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Where Have You Been?

A number of Friends have asked me lately: “You haven’t published a post since October 8th. Where in the world have you been?”

Well, part of the silence has been a commitment not to publish when I don’t have anything to say. And part of it’s been a combination of really busy and kinda fried. But actually, I think there might be value in giving an honest answer to the question, “Where have you been?” Because it’s hard sometimes to explain what full-time, non-institutional ministry really means, and understanding one another’s ministries is a pretty important thing. So here’s a snapshot—the last two months—in answer to the question.

Where have I been?

 

October 1-6

This is the final week of the Social Media Ads Experiment, Phase Two. I have significant learnings to share, and this requires writing another report. I like writing, but the way things have shaken out, there’s less time to get this done than there was at the end of Phase One. I’m also wishing that I could include exactly where my work with social media outreach might go next. But I don’t have an answer to that question, so all I can say is that it will go forward, somehow. (The plan’s in place. I just don’t know which Quaker organization, or organizations, it’ll go through.) I worry a little about the loss of momentum when I don’t have a concrete next step for interested Friends, but as is so often the case, I have to let that go. “Dear God, I know that this matters, and I’ll trust that You will take care of it.” I tie up loose ends with the twelve local meetings who have been participating in the experiment, and I post the report.

 

October 4-5

As an interim young adult field secretary for New York Yearly Meeting, I’m invited to a two-day gathering to talk about the Partner Project. This joint project, funded by the Shoemaker Fund and involving both New York and New England, has the goal of promoting and developing vibrant, multigenerational local meetings. We’re in need of a checkpoint retreat for the two staffs to see how things are going and confirm next steps.

On the way to Powell House, I work on figuring out transportation for what’s coming up next—a gathering near Lake Chautauqua on October 7th—and this is how I find myself on a train from New York City to Hudson with my laptop open showing two Google maps, one for the route from Denville, New Jersey to Lake Chautauqua and one for the route from Philadelphia to Rochester because I need to figure out where the two paths intersect, and I’m texting with my friend Gabi and also my friend Robin while Robin is on the phone with her husband and I feel like mission control.

The two yearly meeting staffs have thirty-six hours together. We reflect on where the project’s been and where it’s going. We worship. We laugh about Sesame Street over dinner. A notable moment comes when we ask the question, “What are the necessary conditions for culture change?” Our list includes things like “courage” and “new tools” and “healthy spiritual practice,” and right away I know this is a question I’ll be tackling. But not in October. There’s too much else to do.

We make a list of all the things—the things that are part of the Partner Project, and the things that are not—but all of the things that are happening in our two yearly meetings that are making progress toward the development of vibrant, multigenerational local meetings, and not for the first time I’m overwhelmed by gratitude for the faithfulness of Friends and also inspired by how much more we could do if somebody coordinated all this across yearly meetings. (Not managed—just coordinated—so that six different Friends weren’t all doing the same thing without knowing about each other.)

The night of the 4th, I slip away for an hour to facilitate a videoconference on “Supporting Friends in Multiage Spaces.” The basement at Powell House gets the best Internet reception, and I find a good spot standing by the copy machine in front of the office supplies. From there, I speak with Friends in Rochester and New York City and Connecticut. I lose my Internet connection and get kicked off the call three times, but we still manage to do some good work together.

 

October 6-8

After one night of sleep at home, it’s off to New Jersey, where I jump into Gabi’s car at the train station and we immediately take off for Lake Chautauqua, stopping at a Sonic in Birmingham to pick up Robin Mohr, whose family is mid-drive from Philadelphia to Rochester—the fruits of my earlier work as mission control. At a house on Lake Chautauqua, we meet Jane and Max Carter (who’ve driven up from North Carolina) and the Friends of Buffalo meeting (who’ve all driven down from Buffalo), though not before driving on a road so small we thought it might be a sidewalk and then wandering aimlessly through a neighborhood of houses looking for an address that turned out not to exist—ah, typos.

We’re here for a QuED Day—Quaker Exploration and Discourse—a series Gabi Savory Bailey and I have been facilitating once a month for all of 2017. Buffalo meeting agreed to host the day as part of their monthly meeting’s retreat. QuED Days are opportunities for the sharing of testimonies and informal connections, and the only thing they all have in common is the format—three speakers, Q&A, and unstructured time to do as Spirit leads. We livestream the talks on Facebook, and they’ve been watched all over the world by Quakers and non-Quakers alike.

Sharing ministry through Facebook to viewers you can’t see is…well, it’s bizarre. Because it’s not only about not seeing them; you also can’t feel them. You don’t have a sense of how your message is being received. But our three speakers are outstanding. Jane talks of visiting with and knowing the people of Palestine; Max talks of Friends’ imperfect work through history; Robin talks about the virtue of compromise. In the afternoon, we go for walks together and stop to buy apple cider doughnuts from an Amish farmer, then return to sit and chat on the porch. At one point, on the way to the bathroom, I pass a Friend who’s working alone on his laptop. He says, “I have a presentation to give tomorrow, and after hearing this morning’s speakers, I realized my approach was too single-minded; I have to make space for other people’s perspectives.” Ripples. I love ripples.

Gabi and I leave at 4pm, and she drives (and I ride) all the way back to New Jersey that night. We arrive a little after midnight. Her husband and children are at Powell House, so the place is empty. I crash in her little boy’s bed and sleep solidly.

 

October 8

We wouldn’t have had to drive all the way back last night if it weren’t for the fact that I have a commitment to give a report this afternoon. So by 8am, I’m on a train back into the city. By the time I arrive at Fifteenth Street—my home meeting—I’m tired and in need of a shower, and I look it. But this report matters.

I carry a travel minute from my local meeting, and that minute ties me and the ministry I carry to that meeting. Most of the regular spiritual support and accountability comes from my support committee—a small group of three Friends that’s a committee under the care of another committee of my meeting—but twice a year, I report back to the entire body. I share with them three or four major themes and also submit a detailed written report. They’re good to me. They’re curious. They receive the report and thank me for my work. It’s very hard to stay in relationship with your home meeting when you’re away most of the time. Fifteenth Street is my Quaker meeting—the first one I ever attended, the one that accepted me into membership, the one that “raised” me—and for that reason, they’re family.

 

October 11-15

To North Carolina!

This is my first journey as part of the Friends World Committee for Consultation Section of the Americas Traveling Ministry Corps. The corps is a brand-new concept, and this is its first year. There are seven of us—four English speakers and three Spanish speakers—and we are supported by a working group and sent to visit Friends who have invited us to come. The group that invited me this time is Winston-Salem meeting, a pastoral Quaker church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, but arrangements have been made for me to make a variety of other visits while I’m down there. I’m not completely sure where I’m sleeping each night, which makes me nervous, but I try to reassure myself that that’s just my own tendency to over-plan.

On the way down, my first Greyhound kicks me off unexpectedly in Richmond, Virginia in the middle of the night. I am perfectly safe in the bus station, but it’s two o’clock in the morning. They inform me that I will transfer to a new bus, boarding at 5am. I’ve been stranded in this station before. I resolve to never to take another Greyhound that passes through Richmond.

I board my next bus without incident, and we’re delayed somewhere in North Carolina—I’m not really sure where we are—when the police have to be called to arrest the woman in the seat in front of me for semi-mysterious reasons. Then, two stops before mine, the bus breaks down on the side of the road. We’re leaking fuel, so we’re immediately evacuated, which means we’re standing by the side of the highway.

