Liberal Quakerism is facing a severe labor shortage. More and more of our longtime members are aging out of active involvement and they are not being replaced by enough newcomers. Many of us are overextended, not only in meeting but in our personal lives as well.

Nominating committees are struggling to keep committees going. Many meetings have `committee infrastructures that are far too large to be supported by the current membership. In my own meeting, for example, there are 6 positions and 10 committees to fill, a total of 55 slots, and all from an active membership of only 35 people.

There are telltale signs when committees are struggling. Members say “no” to new appointments, no one wants to step forward to clerk the committee, and committees fail to meet on a regular basis or even at all. You know things are really bad when the meeting clerk has to convene committees him or herself in order to get the work of business meeting done on time.

After nearly 400 years of discernment, you would think that the committee structure of one meeting would vary significantly from that of another. Yet, most meetings have the same sorts of committees (e.g,. oversight, worship and ministry, etc.) and relies on clerked, face-to-face meetings at the meeting house to get work done. Where are the new, innovative kinds of committees that enable meetings to meet the unique concerns and challenges of today? Is it really a good thing in a prophetic religion that we are still doing things the way we did hundreds of years ago? Why do we rely so much on face-to-face meetings? Can’t group discernment happen in other ways, such as over a conference calls or through the exchange of emails?

When talking about committee structure, I think it is helpful to differentiate between “substance” and “form”. Over the years Friends have had a lot to say about both. And in the debate about which is more important, Quakers have clearly come down on the side of substance.

Substance is the inner reality of a thing. Quakerism is all about evaluating the essence of things. We call it discernment. When confronted with divergent viewpoints, paths forward or ways of structuring things, we Quakers try to determine which choice before us holds what we variously call spirit, truth, life, power or God’s will. That we use different words to describe this quality isn’t really all that important. What’s important is that we know it, whatever we may call it, when we see it.

Form, in distinction from substance, is the outer structure or appearance of a thing. Early Friends were very concerned about “empty form”, structure lacking real spirit. Quakers left the Church of England because they believed that its sacraments and worship had become empty form. So early friends created something entirely new without creeds, hireling ministers or formal sacraments. They kept form to a minimum so spirit would not be squelched. There’s a reason why Quakerism is the least organized of the organized religions!

Organizational structure, of course, has its place. Ideally, though, it should serve as a container to hold what is living now in the meeting, and not what was alive among Quakers long ago. I know it is difficult to let go of beloved Quaker structures. It can feel as though we are abandoning the faith. But we can get into serious trouble when we overly identify Quakerism with its traditional forms. The spirit blows where it will but we humans tend to cling to form, perhaps because spirit is so much more difficult to see.

How does a meeting go about re-evaluating its committee structure (forms) to bring it more in line with its current capacity to get things done and where the spirit (substance) is moving now?

The discussion probably begins at business meeting, perhaps initiated by the nominating committee. For some meetings it might be useful to survey the membership. How satisfied are folks with how committees are working, how might they want to see committee structure change, what do they feel they personally have the energy to do, and how would they like to work together (face-to-face, conference calls, email exchange, etc.)

Some meeting have taken a more drastic approach. They have laid down their committees for a period of time (often a year) to recharge and discern what committees are essential and which are not. There is something to say for making a clean break

By taking the time to re-evaluate committee structure, we just might discover that:

·         We can live with far less committees than we thought.

·         We need less standing and more ad hoc committees.

·         We can be far more flexible about terms of service than we thought.

·         Some of the work previously conducted by committees might actually be better accomplished in business meeting.

·         We can make better use of technology to help limit the necessity for face-to-face meetings.

·         The meeting’s priorities are beginning to change. For example, we might begin to focus more organizational effort on nurturing fellowship or conducting outreach rather than the usual administrative concerns.

·         It is actually “ok” to get less done than in the past.

Carl Jung, the famous psychologist, loved to tell the following story which speaks to our tendency to cling to empty form rather than pursuing the spirit.

It seems that a geyser of living water burst forth from the hot sands of the desert. Soon word spread that the water of the geyser had healing properties. People came from miles away to drink and bathe in the waters. The crowds became so large, in fact, that the authorities had to step in and place a fence around the area and establish rules about who could come in and when. They also appointed an administrator and formed committees- lots of committees.

