…and Covenant

. . . and Covenant:

Spiritual Gifts and the Beloved Community

(This text was originally given as the Weed Lecture at Beacon Hill Friends House in 2019.  You can watch or listen to the lecture here.)

My first career was theatrical stage management. I traveled around the country, doing mostly high-spectacle musical theatre with live animals and pyrotechnics but sometimes also dramatic stage plays. In 2002, I stage managed a new play called Archipelago by LeeAnne Hill Adams, a play about the Russian gulags, and it was surprisingly technical, with live film and green screen technology and a cast of fourteen people playing fifty-some parts. I loved this play, loved the challenge of it, and especially loved the one part when it slowed down, the only piece of a two-hour production when I wasn’t calling a cue every three to five seconds, a monologue spoken by a character called Nina.

The scene came right after a brutal attack. Nadya—who had become Nina’s friend—was near death, and in dying, she asked Nina to tell her about the angels. Nina said, “[They look] like sun when it comes through a crystal. They sparkle and dance and play. It’s beautiful to see them. Their wings are like rainbows, bright and colorful. When you go to heaven, you’ll see . . . they’ll rush about you, clapping their hands, and showing their great wings. How they’ll rejoice to see you, Nadya. Then they’ll carry you through the clouds on their shoulders and place you at God’s feet. And you will live with him forever and be happy.”

Every night, in the middle of this extraordinarily complicated play, there was a moment of stillness with a spotlight and two women and a general hush and Nina promised us, “You will live with him forever and be happy.”

This passage speaks, then and now, to a longing within me, a sense of homecoming to a place where someone rushes about me, clapping their hands, rejoicing to see me and placing me at God’s feet. Do you have this longing?

I became a Quaker on October tenth of two thousand ten—10/10/10—which is lucky because I will never forget the date. I celebrate my Quakerversary every year, in little ways, usually with a Facebook post. It means a lot to me because I looked for my people for so long. I was born into a faith tradition other than Quakerism, although even as a child, I rejected that faith tradition. What I remember finding troublesome was that this religion taught that God spoke to one man at a time—and it was always a man—and that it was that man’s job to tell everyone else what God said. That never sounded right to me. It felt like God, being God, would love everybody, and also surely God is expedient enough to get God’s message across without having to worry about human communications channels. Telling everything to one guy relied upon that guy’s ability to get the message out to everybody on the planet and also to convince everybody to buy into it, and that didn’t seem like the smartest way to do it. Plus, it seemed to me like a lot of religious traditions said that their tradition had the one and only Truth and that everybody else was going to hell. And that can’t be right, I thought, because again, God is God and loves everybody too much to punish someone for being born into a family that’s Hindu and only ever being taught about Hinduism and then choosing to be Hindu. The one pathway business seemed absolutely absurd.

Anyway, I started looking for a faith tradition when I was ten years old, and I knew the whole time that I was looking for a tradition that said “God talks to everybody, and nobody knows the one and only Truth.” It took me seventeen years before I found the Quakers, mostly because Quakers aren’t present enough in theological circles for me to hear about them in my search for a religion. Therefore, like much of the rest of the world, I genuinely believed that Quakers were something like the Amish.

My first Quaker meeting was totally silent, and this was exceptionally annoying because it meant that leaving meeting I knew nothing more than I did when I came. The second week, Rich Accetta-Evans stood up and said, “There is that of God in everyone.” I don’t doubt that he also said a whole bunch of other stuff—and I didn’t know enough then to name what he said as “vocal ministry”—but he said, “There is that of God in everyone,” and that was it; I knew I was home.

Nobody actually rushed about me clapping their hands, but the internal sensation was pretty close.

What I didn’t understand then—what I didn’t have language for—was that my longing wasn’t just to know that God talks to everybody. If that were all I needed, I never would have searched for a people at all. If the message is “God talks to everybody,” then all we have to do is listen to God, and that’s the beginning and the end of our journey. But it turns out, God is trickier than that. God is smarter than that. Yes, God talks to everybody, but God doesn’t tell everybody—or give everybody—exactly the same things. God gives me a piece, and you a piece, and that guy over there a piece, and expects us to learn how to play well together.

To share.

This is the beginning of covenant.


The best definition of covenant that I know is that we give ourselves to God and God, in turn, gives us to a group of people. And from there, we are expected to care for this group of people, and this group of people is expected to care for us, and as a whole we are expected to be obedient to the will of God. For some covenant communities, this means the will of God as written in a set of commandments, but in Quakerism, it means the will of God as constantly revealed. Continuing revelation. Figure it out as you go.

Another way that someone once explained covenant to me was that it’s like you’re married to all of the people in your meeting. And let me tell you, when I heard that, I was horrified by some of the people that I’m apparently married to. But this is how it works. My people accepted me on 10/10/10, October the tenth, two thousand and ten, eight years and eight months ago. And I accepted them.

Fifteenth Street Monthly Meeting.

New York Quarterly Meeting.

New York Yearly Meeting.

And the entire Religious Society of Friends.

We are in covenant.

LeeAnne Hill Adams said in Archipelago that angels “look like sun when it comes through a crystal.” This is the Religious Society of Friends and all of the covenant communities within it. It’s Light through a prism. We each have the Light within us, but it shines through us differently. We’ve got the red and the orange and the yellow and the green and the blue and the indigo and the violet, of course, and this is beautiful. There are all these gorgeous manifestations of the Light, each one different from each of the others, and unless they all come together, you never see the complete spectrum. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Except in reality, most of the time, it’s actually kind of sweaty and dirty and takes a lot of effort and jostling around and we tend to fight about who’s the yellow and who’s the green and do we really need indigo anyway (and what exactly is indigo?), and we get distracted and knock into one another and fall down and skin our knees.

“They sparkle and dance and play. It’s beautiful to see them. Their wings are like rainbows, bright and colorful . . . they rush about you, clapping their hands, and showing their great wings.”

We are not always good at showing our great wings. Now, I know, the passage I’m quoting is about heaven and angels, and nobody ever said we were angels, but—Quakerism tells us that we can build the kingdom of God on Earth right now, that it is, in fact, our obligation to do this, and I think that if God expects us to build the kingdom of God on Earth, then God has probably given us great wings.

So what are those wings?

How are we different?

How does God’s Light manifest in each of us differently?

Some of us are organizers.

Some of us are prayers.

Some of us are workers.

Some of us are carers.

Some of us are innovators.

Some of us are provocateurs.

Some of us are healers.

And some of us have huge capacity to love.

Jan Wood, who is an evangelical Friend, has spent a lot of her life giving workshops on spiritual gifts. She names gifts using Biblical language, and she identifies something like twenty-four of them in total. I want to tell you a few of my favorites.

There’s mercy, the ability and desire to alleviate suffering. That would be my friend Heather, who used to frighten me by inviting hungry men that she met on street corners to have dinner with her at the local fast food restaurant because her compulsion to alleviate their loneliness and hunger outweighed any concern for her own safety.

There’s giving, the desire to pour out resources. That would be my friend Sara, who would rather give anything away than keep it, no matter how much she loves it, because the giving brings her so much joy.

There’s exorcism, the ability to liberate from systemic oppression. That would be Lisa, who can articulate the patterns of systemic oppression and illuminate them in a way that allows a whole people to cooperate in lifting them.

And there’s helps, the ability to provide assistance to those in a leadership role. That would be Joe, who consistently and quietly supports but is almost never noticed himself.

Lloyd Lee Wilson says that there are six steps in the proper use of spiritual gifts within a community, and the first is naming, simply naming a gift we see manifest in a person.

That always brings me to a story from a book by Madeleine L’Engle, a book called A Wind in the Door. There is a scene where the protagonist, Meg, returns to her middle school and faces her old principal, Mr. Jenkins. Except there is not just one Mr. Jenkins. There are three Mr. Jenkinses. One is the real Mr. Jenkins; the other two are fallen angels masquerading as Mr. Jenkins. And there, in the parking lot, Meg is charged with identifying the real one.

One Mr. Jenkins is extremely kind. He’s extending offers of friendship to Meg, and he’s willing to bend over backwards to accommodate her.

Another Mr. Jenkins is strict and outright rude, demanding to be Named as the true Mr. Jenkins and extremely annoyed when Meg doesn’t do so immediately.

And the third Mr. Jenkins is present, engaging with the conversation, but very much who he is, and that’s someone who’s not very warm and fuzzy. This, we’ll come to see, is the real Mr. Jenkins.

It’s worth noting that Meg doesn’t like Mr. Jenkins. He’s demanding and impatient and thoroughly unimaginative, and he’s never been especially kind to Meg’s family. He is not someone that Meg would have chosen to be in relationship with. But this doesn’t matter. Because in that moment, Meg is there, and Mr. Jenkins is there, and therefore, it is Meg’s job to see Mr. Jenkins, really see him.

And she does. She sees him and Names him, with a capital N. “I Name you. I Name you, Mr. Jenkins.” And the fallen angels, the imposters, fly away.

The first time I looked at Jan’s list of spiritual gifts, she Named me. She didn’t even have to point it out to me. It was enough that she wrote it in black and white. “Apostleship: ability and natural authority to care for and lead groups of organizations or communities of faith.”

Up until then, I actually didn’t know that not every Quaker felt a personal responsibility for the entire Religious Society of Friends. In that moment, reading the definition of apostleship, I suddenly knew who I was.

Have you ever had the experience of being Named?

