The Four Structures of Unprogrammed Quaker Meetings

There are four distinct structural arrangements utilized by unprogrammed Quaker meetings.  Meetings tend to gravitate to one of these, or may use a hybrid structure taken from one or more of these. Here’s my assessment of them.  Which structure does your meeting use, and how does it work for your community of Friends?

Laissez-faire Arrangement

This is where a spiritual core Presence is not a priority at the meeting.  Friends are there basically as individuals to worship or meditate together or join in causes together. 

Situations and issues are dealt with as they arise through an agreement of egos rather than a deep spiritual seeking for the divine will (although the meeting’s stated position may be they are seeking the divine will).  Cliques easily form, since unity is based on friendships and petty personal preferences (like "We should use this spiritual terminology in vocal ministry during worship and not that one").  A danger is that a toxic environment can form because ego-struggles will undoubtedly passively or aggressively form from time to time, with stronger egos often prevailing.  Therefore, the environment is not "safe" for those who understand they need an environment that encourages self-reflection, listening, openness, exploration, and vulnerability so their spiritual life is able to thrive. 

A Quaker meeting operating under this laissez-faire (no effective structure) arrangement can easily devolve into a living hell if difficult or abusive behavior from a Friend should manifest.  There is no spiritual core (as opposed to the prevailing ego core) from which to deal with the situation, and there often is not an engaged/respected Friend willing to step in to help. Often, a committee arrangement is in place – but without a predominant spiritual core Presence within the meeting, the committee members often become ineffective as they become demoralized or disinterested in the meeting’s general welfare.

Permanent Appointments based on observed 'gifts'

Operates under various labels; most often used are "elders", "overseers", and "ministers".  Meetings with such a structure are tightly controlled to adhere to an agreed upon standard, which does not change easily.   This is due to a two-fold reality: (1) Quaker process by design results in slow incremental changes over long periods of time, (2) Permanently appointed elders/ministers/overseers, being human beings, may become ego invested in what they've helped to create for their meeting. 

On the plus side, those appointed have demonstrated over a long period of time their particular gift(s).  And Friends indeed benefit from their guidance because they lovingly serve Friends within the meeting. 

In this era of "equality", a recording of spiritual recognition that has been made by the meeting can 'feel' offensive and wrong to some.  There is a danger that this group of appointed elders/ministers/overseers may become perceived similarly to a beloved pastor in a protestant church: over-depended upon, possibly resented by some, and sometimes idolized by a few.  When something goes wrong with one of these elders/ministers/overseers, it can be difficult to remove them without some trauma for the meeting; although the occurrence of such a situation is likely rare. 

This arrangement, mostly used by Conservative Friends, is modeled after the arrangement first advocated by George Fox after loss of informal control arose in the early years of the Quaker movement.  Control of order, theology, and hierarchy became important to the survival of the religious movement as envisioned by him.

Rotating Appointments based on observed gifts or growth areas needed

First introduced by Progressive Quakers in the mid-1800s and then later adopted by liberal (Hicksite) Friends once they absorbed Progressive Friends.  Some liberal meetings still utilize the labels "elders", "overseers", and "ministers"; many do not.  It is designed to counter the abuses perceived with the Permanent Appointment arrangement instituted by Fox, so a meeting would more easily be able to respond to the nudging of the Spirit as circumstances change. 

An obvious drawback is that no matter what a meeting calls the Friends placed on ministry, care, and oversight committees under this Rotating Appointment arrangement, they may or may not have the level of spiritual gift(s) experienced within the Permanent Appointment arrangement or even a traditional 'church with a pastor' arrangement.  One year those gifts could be there, and another year they may not. The need to rotate committee members every year or so, places a strain on the whole meeting to constantly be required to fill meeting positions and roles.  Often, the goal becomes to just get a warm body in the position - whether the Nominating committee members admit it or not. 

So, while in one way this arrangement succeeded in removing perceived abuses with the Permanent Appointment arrangement, it also introduced a transiency to the meeting culture, as well as a busyness and complexity to the operation of the meeting.  Such a complex, intensively-fed structure - by its nature - limits the operation of the Spirit which is at its best when it is free-flowing within each of us.  So, the original reasoning for abandoning the permanency of appointments - which was a desire to allow free-flowing response to the Spirit, has now reared its ugly head again due to an unstable, complex meeting operational environment.  The free-flow of the Spirit within the meeting is stifled due to rigid boundaries of roles within and between committees; there is little incentive for individual Friends to respond to the promptings of the Spirit and offer a leading or concern to the whole meeting for discernment – for fear of either offending members of the committee established to handle a particular activity, or being viewed as a renegade. 

The typical liberal Quaker meeting using this Rotating Appointment arrangement has much operational overhead.  It can be burdensome for everyone in the meeting, again lessening the direct and spontaneous operation of the Spirit in the life of the meeting.  In fact, this burdensome operational environment is the main cause for the revolving door experienced within liberal Quaker meetings. It is anything but simple.

Situational Leading Controlled by the Spirit

This arrangement that effectively eliminates appointed leaders is seldom utilized because it takes enormous faith to go on this group spiritual journey - since over a period of years control must be given up, the ego of Friends must be subdued, and an intensely spiritual and egalitarian environment must be cultivated within the meeting community.  It requires truly believing there is ‘that of God’ in everyone, and a willingness to embrace that reality within the life of the meeting and within each and every person who steps foot inside the meetinghouse. These understandings are a prerequisite in order for this arrangement to work. 