We receive essentially no communication from the driver except that we’ll have to wait—for what, I’m not sure. A couple folks try their luck hitchhiking. But it’s warm and sunny and there’s a large grassy expanse, and I’m tired, so I—and a number of others—stretch out to take naps. This is the sort of experience that ministry has taught me not to worry about. There’s no immediate threat of actual harm, so everything’s fine.

A few hours later, there’s still no threat of harm, but this has become less fun. It’s getting cold, and we’re hungry, and apparently Greyhound is not sending another bus until they’re completely sure they can’t fix this one. That’s when Lindy shows up. She drove by a little while ago, she says, and she saw us all sitting there and couldn’t not help. She delivers bottles of water and snacks, then leaves for half an hour and returns with twenty pepperoni pizzas!

I ask her why she’s doing this, and she tells me, “I just couldn’t drive by. I try to always put a little love and kindness in the world whenever I can. Because when people don’t have love and hope, all they’re left with is fear, and that’s where hate comes from.”

Kathleen Wooten shared something on Twitter once—“don’t tweet about the ministry, tweet the ministry”—so I take photos of Lindy and photos of the pizza and post the whole thing on Facebook, along with her words. Today I am the recipient of ministry.

The next few days, I dip in and out of my comfort zone. I do indeed find a place to sleep each night. I take my first Lyft when I find myself stranded forty miles from where I’m staying, and I find myself saying a strange little prayer: “Thank you, God, that I have an iPhone and can download this app.” I meet Friends for coffee and tour Friends’ churches and meet new Friends at Guilford College and spend an hour sitting with a student who asks me, “How do I know if I’m being called into ministry?” I also have a chance to sit with an elder I’ve never met before, and he names for me Truths—quite personal things—that are challenging and comforting and change the way I look at my own next steps, and I’m extraordinarily grateful for this man and his faithfulness.

That same night, from the bedroom of a house where I’ve never been before, I take a break from my trip to facilitate a videoconference on “Reinterpreting Traditions in the Light.”

Then it’s off to Winston-Salem, where I meet some of the friendliest and funniest Quakers I’ve ever seen, and we talk about how faithfulness is more like a roller coaster than a straight and narrow path, and then I’m back on a bus to New York. (It’s delayed, but I make it.)

 

October 17-20

It’s amazing how much emailing ministry seems to require. I also take some time to sleep and watch silly TV. I meet with my support committee, and I share with them what I heard from the elder in North Carolina, and we talk once again about money. (How are we going to make sure you’re supported?) A Skype call the next day—discernment with an evangelical Friend about an opportunity for the two of us to work together on something—and a Zoom call with a group to discuss Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order. (I run a book group on Facebook that’s reading this together. There are 97 of us from I-don’t-even-know-how-many-anymore yearly meetings around the world and across all the branches of Friends.)

In the next few days, phone calls and follow-ups.

 

October 21-22

Saturday morning, I travel downtown to the apartment of a Friend I’ve never met before so we can drive together to a meeting about ninety minutes to the north where I will facilitate a day-long meeting retreat on discernment. The day doesn’t go as well as I would have wished. It’s fine—just not extraordinary—my own work isn’t extraordinary. For the most part, I’ve gotten past the point of chastising myself for less-than-stellar work, provided I was faithful and did my best. But it does seem like reason to reflect. Is this a commitment that I should have said “no” to?

At the end of the meeting retreat, a Friend from New England Yearly Meeting picks me up and drives me to Massachusetts. One thing I’ve learned when traveling in the ministry is that often, what comes out of trips is not at all what we would expect or plan. This is one such moment. I met this particular Friend in August, when I attended New England Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions, as I’ve done for the past several years. We shared a home group. As a result of this contact, he invited me to present to his quarterly meeting on the subject of outreach and social media. When we arrive, I’m delighted but not terribly surprised to discover that I already know many of the Friends gathered. I’m delighted and surprised by the presence of s’mores.

The next day following worship, I have a full hour to present on the topic at hand, and I revel in such an abundance of time. I explain the work thoroughly, painting in detail the potential of a strong social media strategy embedded in an overall commitment to visibility and the health of the local meeting. It’s another of those moments when I don’t know what might come out of this gathering that will ultimately nurture many more than the people who are physically there. The group is eager and interested and open to trying new things.

When the presentation is over, I find a mattress in the First Day School room and curl up to sleep until it’s time to go to the bus station.

 

October 23

In the early morning, I’m lying in bed checking email on my phone when something startling appears in the inbox. I squeal and dash out to the kitchen, where one of my roommates (there are two of them, a married couple, a social worker and an artificial intelligence programmer) is blearily making coffee.

“I’m going to Tanzania!”

To her credit, she wakes up immediately and puts the coffeepot down and wants to hear everything. I’ve been selected as a delegate to attend the World Council of Churches’ upcoming Conference on World Mission and Evangelism…in Tanzania…in March. I’d known that I’d been nominated, but the person who’d nominated me had done so with the proviso that she was almost certain I wouldn’t be chosen. I know nothing about the World Council of Churches, or for that matter Tanzania, and my excitement is all tangled up with mental questions about things like visas and finances and the yellow fever vaccine. Still, this is worth celebrating. I’ll figure out the details later.

 

October 26-28

In July, I’d been sort-of-accidentally nominated to the Friends United Meeting general board. Sort-of-accidentally in that my name appeared on the consent agenda at yearly meeting sessions without my remembering having ever agreed to join the board—and for that matter, no one on the nominating committee remembered asking me. We decided to call it a God typo and move forward anyway.

This weekend is my first meeting as a board member, but I can’t go straight to Indiana because first I have to go to Baltimore; I’ve been invited to present on the Social Media Ads Experiment to the Friends General Conference central committee. I carpool down with a good friend and, upon arrival, enjoy a lovely dinner. I have twenty-five minutes to present what I had an hour to do in Massachusetts, but nevertheless it feels right, and again, the message is all about potential. What can happen if we are open to experiments? God’s imagination is so much bigger than ours…

I wish I could stay to answer individual questions, but a local Friend has volunteered to drive me to a hotel near the Baltimore airport, from which I can catch an airport shuttle at 3am. I fly to Charlotte first and then to Dayton, and another local Friend (God bless local Friends) picks me up there and drives me to the board meeting in Richmond, Indiana. I’ve already missed the first day, so I go straight to the meetingroom where work is in session. They have coffee. Yay.

Not for the first time, I’m amazed by the ministries connected with Friends United Meeting, everything from clean water for villages to financial health of yearly meetings to education for Kenyan girls. Also not for the first time, I’m grateful to be a member of a blended yearly meeting, affiliated with both Friends General Conference and Friends United Meeting. Sometimes stretching to keep a hand in both worlds makes me feel a bit like Gumby, but for the most part I’m just grateful to know so many members of the wider family of Friends.

I understand us—all of us—to be part of the same covenant, and just like a family, we might not always like each other much (or even know one another well), but nevertheless, we’re connected, even in those moments when we might prefer not to be.

Eden Grace and I talk about my upcoming trip to Tanzania—she’s Friends United Meeting’s Global Ministries Director—and she asks me what else I might feel led to do as long as I’m in Africa. Immediately I say, “I want to go to the shepherds’ school!” This is a ministry I heard about in Kansas in July, at the Friends United Meeting triennial. The Samburu people of rural Kenya are semi-nomadic shepherds, and many of the children are responsible for watching the family’s animals during the day. So Samburu Quakers started a school for shepherds, which meets after dark. They provide elementary-level education, and the whole community takes turns walking the children home late at night. Eden says this might be possible but reminds me that there’s no plumbing, no roads, no electricity…then she asks me if I’d be willing to take photos and video while I’m there. I wonder about that one for a minute, but apparently there are cell towers, and you can charge your phone on a car battery, so there won’t be any toilets, but I’ll still have access to Facebook.

