What Multiage Inclusion Might Look Like

One of the questions I get asked most often (being a thirty-four-year-old woman who is present at many Quaker gatherings) is this: “Why don’t more young adults come to things?”

(There are variations of this question.  Some people ask why young adults don’t come to meeting for worship; some ask why young adults don’t participate in large gatherings or attend conferences; some ask why young adults who grew up Quaker leave the Religious Society of Friends, or why more young adults don’t become convinced Friends in adulthood; some inform me, in a most Eeyore-like manner, that because of the general patterns of society, expecting young adults to participate in Quakerism is simply an impossible task.)

I actually believe that the answers to these young adult questions are tied up in the general relationships between all our age ranges – children, teens, young adults, middle-aged Friends, and aging Friends.  In short, our culture as (liberal, northeastern) Quakers works really well for many people between the ages of 45 and 80 or so.  (And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that it’s really set up for white people in this age range.)  But this same culture actually forms barriers to participation from other age groups.

My friend Gabi Savory Bailey, after years as serving as a young adult field secretary, wrote a fantastic pamphlet called “The Courageous Work of Weaving Vital, Multi-Age Faith Communities.” I love her use of the word courageous. The work of multiage inclusion requires a great deal of courage because it requires change—and it also requires a certain level of knowledge, so that we’re changing meaningfully and not randomly.

When I look around the Religious Society of Friends, I see that many of us wish that more seekers would find us, that our communities might become more diverse, and that more of our young people would stick around. Some of us also recognize that in order for those things to happen, we’ll have to be open to cultural change, but many of us have a hard time knowing exactly what sort of changes might be necessary.

It’s important to point out that cultural change is not the same thing as changing our spiritual foundation. Sometimes it’s hard for those of us who are inside (northeastern, liberal) Quaker culture to recognize which of our behaviors are cultural, which of our behaviors are a direct manifestation of spiritual leadings, and which of our behaviors fall somewhere in between. In fact, it’s hard for all human beings to recognize the aspects of a culture that is our own. It’s like the old joke about the fish—one fish says to the other, “How’s the water today?,” and the second fish says, “What’s water?”

On way to parse the difference between spirit and culture is to examine some of our specific behaviors. I’ve sometimes worked with meetings and asked them to write down all the behaviors they can think of that happen on a normal Sunday. For example, they might list:

– We wear nametags

– We stand to give ministry

– Our children come into worship in the last fifteen minutes

And then we talk about why.

Why do we wear nametags? So we know each other’s names. Why does that matter? So that people feel personally welcomed.

Why do we stand to give ministry? So that everyone can hear and see the person who is speaking.

Why do our children come into the last fifteen minutes of meeting? So they can experience worship. Why does that matter? We want to make sure our children have opportunities to encounter the Divine with the community.

From here, we can see that there are some specific things that this meeting is called to do by Spirit:

– Help people feel personally welcomed

– Ensure everyone can see and hear ministers and ministry

– Provide children with opportunities to encounter the Divine in the community

And once we’ve identified these spiritual calls, we’re likely to discover that the way we’re currently doing things is not the only way to be faithful. Wearing nametags is cultural; helping people feel personally welcomed is the point. So if we encounter a reason to stop wearing nametags, that’s not necessarily something we need to resist, as long as we’re finding other ways (and quite possibly better ways) to help people feel welcomed. Once we’re secure in what Spirit is asking, it’s easier to accept cultural change.

In the next six weeks or so, I intend to post a series of blogs on specific cultural barriers to multiage inclusion and how I believe those barriers can be flipped. In each case, I’ll explain why I see this particular point as a cultural barrier to multiage inclusion and what the flip would actually look like in a meeting.

Below, you’ll see a summary. Which, if any, do you have questions about? What might I have missed?

