them. For those of us in North America or Europe, this might mean jeans or skirts or suits or whatever. But actually, there are tons of Quakers in South America and Africa (and some in Asia and the West Pacific), and there are more Quakers in Kenya than anywhere else in the world. So if you asked us to all line up in a row and look at what we were wearing, my best guess is that over half of us would be in traditional Kenyan clothing. Also it would take a very long time to get us all to line up in a row. We don’t follow directions very well.

How do Quakers worship? The more traditional form of Quaker worship is waiting worship, which means waiting in expectant silence for the guidance of Holy Spirit. When we experience that guidance, we might rise and speak a message that we’ve been given. But the majority of Quakers now worship in other forms. Many sing, pray, read Scripture, and/or dance as part of their worship. 

How do Quakers pray? The same way as many other faith traditions, though we tend to emphasize listening really carefully God to answer.

How do Quakers sleep? On our backs, sides, stomachs, whatever. Hopefully someplace other than meeting for worship.

How do Quakers marry? Again, traditionally, Quakers marry in an expectant-silence-meeting-for-worship with no clergyperson. At the moment that feels right, the marrying couple stands and says something like vows, though not necessarily some particular text, and then they marry each other in the eyes of God and in the care of those gathered; no human authority marries them to each other. In the United States, Quakers have a special exception to the marriage law in all fifty states to accommodate this. That said, there are Quaker pastors in many branches of Quakerism, and such pastors do officiate marriages.

How do Quakers mate? That is absolutely none of your business.

How do Quakers speak? As truthfully as possible. There’s a story—probably apocryphal—about somebody speaking to an old Quaker. The somebody points to a bunch of sheep on the side of a hill and asks, “Are those sheep shorn?” The old Quaker looks at the sheep very carefully and then says, “I can certainly tell you that the side of the sheep that I’m looking at has been shorn. I can’t say anything about the other side.”

How do Quakers vote? In political elections, most of us vote like anybody else—by going to the polls. Among ourselves, we don’t vote. Our meetings for business are held in expectant worship, and we search for something called “sense of the meeting.” The question at hand is presented. We wait for different people to feel inspired and speak to the question. Then, after a little while, it becomes clear how God is leading the group as a whole in response to the question. We name that and call that “sense of the meeting.” It doesn’t mean that everybody agrees on the answer to the question. It means that everybody agrees that the group as a whole seems to be led to that particular answer.

How do Quakers celebrate Christmas? We used to not celebrate Christmas or any other holiday because we said we were “not keepers of days” and that every day is equally holy. Officially, I suppose we still don’t celebrate Christmas, or at least certain branches still don’t, but most of us do. We tend to keep it simple. At my own Quaker meeting, the kids put on a little Nativity play, which is very sweet. Then they serve nuts to everybody. They also have a little Christmas party in December with the guests at a homeless shelter.

How do Quakers dress today? Almost exactly the same way that we dressed yesterday.

How many

How many Quakers are there? Luckily, there’s an organization called Friends World Committee for Consultation that counts everybody! Or at least, they try to. They say there are 400,000 Quakers in the world, half living in Africa.

How many Quakers in the US? Around 80,000, it would appear.

How many Quakers are there in the US? I said, around 80,000.

How many Quakers are there today? Not as many as there were yesterday. We’re an aging population, and generally speaking, our numbers are shrinking. But then again, in Africa, we’re growing.  So I don’t know.

How many Quakers are there in the UK? Somewhere around 17,000, or at least that’s what Quakers in the UK say.

How many Quakers are there in America? See, this gets complicated, because it depends on how you define “America,” and there is no standard definition. Did you know that people the world over don’t even agree on how many continents there are? I was talking with a group of people from Central America once, and it turns out that in school, they learn there are eight continents because Central America is its own. But if we’re counting Quakers in North America, Central America, and South America, the answer might be 160,000. Maybe. I had to do math because some websites refer to actual numbers and others refer to percentages of the 400,000. 

How many Quakers in Australia? Some say 1,000. Some say 2,000. Probably make sure there’s enough ice cream for 2,000. Most Quakers really like ice cream.

How many Quakers in UK? I’m still going with 17,000, but look, it’s complicated. Because some Friends are members who attend regularly, and some Friends are regular attenders who aren’t members, and some Friends are members who don’t attend regularly, so who counts and who doesn’t? Also we don’t have an official authority that defines who’s a Quaker and who’s not and who demands a regular census. (Like I said, Friends World Committee for Consultation tries, but you really can’t get much better than an estimate.)

How many Quakers in Ireland? Ireland and Northern Ireland count themselves together, and they report 1,600 people.