 

October 30

Home again, I have a videoconference with Chris Venables in Britain Yearly Meeting. He’s terrific. He’s on staff over there and works with the whole yearly meeting on young adult inclusion. We’ve spoken a few times and emailed on occasion, in the spirit of colleagues, and he asks me—“Would you come to London on your way home from Africa? I mean, you’ll have to fly through Europe anyway…” It’s not really a surprising suggestion; Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting have accessed my blog almost as many times as Friends in the U.S. I’m thrilled by the possibility of following up with that community.

So suddenly we’re looking at possibly an up-to-six-weeks trip, with Samburu and then Tanzania and then London and then Indiana (because I’ll be bumping up against the next Friends United Meeting board meeting.) I recognize intellectually that this is, in concept, a Potentially Scary Thing, but I decide to be excited instead.

 

November

I’m going to fast forward a bit. November includes much of the same…emails, Facebook group, working with individual Friends, speaking to groups of Friends, traveling, gatherings, buses, trains…frankly, by now, you get the basic idea.

But the pace is much slower. October was the most packed-full month I’ve had in a long time, to the extent that it stopped being fun being so busy. Ultimately, that kind of pace is unhealthy for the minister and the ministry. So in November, I commit to making space for self-care. Long walks. Better food. Plenty of sleep. Virtual Lunches—human connection with good friends for an hour or so, by video conference, around lunch time, because we all have to eat lunch anyway, right?

 

Next

In addition to Samburu/Tanzania/London/Indiana, here’s what I know is coming up:

For twelve days at the beginning of December, I’ll be on vacation somewhere warm, and I’ll have my phone in airplane mode—completely off the grid, a genuine Sabbath. After that, Christmas with family and New Years with Friends.

I’m in conversation with a large Quaker organization about institutional support for the next steps of the social media ad work. So if you’re still hoping there will be an opportunity for your meeting to participate in that—there will be.

I hope to attend the Beyond Diversity 101 retreat at Pendle Hill in January, because although I haven’t always known this, I now understand that if I don’t have anti-racism tools in my toolbox, the ministry will always be potentially damaging, or at the very least, woefully incomplete.  (I’m sorry it took me so long to figure that out.)

I’ll continue the Facebook reading group for Lloyd Lee Wilson’s Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order and will start a second one in the new year for Mathilda Navias’ Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches. There are more on the horizon, but I’m not quite ready to make a public commitment yet.

And I’m chewing on what will likely be a massive project, the details of which are still pretty hazy. It’s one thing to publish the kind of articles that I did in the series “Building a Culture of Multiage Inclusion,” but it’s quite another to walk alongside Friends who are willing, even eager, to put these ideas into practice. I’m working on finding the right ways to do this, in a manner that’s accessible to anyone who’s interested, including individuals, small groups, local meetings, and larger organizations.

So that’s where I’ve been—and where I think I’m going! As always, enjoying the adventure.

And now I’m curious–where have you been?

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Nurtured and Nurturing

We’ve covered the first five questions of seeker-oriented outreach:

1) How can we make sure that seekers know Quakers exist?

2) How can we help seekers find the local Quaker meeting?

3) How can we make it easy for seekers to decide to visit the meeting?

4) How can we make sure that the first visit helps seekers decide to come back?

5) How can we help new attenders to develop a sense of belonging?

Now, let’s take a look at the sixth and final question:

6) How can we provide long-term spiritual nurture to all of our members/attenders and create opportunities for each Friend to provide that long-term spiritual nurture to others?

When we consider outreach from the perspective of the seeker, the journey is not complete until we have reached this step. The new member of the meeting is fully integrated, which means not only receiving long-term spiritual nurture but working to provide that same spiritual nurture to others.

How will we know we’re doing this?

The meeting provides religious education opportunities for people of all ages. Meetings find a variety of ways of doing this. Some have religious education as a whole, often based in storytelling, with all ages working together to explore Quaker faith and practice. Others have regular First Day School for children and/or teens and a separate series for adult religious education.

In providing religious education—especially for adults—we often assume that those gathered have a stronger knowledge base than they actually do. If your meeting hasn’t talked within the last year about the basics—expectant listening in worship, individual and corporate discernment, why Quaker business process works the way it does, and how our faith guides our everyday lives—then it’s time to do it again.

Friends speak often about how their faith influences all areas of their daily lives. And speaking of how faith guides our everyday lives—there’s really no need to wait for religious education opportunities to have that conversation. Are Friends brave enough and safe enough during meeting gatherings to share their struggles with listening to God? Do we ask one another for prayers? Do we talk with one another about how Spirit influences our behavior at work, our choices at school, and our relationships with our neighbors? Do we tell each other about our spiritual practices, such as prayer, private worship, walks in the woods, or reading Scripture? Quakerism is an apprenticeship tradition, so speaking about these things on a regular basis is an important part of mutual spiritual nurture.

The meeting prioritizes meeting the needs of parents of young children. All Friends deserve our loving care, but I believe we can only be fully engaged in mutual spiritual nurture when we prioritize the needs of parents, because parenting may be the single most difficult and most vital ministry to which a person can be called.

Friends often say things like “if we nurture the parents, we nurture the kids.” That’s absolutely true. But we should also remember that parents are not only extensions of their children. They themselves are valuable and whole presences in our communities, and they themselves deserve particular attention and nurture during the years when they’re doing the extremely difficult work of raising kids.

Friends are familiar with each other’s gifts, and committee service is rooted in this. Many Friends’ meetings are beginning to recognize the importance of understanding spiritual gifts. Each of us has gifts—things we do uniquely well—and these gifts come from God and are to be used for the benefit of the broader community. In this way, we are designed to be mutually dependent.

Sometimes it can be hard to see others’ gifts. We might be so blinded by our frustration with someone (he never makes the coffee right!) that we can’t notice the wonderful things about them (he puts in too many coffee grinds because he’s distracted, listening to Friends who have gone to him for comfort. Hmm…maybe he should be serving on the pastoral care committee instead of the social hour committee?)

It can also be difficult to see our own gifts. The tasks we find particularly easy or joy-full are often strong indicators of spiritual gifts, but it can be tempting to undervalue our own contributions in those particular areas exactly because we find the task relatively easy or fun!

Meetings can tackle these problems by building a practice of intentionally noticing and affirming the spiritual gifts of one another and especially by emphasizing this in the work of nominating committees.

Children and teens are welcomed and supported as participants in meeting functions. Though we don’t always do it perfectly, we generally make the assumption that our eventual goal for adults is full participation in all meeting functions (to the degree that they are led). But sometimes we don’t think that way about children or teenagers. Sometimes we figure that as long as there’s a First Day School program—and as long as we tell the teens “you’re always welcome in meeting”—that the job there is through. Instead, I challenge us to assume that the goal for children and teens is also to be able to participate meaningfully in all meeting functions (to the degree that they are led)—social gatherings, committee meetings, business, worship, work days, and so forth.  We must provide the necessary support that makes this possible. (That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be separate programming for children and teens, but if a child or teen does feel led to participate with the broader community, this should always be a highly-supported option.)

This is the last of this series of blog entries. The seeker has proceeded from discovering that Quakers exist to finding a local meeting to deciding to visit to deciding to come back to developing a sense of belonging to becoming a fully integrated, nurtured-and-nurturing member of the meeting community. Only now can we say that the work of outreach to the seeker is complete.

