Category Archives: Institutions and Systems

Being the Church: Organizations

Even before the pandemic, our long-term practice of organizing ourselves geographically had been getting pretty iffy.  Most faith organizations have local groups, small regional groups, and large regional groups, and this has been our structure for keeping track of ourselves, disseminating information, hiring staff, and making decisions.  

Does this approach still make sense?

I can think of one faith organization for which it definitely does, and that’s the Mormon church, more officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  The reason geographic organization makes so much sense for that group is because they have a policy in place that members cannot attend a congregation other than the one to which they’re assigned geographically—or rather, they can, but there are serious limits on the ways in which they’re permitted to participate in the congregation if they do.  Because members understand that worshiping where they are assigned to worship is expected of them, they almost all do.  And because the church is organized so hierarchically, there are constant reorganizations of geographic boundaries, including closing of congregations and opening of new ones, in order to make sure that every local congregation is a sensible size.  This works efficiently and serves everyone well because the institutional organization is a good match for the behavior of the members.

But most faith organizations don’t function this way, and organizing ourselves geographically when the behavior of members is no longer based in geography isn’t working.  People attend the congregation to which they are drawn.  If one faith community no longer feels like a good match, they’ll move to another one, sometimes even crossing denominational boundaries to do so.  People attend one faith community over another for affinity reasons: I like the music there, I like the preaching there, I like the people there, I like the social opportunities for my children there.

Studies do show that, absent an Internet-based alternative, seekers are most likely to try out a new faith community within a twenty-minute travel radius of their home.  So geography matters at least that much.  But long-term members of a congregation behave differently.  Even if they move a town or two away, they will often continue to attend their “home” faith community because they have an affinity to it.  And when many of our communities started worshiping online, many of us discovered members returning from years ago—people who moved across the state or across the country but have always missed their “home” faith community.

What’s the purpose of our larger-than-local denominational organizations?  I think this differs based on theology.  

For some of us, it’s a top-down hierarchical structure.  We receive our instructions from people in leadership of the larger groups, the theory being that people holding those positions have been ordained by God to do so.

For some of us, it’s covenant relationship.  We connect to something larger than our local organizations so that we can have mutual reliance and help one another out.

For some of us, the larger organizations exist to support local groups, by providing expertise or guidance when the local groups are having difficulties.

For some of us, it’s a matter of needing someplace to “kick things upstairs.”  If there’s a conflict or an issue that can’t be resolved locally, we send it to the next-highest rung of the institution.

For some of us, it’s a matter of collective resources, knowing that larger institutions can do things that local institutions can’t because they have more money, more staff, and more connections.

For some of us, it provides validity for the local faith community, a way to say, “Yes, we are part of such-and-such denomination, which does all this great work.”

And for most of us, it is some combination of the above—and possibly other aspects, as well.

Here’s the problem: while having smaller groups within larger groups might still be the best way to organize ourselves, delineating these groups geographically wasn’t serving a lot of us pre-pandemic, and it certainly isn’t now.

For one thing, younger adults are incredibly mobile.  The average person in the United States today will move 11.7 times in the course of a lifetime.  Half of those moves occur between 18 and 40, which means that the average young adult will move every three or four years.  Under these conditions, structuring membership and belonging within our faith communities in such a way that it requires commitment to a local congregation no longer makes sense.  In faith traditions that traditionally require local commitment, younger adults have been asking for—and in some cases, getting—changes, so that they can be members of a larger, more geographically disparate organization.

But now, we’ve hit the point where non-geographic membership is an issue not just for individuals but for whole congregations.  Communities that moved their worship online, or partially online, now find themselves with frequent national or international participation.  To which geographic regional organization does the distant online member belong?  If, for example, the faith community’s building is located in Arizona, does the family attending their worship online from Portugal belong to the denominational organization in Arizona or to the denominational organization in Portugal?  Where do their financial contributions go?  Where does their service go?  Who provides support for them when they need help?  

What if the faith community with a building in Arizona hits a point at which more than half its regular attendance is online and comes from outside Arizona?  In that case, is it still the denominational organization in Arizona that’s responsible for the whole of the group?  Suppose that, instead of being spread out, the online contingency was actually a network of several hundred people all located in Portugal?  Does the denomination continue to serve them from Arizona, or does the denomination try to form a new congregation in Portugal?  Will the Portuguese worshipers even want their own local communities, or do they feel as though they are intimately connected with the group in Arizona?

These are not just hypotheticals.  I’ve met a Lutheran bishop facing a situation very much like this.

Let’s look at it another way.  I work with a Quaker institution that’s geographically organized to serve Quakers in New York, part of New Jersey, and part of Connecticut.  When we organized online Quaker parent support groups, we opened participation to Quakers everywhere.  We did this partly out of kindness but partly out of self-interest.  We simply don’t have enough parents that they would have enough schedule cross-over to form large, functional groups of parents with children who are similarly aged.  Even though the funding for the program came entirely from the New York-based institution, we had more than twice as many parents participating from outside our geographic area, and that was the only way to serve our “own” people effectively.

Most online denominational programming is drawing people from outside the designated geographic area.  We have moved to the eighth continent.

And I haven’t mentioned yet the new faith communities that have formed during the pandemic that are entirely online, with literally no geographic boundaries.  Where do they fit into denominational systems?  Or will we leave them adrift, without a larger organization to provide resources, support, and mutual accountability?  Some such groups may want to be independent, and that’s probably fine, but others feel very much a part of some particular denomination.  Are they?  Have we found a way to make that true?  Will these online groups have a voice in denominational decision-making?