How many Quakers in Pennsylvania? That information doesn’t seem to be readily available. We don’t organize ourselves according to state lines. The best I can tell you is that there are about eighty meetings/congregations in Pennsylvania.

 How long do

How long do Quakers live? I’m guessing we line up fairly well with the average life expectancy. Maybe higher or lower depending on what country we’re talking about.

How long do green Quakers live? I don’t know, but probably not as long as the non-green ones, because turning green cannot be a good sign.

At the Assembly





At the Assembly

Hey—I know you!

the wriggly one

the curious one

the one who needs glasses

the tiptoer


You probably don’t remember me. This is your first time through here.

(It’s my ninety-seventh, I think.)


hello, clumsy one with shoes untied

and charming one

and deflector


I’m excited to see what you learn today.

Often, this is not what I teach.


hello, not-speaker

and first volunteer

and mischief-sassy

and scarred-over-sassy

and little one without enough sleep


You are absolutely, invaluably special

and at the same time so laughingly the same

that I’ve met you

in the Bronx

and Kenya

and Palestine

and I imagine you’re in Siberia too

and also every stage of time


Someday you’ll grow up.

I kind of wish you wouldn’t do that

Because once you do, there’s this sheen of

armor stuff

on your skin

This is a loss.


But then again

You never do grow up

because you always show up again—

So, there’s that.


I’m awfully lucky to know you, friend.


September-October 2018

Here’s the third in a series of updates on travel and projects.


Where I’ve Been (September)

The first week or so of September was pretty quiet—mostly at-home work, keeping up with emails and letter-writing and Quaker Open Book and Holy Experiments. I also started working with a group of 50 Friends from a total of 19 meetings on the FGC Digital Outreach project. This project includes training for participants in using Facebook as an outreach tool while simultaneously running ads in the local meetings’ areas. (As of the end of September, these ads have reached a total of almost 98,000 people. I don’t want to go into the other results/data quite yet, though I might at the end of next month when the project is officially over.)

Mid-September, I spent an evening at Westbury Friends Meeting, first talking with their ministry and counsel committee about social media presence and then—after a lovely potluck dinner—doing some storytelling to the meeting in general about the world of Friends and 1 Corinthians 12. That same week, I did a Saturday workshop on building a healthy multiage meeting community at Monadnock meeting in New Hampshire. They are an hospitable, friendly crew, and I was so glad to get to know them.

Later in September, I did a little consulting with some Friends on how to market a new retreat series they’re planning to offer, and then I headed to Maine for a gathering of recipients of the Lyman grant. This grant is provided for the purpose of helping people to pursue whatever they are Spirit-led to do, and though the monetary amount isn’t huge, the affirmation of receiving it was very helpful to me—and the gathering for recipients was relaxing and warm and full of opportunities to connect and hear stories of how God is moving in each person’s life. Oh—and I had some super fun, very geeky conversation with a couple of Baha’i about systems analysis and organizational effectiveness. (The gathering was hosted by a Baha’i retreat center.)


Where I’m Going (October)

It’s a big month—exciting and a little intimidating. In the first week of October, I’ll serve as a facilitator for a community period at Friends Seminary lower school on the topic of “being a bridge.” This basically means speaking to a group of kids, teachers, and parents, the kids falling between the ages of 5 and 12. The next day, I’ll head to New Jersey, where a small group of Friends is gathering to create a strategic plan for how New York Yearly Meeting can support local meetings and Friends in outreach in the next few years.

In the second week of October, I’ll fly first to Dallas to spend a couple of days with some extended family and then to Indiana for a Friends United Meeting general board meeting. From Indiana, I’ll fly to Chicago and Amman and Tel Aviv—in that order—on my way to Palestine, where I’ll settle in to spend a couple of months at Ramallah Friends School. RFS, for those who don’t know, is located in the West Bank. It’s a ministry of Friends United Meeting and educates Palestinian girls and boys from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. This school year is their 150th. I’ll be working in their special education department through the first week of December, though I’m told I’ll still have excellent and consistent access to Wi-Fi, so I won’t be disappearing from the world online.

Transitions: An Application of Cultural Theory

A couple of weeks ago, I posted this article based on some research I came across in the Harvard Business Review. Just as a refresher, in case you don’t want to go back and reread—basically, the original HBR article identified eight culture types, which can be distinguished from one another by the community focus, the general feeling of the environment, and the uniting force of the group. Two of the culture types don’t seem to appear in Quakerism. Two more probably appear sometimes but not terribly often.

Four of the types seem fairly common among Friends’ communities. Those are Type A (focused on relationships and mutual trust), Type D (focused on fun and excitement), Type G (focused on planning, caution, and preparedness), and Type H (focused on respect, structure, and shared norms).

