27 August 2015

Yearly meetings, myth and reality

Northwest Yearly Meeting's logo
Maybe we are lucky in Northwest Yearly Meeting. If you include children, somewhere between ten and twenty percent of the yearly meeting's population show up for the annual sessions at George Fox University. In addition the numbers of Friends involved in yearly meeting-owned camps, pastors' retreats, "Seminars by the Sea," Bible quizzing, and other events seems to show that, among Quaker institutions beyond the local congregation, ours has a lot of vitality.

The questions that Micah Bales asks in his blog post, "Is it Time to Get Rid of Yearly Meetings?", are still valid, even for our yearly meeting. To my mind, this is the heart of his post:
Is there something fundamentally unhelpful about the Yearly Meeting system as it presently exists? What if the best thing that could happen would be for us to release our institutional structures altogether, opening ourselves to a more organic, responsive way of being Christ’s body?
Disclosure: I'm a member of Micah's advisory group, so I'm not exactly a disinterested participant in this discussion. Based on experience, I'm inclined to give his thoughts a lot of weight.

Micah briefly describes some features of the missional Quaker network he's helped create, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, and lists these important characteristics:
1. We empower individual leaders to operate in their gifts and unlock their potential as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. By emphasizing the giftedness and unique calling of each person, we come together as a body with all parts working together in harmony.

2. The Friends of Jesus Fellowship is rooted in spiritual affinity and shared calling by Christ. The Fellowship is most strongly based in the eastern half of the United States, but we are not necessarily limited by geography. We have friends and co-workers scattered from Berkeley to Baltimore, from Madrid to Moscow.

3. Our membership is based on shared commitment and mutual accountability. We are members of one another because we have come together as disciples, followers of Jesus who are engaged together in learning from Jesus himself. Becoming a Friend of Jesus isn’t a matter of clearness committees and paperwork. We’re not a club to be joined primarily for a sense of identity and belonging. It’s about doing the work, showing ourselves to be friends of Jesus by our love for one another.

4. Rather than preserving an institution, we are focused on igniting a movement. In place of nostalgia for the past – even the admittedly glorious past of the early Quaker movement – we are inspired by a vision for the new things that God wants to do right here, right now.
It's a bit too glib for me just to say, "Don't yearly meetings ideally have these exact same characteristics?" The Friends of Jesus Fellowship has formed around a particular set of people and their gifts and concerns, and a specific historical moment, and that's not the same as an organizational structure that has a cohesiveness that endures for generations and involves hugely varying levels of maturity and senses of calling.

Maybe the better question is, "Can yearly meetings be incubators and mutually supportive partners for such networks as the Friends of Jesus Fellowship? How? Can it be done without enmeshing each other in expectations that primarily reflect the conceits of one side of the relationship?"

Here, in no particular order, are some of my related reflections:

Does the theory of the concentric Friends structure, with its simplicity and lack of hierarchy, still have power for Friends? In this structure, the local Friends meeting or church is the inner circle. It is where we know each other best, exercise hospitality to newcomers, and learn to ask, "What does God want to do or say through us?" It's where people are born, marry, die; it's where we witness new believers crossing the threshold into the household of faith.

By appointment or interest or both (depending in part on the local culture), some of those local Friends report to and from the next concentric circle, traditionally the monthly or quarterly meeting, then the yearly meeting, then the larger associations to which this yearly meeting is affiliated. Most local Friends probably won't be interested or called to serve in these wider circles, and that's no problem as long as the connections are rotated and renewed often enough to keep the relationships real.

Do we need to choose between structure and mission, or can we divide this labor according to our spiritual gifts? I'm reminded of the classic conflict within Friends United Meeting between those who defended our relationships with the National and World Councils of Churches, and those who favored "functional" ecumenism. Some Friends loved the ecumenical councils, which reminded them of Jesus's prayer for unity among his disciples, and which promised creative cross-fertilization among the different families of believers with their different cultures and emphases. Others were irritated at the councils' apparent claims on being the definitive ecumenical structures, or their tendency to take political positions at variance with our grassroots members. These dissidents often preferred "functional" or "missional" ecumenism, such as Christian Peacemaker Teams, the American Bible Society, Habitat for Humanity, or similar cross-confessional movements focused on particular visions of Christian service.

When I was serving Friends United Meeting, I advocated reducing our ties with the big ecumenical councils at the same time that I was encouraging FUM to join the Christian Peacemaker Teams. It seemed that the councils were causing us more grief than they were worth. In the end, we did join CPT but we didn't leave the councils. I hope that FUM is continuing to learn how to discern the value of each ecumenical relationship, not in terms of who irritates whom, but which relationships give scope to the gifts and missions and faithfulness of its members. The same can be true of the relationships and responsibilities we choose within our own Quaker structures, or with the alternate configurations that spring up when we respond to new visions.

Should our yearly meetings simplify their agendas? Northwest Yearly Meeting's annual sessions have at least two major aspects: the well-attended evening sessions feature speakers and worship leaders carefully selected by the yearly meeting elders and others, to address the vision and challenges that we face. During the day, a much smaller number of us listen to reports, ask questions, attend workshops, and participate in board meetings ... all with a view toward the stewardship of the yearly meeting's resources and monitoring our faithfulness to the decisions we've made in the past. But do enough of us see a direct connection between all these interactions and that basic community task that all Friends have? -- learning what God wants to do and say through us? Are we remembering to ask and answer honestly, in the full hearing of everyone, including our young people, "How does Truth prosper among you?" Do we have a chance to hear about our victories and failures among local churches and the broad sweep of yearly meeting programming, or are we too fragmented by the very nature of our agendas and compartments? How much of our stewardship responsibilities could be simplified or conducted by correspondence during the year? Would our yearly meetings benefit from a practice I've heard about occasionally ... abandoning business as usual in a given year, in favor of holding annual sessions that are unscripted, and wholly devoted to listening to God?

What about accountability? One of the justifications for old structures such as yearly meetings is that local groups and movements can easily go completely off the rails if there is no reporting relationship to a wider body and its enduring, shared expressions of Christian values. Having witnessed several times the unfortunate results that happen when a local group falls under the spell of a persuasive but misguided individual, I don't need to be convinced about the value of wider relationships as safeguards. But I've also seen organizations that become so pro-forma and agenda-bound that they seem to forget to pray. Maybe you have better experiences, but I've never seen any kind of formula, doctrinal or structural, that takes the place of live discernment. Sometimes that discernment is exercised by a formally-convened group of elders, sometimes by evolving networks of believers who modestly covenant to stay in touch with each other, flagging up both victories and violations. This isn't as stable or well-organized as I'd like, but reality is messy.

Maybe that's enough for now. My flight from Boston to JFK is about to board. By tomorrow I hope to be in Elektrostal ....

Here's a discernment issue: Overcoming the culture of nice. My question: When we fully deploy righteous anger, will we always know who the bully is?

Another conflict between institution and individual: Russian Orthodox activists vandalize a "blasphemous" exhibition. Report one, report two.

Quakerism as a charismatic tradition.

James Cotton!

Mississippi Blues Project: James Cotton - "He Was There" live at the TLA in Philadelphia from WXPN FM on Vimeo.
The legendary James Cotton Blues Band played the TLA in Philadelphia on September 6th for WXPN's Mississippi Blues Project. The Mississippi Blues Project has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.http://www.pcah.us/

James Cotton http://jamescottonsuperharp.com/
Mississippi Blues Project http://mississippibluesproject.org/
WXPN http://xpn.org/

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