24 July 2008

Redefining Friends United Meeting

John Punshon's Johnson Lecture at the recent Friends United Meeting sessions challenges us to identify the intellectual and spiritual context within which, today, we try to think about the future of the church. As John pondered the theme of the Triennial, Jeremiah's verse about "hope and a future," he took a look at the elements of captivity faced by Jeremiah's original audience, and he asked whether we face our own elements of captivity. One particular element surfaces over and over again in Judeo-Christian history: idolatry, where we displace faith in God by exalting our own agendas and gratifications.

With those thoughts in mind, I reflected on the tiny bit I know about the last FUM sessions--the first I've missed since starting to attend FUM Triennials in 1987. In 2005, I wrote blog entries from that year's sessions, and this time practically everything I know about the sessions comes from blogs. FUM's own Web site provides the Johnson Lecture, the outgoing epistle, Landrum Bolling's lecture, but little else.

Micah's "Valiant for the Truth" blog mentions the emphasis on missions (verifiable from the transcripts provided by North Carolina Young Friends). Micah reports, "Sylvia Graves, General Secretary of Friends United Meeting, made it clear in responding to questions on Thursday morning that at this point in history she sees FUM's role as being in carrying out overseas mission work." I would like to add some comments of my own, fully admitting my ignorance and hoping that Friends who were present at the Triennial can help describe the vision more fully.

1. What is FUM? In a talk at the 1993 Triennial sessions, I mentioned three possible interpretations of FUM:

- The official mythology--incredibly important and not false, but only falteringly implemented in recent decades--is that FUM is a larger circle of our concentric connectional structure. So: we have monthly meetings, quarterly or area or regional meetings, yearly meetings and then the Five Years Meeting, renamed FUM. To extend the structure further, FUM was also supposed to represent Friends in the ecumenical world with memberships in the (U.S.) national and world councils of churches. In this view, FUM is first and foremost a meeting--a body that gathers to discern God's will for the business entrusted to it by the others in its concentric constituency.

- FUM is a denominational agency on the U.S. corporate or government model. At one time FUM had seven boards to address all the needs of a self-respecting mainstream denomination--publications, youth, missions, Christian education, peace and society, and even a board of presidents of Quaker colleges. Most boards had executives with offices, telephones, and typewriters, appropriately located in a central building in downtown Richmond, Indiana, until the Quaker Hill building was built in the mid-1950's. These boards were supported by financial subscriptions from the member yearly meetings. The covenant was that the yearly meetings would take care of FUM's finances, and in turn FUM would not raise money on its own from the individuals in the yearly meetings. (The financing model broke down irretrievably in the 1980's.)

- FUM is a web of relationships, of men and women from all member yearly meetings who dedicated themselves to the organization's values and well-being--and to the relationship between their own yearly meetings and FUM. These wonderful Friends--I speak with NO irony--naturally looked forward to seeing each other at various organizational events, thus unintentionally tending to become a somewhat closed body whose elaborate procedures sometimes seemed to perpetuate those opportunities to meet. I'm exaggerating to make a point, but when I first got involved with FUM, I was amazed at the number of totally administrative decisions entrusted to committees of volunteers who had to report to each other up and down the structural ladders. This gave an endearing sense of participation to members, and perhaps the illusion of making important decisions rather than having those decisions made by a centralized staff. But the reality was that the system was so consumed by minutiae that it had little energy for concerns of broad policy or vision.

These understandings of FUM are not mutually exclusive. I list them because leaving any of them out would cause us not to understand the grief and resistance, and possibly alienation, that would arise if, in redefining FUM, we neglected any of them.

Back in 1993, some of us in leadership tried to put new energy and urgency into this whole multidimensional picture by arguing that, above all, we were a voluntary association (that is, with no power to license or coerce, only to coordinate, consult, and persuade) with a PURPOSE. That purpose was adopted by the March 1993 board meeting: "Friends United Meeting commits itself, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to energize and equip Friends to gather people into fellowships where Jesus Christ is known, loved, and obeyed as Teacher and Lord." We argued that FUM could no longer simply coast along on a beloved myth and generational loyalties, or on bureaucratic imperatives, or on self-perpetuating social ties, as precious as some aspects of all of these elements might be. We had to earn support by the evident validity of its purpose and our workplace faithfulness in implementing that purpose.

