Eight Changes Your Meeting Can Make Right Now

We can escape the death spiral.

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

Almost every Quaker meeting I know exhibits at least six.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 thoughts on “Eight Changes Your Meeting Can Make Right Now

  1. For my yearly meeting’s Advancement & Outreach committee, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. One thing I read on <a href="https://www.evangelismcoach.org/2013/6-ways-to-follow-up-on-first-time-church-visitors/"Evangelism Coach is:

    – Your Church Visitor retention rate is highest when you follow-up with visitors w/in 48 hours.
    – Retention rates of a first time visitor is 34%, 2nd time visitors 51% and 3rd time is 78% in fast growing churches.

    For that reason, in the sample visitor welcome plan I wrote up, I put that after meeting for worship, you should immediately sit down and write up thank you cards for today’s first time visitors and drop them in the mailbox before you head home. So that’s an example of a specific tactic for #1.

    One thing I’d say about #5 though, is to make sure you get onto the same page first about focus/priorities (remember: if everything’s a priority, nothing is). It’s really easy to burn yourselves out if you try to run a bunch of disconnected programs in hopes something will stick. Another one of Thom Rainer’s books is called “Simple Church” and is the result of a study of something like 700 churches. The long and short is that having a simple, streamlined spiritual formation process is extremely important to church vitality and ultimately growth. So, new ideas need to either fit into your process or be acknowledged as a personal, not corporate, leading.

    One example he gave was two churches that were concerned about marriage & families. One church scheduled a weekend long marriage retreat AND a full-Saturday retreat on parenting in the same month. That’s a lot of time to ask people to take out of their schedules, and so families would end up doing one or the other, not both (the overlap of married people and people with children is pretty big), and they just got all around low attendance. The other church made marriage & parenting be discussion topics in the small group gatherings that people were already attending anyway. They didn’t have to add something new to their personal calendars. The committees involved didn’t have to plan entire events and provide for lunch for those do a bunch of setup and teardown. It’s a win all around.

    1. Thanks, Mackenzie! This is awesome. You’re absolutely right that there can be a point where too many disconnected programs become overwhelming…the thing is, in most Quaker meetings I know, the default right now is, “Say no unless there’s a compelling reason to say yes.” And I really believe we need to turn that around! Overburdening young parents’ schedules is a pretty compelling reason to say no to two major gatherings in a month, but in the example that you give, they started with a YES to programming that supports marriage and families, then experimented and found out what didn’t work (#8). As long as they learned from that experience and tried a different approach next time, I still think it was a pretty healthy way to go. I’m not asking us to stop using corporate discernment. But I am asking us to start that discernment from a different set of initial assumptions.

      1. We’ve been in different meetings. I’ve only really been part of large ones. My impression is that the two most important questions for programs have been “is there an empty room to do it in?” and “are you going to run it?” If those are both yes, then it’s pretty much a shoo-in.

        The result then is to have announcements that go “and next week we’ll have X on Tuesday and Y on Wednesday then on Saturday we’re going to do Z, and don’t forget that after meeting on next Sunday we’ll be doing A.” And then that makes it hard to decide which of those things you’re doing and which ones you’re skipping because you have to fit the laundry into your schedule some time! And which is the thing you’re supposed to invite your non-Quaker friends to?

        I’m sure there’s a happy medium on discerning what to do. We just tend to land at one extreme or the other.

      2. (Not to say every week is like that, but at either of the big meetings I’ve been involved with, you get busy times like that. Just looking at a calendar and saying “June’s really full; let’s put that off til August” could be all that’s needed a fair bit of the time.)

      3. I actually own the book Simple Church, Emily. If you think it would be useful, I’m happy to give it to you. I assume you’ll be at the QuED day in Manhasset – let me know if I should bring it.

  2. 1. Have more gathered Meetings.

    Everything else is frosting. If a visitor experiences the power of a gathered meeting, they will be back.

    Too many meeting communities leave their worship up to chance and and hope that if people just sit quietly, worship will happen. That is like teaching children to read by dropping them off at the library and hoping they’ll just figure it out. If we are intentional about developing skills in centering and paying attention during meeting for worship, we will have gathered meetings more often. Our worship experience should be so powerful that even newcomers will be able to perceive it. People will be willing to do the hard work of community and witness because we are being fed so richly during worship.

  3. Sell the meeting house! When I look at a typical meeting budget, about a third is for the building/property, about a third is paid up to quarterly/yearly meetings, and the remaining third is used for the meeting’s own programs with the majority of funds being used for childcare. Selling the building turns a fixed cost into a variable cost and allows for flexibility in responding to the meeting and it’s local community.

  4. Another option, for some, is monetize the meeting house.

    There are numerous organizations that need a meeting hall from time to time… but not enough to justify buying what they need. An arrangement and relationship can be formed.

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