The gods looking down from above were offended by how the people had responded to their free gift. They decided to remove the living quality from the water. The water was now just water. It no longer could heal.

Meanwhile, a new geyser burst forth in an even more remote part of the desert. These new waters also had healing properties and eventually word spread about them. Most of the people at the first geyser decided to stay where they were. They figured that since the waters of their geyser had once been living, that it might become so again. Others became began to doubt whether there was such a thing as living waters in the first place. A few brave souls set out to find the new living water.

Soon crowds formed at the new geyser, too. Again, the authorities stepped in, a fence was erected, rules made and committees formed. As before, the gods were so offended that they removed the living quality from the water.

And then, a new geyser burst forth even farther into the desert.

Given the labor shortage of liberal Quakerism it is important that we work smarter. For Quakers that means discerning when organizational structure has become empty form and having the courage to pull up stakes and build new structures that reflect the movement of the spirit now.

In the words of the most interesting man in the world, ”Stay thirsty, my Friends!”

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Replies to This Discussion

Scott. There are some of us who have pulled up stakes and will not participate in the building of new structures; for the living water itself in itself is our structure in and of which there is no need or place for outward form. This Life in the water itself is sufficient in itself.

Our meeting in Midlothian, Virginia went through the exact same situation that you describe in this post.  And Friends became exhausted from trying to keep up the liberal Quaker structure that had been in place for decades, so we set out to discern a better way for everything we do as a spiritual community.  I've included several excerpts from the yearly meeting's magazine, The Interchange, about our meeting's journey since 2012:

Winter 2012

The Midlothian Friends Meeting community has been making an effort to re-energize our commitment to our Quaker values and process, and the spiritual community we have built over the last 25 years. A gradual, significant decline in participation within the Meeting, including the decline of children in our RE program, had resulted in a loss of energy and sense of community for a number of Friends. This has required some honest soul-searching as individuals and as a group–not an easy process. We are committed to continue with this spiritual process in faith that we will heal each other and our spiritual community. Although we have lost the presence of some dear Friends over the last few years, we have also been blessed with many new Friends who are bringing us enthusiasm, wisdom, and a fresh spiritual awareness as we all go through this process together. We are hopeful that those we’ve lost will rejoin us - we miss them! We are beginning the New Year with a renewed sense of community, a gradual increase in worship attendance, and new approaches in how we practice our Quaker faith.

Fall 2013

During 2013 Midlothian Friends have been discerning together how we might simplify the operation of our Meeting in order to lessen activities that are not essential to our core purposes: worship and community. Simplicity led us earlier this year to streamline our finances by eliminating multiple bank accounts, increasing the transparency of our financial state, and reconstituting our financial committee to be more effective. We have also changed the bylaws for the two charities under our care, so that redundant financial activities between the charities and the Meeting have been eliminated. Through a seasoned process of discernment regarding our religious education program we have come to realize that we need to provide a simple grounding of a consistent teacher who will then be supported by our RE committee and the adults at Meeting. To ensure this consistency, the Meeting has decided try hiring young adult friend or two as teachers for our dozen or so children for our twice monthly First Day School.

We are also making efforts to encourage a more simplistic approach for the care of Friends who are in need, rather than relying on a Care committee to formally handle all of the needs of Friends. For example, at the end of worship each Sunday and during a silent time at our monthly business meeting, we are now taking time to discretely reflect upon those among us who may have a need for support; and we are arranging the necessary coordination at that time. In addition, we utilize our e-mail distribution list to make sure all Friends are aware of situations where a Friend would like our support. Numerous Friends are enthusiastically stepping forward to provide care and support.

We are eager to see where this simplification process takes us in the coming months; but already, a hopeful Spirit and natural energy is manifesting itself among us as participation increases in our weekly worship and adult religious education program. The Spirit is indeed present among us.

Winter 2014

Midlothian Friends Meeting continues our quest to simplify the operation of our Meeting. We are content to allow the Spirit to show us the way forward in love and gentleness. In keeping with our 2012 Spiritual State of the Meeting report, we are heeding our communal leading to stop asking Friends to do things: to be on this committee or that, to meet a particular financial goal, to sign-up to teach First Day School.