2. Are we in fact faithful? Is FUM actually operating through Holy Spirit power to energize and equip Friends for this vision of evangelism with integrity?

This is not an easy question to answer or even parse. FUM (neither as a "Meeting" nor as a central office) can't and shouldn't be the primary evangelist. Its role is to energize and equip. Do its constituent yearly meetings in fact consult and pool resources and report to each other and encourage each other and pray for each other in the service of this vision? Did this happen at the Triennial, or does it happen at Board meetings and other events, such as conferences, or in the course of intervisitation? Do staff members help this to happen? Are career complainers challenged to stop grinding on about FUM's inadequacies and actually make proposals relating to FUM's purpose and work them through their yearly meetings? In turn, can we lower our defensiveness long enough to distinguish the complainers from the gadflies who might be doing us a wonderful service by pointing out the gaps between aspiration and achievement?

And what does it mean to label this evangelistic purpose as primarily being about "missions"? One of the major priorities of the 1990's was a complete reordering of the old funder/client relationship between FUM as a whole and its former mission fields. For many years, FUM was a primarily American-led body whose mission function was to send money and personnel to locations outside the USA. The Friends at those locations were essentially clients, receiving funds, reporting (or not) on their use, and providing extremely valuable ministry opportunities for field staff. However, those non-USA Friends had little input into the policymaking processes of FUM, and what input they had was almost always tied to the specific issues of their location, whether it be Ramallah or Lugulu or Highgate. Some of the money FUM sent to these locations seemed to me to be part of FUM's miscalibrated atonement for colonialism--money was a more benevolent way of shepherding former missions who didn't want Western management any more.

We tried shifting paradigms, so that, on the one hand, FUM no longer sent money anywhere that FUM didn't also have immediate management participation. On the other hand, international participation in FUM governance was now to be on the level of policymaking for the whole body, not just for the interests of the client program on the (former) field. To try to make this real despite the expensive distances involved, FUM Board members in Africa began meeting in Africa in large assemblies, theoretically charged with the full range of concerns that FUM's processes in Richmond, Indiana, were addressing. More recently, FUM's services to its majority constituency--East African Friends--were given an important boost by setting up a permanent office in Kenya to work in tandem with the USA office.

Given all these shifts, what does it mean that FUM should primarily be about "mission"? How do we avoid returning to the captivity of the old headquarters/client relationships? My dream would be that FUM as a global fellowship would mutually energize and equip ALL of its yearly meetings to reach out to people who've not yet heard of Friends, but my worry is that our energy will mostly be used to manage established client programs, and that FUM will mostly worry about how to get North American money to non-North American destinations. Isn't it arguable that a huge need is to re-evangelize North America? And that crucial resources for this re-evangelization will come from outside the USA? (I don't insist that this is true, but where does the conversation take place?) As for the programs in East Africa, I totally approve of FUM's management participation, given the importance of transparent stewardship and the capacity these programs have to unite Friends everywhere in service, but how do we keep those programs from taking all the energy that might otherwise go into the urgent task of communicating Friends faith and practice where they're badly needed and hitherto unknown?

Our agenda for the coming eight days: finding a new place to live. Our temporary quarters are becoming unavailable a lot sooner than we thought. Stay tuned!

Righteous links

"McCain and Obama Agree to Attend Megachurch Forum"--I find it fascinating to compare Rick Warren with James Dobson in this story.

Passive Aggressive Notes, thanks to Very Short List.

If I understand this story correctly, USA Christians should be strongly defending this Muslim effort, for multiple reasons.

Here (link to pdf file) is John Punshon's Johnson Lecture, which bears careful reading and meditating.

