Let’s have a talk about “Quaker time.”
We’re all familiar with the concept. Our system is sluggish. Considering new ideas, answering questions, getting projects off the ground—all of these things seem to take forever. Some of us even laugh about this. That’s a natural instinct; teasing ourselves about our own internal culture is one of the sociological phenomenon that help us experience belonging.
Sadly, it’s not funny.
“Quaker time” is not a thing. We’ve made it a thing. Discernment is not about doing things in “Quaker time,” it’s about doing things in God’s time, which is sometimes much slower than earthly time and other times faster. I don’t think early Friends, the Publishers of Truth, often wrote a pamphlet and then sat on it for six months because they weren’t completely sure about the placement of a comma.
Discernment is a sacred practice, but the systems around it aren’t, necessarily. We Quakers have an almost unbelievable number of cultural and systemic structures set up around discernment that slow us down again and again and again. In the world of systems analysis, this is referred to as “delay.” It’s not a verb, not something a person does deliberately; it’s a noun, a delay set up in the system, and that delay itself, when it interacts with human beings, causes all kinds of things to happen that nobody intended.
The classic example of this is a shower that’s too far away from the water heater. You turn on the shower, and the water is cold, so you crank up the heat. Ten seconds later, still cold. You adjust it to be hotter. Ten seconds later, you adjust it again, until a full minute after your initial adjustment, you’re suddenly scalded by near-boiling water. You screech, maybe even jump out, and yank the tap toward cold. But you’ve turned it too far, and soon the water is freezing again…
I’m going to use that shower to talk about Quaker systems.
If you’ve never used this particular shower before, you might assume it doesn’t work and get back out of it. Someone told me once, “Most seekers are in pain…you don’t come to a new religious group because you’re having a really good day.” The last thing a new person needs is to get caught up in our institutional sluggishness, and there are things we can do to make the system more responsive to newcomers. We can prioritize following up with visitors (by phone or by email) and get that done before we do any other committee work. And we can bend our rules a little bit. If the newcomer offers to bring cookies, does she really need to enter the social hour rotation and wait six weeks for her turn? (Really. Some meetings do things like this.)
When it takes forever to find the right temperature, we’re tempted to give up and settle for whatever. This happens among Friends all the time. When someone’s led to new work on behalf of the body, it often takes weeks, or months, or years to get the pieces into place, not because it actually takes that much time to do the discernment but because the such-and-such committee only meets on second Thursdays, and the other-relevant-committee just met last Monday and won’t meet again for two months…this kind of delay wears on people. Eventually, we decide that the bar is too high. We might not even be conscious of it, but we begin to weigh leadings differently—is this spark that I’m carrying really worth the amount of institutional work it will take? When institutional delay snuffs out one spark, that’s sad. When it snuffs out sparks routinely—and it does—that’s a spiritual crisis.
If the delay lasts long enough, it’s easy to believe that the temperature fluctuations have nothing to do with how you turn the handle—that essentially, you’re powerless, so why even try? From the yearly meeting perspective, this question often sounds like this: why is there such a distance between monthly meetings and the yearly meeting organization? From the monthly meeting perspective, the same question often sounds like this: why doesn’t the yearly meeting ever do anything?
I see a lot of this as deeply rooted in systemic delay. When something comes from a monthly meeting, whether it’s a new piece of business or a specific concern or a more general request for help, the yearly meeting organization is in motion pretty much right away—but not visibly. When Tinyberg Worship Group sends a piece of business to the yearly meeting, that piece of business might be referred to a committee. The committee might take a few weeks before its next meeting. Then it might refer the piece of business to another committee. That committee takes a few weeks to discern. Staff members weigh in. It goes on the yearly meeting sessions agenda. We run out of time, so it’s held over until the fall—and the Friends back in Tinyberg don’t see any of this and aren’t part of it. By the time the yearly meeting organization ultimately responds, often a year or two later, the Friends at Tinyberg have done eighteen other things, and the response feels irrelevant.
We can do better, and I believe faithfulness obliges us to. Every time Friends in a monthly meeting fill out a form or write a report and submit it to any part of the yearly meeting organization, they should get multiple responses. After submitting a State of the Meeting report, for example, the monthly meeting should be receiving contacts based on what they had to say. First Day School is going well? The Youth Committee should be asking if Friends from that monthly meeting have any tips for other meetings. The meeting is experiencing a lot of conflict? At the very least, Ministry and Counsel could write back and say, “We’re praying for you.” This sounds like a lot of work, and it can be, but less so if the committee empowers individual Friends to do this rather than trying to do it all as a full committee. And finally, in the name of transparency, why should yearly meeting clerks and general secretaries not be publishing monthly updates for all Friends about what specific work is happening throughout the yearly meeting organization, with ways for Friends to follow up for more information or participation?
If you’ve never experienced a sluggish shower—if your shower works just fine—then it’s hard not to get impatient with the person who’s taking forever. “Quaker time” often prevents us from working effectively with other groups and organizations. If every decision takes a full month because we have to bring it to the next committee or business meeting, our partners—community organizations, schools, other faith groups—will eventually leave us behind. Can we experiment with methods to empower spiritually grounded individuals to make decisions on our behalf in these situations, providing spiritual support and accountability by asking them to report back to and regularly check in with the body?
Sometimes the hot water is needed right now, and if it takes too long, the moment has passed, and it doesn’t matter anymore. For this one, we have a success story. Both New York Yearly Meeting and New England Yearly Meeting have recently empowered their clerks and general secretaries to issue public statements in response to current events, in the name of the body, without waiting for approval from the yearly meeting body. We call these “interim actions,” and I’ll quote someone I know from the Massachusetts Council of Churches: “I am so grateful you Friends did that, because before, your voice couldn’t be part of things as they were happening, and now it can be—and the world needs the Quakers.”
Maybe the most important thing to understand about delay is that it makes it very hard to know whether we’re actually making a difference. The cause and effect can be so far apart in time that it’s hard to be sure they’re connected, and that makes it impossible to learn anything. I don’t believe God ever intended this for us. I believe God has something better in store. I don’t believe God sees a conflict between spiritual groundedness/faithfulness and agility/efficiency.
How can we identify the systemic sources of delay—the specific practices or structures that cause things to take a very long time?
How can we differentiate between our institutional traditions and our spiritual callings—that is, separate in our minds the how we do things from the why?
How can we trust one another, and trust God, enough to experiment with new ways of doing things?