In thinking about all of this, I realized pretty quickly that different Friends’ communities are manifesting different cultures, even within my personal experience. Here’s how I mapped that:

Screen Shot 2018-09-04 at 10.06.46 AM.png

Now, suppose that you’re a child in my monthly meeting. You’re accustomed to a Type D culture. Your group in First Day School focuses on fun and excitement; the environment feels light-hearted and full of people doing what makes them happy; you are united with other attenders of First Day School by a sense of playfulness and stimulation. Over a course of several years, you’ve learned to associate these cultural characteristics with Quaker meeting.

Then, one day, when you’re about ten years old, you’re asked to attend meeting for worship with a concern for business. Maybe you’re giving a report from the First Day School; maybe there’s a special query or a membership application to be considered. You find yourself in a culture that’s a blend of Type G and Type H. The group is focused on planning, caution, preparedness, respect, structure, and shared norms; the environment feels predictable, risk-conscious, methodical, rule-oriented; the group is united by a desire to feel protected and by cautious cooperation.

In other words, as far as your personal experience tells you, Quaker meeting is supposed to be about fun and excitement—but suddenly, you’re seeing planning and structure instead. Quaker meeting is supposed to be about light-heartedness—but suddenly, you’re seeing methodical rule-following. Quaker meeting is supposed to be about playfulness—but suddenly, you’re seeing cautious cooperation.

How do you respond to the disconnect?

Most likely, you reject the new culture entirely. “I don’t like business meeting. It’s boring.” It’s not your Quaker culture, so it isn’t your Quakerism. Maybe it’s just something grown-ups do. It has nothing to do with you.

Now, what happens when you’re twelve instead of ten? What happens when you’re fourteen? What happens at the point that you feel too old for First Day School—that’s just a bunch of little kids—but the only thing you’ve ever see of grown-up Quakerism is “boring” and completely detached from your previous experience. What are you going to want to do then?

Probably sleep in on Sundays.

In my yearly meeting, many teens continue with the youth program even when they drop out of regular attendance on Sundays. The youth program has some elements of fun, but it’s really a Type A culture—focused on relationships and mutual trust, in an environment that feels warm and collaborative and welcoming, and where the group is united by mutual loyalty.

The emphasis on a strong peer group is by no means a bad thing—in fact, it’s vital for many of our teens. But again, this becomes the experience of Quakerism for those teens who are involved. Most—not all—of the kids transition pretty successfully from fun-and-excitement First Day Schools to the relationship-and-mutual-trust youth program. This is helped by the fact that they get a healthy dose of fun and excitement in the youth program, especially on the younger end of the scale, when first they start attending as fourth- and fifth-graders.

But eventually, they finish high school and graduate from the youth program. Then what? Where do they go to continue their experience of Quakerism?

Do they go back to their monthly meetings—where they’ll find a community based on caution and rule-following and, yes, a certain amount of relationship and mutual loyalty, but with people they don’t really know?

Do they go into the adult group at yearly meeting sessions—where they’ll find a community focused on a set of shared norms that they haven’t ever learned? Think about the implications of that—theoretically, this is their yearly meeting, and yet, when they step into the adult environment, belongingness is defined by rules that are completely unfamiliar. This goes to this committee, that goes to that other committee, you can stand and speak at certain times but not at other times, some questions should be asked on the floor of the yearly meeting, other questions should never be asked on the floor of the yearly meeting, use the right code language, everybody knows when and where the meeting is, so nobody ever announces it…and so on, and so on. Is it any wonder that so many young adults disappear?

(Also, they move. I know that. But there are usually Quakers wherever they’ve moved to.)

I’ll stop here for a couple of caveats. First of all, the exact cultures I’ve identified in First Day School and in the youth program and in the yearly meeting are subjective. Some people would probably say that I’m wrong. It’s also possible that your First Day School or your youth program or your yearly meeting aren’t the same as mine. But actually, the exact labeling of each culture isn’t the point. The point is what comes next, and I think that what comes next applies to nearly all of us.

Because what comes next is: if the cultures are different, how do we transition?

I’m going to mention one solution that I believe doesn’t work.  Then I’ll offer three solutions that might.

A commonly attempted solution is continue-the-culture subgroups. This happens frequently among young adults. YAF groups—Young Adult Friends—appear in most yearly meetings, and the age range tends to fluctuate, especially on the upper end. In my yearly meeting, it’s “18 to 35(ish),” and that “ish” tends to creep well into the mid-forties.

