An Open Letter to My Yearly Meeting

“We are inclined to call things by the wrong names. We call prosperity ‘happiness’, and adversity ‘misery’ even though adversity is the school of wisdom and often the way to eternal happiness.”  William Penn.

“People talk about revelation, and say it has ceased; but what ignorance it bespeaks, when man knows not the least thing on earth without revelation.” Elias Hicks

“If God ever spoke, He is still speaking. If He has ever been in mutual and reciprocal communication with the persons He has made, He is still a communicating God as eager as ever to have listening and receptive souls. If there is something of His image and superscription in our inmost structure and being, we ought to expect a continuous revelation of His will and purpose through the ages…. He is the Great I Am, not a Great He Was.”  Rufus M. Jones

Dear Friends,

It’s one of those times we Quakers come to cyclically, when it seems good to look back at the wisdom of Friends past, to listen for something that will speak to our condition. A quick search on the internet today brought me to the three I have shared with you, above. They each spoke to me deeply.

William Penn

Penn tells me that what are in now is not a “crisis”. He tells me we are in a great Teaching Moment, and that the process of learning, and therefore changing, is not always comfortable. Hicks, eternally irascible, reminds me that the best part of my own wisdom is a function of my ability to witness and speak to continuing revelation. Rufus Jones weaves that thread into a more delightful quilt-patch, exhorting me to be present for God. Ironically, he tells me not to pay too much attention to the words, books and ideas of the past, because God is tapping me on the shoulder, now.

What is God saying?

Well I’m not clear, but it seems to me that God is saying something to us all about our collective lives together as Friends, within this large group we have created called Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. It seems to me God is saying something about the way our ministry is, or is not connected to money. And it feels like God is saying something to us about unity and collective action. What ever is being said, or whispered, to us now, it feels big and important.

So I would like to share some of my observations and ideas, not because I claim them as Divine Inspiration, but because I am convinced that our way forward begins with a free and loving exchange of observations and ideas. A critical component of this kind of exchange among Friends, especially during times of stress, is that no one claims to be right about anything. Related to that idea, is the importance of withholding judgment about observation or ideas that seem foreign and faulty. This is the beginning of our great coming together. This is the beginning of “we”.

Organizational Structure:

Elias Hicks

The current organizational structure of PYM isn’t working and it’s unsustainable. It’s based on the faulty assumption that PYM is full of ready and willing volunteers who have the time and inclination to populate our working/granting/service groups, and Standing Committees. My experience in this organizational structure over the last eight years convinces me this isn’t true.

There are plenty of “reasons” why it isn’t working, but now is not the time to thresh them. There isn’t a way to adjust the current structure so that it works, and by “works”, I mean simultaneously care for our own community and make the world a better place. There simply are not enough of us to do the work – at least, to do the meaningful work this structure was meant to engender and facilitate. It is important not to lay blame, and not re-fight controversies which troubled us ten, twenty, 60 or 150  years ago. What we must do is see where we are now and discern what continuing revelation is telling us about that.

I have always felt that the current structure enables individual leadings and inhibits collective ones. Indeed I sense it was design this way on purpose. The current structure was designed to nurture a “bottom-up” movement of leadings. This has led to a Society in which an attempt is made to find a way to support every leading which comes out of monthly meetings. Compounding the personnel deficit I mentioned before, is an organization with too many activities. With so many activities, and not enough financial and human resources to execute them, we become entrenched in our silos, protecting the little patch of Quaker mission dear to us at all costs, more fiercely as the resources diminish. This syndrome leads to a Yearly Meeting peopled with Quaker lobbyists, whose mission is to make sure their witness is maintained.  No wonder we can’t unite on the central question  now facing us: who are we and what do we want to do? We want to do it all. But Friends, in wanting to do it all, we don’t do anything very well, except work on ourselves in a vain attempt to try and do it all.

There are many Friends, and many of them beloved to me, who hold this “bottom up” design as an article of faith, something close to a creedal doctrine. But while I agree that the monthly meeting is the primary Quaker community, I disagree that leadership, vision and Big Ideas may only come from them and not, say, from a larger body of Friends, or from one Friend alone, shouting in the wilderness. Indeed, it is my observation that this stubborn instance that the only supportable leadings are ones that can be traced to origins in monthly meetings is absurd and self-defeating. Absurd, because presumably any Friend – whether on the staff of PYM, or deeply involved in the workings of the Yearly Meeting, or from some other Quaker group – would be ipso facto from a monthly meeting, somewhere. Self-defeating, because it frustrates the cohesion of many Friends around any one leading, in that leadings which rise to the level of, say, Yearly Meeting action may be suspect, since they aren’t coming from monthly meetings. It seems to me that we worship in a Yearly Meeting designed to be fractured, and not united.