Once a meeting establishes a culture of persistently inviting, exploring, and allowing the Spirit to infuse it with Light (without human organizational constraints), the Spirit truly becomes in charge and it chooses who to use in each given situation.  Just as with unprogrammed worship, this seemingly simple and hap-hazard Situational Leading arrangement actually takes discipline, understanding, continuous discernment, and loving attention. 

Under this arrangement, if the Spirit leads the meeting to continue with the same clerk of meeting year after year for ten years, then that should happen.  If the meeting is led to form an ad-hoc committee to handle something, then the meeting should do so.  If the Spirit leads the meeting to form an interest group (such as in Peace and Social action), then it should do it and not necessarily feel compelled to call it a "committee" if that doesn’t seem to work for that meeting.  While committees may certainly be utilized whenever the meeting is led to create them, these committees in no way direct or control the meeting or the Friends who are a part of the meeting.  Nor do committees interfere with seeds of Light that may spring within any Friend who wants to bring a leading or concern to the whole meeting community for discernment.  Committees  serve wholly as a tool of the meeting once the meeting is directed by the Spirit to carry out a long-term action (such as maintain the building and grounds or continuously explore ways to enhance ‘Light and Love’ within the meeting community that can be brought back to the whole meeting for discernment).  Under this Situational Leading arrangement, although a committee may bring a leading or concern to the whole meeting for discernment, others may also bring to the whole meeting a leading or concern for discernment.  In contrast, under the Rotating Appointment arrangement used by most liberal Quaker meetings, only the appropriate committee would be expected to bring items for discernment to the whole meeting.

Under a Situational Leading arrangement, the work of a Care committee (if one exists) is minimized because unlike under a Rotating Appointment arrangement, the Care committee members are not responsible for the pastoral care of individual Friends.  A spiritual environment is cultivated where needs are handled naturally.  If  a need arises for a Friend, any Friend can coordinate it and they do, by sharing the need privately with others or at monthly meetings for business, after Sunday worship, or through email notification.  On the spot solutions are often derived such as forming a clearness committee to help a Friend with a life issue, providing food or other material needs, or simply lending a listening ear. 

Under this Situational Leading arrangement, understanding and handling inappropriate behavior from a troubled Friend that affects the meeting community is best accomplished by any observing and caring Friend within the meeting - and this will naturally happen due to the egalitarian spiritual environment that has developed within the meeting community.  In extreme situations of abusive or disruptive behavior that will not respond to an offer of help, the whole meeting community may choose to take any number of actions, including the use of an ad-hoc group of Friends to labor with the troubled Friend as well as others in the meeting community if needed. 

At all times the operation of the meeting is fearlessly allowed to be under the watchful eye of the Spirit who might choose to manifest a leading or concern within any Friend or even within a one-time visitor to the meeting.  And the whole meeting community joins together to constantly discern the divine will for it - often using the leadings and concerns of Friends as a springboard for further discernment.  All Friends in the meeting are invited to be responsive to the nudging of the Spirit to accomplish the needs of their spiritual community.  This is not an elimination of structure.  It is a structure that is as pure and simple as ‘expectant waiting’ worship.

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Comment by William F Rushby on 8th mo. 6, 2016 at 2:03pm

Forrest wrote: "The Quaker movement has survived reasonably well as "a human institution".

The way I see it, the RSoF is in something of a death spiral in North America.  When I was young, I think there were something like 120,000 Friends in the US and Canada.  I think the total is now something like 80,000 (?).  I don't call this "surviving reasonably well."  What do you think?

Comment by Kirby Urner on 8th mo. 6, 2016 at 2:10pm

Structures and forms are generally used within my meeting to deal with things like maintaining the building, or handling finances; things that are not innately spiritual - but necessary if we are to sustain our meeting's physical presence.

This expressed dichotomy between the physical and spiritual seems rather Ango-Euro, whereas in Zen one squanders time keeping the grounds and garden meticulously arranged, as a religious practice. 

I see bookkeeping or more generally record-keeping the same way: expressions of the spirit, a form of truth-telling or story-telling (narratives or stories in all forms are "accountings"). 

But then the monastic tradition has also blended wine and chocolate making with prayer and text decorating (or these days, website design). For the monks and nuns, every activity is one of immersion in the spirit.

I'm intrigued by the idea of a Quaker IT company with morning and evening worship, rotating committee positions, and no permanent assignments when it comes to management.  Those clerking business meetings also do dishes, make coffee, write software, and go into the field to test the instrumentation (we're a lot about agriculture, small organic, like in Cuba).

Comment by Howard Brod on 8th mo. 6, 2016 at 2:55pm


Could it be that membership is often not emphasized or encouraged anymore in the liberal tradition?  I've also noticed that same trend emerging (from reading many blogs) in the evangelical tradition of Quakerism, as well.  Both traditions appear to be in the throws of trying to emphasize genuine involvement over formal membership.  Many Quaker meetings and churches no longer require membership any more in order to be fully involved in the meeting/church.  They leave it as a personal decision if it will help a Friend on their personal journey.  Both my meeting's clerk of meeting and assistant clerk are not formal members; and membership requests have all but ceased.  And another Friend who moved to my meeting from the mid-west was not a member of any meeting; yet he was a member of the FGC board and the FCNL board. He said his meeting there also did not "push" membership.

People under 50 seem to have an increasing issue with membership in a spiritual society.  That's why many yearly meetings no longer use membership numbers to arrive at the apportionment assessment for a meeting.

So at least in Britain, Canada, and the U.S., I suspect you can not rely on those "membership" figures.  I would bet that the actual number of participating Quakers is much greater than that 120,000.  I know Baltimore Yearly Meeting  claims they are growing both in Quakers and monthly meetings.


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