Monthly Archives: September 2022

Are African Friends really Quaker?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

Are African Friends really Quaker?

Most of them, absolutely. There are a few groups of people in Africa who claim to be Quaker but are really just using the name, but the overwhelming majority of African Friends are very Quaker.

African Friends seem different from North American Friends partly because of cultural differences. This is appropriate. Quakerism is not synonymous with North American or European cultural practices. It should be contextualized as an authentic path for local people wherever it goes. Concepts like the Inner Light and testimonies of peace and equality remain intact.

Much of Friends’ theology in Africa is taken from the groups of Friends who originally sent missionaries there—that is, primarily early twentieth century midwestern pastoralist Friends. So that adds to the sense of differentness that unprogrammed Friends might feel. In my experience, though, African Friends are deeply thoughtful and spiritually rooted, discerning and generating their own theology, and some are much more Biblically and theologically educated than most North American Friends I know. 

There is a lot that North Americans can learn from the ministry of African Friends, both theologically and practically. We all benefit from taking opportunities to be in relationship.

What do Quaker pastors do?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

What do Quaker pastors do?

Quaker pastors are released ministers—people who are supported financially in order to give them more time to serve the local faith community. Their position doesn’t automatically give them more spiritual authority than anybody else in the meeting. But they probably wouldn’t be pastors if they weren’t grounded, spiritually guided people with significant gifts to share.

Not all pastors have the same job description, but roughly speaking, they preach, visit the sick and the lonely, pray for the people in the meeting, conduct memorials, celebrate births, officiate marriages, meet with committees, and sometimes do religious education. They connect with other pastors and ministers from the community. They minister to neighbors and invite them to meeting, and they sometimes participate in local service or activism. They might mediate conflicts in the meeting. Some also do building maintenance or cleaning.

Like other Quaker employees, pastors have to balance what the community asks them to do with what they are led to do. They’re also usually underpaid compared to pastors in other faith traditions, which is really hard if they’re supporting a family. The Quaker pastors I know are patient, loving, hardworking, faithful, and very human. Their ministry amazes me.

What was the job of overseers and why did we stop using that word?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

What was the job of overseers and why did we stop using that word?

In early Quaker days, ministers preached, elders cared for Friends’ spiritual condition, and overseers cared for Friends’ physical condition. 

Overseers made sure Friends had food, children had schooling, and imprisoned Friends got visited. This was super important when Quakers were being persecuted and lost jobs or couldn’t send their children to non-Quaker schools. Like ministers and elders, overseers were named according to their spiritual gifts. It was not a temporary role; it was a recognition of who someone was created to be.

The changes happened slowly, but by the 1960s, ministers and elders and overseers in most places weren’t named roles anymore but committees called Ministry and Oversight. The committees tried to do most of the traditional roles of ministers, elders, and overseers.

“Overseer” and “oversight” have strong associations with slavery, especially in the United States. Friends’ use of the word was not connected, but nevertheless many found it jarring and hurtful, so we started saying “pastoral care” or “Ministry and Counsel Committee.” The word still appears in many Faith and Practice books.

Today, practical care of Friends sometimes falls through the cracks. Our “new” committee way of doing this doesn’t always function well. But that’s a different story.

Are approving and accepting and receiving three different things?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

Are approving and accepting and receiving three different things?

Let’s say that the Zebra Committee offers a report in business meeting:

THERE ARE NO ZEBRAS IN OUR MEETINGHOUSE. WE RECOMMEND PURCHASING A ZEBRA.

The meeting can minute that we have received the report. This means “yes, we heard you say that thing about zebras.” If we minute that and nothing else, that means nobody is going to do any further work at this time.

And/or, the meeting can minute that we have approved the recommendation. This means “yes, we agree that we should purchase a zebra.” Ideally, we would also minute some information about exactly who is going to purchase the zebra and when and how.

But let’s say that the Zebra Committee gives its report and then someone points to the corner of the room, where there is a zebra calmly chomping hay. “Obviously,” the Friend says, “there is at least one zebra in our meetinghouse already. The report is factually incorrect, so we can’t discern the recommendation appropriately.” We then minute that we do not accept the report and are returning it to the Zebra Committee requesting additional research.

What matters most, though, is not correct wording but clarity on what we’re doing about the zebra situation.

Are non-Christian Friends really Quaker?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

Are non-Christian Friends really Quaker?

“Are ________ really Quaker” is such a common question. The blank gets filled in differently depending on who I’m talking to.

Worldwide, I’d estimate at least 95% of Friends are Christians, although they wouldn’t have a shared definition of the word. I count myself in the other 5%. To me, the word Christian implies belief in the particular divinity of Jesus Christ, and that’s not me. I value the Bible as an historical record of my spiritual ancestors, but I’m not specifically Christian.

I do think that what others call the Inner Christ is the same as what I call the Holy Spirit or God. I doubt that the Divine Being is all that fussy about exact names. To me, if we are prepared to acknowledge a Being beyond ourselves that is wiser than we and that guides us, and if we are ready to commit (even imperfectly!) to corporate discernment in our faith community, then we can be Quaker.

I definitely run into Christian Quakers who find me dangerous or just think I’m wrong. We tend to co-exist more peacefully when I demonstrate that I don’t want to challenge their Christianity. And I don’t. They are being faithful.

Why did people freak out about the minute containing the words “thank you”?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

Why did people freak out about the minute containing the words “thank you”?

