New Seekers and the Welcoming Community

Seekers" is what Quakers have always been. We have a rich history of seeking God (the Divine, the Light); seeking Truth, both our own and universal; and seeking each other for nurture, support, and community.

When newcomers visit our meetings we might consider reframing them as modern-day seekers, who, in many ways, emulate the original founders of our Religious Society. We may choose to welcome each one as if he were George Fox or she were Margaret Fell, and invite each one to mingle with us and join us in our faith journey.

What do seekers seek? There are those who are first seeking community, for friendship or social action; those who are primarily seeking enlightenment; and then there are those who are equally seeking a sacred path and people to travel it with them. Interestingly, the journey to community and the journey to faith have a common seed. The faith-seekers begin with a desire for deeper faith. The community-seekers begin with a desire for companionship with like-minded people. No matter what their goal may be, the journey begins with a desire that needs to be fulfilled.

The welcoming meeting offers newcomers the opportunity to clarify their needs as soon as possible. We have found that providing a newcomers’ class on a regular basis opens the door and connects newcomers with elders who may be able to answer their questions. There is a definite process involved in preparing to join a community. To facilitate this process, it is essential that the meeting provide a safe place for asking questions. Otherwise, the new attender may feel like an outsider in the group for a very long time.

The first thing newcomers must do is unpack baggage from the past. Most newcomers have participated in other religious groups and have left them behind for a reason. Therefore, one of the elements of the safe environment we need to create is nonjudgmental listening. We offer the opportunity to unpack as an unannounced ongoing part of the class. When lovingly offered by elders, listening with acceptance to the hurts of past experiences can be healing. This cleansing and healing process often prevents misunderstanding that may arise from unintentionally pricking a wound.

For example, someone who feels he/she has been harmed by a strict Christian upbringing can become tense when hearing the words "Jesus" or "God." In our newcomers’ group we have the opportunity to explain the Quaker tradition of forbearance and tolerance (respect) of different spiritual practices in our meeting, which includes people of Jewish, Christian, Universalist, and Buddhist backgrounds and beliefs. With a few tender statements at the beginning of class, we are able to affirm that during our time together we will be using the words of the Quaker spiritual experience. We usually suggest that newcomers translate them in their minds in a way that is easy on their hearts. This solution allows us to speak truth in love to the newcomer, respect his/her needs, and maintain our Quaker quotations regarding our experiences and the roots of our faith. (Two examples of Quaker quotations using God and Jesus, from George Fox’s Journal, are: " . . . answering that of God in every one," and "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.")

The introductory classes that we offer are based on the curriculum Silent Worship—Quaker Values by Marsha Holliday, which is currently being revised. Rather than relying on a strictly historical presentation of the founding of the Religious Society of Friends, it focuses on the underlying values that guide our practice as well as the structure of Quakerism. We use this curriculum as a guide and foundation for our Spirit-led team teaching model. This model uses discussion and experiential learning, which allows seekers to explore their own beliefs and ask experienced Friends clarifying questions. We do this with open-ended questions, worship sharing, and lots of discussion and listening.

We have found that classes conducted with Quaker values and methods bathe the newcomer in the experience of Quakerism. Students do not merely learn by being told who and what we are. Their experiences of spiritual exploration; of worship sharing in response to deep, faith-based questions; of listening to the others in the class; and of the interplay of the teaching team collectively provide a powerful learning experience of Quakerism.

In Marsha Holliday’s curriculum, in the session called "Friends Value Faith in Action," she says, "The essence of Quakerism is in how Friends relate to that of God in themselves and in others." By teacher modeling of this essential quality of Quakerism in the classroom, newcomers not only learn intellectually who we are and what we believe, they absorb Quakerism experientially. The experience of Quakerism is foundational to our Religious Society. George Fox said, "and this I knew experimentally." We view our class as a return to our Quaker roots itself: a small group meeting to unite, seek God, and explore faith.

Essential to this experiential, exploratory classroom approach is the safety of each person. We clearly state at the beginning of class and at various other times during the course (such as before worship sharing around deep faith questions like "discuss your experience of God" or after someone has been moved to share something personal or heartfelt) that all exchanges are to be kept confidential within the class.

In addition to the spoken discussions we have, the newcomers bring unspoken questions to the table. These questions are similar to those everyone has when joining any new group. "Will I fit in socially with this group?" "Are my beliefs congruent with the Quaker faith?" "Who will be my mentors?" "Will I be accepted for who I am?" By offering newcomers a private and safe way to raise these concerns, we can allay their fears and help them to feel at home more quickly. We have found that strict didactic training, with its focus on facts and the left brain, does not afford an opportunity to address the emotional concerns hidden beneath the surface in newcomer groups.

In a recent class, we were discussing the concept of "spiritual leadings," which opened the way for a member to share the story of an important life-changing event. We took this opportunity to discuss the clearness committee process with the class, even though this is a topic that is introduced in the material much later. As a result, the newcomer requested a clearness committee to help clarify the leading. Several elders gathered with the newcomer for this purpose a few weeks later. Our new friend was touched by our willingness to offer this intimate form of support even though we were very newly acquainted.

Until now, we have focused predominantly on the needs of the newcomer for community. It is important to remember that the community also has a need for the newcomer. The spirit-led Quaker community is more than the sum of its parts, and newcomers (new seekers) are a welcome addition to the healthy Quaker community. The nurturing we extend to them in the beginning is returned to the community many times over. Through our introductory class, newcomers become more visible to elders. As we are teaching, we become more familiar with the personality and gifts of each newcomer and can suggest areas of service where each one will feel most comfortable. Our newcomer seekers are individuals who will contribute their gifts and insights to our meeting while, in return, the meeting nurtures and supports them. This is a faith-based reciprocity.

One of the higher purposes of our Religious Society is nurturing each other while journeying together in faith. By providing a consistent, safe entry for our newcomers, we have the opportunity to both nurture those who wish to unite with us and to expose them to our spiritual practices. We will ultimately have newcomers who feel more comfortable in our midst; who will be better prepared to become active, nurturing community members; and who will infuse us with their spiritual gifts. In this way everyone is enriched, and from this foundation all of our lives can speak together, enabling us all to "walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one."

Suzanne Siverling and Maurine Pyle

Suzanne Siverling and Maurine Pyle are members of Lake Forest (Ill.) Meeting. Suzanne serves on the Religious Education Committee for her meeting and for Friends General Conference. Maurine is assistant clerk of Illinois Yearly Meeting and serves with FGC's Traveling Ministries Program.