Transitions: An Application of Cultural Theory

A couple of weeks ago, I posted this article based on some research I came across in the Harvard Business Review. Just as a refresher, in case you don’t want to go back and reread—basically, the original HBR article identified eight culture types, which can be distinguished from one another by the community focus, the general feeling of the environment, and the uniting force of the group. Two of the culture types don’t seem to appear in Quakerism. Two more probably appear sometimes but not terribly often.

Four of the types seem fairly common among Friends’ communities. Those are Type A (focused on relationships and mutual trust), Type D (focused on fun and excitement), Type G (focused on planning, caution, and preparedness), and Type H (focused on respect, structure, and shared norms).

In thinking about all of this, I realized pretty quickly that different Friends’ communities are manifesting different cultures, even within my personal experience. Here’s how I mapped that:

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Now, suppose that you’re a child in my monthly meeting. You’re accustomed to a Type D culture. Your group in First Day School focuses on fun and excitement; the environment feels light-hearted and full of people doing what makes them happy; you are united with other attenders of First Day School by a sense of playfulness and stimulation. Over a course of several years, you’ve learned to associate these cultural characteristics with Quaker meeting.

Then, one day, when you’re about ten years old, you’re asked to attend meeting for worship with a concern for business. Maybe you’re giving a report from the First Day School; maybe there’s a special query or a membership application to be considered. You find yourself in a culture that’s a blend of Type G and Type H. The group is focused on planning, caution, preparedness, respect, structure, and shared norms; the environment feels predictable, risk-conscious, methodical, rule-oriented; the group is united by a desire to feel protected and by cautious cooperation.

In other words, as far as your personal experience tells you, Quaker meeting is supposed to be about fun and excitement—but suddenly, you’re seeing planning and structure instead. Quaker meeting is supposed to be about light-heartedness—but suddenly, you’re seeing methodical rule-following. Quaker meeting is supposed to be about playfulness—but suddenly, you’re seeing cautious cooperation.

How do you respond to the disconnect?

Most likely, you reject the new culture entirely. “I don’t like business meeting. It’s boring.” It’s not your Quaker culture, so it isn’t your Quakerism. Maybe it’s just something grown-ups do. It has nothing to do with you.

Now, what happens when you’re twelve instead of ten? What happens when you’re fourteen? What happens at the point that you feel too old for First Day School—that’s just a bunch of little kids—but the only thing you’ve ever see of grown-up Quakerism is “boring” and completely detached from your previous experience. What are you going to want to do then?

Probably sleep in on Sundays.

In my yearly meeting, many teens continue with the youth program even when they drop out of regular attendance on Sundays. The youth program has some elements of fun, but it’s really a Type A culture—focused on relationships and mutual trust, in an environment that feels warm and collaborative and welcoming, and where the group is united by mutual loyalty.

The emphasis on a strong peer group is by no means a bad thing—in fact, it’s vital for many of our teens. But again, this becomes the experience of Quakerism for those teens who are involved. Most—not all—of the kids transition pretty successfully from fun-and-excitement First Day Schools to the relationship-and-mutual-trust youth program. This is helped by the fact that they get a healthy dose of fun and excitement in the youth program, especially on the younger end of the scale, when first they start attending as fourth- and fifth-graders.

But eventually, they finish high school and graduate from the youth program. Then what? Where do they go to continue their experience of Quakerism?

Do they go back to their monthly meetings—where they’ll find a community based on caution and rule-following and, yes, a certain amount of relationship and mutual loyalty, but with people they don’t really know?

Do they go into the adult group at yearly meeting sessions—where they’ll find a community focused on a set of shared norms that they haven’t ever learned? Think about the implications of that—theoretically, this is their yearly meeting, and yet, when they step into the adult environment, belongingness is defined by rules that are completely unfamiliar. This goes to this committee, that goes to that other committee, you can stand and speak at certain times but not at other times, some questions should be asked on the floor of the yearly meeting, other questions should never be asked on the floor of the yearly meeting, use the right code language, everybody knows when and where the meeting is, so nobody ever announces it…and so on, and so on. Is it any wonder that so many young adults disappear?

(Also, they move. I know that. But there are usually Quakers wherever they’ve moved to.)

I’ll stop here for a couple of caveats. First of all, the exact cultures I’ve identified in First Day School and in the youth program and in the yearly meeting are subjective. Some people would probably say that I’m wrong. It’s also possible that your First Day School or your youth program or your yearly meeting aren’t the same as mine. But actually, the exact labeling of each culture isn’t the point. The point is what comes next, and I think that what comes next applies to nearly all of us.

