August 13, 2010

Qualities of a Quaker worship community

A short while ago while traveling in southern Oregon, I worshiped with South Mountain Friends in Ashland. A couple of us shared after worship that we each had been reflecting on Thomas Gates' pamphlet Members One of Another.

In addition to thinking on the relationship between the meeting and its members, I was thinking about those who have written about the qualities of the Inward Light, especially Samuel Caldwell.* I then found myself considering what are some of the primary qualities of a healthy and vibrant Quaker worship community, be it a monthly meeting or a worship group.

*I believe I've read at least one other Friend's remarks on the topic but can't come up with who it was or with any link...

Qualities of a Quaker worship community

  • Provide spiritual nurture and pastoral care for one another. It seems like many meetings provide pastoral care pretty well: when a Friend is in crisis, our meetings rally around the person to help her or him over the hump, providing careful listening and regular support--be it financial, medical, familial, vocational. On the other hand, how regularly do we ask questions of one another about God or the Loving Principle in our lives, or how the Truth prospers, when our lives aren't in turmoil...? Must we wait for workshops or adult education sessions to learn of and share about our spiritual lives? Must spiritual nurture be limited to confidential clearness committees and ad hoc care committees?

  • Welcome the stranger as one of our own. I sometimes fantasize that as worship breaks, the Friend who closes worship rises and says, "Before we move into announcements and introductions of visitors, please look around the room and if you see someone near you who you don't know, please welcome them and introduce yourself to them..." It seems like a challenge to discipline ourselves so as not to rush across the meetingroom at the rise of meeting in order to talk to a fellow committee member, when what we could do is take the time to welcome the stranger and the visitor to meeting, asking these newcomers why they came that particular day, what their experience of worship was, and what questions they have about Quakerism.

  • Call out and provide stewardship for each other's spiritual gifts. Especially in large meetings, this task seems to have been relegated to the Nominating Committee. But what about the spiritual gifts that don't apply to "regular" committee service? What about the Friend who has a gift for providing hospitality when people come to visit in her home? or the Friend who can build an intergenerational community through storytelling and games? or the back-bencher who whispers spot-on insights to his neighbor during Meetings for Worship for Business? How do we ourselves feel when someone "finally" affirms a talent, gift, or perspective we have but feel like few others ever notice? I have had the opportunity to witness one Friend in particular who will say, "I wonder if Such-and-so Friend could help us with that particular task, since I see she (or he) has a gift for such-and-so..." It's one way the worship community becomes responsible for the nurture and stewardship of the spiritual gifts among us, since these gifts belong not to the individual but to the community.

    cf. Lloyd Lee Wilson has an excellent chapter on "Community Stewardship of our Spiritual Gifts" in his book of essays on Gospel Order.

  • Guide one another into greater faithfulness, discipline, humility, obedience, and love. In order to offer such guidance, we have to be willing to share our vulnerabilities, our leadings, our struggles, and our overall experience of the Inward Teacher more openly with one another and with the community as a whole. We learn not only by formal study and by informal discussion but also through watching how we conduct our lives both in and outside of the meetingroom. When under stress, do we take time out to pray and to seek God's guidance? During a conflict within our meeting, do we respond to others harshly or with kindness? When a particular activity goes well, are there Friends who insist on grabbing all the credit, or is there gratitude for the Spirit for having led us into such a happy opportunity?

  • Knit together the corporate body in the Spirit and sustain the corporate nature of the faith's tradition. This is perhaps the least tangible, least visible element of our worship communities. There's a wordless, visceral experience, though, when we are gathered as a corporate body, whether it be during a Meeting for Worship on the occasion of a marriage, or having a special event to celebrate all the young people in the meeting. That said, there are ways to watch and listen for the increeping of individualism in our Quaker community, such as giving weight to personal and individual preferences; the use of the phrase "I think we should..." or "I'd like to see us..."; the (unintended?) attempt to hold a meeting for worship for business hostage by saying "I'm going to stand in the way of that decision" or the more subtle "I'm not in unity with that decision so therefore we don't have sense of the meeting and can't move forward."

  • How to live into a vibrant and healthy Quaker community

    Here are a few specific steps we can take to strengthen and deepen our worship communities as Friends.

  • Study together: Scripture, Quaker writings. By studying and learning about our faith tradition together, we develop a shared language about Quakerism. We also develop a shared understanding about our earliest roots, about our growth as a "people to be gathered," and about the people and events that continue to shape who we are in modern times.

  • Worship together. During tragic events; to honor momentous occasions; during times of struggle; and out of a yearning for healing, worship is our touchstone where we come to lay aside our personal agendas and to lift up our hearts, be it in celebration or in sorrow. Contrary to what it looks like to those visitors unaccustomed to Quaker worship, we are not individuals sitting in a dead silence: we are seekers of the Truth who yearn to know God's message for us, to live out God's call in our daily lives, individually and as a body joined in the Spirit.