Is your meeting doing these five things so that all Friends received long-term spiritual nurture to all of our members/attenders and create opportunities for each Friend to provide that long-term spiritual nurture to others? If not, might you personally feel called to step up in any of these ways?

And again for the gratitude challenge—I talked in the first blog of this series about the ways in which outreach has many parts and how each of us has gifts and callings to participate somewhere in the broader definition of outreach. Are there people in your meeting who provide religious education opportunities, speak about how their faith guides their everyday lives, meet the needs of parents, pay attention to Friends’ gifts, or welcome and support children and teens as full participants in the meeting? If so, can you set an intention for yourself to notice their work and thank them for their service sometime in the next week?

A Sense of Belonging

We’ve covered the first four questions of seeker-oriented outreach:

1) How can we make sure that seekers know Quakers exist?

2) How can we help seekers find the local Quaker meeting?

3) How can we make it easy for seekers to decide to visit the meeting?

4) How can we make sure that the first visit helps seekers decide to come back?

Now, let’s take a look at the fifth question:

5) How can we help new attenders to develop a sense of belonging?

By “new attenders,” I’m talking about people who have been to the meeting at least a couple of times but haven’t been around for more than six months or so. It’s a critical time—the person has enough interest in the community to stick around but hasn’t gotten to the point of making a commitment yet. Spirit is working on them; we are, too, whether we know it or not.

It’s worth noting that for many of us, the definition of “outreach”—and the scope of outreach and advancement committees—generally ends here. The person has come through the door and has been welcomed, and now the next steps are the responsibility of somebody else—often a rather vaguely defined “somebody else.” But from the perspective of the seeker, the journey with Friends has barely begun. We are absolutely still introducing our community to the seeker, and the seeker to our community. We might as well do so with intention.

How can we help new attenders make the transition from “I’m a visitor here” to “I feel like I belong?”

 

Newcomers are invited to participate in formal or informal small groups. Sociological research tells us that it’s easier to enter a group in formation than it is to enter an established group. Established groups have unwritten rules and norms; it’s easy for the newcomer to accidentally sit in somebody else’s seat or bring the wrong thing for snack or ask questions at an inappropriate time, and for that reason, the newcomer feels awkward. A group—especially a small group—that is just being established is a lot easier to enter because the newcomer can be part of the creation of the social norms.

Ideally, even a small or medium-sized meeting would start some kind of new small group activity at least once a year—gardening groups, book clubs, Friendly Eights, parenting worship groups, neighborhood clean-up teams, just about anything. A large meeting might have multiple small groups running and start new ones every three to six months. There’s no reason why any small group activity needs to be considered permanent, and in fact, implied permanence makes it a lot harder to be agile as conditions change; start new groups with the expectation that they’ll last for a certain length of time (six months or a year) and then maybe continue, if there’s still a lot of excitement for it.

Committees can function as small groups for new attenders, but not easily. The work of a standing committee tends to be established, with little room for the new attender to be involved in inventing or re-inventing things. Working groups or task groups (relatively new and temporary by nature) might be better.

 

The whole meeting engages regularly in fun multigenerational activities. Some Quaker meetings do this very well, but for many of us, this is a challenge. “Multigenerational” sometimes ends up being interpreted as meaning “something for the little kids that the grown-ups tolerate.” And many times, adults without children simply don’t participate in any meeting activity where the primary purpose is fun. For some adults, games and singing and other types of silliness are pretty far out of the comfort zone.

The thing is, having fun together—especially fun that includes children, teens, young adults, middle-aged adults, and senior citizens—brings a community together in ways that nothing else does. For many people, social time is where trust-building happens. (If you’re someone who prefers serving on committees or participating in business meeting over unstructured social times, you’re probably someone who most naturally experiences trust-building by working together. It’s important to know that many people most naturally experience trust-building by playing together.)

Even neuroscience supports the idea of community play. Laughter stimulates chemicals in our brains that cause us to experience a feeling of bondedness to the people we laugh with.

If we are committed to being in deep, spiritual community, we need to ask ourselves whether that commitment includes the commitment to making time for fun.

 

Quaker jargon is explained briefly and clearly as it is used in all meeting activities. We’ve all had the experience of sitting through twenty minutes of announcements at the end of meeting. What we might not remember is what that experience is like when the twenty minutes of announcements are incomprehensible because they’re all in Quakerese. It can take practice to learn how to translate as we go along, but it’s important. The simple act of explaining what we’re talking about changes the feel of things from coded and exclusionary to inviting and open.

 

The meeting responds positively and supportively to newcomers’ suggestions. In other posts, I’ve used the term “permission-giving culture.” In other words, the default answer to newcomers’ ideas is “yes, and how can I help?” unless there is a compelling, Spirit-led reason to say otherwise. Newcomers develop a sense of belonging when their ideas are taken seriously and when they experience the power to make a difference in the community. This is newcomers of all ages, by the way—including teens and kids.

 

Worship is deep and holds a central place in the meeting, and all ages are welcome. For many meetings, worship absolutely holds a central place. But there are some meetings in which this can be questioned. Does your meeting have multiple Friends who serve on committees or lead activities but who are physically present in meeting for worship less than twice a month? If so, you might consider whether your meeting community as a whole is valuing worship as central to what you do together.

It’s also worth asking whether all ages—indeed, all Friends and seekers—are truly welcome, recalling that there’s a difference between “I am tolerated here” and “I belong here.” One of my favorite meeting rooms is in Ithaca, in central New York. There are probably over a hundred places to sit in the room, and no more than any two or three of them are the same. There are chairs of varying heights, chairs with backs and without, chairs with arms and without, short benches, long benches, benches with cushions and benches without, a gymnastics mat in a corner on the floor, and pillows and blankets stacked against the wall for anyone who needs to make their place softer or warmer. There’s a place for everyone (including squirmy sitters like me, with legs that are several inches too short to reach the floor in a standard chair).

It might not be possible for your meeting to build a space with a hundred different seats, but ask yourself—does our worship space have physical indications (variety of seats, blankets, soft baby toys, signs) that indicate that all are welcome in the space? Does our behavior (smiles of greeting, patience with normal baby noises, flexibility in meeting times, commitment to being present) reinforce the idea that meeting for worship is central to our meeting and open to all?

Is your meeting doing these five things to help new attenders to develop a sense of belonging? If not, might you personally feel called to step up in any of these ways?

And again for the gratitude challenge—I talked in the first blog of this series about the ways in which outreach has many parts and how each of us has gifts and callings to participate somewhere in the broader definition of outreach. Are there people in your meeting who organize small groups, who facilitate fun multigenerational activities, who explain Quaker jargon, who respond positively and supportively to new ideas, or who work toward helping worship be deep and open to all ages? If so, can you set an intention for yourself to notice their work and thank them for their service sometime in the next week?

Will They Come Back?

We’ve covered the first three questions of seeker-oriented outreach:

1) How can we make sure that seekers know Quakers exist?

2) How can we help seekers find the local Quaker meeting?

3) How can we make it easy for seekers to decide to visit the meeting?

Now, let’s take a look at the fourth question:

4) How can we make sure that the first visit helps seekers decide to come back?

Of course, we can’t really make sure that the first visit helps seekers decide to come back. We all know that ultimately, the decision to come back to another Quaker meeting is down to what Spirit does with someone during their first Quaker meeting. If it’s not the right spiritual home for someone, they probably won’t come back, at least not more than a few times. And we wouldn’t want them to.

But it is possible for us, as Quakers, to get in the way of someone coming back. There are ways in which we can be stumbling blocks, and there are ways in which we can greet seekers and offer the warmth and support they need to be able to come back—if it’s right for them.

