May 31, 2005

After annual sessions

Shortly after my family's visit, I headed to the annual sessions of Northern Yearly Meeting, held in north-central Wisconsin. While there, I provided a "warm-up workshop" on Quaker identity in preparation for the workshop I'm scheduled to offer at this summer's FGC Gathering.

All in all, the workshop and the annual session went well, meaning that I have gained new insights about the "state of the yearly meeting," about Friends within it, and about myself:

1. At the yearly meeting level, at least for Northern, the discipline of conducting meetings for worship for business has been so diluted or nearly lost among monthly meetings that the clerk spent much time and energy patiently reminding Friends of some basic practices:

  • resist repeating what another Friend has already said;
  • slow down for careful consideration and reflection of items;
  • there is great value in having items discussed, threshed, and seasoned by a committee.

    A visiting Friend pointed out to me that such teaching and modeling is best done at the monthly meeting level, so that at annual sessions, business can be attended to without such interruptions.

    Though I appreciated many of the explanations and much of the modeling carried out by the clerk, I wonder: Are meetings failing to convey our practice of conducting business, based on our faith, to those who who attend meetings for worship for business?

    2. I was sad and disheartened to hear the skilled, caring clerk emphasize that the nature of our meetings for worship for business is one of "creating ever widening circles of love," rather than being one of listening together for the guidance of the Spirit and discerning together how we are led as a body.

    Why do many of the clerks of our meetings and committees diverge from a Spirit-based practice of conducting business? What message is that sending to those new to Friends?

    3. Friends are not just hungry for a rich, meaningful Quakerism. Many also thirst for having their Quaker faith articulated, words put to why we do what we do and how we do it.

    What is the balance to be struck between explaining all that we do as Friends and allowing the short-term and long-term experience among Friends to speak for itself?

    4. More Friends than I expected are wrestling with the (in)ability of their monthly meetings and worship groups to meet their spiritual needs. These Friends feel invisible within their meetings, despite their sometimes rigorous involvement through committee service, &c.

    How do we articulate and lift up these needs within our meetings and worship groups so that these spiritual needs can be addressed in a Quaker context?

    5. Friends have questions and confusion about how they are to know if they are ready to request membership: there are no dues to be paid, no membership forms to be filled out, no explicit guidelines for consideration of their relationship either to the meeting or to the Religious Society of Friends.

    How might we make our infrastructure and "entrance points" into committee service and membership more visible, more accessible to those who are new(er) to Friends?

    6. Friends in my workshop had questions related to how a meeting or worship group grows into and nurtures a Quaker identity as a corporate body.

    What responsibility does the yearly meeting have to its constituent meetings and worship groups around modeling, teaching, and conveying Quaker faith and practice?

    In addition to all this food for thought, I had a brief conversation with a Conservative Friend who still has connections to the yearly meeting. She listened patiently as I told her about my journey with my meeting and my continued concern for the spiritual condition of many individual Friends and their local faith communities. Through that Opportunity, I was given the helpful reframe that perhaps my monthly meeting has the gift of preparing to send Friends into the world who have a ministry that otherwise is "too big" for the meeting itself to hold, weigh, or even appreciate.

    That reframe dovetails nicely with the idea of my meeting being a rest stop along the way and with my personal journey of releasing my meeting from certain expectations I have had.

    Individual Friends affirmed me for the workshop I had created, the friendship I had offered, the care I had expressed, and the faithfulness I had demonstrated. Indeed, I came away from Northern Yearly Meeting with a sense of the Light reaching into me, calling me forward in a new way.


    UPDATE, 3 Sixth Month 2005:   Kiara has also written about her experience at NYM.


    david said...

    cheers liz:

    a few comments...

    for #4 (How do we articulate and lift up these needs...)

    I think it starts with awareness
    and also with real leadership.
    If there is not widespread
    awareness within the meeting (and
    particularly within the clerks
    of the committees and the meeting
    and the elders), then it is hard.
    Those persons need to know what is

    #5: (How might we make our infrastructure and "entrance points"...)

    I think the answer is by very
    careful but active coopting of
    frequent attenders.

    Eileen Flanagan said...

    Hi Liz. Thanks for the useful queries. I think our monthly meeting is always strengthened as a community by opportunities to share and hear each other's spiritual journeys. One example is a Saturday session that our Worship and Ministry offered a few years ago where Friends reflected on their own experience of giving (or not giving) vocal ministry, how they tested whether they were led to speak, etc. I think it helped all of us, especially newcomers. Not long before the session, we'd had a new attender who spoke twice during the same meeting, and a few weeks later another new attender did the same, thinking that was typical. The session gave the newcomers the chance to learn the norms, but not from a set of rules. It was touching to hear long time Friends, some of whom minister powerfully, share their struggles with knowing when to speak. I think we learned more from that and grew closer as a community than we would have from a presentation from the clerk or someone else.