  • Cherish one another as family. Bitterness toward our fellow worshiper cannot easily coexist with our desire to cherish one another. We can learn to love one another without condoning irresponsible or disrespectful behavior: it is a discipline for which we need much practice--and much forgiveness when we ourselves fall short. But let us try what Love can do, regardless.

  • Provide measures of loving accountability. In a healthy, vibrant Quaker community, there is what I call an "appropriate nosiness" for us to engage in with one another. Surprisingly, setting limits and providing accountability--such as testing our leadings with one another and meeting with a care-and-accountability committee--can be a source of support and spiritual nurture. When we understand that such things are part and parcel of Quakerism's practice, we feel cared for when members of our Quaker worship community engage with us around sharing our spiritual gifts and around our steps and missteps on the way to being faithful to God's call.

  • Labor together... and stay to see the results over time. Sometimes it is easier after a hard, contentious decision has been made to leave the community altogether, especially if things did not go "our" way. As a corporate body, staying despite the pain or disillusionment allows the community to reflect on how things are going afterward, whether or not there are fruits of the Spirit, or how good or poor those fruits actually are. Plus, when we are struggling with one another, those may be the times when God breaks through and reveals a new way to move forward. Laboring together can also mean finding a service project or a hands-on activity in which to participate as a worship community. Sometimes unknown gifts are brought into the Light when we are taken out of our comfort zone and we are forced to draw on resources that we otherwise hadn't known were available to us. New voices among us might be drawn out; previously hidden skills may appear, and we learn anew who we are as a community.

  • Bear witness together. Similar to laboring with one another, bearing witness together can develop or strengthen a sense of interdependence, a reliance on one another when witnessing to Truth in public or against "the establishment" may feel risky or even dangerous. Bearing witness can also be less visible--not as confrontational--while still carrying weight because the entire worship community has agreed to take action together. When we feel responsible to a group we care for, we are likely to engage in action to which the group as a whole has committed itself.

  • Point out to one another when individualism is threatening to take hold and then re-engage our corporate practice. When our Quaker worship community and the worshipers within it are surrounded by the distractions and even lusts of the secular world, even Quakerism's corporate nature can be undermined by the wider culture that swirls around us. We need one another to remind us of our Quaker heritage, of the disciplines of corporate worship and corporate discernment, of the practice of waiting on the Lord rather than making decisions out of convenience of time or of money.

  • Speak openly of our struggles, joys, and successes in following the Inward Teacher. We grow our identity as Friends and sustain our worship communities as Quakers by telling our stories of God in our lives and by remembering the roots of where our peculiar practices, vocabulary, and witness come from. If we gather only for worship, we miss the opportunity to hear about the rest of our lives as we strive to put our faith into action.

  • Critical mass, "togetherness," and being a corporate body

    As I was finishing up my list of the qualities of a Quaker worship community, I realized I wanted to address the concept of doing things "together" as it relates to the corporate body.

    "Being a corporate body" does not mean having 100% of the body together 100% of the time, but it does mean striving to have 100% of the body engaged in the entire life of the community over time.

    By "life of the community," I mean worship; meetings for worship for business; committee service; projects involving the community; intergenerational activities; care and nurture of our youngest and of our eldest community members; and so on.

    It's unrealistic to assume that everyone within a Quaker meeting or worship group will be available to participate in a given activity on a given day. But it is realistic to assume--and I would say reasonable to expect--that over time, everyone will be able to participate in a given activity; that no one will completely and forever stay away from worship, or from meeting for worship for business, or from an opportunity to bear witness against injustice.

    The element of participating in a corporate body together is more than having critical mass for any single event. Through worship, struggle, witness, service projects, adult education, intergenerational activities, learning about Quakerism, there is a cumulative experience that occurs over time and it is the cumulative experience among Friends that both shapes and is shaped by the worshiping community and all of its participants.

    As always, thanks for reading me.



    Martin Kelley's suggestion that we invite a newcomer to lunch is the Outreachiest Program Ever

    my blog post that refers to critical mass of a Quaker meeting in light of weddings and memorials


    Mark Wutka said...

    Wow, Liz, this is really great!

    One thing that has been on my mind for a year or two is outreach. I think there is more to our interaction with the world than just bearing witness through action related to specific causes.

    The other thing would be that I believe that in being knit together in the Spirit, we should expect to find more differences in one another according to worldly standards. That is, we should be united despite differences in various things like sex, race, class, political affiliation, level of education, etc. The thing that should unite us is not commonality in worldly ways but a shared experience of the Holy Spirit.

    With love,

    Tom Smith said...

    Thanks for a thorough examination of some important issues.

    Bill Samuel said...

    This is an excellent list, Liz. In many meetings, it would represent a major shift in who they are. Which brings a note of reality.

    In fact, meetings may be what they are and not what you envision because that's what most of the participants want. There are reasons why meetings operate as they do, and a lot of that has to do with choices willingly made - both those incorporated into formal meeting decisions and those not, but which represent the meeting's ethos.