The Cultural Barrier The Flip!
Perception that Friends’ meetings are internally focused and irrelevant Doing frequent work and service in neighborhood communities outside the meetinghouse walls
Equating seriousness with sacredness Behaving as though joy and gratitude are as holy as struggle and lamentation, including 50/50 time division for the whole meeting between play together and work together
Frequent use of Quaker terminology without context Practicing brief, clear explanations and contextualization of all terms and references to institutional structure, every time, in the moment, as we go
Communicating solely through paper publications and websites Developing a meaningful presence on social media (for internal communications and outreach)
Idolatry of Quaker process Building a permission-giving culture (the default answer is ‘yes, and how can I help?’ unless there is a strong, Spirit-led reason to hesitate)
Valuing traditions over the needs of living Friends Regularly reexamining physical facilities, procedures, and practices in the light of how they are working for our communities today; recognizing the difference between our Spirit-led testimonies (which are eternal) and how we express those testimonies (which may need to change as circumstances change)
High financial cost of participation in gatherings Shifting to pay-as-led pricing; changing locations and structures of gatherings so the actual cost is lower
High reading level (high school and above) of almost all of Friends’ written materials Using shorter sentences and simpler vocabulary in all documents
Isolation of parents (among Friends and in society in general) Providing childcare at all meeting events without exception; prioritizing spiritual and practical nurture of parents
Consistent physical separation of age groups Aiming for multi-age inclusion around 50% of the time, including integration both ways (younger Friends in traditionally older Friends spaces/activities, older Friends in traditionally younger Friends spaces/activities); providing meaningful support to make full participation possible in both directions


14 thoughts on “What Multiage Inclusion Might Look Like

  1. This is very inspiring. I am especially challenged by “Idolatry of Quaker process (—>) Building a permission-giving culture (the default answer is ‘yes, and how can I help?’ unless there is a strong, Spirit-led reason to hesitate). Looking forward to each forthcoming installment. Thank you.

  2. This sounds great, looking forward to reading the entries! One subject I think is relevant to this discussion is our nominating process. We have a specific practice that we use because we feel it’s spirit-led. But it’s also highly networking-focused and questionably merit-based, limiting opportunities for people less connected with the Meeting and potentially increasing “cliqueyness”.

    The fact that most Quaker work is unpaid is also a barrier to entry for young people who often have high debt, unstable work, and low wages. Of course we’re meant to be skeptical of “hireling ministers” and so on, but I think there’s a case to be made for fair pay for real work in the context of the Integrity Testimony.

    Thanks again for doing this! Definitely the kind of work we need to be doing more of in the Society.

    1. I really like the premise of your article Emily! The meeting I attend started a similar examination about fifteen years ago. The first thing we did was to consider what made us Quakers. Was it our spirituality or was it our Quaker traditions/culture? We concluded that there were just two things that are essentially Quaker distinctives for us: ‘expectant waiting’ worship that is unprogrammed, and decision-making based on the ‘sense of the meeting’. Everything else is more of a tradition or cultural habit, and is therefore something we could change for our meeting if we found it was not conducive to the preferences of modern seekers. Once our paradigm shifted, lots happened for us, and the big surprise has been that the spirituality of the meeting increased as a result. This more spiritual environment has attracted more seekers to our meeting.

      As a liberal Quaker meeting, it dawned on us that we had basically no requirements for theological belief; yet we had developed over the decades many habits and requirements for ‘meeting etiquette’ that had nothing to do with ‘expectant waiting’ worship or ‘sense of the meeting’ decision-making. And we said to ourselves: “My God, how petty we have been. What a turn-off we must be to many seekers.”

      The first thing we did was spend nearly three years discerning our practice of formal, recorded membership. From listening to seekers in our meeting, we discovered that many people attracted to our spirituality are not attracted to recorded membership; yet they are as committed to our meeting and its Friends as those who are recorded members. We decided to never make a distinction between recorded members and those who are not. Since that time, we have had non-recorded members in every committee and position in the meeting. For example, presently, both our clerk of meeting and assistant clerk of meeting are not recorded members. They are perhaps among the best clerks we’ve experienced, and their commitment to our community is exemplary. We no longer use the term “attender” at all because it denotes a ‘less than’ status. Everyone who comes to our worship is a member of our community, whether they’ve chosen to have that membership recorded or not.