Not everybody joins the YAF groups for the same reasons, but generally speaking, YAF groups are more fun, more openly loving, and less rule-oriented than the regular adult body. These groups can be enriching and spiritually nourishing and vitally important for the people who are involved in them—but ultimately, there comes a point when you stop being “young.” And then you have to make the transition—or else leave Quakerism altogether—and many young adults resist this. Some straddle the two groups, participating in “adult” activities and keeping a toe in the YAF group as well. But for many, the YAF group becomes the experience of Quakerism, just as the youth program was before that. I’ve even had Friends in their forties say to me, verbatim, “We need something for my age cohort, because that other adult group—that’s not for me. That’s not my Quakerism. I have nowhere to go.”

So what kinds of strategies might help with transitions?

One possibility is boundary-blurring.

Maybe the adults who work with the First Day School know that the next likely stop for their kids is the youth program. So they study the youth program—which has a culture rooted in relationships and mutual trust—and they intentionally incorporate more relationships and mutual trust into the culture of First Day School. They don’t drop the fun-and-excitement culture altogether, but they blend the two, so that First Day School culture becomes about fun, excitement, relationships, and mutual trust.

Then, the adults who work with the youth program know that their participants are coming from First Day Schools that tend to be centered in fun and excitement, so they deliberately fold in fun-and-excitement culture, especially with the younger groups.

But these same adults also know that the next step for aging teens is the adult groups in monthly and yearly meetings, so especially with the older kids, they could start to fold in the methodical-shared-norms culture, and in particular the shared norms of the adult Friends. This means teaching things like which committee does what and why, and it means practicing meetings for business using the shared norms of adult meetings for business. Sometimes this sort of suggestion meets considerable resistance: they’re still kids, there’s time enough for them to learn all that, that stuff doesn’t really matter anyway. There’s some validity in questioning the importance of the shared norms of the adult group and whether or not things “should” be how they are, but if we want our teens to transition successfully, we must start the cultural transition while they are still, by definition, kids.

Then there’s the adult group. Maybe those who are in the adult group know that the teens are coming from the youth program, so they deliberately incorporate more focus on relationships and mutual trust within the adult group. They work to shift the entire adult group from a culture of structure-and-shared-norms to a culture of structure-and-relationships-and-shared-norms-and-mutual-trust. This would mean that we would still have a structure and shared norms but that it would be part of our normal practice to sometimes prioritize trust and relationships over the structure and shared norms. That’s tricky. Many of our adult groups are accustomed to being careful and prepared and slow to change; prioritizing relationships and mutual trust will sometimes require unexpected risks, especially since trust is, by definition, risky.

So boundary-blurring could be one strategy. It takes a lot of effort. We’re not accustomed to it.

Another strategy—which could be practiced simultaneously, rather than being an either-or—would be porous boundaries. We make it normal for those near transition ages to travel back and forth. Children ages nine and up have permission to wander in and out of teen spaces; younger teens can wander back to children’s programs. Teens have permission to wander in and out of business meetings; young adults can be in business meeting for awhile and then go hang out with the teens and kids.

In addition to the informal wandering back and forth, each age group could have times specifically scheduled to join the age groups on either side. Children’s groups are occasionally scheduled to go to the teen space to do a joint activity, and vice versa. Teens’ groups are occasionally scheduled to join the adults in whatever they’re doing, and the adults are occasionally scheduled to join the teens in whatever they’re doing. Transitions don’t happen all at once. They happen slowly, over a number of years, with lots of time allowed for moving back and forth.

One last strategy.

Shared culture unites people and gives us a sense of belonging. But shared culture isn’t the only thing that can unite us; shared beliefs and goals can, too. We can make culture less important if other things are more important.

Do we speak passionately about our relationship with God?

Do we understand ourselves as a covenant people?

Do we tell the stories of living faith?

Do we strive to listen to the Holy Spirit—and obey?

Is this at the center of our communities? Can we live lives of faith together and out loud? Or do we keep quiet about all of this, by default allowing culture to take center stage?

What would transitioning from one age group to another be like if it meant transitioning from a passionate, faithful, God-led people to another passionate, faithful, God-led people?

August-September 2018

Here’s the second in a series of updates on travel and projects.


Where I’ve Been (August)

August began with New England Yearly Meeting sessions at Castleton University. There’s an official website with talking points that I encourage you to check out, but a couple of things really stood out for me.

The first thing that resonated was the anchor group that I facilitated. There were about fourteen of us, varying in number from one day to the next. Many large Quaker gatherings have some sort of daily small group meetings, and this tends to be really important because otherwise the crush of people and the pace of activities can become truly overwhelming. Different gatherings do this in different ways. In New England, the small groups are randomized rather than grouped by interest or age or other factors. This has its pluses and minuses, but a major virtue is the chance to know people that you might not otherwise meet. Small-group sharing with Friends outside our usual circles is vital in a time when many Friends are striving to build more fully inclusive spiritual communities. In my small group were Friends from a variety of gender identities, ages, classes, and theological paths.