    Of course, this type of intimate sharing is more difficult on the yearly meeting level, at least in my experience, but I think it would help us.

    Liz Opp said...

    David, thanks for your responses. I agree that much of our healthy attending to one another relies on certain leaders within the Quaker community demonstrating that care. I also am of the same mind that personal invitation to serve or to consider membership, from one Friend to another, is very effective: such invitations serve as a way to knit the community together and provide opportunities to get to know one another in a deeper, more significant way.

    And Eileen, I wonder if your meeting is unique or if mine is: When the monthly meeting here provides time for Friends to share their "spiritual journeys," there often is lots of sharing around the religion of their childhood, the angst of their adventures in adolescence and young adulthood, and the experiences of nearly anything spiritual but Quakerism.

    It is because of this lack of sharing of our Quaker experience within my local faith community that I am now making a distinction between sharing one's "spiritual journey" and sharing one's "journey among Friends."

    I just finished a second quick-read of the book The Living Way by Ursula Jane O'Shea, who writes, in part, that Quakers cannot expect to pass on the mystical experience itself to other Friends, but we can teach one another methods to help us listen for the Spirit, techniques to test a leading to speak, and principles of the faith to draw upon in times of stress and crisis.

    Your anecdote illuminates that instruction, and I'm glad you took the time to offer it here.


    Larry said...

    Re "lack of sharing of our Quaker experience": very reminiscent of the interminable AA meetings I attended in years past. They would go around the world about all the horrible things that happened to them, and "then somebody took me to an AA meeting, and I've been sober so many days, months, years"; that's it.

    I often meditated about that: perhaps they were reticent about telling new friends how to live the sober (or Quaker) life because who can know what the spirit may have in mind for our new life, alone and together.

    BTW re Pardee Lowe's experience at Langley, I'm trying to get in touch with him. However I found voluminous publications of his through google, asking for Pardee Lowe, Jr.

    Robin M. said...

    3. I always tend towards too much explanation, but I think Quakers in general fall the other way. I think it's a little like teaching writing. You have to give people a chance to observe good process, then give them some rules and tips to follow, and then give them a chance to practice, a lot, and talk about it again. There is a give and take.

    4. "How do we articulate and lift up these needs within our meetings and worship groups so that these spiritual needs can be addressed in a Quaker context?" This is really a key question for me. But I don't know. I know people who have fallen away from our Meeting because we weren't deep enough, challenging enough, even though Christian language would have scared them off and some explicitly because we weren't Christ-centered enough.

    5: In the last year, our M&O committee has written directly to a number of active attenders, starting with the ones who were currently clerking our committees, inviting them to conversation about membership. It took a long time to bear fruit, but slowly, some of the people are thinking more clearly about it, and a few have actually applied.

    It is in these conversations that I have had to be most clear about what I think membership means. It seems to be important to people to hear that membership is not an end or a final destination, but a commitment to a specific path. That they didn't have to wait for some future stage of enlightenment to apply for membership. It seems to be important that I say what I am struggling with, in my identity as a Quaker, how much I think I still have to learn. I have learned how hard it is to say out loud to people I know that I wonder how Friends think *we* can know the will of God, and yet I believe that is what we are aiming for. This is what has brought me to naming Truth as synonymous with God's will - that our bodies and minds are like divining rods for Truth - we are bent towards the Truth when we approach it.

    More soon.

    Liz Opp said...

    First of all, for readers and Friends like myself who were thrown off by Larry's reference in his comment, above, to Langley Meeting and Pardee Lowe, Larry is referring to a question I had included in a comment on his own blog.

    I really appreciate your analogy, Larry, to how people talk of their recovery/sobriety and how similar that is, in a way, to how we Friends talk of our Quaker faith... or not. It's nice to know that Quakers aren't the only ones who collectively keep their Light under a bushel. For that reason, I love the message that the UCC is providing, that "God is still speaking,". It presents the idea that (1) that church's faith is based on the belief in the Divine; (2) God is alive, well, and not done talking to us yet; and (3) we need to be attentive to listening:

             God is still speaking. We are still listening.

    Of course, you offer a nice analogy, too, Robin, that articulating what Quakerism is is a bit like learning to write... or learning to swim. At some point, the other person is just going to have to stop reading, stop asking questions, and get in the water!