I’d like to mention four specific ways in which we can offer this warmth and support.

Friends personally welcome visitors of all ages, warmly but not overwhelmingly. It’s a tricky balance. Some new visitors are extremely outgoing and would hope for lots of people to come up, check in, say hello, and offer welcome. Others are shy or uncertain and prefer to be greeted but then essentially left alone. What’s the “right” way to go about this?

One way is to choose greeters who are good at reading signals. Some of us are simply more gifted than others at reading body language and making people feel comfortable. If your meeting is small, this might be a function for the whole meeting, but you probably know which Friends are especially good at it—can you name those Friends and encourage them to continue doing the work, even informally?

It’s also important to have someone who’s comfortable greeting young people. Children should have their own greeting, and if the child is quite young, it’s helpful to bend down to be at eye level. Might it even be possible to ask a child or teen who is particularly good at befriending people to take responsibility for greeting and welcoming visiting children or teens?

The building contains dedicated (separate) spaces for children and for teens, and all ages mix in social times and worship times. There are a few meetings that meet in rental spaces where this is impossible, but most meetings can at least swing a couple of small dedicated spaces. Ideally, you need a space for children preschool age and younger, a space for elementary-age kids, and a space for teens, even if you don’t have any regularly attending Friends in these age ranges. There’s a real difference between “we don’t have any place for you, but we’re willing to make one” and “we have a place already prepared specifically for you.”

It’s important to visiting families, though, that the age spaces are flexible and that all age groups mix. Parents must be welcome in childcare areas, especially when young ones are first visiting, and it’s important that children are equally welcome in the worship space. (This welcome can be clearly indicated with signs—CHILDREN ARE WELCOME IN WORSHIP—and with physical resources to make worship easier for young ones, such as small chairs, soft toys, and mats to sit on the floor.) Finally, social hour should be organized so that the age groups mix easily, with play areas visible to parents and a space where teens can flow easily between the general gathering area and a place of their own.

Simple information about Quakerism is easy for visitors to find and take home. Almost all meetings have some version of take-home information, but somebody has to maintain this, even if the work of doing so isn’t glamorous. Are the stacks tidy? Do the handouts have a modern design, and does someone replenish the photocopies regularly? Are there coloring pages for children along with the materials for adults? Is it obvious which resources should remain at the meetinghouse and which can be taken home for free?

Friends follow up with visitors by phone or email within a few days of the first visit. Some visitors—especially shy ones—might find this kind of foll0w-up intimidating, but they tend to self-select. If visitors are invited and encouraged to write their contact information in a book, they will decide for themselves whether to offer an email address, a phone number, a mailing address, or none of the above. Within days, they should receive a friendly follow-up—“I’m so glad you came. Here are a couple of upcoming events you might want to know about . . . can I answer any questions for you?” This kind of contact makes a visitor feel seen.

Is your meeting doing these four things to help visitors decide to come back after a first visit? If not, might you personally feel called to step up in any of these ways?

And again for the gratitude challenge—I talked in the first blog of this series about the ways in which outreach has many parts and how each of us has gifts and callings to participate somewhere in the broader definition of outreach. Are there people in your meeting who make it a point to welcome visitors of all ages, who maintain dedicated spaces for young people, who make photocopies or straighten the piles for take-home information, or who follow up with visitors by phone or email? If so, can you set an intention for yourself to notice their work and thank them for their service sometime in the next week?

The Path to Visiting

So far in this series, I’ve covered the first two questions of seeker-oriented outreach:

1) How can we make sure that seekers know Quakers exist?

2) How can we help seekers find the local Quaker meeting?

Now, let’s take a look at the third question:

3) How can we make it easy for seekers to decide to visit the meeting?

This is the step in which the seeker, who has been considering the possibility of visiting the meeting, makes the mental shift from “maybe sometime” to “I’m going next Sunday.” This is a step that we never see, but it’s also a crucial turning point and a step that can be very difficult to take.

How can we make it just a little bit easier?

The meeting’s website is aesthetically appealing with photos of diverse people and contains clear, welcoming information about Quakerism, meeting times, and meeting locations. I said before that having a bare-bones website is better than not having a website at all, and that’s still true. If just having something is as much as you can manage, then by all means, do what you can manage. But when you can, go back to the website and punch it up a little. Start posting great photos. Add sections specifically for newcomers. If no one in your meeting has the necessary skills to build a website that is slick and modern, hire somebody. Especially for younger generations, a well-designed website is a sign of relevance to the modern world.

The meeting’s website and Facebook page are frequently updated, and messages are answered promptly. Make sure that someone in your meeting is committed to updating, updating, and updating. If possible, schedule between three and ten Facebook posts every week, with as many photos and videos included as possible—visual posts play much better than text-only on social media. For the website, change the events and announcements at least every two weeks, and once a week is better. This way, the potential visitor browsing your website can think, Oh, look—there’s a potluck three days from now. Maybe that’s the right time to give this a try. It also helps a lot if messages from potential visitors—whether they come in through the website, the Facebook page, or a phone number—are answered quickly, completely, and warmly.

Friends carry multi-age flyers/materials when they do service/witness in the community. This one will almost certainly take a couple of Friends working together, because the Friend who’s inclined to do service and witness activities in the community might not be the same Friend who’s inclined to produce and make photocopies of outreach materials. Let different Friends with different gifts work together to make sure that every time a Friend does a public event in the community, that Friend has take-home materials about the meeting at the ready for anyone who might be interested. It’s one thing for the potential visitor to attend a Friends’ activity in the local library and be intrigued; it’s another for that potential visitor to be able to carry home a pamphlet with the meetinghouse address on it and a page of Quaker stickers for his preschooler.

The meetinghouse is accessible to those with mobility challenges and is visibly intergenerational. The seeker who uses a wheelchair is very unlikely to decide to visit if she sees four steps leading up to the front door. Install ramps and smooth pathways to make the meetinghouse as physically accessible as possible. If you use microphones in meeting for worship, say so on your website so that those who have trouble hearing know that they’ll be able to participate. And if the meeting has children, make that obvious from the outside as well. A swing set or toddler slide in the yard indicates that you’re family-friendly. So does a banner hand-painted by kids.

Is your meeting doing these four things to help seekers find their local Quaker meeting? If not, might you personally feel called to step up in any of these ways?

One more time, the gratitude challenge. I talked in the first blog of this series about the ways in which outreach has many parts and how each of us has gifts and callings to participate somewhere in the broader definition of outreach. Are there people in your meeting who have designed and maintained a really amazing website, who update your Facebook page frequently, who carry Quaker materials into the community, or who have helped to make the meetinghouse more accessible and family-friendly? If so, can you make it a point to notice their work and thank them for their service sometime in the next week?

Helping Seekers Find Us

In my last blog entry, I covered the first question of seeker-oriented outreach:

1) How can we make sure that seekers know Quakers exist?

Now, let’s take a look at the second question:

2) How can we help seekers find their local Quaker meeting?

Most people, having decided ahead of time that they specifically want to attend a Quaker meeting, could probably manage to locate one that’s somewhere near them. Friends General Conference has a Quaker Finder on their website. Friends World Committee for Consultation keeps a pretty good list, too. And in many areas, Googling “Quakers near me” will come up with something.

But for many seekers, the journey might not be that straightforward. The person might Google “faith communities near me” or might have the idea of searching for a faith community in the back of their mind while going about their ordinary lives—running errands, dropping kids off at school, and scrolling through social media feeds. If we hope to reach seekers engaged in these less active and/or less specific searches, we’re going to have to step things up a little.