I can think of three ways in which denominational organizations might be able to respond to these changes.

First, geographic organizations could decide—now, before test cases appear, if they haven’t already—how they will respond to membership requests (or de facto membership) coming in from the eighth continent.  If a local congregation used to have sixty regular participants, and that same local congregation now has seven hundred regular participants online, how will the denominational organization respond to that?  How does God ask us to be in relationship with distant members?  Who do we serve?  Who has the authority to participate in decision-making?  What is our financial relationship with members outside our geographic boundaries?  How do we support clergy people who are trying to be in relationship with members outside of their geographic boundaries?  How can we be assured that distant members are cared for in terms of physical needs, spiritual formation, and more?  Are there cultural implications or power inequities of which we need to be aware?  What will the organization do if a new “local congregation,” entirely online, inquires about affiliation with the organization?  If accepting an online group feels right, what about a distant group that is not online but that feels called to be part of your organization?  How will you approach that relationship?

Second, denominations could form online “regional” organizations for the express purpose of giving online members and online congregations groups with which to affiliate.  We might actually need denominational organizations for the purpose of serving the eighth continent.  If this is what’s needed, and if it’s not clear how to do it, why not look to our historical processes?  It might have been a while since we last opened a new geographic region, but we all have that procedure somewhere in our history.

Third, and most radically, denominations could consider phasing out geographic organization all together.  If we did not organize our regional groups geographically, how else could we do it?  What would it look like to have an affiliation of local congregations that are deliberate multiage faith communities?  Or an affiliation of local congregations with a primary concern for racial justice, or for earthcare?  Congregations that run schools?  Congregations with ministries to the homeless?  A worldwide “region” for congregations that worship in French?  

Would affinity-based organizations be able to do things like hire staff more effectively?  If the entire region agreed on a single focus, then we might not have to hire people for every position.  We might even have more clarity about who we are and what we’re called to be doing, which is definitely a center of conflict for a lot of religious organizations.

Some of these ideas might be ridiculous.  Some might have their own downsides.  But it’s time to start experimenting.  I’m not sure any new things we try could be more ridiculous than organizations operating strictly geographically when humans simply aren’t living our lives that way.

Remembering: We Reunified

My yearly meeting, New York Yearly Meeting, split in the 1800s. I wasn’t there, of course. Officially, we split for reasons to do with theology, but it’s hard to get the story straight. There are lots of historical records, and the only thing that seems totally clear to me is that many people on both (or all) sides of the issue behaved pretty badly. I suspect there were elements of cultural difference and family ties and interpersonal difficulties tangled up in the split. And really, isn’t that always the case, that there’s more than one issue influencing these things?

We were separated, then, from the early 1800s until 1955. Six generations, at least. No one alive on the day we split was also present for the reunification. I wonder those who were present for the split could have even imagined reunification. The relationship between the groups was so venomous that, for decades, many were disowned from their meetings for “marrying among those others called Friends” or even just “worshipping with those others called Friends.”

They were thrown out of their covenant communities for worshipping with Quakers from the other side of the split. That any community would do this feels like a reflection of extraordinary pain, and of course, the action itself only caused additional trauma.

But somehow, over time, something changed. Hearts were softened. There’s not a lot, as far as I can tell, of historical records that tell the story of how we went from vehement animosity to mutual openness. I suspect that’s because it happened slowly, amongst many people, and a lot of it was forgetting some things, over the generations.

And then, in 1955, we reunified.

That was sixty-five years ago. We’re getting awfully close to the point when no living person remembers the reunification. We’re not there yet, but those who are still living were mostly children in 1955. Many are no longer Friends, or no longer in our geographic area. As our ancestors lost the collective memory of the split, we are soon to lose the collective memory of reunification.

So I like to go back to the letter we wrote. It’s an “epistle to Friends everywhere,” and I’d like to think that includes everywhen. I’d like to think my ancestors were writing to me. They had some wise things to say to me. I don’t want to lose the feeling of reunification, the deep spiritual knowing we had. I want to hold onto what we learned as a people.

Maybe what my ancestors said will also be useful to others today. After all, they were writing to “Friends everywhere,” so this is also a message for you.


Dear Friends:

This is the message of our love.

We have been united with you this week in closer fellowship which transcended our diversity, as New York Yearly Meeting became again one body of Friends.

We wish to share with you our joy that the way to unity has been found.

We shall continue to share our differences, which serve a useful purpose. God does not ask us for conformity, but calls us to unity, in obedience to the leadings of the spirit.

We seek to recapture the radiance of simple, uncomplicated love … such love as will resist evil without violence, without hatred of the wrongdoer, and without compromise.

To the false standards of our time we would offer the greatest opposition, combined with the greatest love. To the lonely seekers in this hurried and soul-hiding world, we would say, “Dear Friends, we are walking beside you … seekers, too.”

Have loving kindness toward one another. Have faith in the Lord, and he will help you.

– signed on behalf of New York Yearly Meeting,

Horace R. Stubbs, Alfred J. Henderson, clerks, August 4, 1955


Being Neighbors: Quaker Institutions and Quaker Meetings

In the past few years, I’ve traveled among liberal unprogrammed, conservative unprogrammed, pastoral, and evangelical Friends on several continents, and one of the blessings I’ve received is the chance to hear and carry stories. All kinds of stories—personal stories, ministry stories, meeting stories. Institutional stories. I learn a lot from the differences between our stories—how Friends from one place or one branch or one culture are different from Friends in another—but I learn even more from the stories that are the same. When I hear similar stories across branches, across cultures, and in multiple countries, it says something about the condition of the Religious Society of Friends.