Many of us have been searching for ways to lead our Yearly Meeting to unity on that question I asked before: who are we as a community of faith, and what do we want to do in the world? I sense that the call to a Long Range planning process is an opportunity to make meaningful progress on this essential question. Indeed, I sense our vitality as a Yearly Meeting depends upon it. But before we rediscover our great, gathered vitality, we may need to worship together, deeply, and for a long while. So here’s a radical idea:

I propose a Yearly Meeting Sabbath Year of Reflection and Renewal. A Sabbath Year would save us money and allow us to return to extended worship with each other as we discern who God wants us to be and what God wants us to do. Right now, we are too stressed out, anxious and busy to listen to divine guidance well. We are under assault from a popular, secular culture which frays our nerves and distracts us from our Guide with over-stimulation, entertainment overload and narcissistic escapism. We need to stop, sit and listen. And we need to make time to share what we are hearing from God with each other. We will need to continue to provide some essential services, and we will need to decide how to discern what services are essential. I might suggest services and programs which care for our youth, our elderly, and Friends in distress. And we will need to treat our staff with respect and love, as we may need to make reductions of one kind or another both in response to the decrease in activity a Sabbath Year will bring, as well as to make time for staff to join in the reflection and renewal we are seeking together.

Rufus Jones

A Vision

May I share a personal vision with Friends?

What if, through the worship of Sabbath Year, when we as a Yearly Meeting sit with the query, who are we as a faith community and what do we want to do in the world, what if we could discern a process by which this Yearly Meeting could come to unity on one essential mission that we will work on collectively over the course of five years. That’s right: one essential mission that we all work on together. During that five-year term, we would be preparing for our next five-year project. Simultaneously, we would continue our essential programming for groups in need: the young, the elderly, those in need of various kinds of financial assistance, support for meetings, etc.

What we might discover is that many of the activities that are now dear to us, activities involving young people, young adults, the elderly, peace, social justice, just to name a few, all might have a role to play in supporting this one essential mission. And we might discover that if we bend our effort and our faith toward one goal all together as a Yearly Meeting, we might discover that we are becoming the “great people to be gathered” that Fox envisioned.

Our organizational structure would then be designed to support this one five-year mission, the threshing and discernment process by which the next five-year mission is revealed to us, as well as the essential services mentioned above. Whether this means a variation of the current Standing Committee structure or some other structure remains to be seen. In any case, I believe we would become mission-driven, economically focused and unified.

Funds

I have always been troubled by what I call PYM’s “double-dipping” it uses each year as it raises money from itself. We give money to our Monthly Meetings, who then send large percentages of the money raised to the Yearly Meeting in the form of Covenants. Then, the Yearly Meeting comes back to us and asks us to give again in the form of Annual Fund solicitations. This results in discomfort for many Friends, a discomfort lifted to anger when such Friends perceive the Yearly Meeting isn’t doing such a good job of handling its own finances (an unfair perception, in my opinion, but one that is nevertheless out there).

I propose separating the purpose of the two solicitations:

  • Covenants would be used only to pay for Yearly Meeting Essential Services.  I might suggest services critical to the well-being of our Society, and to the protection and care of the most vulnerable among us: children, the elderly and those in medical, psychological or financial distress.
  • The Annual Fund would be used to raise money for the one essential mission the Yearly Meeting has agreed to work on for five years (see above). Thus, part of the execution of that mission would be a fund-raising strategy to support it. This money, therefore, would be going directly to support a unified and focused act of meaningful Quaker ministry in the world.
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At our last interim meeting, I felt a deep sense of excitement. I felt proud of the Friends I sat with, some who are Yearly Meeting stalwarts, others there for the first time, drawn by the urgent state of affairs we face. I felt admiration for our clerks, and anguish for our staff, who labor on not knowing if they will have jobs next fall, debilitated by a sense of powerlessness as we work our way through these next few months. We must treat our staff – some of the most fervent and able Friends among us – with deep love and respect. We must invite them into this dialogue and discernment. They are Friends too.  Still, my overall sense was clear: hopefulness, the way one is hopeful as one holds a newborn; careful to hold her with safety, mindful of the uncertainty of the future, in awe at the continuing glory of creation.