    So Friends need to explore whether a Meeting is inclined in the direction of your vision. If it genuinely is, then there can be a fruitful process by which it does what is needed to move there.

    But there are probably many meetings where such a vision would bring strong resistance. There pursuing it directly would serve as an annoyance in a body that is what it really wants to be. There are many Friends - I was once one such - who spend an enormous amount of energy trying to pursue a vision in a body that generally does not want to be the kind of body envisioned. This is incredibly frustrating to both those pursuing the vision and to the larger body which has a very different (usually implicit rather than explicit) vision. It becomes an effort by one or a few to try to impose their vision on a body which does not welcome it.

    So be alert to this, and be ready to consider different paths if you are called to the kind of vision outlined here. Some of the options are for a group of Friends who share the vision to become a meeting within the meeting and see if the larger body eventually captures the vision by seeing it in practice, forming a new meeting with an explicit vision, or joining some other body which is much closer to the vision to which you feel called.

    Always consider: Has God really called me to be a part of this community at this time, or I am I here for basically other reasons? Believing in a vision that is in accord with the Quaker experience over time is not a sufficient reason to be a part of a particular body with the name Friends.

    Liz Opp said...

    Mark -

    Thanks for adding a few more details and clarifications.

    I agree that our meetings engage in outreach of some sort, though I'm not sure that it's what I think of as a primary component of a Quaker meeting. Outreach and increased visibility occur as the result of our presence in the world, of our faith in action, speaking Truth to power--though of course it can be an action unto its own self, I suppose.

    And yes: "The thing that should unite us is not commonality in worldly ways but a shared experience of the Holy Spirit." It's the "commonality in worldly ways" that I would say speaks to secularism in our meetings.

    Tom -

    Good to hear from you here.

    Bill -

    I truly appreciate what you lift up here, that many (unprogrammed) meetings are unlikely to change who and how they are, based on one Friend's blog post.

    Years ago, like you perhaps, I did in fact spend some energy in expressing my concern for the condition of the monthly meeting. I was angry, hurt, and in some ways, without the kind of spiritual guidance that could have helped me "stay cool in my own mind" back then.

    At the time, I discovered I wasn't released from worshiping with these Friends, and so I stayed. I considered some books of Faith and Practice and what advices there are about membership in a meeting. I took that counsel seriously, sought out Friends who helped me stay faithful to the Spirit above all else, labored in a different manner with the meeting, and found myself being transformed by the Spirit over time and in unexpected ways.

    Just as your Quaker Info website has impacted me--which in turn has had its ripple effects on this blog and in the Quaker communities where I worship--it may also be that The Good Raised Up is impacting individuals and their meetings over time and in unseen ways.

    But I don't write to change meetings. I write to share what I am experiencing and finding in my life among Friends, like bearing testimony.

    Sometimes I write because I feel like God has given me something specific to share. When I realize I am writing with some hidden agenda--like wanting the monthly meeting to be different--I stop writing and go into worship to understand what is going on within me and what it is that God is really wanting me to say.

    I agree, Bill, that there is a creative tension between how a meeting as a body lives into and practices its shared faith, with what an individual brings to the life of the meeting in terms of a spiritual concern regarding that very thing. How that tension is held or when that tension will give way will vary from meeting to meeting.

    But ultimately, as Friends we are called to be faithful to the leadings of the Spirit, not to the "cultural norms" or expectations of the monthly meeting.

    When we can be loving as well as faithful while laboring in our meetings, and when we receive one another in love--ahh, now that is a wonderful blessing indeed.

    Thanks for stirring the pot and getting me to think more carefully about these issues, Bill.


    Anonymous said...

    Liz: Thank you SO much for this comes at a really good time for me, personally and within my meeting community. I also appreciated Bill's comment, though I'm not sure it is always as stark as that. I'm of the mind that our meeting is currently experiencing a tension best described as "is the glass half full or half empty?" It's been shown to me that, quite often, the answer to both questions is "yes," and that a lot of the reasons why we get no further in this conversation is because of the individual natures involved, and because of our failure to take the time to engage in many of the things on your list.

    And I love the phrase "appropriate nosiness!" Not surprisingly, so many of the best conversations I've had with various people at my meeting happen when we actually take the time to get beyond "how are things?" "Busy! You?" I have a feeling that at times we wear our desire for confidentiality as a heavy cloak--beautiful to look at, but can be stifling on the inside.

    Many thanks, again.


    Liz Opp said...

    Mia -

    Thanks for sharing a bit about what is going on with your own meeting. And I love the metaphor of the cloak, though sometimes we get so focused on how warm and protective it is, that we forget it's not appropriate to wear such a cloak once we arrive back in our own homes!

    The experience we have of taking small risks to start, by way of sharing something we are not accustomed to, may ultimately help us understand how such sharing begins to knit the community's tapestry together.

    On the other hand, sharing too much too often may tire us out and may lead to our pulling our thick woolen hats over our ears to help muffle the sound of all of our voices!