It doesn’t always happen just in the framing of spiritual gifts. We can also be Named when someone sees our condition or when someone recognizes our pain or when someone expresses love for us, us, not some subset of who we are or what we can do for them but our wholeness, that they love our wholeness. That is a powerful Naming. I am talking about that moment when someone says I know who you are.

To be known in this way, I think, is essential to our wellbeing. There is One who always knows us, and that is God. We can go back to the book of Jeremiah: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. God made us and consecrated us and crafted our great wings.

That’s different, though. In my experience, there is a particular sort of loneliness that can only be addressed by another breathing human being. When I am experiencing that sort of loneliness, I am sometimes reassured that God loves me, and therefore I don’t have to be lonely. People say this to me. I’ve occasionally said this to other people. But truthfully, that response is inadequate when we are experiencing the sort of loneliness that needs another being of flesh. Even God explicitly recognizes this. It’s right there in chapter two of Genesis: “It is not good that the man should be alone.”

Which brings us back to covenant. We give ourselves to God, and God gives us, in turn, to a group of people, and one of our responsibilities to one another is to see one another, to Name one another, and to repeatedly drive away loneliness.

This is where we run into the part where covenant is terrible. Don’t get me wrong; I like the good parts. I like the parts where I am Named. I like the parts where I Name other people. I like the parts where people come over to dinner and we laugh and talk and cry. I like it when I am forgiven for my mistakes.

I don’t like it so much when somebody else wants me to come over for dinner and I’m more in the mood to sit at home and watch sitcoms. I don’t like the part where other people make mistakes that hurt me, and then I’m expected to forgive. I don’t like the part where I did something wrong, like, six months ago, and somebody else is still ticked off about it. And I really don’t like the part where somebody is just annoying, like, all the time, and repeatedly does things that get under my skin, but that person is part of my covenant people and I have to keep seeing and engaging with them.


I want to tell you a story about a covenant people that really knew one another. The story I’m about to tell you was frightening to live through but, to this day, is the best example I have ever lived of a group of people who really knew one another’s skills and personalities and spiritual gifts.

In the summer of 2016, my dear friend Gabi Savory Bailey—who even now is only in her early forties—had a heart attack during summer sessions of New York Yearly Meeting. We hold our summer sessions on the shores of Lake George, at a YMCA camp. It’s a large campus, and the various rooms where we hold events are quite spread out. At the center is the Inn, which has a wraparound porch that is the social hub for the whole week, and there are always a couple dozen Friends there, chatting and sitting in rocking chairs and strumming guitars. It’s also important to know that in the summer of 2016, cell phone connectivity was still minimal there. You could only get a reliable signal by standing directly under the flagpole.

Gabi was in the cafeteria when the heart attack happened, which is a very public place. There were a number of witnesses. It was immediately clear that something very serious was happening, and one Friend who was present took off running to the Inn porch, where she shouted, “FIND ALANNA!” Alanna Badgley is a trained paramedic, the only one we have, as far as I know, among those of us who frequently attend summer sessions. With no explanation needed, half a dozen young, fast runners bolted off the porch to a variety of locations, and one of them did, in fact, find Alanna, and bring her back, where she was taken immediately to Gabi’s side.

Another Friend went to find Callie Janoff, because Callie is the person you call in moments of extreme pastoral care emergency. Everyone knew that Callie would be the person that Gabi and her husband Jon would want next to them in the ambulance because Callie is the person that anybody would want next to them in the ambulance. And this Friend who went for Callie, on his way to the committee meeting where he knew that Callie would be, passed Beverly Archibald, who is a powerful pray-er. He grabbed Beverly by the arm and said to her, “Start praying for Gabi. Right now.” And Beverly dropped down on a bench beside the path and began to pray.

Yet another Friend was sent to pull me from the committee meeting that I was clerking. When he arrived, he said, “I don’t know what is happening, but Gabi’s family needs you right now.” So I went. They sent for me because they knew that I had a relationship with Gabi’s two small children and because I am the person who steps in and maintains a sense of normalcy and continuity in times of emergency. This is a role I have fulfilled many times, and people knew it.

This was the best of being a covenant people. There was no question that we would meet the needs of Gabi and Jon and their children. But furthermore, there was no question that Beverly would pray and Callie would ride in the ambulance and I would take the kids. Nobody would have proposed, not for an instant, that Beverly should ride in the ambulance and Callie take the children and I pray, not because we would be incapable of those things but because this would not be the right use of our gifts. On that day, in a time of genuine danger, the pray-ers prayed and the carers cared and the runners ran and the organizers organized and the elders held it all in the Light because we knew one another and we knew our gifts. We had Named each other long before that day.


I travel in the ministry full time. At the end of January of this year, I gave up maintaining a permanent home. I packed a few precious, irreplaceable things into a storage unit and then picked up my backpack and left New York City. Since then, Backpack and I have visited roughly 45 groups of Friends in four different countries, which makes for an average of a new place every 2-3 days, and I had traveled a fair amount even before then. And I can tell you from direct experience that it’s not only individuals that carry particular gifts. Whole meetings carry glorious gifts, gifts that enrich the Religious Society of Friends and, I hope, the entire world.

Maryville Friends in Tennessee are patient and steadfast and loyal. Winchester Friends in Indiana have a gift of prayer. Plainfield Friends in Indiana are hospitable, and they are amazing cooks. Wilmington Friends in Ohio are really, hilariously funny. Mesquakie Friends in Iowa are deeply thoughtful about decolonizing the culture of Christianity. Kalamazoo Friends in Michigan have extraordinary love for their neighborhood community. Quakers in Ireland Yearly Meeting are extremely efficient. Manchester Friends in England work the soil and grow a beautiful garden. Warwick Friends, also in England, talk openly and comfortably about matters related to mental health. Loltuleilei Friends in Kenya have a gift of praise and a gift for helping one another. Belize City Friends are extraordinary in their community development work, making connections between influencers in their city in a way that has led to positive and practical change.

It’s harder to Name one another as communities than it is to Name one another as individuals, just from a purely practical point of view. Many of us rarely see communities of Friends other than our own, so we can’t Name the gifts we see in other groups and, in fact, can’t Name the gifts of our own group because we don’t have anything to compare it to. What’s natural and easy and joyful for us must surely be natural and joyful for everyone—but actually, that’s not the case.

When we do come together with other Friends, Friends from beyond our own local communities, it’s often in one of two contexts: either we are together for business (and this is often intense and sometimes filled with conflict) or we are together for the sake of making-friends-and-building-relationships (and this is often surface level, if for no other reason than the restrictions of time). I would say that neither of these relationships is a wholehearted expression of covenant.

Again, that definition: we give ourselves to God, and God in turn gives us to a group of people.

Our local people.

Our medium-sized gatherings, such as quarterly or area meetings.

Our larger gatherings, such as yearly meetings.

And the entire Religious Society of Friends. We are given to one another in covenant. We are supposed to be building the kingdom of God on Earth.

So how do we do that?

For starters, if we’re a team, if we’re really a covenant people, then we need to know ourselves as that and build genuine relationships with one another. I’m going to neuroscience for a minute here, so stick with me. How many of you have had the experience of being in a meeting for business, or a series of meetings for business, with a group of Quakers, and things get really difficult and heavy because there’s some sort of conflict, and that state goes on for a couple of days or even a week, but then eventually you come to a place where you can agree on something—pass some sort of minute—and the group as a whole goes out feeling relieved, some of you exhausted, some of you weeping, but grateful for having come to unity?

We experience that kind of thing as a time of crisis. And in times of crisis, the human brain releases endorphins, and endorphins increase our tolerance to pain (both physical and psychological) as well as encouraging us to be friendly and helpful in our interactions with one another. And at the moment that the crisis ends and the pain disappears (or lessens), the endorphins don’t immediately vanish. They stick around for as much as a couple of days before gradually ebbing away, which can result in something casually called an “endorphin crash.” When we experience this sort of meeting for business conflict “crisis,” we release all kinds of endorphins, and then at the end, we go and share our final potluck or say our goodbyes, and we’re all still a little bit hung over with endorphins, so we feel especially friendly and helpful and slightly numb, and we feel as though we’ve bonded.

I’m not judging the authenticity of the business meeting crisis. Sometimes, the particular question at hand is a genuine threat to the community and is a genuine emergency. But the thing is, this type of crisis-endorphins-relief cycle is addictive. It’s a dramatic way to bond a group together in a relatively short amount of time. This wouldn’t matter so much if we were together every day, all year, visiting one another’s farms and meeting up at the local general store, but we’re not. Especially in the case of regional or yearly meetings, we often only see one another a few times a year or less. Which means that if those fairly infrequent meetings are taken up by crisis enough times, crisis bonding can quickly become our primary way of experiencing being a group. We might even, unconsciously, begin to seek threats in an effort to experience that feeling again. This isn’t healthy, and it isn’t of God.

So: crisis bonding is a thing, connected to endorphins, which seem to be one of three types of chemicals in our brains that encourage group bonding. The two major influencers are endorphins and dopamine; a third, somewhat less important chemical for group social bonds, is oxytocin.

Endorphins, which cause us to feel friendly and helpful, can be triggered by a trauma, but they can also be triggered by exercise, laughter, music, and chocolate.

Dopamine directly influences how strongly we feel linked to those in our social network. When we experience high levels of dopamine (especially over time), we feel more strongly attached to the people we think of as friends. A release of dopamine can be triggered by exercise or music—and, according to one study, by cupcakes.