I want to share one story that I’ve heard from Friends across our theological spectrum and throughout the United States and Britain and Ireland. (I haven’t heard this story in other parts of the world. It may or may not be happening elsewhere. I don’t know.)

The story comes from two perspectives. When I hear it from a Friend in a local or yearly meeting, it goes like this:

“Yeah, that [school/university/retirement home/hospital/community center] is supposed to be Quaker, but . . . well, years ago, when we [started/helped start/developed] it, we had a really good relationship. But over time, it [got bigger/took funding from other groups/hired non-Quakers/changed its mission], and now, even though we [provide some funding/have Quakers on the board/facilitate a volunteer program/know some of the staff], we’re [legally separated/thinking about separating/not as closely connected], and there’s a lot of bad feeling. Lots of hurtful things have been said and done over the years. And there’s mistrust. I’m not sure they’re really Quaker anymore, even though they’re still called that. I don’t know what to do.”

When I hear the story from a staff member of an institution (whether that person is Quaker or not), it goes like this:

“Yes, our Quaker identity is extremely important in this [school/university/retirement home/hospital/community center], and . . . well, years ago, when we first got started, we had a really good relationship with local Quakers. But over time, they [decreased in numbers/weren’t able to keep up with our funding needs/stopped volunteering/couldn’t make timely decisions], and now, even though we [receive some funding/have Quaker board members/have a couple regular Quaker volunteers/invite local Quakers to our events], we’re [legally separated/thinking about separating/not as closely connected], and there’s a lot of bad feeling. Lots of hurtful things have been said and done over the years. And there’s mistrust. I’m not sure how to be in relationship with the local Quakers these days. I don’t know what to do.”

What’s striking to me is the sense of helplessness on all sides. “I don’t know what to do.” To bridge the distance—and sometimes open animosity—between meetings and institutions is a challenge, and I think the key might be in reexamining how we define the relationship.

What is our model for the relationship between Quaker institutions (schools/hospitals/community centers/etc.) and Quaker meetings? We often use the phrase “under the care of,” but what does that mean? A parent/child analogy may be appropriate in the beginning, when an institution is just being established and is genuinely infantile and unable to fend for itself, but after a certain number of years, a parent/child dynamic is inappropriate and patronizing. And a marriage analogy seems like a bit much.

How about “neighbor?” Could Quaker meetings and Quaker institutions view themselves as neighbors? Not I-don’t-know-your-name-but-your-dog-barks-too-much neighbors. Neighbors in the Biblical sense of the word.

I ran a search in the Bible and found 180 references to neighbors, and they ran the gamut of human experience, as Biblical references often do. This is one reason I keep returning to the Bible (including the Apocrypha). In many ways, little has changed since the days of our spiritual ancestors.

I found a passage in Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus) that made me sad and that rang true at the same time. “Be fond of a friend and keep faith with him, but if you have betrayed his secrets, do not go after him any more; for, as one destroys a person by killing him, so you have killed your neighbor’s friendship, and as you let a bird slip through your fingers, so you have let your friend go, and will not catch him.” (Sirach 27:17-19) It reminds me that if we have lost our relationship with our neighboring institution or meeting, we have almost certainly let the relationship slip, let it go, whether by betrayal or by neglect. The loss of relationship is not an accident. It’s not a natural force against which we are helpless. It’s the result of action, or inaction, between neighbors over time.

And it’s not what the Bible says God asks of us. Instead, Jesus says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39) And when I, as a Friend in a meeting, think of this commandment in the plural rather than the singular, I feel that “myself” would translate to “ourselves,” or my own local meeting. So . . . we ought to love the Quaker institution next door with the same fierceness that we love our meeting.


But how?

Leviticus gives us a good place to start. “Do not go around slandering your people. Do not stand by while your neighbor’s blood is shed; I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:16) Not only should we not slander our neighboring institutions, then, but if we find ourselves being silent while somebody else does, that’s a problem, too.

And there’s this: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (Exodus 20:17) It’s hard not to envy when there’s an imbalance of resources—or reputation or loyalty or success. Can we resist dwelling in jealousy? Does it help if we remember that God provides abundantly, that we don’t have to compete for blessings doled out with scarcity?

“And if the household is too small for a lamb, then he and his nearest neighbor shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb.” (Exodus 12:4) This one’s a more complicated, but what it implies is pretty cool. What the Lord is describing here—the chapter begins with “the Lord said to Moses”—is the celebration of Passover. It’s the practice of religious ritual, both a celebration of the Lord and the Lord’s miracles and a common history as one people, and in it, there’s an allowance made for what to do if one household has a greater abundance than can be consumed. In this context, God asks the people to share both the religious practice and the resources that make the religious practice possible. How often do our meetings and institutions, as neighbors, share worship? Discernment? Prayer? Scripture study? Consideration of queries? How often do we talk about our understandings of these various practices, thus sharing the resources (the personal experiences and wisdom) that make these practices possible?

And don’t forget Luke. “When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’” (Luke 15:6) In this, the last verse of the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus reminds us that neighbors rejoice with one another when one neighbor has a reason to celebrate. In fact, Jesus reminds us of this multiple times, since the parable of the lost coin and the parable of the prodigal son also end with the neighbors being invited for a celebratory party.

