Building a Permission-Giving Culture

This is the fifth of a series of ten blogs about ten cultural flips for multiage inclusion. It’s not enough to shift our culture. We really have to flip it.


Cultural Barrier #5: Idolatry of Quaker process

Why is this a barrier to multiage inclusion?

I talked a lot about this in A Conversation About Delay. Essentially, 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.

Like many of our cultural tendencies, idolatry of Quaker process disproportionately affects the young (and, of course, anyone who is new.) If you’ve been around for many years, you’re likely to know exactly which committees do what and which committees meet when and which clerks are semi-non-functional and when you should cc other people in the meeting and when you shouldn’t and, especially, the right combination of words to phrase something in such a way that a committee will actually take it on. And if you don’t know all these things, an attempt to get anything through our process will generally be thwarted by our process, not by discernment in the Light of the Spirit of God.

That’s an important difference. Sometimes it’s right to say no, but more often, we sort of wind up saying no by default because our Quaker process, rather than being used to support Spirit-led discernment, winds up being used to replace it. We say no for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with Spirit. The request came in after the deadline; it hasn’t been seasoned by the right committee; we had to push it to next month’s agenda three times because we ran out of time.

Our younger Friends are absolutely right when they look at these patterns of behavior and declare them absurd, and many times, instead of sticking around and pushing through it, they (and the Light they are carrying) either leave our communities entirely or, at the very least, put the majority of what is often deeply-grounded, well-led energy into some other organization, somewhere else.


Culture Flip #5: 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)

What does this look like in a monthly meeting?

It’s important to cultivate a culture that is supportive and permission-giving, in which new ideas and initiatives are met as openly and helpfully as possible. In other words, the default answer is “Yes, and how can I help?,” unless there is a strong, Spirit-led reason to hesitate.

For example, suppose that at social hour, someone in your meeting says, “What if we sat around one day after meeting and talked about our spiritual journeys?”

Permission-giving and supportive… You say: “Great idea! How can I help?”
Permission-giving but not supportive… You say: “Okay. Go ahead.”
Permission-begrudging but supportive… You say: “That’s a good idea. I’ll help you run it past Ministry and Counsel, which is our committee that oversees things related to spiritual discussions.   They meet on second Tuesdays at 7:00pm. Does that work for you? Can I give you a ride to the meeting?”
Permission-begrudging and not supportive… You say: “You need to take that to Ministry and Counsel.”
Permission-denying but supportive… You say: “That’s not something that works very well here, but I’m glad that you’re thinking about spiritual deepening.”
Permission-denying and not supportive… You say: “We’ve tried that. It doesn’t work.”

A permission-giving culture helps everyone feel that their ideas are valued, and a supportive culture helps everyone feel that they themselves are valued. Both are important.

Obviously, there are times when, “Great idea! How can I help?” is not an adequate or appropriate response . . . for example, if someone has just proposed doing business by majority vote. But even then, there are more and less supportive ways to respond. You could try, “I’m so glad that you came to business meeting and you’re interested in our process. Has anyone given you a chance to ask questions about why Quakers do business the way we do?”

And sometimes, of course, it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes a new spark arises that could mean serious change or a new commitment for the meeting, and it’s not immediately clear what the next steps should be. That’s the time to respectfully guide someone through Quaker process, which we’ve put in place over the years so that we have an institutional path by which to carefully discern significant matters as a community. If this in-depth process is a response to certain types of situations, rather than a default response to every suggestion, then using it becomes a symbol that something is being taken seriously, rather than something that we laugh about that often becomes a blockade. Suddenly we find ourselves saying to someone, “Friend, what I hear you saying is a message for the whole community and, if well led, may bring us all into something new and spiritually significant. May I help you know who to bring this to so that the entire community may hear it?”

Generally speaking, a supportive and permission-giving culture gives our young people a fighting chance. We all grow by way of opportunities to experience and follow leadings, and it’s unfaithful for the community to make even small proposals so difficult that they don’t seem worth making. By flipping our culture from default no to default yes, we commit to a new and adventurous relationship with each other and with the Holy Spirit.

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


5 thoughts on “Building a Permission-Giving Culture

  1. For awhile I was interested in the process of recording ministries. One version of the Philadelphia Faith and Practice said that while recording wasn’t generally done anymore, meetings should consider it to support and encourage promising younger members.

    I bring it up because when a meeting records a ministry, it’s essentially saying a person’s spiritual discernment is sound and that they will give appropriate support. Once recorded, the new minister is given relative freedom in their words and actions: permission. It’s a model that allows for more adaptation than the now-more-typical slow-moving committee model. Since much of my ministry was online and YAF- and outreach oriented, it would have allowed me to move forward with my work even if others in my meeting didn’t quite understand it. I never formally pursued a recorded ministry (I didn’t think my meeting was ready to take on this kind of relationship), but differentiating between the role of ministries and committees gave me the insight and courage to move forward without traditional institutional support. Otherwise, yes, I would have left along with many of my then-YAF friends.

  2. Default YES!!! With an assumption that continuing revelation seeks those who have a revelation-ready mindset/heartspace. It also assumes that spirit is alive and well, and we can and WILL act in response.

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