Oxytocin creates feelings of calm and closeness. It also crystalizes emotional memories, reduces stress, and encourages generosity. The best ways to release oxytocin aren’t super appropriate in public, but laughter, exercise, music, and hugs can all help.

Why am I telling you this? Because it seems to indicate that if we really hope to be bonded together as a community, we need to spend considerably more time with one another, and while we are together, we should indulge in less business and more exercise, laughter, music, hugs, and chocolate cupcakes.

We do sometimes have gatherings like this. Most of you can probably think of a few gatherings of Friends that you’ve been part of that have incorporated these elements. And that’s great. But I’d say that this type of bonding—while it’s really important, and definitely better than crisis bonding—isn’t actually our ultimate goal. It’s not what God asks of us. God asks us to build the kingdom of God on Earth, which is not the same as just being really good friends with one another. If we are building the kingdom of God on Earth, we are moving toward a world where God’s love for all God’s children reigns supreme and each living thing is perceived as having infinite value and—

We all look like sun when it comes through a crystal. We sparkle and dance and play. It’s beautiful to see us. Our wings are like rainbows, bright and colorful. When we glimpse the kingdom of God, we can see . . .


So how do we get from crisis bonding to chocolate cupcakes to the kingdom of God on Earth?

Go back to Naming and Lloyd Lee Wilson. According to Wilson in his book Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, there are six steps to community stewardship of our spiritual gifts, and Naming is only the first. After that is Claiming—the individual’s willingness to accept the spiritual gift as named. And then Consecrating, a worshipful search within ourselves, a rededication to the purpose of God. Then Developing, because spiritual gifts don’t usually appear perfectly formed. Exercising, the actual use of spiritual gifts. And Receiving the Fruits—because the stewardship of a spiritual gift is not complete until the covenant people are willing to receive the ministry born out of it.

I’ve already said quite a lot about Naming.

When I think about Claiming, I think about David and Jeremiah. First, David. I don’t know about you, but for me, the version I heard as a kid went something like this: David was a little shepherd boy, and Goliath was a big scary giant, and there was just no way that David could possibly have killed Goliath. But he had faith, and he went up against the giant with his itty-bitty slingshot, and God empowered him to be victorious.

That’s not actually what the Bible says.

David wasn’t just “a little shepherd boy.” David was prepared to kill Goliath. He had a track record of chasing after lions and bears while watching his flock, striking these beasts with his stones and pulling live sheep from their mouths. Yes, he acknowledged God as the source of his protection. But he also knew what he was capable of because he had done extraordinary things before.

The biggest problem that David had in this situation was that he had to talk everybody into letting him take on Goliath because nobody else believed that the “little shepherd boy” had a chance. David was called, and he knew he was ready and prepared. It was only the people around him who doubted him.

Compare this to Jeremiah, who was also very young when he was called to serve God, but whose reaction was more along the lines of “no no no no no, heck no, God, what are you thinking?” (Okay, what he actually said was, “Alas, sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak, I am too young.” But I suspect he said it in a tone of panic.)

Now, Jeremiah had also been prepared. God had just told him so: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.” But Jeremiah’s initial reaction to being called was less “here I am, Lord!” and more “I’m hiding under the table now, Lord.” Can’t we all identify with that?

Do we Claim our gifts like David or like Jeremiah? If you’re anything like me, you do a little of each. The thing is, refusing to Claim our gifts is actually deeply unfaithful. It’s understandable; Claiming a gift is scary, especially if we fear being judged as prideful, or if we fear that we won’t be supported. Once we’ve been through the steps of Naming, Claiming, and Consecrating—once we’ve recognized a gift in ourselves or had it recognized by someone else, and we’ve accepted it, and we’ve held it in prayer and turned it over to God—the next inevitable steps are Developing and Exercising that gift. And we have reason to fear that our covenant people will actually prevent us from doing those things.

Because it’s happened before. We’ve either seen it or experienced it. We, in the Religious Society of Friends—we make each other small.

We try to suppress our great wings.

If a spiritual gift is Named, Claimed, Consecrated, Developed, and Exercised, it tends to evolve into powerful ministry. To Receive powerful ministry is incredibly demanding. When we experience powerful ministry, it is the voice of God. We can be transformed or we can cover our ears. Those are the only choices. And what will it cost us to be transformed? What am I going to be asked to give up? What am I going to be asked to do? Who am I going to be asked to be? Will I be forced to ask for help? Will I still know myself when the transformation is finished? Will all of my relationships be changed?

It is so much safer not to let anything ever get that far. Let’s stay in that place with laughter and hugs and chocolate cupcakes. It’s a good place.

It isn’t the kingdom of God on Earth.


Covenant. We give ourselves to God, and God, in turn, gives us to a group of people, for the purpose of raising one another up. Naming gifts. Nurturing ministry. Expecting our carers to care and our pray-ers to pray and our speakers to speak and our prophets to prophesy and our healers to heal and our leaders to lead and holding them accountable if they are not doing it. Holding ourselves accountable if they are not doing it, because the exercise of gifts and ministry is a communal affair.

Holding ourselves accountable. Where are we trying to shut down God’s Light? Go back to George Fox: “The Light is the same in the male and in the female, and it cometh from Christ. Who is it that dare stop Christ’s mouth?”

We do.

When I think about our local meetings and churches and our larger geographic organizations, I often think about the difference between Jesus and Paul. Jesus of Nazareth, in his lifetime, told us, “Love one another.” It took him three words to communicate this. After his death, the apostle Paul took 34,408 words to try to explain what “love one another” is actually supposed to mean. It’s not that people are stupid or that Paul was just especially verbose. The difference is that Jesus was starting a movement, and Paul was organizing a church. Jesus was inspiring people as he passed through. Paul was working with a covenant people.

(Covenant: that sweaty, dirty, thoroughly inconvenient thing.)

I want to talk for a minute about institutions. Institutions are essential to support groups of human beings doing particular things. It’s in our nature to require rules and processes and patterns and limits on behavior in order to navigate social interactions and certainly in order to get anything done. Without the institution, we have to start from scratch every time we’re led to do something. Without the institution, nobody pays the electric bill. So we have rules and processes and handbook pages and committee structures because these things make it possible for us to discern and do the will of God as a covenant people in an ongoing manner.

Let’s tease that apart for a minute here. Our rules and processes and handbook pages and committee structures make it possible for us to discern and do the will of God. Our rules and processes and handbook pages and committee structures are not, in themselves, the will of God. They are not the thing. They are how we have agreed to do the thing. That means that we are allowed to change them when they are no longer serving us, when they are restraining rather than supporting our ability to be faithful.

And of course, we have created rules and processes that suit those of us who are generally present. Among Quakers in my part of the world, we have created rules and processes that serve white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, physically abled retired people extremely well. There’s no shame in this. It is normal to have done this, because the vast majority of active Quakers where I come from are white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, physically abled retired people. The question comes when we ask whether we are willing to notice the ways in which we have done this and then change it—adapt, so we can serve others.

Do we engage with our behavioral norms with an understanding of how behavioral norms are not uniform across racial groups?

Do we engage with our expectations around food and transportation and registration fees with an understanding that what is minimal for someone who is middle-class may be impossible for others?

Do we engage with our physical facilities with an understanding that our buildings themselves send signals about who is welcome in terms of gender and ability?

Do we engage with our procedures and committee roles with an understanding that working people, especially young working people with families, do not have the same abundance of time as retired people?

It took me years to reach a point of being able to navigate the complicated systems in my local meeting, my yearly meeting, other Friends’ yearly meetings, Friends General Conference, Friends United Meeting, and Friends World Committee for Consultation, and I quite literally made learning this my full-time job—because I felt led by God to do so. This is not a normal expectation. We have to learn to be flexible and simplify.

The way things are now, when someone’s led to new work on behalf of the body, it often takes weeks, or months, or years to get the pieces into place, not because it actually takes that much time to do the discernment but because the such-and-such committee only meets on second Thursdays, and the other-relevant-committee just met last Monday and won’t meet again for two months…this kind of delay wears on people. Eventually, we decide that the bar is too high. We might not even be conscious of it, but we begin to weigh leadings differently—is this spark that I’m carrying really worth the amount of institutional work it will take? When institutional delay extinguishes one spark, that’s sad. But when it puts out sparks routinely—and it does—that’s a spiritual crisis.

And this phenomenon absolute affects certain groups of people more than others. When we allow that to happen, we are stopping Christ’s mouth.

Covenant. We give ourselves to God, and God gives us in turn to a group of people. And we are charged to build the kingdom of God on Earth.

Making it easier for people to serve on committees won’t build the kingdom of God on Earth. It’s a start—an essential one—but if we hope to go beyond just a really great, inclusive committee system, we have to talk about how we’re enabling ministry.

The institution supports us, makes it possible for the community as a whole to do the will of God. But it’s not, in itself, the will of God. Carrying out the will of God is ministry.

Any one of us could be called into significant ministry at any time, if we’re open to the possibility. We don’t even have to be prepared for it, because the preparation often happens on the fly. All we have to be is open to the possibility. Do we talk about this as a thing that happens? Do we anticipate that we or someone else in our local communities might be led to travel or teach or engage in civil disobedience or adopt some form of radical witness? Do we expect John Woolmans among us? Are we on the alert for modern day Margaret Fells? If we’re not, why not? Do we believe there came a point when God stopped calling us to this sort of thing? We can’t possibly look at the condition of the world and think that God’s work has all been done.