Because what comes next is: if the cultures are different, how do we transition?

I’m going to mention one solution that I believe doesn’t work.  Then I’ll offer three solutions that might.

A commonly attempted solution is continue-the-culture subgroups. This happens frequently among young adults. YAF groups—Young Adult Friends—appear in most yearly meetings, and the age range tends to fluctuate, especially on the upper end. In my yearly meeting, it’s “18 to 35(ish),” and that “ish” tends to creep well into the mid-forties.

Not everybody joins the YAF groups for the same reasons, but generally speaking, YAF groups are more fun, more openly loving, and less rule-oriented than the regular adult body. These groups can be enriching and spiritually nourishing and vitally important for the people who are involved in them—but ultimately, there comes a point when you stop being “young.” And then you have to make the transition—or else leave Quakerism altogether—and many young adults resist this. Some straddle the two groups, participating in “adult” activities and keeping a toe in the YAF group as well. But for many, the YAF group becomes the experience of Quakerism, just as the youth program was before that. I’ve even had Friends in their forties say to me, verbatim, “We need something for my age cohort, because that other adult group—that’s not for me. That’s not my Quakerism. I have nowhere to go.”

So what kinds of strategies might help with transitions?

One possibility is boundary-blurring.

Maybe the adults who work with the First Day School know that the next likely stop for their kids is the youth program. So they study the youth program—which has a culture rooted in relationships and mutual trust—and they intentionally incorporate more relationships and mutual trust into the culture of First Day School. They don’t drop the fun-and-excitement culture altogether, but they blend the two, so that First Day School culture becomes about fun, excitement, relationships, and mutual trust.

Then, the adults who work with the youth program know that their participants are coming from First Day Schools that tend to be centered in fun and excitement, so they deliberately fold in fun-and-excitement culture, especially with the younger groups.

But these same adults also know that the next step for aging teens is the adult groups in monthly and yearly meetings, so especially with the older kids, they could start to fold in the methodical-shared-norms culture, and in particular the shared norms of the adult Friends. This means teaching things like which committee does what and why, and it means practicing meetings for business using the shared norms of adult meetings for business. Sometimes this sort of suggestion meets considerable resistance: they’re still kids, there’s time enough for them to learn all that, that stuff doesn’t really matter anyway. There’s some validity in questioning the importance of the shared norms of the adult group and whether or not things “should” be how they are, but if we want our teens to transition successfully, we must start the cultural transition while they are still, by definition, kids.

Then there’s the adult group. Maybe those who are in the adult group know that the teens are coming from the youth program, so they deliberately incorporate more focus on relationships and mutual trust within the adult group. They work to shift the entire adult group from a culture of structure-and-shared-norms to a culture of structure-and-relationships-and-shared-norms-and-mutual-trust. This would mean that we would still have a structure and shared norms but that it would be part of our normal practice to sometimes prioritize trust and relationships over the structure and shared norms. That’s tricky. Many of our adult groups are accustomed to being careful and prepared and slow to change; prioritizing relationships and mutual trust will sometimes require unexpected risks, especially since trust is, by definition, risky.

So boundary-blurring could be one strategy. It takes a lot of effort. We’re not accustomed to it.

Another strategy—which could be practiced simultaneously, rather than being an either-or—would be porous boundaries. We make it normal for those near transition ages to travel back and forth. Children ages nine and up have permission to wander in and out of teen spaces; younger teens can wander back to children’s programs. Teens have permission to wander in and out of business meetings; young adults can be in business meeting for awhile and then go hang out with the teens and kids.

In addition to the informal wandering back and forth, each age group could have times specifically scheduled to join the age groups on either side. Children’s groups are occasionally scheduled to go to the teen space to do a joint activity, and vice versa. Teens’ groups are occasionally scheduled to join the adults in whatever they’re doing, and the adults are occasionally scheduled to join the teens in whatever they’re doing. Transitions don’t happen all at once. They happen slowly, over a number of years, with lots of time allowed for moving back and forth.

One last strategy.

Shared culture unites people and gives us a sense of belonging. But shared culture isn’t the only thing that can unite us; shared beliefs and goals can, too. We can make culture less important if other things are more important.

Do we speak passionately about our relationship with God?

Do we understand ourselves as a covenant people?

Do we tell the stories of living faith?

Do we strive to listen to the Holy Spirit—and obey?

Is this at the center of our communities? Can we live lives of faith together and out loud? Or do we keep quiet about all of this, by default allowing culture to take center stage?

What would transitioning from one age group to another be like if it meant transitioning from a passionate, faithful, God-led people to another passionate, faithful, God-led people?

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