The second memorable thing was a long piece of work in business meeting about contributions to Friends World Committee for Consultation, Friends United Meeting, and Friends General Conference. New England Yearly Meeting contributes financially to these organizations at nearly three times the level of other, comparably-sized yearly meetings. The question came to to the gathered body: should the yearly meeting cut back on these contributions in order to balance its budget? In the end, the group affirmed that it would continue its current level of giving, as led, stepping out in faith, doing what they understood to be right rather than what might be seen, arguably, as “fair.” It was not an easy decision. I was grateful to witness it.

It’s worth noting that I was Facebooking things that happened throughout the week. I encourage that others try this kind of sharing when possible; it can make a real difference in a sense of community for Friends who aren’t able to physically attend.

Much of the rest of August was quiet—lots of emails, lots of Facebook work, a certain amount of committee work, some writing. Quiet time’s not so bad, especially considering the travel coming up in the fall and winter.


Where I’m Going (September)

September 1st will be the first day for the Friends General Conference Digital Outreach cohort. I’m looking forward to working with Friends from Maine to Florida to Indiana—and maybe the west coast, too? Not sure yet. We’ll be running Facebook ads for local meetings while simultaneously training local Friends in the skills needed to maintain an effective social media presence. My primary goal in this program is to make myself—and any other outside assistance—irrelevant, with the meeting having everything it needs to do the work independently down the line. (Of course, I always recommend a community of practice. “Independently” doesn’t have to mean “alone.”)

Later in September, I’ll have an evening gathering at Westbury meeting on Long Island, which looks like it will consist of a brief social media training, a potluck, and a chance to do some storytelling about Friends around the world. These kinds of storytelling opportunities are among my favorite parts of travel in the ministry; there’s something wonderful about having the chance to share about the global covenant community.

Westbury will be followed by a day-long workshop at Monadnock meeting on multiage inclusion, and a week after that, I’ll be at a gathering for Lyman grant recipients in Maine. The Lyman Fund exists “to support individuals seeking to follow their deepest inward spiritual leading,” and I’ve received two grants from the Lyman Fund in the last year. This has been important because, unlike many other grants, Lyman grant funding can be used for the types of personal support (food, rent, etc.) that enable ministry work.


Friend has been home now for nearly a week, having completed her first official voyage through the U.S. Postal Service. (You can read all about Friend here.) I wrote on Facebook before she left about how she was feeling a little nervous and had requested extra crackers just in case she got hungry. At first, it seemed like there was nothing to worry about. Her trip to New Paltz was uneventful, and her visit with Friends there—in which she joined an ordinary meeting for worship—went well.

Then came the journey home.

We don’t know exactly what happened, because Friend was inside her box and couldn’t see and because the only information I could get was the tracking info. But somehow, she wound up lost in the mail for 27 days. She bounced from New Paltz to Newark to NYC to Newark to NYC to a delivery truck in my neighborhood to NYC central processing to Albany to White Plains to NYC back to a delivery truck in my neighborhood to NYC central processing to Jersey City to New Paltz before finally being returned to sender with all her shipping labels ripped off.

(And it’s only supposed to take about a day and a half to make the trip by mail.)

Reflecting on this has reminded me of times when I’ve had similar experiences. It reminded me of my first experience of being called to travel in the ministry, when my visa was rejected after I’d already given up my apartment and my job. It reminded me of my first weekend facilitation experience, when an attender took me aside after the evening session and said, “You can change the content of the weekend to what I came to talk about, or I can just hijack it. Which would you prefer?” It reminded me of times when I’ve been judged wrongly, when I’ve been physically lost, when I’ve been alone in a room with a man who frightened me, when I’ve made mistakes that have resulted in painful consequences.

It’s a funny thing, the relationship between faithfulness and difficulty. On the one hand, Friends have this concept that we refer to as “way opening.” We tell one another that one indication of right discernment is that “way will open,” by which we mean that the necessary opportunities, support, and resources will appear so that we can move forward.

That’s a reasonable principle when we’re talking about it as one possible indication of right discernment, when we say, “If way opens, that’s one indication that it might be right.”

But it’s another thing altogether when we switch it around, when we say, “If it’s right, then way will open.” When we say this to one another, we are accusing those for whom way does not open of being unfaithful.

We don’t intend it that way, of course. But especially when we’re talking about money, that’s how it can feel. Any number of times, a Friend has said to me, “If it’s right, the money will appear.” I am curious what magical bank account they’re referring to. When I have done all that I can—reduced my spending, applied for grants, asked for help from multiple Quaker organizations—and the income is still insufficient, is that an indication that I have been unfaithful, or that I have wrongly discerned?