Here’s an interesting passage: “If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag.” (Deuteronomy 23:24) This one makes me laugh because it seems to imply that it’s okay to steal from your neighbor as long as you only do it a little. But I wonder if that’s my personal cultural lens talking. Maybe it’s something more along the lines of, “Neighbors should expect to contribute to one another’s needs without having to be asked, as long as what’s taken isn’t unreasonable.”

And in case what’s taken seems like it might be unreasonable, take a look at these next two passages:

“Question your friend, he may have done nothing at all; and if he has done anything, he will not do it again. Question your neighbor, he may have said nothing at all; and if he has said anything, he will not say it again. Question your friend, for slander is very common, do not believe all you hear.” (Sirach 19:13-15)

“What your eyes have seen do not hastily bring into court, for what will you do in the end, when your neighbor puts you to shame? Argue your case with your neighbor himself.” (Proverbs 25:8-9)

There will be times when our neighbor’s behavior seems unreasonable. In those times, it’s best to ask—“hey, what’s going on?” Because it’s entirely possible that we’re mistaken, that what we think is true is a misunderstanding or a rumor. But if it turns out there really is a problem, we’re not obliged to just roll over and accept what’s been done. “Argue your case with your neighbor”—in other words, it’s okay to be clear about what’s not okay. It’s our duty as neighbors to argue our case . . . but that doesn’t guarantee that we won’t have to compromise.

“Do not resent your neighbor’s every offense, and never act in a fit of passion.” (Sirach 10:6) There’s sure a lot of advice about what to do when our neighbors get annoying. I find that comforting, really. Bumpy spots are to be expected.

And yet: “Let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another.” (Ephesians 4:25) Notice that this says “speak the truth,” not “be nice.” But what’s especially striking is the members of one another part. Why should we speak the truth with our neighbors? Because we are members of one another. I confess to finding that phrase a little fuzzy—like “under the care of”—but it definitely tells me that we’re inextricably entwined.

Just a few more. “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” (Romans 15:1-2) It’s tempting to read this as implying that one neighbor is strong and one neighbor is weak. But that feels overly simple and flatly inaccurate. More likely, we each have moments of strength and moments of weakness. In our moments of strength, do we use that strength to build up our neighbor? Or do we use that strength—just for an instant—to feel self-righteous about our neighbor’s weakness?

This is hard. It’s all hard, and it’s harder when—as is often the case—there are historical bad feelings, often stemming from genuinely hurtful actions by one or both neighbors. When that’s true, I suggest we look to what Deuteronomy has to say: “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed.” (Deuteronomy 15:1-2)

Most people carry around a feeling of indebtedness at least sometimes. “She did such-and-such, so I’m owed such-and-such…I am owed an apology…I have a right to a bit extra next time…” And you’ll note that even in Deuteronomy, it’s okay to hang onto that for awhile. But eventually, we’re encouraged to grant release, to practice forgiveness, to stop trying to exact the debt from our neighbor. The idea here was that everybody gets a clean slate. Including us. We get a clean slate, too.

“And who is my neighbor?” a man once asked (Luke 10).

Jesus didn’t respond simply. He told a story instead, the story of the Good Samaritan, a story in which traditionally “good” characters are behaving badly and traditionally “bad” characters are behaving kindly, and he ends by turning the question back on the man: “Which [person] do you think proved to be a neighbor?”

“The one who showed mercy,” the man answered.

Can we go and do likewise?


Queries for Quaker Meetings

If our relationship has deteriorated with our neighboring institution, do we reflect on how our own actions or inactions have contributed to this?

Do we love our neighboring institution with the same fierceness that we love our own meeting?

Do we avoid slandering our neighboring institution? Do we speak up when we hear other people doing it?

Do we recognize and hold in the Light those moments when we covet our neighboring institution’s resources, reputation, loyal participants, or success?

Do we worship, discern, pray, study, and reflect with our neighboring institution? Do we speak with one another about our personal experiences and our spiritual understandings in order to develop our ability to do these things together?

When we have something to celebrate, do we invite our neighboring institution to the party?

Do we expect to share what we have, within reason, with our neighboring institution, even without needing to be asked?

When we think that our neighboring institution has wronged us in some way, do we ask them about it directly?

When something about our neighboring institution’s behavior is hurting or bothering us, do we speak up about it promptly, specifically, and bravely?

Do we expect to be annoyed sometimes by our neighboring institution? When that happens, do we do our best to let the little things go? Do we avoid responding in a fit of passion?

Do we speak the truth to our neighboring institution?

Do we remember that we and our neighboring institution are “members of one another?”

Do we use our strengths to build up our neighboring institution?

Do we practice mutual forgiveness with our neighboring institution, including corporate forgiveness for historic wounds?

In our ongoing relationship with our neighboring institution, do we look for opportunities to show mercy?



Queries for Quaker Institutions

If our relationship has deteriorated with our neighboring meeting, do we reflect on how our own actions or inactions have contributed to this?

Do we love our neighboring meeting with the same fierceness that we love our own institution?

Do we avoid slandering our neighboring meeting? Do we speak up when we hear other people doing it?

Do we recognize and hold in the Light those moments when we covet our neighboring meeting’s resources, reputation, loyal participants, or success?

Do we worship, discern, pray, study, and reflect with our neighboring meeting? Do we speak with one another about our personal experiences and our spiritual understandings in order to develop our ability to do these things together?

When we have something to celebrate, do we invite our neighboring meeting to the party?

Do we expect to share what we have, within reason, with our neighboring meeting, even without needing to be asked?