Every day at two o’clock, Michael Wasike appears in the doorway of the church in Samburu, Kenya, with a wheelbarrow of books and two squares of fabric. He ties the fabric into two windows, the two on the mountain side, to block the strongest gales of wind, then silently retrieves a broom. The preschool that meets here in the mornings occasionally leaves behind twigs or rice. He straightens the desks, as well, all twelve, each of which will hold five children, many of which he built himself. He aligns the chairs, erases the blackboard, double-checks the supply of chalk.

One day, he notices a needed repair, and he leaves, returning with a ladder and two small boys. Mostly in silence, they pass him a hammer or a nail, and in exchange he teaches them carpentry and also the value of service. The children depart with the ladder and tools. Michael smiles unhurriedly. He surveys the church; he moves to the wheelbarrow. He sorts the books: grades one, two, three. He sharpens eight pencils. He finds the erasers.

In come two teachers and many children, and Michael leans with his back against the wall. He’s still and silent until he’s needed: to tend a boy who’s injured his arm, to encourage a girl who refuses to speak, to intercede and talk quietly with the big boy who’s walloped a younger child with sticks. The sun sets, and he slips away and returns with the ladder, again, and a wire and bulb, which he hangs over a beam to provide some feeble light. He gathers the children at the end of school for a Bible story. Remember David, he tells them, who started as a humble shepherd boy and finished as a king.

That’s ministry. That’s building the kingdom of God on Earth.


At William Penn Primary School in Horsham, England, eleven-year-old Judith is a trained peer counselor who guides other children through the process of finding a just solution to conflicts on the playground. The school’s seventy-five pupils are all released for recess at the same time, from the four-year-olds to the twelve-year-olds, and they invent infinite games to provide excuses to run back and forth while a group of eight- and nine-year-olds assembles to practice the maypole dance.

Three children pull Judith away from kicking a football. One is crying. There’s been a disagreement about using the swing.

“What happened?” Judith asks, and then, “How were each of you feeling?” When they need it, she guides them to feeling words: angry, lonely, envious, betrayed.

“What needs to happen to make it right?” The children generate their own solution and dash back to the swings. Judith lines up to return to fifth grade math.

That’s ministry. That’s building the kingdom of God on Earth.


At two-thirty on a Tuesday afternoon, I’m halfway between nowhere and North Carolina. My bus pulls over on the side of the highway. This is sometimes an indication of calamity and sometimes an indication that the driver needs to pee. He disembarks—not a promising sign—and reboards barking orders: EVERYONE OFF, IMMEDIATELY!

When all of us are off and well clear, a few minutes pass, and then the driver makes an announcement only audible to the six people nearest him, but through the crowd like a game of telephone, we learn that our fuel is leaking. We’ll be here for awhile. It’s not a bad side of the road, as roadsides go, wide and well back from traffic and reasonably clean. So, once I’m sure an explosion’s unlikely, I lay down and go to sleep. Many others do the same.

An hour later, I’ve finished my nap and have stretched out on my back to watch the sky. Two passengers hitchhike. The police appear, and I watch them curiously, wondering how they intend to be helpful; they firmly request that we not litter, get back in their cars, and drive away. Another hour passes by. It’s now four-thirty.

It’s also getting hot. At first, this experience was odd but not unpleasant. Now, it’s becoming uncomfortable, and our spirits are not lifted when the driver announces that the company won’t send a new bus until they’re sure they can’t fix this one, but the mechanic has not yet appeared, and when he does appear, if he can’t fix the bus, it will take at least an hour after that to get a new one. Among us are a toddler and two women who are fairly elderly. They’re being good sports, but there’s an end to their physical capacity.

That’s when Lucy pulls over.

At first I’m confused. Who is this person? She pulls over, and she opens up her backseat, and she’s unloading granola bars and bags of chips and two dozen bottles of water. Did she happen to be coming from a grocery store? No—she passed us, took the next exit, went shopping, and then returned to make her delivery. We thank her in at least three languages. She disappears as suddenly as she came.

After Lucy leaves, the mechanic arrives. He can fix the bus but didn’t bring the parts he needs. Which means the bus is “fixable” and the company won’t be sending a new one. The granola bars have taken off the edge, but it’s a whole new thing when Lucy comes back, this time with two dozen pepperoni pizzas!

We spread out across the grass and feast, plumbers and computer programmers, toddlers and grandfathers, Puerto Rican and Korean, hip hop and jazz. I take Lucy aside and ask her who she is and why she did this.

“I believe that when people don’t get enough kindness, what they’re left with is fear, and fear becomes hate. So when I get the chance, I put kindness in the world.”

That’s ministry. That’s building the kingdom of God on Earth.


Do you hear in Michael’s story his gift of service?

Do you hear in Judith’s story her gift of healing?

Do you hear in Lucy’s story her gifts of mercy and prophesy?

And each minister needs the support and the guidance of a group of people. Michael has his home church in Kenya, plus the church that he serves as a missionary. Judith has a staff of teachers and her classmates and a Quaker board of governors. And Lucy—I don’t know who Lucy has, but I hope she has her own covenant people.

Sometimes, when I travel among Friends, I get questions about ministry. I find that talking about ministry is part of the ministry. There is a sacred practice reemerging among us, and we, collectively, don’t always know how to respond. We have a lot of old tools to fall back on: travel minutes, recording in the ministry, an understanding of ministers and elders. We have newer traditions that are working well in some cases: anchor committees, faithfulness groups, retreat centers, courses of study. None of us is quite sure how all of this works in the 21st century.

What’s especially interesting to me is that more than half of the questions I hear aren’t really questions about travel in the ministry, at least insofar as they’re not questions about the minister. They’re really questions for my meeting. “How did Fifteenth Street write your travel minute? How do they stay in touch with you? Do they offer financial support? What kinds of questions did they ask when you started talking about this? Do they ask you to report to them? Do you have a clearness committee there? What exactly is a support committee? Have they talked about recording you in the ministry? Is all of this stuff written down somewhere?”

Friends, I ask you, if your meeting is engaged in supporting ministry, if you’re working on this in any way as a living tradition, even if you’re doing it haltingly, even if you think you’re doing it badly, please reach out to other meetings who are also stumbling through it. You do not have to figure this out by yourselves. This is why we are placed in a covenant people, why the whole Religious Society of Friends is a covenant people. We have lessons to learn from one another.

And not just about ministry. If you’re working on loving your neighborhood community, please reach out to Kalamazoo. If you’re working on gardening, talk to Manchester. If you’re experiencing a shortage of humor, send a line to your Friends in Wilmington. This is why we have each other. And it’s easier than ever before. We have so many ways to communicate.

Not long ago, I was traveling in Britain Yearly Meeting, and I took a photograph of a cool activity that I discovered on a bulletin board at a Quaker school there. Three weeks later, a Friend working on the children’s program at Britain Yearly Meeting—a Friend that I had literally never met—said “thanks for posting that on Instagram; I adapted it for our opening worship with the kids.” I don’t even know how she saw it. Did somebody share it?

During the same time period, a seventeen-year-old in Philadelphia wrote to me and asked whether she might volunteer at Ramallah Friends School in Palestine. Among other things, she said that her parents were nervous and wondered whether there was a book they could read, something that would tell them what the school was really like. I knew exactly the title that she needed, and I posted a query on Facebook with an image of the book and asking whether anyone in Philly had a copy they could lend. It took about twenty minutes, and again, the Friend who came through was a Friend I’d never met.


But also in the last three weeks, I met a woman who told me a story about the one and only Quaker meeting she had ever attended. When I first walked into the room with her, she was talking so fast that her words were spilling one over the other. She couldn’t stop talking. She couldn’t leave any space. So I listened. I just listened. And eventually, she told me about that Quaker meeting, where she got up and went to coffee hour and several different Friends said things to her that were deeply hurtful. And she never went back.

She had to tell me this story about three times before she was able to stop, to make space for an answer. She had been carrying this for years.

I apologized. Because the people who hurt her—they were my people, and I’m responsible for them.

This is also covenant.


Sometimes I feel like we’re all, collectively, standing in the parking lot with the three Mr. Jenkinses. There’s the real Mr. Jenkins, and then there are these multiples, these imposters. There’s the one that’s nice and friendly and accommodating and all chocolate cupcakes. There’s another that’s rules and processes and totally unyielding. And there’s the third that’s genuine, present, not simple, often unpleasant, and absolutely solid and real.

Which Mr. Jenkins will we Name?

Which Religious Society of Friends will we Name?

Some of us came into Quakerism without any understanding of covenant. We had no idea. Nobody told us this. And it’s not necessarily what everybody wants. Let’s be fair about this; we do not, as a practice, throughout the Religious Society of Friends, have a conversation about covenant people and the reality of that experience with those who come along to enter our fellowship. So when we begin to explore the idea, it feels to many among us like shifting sands.

Are we a community that’s just warm and fuzzy? Music. Laughter. Cupcakes. Getting together once a week or a little more frequently, enjoying the community, feeling very safe. Never delving too far into spiritual gifts or ministry or transformation. That’s too much. We don’t really need all that.

Or are we the type of community that’s rules and processes and handbook pages and committee structures? Totally unyielding, with absolute clarity about what we can expect. This committee meets on second Tuesdays. That handbook page will be altered six months from now, after its second reading, provided the semicolon is in the right place. And occasional crisis bonding. But if we lean on Quaker process, we know we’ll get through it.