I’m actually less worried about this for me than I am for others, for those who don’t have a history of a well-paying full-time job, for those who didn’t have a family to help cover college expenses, for those who don’t have a savings account that can cover the leaner times, for those who don’t have the privileges that lead to the necessary time for things like applying for grants, for those who have children or aging parents or chronic illness and are prevented from reducing expenses.

So it’s a funny thing, the relationship between faithfulness and difficulty. If we listen to this idea of “if it’s right, way will open,” then that would seem to be an indication that faithfulness should be easy. I don’t believe this to be so.

On the other hand, there’s another perspective, one that glorifies suffering. Some have the idea that faithfulness should be hard, that there’s some sort of virtue in being lost in the mail for 27 days. I wonder where this idea comes from. For a few of us, it’s theological, rooted in a particular understanding of the cross (an understanding that many Christians don’t share). But for most of us, I don’t believe that’s it.

Sometimes I tell myself the story that suffering is virtuous. Usually, I tell myself this story when I’m suffering. I think it makes me feel better because I can imagine that I’m somehow earning God’s approval. It feels like I’m racking up faithfulness points, and that means I’m on the right track, doesn’t it? Or I tell myself that God must be teaching me something.

This is dangerous, too, though. For one thing, if suffering is virtuous, if there is such a thing as faithfulness points, then the natural next step is that I have more or less value based on my actions. And that isn’t true. We all have infinite worth, and we all have divine love, and there’s nothing we can do to earn or to lose that.

Worse still, if my suffering has virtue, so does yours, and where do we draw the line? What level of suffering is not an indication of faithfulness? This line of reasoning is unimaginable when applied to those who are born into hopeless conditions or who have had the kinds of experiences that—well. This line of reasoning is unimaginable when applied to those in circumstances that are unimaginable.

When I look back at the times when faithfulness has been hard, I can only see that whatever pain I experienced is neither an indication of rightness nor wrongness. I can’t say that faithfulness should be easy. And I can’t say that faithfulness should be hard. I’ve learned from many difficult experiences, and I’ve also learned from wonderful ones. Faithfulness is about relationship with God.

None of this means that relative ease or difficulty is irrelevant. Pain, whether physical, spiritual, or emotional, is a hugely important indicator of the kind of care we might need, of whether we should ask for help, of when we need to rest. But it is not an indicator of our level of faithfulness.

Friend will be traveling to Wisconsin tomorrow. That seems like the right thing to do. As for me—I’m grateful for the chance to stop and reflect.

Navigating Differences: An Application of Cultural Theory

In January 2018, there was an article published in the Harvard Business Review called “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture” (authors Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng). Following extensive research in corporations around the world, the authors have designated eight basic corporate cultures, defined by the primary focus of the culture, the work environment, and the uniting factors that bring the group together.

The original article gave names to each of the eight culture types, but I’m going to call them “Type A,” “Type B,” etc. because many of the words used in the original article have different meanings in the Quaker world, and I suspect that those different meanings might cause us to misidentify the cultures we’re living in.

Below, I’ve summarized the basic breakdown. As you read, think specifically of the Quaker faith community that you spend the most time with. That might mean the adult population of your local church or meeting; it might mean the First Day School or Sunday School or other children’s group; it might be a summer camp or a yearly meeting gathering or a retreat center or a young adult worship sharing group. Later, I’ll talk a little about comparing these, but for now, see which rings true for the Quaker community that you’re with more often than any other:


Type A

Community focuses on: relationships and mutual trust

When we’re together, the environment feels: warm, collaborative, and welcoming

What unites us is: loyalty to one another


Type B

Community focuses on: idealism and altruism

When we’re together, the environment feels: tolerant, compassionate

What unites us is: a focus on sustainability and doing good for the long-term future of the whole world


Type C

Community focuses on: exploration, expansiveness, and creativity

When we’re together, the environment feels: inventive and open-minded and full of new things

What unites us is: curiosity


Type D

Community focuses on: fun and excitement

When we’re together, the environment feels: light-hearted and full of people doing what makes them happy

What unites us is: playfulness and stimulation


Type E

Community focuses on: achievement and winning

When we’re together, the environment feels: outcome-oriented and merit-based, with an eye on top performance

What unites us is: a drive for capability and success


Type F

Community focuses on: strength, decisiveness, boldness

When we’re together, the environment feels: competitive

What unites us is: strong control from authority figures


Type G

Community focuses on: planning, caution, and preparedness

When we’re together, the environment feels: predictable, risk-conscious, with lots of careful thought

What unites us is: a desire to feel protected and anticipate change


Type H

Community focuses on: respect, structure, and shared norms

When we’re together, the environment feels: methodical, with people playing by the rules

What unites us is: cooperation


Did you identify the culture type of your Quaker faith community—more specifically, the portion of that community where you spend the most time? It’s possible that yours might be a pretty even tie between two culture types, but it’s less helpful if you say “we’re not really any of these.” Identify one or two that seem relevant and work with it for a few minutes here. Nobody’s looking over your shoulder.

