On Building Learning Networks

We Quakers could do a lot of things better than we do.

When I first felt a call to ministry, one of the things I realized right away was how little I knew. And I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I had a vague sense that people who go to seminary must learn more than theology, that there must be some sort of practical training, but I wasn’t exactly sure what that would entail. So I went to the New York Public Library and started browsing through the religion section.

That’s when I found the Dewey Decimal System, classification numbers 253 & 254. Books with these numbers talk about pastoral theology, counseling and spiritual direction, religious use of communications media, faith-based public relations and publicity, and church finance. I also spent some time pulling from the sociology section and from the business leadership section. (I already had a background in education, or I would’ve gone there, too.) What I learned from this was not just the actual content of the books but the fact that there is a lot of information that Friends could really use.

Very few unprogrammed Quakers go to seminary or any other formal religious training. This dates back to early Friends’ strong belief that attending seminary and being ordained does not equal sanctification—that God calls and empowers the minister, and the church doesn’t have that power. I’m totally on board with that. (I don’t believe seminary and ordination to be fundamentally bad, just not necessary.)

Here’s the thing, though—not being formally educated as ministers does not mean that we shouldn’t be learning. Even aside from the pieces around deep spiritual reflection, there are practical skills involved in a wide variety of ministries that we don’t seem to recognize are things you can learn. Sometimes, the work we do, while heartfelt, isn’t very skilled. Pastoral care, property, religious education, outreach, finance, personnel, website development, communications—when Friends take on work without support in learning the skills they need, they’re often less effective than they otherwise might be, even if they have the right gifts and are living their callings. And sometimes, unintentionally, untrained Friends even cause harm.

The field of education tells us that different people learn in very different ways. For some, all we need is the right set of books.   But most people need some type of human interaction. The trouble is, there’s not time for most committees, in the course of regular committee meetings, to set aside other business and self-train. Also, the insularity of committees or even whole meetings discourages learning—if the knowledge doesn’t already exist within the insular community, how will it be discovered?

A few models are rising up among Friends—models of what I would call “learning networks.” A learning network is a group of people, each intentionally developing their skill sets, in which everyone is recognized as having a contribution, experts are acknowledged and openly invited to share, the door is open to people moving in and out of participation, and organizers create a safe space for questions and learning.

One such learning network is the Quaker Religious Education Collaborative. QREC deliberately crosses all branches of Quakerism. It is led by a “steering circle,” and it shares resources on its website and by newsletter, but it also hosts “conversation circles”—video conferences to which anyone is invited, each organized around a topic in the religious education field. QREC also has a yearly conference. QREC Friends describe themselves as “a grassroots network of Friends holding a sense of stewardship for life-long Quaker faith formation through religious education.” No one is nominated to QREC. There’s not a set term or a particular number of spots that must be filled. Friends are welcome to dip in and out, contribute what they have to share, and take away what they’re able to learn.

New York Yearly Meeting is near the end of a first year of experimenting with the Outreach Working Group. OWG invites Friends from NYYM monthly meetings who carry a concern for outreach to commit to the group for up to two years. It’s a voluntary commitment—no nominations. The group meets every couple of months by video conference. Each conference starts with a mutual sharing of what the members have been doing and learning, followed by a conversation about a particular outreach topic (often with an invited expert providing a presentation), and ending with each member of the group committing to one way in which they will use what they’ve just learned.

One more—the Quaker Communications and Outreach Facebook group. This group is open to anyone upon request, but the community maintains a sharp focus on mutual skill building in communications especially. Friends post questions and comments and offer one another feedback on their work. The top posts as I’m writing this blog include one that just says, “WordPress or SquareSpace?,” which has launched a multi-comment conversation about the merits of each; a post about using Meeting for Worship as a Facebook event (is this a good idea? should it be connected to Facebook ads? why or why not?); and info about a recent Quaker history webcast, which launched a discussion about the content of the webcast, best practices for webcasts in general, and the merits of various types of webcast-related technology.

Each of these learning networks has four elements in common:

1) No permanent commitment. You’re not nominated; you just join.