Instead, at the end of 2013 we hired First Day School teachers, so parents are able to be present in worship. We began 2014 by putting a “freeze” on filling our committees in order to give the Spirit a chance to take us where it would have us go. We met the challenge of financial shortfalls during 2013 by just sitting together in silence. We trust that if we simply provide a place of spiritual nurture and refreshment, way will open.

With the busyness of our Meeting purposely laid aside, way is indeed opening in a number of respects.

For example, our spiritual sharing (called Circle of Friends) continues every Sunday for 30 minutes before commencement of Meeting for Worship. Circle of Friends started early in 2013, and is well attended every First Day by the adults in Meeting.

With the decrease in the number of “standing” committees, we have found the Spirit leading us to utilize the whole meeting community to address the spiritual, communal, and financial issues that arise. We believe that this more “committee of the whole” Quaker process resembles the process used by very early Friends and works quite well for our Meeting. After an individual Friend brings forth a leading or concern, our Meeting Clerk uses Quaker process to guide us toward a unified way forward. Consequently, we are finding during our Meetings for Business that silence is more consistently utilized as an essential part of our Quaker process. Once a sense of Meeting emerges, Friends are eager to offer their talents to Meeting. Such offers may be in the form of an individual Friend taking action with Meeting’s approval; or it may be several Friends offering to serve on an ad-hoc committee with the result being brought back to Meeting for Business with a proposal for Meeting’s consideration.

Participation in Worship has more than doubled over the last few months, and Meeting for Business is now well attended. We feel that the spiritual and physical growth of our Meeting is rebounding and are hopeful that it will continue. Perhaps Friends are more aware that each individual’s participation is very important to our Meeting’s viability and that Meeting is evolving into a place of Worship with no strings attached; a community where spiritual refreshment and listening to the Spirit are at our core rather than busyness.

Winter 2017

Midlothian Friends continue finding joy in simplifying the operation of our Meeting as we intentionally follow the promptings of the Spirit. Each time we have let go of a form we thought necessary for our Meeting, the Spirit has been there to show us how to ‘just be’ in the Presence.

After this journey together for the past six years, we now experience an operational environment at our Meeting that is as simple as our Quaker worship. And we are eager for what may come next! For us, it has been a matter of letting go of control so we allow the Spirit to guide us, communally. This group experience has been a reminder to each of us to do the same in our lives outside the Meeting House. It also spurred us to consider individual simplicity during our monthly ‘Meeting for Nurture’ where Friends shared their journeys into a more simpler life. There is a relaxed and reviving energy that is now sustainably palpable in our Meeting instead of the busyness that used to define our gatherings. Increased intimacy has resulted. Our Meeting House environment has truly become a physical haven for us from the world around us; so much so that we now encourage Friends to visit the Meeting House and its wooded grounds at any time for their personal rejuvenation. Keys are eagerly made available to all Friends so they can avail themselves of this respite at their convenience.

Due to the simplification of our ‘Meetings for Worship with a Concern for Business’, we now use this time together purely for discerning the spiritual path forward for Midlothian Friends. We have ceased using it for various announcements and administrative matters that previously utilized much time and could have been best handled through email. To emphasize the discernment purpose of Meeting for Business, our Recording Clerk now only minutes decisions, rather than the entire Meeting for Business deliberation. We have found we now have plenty of time during Meeting for Business to initially consider all spiritually related matters as an entire meeting in order to allow the Spirit to first provide direction through all of us. If needed we refer purely logistic or administrative aspects to standing or ad-hoc committees. This approach clearly places our entire Meeting community in a steering capacity for our committees, rather than the other way around. This healthy evolution in our Quaker process has increased attendance at our Meetings for Business to be equal to that of our weekly Meetings for Worship. We assume this is because very spiritually meaningful things now happen during that Meeting for Business time together.

Finally, we have discovered the joys in making needs of the Meeting known to the entire Meeting community via email or announcements after worship, so we can experience together the answer the Spirit provides us to these perceived needs. We have found that if it is a genuine need, the Spirit will nudge some Friend to provide what is needed without us ‘pushing’ one another to provide it. In humility we have come to recognize that if no Friend responds to a perceived need, perhaps the “need” was not as great as we thought. And we accept this as our answer as we let the “need” go or perhaps discern another way forward.