When we think that our neighboring meeting has wronged us in some way, do we ask them about it directly?

When something about our neighboring meeting’s behavior is hurting or bothering us, do we speak up about it promptly, specifically, and bravely?

Do we expect to be annoyed sometimes by our neighboring meeting? When that happens, do we do our best to let the little things go? Do we avoid responding in a fit of passion?

Do we speak the truth to our neighboring meeting?

Do we remember that we and our neighboring meeting are “members of one another?”

Do we use our strengths to build up our neighboring meeting?

Do we practice mutual forgiveness with our neighboring meeting, including corporate forgiveness for historic wounds?

In our ongoing relationship with our neighboring meeting, do we look for opportunities to show mercy?


Preparing for Change

It doesn’t really matter what kind of change a meeting is trying to make; the first thing to do is simply prepare for change.  If we skip that part, the change making eventually stagnates.

So what indicates that a meeting is ready for change?  Below, you’ll find my suggestions in a format traditional to Friends: advices and queries.  These can be used in worship sharing, in committee meetings, in meetings for business, or in private reflection.

Click on any of them to read about the concept in more detail.

These advices and queries are a product of my own experiences working with Friends, distilled during some work I did as a consultant New England Yearly Meeting.  My process of developing them included interviewing members of the staffs of New England and New York Yearly Meetings, reading research done by nonprofit organizations (including Project Include), and considering principles gleaned from a Massachusetts Council of Churches podcast interview with Marty St. George, executive vice president for commercial and planning at JetBlue Airlines.


  1. A meeting that is prepared for culture change will commit to clear communication and mutual transparency.Nothing gets hidden under the rug. An unknown future is difficult enough; we can’t engage with the unknown future when we’re also using energy to deal with an unknown present or an unresolved past.
  2. A meeting that is prepared for culture change will value relationship and function over structure and process.This will mean understanding that no structure or process is “one-size-fits-all” and that a commitment to relationship and function will require ongoing (not one-time-only) willingness to adjust/adapt structure and process.
  3. A meeting that is prepared for culture change will take joy in experimentation, understanding that long-term growth requires patient devotion to perpetual learning.
  4. A meeting that is prepared for culture change will bravely ask for specific new information, new tools, and new skills from sources outside of the meeting.


Knowing Where We Are

Last November, New York Yearly Meeting had a number of potentially difficult pieces of discernment to do.  The fall sessions agenda almost had the look of a list of greatest hits in terms of “things Quakers get passionate about, and not all in the same direction.”  I was a little keyed up going into it.  So were a lot of people.

Spoiler alert–we did just fine.  But one of my favorite moments was when a Friend rose during meeting for business and asked a super-articulate, obviously thoughtful, extremely specific question that made no sense at all.  It stopped the room cold.  It wasn’t the fact that she wasn’t making sense; Friends often say things that don’t make much sense.  But her tone and vocabulary were so rational, so measured, that it seemed like she should be making sense.  So it was weird.

After a moment, someone ventured, “Um . . . is it possible you’re talking about the wrong agenda item?”

She was.  We were on Item #2; her question referred to Item #3.  And in that context, it would have made perfect sense (and did, twenty minutes later, when she repeated it).  We all laughed, including the Friend who had made the mistake.  The confusion, in that case, was harmless.

But often, confusion isn’t harmless.  In the past few weeks, I’ve been sharing elements that need to be in place for meetings before they are ready for culture change.  The fourth and final one is this: A meeting that is prepared for culture change will commit to clear communication and mutual transparency.  Nothing gets hidden under the rug.  An unknown future is difficult enough; we can’t engage with the unknown future when we’re also using energy to deal with an unknown present or an unresolved past.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but I want to emphasize the last sentence, which says that we can’t engage with an uncertain future (change) if we’re also spending physical, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual energy on our anxiety about either the present or the past.

If we’re not communicating clearly and transparently–in other words, if some of us have one understanding about what’s going on while others have a different understanding–then we’re creating anxiety about the present.  We demand sameness, or lack of change, moving forward because we’re so busy feeling uncertain about what’s happening now that we can’t possibly deal with uncertainty about the future as well.

And if we have buried conflicts, things we’ve never resolved, in our past, we’re spending emotional energy on keeping those buried.  Our energy is going toward dealing with the past, so we can’t summon enough to engage meaningfully with the future.  Therefore, again, we demand sameness, or lack of change, so that at least we know what to expect down the road.

A meeting that’s prepared for culture change will have dealt with its past and made its present transparent.  Then, Friends will be equipped to dive into the future, the (only remaining) unknown.

(In other words, if you’re looking at Agenda Item #2, make sure that everybody else is, as well.)

Fixing a Broken Balloon

A good friend of mine had his fifth birthday last year, and I got to thinking about some of my favorite memories of him.

Once, when he was two, he brought me a limp yellow balloon.  “Bwow up, pwease?” he implored.

I tried.  I put it to my lips (despite not knowing where it might have been) and blew, but there was a hole in the balloon.  “I’m sorry, love,” I told him.  “I can’t do it.  It’s broken.”

He considered this seriously and toddled away.  A few minutes later, he brought me a hammer and said, “Dat’s okay. You fix it!”

I loved this little boy’s absolute faith in me.  He was also doing an admirable job of asking for what he needed.  “Bwow up, pwease.”  The directions were clear.  “You fix it.”  Again, no questions about intent.

On the other hand, I wasn’t doing a very good job of expressing my needs.  “It’s broken,” while simple enough for my friend to understand, wasn’t specific.  No wonder he brought me a hammer!  How was he supposed to know what the real problem was if I didn’t tell him?

