The Quaker elephant in the room

I am the Clerk of the Standing Committee for Worship and Care for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. With that short sentence, I’m sure I have lost any non-Quakers reading this, and probably many Quakers too, who aren’t up on Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) jargon. Simply put, I chair a committee dedicated to the nurture of the spiritual and temporal well-being of Quakers in a large geographic area: all of Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Delaware and a bit of northern Maryland. This area is called the Yearly Meeting. Sounds like a pretty important task and it is. One would think it would be relatively easy to find faithful Friends to serve on such a committee. One would be mistaken. What follows are some thoughts from me as a Friend of the Truth. The following views do not necessarily reflect the views of any other members of the committee I clerk, nor do they necessarily reflect the committee as a whole.

There is a dis-ease in our Yearly Meeting and its primary symptom is this: we can’t find enough people to do the work of the Yearly Meeting, and even when we do, I sense we are often not finding the right people to serve. I often find that the people who serve fit into two categories: Friends who can’t say no, and who, God bless them, serve continually on a variety of committees and groups and frequently wind up exhausted, bitter or both. At least, they become ineffective through over-work. The other group tends to fit these requirements: financially secure and without young children. This group is disproportionally represented in these committees and groups which do the work. Often these are seasoned Friends who bring great experience and Spiritual groundedness to the work at hand. But they represent a generation in its twilight, and so unwittingly contribute to our pernicious appearance as a greying faith community out of touch with the real concerns and lives of young and middle aged people in 21st century America. And because of their age, they frequently lack the energy to follow a passionate leading of the Spirit, one which might light us in a new and unexpected direction. Those of us who are not financially secure and/or who do have young children find it daunting to do what we feel led to do – serve our Yearly Meeting – when we are forced to put that leading second or third in our life’s priorities, behind raising children and staying employed for instance.

Recently, I responded to a somewhat anguished email from a Friend who came to the most recent meeting of the Standing Committee. She is very interested in joining us, and she would be a valuable Friend: middle aged, of long Quaker experience, but absent any real connection to the organizational structures of the Yearly Meeting. So she brings a fresh perspective. In her email, she confessed to feeling worried about being able to serve, given the demands of her professional life. Below is my response to her:

“There is not enough time to do what needs to be done for anyone, and this is what led to the passionate discussion about that final paragraph in the epistle. Each of us feels this tension when we serve PYM: in one way, our desire to be faithful and enthusiastic servants of our faith community; on the other, driven nearly crazy by the demands of raising families and keeping food on the table. My sense is that in many ways our faith is way ahead of the times, and simultaneously way behind. One way it is way behind is that its hyper-volunteer structure assumes a kind of lifestyle that doesn’t exist anymore, one in which Friends arrived in financially stable occupations in early adulthood and lived in homes where one person, usually the woman, minded the family matters leaving the other to work and attend to the committees. One Friends attributes our inability to fill the seats on committees and working groups to a structural flaw enacted in the Yearly Meeting the 90s. I sense it has at least as much to do with the kinds of lives we all live now. I, for instance, work three or four part time jobs any given year to make ends meet, as does my wife. We live in constant financial uncertainty, and our work in the theatre frequently requires our attention on the weekends. Last year I missed half of one W&C meeting and an entire other one.”

The “final paragraph of the epistle” refers to the official communication our Standing Committee makes to the whole Yearly Meeting at one of our annual gatherings, held in July. At the end of our meeting, we spent an hour working over a rough draft of the epistle I had written. Our committee was led into a spirited discussion of what a Friend refers to “the elephant in the room”. He meant the dis-ease I describe above. You see, I am not the only Friend who senses it. After some passionate speaking and some worship, we arrived at the following, which will be read to our Friends in July as the penultimate paragraph of our epistle:

In this context our Standing Committee labors under the weight of a concern that we regard as urgent. Repeatedly in our work, we have been confronted by working groups under our care whose ministries, while essential to our life as a faith community, struggle to maintain a viable level of membership. We believe, in the spirit of continuing revelation, that it is time to consider whether we are doing God’s work most effectively under our current structures. We sense that there are essential ministries under our care which need our assured support regardless of their ability to find volunteers to facilitate them.

This minute describes the symptom but not the cause. There was some debate about the cause, debate we ultimately sensed was not helpful, since it looked back and not forward. I am less interested in identifying the cause, which tends to be an exercise in laying blame. I am quite interested in dealing with the symptom. How do we get from the picture above (engraving of Friends meeting in the 18th c.) to the picture below (gathering of Young Adult Friends)?

The Quaker Elephant in the Room or, How do we get from the picture above, to the picture below? Originally published Monday, June 22, 2009