Is this who we are? Are we warm and fuzzy and safe? Are we methodical and rule-bound and predictable? Or are we the third Mr. Jenkins—the one that’s not always necessarily likeable, that’s fully present, that’s genuine, that’s a real relationship, even if it’s not always one we enjoy?

Are we ready to Name ourselves as a covenant people? That particular existence—that relationship with God—is our greatest collective gift. Will we Claim it? Will we Consecrate ourselves, rededicate ourselves, to the will of God? Will we Develop our being as a covenant people? Will we Exercise the gift, returning to the commitment, the communal discernment, the faithfulness, again and again?

And will we Receive the fruits of this? Will we pray that all creation can Receive those fruits?

“[They look] like sun when it comes through a crystal. They sparkle and dance and play. It’s beautiful to see them. Their wings are like rainbows, bright and colorful. When you get to heaven, you’ll see . . .”

One night, in that favorite moment of mine in Archipelago, back in 2002, the lights had just dimmed around Nina and Nadya, and Nina had just begun these beautiful words. I heard music. My first thought was that something was happening in another theatre. There were five theatres in the building, and sometimes we had bleed-through. I got on the radio to my house manager. “Do you hear that music?” I asked him. “Is there a choral concert happening upstairs?”

He assured me that he didn’t hear anything, but the music got louder. It was singing, what sounded like hundreds of voices. How could he not hear this music? Through my headset, I asked the sound technician, who was sitting in the audience. “That music,” I said. “Is it bleeding through to the theatre? Do you hear it? Is the audience hearing it?”

And first the sound technician, then the light board operator, then the crew backstage assured me: no music. Nobody heard any music.

Nobody heard it but me.

Angels. That’s what I know it was. It was God saying, “I’m here. Pay attention. I’m speaking.”

“When you go to heaven, you’ll see . . . they’ll rush about you, clapping their hands, and showing their great wings. How they’ll rejoice to see you. Then they’ll carry you through the clouds on their shoulders and place you at God’s feet. And you will live with him forever and be happy.”

God is here. We are at God’s feet. So what are we going to do next?

Come and See

This message was originally written for FWCC’s Section of the Americas meeting, March 21-24, 2019.  The theme of the gathering was “Come and See.”


“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asked.

And Philip saith unto him, “Come and see.”


I wanted to see the context of the phrase “come and see.” “Come and see” can mean almost anything. I considered lots of ways of thinking about that phrase as I prepared this message, but in the end, I was surprised to discover that in the original passage, it’s not “come and see” that jumps out to me.

It’s the question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

That question sounds so familiar. When I used to work in the field of education, I taught in kindergarten and first grade and second grade classrooms in the South Bronx. The South Bronx is a neighborhood in New York City. Two hundred and thirteen thousand people live there. Ninety percent of them are people of color. Forty-seven percent are legally defined as poor. There’s graffiti everywhere. Police officers with guns walk the hallways of the schools.

Can anything good come out of the South Bronx?

I met a kindergarten child named Smerling. She spoke only Spanish, and her parents spoke only Spanish, and this is very difficult in a school system that teaches in English. Smerling also was not naturally bright. Many of her classmates, even those who also spoke Spanish, appeared to learn to read and write and do math much more quickly.

There was something special about Smerling, though. This little girl tried. She demonstrated persistence. Tenacity. Even at the age of five, she listened to every word her teachers said. She also always finished her homework, which was quite a remarkable thing, since the instructions were written in English. I asked another teacher once how Smerling managed this. She told me that Smerling’s mother and father took her homework to a neighbor every day, asked the neighbor to translate the instructions, and then sat down beside their child and offered all the help they could until the work was complete.

Can anything good come out of the South Bronx?

Last year, I traveled to Kenya to visit with Friends. We were driving along in a car in a region with no paved streets when I saw an image that seemed familiar to me. It was a very small child, a boy, I think, wearing nothing but a long T-shirt, and that had a rip near the collar. He was squatting in a field of dirt and playing with some sort of scrap of metal. He looked up at our car wistfully.

This is the sort of image that we see on television sometimes. Organizations that are raising money show us pictures of children like him and tell us about the desperation of this child and how we must have pity and send him money. But these pictures on television are deliberately zoomed in to show only the child. They give the idea that the child is doomed and helpless. They do not show the entire image. When you look more widely, you see that the child has a mother doing laundry and a baby sister toddling around and an older brother driving the cows home and an entire community around him that is hospitable and loving.

When you really see the people of Kenya, you see faith and solidarity and selflessness and cooperation. I remember most fondly how, when one woman in the village needs to clean her house, the women of all the surrounding houses show up to help scour the floors and shake out the mats and clear the cobwebs. When someone is sick, every neighbor stops by. The people I met pray together every day.

How much my people could learn from them . . .

Can anything good come out of Kenya?

I now travel in the ministry full-time, and I hear versions of this question all the time. Can anything good come out of Palestine? Can anything good come out of Tanzania? Can anything good come out of New York Yearly Meeting? Can anything good come out of evangelicals? Can anything good come out of Facebook? Can anything good come out of rich people? Can anything good come out of police officers? Can anything good come out of Bible-thumpers? Can anything good come out of atheists?

The answer is always yes.

Everywhere I go, I meet someone who’s afraid of somebody else, and I find that almost always, the person we’re afraid of is the person we’ve never met. In most cases, it’s hard to fear someone—to doubt the possibility of good in someone—once you’ve sat down to dinner with them. Can anything good come from that other place?

Come and see.

I don’t feel critical of anyone who fears, or even hates, the unfamiliar. It’s extremely difficult to widen our perspective beyond what we have been shown and taught. I grew up in rural Illinois. Illinois is a state in the middle of this country that has a few cities but mostly just fields and fields of corn. Only one thousand people lived in the town where I spent my first ten years. Almost every one of us was white. Almost every one of us was Christian. There were two Jewish children in school and one Muslim child, and everyone knew exactly who they were. We also came from families that looked alike. A mother and a father. The mother mostly stayed at home or worked a part-time job. The father probably went to an office every day. Each family had two or three children and a dog. We knew what our futures would look like: we would grow up, graduate from high school, attend college, marry, have two or three children and a dog, and replicate our parents’ lives.

My mother grew up this way. My father grew up this way. My grandparents even grew up this way.

Because we had only one model for life, we could not imagine what it might be like to come from the South Bronx or from Kenya or from elsewhere overseas, or to be something other than Christian, or to have a different kind of family, or to not go to college, or to work outside an office or at a time other than nine to five Monday through Friday. What we saw and read about other types of lives was not very complimentary. Sadly, most people are more likely to watch a television program or read a book that tells about strange and scary things, and the people who make television programs and write books know this, so they rarely produce programs and books about nice, normal, good people who are hospitable and hard-working and kind to their neighbors. Doing anything other than reproducing the lives of our parents felt unsafe.

I want to say a word about safety.

A very dear friend of mine once said something to me quite unexpectedly. We were talking rather casually about nothing in particular when she announced, very intensely, “I will not pray for you to be safe. To be safe means to be inside a box, and I need you to grow bigger and taller than the box. Instead, I will pray that you have all that you need to be nourished and to grow. But not that you’ll be safe.”

Just to make this clear, I hadn’t actually asked her to pray that I’d be safe, but I have to say that up until that point, I’d been a big fan of safety. Not getting hurt is generally preferable to getting hurt. To wish for safety, I think, is a pretty normal thing. But she was right. If we encase ourselves in anything, either physical or metaphorical, that will keep all the potentially harmful things out, by definition we are also restricting ourselves to a limited area. We are preventing growth.

Just as we do this individually, we tend to do this collectively. Some new idea, new person, new invitation, new opportunity comes to our faith community and we might react as though it’s dangerous even when it’s a blessing. Change of any kind can feel like a threat to safety. Anything not-like-us can feel like a threat to safety. And yet, God doesn’t call us to be safe. God calls us to grow.

If you’ve made it as far as this room, you’ve already answered God’s call to “come and see.” And though this is a bit of a strange thought, when we go home to our local faith communities, we will all be just a little bit scary. At least some of you in this room will have heard the question from time to time: “Can anything good come out of FWCC?”

What we experience here, being with God in the presence of other types of Friends, other languages, other cultures, other perspectives, other races . . . we are stretched. And when we go home, we bring bits of that other-ness with us. We are not quite the same people that we were when we left. We’ve accepted God’s invitation to change.

God’s invitation doesn’t feel safe. And it’s not. When God invites us to “come and see,” that doesn’t come with a description of what it is we’re about to experience. If we knew all the details ahead of time, I have no doubt that we would all say no. We are changed, step by step, along the way, and in this way, we are able to be ready for the next change. I can testify from my own experience that this is true. The person I was in 2010, when I became a member of Fifteenth Street Meeting, would not have recognized me. She would have been deeply frightened at the idea of becoming me. She would have chosen a smaller life. A safer life.

The world around us, especially the media, reinforces the idea that everything outside of our own little box is unsafe. What we’re told is incomplete, like the image of the little boy in Kenya that cuts out his community. But I have to acknowledge that there’s some truth to the idea, that there are times when travel in the ministry is physically or spiritually dangerous, that following God’s path to new jobs or new relationships or forgiveness all comes with the risk of being hurt.

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?


Can anything harmful come out of Nazareth?

Of course.

I think that the important thing is not to expect to be safe. God does not promise us that we’ll be safe. God’s invitation is to “come and see.” When we stop trying to protect ourselves, when we stop asking, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” in a defensive way, as a reason not to go there, or as justification for not meeting a Nazarene, then we can really follow God’s leadings.