How do we know if we’re doing that?

The meeting has a website. You don’t have to have the Sistine Chapel of websites, but you do need something that can pop up in a Google search. A bare-bones website might include the name of your meeting; a couple of pictures; the physical address of the place of worship; time of worship; whether you have programs for infants, toddlers, kids, and teens; and an email address and/or phone number where people can ask for more information.

The meeting has a Facebook page and runs social media ads. The majority of people under the age of forty no longer use websites; instead, their exclusive source of information and communications is social media. Instagram, Twitter, and SnapChat are all popular, but Facebook has the largest user base by far, with 68% of people in the United States having a Facebook account and two thirds of those people checking Facebook every day. Your meeting absolutely needs a Facebook presence, and social media ads are a good idea too—not to mention incredibly inexpensive and a lot easier to manage than you might think.

The meetinghouse has clear signage, visible from the road. Some meetings have rental spaces and can’t manage this for that reason, but legal requirements are (in my opinion) the only good reason not to have clear, large signage. At a minimum, the sign should say the word Quaker and should list the worship time or times, and that much must be visible to a car driving by. In smaller print, you might list options for children. If yours is a welcoming and affirming congregation, that’s good to put on your sign, too.

Friends do regular service and witness in the neighborhood community, outside the meetinghouse walls. Again, this is something that I’ve talked about in the past. It’s a huge part of expanding our definition of outreach. If those living in our communities never see us except when we’re walking in and out of our place of worship, then we give the impression of being insular and self-involved, no matter how much service and witness we might be doing in the broader world. Do we show up for community functions like parades and street fairs? Do we throw fundraisers for local schools, community centers, and food pantries? Do we clean up public parks or gardens? And do we do these things while wearing T-shirts, hats, or buttons that say QUAKER?

Is your meeting doing these four things to help seekers find their local Quaker meeting? If not, might you personally feel called to step up in any of these ways?

I’d like to offer one more challenge, too. I talked in the first blog of this series about the ways in which outreach has many parts and how each of us has gifts and callings to participate somewhere in the broader definition of outreach. Are there people in your meeting who created the meeting website, who maintain the meeting’s social media presence, who ordered/designed the signage, or who do regular service and witness in the neighborhood community? If so, can you make it a point to notice their work and thank them for their service sometime in the next week?

Being Visible

When we look at outreach from the seeker’s perspective, the first step is, “I know that Quakers exist.” This is no small thing. A fair portion of the world genuinely believes that we are extinct; this includes a number of history teachers and, apparently, Snapple. (A few years ago, Snapple printed a “fact” on their bottle caps that read, By 1900, there were no more Quakers, a once dominant group on Nantucket.)

One of our problems is that there aren’t very many of us. Estimates indicate that there are around 400,000 Quakers in the world today. (We’re not so good at standing still to be counted.) In a world of eight billion people, that’s .005% of the world’s population. For every person in the world to personally know a Quaker, we’d each have to go make 20,000 friends. That might be ever-so-slightly out of reach.

But here’s what we can do: we can be visible. Unlike some other religions, Quakers are not instantly recognizable. (Well, most Quakers aren’t—there are still a few of us who dress Plain.) This isn’t about public evangelism; it’s just about public visibility. It’s about showing a human being (ourselves), labeled “Quaker” in some way.

I do it with a bracelet. I wear a black rubber bracelet that says Quaker every time I leave the house. Never yet has anyone asked me about it, but occasionally I catch people staring at it in the grocery store line or on the subway. And I figure that once they’ve seen it, that’s enough—that’s the goal. Now this person knows that there are people today who call themselves Quakers.

These bracelets aren’t sold anywhere, as far as I know. I ordered two hundred of them last August, and I’ve been giving them away to other Quakers, everywhere I go, for a year. I recently ran out—hooray! More are coming.

If a bracelet’s not your style, there are other ways to make this happen. Last spring, my friend Jennifer Swann and I co-facilitated an outreach workshop, and we asked participants to come up with a list of ways to be visibly Quaker. Here’s some of what they suggested:

– Quaker swag (bracelets, hats, T-shirts)

– Bumper stickers

– Social media posts and Quaker memes shared on your personal social media accounts

– A Quaker quotation in the signature of your emails

– Quaker yard sign

– Quaker books on your bookshelves at your office

– Not avoiding the word “Quaker” when it comes up naturally in conversations

That last one deserves a little explanation. What we meant was a scenario like this:

NEIGHBOR: Hey, how you doing?

QUAKER: Good. How are you?

NEIGHBOR: Oh, great. You got plans for the weekend?

QUAKER: Yeah. I’m going to a conference.

NEIGHBOR: Cool. Have a great time.

Now, let’s add one extra word:

NEIGHBOR: Hey, how you doing?

QUAKER: Good. How are you?

NEIGHBOR: Oh, great. You got plans for the weekend?

QUAKER: Yeah. I’m going to a Quaker conference.

NEIGHBOR: Cool. Have a great time.

Did you see it? Chances are good that adding that one word isn’t actually going to change the flow of the conversation—although it could, if the person was curious and decided to follow up, and that might not be a bad thing. But really, the only difference is, the neighbor now knows you’re a Quaker. Before, the neighbor might not have known that. It’s not about evangelizing. It’s just about making sure the neighbor knows that Quakers are a thing.

In what other ways can we be visible as Quakers?

From Seeker to Quaker

I started seeking a faith community when I was ten years old. I knew exactly what I was looking for. I knew because I knew God; I knew God as a loving being who was beyond requiring specific ceremonies, who spoke to all His children directly, and who grieved when He saw any of His children in pain. (I was also pretty sure that God wasn’t literally male, but it helped me to think of Him with a gender, and I didn’t think He’d mind.)

It took me seventeen years to find Quakers.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know Quakers existed. It’s just that I thought they were something like the Amish. Quakers aren’t out there in theological circles—or, for that matter, in popular culture. We’re out there in the peace activism world, but I wasn’t a peace activist, so I didn’t find us. I can remember many times, especially once I’d graduated from college and become a full-fledged adult, when I wept because I was convinced that I would never find my faith community, that I would simply be alone in my journey with God.

When I finally did come to Quakers, it was a matter of desperation. I’d tried everything else! So even if Quakers did turn out to be Amish, what did I have to lose?

The first meeting I went to was entirely silent, which frankly annoyed me because I didn’t know anything more after the first meeting than I did before it. In the second meeting, someone stood up and quoted George Fox: “There is that of God in everyone.” And that was it. I knew I was home.

In time, what started as overwhelming gratitude (I’ve found you!) turned into serious anger (Where the heck have you been?) and, now, hope (We can do better. We can make sure nobody else ever has to search for us for seventeen years.)

Now, here’s the thing about outreach:

It is everybody’s job.

That’s the kind of statement that always gets some resistance, mostly because we recognize as Friends that we all have different gifts and that not all of us all called to the same things. And this is most certainly true. But outreach isn’t about a single thing. When we try to pull it out—make it the work of a particular committee or define it as a short list of tasks—we end up talking about a small piece of outreach but not actually the entire picture.

Let’s see what happens if turn the question inside out, so it’s not “How do we do outreach?” but instead, “What is the path of the seeker?” What has to happen for the seeker in order to get from person looking for a faith community to integrated member of a Quaker meeting with a strong sense of belonging and purpose?

I think there are six basic steps:

1) I know that Quakers exist.

2) I have found a Quaker meeting in my area.

3) I have decided to visit the meeting.