It’s important to understand that the culture of the group can be one type even when an assortment of types are present in different individuals. You might find yourself saying, “Well, we have some Type D people and some Type C people and . . .” And that’ll be true, but there’s probably a certain type that describes how the group functions together as a whole.

When I started looking at my Quaker community—which is really my Quaker communities, because there’s more than one—I realized very quickly that I’m traveling in multiple cultural groups. My thought process went something like this:

I really wish all groups of Friends were: Type B

My own monthly meeting seems to be: Type A and Type G

But the First Day School (the children) of my monthly meeting are: Type D

And during business meeting, we become: Type G and Type H

When my yearly meeting gathers for sessions, we function as: Type H

Except for the children’s program at yearly meeting sessions, which is: Type A and Type D

And the child/teen retreat program that meets on weekends throughout the year is: Type A

But me personally? At heart, I’m probably: Type C


If we put that as a visual, it looks like this:

Navigating Differences


Why did I place the groups where they are?

Well, I really do wish that we were all Type B. To me, the very concept of building the kingdom of God on earth means focusing on the long-term well-being of the entire world. But I don’t see that as the way that any group of Friends is primarily functioning, really.

I placed my own monthly meeting in Type A and Type G because we are immensely loyal to one another, even to a fault sometimes, and because we emphasize relationships and trust. (We’re not always good at it, but we emphasize it.) But we’re also incredibly cautious about everything we do. Business meetings tend to last three hours or more, historically. New proposals are pondered for months if not years, even if their potential impact is really quite small. We are extremely slow to change.

In business meeting, my meeting continues to operate from caution (Type G) but also really operates from shared norms (Type H). In fact, we work so hard at shared norms that during meeting for business we tend to forget all about building relationships with each other and lose our Type A culture altogether.

All of this is totally different from how the First Day School community operates. That group of kids (and occasionally teens) is nearly entirely based in having fun together (Type D). There’s often a lesson, but the factor uniting the community generally is not what’s being learned; it’s a sense of playfulness.

There’s a similar adult/kid split at yearly meeting sessions, where the adults are mostly operating in a Type H culture, basing everything around our set of shared norms—the committee system, the rituals around business practice, the worship sharing rules, and so forth. Even the fun aspects of yearly meeting sessions are really rooted in shared norms. The talent show happens on Thursday night, and heaven help you if you suggest that we might try it on Wednesday . . . that sort of thing.

The kids’ program at sessions, on the other hand, mostly emphasizes fun (Type D) and relationships (Type A), with Type D probably being the dominant unifying factor—it’s hard to build relationships in a community that meets for three hours a day, six days out of the year.

The youth retreat program of our yearly meeting, which gathers kids for several weekends per year throughout their middle and high school years, has more chance to build authentic relationships and functions almost entirely as a Type A community.

And then there’s me. Yes, I’m altruistic, and I’m all about building the kingdom of God on earth, but I do it from a curiosity/learning/experimenting place. Anybody who’s likely to study the Harvard Business Review at length and then apply what they’ve learned to Quaker communities and write a blog post about it is probably most at home in a Type C culture.

It’s worth noting that some people would probably disagree with my analysis. That’s okay. Take it with a grain of salt. What’s most important is not that I’m exactly right about the groups I’m looking at; what matters is how we handle the differences from one group to another.


Why does all of this matter?

I think it matters in a lot of ways.

Today, I’m going to explore the difference between what I wish Friends were and what Friends are, and then I’m going to explore the difference between the community’s culture and mine.

Later, I’ll write some additional blog entries about how age group transitions are affected by culture change and how culture types can be altered.

And then, who knows? There might be more.


First—looking at the difference between what I wish Friends were and what Friends are.

This is important to recognize. For me, it’s about wishing that the community of Friends was Type B. You might wish that the community of Friends functioned as some other type. But we get ourselves in trouble when we start assuming that the community is what we wish it would be—or also, when we start assuming that everyone wishes the community were what we wish it would be.

A Type B community is united by doing good for the long-term future of the whole world. If I assume that my Quaker community is a Type B community (because that’s what I want it to be), then I’m going to walk in expecting to present Type B sorts of ideas and have the community respond immediately and uniformly enthusiastically. But this simply doesn’t happen. If I don’t understand that this stems at least in part from a cultural difference, I’m going to be confused and disappointed and angry.

