August 1, 2010

2010 Iowa YM Conservative annual sessions

    How is it that I am refreshed after four days of this routine, with 12 hours of worship, neither drained nor eager to return home?
These are the words I posted on The Good Raised Up after returning from my first visit to Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative during its annual sessions in 2005.

This year I return from sessions--my fifth journey there--with the same sense of sweetness and fullness, though I came home a day early, missing the final business session and the closing worship on First Day.

Unlike last year, which I missed entirely, I was able to attend most of the annual sessions for Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative). I was eager to get to the Scattergood campus, in part because my summer had involved travel and activities that made it hard for me to have quality continuity with Quakers. I also was looking forward to seeing a few Friends I knew who would be visiting IYMC for the first time: I think of these Friends as having a deep and alive relationship with the Inward Light, and I was looking forward to getting to know them better during the week.

Panel on outreach for the 2011 FGC Gathering

The evening when sessions started, we heard a few stories from five Conservative Friends who have been to FGC's Gathering. Part of the reason for having this panel is because the Gathering will be held for the first time in Iowa next year at Grinnell College.

There are questions at FGC's end about whether Friends will be willing to travel to Iowa--after all, it's not part of the densely Friend-populated areas of the Mid-Atlantic or of New England; and it's not in a "destination" like the Pacific Northwest, when the 2006 Gathering was held in Tacoma, Washington. Another concern is whether eastern Friends even know where Iowa is--and I'm not being facetious. It wasn't until I moved to the Midwest that I began to care about knowing which Midwestern states were what and where!

Anyway, the panel was a way to explain to IYMC Friends a bit about what the Gathering is (or isn't), as well as to hear any concerns from the body about the event coming to the region.

I was impressed that there were two young adults and one high school student on the panel, as well as two older adults. Some had experienced the Gathering only once ("It was a really important experience for my family."), and others had attended a number of times ("I went through spiritual depths and growing; anger and exhaustion. But there's something to being among Quakers and not feeling weird about being Quaker.")

One of the younger Friends commented on how the Gathering can help "cement" one's identity as a Quaker... which may be true for a young person, but I personally worry that the "cement" at Gathering is more often associated with being among a peer group and having fun, often with activities that aren't necessarily rooted in the practice of Quakerism, or in the growing together in the Light and in the Life of the Spirit. (Some Friends familiar with the Gathering call it a "hot house"--an artificial environment where community grows quickly but might not be able to be sustained outside of the event itself.)

I was also struck by an insight that a particularly shy young adult Friend said:
    The Gathering is the best when you come out of your shell and put your best self into it.
This reflects some of my own peak experiences at Gathering, when I feel I am pulled into a greater measure of the Light than I had experienced in my local worship community back home.

The remarks that caught my attention the most, though, came from Marshall Massey, who used to write regularly for a wonderful Quaker blog and is now very active on Facebook... Marshall is knowledgeable and challenging, and sometimes I'm uncomfortable in my skin when he takes up an issue and speaks very thoroughly about it, sometimes calling on us to see the world--or Quakerism--through a new lens. I've learned to continue to listen for the Light in anything he has to offer.

This particular night, he raised the question--and I'm paraphrasing here:
    Is FGC bringing the Gathering to IYMC as part of a "courtship dance," to build ties with us, hoping we might affiliate with FGC? As a host to the Gathering, how do we explain ourselves, how do we explain how we practice our faith, and how do we share the stories of how IYMC has shaped our lives?
After a few other remarks from the panelists, we moved into a quieter time when those of us there could speak of our own experiences or concerns. Here are some that particularly stay with me:
  • One Friend commented with some disgust that he had once seen a sign at a Liberal Friends' event saying, "You can believe whatever you want." The Friend went on to testify that being a Quaker isn't about believing what you want. It's about living your life by following the leadings of the Spirit.
  • Another Friend spoke about the rootedness that is encountered and experienced within IYMC, and that FGC sees that IYMC has something that other Friends not only lack but also hunger for.
  • And one or two Friends spoke to the possibility that perhaps IYMC is being called to minister to the FGC Gathering in some capacity, and we may not know what that is just yet.
It was just the first session of our five days together, and already there was a lot to think about!

Interconnectedness between the yearly meeting and its monthly meetings

This year as in other years, I again was struck by the nature of the relationship between the monthly meetings and the yearly meeting. (Readers from IYMC: if I misrepresent this relationship or make an error in my summary of the tasks below, please put a correction in the Comments or contact me directly at lizopp AT gmail DOT com.)

As I understand it, several monthly meetings are responsible for the non-business sessions during annual sessions, and that responsibility rotates among all the monthly meetings, rather asking for individual volunteers to serve on a planning committee (though it may be that individuals from each of the appointed meetings comprise the committee).