Rowan Williams reviews Philip Bobbitt's new book, Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-first Century: "This is neither a prescription for a desirable future nor a lament for lost values. It is simply an observation about where we are currently headed, on the basis of a candid examination of various social trends. But the importance of the analysis is that it highlights the radically changing nature of war in such a context."

Buddy Guy changes the subject.


Anonymous said...

how do we keep those programs from taking all the energy that might otherwise go into the urgent task of communicating Friends faith and practice where they're badly needed and hitherto unknown?

We don't.

We work where the energy is in the faith that it is what God is giving us to do.

I'm fascinated to read the description of what FUM once was. It bears very little resemblance to the organization I know. An old-timer coming back to Quaker Hill would barely recognize the place. The offices of Friends United Press, gone. Instead, a pastoral counselor in private practice rents the space from FUM. The bookstore, gone. Instead, there's a Hospitality Center that is offered for rent to outside groups in the Richmond area. Quaker Life being mailed out six times a year instead of twelve. The staff, dropped from 21 to 10 since 2002.

Among those remaining 10 staff members there is neither a Director of Global Ministries (although one is hoped for) nor a Director of North American Ministries nor a Director of Communications. You can't imagine the work that is being done by a very dedicated young staff!

As I said over on Micah's Valiant for the Truth, there is very little energy on the board for work in North America. I've seen two Directors of North American Minstries try to get things going, and some worthwhile things did happen that I benefited from (Women in Public Ministry, for example). But nothing took fire.

I have begun to wonder if the lack of energy for North American work on the FUM board might be because the work of reporting to one another and encouraging one another goes on in the annual Superintendents & Secretaries gathering (which, of course, I've never attended and am not likely to)--at least, informally if not formally.

I also suspect the lack of energy for overall North American work is related to the intensity of the work that clerks,superintendents, and general secretaries are being called to do within their own yearly meetings. (Then, too, the dual-affilate yearly meetings have all the resources of FGC at their disposal.)

I don't know how the North American work will get done, but I trust that the convergent Friends are up to something. FGC's Traveling Ministries program is sparking things. FGC's attempts to introduce Quaker Quest from England could prove to be very important for the future of Friends. And this Quaker Internet community that has become so dear to me will, I'm sure, have chapters on its development and significance in Quaker histories to come in the 22nd century (God willing).

For now, the energizing and equipping that FUM is doing is focused outside North America in the fields established by our elders. Amazing work is being done in Kenya in the wake of the post-election violence. Groups are reaching out and working together. The Peace Testimony is being lifted up in ways unheard of before. The spiritual power of this work will surely inform FUM in years to come.

Bill Samuel said...

Complete, if sometimes somewhat garbled, transcripts of all FUM Triennial sessions are available at the FUM Triennials Blog. I believe NCYM arranged for this.

Will T said...

I suspect that the lack of energy for work in North America is related to the lack of unity among the North American Yearly Meetings that belong to FUM. There are very real differences but we seem often to dwell on what divides us and not what unites us. In addition, I think FUM has become a place for Yearly Meetings to project internal conflicts that they don't want to acknowledge. So the Orthodox Yearly Meetings can say that the issues around acceptance of homosexuality are the result of those liberal, dual-affiliated yearly meetings and not acknowledge that the same controversies are simmering below the surface in their own meetings. Likewise, the dual affiliated meetings can project their unresolved issues about the place of Christ onto FUM and blame the Orthodox meetings and not address the internal discomfort.

As these issues are acknowledged and addressed within the monthly and yearly meetings, the pressure on FUM will be reduced and perhaps some ground for united action in North America will emerge.

Will T

Anonymous said...

Well, yes. There's always that to point to, Will, but the inability to get anything sparking in an enduring way in North American Ministries that I'm speaking of goes back to 1990. The theological diversity of the constituent yearly meetings is a factor, yes, but it seems to me to be something other than the personnel policy or diversity.