4) I have visited the meeting and have decided to come back.

5) I have developed a sense of belonging in the first few months of attending.

6) I am experiencing long-term spiritual nurture, and I’m providing this nurture to others as well.

Now the questions for Friends become:

1) How can we make sure that seekers know Quakers exist?

2) How can we help seekers find our local Quaker meeting?

3) How can we make it easy for seekers to decide to visit the meeting?

4) How can we make sure that the first visit helps seekers decide to come back?

5) How can we help new attenders to develop a sense of belonging?

6) How can we provide long-term spiritual nurture to all of our members/attenders and create opportunities for each Friend to provide that long-term spiritual nurture to others?

This is why outreach is everybody’s job. All of us have gifts directly related to at least one of those six steps.

In the next few weeks, my intention is to write about each of these six steps and the various tasks associated with them, as well as to emphasize the ways in which each of us plays a part in this work.

Can you immediately see where your own gifts are in this sequence?

Does it raise up other thoughts or questions?

The Unconditional Yes: A Conversation with God in Many, Many Parts

[Scene One]

Do you trust Me?

Yes.

Do you trust Me?

Of course.

Do you really trust Me?

Okay, I said yes, but now You’re starting to make me nervous.

Will you follow Me?

Where?

Will you follow Me?

Where?

Will you follow Me?

Seriously, I could use some more information.

Okay. I’ll wait. I love you.

 

[Scene Two]

Do you trust Me?

We’ve had this conversation before.

Do you trust Me?

Why do you keep asking me this?

Do you trust Me?

This is freaking me out.

Do you trust Me?

…Yes.

Good. I love you.

 

[Scene Three]

Do you trust Me?

I do. I really do.

Will you follow Me?

Yes. I will.

I love you.

 

[Scene Four]

I need you to do a thing.

What thing?

This thing…

Wait. What?

I know you heard Me.

You’ve made a mistake.

I don’t think so.

I’m not ready for that.

Okay. I’ll wait. I love you.

 

[Scene Five]

Are you doing the thing?

Shhh. I’m pretending You never said anything.

Okay. I love you.

 

[Scene Six]

Are you doing the thing?

No.

Huh. That’s interesting.

I’m not doing the thing.

I know. You just said that.

I’m not doing the thing.

I know. I’m listening.

I can’t do the thing.

…Really?

I can’t do the thing.

Are you sure?

I’m scared to do the thing.

There you go.

Help.

I’m right here. I love you.

 

[Scene Seven]

Hey, look at you! You’re doing the thing!

I know.

How’s it going?

It’s somewhat less horrible than I thought it would be.

I’m proud of you.

Thanks.

I love you.

 

[Scene Eight]

Um…

I’m here.

I screwed up the thing.

I know. I still love you every bit as much.

 

[Scene Nine]

I did the thing!

I know! I saw you!

I did the thing!

Yes, you did! Good job!

That was incredible! That was amazing! I mean, it was really hard, but You helped, and I did it, and now I see that—

I need you to do another thing.

What?

I said I need you to do another thing.

What thing? I just did a thing.

Yes, and now I need you to do another thing.

Well, that’s no fair.

We never talked about “fair.”

…what’s the thing?

This thing…

You’ve got to be kidding!

No, seriously.

I can’t do that thing!

You’re right.

No, I’m literally incapable of doing that thing.

That’s true.

You’re not making very much sense.

I’m going to change you.

Change me?

I’m going to change you, so you can do the thing.

Well…holy crap. That’s not what I expected you to say.

I love you so much.

I love you, too.

 

[Scene Ten]

Hey, just checking in.

Hi.

I love you.

Love you, too.

 

[Scene Eleven]

This is scary! This is so scary! What the heck is happening? Everything’s falling apart! Where are you? Stop stop stop stop stop stop stop! Too much! Too much! Say something! Say something!

I’m changing you. So you can do the thing.

Well, I don’t like it! This is the worst experience of my life!

(weeping)

Please stop it?

I love you.

You’re not acting like it.

 

[Scene Twelve]

I love you.

I’m not speaking to You right now.

Okay.

 

[Scene Thirteen]

Are You still there?

Yes. And I love you.

Okay.

 

[Scene Fourteen]

Wow. That’s a pretty tree.

Thanks.

I’m still mad at you.

Okay.

Is the changing me part over yet?

Not yet.

It’s taking too long.

I know. I love you.

 

[Scene Fifteen]

You’re ready to do the thing.

I know. That happened fast.

You’re going to have to change more later.

I’m going to pretend You didn’t say that, okay?

Have you noticed you’re already doing the thing?

I’m not doing the—oh, wait! You’re right! I already started!

Also, while you’re working on that, I need you to do these other six things.

Is this all written down someplace? Could you send me an email with a Power Point?

I love you so much.

I love you, too.

 

[Scene Sixteen]

Hey, this is fun!

I love to hear you say that.

 

[Scene Seventeen]

Something awful just happened.

I know. I saw.

Is this another changing part?

Sometimes awful things just happen.

Will you make it go away, please?

I’m so sorry. Not this time.

But it tears me apart when people I love are hurting.

Me too. And I really love you.

 

[Scene Eighteen]

How are you doing?

That’s a hard question to answer. I’m inside out and upside down…and I’ve been through things that are harder than I ever thought I’d face…and I’ve done things I never thought I’d ever be able to do…and miracles have happened…and I’m tired but I’m also totally exhilarated. And I’m trying to explain what happened to other people but a lot of them don’t seem to understand.

What do you think happened?

…I’m not sure.

You said you would follow Me.

I barely remember that. Didn’t I say that back in Scene Three?

You said you would follow Me.

I didn’t know you meant all THIS!

I couldn’t tell you everything. You wouldn’t have understood.

You barely told me anything.

I told you as much as I could.

This is the weirdest journey ever.

That’s definitely true.

Also the best.

I’m so glad you think so.

It’s not over, is it?

Not even close. Will you do another thing for me?

Yes.

Getting Ourselves Together

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

 

Cultural Barrier #10: Consistent physical separation of age groups

Why is this a barrier to multiage inclusion?

When I wonder aloud about the physical separation of age groups among Friends—why our children are almost always in one space, our teens in another, our young adults in a third, and everyone else in a fourth—I tend to get one of two answers.

The first answer I get is, “Young people don’t want to be with the adults.” I’d say that this is partly true. Children and teens especially, though sometimes young adults as well, often don’t want to be in the traditionally adult spaces, but I’m not sure it’s because the people in those spaces are adults. I suspect it has a lot more to do with the culture we perpetuate there, a culture that leaves younger people out (because there’s very little play, a bunch of Quaker terms and other words that they don’t understand, a complicated set of rules that’s difficult to figure out, and a failure to rethink how we do things).

It’s worth noting that I almost never hear, “Older people don’t want the younger kids to be with them” or “Older people don’t want to go into the traditionally young-person spaces.” Both of these statements are often true, but we almost never say them out loud. Everything about the way that we age-segregate implies that the space for older adults is the “normal” space, and the spaces for younger people are the special spaces that we create because we are tolerant of the special needs of younger people. This attitude shows up in the way our schedules are written (with stuff for older adults in the main schedule, and notes or addendums being used to show where the younger people will be) and in the way we talk about and organize ourselves (with special committees and working groups for the programs for younger people, but no corresponding special committee or working group for the programs for older people, since that part of the work is done by whatever group is in charge of the program as a whole).