Each year a monthly meeting is identified to serve as the "Document Committee," reviews all the epistles received by the clerk of IYMC, and identifies excerpts of epistles that are to be read aloud during annual sessions. That responsibility also rotates among the meetings.

Each meeting is to appoint one of its own members to serve on the yearly meeting's Nominating Committee--no need for a Naming Committee!--as well as the Representatives Committee, which proposes a budget and a few other things. The same process is used to identify what IYMC calls the Caretakers for the annual session: the Friends from across the yearly meeting who will help with the logistics of the annual sessions: setting up rooms, getting water to the clerks' table, making announcements, etc.

Also, a good number of meetings--maybe all of them--have Friends who participate on the yearly meeting's Peace and Social Concerns Committee, and it appears that many meetings actually take action in response to recommendations made and issues discussed during sessions.

Ken and Katharine Jacobson

On the second night of sessions, Ohio Yearly Meeting Friends Ken and Katharine Jacobson spoke tenderly on the theme "The Way of Love."

It happens that in recent years, I have been counseled and encouraged to meet these Friends, especially since they moved to southern Wisconsin a few years ago. It seems some of our concerns about Quakerism overlap, or maybe our mutual fFriends believed we would just get along so well... It so happened that last year, Way opened for a phone conversation between us, and I was eager to meet them here at annual sessions. They are warm-hearted people with a generosity of Spirit that is visible in their eyes...

By the sound of things, Ken's engagement and study at Chicago's Theological Seminary has brought important Light to his fellow seminarians. He spoke to us of how astonished they were by the possibility that worship doesn't have to be a "performance" packaged in liturgy, hymn singing, and preaching, but that rather that worship "can come out of nothing and out of Presence." Ken joked about how eager these colleagues were to learn about the Quaker way of waiting worship: "Can you say more about silence?!"

Katharine spoke quietly, in part due to her declining health as she deals with Parkinson's, but her Light shone clear in her words, gestures, and smile. She spoke about her movement into greater Listening and she hinted at her service to Friends as elder and spiritual companion.

Ken did much of the talking, and his exuberance for living in the Life was palpable:
  • Practicing the Way of Love is something that not a lot of Friends know we have: it can come and go very quickly.
  • Tapping into God's Love means that God's Love is close, available, and accessible.
  • There are three words connected to the practice of the Way of Love: choice, obedience, and discipline.
  • The rhythm of Friends' life moves in three steps: releasing all that we hold onto, that keeps us from living the Way of Love; receiving the Light and the Love that is available to us; and the offering out to others and to the world all the Light and the Love that we ourselves have received.
  • All of us are being called to live the Way of Love, so we have a responsibility to help one another live into that call.
It's this last point that gives me pause:
    All of us are being called to live the Way of Love, so we have a responsibility to help one another live into that call.
Isn't that truly what is meant by answering that of God in everyone, to help one another live into that deep, silent call from the Inward Teacher...?

And wouldn't that reminder put an end to all the fuss over theological differences--and even the seeds of war--when all we need to focus on is how we are being called to live the Way of Love?

There were other evening presentations but this one had the most impact on me.

Meetings for Worship for Business

When the yearly meeting takes up its business, the first session or two consist mainly of reports from a number of smaller committees, reading of excerpts from epistles of other yearly meetings in the U.S. and from around the world, as well as the sharing of epistles from the two other Conservative bodies, Ohio Yearly Meeting and North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative).

This year it was noted that each of the three Conservative yearly meetings has welcomed a new monthly meeting into the fold: Crossroads Meeting (Michigan) became a part of Ohio; Davidson Friends Meeting (North Carolina) became a part of North Carolina; and Yahara Friends Meeting (Wisconsin) became a part of Iowa. (For the record, Laughing Waters Friends Worship Group remains unaffiliated, with some worshipers having affinity for Iowa, and others having affinity for Northern Yearly Meeting.)

Among the reports that I was able to hear--I left a day early and missed the final business session--there was one from the Earthcare Subcommittee of the very-active Peace and Social Concerns Committee. The Earthcare Subcommittee included information on Yahara Meeting's program on evaluating the true cost of travel. Apparently, this program includes information on how to calculate one's petroleum use and the true cost of that use. Friends who are following this program then put the amount of money needed to cover that "true cost" into a fund for Scattergood Friends School to use as the school explores the use of wind power on its campus. (The school was recently made local news about its new solar panels and about its new head of school.)

Other energy-conservation related initiatives were mentioned, such as Each of the above websites offer some creative thinking that is going on around the world in order to address climate change.

Two other topics brought to the yearly meeting in recent years and again this year address immigration issues and the events surrounding the Postville, Iowa Agriprocessors raid. This year in particular, the Peace and Social Concerns Committee crafted a minute, which the yearly meeting approved, encouraging each Friend and monthly meeting of the yearly meeting to come under the weight of the concern for how the U.S. is addressing immigration. The minute, as I recall, directs Friends to become "well versed" in the issues and explore how to get involved locally, making the issue more personal.