Instead, I should have tried this: “I can’t blow up this balloon because there’s a hole in it, and I can’t fix it.  But if you bring me a new balloon, I can blow up the new one.”

In my past couple of posts, I’ve been sharing elements that need to be in place before a meeting can engage in change.  Today’s blog is the third of four on this theme, and it has a lot to do with the balloon and the hammer.

I’ve had a number of experiences in working with meetings as an outside facilitator, and I’ve noticed that some meetings succeed in changing with outside help while others don’t.  At a certain point, it occurred to me to go back and look at the requests for help themselves retrospectively, after I know what sort of success the meeting actually had, to see whether there’s anything about the request itself that might predict ultimate success.  And I did discover some predictive elements, one of which is the specificity of request.  If a meeting asks for something very specific – “bwow up, pwease” – they tend to do better than meetings that just ask for help generally – “it’s broken.”  And interestingly, the meeting doesn’t necessarily have to correctly identify what they need.  There’s something about the self-reflection and asking process itself that indicates readiness.

So–a meeting that is prepared for culture change will bravely ask for specific new information, new tools, and new skills from sources outside the meeting.

Stopping for the Elmo Potty

A few weeks ago, I visited Westbury Friends School, a Long Island Quaker school for preschoolers through second-graders.  It was assembly day.  The children were learning about equality and fairness.  They explained to their parents that the two ideas are not the same.  Equality means that everyone gets the same thing, and fairness means that everyone gets the same opportunity to be successful.  “We will always try to be fair, but it won’t always feel equal.”

It’s pretty amazing to hear four-year-olds explain the difference.  As the various students raised their hands, we heard lots of repetition, a considerable amount of “just be kind,” and a couple of long, rambling stories.

This section of the assembly was only meant to last about ten minutes, but it went on for at least twenty because–as the lead teacher later explained–the children were excited and sharing.  In fact, at one point, we stopped everything when a three-year-old raised his hand and announced, “My mommy says I don’t need the Elmo potty anymore.”

We all clapped.

In other words, we didn’t stick too close to the plan.  The needs of the people in the room were more important.  In my last blog post, I told you that some research I’ve done with others seems to indicate that there are four elements that need to be in place prior to culture change.  The second of the four is this: A meeting that is prepared for culture change will value relationship and function over structure and process.  This will mean understanding that no structure or process is “one-size-fits-all” and that a commitment to relationship and function will require ongoing (not one-time-only) willingness to adjust/adapt structure and process.

Does your meeting stop for the Elmo potty?

Are you able to be flexible about process based on the needs of the people in the room?

One-Way Tickets

A few weeks back, I found myself taking a New Jersey transit train for the first time in quite awhile.  I used to travel from NYC to various parts of New Jersey pretty frequently, and accessing the ticket machine and navigating Penn Station again brought up a series of memories.  Specifically, I found myself pondering one-way tickets.

Round-trip tickets are sometimes cheaper than two one-ways, and they’re certainly more efficient.  One financial transaction.  One time waiting in line.  But when I started traveling in the ministry, I learned that buying round-trip tickets often didn’t work out.  I’d find myself in the Hudson Valley or New Jersey or out on Long Island and plans would change.  I’d be asked to attend an extra event, or I’d be offered overnight hospitality somewhere, and suddenly I found myself navigating an unexpected pathway.  The second half of my round-trip ticket was wasted.

So I started buying one-way tickets when I traveled.  These were practical but also had spiritual resonance.  They represented my commitment to flexibility and opportunity, and I learned to find that openness genuinely exciting.

Flash forward.  In 2019, I had a contract with a Quaker organization to process some data from a multiyear project and compile the conclusions into usable documents.  One such document had to do with culture change.  By looking at the data from the project, conducting interviews, and cross-referencing with research done by other organizations, I found evidence that there are four conditions that must be met before a Quaker meeting can seriously engage in culture change.

The first is this: A meeting that is prepared for culture change will take joy in experimentation, understanding that long-term growth requires patient devotion to perpetual learning.

In other words, they invest in one-way tickets.  How does the meeting enter new experiments?  You don’t want to place dynamite on the track behind you, because it’s certainly possible that you’ll want to go back.  But you also want to stay open to the possibilities.  Are the members of the group purchasing one-way tickets or round-trip?  Are you entering the adventure fully prepared for whatever happens, thinking it likely that one experiment will lead to another and to another, or are you trying one new thing with the basic assumption that you’ll probably return to the status quo?

In other words, if your first experiment doesn’t work out, will that be a reason to attempt another experiment, or will that be a reason to return to safety and say “well, we tried?”

(Incidentally, just this week, I realized I was doing this–dabbling in a particular situation with my safe, round-trip ticket and then comforting myself by saying “I tried.”  So I enact this pattern, too, and that’s a thing for me to recognize.)

When we’re entering into a change, are we nervously clutching our round-trip tickets, or are we “patiently devoted to perpetual learning?”

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:

Screen Shot 2018-09-04 at 10.06.46 AM.png

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?

Navigating Differences: An Application of Cultural Theory

In January 2018, there was an article published in the Harvard Business Review called “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture” (authors Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng). Following extensive research in corporations around the world, the authors have designated eight basic corporate cultures, defined by the primary focus of the culture, the work environment, and the uniting factors that bring the group together.