What did come out of Nazareth that day?

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they should be called the children of God. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Forgive others their trespasses. Judge not, that you be not judged. Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them. This is really good stuff. And it turned the tables on traditional teachings—flipped everything over, just like Jesus later did in the temple—and it shook things up and frightened people. The message Jesus brought was anything but safe. It was a call to grow.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nathaniel asked.

And Philip saith unto him, “Come and see.”

Can I Have a Definition, Please?

How would you define travel in the ministry?

The definition matters more than we might think, especially when it comes to the connotation of the phrase, which for me has long included meetings for worship, vocal ministry, and somehow or other, the presence of horses. I feel a bit foolish revealing this as my mental image because I’ve spent huge amounts of time asking the question, “How do we define travel in the ministry?,” and I feel like I should know that it doesn’t have to involve bonnets or anything, and yet, when I close my eyes and picture it . . .

At the same time, for years, there’s been all this anxiety about how to define my own call to ministry. I phrase it deliberately as “there’s been all this anxiety” and not “I’ve had all this anxiety” because mostly the anxiety hasn’t come from me. It’s come from other people who have, for various totally valid reasons, needed to be able to describe what I’m doing. But even with help from clearness committees and support committees and other ministers and trusted elders, there never seemed to be the right language.

“Writing-speaking-organizational consulting-storytelling-multigenerational community-systems analysis-outreach-revival ministry” is reasonable accurate, but . . . seriously?

Hearth-building ministry” is something I made up that’s easy to say, but nobody knows what it means.

This all brings me back to a time when I was very young and had a boyfriend who’d never kissed me. One particular evening, we found ourselves in a situation that was very TV-show-romantic (mountain climbing, sitting by a fireside), and it certainly seemed like he ought to be kissing me, and I wondered why he wasn’t kissing me, and at the same time he kept doing this weird thing with his face where he would turn and put his mouth very close to my chin and I couldn’t figure out why—

It took me six weeks to put that together.

Anyway, in what feels like a similar phenomenon, it finally occurred to me about three weeks ago that what I’m doing among Friends is traveling in the ministry, which really and truly does not require horses and which is sufficient as a phrase all by itself, and why didn’t I figure that out a lot earlier? Why did it seem like I had to come up with something else to say?

I think it’s because Quakers, collectively, don’t have a good definition of traveling in the ministry. I mean, aside from the horses and bonnets thing.

Lloyd Lee Wilson has some words about this that I’ve found handy. He says that “travel in the gospel ministry is different from, feels different from and looks different than, travel under a social concern or a simple visitation,” and he also mentions that “the first motion toward travel in the gospel ministry is love for Friends, usually not personally known, in distant meetings.” Both of those statements ring true, but Lloyd Lee’s description of travel in the gospel ministry leans heavily on vocal ministry in meeting for worship and also worship opportunities within homes, and he doesn’t say much (as I recall) about whether other venues of ministry might also be gospel ministry.

My own yearly meeting’s Faith and Practice (New York Yearly Meeting) emphasizes the procedure around travel in the ministry much more than the essence of what it is. And I will understand if you read the first few words of this quote and then give up and skip to the next paragraph. “Where a member proposes to travel under the weight of a concern, the monthly meeting may issue a minute of travel releasing the Friend for a particular service. The minute of travel is a certificate endorsing the Friend’s concern, indicating that the meeting is in unity with and in support of this venture. The service undertaken may include arranging public addresses, informal conferences, visiting in families, appointing meetings, or making group visits, prompted by a desire to deepen the religious life of the Society or promote a specific form of social action. At the business meeting where the proposed minute is taken up, and in advance of that meeting, where possible, Friends should give counsel and sympathetic consideration to the individual and the concern. Discretion and sensitivity to divine guidance, as well as to the conditions of those who will be met, are vital qualifications for visitors. A minute of travel should not be granted lightly, and the monthly meeting’s preparers should so phrase it that there can be no doubt of the purpose for which the monthly meeting issued it or any basis for confusion with a letter of introduction.”

Friends World Committee for Consultation Section of the Americas tells us that traveling ministers “encourage Friends to learn from one another, and following consultation and discernment with the local communities, proceed to minister through prayer, pastoral counseling and encouragement, religious education, or peace, justice and environmental concerns.”

In Quaker Process for Friends on the Benches, Mathilda Navias quotes Jonathan Vogel-Borne: “Throughout significant portions of Quaker history the traveling ministry has been the lifeblood of the Religious Society of Friends. Since the earliest days women and men have been called by God to travel to various places among the ‘world’s people’ as well as among already established groups of Friends.” True, and helpful in setting it in historical context.

Callid Keefe-Perry talks about this at length and in wonderful ways, and one thing he mentions is that his “own service falls within the . . . category [of] Traveling in the Ministry, meaning that while I continually return to, and am grounded and held accountable by, community there, the work I do is primarily outside of my congregation.” This accountability piece feels important to me.

Brian Drayton and Noah Baker Merrill once said that “the calling to ministry always involves travel—and travail. The motion of love, the inward response (willing or unwilling), and the risk of service demand preparation, clarity, listening, humility, trust.”


Don’t get me wrong—Lloyd Lee Wilson, Faith and Practice, FWCC, Mathilda Navias, Callid Keefe-Perry, Brian Drayton, and Noah Baker Merrill are all awesome. There’s not one name or organization or publication on that list that I don’t respect, and I’ve found all of the above text genuinely helpful over the years.

But somehow, I’ve still got horses and bonnets in my head.

In contrast to the horses-and-bonnets thing, here’s some ministry stuff that I’ve actually done lately:

– Traveled to Africa and the Middle East and a bunch of places in the United States

– Clerked committees

– Taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Kenya

– Tutored special education students in Palestine

– Administrated Facebook groups

– Made a documentary

– Published blogs

– Wrote a workbook for sixth graders

– Led programmed worship

– Facebooked and Instagrammed

– Facilitated workshops

– Went for walks with people

– Attended a World Council of Churches gathering on evangelism and ministry

– Consulted with staff members of various Quaker organizations

– Raised money

– Served on a board of directors

– Took over somebody’s Twitter feed

– Sent a whole bunch of emails

Is there a phrase for this other than “travel in the ministry?”

For the sake of recognizing travel in the ministry, and also for the sake of making it feel attainable, we’ve got to come up with a modern-relevant definition. I think I might take mine from Jeremiah. “All you have to do is go where I tell you to go and do what I tell you to do.” That’s a pretty good definition of travel in the ministry, right?  (Jeremiah 1:7)

Though I don’t want to lose the accountability piece, the connection to a local meeting, the corporate discernment process of sending someone out and receiving them back. That’s the difference between Quakerism and what I understand about historical Ranterism; for Quakers, there’s an emphasis on knowing that we can’t consistently discern where God tells us to go and what God tells us to do without a community to help us test things. So . . .

Travel in the Ministry: going where God tells you to go and doing what God tells you to do while checking in with your home faith community pretty often so you don’t accidentally go rogue or forget to take care of yourself.

How would you define travel in the ministry?

Also, what does it look like?

The Year of the Onion Flower

My roommates unearthed it, so to speak, from the back of the vegetable crisper. The carrots had started to liquefy—that’s a thing that carrots do—but the onion had developed roots.

In Tanzania at the World Council of Churches, a young woman stands center stage and tells us, “Since I am fifteen, I have a call to be a pastor. But they say to me, you cannot be a minister because you are a woman. I find another church. They say, what can she tell us, she is so young? Because I am a woman, because I am young, I fight twice.” 

This comes two days after another young woman—this one in my Bible study group—is nearly kidnapped and dragged into a van. But she shows up at Bible study the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that.

 On the last day of the conference, I sit on the steps and talk about women in ministry with an Egyptian Orthodox priest in full vestments. He thanks me for my faithfulness, and I thank him for his.

We placed the onion in a wine carafe and left it on the bookshelf. In a couple of weeks, it sprouted a stem. Attracted by the evidence of life, we moved it to the windowsill…sunshine, right?

At Ramallah Friends School, I meet a little boy with developmental delays and a passionate love for classical music. We listen together to Beethoven, Bach, and Pachelbel, and we practice speaking in English about each. Then, just for something new, I play him “I Got Rhythm” sung by Judy Garland. Laboriously, he writes in my notebook:

IT’s very very very GooD music becauze It is my favorate.

A couple weeks later, I sprawled on the floor reading aloud from a Wikipedia article about onion reproduction while Roommate A washed dishes and Roommate B roasted a chicken.

I read the Bible and the Harvard Business Review, Lloyd Lee Wilson and Malcolm Gladwell and old minutes from yearly meeting sessions. I study systems analysis, sociology, marketing, fundraising, economics and more. I experiment with social media and analyze survey data and consider how discoveries in neuroscience might shed light on community building and culture change. And then, sometimes, I listen to showtunes—in fact, Fiddler on the Roof’s “Anatevka” inspired The Grief and the Promised Land.

Turns out you can force an onion to bloom if you stick it in a refrigerator and then let it out in the warmth of a kitchen. The onion thinks—yup, it “thinks”—that winter’s over and spring has come, so of course it’s time to make vegetable babies.

In Samburu, I hear the story of Loko, where Kenyan Friends built a meetinghouse, a health facility, and a school in 2002. But following tribal clashes in 2006, the structures were destroyed and the building materials carried away.