It might seem natural to say, “Lucille McGillicuddy is released from her three years as clerk, and we thank her for her service,” but in certain groups of Friends, people will practically leap out of their chairs to object to such a minute on theological grounds.

The theory is that everyone is supposed to do the service that their gifts and capacities allow them to do. Stepping up and playing such a role is a matter of faithfulness and is to be expected. We don’t thank people for doing what’s expected and normal.

(It’s a minority perspective. Most groups of Friends have never heard of this idea.)

Thanking vs. not-thanking isn’t a big deal, in my opinion. Whether a group does it or doesn’t—fine, whatever, just don’t yell at your recording clerks about it. 

But when the “doing what’s expected” concept expands to lack of recognition, it’s a problem. We should notice people’s contributions and name them when we are talking about what we’ve learned from them. Young people, people of color, and women especially need this recognition because otherwise they are assumed to be less-competent, which leads to fewer opportunities to minister.  

What is an opportunity?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

What is an opportunity?

In the beginning, Quakers didn’t schedule worship. It was more spontaneous. People might plan a meeting for worship’s beginning time, but there wouldn’t be an ending time. They felt the ending on a spiritual level—God had given them everything God needed to give them, so meeting was over.

Meetings for worship also happened at different times and on different days. If a traveling minister came to town, that was a reason to get together and have worship. So they did.

An “opportunity” was almost like worship sneaking up on people. They’d be together doing something else, like loading a cart with hay, and there’d be a sudden silence and feeling of deep worship, so they’d stop and be in worship until it felt over. 

Or sometimes, an opportunity was something people looked for, like very-small-group worship, sometimes one-on-one. Traveling ministers especially did this, like having an opportunity after dinner with a family they were staying with. Or saying to someone, “Friend, I would have an opportunity with thee.”

The practice is obscure today but still possible. Friends can and do sometimes have opportunities—although we might have to define the word if we’re asking for one.

Does anybody ever go back and read old minutes, really?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

Does anybody ever go back and read old minutes, really?

Yes.

I’ve known quite a few people who’ve gone back and read old minutes. I’ve done it. It’s the best way we have to learn the story of a people, especially after a generation has died. I once read all my yearly meeting’s minutes from 1969 to the present. I learned an enormous amount about us, spiritually and practically.

Sometimes Friends read old minutes to better understand our relationship to a certain concern over time, as part of discerning next steps. Other times, we’re searching for inspiration or genealogical history. And of course, sometimes we’re looking back just two years or five years to remember what we’ve said we’re going to do so that we can follow through…frankly, it would be good if more of us did that more often.

This is why archiving matters so much. If the minutes of a meeting are only held on one person’s computer or even on a shared electronic drive, they’re likely to be lost. It’s important to ask around and find out where Friends in your area store minutes and other records. There’s probably an established procedure that is only sometimes followed—for example, sending paper copies to a library or university.

What goes in the minutes and what doesn’t?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

What goes in the minutes and what doesn’t?

Quaker meetings keep minutes for three reasons. 

#1: to test the sense of the meeting—are we clear on what we’re doing? 

#2: to demonstrate our decisions to other people. 

#3: to provide documentation for the future.

For #1, we only need the decision. We will paint the meetinghouse purple. If we all approve this, we know there’s no confusion.

For #2, we also only need the decision. Send the minute to the person who’s buying paint so they know the meeting approves.

For #3, we need more. This is where Friends have different ideas about what to include. Nearly all groups do some process minutes, which is anything that’s not a final decision. Why purple? Environmental reasons? Financial? Because it’s Judy’s favorite color?

Some groups include minimal process minutes. Others regularly include many paragraphs. The trick is including enough context but not excessive context. Extra words to approve take extra time. 

My yearly meeting once wrote dozens of minutes referring to “the California epistle” without ever explaining what it was. It took me years to solve that mystery. 

On the other hand, we also once minuted “in case of emergency, call 911.” We probably didn’t need to approve that.

How do those other Quakers think about the Bible?

This is part of a series called “answers for a small-f friend.” These articles are deliberately simple, informal, and under 200 words…the kinds of answers that I might give casually over a cup of lemonade. 

If you’re wanting to go deeper, I recommend Faith and Practice (any yearly meeting’s version) or Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches by Mathilda Navias. If you’re a video person more than a text person, try the QuakerSpeak series, available online.

Do you have a question I should add? Let me know in the comments.

How do those other Quakers think about the Bible?

Depends on which Quakers we’re talking about, and every branch of Quakerism has huge variation within it. But generally…

Evangelical Friends (usually associated with Evangelical Friends Church) and pastoral Friends (usually associated with Friends United Meeting):

A few of these are true Biblical literalists, but not many. Most center the Bible in their lives and try hard to live according to its precepts. Their interpretations vary widely. But almost all in these categories would call the Bible the Word of God. (Evangelical and pastoral Friends are not the same thing, but I put them together here because there’s so much overlap on this question.)

“Liberal” unprogrammed Friends, which is a misleading label but I use it as shorthand: 

A few of these reject the Bible entirely. More use it as a useful spiritual guide but not central to their faith. For some, it is central. There’s a lot of emphasis on interpretation by Spirit. Almost never literalism.

“Conservative” unprogrammed Friends: 

A conservative Friend once told me that that Jesus is the Word of God—the embodiment of Scripture and the Way of reading the Bible. Guidance comes through the Inner Christ and through Scripture. Bible is central but not literal.