Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Having worked for many years among Quaker organizations, I have long developed strong impressions about the system Friends have created, the system Friends think they have created, and the system that they say the wish to be. When I began, as a 30something to work in an office of Friends in a Yearly Meeting among my cohort (some younger, some older) I was inspired by a sense of shared commitment to income equality. But that did not last too long.
Soon 'income equality' - meaning sharing equally a resource of income within a particular office -gave way to being 'professional' That turned into 'income equality' - meaning equality to a place in the world where similar work was happening.
All this made sense at the time.
Then I watched as Friends' schools were increasingly needing the income and consistency that a wealthy clientele wanted. No industrial focus is given in the upper schools, little attention paid to Friends with concerns of those who are not academically successful from the beginning.
I watched as the organization I worked for put more distance between the highest and lowest paid, in the name of 'recruitment' - not commitment to strengthening the community of Friends and its organization. Organizations became more businesslike: that is, they used increasingly the business world's model.
The odd thing was that the business world was increasingly interested in the ways Friends had worked for years: collaborative teamwork of committees; full staff meetings regularly held and decisions and recommendations that came from the 'grass roots'; shared responsibility- not blaming the upper level or responsibility or the lower level for action, but allowing for all to learn and grow.
Of course, Friends do not always 'do' their process well either. This was driving us to make quick anaylsis based on educated advice, rather than searching inward for some direction.
I am concerned that the directions organizations have taken for 20 plus years has been increasingly in the direction of what success looks like for the world rather than how we successfully serve and allow our Quaker communities to flourish. How many of our organizations think FIRST about how the work fits into the lives of Friends? Do we see our committee structure and traditional way of working as something to overcome? or something to reshape to continue to include the community? Do we understand how our focus on community can shape a different entity than focusing as a business? When our focus changes to address more the world needs, can we be brave enough to be truthful, then, of who we are and be public - come clean - ab out it?
We build community by paying attention and being engaged - not with the cohort around the organization alone, but with the broader institution of Friends. That requires permeability as well as form - interest as well as clarity of purpose. And language: it must be clear. Inside Language may seem like a fine way to hold our community. But if our purpose is to BUILD community, we like early Friends will pay attention to language. When we use words like 'overseer', 'elder', 'accountability' - even 'meeting' - do we remember that those words all carry mental models that can be blocks to others to understand what we mean? When our 'yea' is 'yea' and our 'nay' is 'nay', we may need to use more words, or change our use of those words. It does not help our community to dig in our heels and block engagement on any level.
I suspect that more will come, but for now, that is where my thoughts have been.
Thanks for this, Joan...
The other matter is the way "volunteers" are treated by "professional" staff. This can discourage engagement and that has impact on our work. Those who serve at many levels -- working groups and standing committees, as well as alternate clerks of yearly meeting -- are left with the question: "Is this right use of my time?" Over the past 20-30 years, many Friends I know have decided that the business model for yearly meeting made their continuing participation questionable. They were neither heard nor heeded.
I raised the issue of the "staff/volunteer" divide up at a recent gathering of coordinators, support committees and Support and Outreach standing committee. However, I when mentioned the same matter to someone at yearly meeting over a year ago, the Friend with whom I was speaking did not wish to hear the idea.
At the moment, I'm refocusing on my monthly and quarterly meeting, which is where community happens with somewhat greater ease. It doesn't mean that I won't re-engage with the yearly meeting at some point, but for now, I'm taking a sabbatical of 2 or more years.
This has been true of many Friends organizations. But some newer ones, like Friends Peace Teams, have seemed able to find a better way, being conscious of being the change they seek. But I think some of the more established groups have within them a lot of desire for comfort in the white middle class way they have become used to in the world. And I think it has to do with the lack of much class and ethnic diversity in a significant part of the Friends movement, at least in the USA.
Thank you, Joan. It is so important that our organizations reflect what Quakers have to offer the world, and this is one way we have not done such a good job.
I hope you will have more to say on this topic in general. Income equality is one issue. Another I'd like to hear you address is to what extent our organizations are carrying a Quaker message, versus the one their professional staff (Quaker or not) would like to carry.
I’ve worked with and for a number of Quaker organizations – both as a volunteer and as a member of the paid staff. I know from experience that there are important issues here (and plenty of hurt feelings) about what makes a Quaker organization Quaker. This is something we as Friends need to talk about.
Here is a paradox about Friends: we have created many, many valuable, organizations: schools and colleges, retirement homes, service and advocacy organizations, etc. On the other hand, we have no developed body of thought about how such organizations ought to operate. We keep thinking they should function like our meetings even though these organizations have dozens or hundreds of staff members and budgets in the millions of dollars.
This paradox or tension gives rise to persisting, sometimes ruinous wrangles. Among the big, largely unexplored issues are these:
Personnel matters: should Quaker organizations have compensation and supervisory arrangements that are significantly at variance from non-Quaker organizations. We can all agree, I think, that Quaker organizations ought to function with greater equality than non-Quaker ones, but does that mean complete equality of compensation and no relationships of supervision?
Governance: How broadly participatory should Quaker organizations be in their governance? Should everyone on a staff have an equal voice in making decisions through sense-of-the-meeting practices, or should some decisions be made by those in leadership (!) after broad consultation?
Mission. Should Quaker organizations give special preference to Quakers in deciding who they serve? Is building community more important than effective service? (Alternately, is building community always the most important form of effective service?)
Every Quaker organization with which I am familiar gets caught up, in persistent and potentially crippling ways, with these issues. (And, yes, there are other difficult issues.) We need to be better thought through about how we want Quaker organizations to function. What makes a Quaker organization Quaker?