The original article gave names to each of the eight culture types, but I’m going to call them “Type A,” “Type B,” etc. because many of the words used in the original article have different meanings in the Quaker world, and I suspect that those different meanings might cause us to misidentify the cultures we’re living in.

Below, I’ve summarized the basic breakdown. As you read, think specifically of the Quaker faith community that you spend the most time with. That might mean the adult population of your local church or meeting; it might mean the First Day School or Sunday School or other children’s group; it might be a summer camp or a yearly meeting gathering or a retreat center or a young adult worship sharing group. Later, I’ll talk a little about comparing these, but for now, see which rings true for the Quaker community that you’re with more often than any other:


Type A

Community focuses on: relationships and mutual trust

When we’re together, the environment feels: warm, collaborative, and welcoming

What unites us is: loyalty to one another


Type B

Community focuses on: idealism and altruism

When we’re together, the environment feels: tolerant, compassionate

What unites us is: a focus on sustainability and doing good for the long-term future of the whole world


Type C

Community focuses on: exploration, expansiveness, and creativity

When we’re together, the environment feels: inventive and open-minded and full of new things

What unites us is: curiosity


Type D

Community focuses on: fun and excitement

When we’re together, the environment feels: light-hearted and full of people doing what makes them happy

What unites us is: playfulness and stimulation


Type E

Community focuses on: achievement and winning

When we’re together, the environment feels: outcome-oriented and merit-based, with an eye on top performance

What unites us is: a drive for capability and success


Type F

Community focuses on: strength, decisiveness, boldness

When we’re together, the environment feels: competitive

What unites us is: strong control from authority figures


Type G

Community focuses on: planning, caution, and preparedness

When we’re together, the environment feels: predictable, risk-conscious, with lots of careful thought

What unites us is: a desire to feel protected and anticipate change


Type H

Community focuses on: respect, structure, and shared norms

When we’re together, the environment feels: methodical, with people playing by the rules

What unites us is: cooperation


Did you identify the culture type of your Quaker faith community—more specifically, the portion of that community where you spend the most time? It’s possible that yours might be a pretty even tie between two culture types, but it’s less helpful if you say “we’re not really any of these.” Identify one or two that seem relevant and work with it for a few minutes here. Nobody’s looking over your shoulder.

It’s important to understand that the culture of the group can be one type even when an assortment of types are present in different individuals. You might find yourself saying, “Well, we have some Type D people and some Type C people and . . .” And that’ll be true, but there’s probably a certain type that describes how the group functions together as a whole.

When I started looking at my Quaker community—which is really my Quaker communities, because there’s more than one—I realized very quickly that I’m traveling in multiple cultural groups. My thought process went something like this:

I really wish all groups of Friends were: Type B

My own monthly meeting seems to be: Type A and Type G

But the First Day School (the children) of my monthly meeting are: Type D

And during business meeting, we become: Type G and Type H

When my yearly meeting gathers for sessions, we function as: Type H

Except for the children’s program at yearly meeting sessions, which is: Type A and Type D

And the child/teen retreat program that meets on weekends throughout the year is: Type A

But me personally? At heart, I’m probably: Type C


If we put that as a visual, it looks like this:

Navigating Differences


Why did I place the groups where they are?

Well, I really do wish that we were all Type B. To me, the very concept of building the kingdom of God on earth means focusing on the long-term well-being of the entire world. But I don’t see that as the way that any group of Friends is primarily functioning, really.

I placed my own monthly meeting in Type A and Type G because we are immensely loyal to one another, even to a fault sometimes, and because we emphasize relationships and trust. (We’re not always good at it, but we emphasize it.) But we’re also incredibly cautious about everything we do. Business meetings tend to last three hours or more, historically. New proposals are pondered for months if not years, even if their potential impact is really quite small. We are extremely slow to change.

In business meeting, my meeting continues to operate from caution (Type G) but also really operates from shared norms (Type H). In fact, we work so hard at shared norms that during meeting for business we tend to forget all about building relationships with each other and lose our Type A culture altogether.

All of this is totally different from how the First Day School community operates. That group of kids (and occasionally teens) is nearly entirely based in having fun together (Type D). There’s often a lesson, but the factor uniting the community generally is not what’s being learned; it’s a sense of playfulness.

There’s a similar adult/kid split at yearly meeting sessions, where the adults are mostly operating in a Type H culture, basing everything around our set of shared norms—the committee system, the rituals around business practice, the worship sharing rules, and so forth. Even the fun aspects of yearly meeting sessions are really rooted in shared norms. The talent show happens on Thursday night, and heaven help you if you suggest that we might try it on Wednesday . . . that sort of thing.

The kids’ program at sessions, on the other hand, mostly emphasizes fun (Type D) and relationships (Type A), with Type D probably being the dominant unifying factor—it’s hard to build relationships in a community that meets for three hours a day, six days out of the year.

The youth retreat program of our yearly meeting, which gathers kids for several weekends per year throughout their middle and high school years, has more chance to build authentic relationships and functions almost entirely as a Type A community.

And then there’s me. Yes, I’m altruistic, and I’m all about building the kingdom of God on earth, but I do it from a curiosity/learning/experimenting place. Anybody who’s likely to study the Harvard Business Review at length and then apply what they’ve learned to Quaker communities and write a blog post about it is probably most at home in a Type C culture.

It’s worth noting that some people would probably disagree with my analysis. That’s okay. Take it with a grain of salt. What’s most important is not that I’m exactly right about the groups I’m looking at; what matters is how we handle the differences from one group to another.


Why does all of this matter?

I think it matters in a lot of ways.