For more information about The Four Structures of Unprogrammed Quaker Meetings (click to view the article), I refer you to the aforementioned QuakerQuaker article I wrote about a year ago.  Midlothian Friends Meeting has moved from the third structure outlined in the article, Rotating Appointments based on observed gifts or growth areas needed, to the fourth structure, Situational Leading Controlled by the Spirit - with enormous benefit to the spiritual life and joy of our meeting.  The article outlines the changes that we experienced in our meeting's culture in order to make this transition - which has taken years and still continues.

About a decade ago, my Friends Meeting faced this question.  The Nominating Committee and the Ministry & Oversight Committee met jointly, appointed a small group of Friends to make a proposal, then gave it a try, revising it over the years as  the ideas proposed rubbed against the reality of our needs and resources and we saw them change. 

The meeting gave up a few committees, discerning that some jobs didn't need much group discernment, just a willing soul or two to get the job done over a short period of time.  We now have several volunteer coordinators who seek people to do work on hospitality, in the meeting house, around the grounds, or with the children.  When no one is found, the coordinator can hire out the work or leave it undone. 

The high touch matters still have committees.  We have a Committees on Ministry & Oversight, Nominating and Adult Religious Exploration.  Sometimes the coordinator for children's & youth programs has called a meeting in person or on email to consider a complex or touchy issue. 

It's worked pretty well for us.  I've noticed some issues.  The meeting needs to have oversight on the work of the treasurer.  Our perennial treasurer travels for half the year, so that's easy for all to know.  Even if she didn't, someone should be able to look at the books at any time.  If a volunteer coordinator doesn't use the power implicit in the appointment, little gets done in that area.  We muddle through, as we would were there a committee that didn't meet much. 

Thank you Howard and Jay for your very practical suggestions regarding getting things done in a meeting. I wish we could collect and document these ideas in one place so all meetings could take advantage of your experience. Thanks, too, Howard for your interesting article. I don't know if it is possible to exist without any structure, but clearly we can do a lot to simplify the structures we have inherited. You have given me a lot to think about.

Check out my blog:

Different schools of thought pertain.  Keith marks the far end in one direction, whereas I might anchor the opposite pole.

For me, Quakerism provides a role playing game wherein members of the general public have both a means and a method for accomplishing business together, at minimum running the meeting itself, that is non-hierarchical and guided by consensus.  Where else in the ambient culture is such an opportunity afforded?

I want humans to come practice with Quaker infrastructure and build their inter-personal and organizational musculature, the better to spread a Quaker perspective in other circles, sometimes countering a more top-down boss-minions structure, the kind of structure for which England (and the realm of Anglo speakers more generally) is famous.  Lots of classism.

Ergo, when I advertise Quakerism, it's all about walking the talk by participating on committees and keeping a journal (today we say blog).  Meeting for Worship provides a glue experience, both in its weekly no agenda and monthly business format (agenda published ahead of time, minutes taken).

Without the practice of committee work (Oversight, Nominating, Finance, Property...) Quakers grow less skilled in their ability to manage global and local businesses, whereas per my ideals, we're capable of going back to our roots and managing temporal affairs in the manner of Friends.  This message resonates with younger folk, including geeks (techno-literate engineer types) and I'm finding my brand of Quakerism is doing pretty well.  YMMV.

Hello Scott. It's been remarked that as long as Friends preached the Gospel, the power of God, their movement increased in strength and numbers. As they lost the gospel power, the meetings decreased in vigor. "Those who are preaching this gospel," writes Lewis Benson, "can testify from experience that it still has convincing power and still reaches to that which God has placed in every person to bear witness to himself and to Christ." 

Rather than rearranging the deck chairs for another couple of decades as the Quaker ship continues to sink, another approach might be considered. What is this Gospel? Why were people drawn to and empowered by it? Does it have potential for us and for our Religious Society today? What must change? You might begin to explore these questions by reading a series of lectures on George Fox's teachings that can be found on the New Foundation Fellowship website located here: Benson lectures. They might be useful to both you yourself and also to your meeting. 



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