05 March 2020

Quaker experiments

Meetinghouse of Friends Meeting at Cambridge (MA, USA). Source.
In the fall of 1977, not long after I arrived as a new staff member at Beacon Hill Friends House, Elmer Brown came over to the house to lead an evening Bible study for anyone interested. The book we read together was 1 Corinthians, which, Elmer proposed, included the biblical model (particularly verses 26-33) used by Quaker meetings for worship right from the start.

(Side note: I don't remember us spending any time that evening on 14:34-35, about women not speaking, but I later learned that Elmer knew and liked Margaret Fell's Women's Speaking Justified.)

One of the things that intrigued me about Elmer Brown was his role among Friends. He was the executive secretary of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, a large meeting (I think the membership then was over 500 -- very large by Quaker standards) with several local Quaker meetings and worship groups under its care, scattered around the Boston region. At that time, Beacon Hill Friends Meeting, which met -- and still meets -- weekly at Beacon Hill Friends House, was one of those subsidiary meetings.

As executive secretary, Elmer had a job description that included management of facilities and programming at the Friends Center at 5 Longfellow Park in Cambridge. What became clear to me that evening, and later from attending meetings for worship at the meetinghouse there, was that he filled many roles -- including counseling, teaching, encouraging, and visibility in the wider community -- that I associate with Friends pastors. Here was a Friends meeting whose meetings for worship had no programming and no sermons, but that didn't prevent the congregation from having a pastor in all but title. That particular combination -- a meeting that was part of the "nonpastoral" side of the Quaker world but that functionally had a pastor -- was something new to me.

It was an idea that might have come more naturally to that particular meeting because it was historically the merger of two older meetings, Boston Friends Meeting in Roxbury, a pastoral meeting where Elton Trueblood had once been pastor, and the unprogrammed Friends meeting that had gathered in a room at Andover Hall in Cambridge.

A few other unprogrammed meetings have also had similar staff roles, but I don't think the word "pastor" was ever used. (Tell me if you know of exceptions!) In the years I've traveled among Quakers of all flavors, I've seen many unprogrammed meetings that handle pastoral care well, but I've also seen many who seem to have little capacity for pastoral care -- or little capacity to focus on the meeting's accessibility to visitors and the wider community. I'm sure that just about every Friends meeting in existence has people who are gifted for these pastoral roles but lack the vision or language to empower and release those people.

At the same time, I've also run into pastoral meetings where the programming threatens to crowd out people's attentiveness to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Maybe they once had a significant period of unprogrammed worship, but over the years it shrank to a symbolic few minutes or disappeared altogether. Even those meetings that call themselves semi-programmed have sometimes prioritized the programming at the cost of time devoted to waiting for the Spirit. How might they restore the trust in the Spirit's ability to lead, and the freedom for all present to respond? That trust and freedom are the rightful legacy of every Friend.

Can "pastoral" meetings do without pastors? I know of at least a couple of Friends churches that for various reasons found themselves without pastors, and (at least for a while) found that voluntary leadership rose up to fill many of the needs they used to associate with pastors.

Do you know of Friends meetings and churches that have -- now or in recent times -- succeeded in decoupling the issue of unprogrammed vs programmed (or hybrid) meetings for worship from the question of whether or not to have a pastor? It seems to me that the established correlation of "pastoral = programmed, nonpastoral = unprogrammed" needs to be challenged, and I'd be grateful to know where Friends are experimenting with new configurations.

(There's a bit of background on "programmed" and "unprogrammed" in this post: Gathering to meet with God.)

Such terms as "pastor" and "executive secretary" can be more or less helpful in conveying the roles that a meeting might like to include in providing support to release a Friend for pastoral care, community representation and access, and other roles. (What other roles?) Are there other terms that Friends have found more helpful?