I say that having sat on the North American Ministries (NAM) committee when FUM still had a Director of North American Ministries in the person of Ben Richmond. I found the meetings to be congenial, a place where the yearly meeting superintendents and general secretaries spoke about joys and concerns and encouraged and supported one another. Of course, I was also brand new on the board and had a lot of learning to do. Friends on North American Ministries helped me gently and kindly with that.

Some good things got done. I think especially of the consultations the Ben was organizing for emerging leaders and of one that I benefited from--a consultation of both M&C and social justice representatives from the constituent North American yearly meetings in the wake of 9/11. Also Ben worked very hard and well, with the help of many on the committee, to write "The Christian Faith of Friends," which we were all able to unite around.

It was with the restructuring and Ben's retirement in 2005 that NAM's energy became diffuse--to the extent that it became impossible to find a clerk for the committee. It's not that things were rancorous. It seems to me to have more to do with the fact that the superintendents and general secretaries who sit on the committee ex officio are too busy with their own yearly meetings to take on another responsibility.

As I said earlier, the FGC-FUM yearly meetings have the resources of FGC to work with. As for the FUM-only yearly meetings, several of them have had their hands full in the last few years. Western has been laboring with the Phil Gulley recording controversy, Indiana (plus ca change) has been laboring with outward sacraments and water baptism, and North Carolina (FUM) has its own tensions around diversity.

Upon looking back over what I've just written, maybe I'm agreeing with you, Will. I guess what I want to make clear is that, in my experience, energy in North American Ministries isn't being tied up in heavy theological discussions or pulling and tugging. It's more that everyone is too preoccupied.

Except where the overseas work is concerned. Then the eyes lift and people look outward--which also helps in the internal wranglings of the FUM-only yearly meetings. Members can drop their disagreements and focus on work in Ramallah, Belize, and Kenya. And as I also said earlier, I believe the work going on in Kenya is so powerful right now that it will renew and revitalize FUM in North America.

Bill Samuel said...

Most North American yearly meetings in FUM are marked by one or more of the following characteristics: steady decline in numbers, serious internal difficulties, or general lack of commitment to FUM. There are some places in North American FUM which are vibrant, alive and with hope for the future, but I think that is a small proportion of the meetings/churches with commitment to FUM.

While that would seem to indicate a great need for FUM programs to help N. Am. Friends revitalize, the dynamics mean there aren't funds for it and such an effort would face a veritable mine field due to the internal tensions.

The energy in FUM is now mostly focused in Kenya. There was an earlier time when FUM made an effort to bring Kenyan Friends here to minister. That would be valuable again, although it would be hampered by U.S. reluctance to give visas to people from poorer countries who aren't themselves rich.

Johan Maurer said...

Many thanks for these comments, which widen the perspective, and remind me paradoxically that old trends continue even as nothing I thought I "knew" from 10-15 years ago is necessarily true now.

I love the motivational power of global perspective, but hope we can keep a dialogue going about getting addicted to exotic contacts and experiences to substitute for the hard work of confronting nearby differences (including the rural/urban divide that so often takes on theological coloring). And let's not slip into a funder/client model again, or a sort of benevolent USA-centric viewpoint that treats the world as a stage for our progressive goodness. (Still, a voice in my other ear says, "For God's sake, let's also not wait until we have all our theories about cross-cultural relationships worked out to perfection--take some risks sometimes!"

Anonymous said...

What would you like to see FUM doing to revitalize North American Friends? What kind of programs?

Johan Maurer said...

I would like to see that question put to the international constituency of FUM.

Anonymous said...

The Kenyans have their hands full, Johan.

Maybe in a few years--if the truce between the returning people and the receiving communities holds.

Paul L said...

Thanks for the link to the Punshon address, Johan. As usual, I think he hits the nail on the head, over and over again.

I have nothing to add to your discussion of FUM, but I think this sentence from John's lecture is pertinent: "Nowadays, I have no hesitation in saying that the
strongest single bond that unites me with the Society of Friends is our ecclesiology — our conception of the nature of the Church of Christ." I would hope this is true of many others, too.