Three years ago, Friends returned to Loko and started a nursery school there. They’re also using that nursery school as a worship place. The Samburu people are slowly returning.

The day I arrive to visit, twelve children dance to the beat of a drum and teach me to count to five in their language. The community honors me with a warm can of soda. This is living the resurrection.

Within the month, the onion blossomed. No water, no soil, just sunshine and stored-up energy. The stem burst open with a hundred tiny flowers.

I’m in Notre Dame mostly because a flight home from Palestine is cheaper if I spend twenty hours in Paris. It’s December, and a brilliant Christmas star hovers above us all inside the cathedral. I take some time to sit and consider in silence the glorious non-specificity of God’s invitation: “Come and see,” He says. “Follow the Light I’m showing you. Just—come and see.”

That onion flower stayed with us for weeks. Eventually, it wilted, and it’s long since gone. But I can almost see it even now, right there on the windowsill, across the table as I write.

A Song of Peace

Where I’ve Been (November)

I fixed a child’s hair bow. The clip had broken, and I had bobby pins. I pulled one out of my ponytail and slid it through the little red ribbon and reaffixed the bow to its four-year-old owner. If I’ve done nothing else here, I know that I’ve done that.

That’s not meant to sound despairing. It’s just that travel in the ministry is much like any other bit of life, and it’s not always clear what we’ve achieved—so it helps to celebrate little things, like fixing a tiny bow.

I have a little chart next to the light switch in “my” bedroom, here in Palestine. It tells me what time to set the alarm each day. Some days start earlier than others, and no two are the same, so I made myself a chart to simplify things. Of course, this is a chart of normal, and normal rarely happens here, not with the government reorganizing social security, which has led to regular city-wide protests on top of the usual half-days and parties and holidays of school life.  I do the best I can to keep up.

Most days, I work with three or four or five or six kids. With some, my job is to teach some English. With a few of the smallest, it’s help with behavior management. Little S only wants to play with toys (forever). Little L tends to hit. And kick. And spit. Little T is a sweet thing cloaked in dignity; she permits me to assist with homework, but not cuddle. Young A, a middle schooler, is learning that not everyone wants to hug. Last week he told me very clearly to move my chair back “because personal space.” And my new friend B is near graduation. Some academics are out of reach, but she might be a greeter or a clerk in a store. She is learning to say “excuse me” and “how are you?” at all the right times, and in two languages.

Ramallah bustles. I don’t know how to describe this place. Begin with the color gray; then add a great many yellow cabs. Lots of people. The occasional donkey cart. Hundreds or thousands of little shops, many with automated barkers, tape recorders playing through megaphones, “pajama ten shekel, pajama ten shekel,” and the tape recorder never gets tired so it never, never, ever stops. Call to prayer five times a day. Onions three shekels for half a kilo; when I just want one, the vendor laughs at me and says, “Just take it.” With a cone, you automatically get three kinds of ice cream.

I’ve made some new friends. Sometimes I find myself sitting and listening. Grief or frustration or wistfulness—a traveling minister is safe to talk to. One day, I made a Christmas tree out of glitter paper. Another day, I sharpened three hundred colored pencils. Every Friday, some local friends (small ‘f’) feed me and a handful of others some breakfast, pita and hummus and olive oil and vegetables.

Sundays are worship days. Ramallah Friends Meeting has a meetinghouse made—I think—of 1500 stones, not counting the floor, but it’s possible my multiplication is wrong. It feels very safe. The space around the meetinghouse is brilliantly green. “A Song of Peace” is the meeting’s sort of unofficial anthem.

I’m tied to home. This month, from Ramallah, I’ve run Facebook groups and answered emails and clerked committee meetings (thank you, Skype) and worked for New England Yearly Meeting and scheduled fundraising travel for Friends United Meeting. I’ve blogged less often because my writing energy is going into a book. This one’s about Quaker culture and faith. Another one, later, will be about travel in the ministry.

The school’s amazing. I won’t tell you it’s perfect—and if I did, you very sensibly wouldn’t believe me—but it’s really quite wonderful. The families are dedicated. The kids work hard. The teachers care. Last week the college counselor, who lives down the hall, pulled up a photo on his phone to show me this year’s first college acceptance. “And he still has interviews for Harvard and Columbia,” he told me proudly.

It’s easy to forget the occupation…that is, easy for me. I know I can leave this place anytime I like, and if I want to visit Jerusalem, I can take the 218 bus. But my Palestinian friends can’t come with me. I haven’t been to Jerusalem.


Where I’m Going (December)

My flight out of Tel Aviv is December 9, and I’ll stop in Paris for twenty hours on the way home. (Believe it or not, this was the cheapest option!) I’ll be home for a little more than a week and then go see family for the Christmas holiday.

October-November 2018

Where I’ve Been (October)

October was packed in a wonderful way. I started the month by speaking to the lower school at Friends Seminary in Manhattan. My subject was “being a bridge,” and I spoke for about forty minutes on bridging cultures and on education as a bridge. I showed the kids some of the work that I did in a classroom in Samburu, Kenya, where the students are eager but the materials are few. We also talked about engineering and how two pieces leaning against one another are stronger than one piece stretching over a big gap—so, who do you lean on?


The next day, I headed for New Jersey to be part of a group building a strategic plan for outreach in New York Yearly Meeting. The weekend planning session was the end of two years of background work on the part of many Friends, and it was really exciting to see everything come together. The group developed a strategy by which we could do research, build resources, work directly with meetings to connect them to the resources, and tell inspiring stories all at the same time.

A quick trip to Texas meant spending some time with my aunt and uncle (and another aunt, and another aunt, and a handful of assorted cousins), and my dad met me there too, which was a bonus. Then up to Indiana for a Friends United Meeting board meeting. We heard some really extraordinary stories about work happening around the world.


FUM’s advancement committee (of which I am a member) also got plans in place for me to do some storytelling/fundraising work for FUM in the month of February—woohoo! I look forward to traveling through Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa in that month and would love to stop at your church or meeting if yours is somewhere in that area.


I also connected with the FUM Press about a new common core-aligned workbook (sixth grade) to accompany the middle school book Luke’s Summer Secret.  Coming soon!


Then I hopped a plane to Chicago, then Amman, then Tel Aviv, all followed by a taxi to Ramallah. The trip wasn’t flawless but wasn’t as tricky as it might have been. I spent my first couple of weeks in Palestine going from disorientation (I’m sorry, I’m supposed to do what to cross the street?) to basic competence (pretty sure I can find the grocery store…) to comfort (one o’clock pita time!)

Ramallah Friends School is an extraordinary place. The community is welcoming, and the teachers are passionate and highly competent. There are fourteen grades, from lower kindergarten through twelfth, and the lower, middle, and high schools are all International Baccalaureate curriculum. In kindergarten and lower school, the language of instruction is Arabic, with English as an additional course, but in the upper school, the language of instruction is primarily English, and kids graduate fully bilingual. The school is also inclusive of children with special needs.44112840_10156176070339086_3525572738699755520_n

I’m still keeping a number of plates spinning at home—three cheers for the Internet—and I’ve signed on to do some consulting work (mostly writing-related) for New England Yearly Meeting over the next year.


Where I’m Going (November)

In November, I’ll have a full month to spend at Ramallah Friends School. I have a pretty regular routine going—get up, do some work on at-home projects online, eat breakfast, spend a day teaching, buy pita, come home, eat lunch, do some more work on at-home projects, go to the corner and buy a fancy juice or some ice cream, read, sleep, rinse, repeat. It’s a surprisingly spacious schedule.

Mondays I’m at the upper school. I work with two tenth grade students early in the morning, both in special education, but very different from one another. One is vision impaired but has excellent conversational English, and the other has very little English. After that, I visit two middle school English classes and assist a few kids who are having a hard time, and then I work one-on-one with a twelfth grader, also in special education.

Tuesdays are lower school days, and there I have four children, each one-on-one, over the course of the morning and afternoon. These are two second-graders, one fourth-grader, and one-fifth grader, and they’re dealing with various combinations of ADHD, dyslexia, and developmental delays. One is still working on letter recognition; the most advanced of them is working on writing complete sentences.

Wednesdays, it’s off to kindergarten! I spend most of the day in English classes, where my focus is support for kids who are having a particularly hard time, mostly behaviorally. Kindergarteners are young enough that no matter what the neurological or psychological condition might be, it tends to manifest as behavior problems, so it takes careful observation to figure out which ones are having sensory integration problems and which aren’t processing language well and which might be on the autism spectrum…once you’ve figured out the cause of the trouble, you can often intervene in a helpful way. The school does have experts in this field—and they are more experienced than I am—but an extra pair of eyes comes in handy, or at least I hope so.44930619_10156198573549086_243013132258115584_n

Thursdays are back to the upper school, where I have one-on-ones or one-on-twos all day. My youngest on Thursday is sixth grade, and my oldest is tenth grade. Again, it’s a wide range of exceptionalities, everything from “still learning English phonics” to “needs help organizing essays.”

Friday, NO SCHOOL! Or as we say in kindergarten—and you have to imagine this in a sing-song voice like nanny-nanny-poo-poo—“Friday is a day off, Friday is a day off, no school on Fridays!” Friday, of course, is the Muslim holy day, and Sunday is the Christian holy day, and some of the students are Muslim and some Christians, so . . .