Some other questions I have about Friends' experiments:
  • What creative approaches have Friends adopted for meeting places, especially churches and meetings who either can't afford to build/buy/keep meetinghouses, or deliberately choose not to have them? Who is experimenting with house churches, and if you are doing that, how do you make newcomers feel at ease coming into what looks like a private home? Second Street Community Church in Newberg, Oregon, USA, rents space in a cultural center for worship, but also maintains an office in the center of town. Has anyone else tried that combination?
  • As you consider questions of meeting space, signage, advertising, Web presence, how are you taking into account the social and spiritual filters you do or don't intend to convey to attenders and newcomers? Are there class signals, for example? Do people of sexual orientations other than the local majority know they are actually welcome? Do you  consciously or subconsciously want to filter out people who are enthusiastic about their faith in favor of skeptics and seekers? (Or do you practice the opposite sin -- avoiding people who ask too many questions?)

    I remember George Selleck of Friends Meeting at Cambridge talking about one woman he met who divided her time between Friends and a Franciscan shrine, and who saw miracles happen around her. He said that she reminded him of George Fox, but added with regret that most Friends meetings would not know what to do with someone with her level of energy.

    (Issues of location and accessibility, both physical and spiritual, are very real for me right now. Moscow Friends Meeting recently lost its meeting place abruptly when its host organization had to move to a new location where that organization was not allowed to host anyone else. Friends have been meeting irregularly as guests of another church, but a more permanent solution remains to be found.)
  • Finally, what local partnerships are happening, or are possible to start, among meetings and churches that are dramatically different in their approaches to worship and leadership? How can (for example) evangelical and liberal Friends in a city support each other while remaining true to their respective missions? Friends in Portland, Oregon, have some experience with such experiments; where else are they happening? If Friends from your tradition have a church or meeting in a city, and Friends from another tradition come and try to plant something new, do you assert turf ownership, or do you collaborate to extend Friends' reach?

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Bill Samuel said...

I know in the mid-20th century both Baltimore meetings (Stony Run, the Hicksite one, and Homewood, the Orthodox one) had chief staff persons I believe called pastoral secretaries who among other things were expected to give a message in meeting for worship most weeks although neither meeting had an order of service like programmed meetings do.

Mackenzie said...

Herbert Hoover recommended Augustus Murray as Friends Meeting of Washington's first pastor. What I haven't been able to figure out is whether that implies it was at one time a programmed meeting.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Bill and Mackenzie. I've known former secretaries of both Homewood and Stony Run, but I didn't trust my memories of what they did at those meetings, so I didn't include them. I didn't know abut Augustus Murray and Friends Meeting of Washington. When Frank Davis served as secretary of Kingston Meeting (unprogrammed) in Jamaica Yearly Meeting, he appeared on some lists as "pastor." And in one directory of religious organizations in Moscow, I'm listed as pastor of Moscow Friends Meeting! (I was clerk for four years.)

Mackenzie, I see you have commented on Facebook as well. Thank you for helping circulate my questions!

kwixote said...

Our meeting -- Durham, NC -- is currently laboring over a lot of these issues. At one point, everyone knew each other, so there were informal ways of making sure that pastoral needs were met. But we have grown so much in the past 15 years that now we must be more deliberate about such things. It turns out that, in a larger meeting, attenders -- not realizing how important lay ministry is -- don't get as involved. It's difficult to find someone to serve as meeting clerk because the job is so big, so we now are experimenting with an intergenerational clerking team. We've always had a Care & Support committee, but between those who are ill and those who have new babies, there are a lot people to serve.

We have had to face the fact that even an unprogrammed meeting may need to hire people to help with certain tasks. We now have part-time paid positions to help with children & youth ministry and with managing building use.

We're also wrestling with issues of inclusion, of all sorts -- physical ability, race, sexuality. We strive to be as inclusive as possible, but recognize that we don't always do a good job of it.

Johan Maurer said...

kwixote ... When I was at your yearly meeting, I was very interested in hearing about your approach to the shortage of people willing to serve as clerk. I hope your experiment turns out well! And I hope you continue to be willing to ask the difficult but worthwhile questions you mentioned.

Tom Smith said...

My father as a "pastor" said that his basic "job" as a Friends minister was to work himself out of a job. He also felt that he didn't "work" on Sunday, so that he seldom took a "day off during the week.