    Great comments; thanks for keeping my brain in gear.


    Rob said...

    Warm wishes Liz! I noticed on Kiara's blog that you linked to Yahara Preparative Meeting near Madison, Wisconsin. Were you able to meet Friends from there? I lived in Madison for 5 years and am surprised to learn that it has a meeting within Iowa Conservative exists there. I don't comment often, but am a frequent reader of your blog. Peace in the search for Truth.

    Liz Opp said...

    Thanks for your comment, Rob. I recently had an opportunity to worship among Yahara Friends in late April. Yahara has been around for, I'd say, about 3 years. I know two of the women who had the leading to pursue Conservative Friends in Wisconsin, known fondly as "Jean and Lorene." Anyway, Yahara is under the care of West Branch (IYMC) Meeting. The time I worshipped with them, there were about 8 Friends, and a few others were at another Quaker event in the area.

    Those of us in Minnesota who are part of the worship group that is exploring Conservative Friends have looked to Yahara on occasion as an example of what's possible when we are faithful, as well as for spiritual support. The worship group is continuing to search for Truth, to love God, and to pray for understanding of the way forward.


    Johan Maurer said...

    My brain is too small to retain all these excellent comments in cranial RAM simultaneously, but one thought did leap out at me while reading your original post. If someone has already said substantially the same thing, I apologize.

    The thought: The way Friends do business in many of our meetings, both "evangelical" (as in my meeting) and "liberal," serves a function other than decision-making. When those two functions are confused and not named, it is frustrating to everyone. It is frustrating to the community as a whole, and frustrating to newcomers who don't see the full picture of what is going on.

    What are those two functions? The first one is the traditional one, the "right answer," namely corporate prayer-based discernment, leading to the choice of one possible path forward, one allotment of resources, one resolution of a conflict, one Spirit-led synthesis, out of several possible alternatives.

    In the meetings I've been part of, this process is often made easier when participants in monthly meeting for business are challenged to attempt to put their contributions to the discernment in the form of possible language for a minute. Although this isn't always the best way to contribute to a discussion, it does have several values - it cuts down on the thinking-out-loud that some of us, including me, are tempted to do. It helps the clerks with composition of the minute. It helps participants think in the corporate voice. It slows people down because it requires people to attend to issues of communicability as well as heart-advocacy.

    The second function, which is less obvious but to my mind is a huge factor in both the joy and frustration of meetings for business: the nonverbal communing that is going on. For years I was frustrated by business meetings that never seemed to have any prophetic component, where reports were droned into the air despite being available in written form, where every statement with actual content was hooked into by the known contrarians, and so on, where decisions were always incremental and did not bear any relation to the old query, "Does Truth prosper?" One day, watching this intricate and oh-so-proper process, it hit me: this was something like verbal knitting, or perhaps a circle of primates picking fleas from each other's fur. There was a deeply valuable communal process going on that was certainly linked to, but also distinguishable from, the outward purpose of the session. It also struck me that people who are not part of that unspoken reality, and who are not nurtured by it, are more or less left out in the cold.

    So my question is, how can we provide for that legitimate need for the beautiful communal nit-picking, without literally picking the life out of our business process? Do there need to be separate occasions for the communal experience? Do we need to be more attentive to the different ways our different temperaments get nurtured? Or do we simply need to train our presiding clerks to be more explicit about the balance between process and outcome?

    I believe that we can enjoy each other's company as much in effective decisionmaking as some of us do in the verbal-knitting function. Probably we need more explicit reminders that (1) not all of us discern, decide, and communicate the same way; (2) the end we seek is the right stewardship of our resources toward the building up of a faithful people of God; (3) no agenda item has a life of its own; someone must be behind it, advocating for it, or it should be dropped; (4) the presiding clerk has the right and duty to discern the weight and direction of contributions; (5) the presiding clerk should also be alert to the needs of those who clearly seem puzzled and marginalized as they try to follow what's going on.

    Liz Opp said...

    Johan, I appreciate the language you put to some of the unspoken processes that occur in Meetings for Worship with attention to Business.

    I also acknowledge that each presiding clerk—for committees, for monthly meetings, for yearly meetings—has her or his own manner of clerking. There is no single "right way" to go about listening for and testing the sense of the meeting; there is no single "right way" for helping the meeting engage in the corporate discipline of seeking guidance from beyond ourselves.

    My hope is that more Friends in general and more clerks in particular will become aware of the dualities and tensions that must be balanced in our [decision-making] practice as Friends, such as balancing making our practices explicit and simply allowing new attenders to experience our practice.