Saturday is a school day, which sort of means that I feel like a hobbit here, with “first weekend” and “second weekend.” It’s another day of kindergarten, very similar to Wednesdays, except I also pull some kids out of class for a few minutes at a time to work on fine or gross motor control. Up the stairs…down the stairs…hop on one foot…catch the ball…up the stairs…down the stairs…seriously, though, did I mention these kids are really cute?


Fun with Google

I found that I didn’t have a whole lot very profound to say this afternoon, but I thought it might be fun to play with Google’s autocomplete function. So I gave Google some question starters and figured I would answer whatever it came up with. And then, so that it wouldn’t become a totally academic exercise, I set myself a thirty minute time limit to answer all of the questions below. Also access to the Internet, so I could fact check myself.

How do

How do Quakers dress? Quakers dress all kinds of ways. A few Quakers are still Plain, which means they will dress in unadorned pants, dresses, suspenders, hats, etc., sort of like the Amish but not exactly like the Amish. Most Quakers dress a lot like the people around them. For those of us in North America or Europe, this might mean jeans or skirts or suits or whatever. But actually, there are tons of Quakers in South America and Africa (and some in Asia and the West Pacific), and there are more Quakers in Kenya than anywhere else in the world. So if you asked us to all line up in a row and look at what we were wearing, my best guess is that over half of us would be in traditional Kenyan clothing. Also it would take a very long time to get us all to line up in a row. We don’t follow directions very well.

How do Quakers worship? The more traditional form of Quaker worship is waiting worship, which means waiting in expectant silence for the guidance of Holy Spirit. When we experience that guidance, we might rise and speak a message that we’ve been given. But the majority of Quakers now worship in other forms. Many sing, pray, read Scripture, and/or dance as part of their worship. 

How do Quakers pray? The same way as many other faith traditions, though we tend to emphasize listening really carefully God to answer.

How do Quakers sleep? On our backs, sides, stomachs, whatever. Hopefully someplace other than meeting for worship.

How do Quakers marry? Again, traditionally, Quakers marry in an expectant-silence-meeting-for-worship with no clergyperson. At the moment that feels right, the marrying couple stands and says something like vows, though not necessarily some particular text, and then they marry each other in the eyes of God and in the care of those gathered; no human authority marries them to each other. In the United States, Quakers have a special exception to the marriage law in all fifty states to accommodate this. That said, there are Quaker pastors in many branches of Quakerism, and such pastors do officiate marriages.

How do Quakers mate? That is absolutely none of your business.

How do Quakers speak? As truthfully as possible. There’s a story—probably apocryphal—about somebody speaking to an old Quaker. The somebody points to a bunch of sheep on the side of a hill and asks, “Are those sheep shorn?” The old Quaker looks at the sheep very carefully and then says, “I can certainly tell you that the side of the sheep that I’m looking at has been shorn. I can’t say anything about the other side.”

How do Quakers vote? In political elections, most of us vote like anybody else—by going to the polls. Among ourselves, we don’t vote. Our meetings for business are held in expectant worship, and we search for something called “sense of the meeting.” The question at hand is presented. We wait for different people to feel inspired and speak to the question. Then, after a little while, it becomes clear how God is leading the group as a whole in response to the question. We name that and call that “sense of the meeting.” It doesn’t mean that everybody agrees on the answer to the question. It means that everybody agrees that the group as a whole seems to be led to that particular answer.

How do Quakers celebrate Christmas? We used to not celebrate Christmas or any other holiday because we said we were “not keepers of days” and that every day is equally holy. Officially, I suppose we still don’t celebrate Christmas, or at least certain branches still don’t, but most of us do. We tend to keep it simple. At my own Quaker meeting, the kids put on a little Nativity play, which is very sweet. Then they serve nuts to everybody. They also have a little Christmas party in December with the guests at a homeless shelter.

How do Quakers dress today? Almost exactly the same way that we dressed yesterday.

How many

How many Quakers are there? Luckily, there’s an organization called Friends World Committee for Consultation that counts everybody! Or at least, they try to. They say there are 400,000 Quakers in the world, half living in Africa.

How many Quakers in the US? Around 80,000, it would appear.

How many Quakers are there in the US? I said, around 80,000.

How many Quakers are there today? Not as many as there were yesterday. We’re an aging population, and generally speaking, our numbers are shrinking. But then again, in Africa, we’re growing.  So I don’t know.

How many Quakers are there in the UK? Somewhere around 17,000, or at least that’s what Quakers in the UK say.

How many Quakers are there in America? See, this gets complicated, because it depends on how you define “America,” and there is no standard definition. Did you know that people the world over don’t even agree on how many continents there are? I was talking with a group of people from Central America once, and it turns out that in school, they learn there are eight continents because Central America is its own. But if we’re counting Quakers in North America, Central America, and South America, the answer might be 160,000. Maybe. I had to do math because some websites refer to actual numbers and others refer to percentages of the 400,000. 

How many Quakers in Australia? Some say 1,000. Some say 2,000. Probably make sure there’s enough ice cream for 2,000. Most Quakers really like ice cream.

How many Quakers in UK? I’m still going with 17,000, but look, it’s complicated. Because some Friends are members who attend regularly, and some Friends are regular attenders who aren’t members, and some Friends are members who don’t attend regularly, so who counts and who doesn’t? Also we don’t have an official authority that defines who’s a Quaker and who’s not and who demands a regular census. (Like I said, Friends World Committee for Consultation tries, but you really can’t get much better than an estimate.)

How many Quakers in Ireland? Ireland and Northern Ireland count themselves together, and they report 1,600 people.

How many Quakers in Pennsylvania? That information doesn’t seem to be readily available. We don’t organize ourselves according to state lines. The best I can tell you is that there are about eighty meetings/congregations in Pennsylvania.

 How long do

How long do Quakers live? I’m guessing we line up fairly well with the average life expectancy. Maybe higher or lower depending on what country we’re talking about.

How long do green Quakers live? I don’t know, but probably not as long as the non-green ones, because turning green cannot be a good sign.

At the Assembly





At the Assembly

Hey—I know you!

the wriggly one

the curious one

the one who needs glasses

the tiptoer


You probably don’t remember me. This is your first time through here.

(It’s my ninety-seventh, I think.)


hello, clumsy one with shoes untied

and charming one

and deflector


I’m excited to see what you learn today.

Often, this is not what I teach.


hello, not-speaker

and first volunteer

and mischief-sassy

and scarred-over-sassy

and little one without enough sleep


You are absolutely, invaluably special

and at the same time so laughingly the same

that I’ve met you

in the Bronx

and Kenya

and Palestine

and I imagine you’re in Siberia too

and also every stage of time


Someday you’ll grow up.

I kind of wish you wouldn’t do that

Because once you do, there’s this sheen of

armor stuff

on your skin

This is a loss.


But then again

You never do grow up

because you always show up again—

So, there’s that.


I’m awfully lucky to know you, friend.


September-October 2018

Here’s the third in a series of updates on travel and projects.


Where I’ve Been (September)

The first week or so of September was pretty quiet—mostly at-home work, keeping up with emails and letter-writing and Quaker Open Book and Holy Experiments. I also started working with a group of 50 Friends from a total of 19 meetings on the FGC Digital Outreach project. This project includes training for participants in using Facebook as an outreach tool while simultaneously running ads in the local meetings’ areas. (As of the end of September, these ads have reached a total of almost 98,000 people. I don’t want to go into the other results/data quite yet, though I might at the end of next month when the project is officially over.)

Mid-September, I spent an evening at Westbury Friends Meeting, first talking with their ministry and counsel committee about social media presence and then—after a lovely potluck dinner—doing some storytelling to the meeting in general about the world of Friends and 1 Corinthians 12. That same week, I did a Saturday workshop on building a healthy multiage meeting community at Monadnock meeting in New Hampshire. They are an hospitable, friendly crew, and I was so glad to get to know them.

Later in September, I did a little consulting with some Friends on how to market a new retreat series they’re planning to offer, and then I headed to Maine for a gathering of recipients of the Lyman grant. This grant is provided for the purpose of helping people to pursue whatever they are Spirit-led to do, and though the monetary amount isn’t huge, the affirmation of receiving it was very helpful to me—and the gathering for recipients was relaxing and warm and full of opportunities to connect and hear stories of how God is moving in each person’s life. Oh—and I had some super fun, very geeky conversation with a couple of Baha’i about systems analysis and organizational effectiveness. (The gathering was hosted by a Baha’i retreat center.)


Where I’m Going (October)

It’s a big month—exciting and a little intimidating. In the first week of October, I’ll serve as a facilitator for a community period at Friends Seminary lower school on the topic of “being a bridge.” This basically means speaking to a group of kids, teachers, and parents, the kids falling between the ages of 5 and 12. The next day, I’ll head to New Jersey, where a small group of Friends is gathering to create a strategic plan for how New York Yearly Meeting can support local meetings and Friends in outreach in the next few years.

In the second week of October, I’ll fly first to Dallas to spend a couple of days with some extended family and then to Indiana for a Friends United Meeting general board meeting. From Indiana, I’ll fly to Chicago and Amman and Tel Aviv—in that order—on my way to Palestine, where I’ll settle in to spend a couple of months at Ramallah Friends School. RFS, for those who don’t know, is located in the West Bank. It’s a ministry of Friends United Meeting and educates Palestinian girls and boys from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. This school year is their 150th. I’ll be working in their special education department through the first week of December, though I’m told I’ll still have excellent and consistent access to Wi-Fi, so I won’t be disappearing from the world online.

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?