The second common answer to the question, “Why do we physically separate our age groups?” is considerably more meaty and, in my opinion, more meaningful. It has to do with the argument that setting up gatherings for young people only allows young people’s voices to be heard and their concerns addressed.  This is a lot like the separate women’s business meetings in the early days of Quakerism. Back then, segregating women allowed women to have a voice in a way that they could not have if men and women met together, simply because both men and women were trained by the culture they lived in to believe that, and behave as though, women’s voices were less important than men’s. Physically separating the women allowed the women to speak without being squished, intentionally or unintentionally, by either the men or by the women’s own hesitation to speak up in mixed-gender groups.

There’s a lot of value in this argument. A number of times, teens have actually told me, “You can’t have that meeting with all the ages together…none of the teens will talk because it’s too intimidating.” And when teens tell me this, I try to listen and respond accordingly.

With young adults, though, my usual reaction is to try to push them—“You are as much a part of this body as the older Friends are, and your voice should be present in exactly the same way.” Is it genuinely harder for younger adults to speak up in mixed age groups because of the cultural barriers we have to overcome? Yes. Are we speaking through a veil of others’ assumptions about our groundedness, our level of experience, and our ability to understand the situation at hand? Absolutely. But that’s never going to change if we don’t show up in mixed-age groups and keep speaking.

What I try to bear in mind about the women’s meetings analogy is three-fold.

First, the women’s meetings would never have been necessary if Friends’ perspectives weren’t influenced by the culture around them—a culture that said that women were “less than.” Friends might have recognized and stated that Christ could speak through women as readily as through men, but they also recognized their own limitations in being able to reflect that truth in their behavior. Similarly, we must recognize and state that Christ can speak through young people as readily as through older people, and we must recognize our own limitations in being able to reflect that truth in our behavior.

Second, the women’s meetings didn’t last forever. At a certain point in our history, we collectively recognized that we were ready to desegregate our women and our men, and we did so. This did not actually mean that we had all fully gotten to the point of recognizing women and men as absolute equals despite the culture in which we lived (although we sometimes pretend that we’re there, and we’re not). But it did mean that we recognized that we had gotten to the point where segregating the women and the men was causing more harm than good for the body as a whole.

Because—and this is the third point—being segregated in any fashion does cause all of us harm. Sometimes segregation is temporarily necessary for the sake of moving toward genuine equality, but I don’t believe it’s ever the best permanent state. When we are not physically in the same spaces, we don’t know each other. We miss opportunities to hear each other. We miss opportunities to love each other.

Being segregated also means that we have to provide some kind of way for each group to have an official voice in the whole. In the days of the women’s and men’s meetings—and this is just one example—women wrote and approved travel minutes and then sent them to the men’s meetings for final approval. In one yearly meeting I know, the adult yearly meeting recognizes the young adult group, the high school group, and the middle school group as other yearly meetings that are gathered at the same time, and those yearly meetings can send minutes to the gathered adult body.

In one way, that approach is great. Younger Friends have actual, official channels by which to be heard. In many other yearly meetings, no such official channels exist (or, if they do, they are little-known), so younger Friends either have no way to be heard or don’t know that they have a way to be heard. But in another way, we have to acknowledge that as long as the younger groups have to submit minutes to the older groups—and not the other way around—we are reinforcing the idea that the older group is dominant and the younger groups are “less than.”

Just to recap, because this has gotten long: although age segregation sometimes has real benefits, there are also a number of ways in which physical segregation of age groups is a barrier to multiage inclusion. It reinforces patterns in which older Friends make the decisions for all Friends without input from the younger age groups; it allows us to tell ourselves that by segregating the age groups we’re doing our younger people a favor; it prevents us from knowing one another across the generations; and it perpetuates the idea among all age groups that young people are “less than.” Age segregation also leads to siloing, which leads to younger Friends struggling to gain the necessary knowledge base to participate fully in the adult body when they come of age.

 

Culture Flip #10: Aiming for multi-age inclusion around 50% of the time, including integration both ways (younger Friends in traditionally older Friends spaces/activities, older Friends in traditionally younger Friends spaces/activities); providing meaningful support to make full participation possible in both directions

What does this look like in a monthly meeting?

I’m not prepared to advocate for an end to all age segregation among Friends. We aren’t ready for that. We don’t have the skills—not the younger Friends, and not the older Friends. Trying to be together across all ages all the time immediately would, I suspect, lead to resentment on all sides.

However, I suspect we’re ready to take some steps in that direction. What would happen if we set a goal to be completely age-integrated 50% of the time? Individual monthly meetings could figure out which 50% that would be. Age-ages worship two Sundays per month? All-ages Meeting for Business every other month? Monthly post-meeting child-led all-ages playtime? Monthly teen-led all-ages worship sharing or discussion? Could half of the meeting’s committees be completely age-integrated?

We have to do this skillfully, though. Age integration without support is symbolic at best and harmful at worst.

In a recent gathering, I asked the question, “What would a seven-year-old need to be present in business meeting and to be able to be a full participant?”

We made the following list:

– Snacks

– Coloring book

– Pillows on the floor

– Permission to move around

– Periodic breaks

– A whisper buddy (somebody to explain things as the meeting went along)

– Priority calling-on (so that, if five people were wanting to speak, the seven-year-old could go first so that she didn’t forget what she needed to say)

This does not strike me as insurmountable. And frankly, I’d be grateful as a thirty-four-year-old for a few of those accommodations myself.

Then I asked the question, “What would a seventy-year-old need to be present in a finger-painting activity and to be able to be a full participant?” Because we don’t tend to ask this question, and really, it’s no less relevant to multiage inclusion. Failing to ask it implies that older people are fully capable of functioning in younger-person spaces, which is not always true, and this leads to a lot of hesitation on the part of many older Friends to even try to enter traditionally-younger-person spaces. It also implies that age integration only needs to go one way, which places a considerable burden on the already-less-empowered younger people.

This is the list we made, in terms of support for the older Friend in the finger-painting space:

– Clear instructions or ideas on what to paint (because many adults are uncomfortable with being asked to create art without specific guidance)

– A chair and table that is comfortable for an adult body

– A room that isn’t too loud or chaotic

– An assigned young person “buddy” (so that it’s easier to know how to connect with the younger Friends in the room)

– Permission to use a brush or sponge if that is easier than finger-painting

And these accommodations, too, do not strike me as insurmountable. Our young people can understand things like, “It’s hard for some older Friends when everybody talks at once, so it will be very helpful if we take turns talking.” We might have to repeat this a number of times, but we can get there.

To reemphasize something I’ve already hinted at—age integration does not and cannot mean just younger people moving into traditionally-older-person spaces, even if we’re prepared to adapt and provide support. Doing it that way implies that “normal” is what the older people do and that we make special allowances and adaptations for younger people because they aren’t capable of what’s “normal.” And this is the whole point of flipping our culture; it’s about redefining “normal” as something that’s inclusive, not exclusive. When we age-integrate our spaces in both directions, meaning older-in-younger as well as younger-in-older, we redefine “normal” as what all of us do, and we define age integration as all of us learning how to participate in all the parts of normal, and all of us learning how to help each other do that.

We can reflect this attitude in many different ways. A good starting point—something that’s relevant to many meetings—is the reporting back that we do after times when we are age-segregated. Why do we ask for a report of what First Day School has been doing but then fail to have an adult person stand up and report on what happened in Meeting for Worship? Why do we ask our young people to write separate epistles and read them to the body when the epistle of the older people is represented as being from the entire body to the entire world?

This is the last of the multiage inclusion series on this blog. Starting with the next post, I’ll be moving back into more general engagement with how Friends function as the beloved community. What are you left wondering about? What have I missed?

 

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