In fact, I can get confused and disappointed and angry even when I assume that everyone wants to be Type B. (I have learned from experience that they don’t.) Almost everyone agrees that altruism is a good thing, but for many Friends, relationships or fun or caution or shared norms are genuinely more important. At least in the beginning, it’s good to hold off on any value judgment about this and just recognize what is.

Whether I choose to change my expectations, to try to change the community, to leave the community, or simply to live forever in dynamic tension, the first step is to see that a difference exists. What I wish Quaker culture were isn’t what Quaker culture is.


Second—looking at the difference between the community’s culture and mine.

As I said above, I function most authentically as a Type C. I might long to be part of a Type B community, but at my own heart, I’m really a Type C. (Which isn’t necessarily an inherent conflict; healthy communities often contain a mixture of individuals that align with the overall culture type and also individuals that don’t. If you’re all exactly the same, you become more and more collectively unhealthy—and less and less able to change.)

As a Type C person, I love—and live in—exploration, expansiveness, creativity, inventiveness, open-mindedness, newness, experimentation, and curiosity. At least as an individual (though possibly not in a group) I value these qualities above the other types. Inventiveness, experimentation, and curiosity mean more to me than relationships, collaboration, and loyalty (Type A), fun and playfulness (Type D), caution and risk management (Type G), and rules, structure, and cooperation (Type H).

My Type C nature doesn’t prevent me from valuing relationships, collaboration, loyalty, fun, and playfulness, and I do value those things. But my natural Type C instincts are often in direct conflict with the values of caution, risk management, rules, structure, and cooperation, and these values are a big part of the culture of my Quaker community, especially in the realms of business and committees.

How do I handle this?

The first thing I have to do is recognize that my yearly meeting—and often my monthly meeting, too—are functioning as Type G and Type H cultures, and I have committed to joining them nonetheless. We are different. Pretending we are not different will not help.

The second thing I have to do is recognize the value of my own Type C contributions. Just as I have committed to joining my Quaker community, my Quaker community has made a commitment to me. They may or may not have recognized my innovation/experimentation/curiosity tendencies when I came in the door, but they did accept me into membership—all of me. And now we have to engage with each other.

It’s important to name that, generally, when a Quaker body acts in a way that prioritizes caution and/or maintaining or shared norms over trying new things, everything inside me tells me that this is wrong. Not just different from what I would do, but fundamentally wrong. Then I have to move past the adversarial mindset that this tends to set up and find ways to work within the community culture to be faithful to genuine leadings from God. This can be very tricky. Sometimes I’m more successful than other times.

It can help when I flip things around so that I can imagine the opposite point of view. For a Type G/H person or group, the most important things are planning, structure, caution, shared norms, preparedness, and cooperation. From that point of view, my constant drive to experiment appears reckless and—it’s true—seems fundamentally wrong.

In reality, of course, neither of us is actually wrong. All of these values—innovation, planning, structure, experimentation, caution, shared norms, curiosity, preparedness, and cooperation—are worthy. The difference is which we prioritize and how often, and in my Quaker circles, the community as a whole mostly subscribes to Types G and H. No matter how I choose to respond to that, I’ll do better if I begin by understanding it.

To depersonalize this for a minute, remember that the individual/community culture conflict can materialize in a variety of ways.

If you’re a Type A (prioritizing relationships), you might struggle in a Type B community if the community’s drive to helping the whole world takes away time from forming relationships within the community itself.

If you’re a Type D (prioritizing fun), you might struggle in a Type H community if the community’s shared norms don’t include much time for play.

If you’re a Type B (prioritizing altruism), you might struggle in a Type D community where projects that make a difference in the world aren’t valued very much unless they’re also fun and exciting.

And so forth.


Summing it up . . .

– Most groups of people function within a certain type of culture. This culture can be identified by what the group values, how the environment feels, and what unifies the people within the group.

– Groups of people functioning within a certain type of culture aren’t necessarily uniform. The group culture is identified not by what individuals do or value but by what the group as a whole does or values.

– Within your own Quaker circles, it’s likely that different circles are functioning as different types of cultures.

– There’s often a difference between what type we wish a group would be and what type that group actually is. That’s when it becomes important to recognize the difference and then decide how to handle it. Pretending there isn’t a difference can quickly get us into trouble.

– There’s also often a difference between the culture type we, as individuals, most naturally fit in and the culture type of the group. Again, it’s important to recognize that difference and then decide how to handle it.


Next time—what are the implications of transitioning from one group of Friends to another, when the cultures of the two groups might be very different?