As someone who typically doesn't care for the activist element of many Friends' meetings, I am taken up by the hope and by the real-world practicality--grounded in Friends' testimonies, practice, and faith--that IYMC and its Peace and Social Concerns Committee lift up year after year. There is a humility among these Friends that I seldom experience in other monthly and yearly meetings, as they seek the way forward with complex and potentially overwhelming issues. That humility and keeping low appeals to me and speaks to me of the abiding Love that makes us all of one Family...

Answering the Queries

Every year, at least in the years I've attended, each monthly meeting sends answers to the Queries to the the assistant clerk, who then selects a representative response to each query to be presented during annual sessions. First the query is read aloud, followed by the selected response, with no mention made of the monthly meeting from where it comes.

What was different for me this year as compared to other years was that for a number of months in 2009, the worship group I attend experimented with answering these queries "in the manner of Iowa Conservative Friends." As the queries and their responses were read, I fell into my own silent review of what some of our own comments were, as well as the overall deep worship and holy fellowship that we engaged in each month to consider that month's query. I found myself missing those opportunities of collective reflection, now that the worship group's ad hoc committee on affiliation has been laid down for a time.

Answering queries as a body requires all of us to listen for and help articulate the True Response that exists wordlessly in the life of the worshiping body--which pragmatically means resisting the temptation to write "One Friend said this; another Friend said that; still another Friend added such-and-so..."

Instead, when recording a response to a query, that response is to be representative of the extent to which Truth and Love prosper among us, as a gathered body, and relative to the topic of the query. When our replies authentically express our struggle as well as our success, and when those replies are shared with a larger body, such as a yearly meeting, we are likely to work harder to live in Gospel Order, tap into God's Love, and reach out to the stranger in order to bring about God's kin(g)dom.

A few miscellaneous closing thoughts

During one of the business sessions, we heard a report from the Ministry & Counsel Committee of the yearly meeting. Part of the report included a reference to the concern that some meetings have about diminishing numbers of worshipers. The committee encouraged Friends to resist the usual worry that accompanies this decline and instead focus on the opportunity that is given: to work together to deepen and grow the Life that is within the remaining worship community, to continue to focus on the Presence of God's Love in their midst, and to continue to answer God's call as it is revealed to them.

To me, such counsel speaks to tending to the quality of the practice, not to the quantity of the practitioners.

Lastly, this year is the last that Friend Deborah Fisch is serving as presiding clerk of the yearly meeting. She has served as clerk for more than ten years, and the clerk before her, Bill Deutsch, also served for (I believe) ten years.

IYMC's practice has been to have a committee discern, together with the clerk, whether that Friend is to continue serving as clerk the following year. So it goes, year after year, allowing the Spirit to guide Friends as to which gifts are needed by the yearly meeting at what point and from whom.

While it may well be true that my Conservative leanings as a Friend have been impacted directly by my personal friendship with Deborah over the years--I believe we met in 2000 when I began serving on the Central Committee of Friends General Conference, where she works; and she has provided me with loving eldership over the years--I'll learn experimentally about the deeper nature of Conservative Quakerism in the midwestern U.S. as the incoming clerk presides over next year's annual sessions.

I have put the dates in my calendar already: 26-31 Seventh Month 2011.



RantWoman said...


Thank you for this wonderful detail. There is much here that speaks to my condition, though I have not yet gotten around to posting some of what is on my mind!

Blessings on you.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Good report, Liz! Thanks for doing this!

Mary Elizabeth Bullock-Rest said...

Thank you, Liz.

I didn't get to come to IYM-C this year, but reading your blogs gave me a real sense of the important things shared there. I felt my heart "strangely warmed."


Liz Opp said...

RantWoman -

I hope you'll post a link here whenever you have written anything longer in response to this post... or just come back and add a new comment, whatever works and however you are led!

Marshall -

Thanks for reading me. I always hope someone else who was at the events that I write about will read my post and fill in the blanks, add their own perspective, etc.

Sorry I missed saying goodbye to you on Saturday; it was a busy lunch hour for me!

Elizabeth -

Yes, I had wondered if you would make the trip north again. It was so delightful to have seen you a couple of years ago there. Perhaps Way will open for another opportunity soon.


Mark Wutka said...

Liz, thank you so much for posting this! I want to visit IYMC, but I don't have enough time off with all my other commitments. I hope I am able to get there in another year or two, and I hope it isn't that long before we see each other again.
With love,

RichardM said...


Thanks for holding up our conservative practice of answering queries as a Monthly Meeting. I'm so glad you stressed the need to recognize that we are not recording a bunch of individual answers but rather our answer. Answering queries is community building and having a community to be part of gives the individual optimal opportunties for growth.