      This opened our minds and hearts to examine everything. The list is much too exhaustive to outline here. The bottom line is that we are no longer an ego-based spiritual community; rather, we are Spirit-based, constantly examining everything we do to make sure it comes from Light and not our thoughts on what is right or wrong based on an opinion of what is ‘Quaker’.

      Our worship attendance has increased with more diversity in Friends than we ever had before.

      1. Why haven’t your clerks joined the Meeting? This seems very unhealthy to me.

      2. Friend Jill,

        I think if you re-read my comment, you will see that the answer to your question,
        “Why haven’t your clerks joined the Meeting? This seems very unhealthy to me.”,
        is answered.

        I will add that for our spiritual community it became important to indeed BE HEALTHY spiritually, and an important aspect of that health is to not control the spiritual needs and paths of others by instituting certain traditions or requirements that are not wholly spiritually based and are more coercive in nature. Instead, we have chosen to let the Spirit choose for each Friend and our whole meeting community what is needed to ensure we live in the Light – period. It has been revealed to our whole meeting after a long several year process that formal (recorded) membership is just another ‘form’ that should not be required if it has no personal value to a Friend. ‘Thinking it is required in order to serve the meeting’ is the world’s way of thinking. So in that spirit, ‘requiring formal membership for any position’ simply fell away as just one more human notion. However, we still offer it if any Friend believes it would help them on their spiritual journey. It’s just that the meeting community places no weight, privilege, or status on it (as is done in many Quaker meetings).

        It has become apparent that our meeting has benefited and become very spiritually heathy partly due to this outlook; an outlook that the very earliest Friends had.

        Thanks Jill for providing me the opportunity to explain a bit more.

        Much Light to you.

      3. Howard. As an attender, of about 6 years, I find your words heartening and you speak my mind in considering it healthy to explore the culture of membership. For me it insinuates an inequality and judgement as to my value. For instance as an attender, why do I have to not only ask for permission of an elder to go to YMG, but they are requested to send a letter to YM, to say I am worthy to do so. At what point does one’s spiritual growth coincide with membership? I think thoughtful examination of structures is a good exercise in the light of how they progress or obstruct spiritual life within a community.

    1. Muriel,

      I usually don’t answer comments directly because my hope is to let other readers respond to one another. But this is a really important question, so I’m going to say what I can, starting with this – I’ve asked the same question you’re asking (at least, internally) many times. When I first started hearing people say things like, “Unprogrammed Quaker meetings in the U.S. aren’t welcoming to and inclusive of people of color,” I wondered what that meant. I couldn’t, at first, imagine how this was so, given how sure I was of our collective intention to be welcoming and inclusive.

      What I have started to understand now, having done some listening and some reading and some studying, is that the barriers are very much about culture. Our unprogrammed Quaker meetings in the U.S. tend to have cultural practices and expectations that line up with White cultural practices and expectations rather than with multicultural practices and expectations. I am starting to see that I and other White people do have shared cultural practices, but I rarely see them as such because I am part of them, and to me they just seem like “normal.”

      I’m not yet able to speak with a great deal of knowledge on this topic. For now, what I am able to do is recognize that this is, indeed, a problem – partly because I have done study of my own, and partly because specific Friends of color have told me that it is a problem, and I believe them. I am actively trying to learn more.

      The single resource that I have found most helpful so far in my own understanding of White culture has been Jeff Hitchock’s “Lifting the White Veil: A Look at White American Culture,” which is available for purchase online. Jeff is a Friend – I know him – and though his book is not specific to Quakerism, it is thorough and represents enormous amounts of research and careful reflection. It will probably answer your questions much better than I could.

      If other Friends have resources to add, they can be posted here in the comments.

      Thank you for asking the question, Muriel.

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