2) Mixing groups of people who wouldn’t otherwise meet. A lot of times, the learning is about cross-pollenating. Many members of the Outreach Working Group, for example, have never met in person, and it’s possible they never will, because they’re nearly all Friends whose ministry is focused within their local meetings and neighborhood communities. But they exchange ideas and learn from one another all the time.

3) Topical focus. Everyone knows what the goal of the conversation is, and it’s not allowed to wander too far away from that goal.

4) Dedicated leadership. QREC calls it a steering circle; OWG calls them co-conveners; for QCO, they’re Facebook group administrators. But in each case, there’s leadership—one Friend, two Friends, a handful of Friends—dedicated to being present and creating a safe space.

You’ll notice that one thing I’m emphasizing is the agility of these groups, the non-commitment, the fact that you don’t have to be nominated and stick around for three years to participate. That’s very much unlike most of what happens within our Quaker institutions, which tend to very formal and structured around committees and handbooks and minimum time commitments. That type of structuring, I believe, is neither fundamentally better nor fundamentally worse. But I would argue that the purposes are different. The Quaker institution is about belonging, perpetuating, supporting, and linking—all words that imply permanence and stability. A learning network is about experimenting, growing, pushing ahead, and exploring—all words that imply change and agility. These different purposes, which exist in a state of creative tension, require different types of structures and different mindsets. We need both.

So what other learning networks exist, or could exist? Are there learning networks around pastoral care? Around property? Are there learning networks for meeting finances? For supporting ministry? If there aren’t, could there be?

3 thoughts on “On Building Learning Networks

  1. Emily, thank you for lifting up the ways that organic connections help nurture Quakerism as do the formal structures. And the value of both which, too often, are perceived as in conflict or competition with each other rather than needed by one another.

    In regard to additional learning communities, I think of:
    A) Friends Spiritual Accountability Facebook group
    B) Releasing Ministry Facebook group along with its corresponding website releasingministry.org , still under construction for a more robust and interactive site
    C) A program for faithfulness groups in NEYM which Marcelle Martin will offer

    Click to access NWFF%20Announcement%20Final_0.pdf

    D) A program series for peer groups to support individual (and group) calls to ministry, postponed in PhYM as that body addresses its priority on racism.
    E) Quaker Social Change Ministry which helps faith communities learn and take action of American Friends Service Committee’s key focal areas.
    F) The Undoing Racism Group comprised of members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting; URG’s timeline lists nearly 50 program-related activities voluntarily offered by URG members from 2013-16; timeline not maintained for 2017

  2. I find it useful to set up Facebook groups or pages for Quaker-related issues. Examples of ones I have created are:

    White Quakers Tackling OUR Racism
    W.A.R. — Whites Against Racism
    White Rose America
    Remember the Charleston Nine

    Perhaps of most interest to education-oriented Friends is:

    John Woolman College of Active Peace


    John Woolman College is an outgrowth of the Campaign for Equity-Restorative Justice (CERJ) which I founded at the United Nations in 1997. For years there was a mention of this organization at Arch Street meetinghouse, in an exhibit that included a list organizations and initiatives started by Friends over the years.
    Today, like the old Friends World College “learning community”, John Woolman College is entirely virtual, and has a long roster of principals — scholars, practitioners (in peacemaking, conflict transformation, and Restorative Justice), activists, even archivists — around the world. We even have a poet laureate!

    I’d like to invite Friends to contact me if they are interested in the College, or would like me to make a presentation about Active Peace and all it entails. Here is a link to the ‘Theory of Active Peace’ document which can be found in the ‘Notes’ section of my Facebook page. I have many other interesting resource documents there as well:


  3. Dear Emily,
    Delighted to find your blog through a mention in Quaker Communication and Outreach. Thank you for some interesting ideas that may well prove useful out here in the West.
    I felt a bit of a jar when “experimenting, growing, pushing ahead, and exploring” were separated from Quaker practice, but realize that you are correct. Unlike Friends of the 17th century who inspire us, we have come to be maintaining a structure and instead of setting the world on fire. I am grateful for the reminder to be more conscious of this. I am agreeing that we not call this good or bad, but recognize that to be fully the People of God called Quakers we need both going on at the same time.
    Yours gratefully,

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