Today, I’m going to explore the difference between what I wish Friends were and what Friends are, and then I’m going to explore the difference between the community’s culture and mine.

Later, I’ll write some additional blog entries about how age group transitions are affected by culture change and how culture types can be altered.

And then, who knows? There might be more.


First—looking at the difference between what I wish Friends were and what Friends are.

This is important to recognize. For me, it’s about wishing that the community of Friends was Type B. You might wish that the community of Friends functioned as some other type. But we get ourselves in trouble when we start assuming that the community is what we wish it would be—or also, when we start assuming that everyone wishes the community were what we wish it would be.

A Type B community is united by doing good for the long-term future of the whole world. If I assume that my Quaker community is a Type B community (because that’s what I want it to be), then I’m going to walk in expecting to present Type B sorts of ideas and have the community respond immediately and uniformly enthusiastically. But this simply doesn’t happen. If I don’t understand that this stems at least in part from a cultural difference, I’m going to be confused and disappointed and angry.

In fact, I can get confused and disappointed and angry even when I assume that everyone wants to be Type B. (I have learned from experience that they don’t.) Almost everyone agrees that altruism is a good thing, but for many Friends, relationships or fun or caution or shared norms are genuinely more important. At least in the beginning, it’s good to hold off on any value judgment about this and just recognize what is.

Whether I choose to change my expectations, to try to change the community, to leave the community, or simply to live forever in dynamic tension, the first step is to see that a difference exists. What I wish Quaker culture were isn’t what Quaker culture is.


Second—looking at the difference between the community’s culture and mine.

As I said above, I function most authentically as a Type C. I might long to be part of a Type B community, but at my own heart, I’m really a Type C. (Which isn’t necessarily an inherent conflict; healthy communities often contain a mixture of individuals that align with the overall culture type and also individuals that don’t. If you’re all exactly the same, you become more and more collectively unhealthy—and less and less able to change.)

As a Type C person, I love—and live in—exploration, expansiveness, creativity, inventiveness, open-mindedness, newness, experimentation, and curiosity. At least as an individual (though possibly not in a group) I value these qualities above the other types. Inventiveness, experimentation, and curiosity mean more to me than relationships, collaboration, and loyalty (Type A), fun and playfulness (Type D), caution and risk management (Type G), and rules, structure, and cooperation (Type H).

My Type C nature doesn’t prevent me from valuing relationships, collaboration, loyalty, fun, and playfulness, and I do value those things. But my natural Type C instincts are often in direct conflict with the values of caution, risk management, rules, structure, and cooperation, and these values are a big part of the culture of my Quaker community, especially in the realms of business and committees.

How do I handle this?

The first thing I have to do is recognize that my yearly meeting—and often my monthly meeting, too—are functioning as Type G and Type H cultures, and I have committed to joining them nonetheless. We are different. Pretending we are not different will not help.

The second thing I have to do is recognize the value of my own Type C contributions. Just as I have committed to joining my Quaker community, my Quaker community has made a commitment to me. They may or may not have recognized my innovation/experimentation/curiosity tendencies when I came in the door, but they did accept me into membership—all of me. And now we have to engage with each other.

It’s important to name that, generally, when a Quaker body acts in a way that prioritizes caution and/or maintaining or shared norms over trying new things, everything inside me tells me that this is wrong. Not just different from what I would do, but fundamentally wrong. Then I have to move past the adversarial mindset that this tends to set up and find ways to work within the community culture to be faithful to genuine leadings from God. This can be very tricky. Sometimes I’m more successful than other times.

It can help when I flip things around so that I can imagine the opposite point of view. For a Type G/H person or group, the most important things are planning, structure, caution, shared norms, preparedness, and cooperation. From that point of view, my constant drive to experiment appears reckless and—it’s true—seems fundamentally wrong.

In reality, of course, neither of us is actually wrong. All of these values—innovation, planning, structure, experimentation, caution, shared norms, curiosity, preparedness, and cooperation—are worthy. The difference is which we prioritize and how often, and in my Quaker circles, the community as a whole mostly subscribes to Types G and H. No matter how I choose to respond to that, I’ll do better if I begin by understanding it.

To depersonalize this for a minute, remember that the individual/community culture conflict can materialize in a variety of ways.

If you’re a Type A (prioritizing relationships), you might struggle in a Type B community if the community’s drive to helping the whole world takes away time from forming relationships within the community itself.

If you’re a Type D (prioritizing fun), you might struggle in a Type H community if the community’s shared norms don’t include much time for play.

If you’re a Type B (prioritizing altruism), you might struggle in a Type D community where projects that make a difference in the world aren’t valued very much unless they’re also fun and exciting.

And so forth.


Summing it up . . .

– Most groups of people function within a certain type of culture. This culture can be identified by what the group values, how the environment feels, and what unifies the people within the group.

– Groups of people functioning within a certain type of culture aren’t necessarily uniform. The group culture is identified not by what individuals do or value but by what the group as a whole does or values.

– Within your own Quaker circles, it’s likely that different circles are functioning as different types of cultures.

– There’s often a difference between what type we wish a group would be and what type that group actually is. That’s when it becomes important to recognize the difference and then decide how to handle it. Pretending there isn’t a difference can quickly get us into trouble.

– There’s also often a difference between the culture type we, as individuals, most naturally fit in and the culture type of the group. Again, it’s important to recognize that difference and then decide how to handle it.


Next time—what are the implications of transitioning from one group of Friends to another, when the cultures of the two groups might be very different?