Some Thoughts on Membership

Membership issues are one of those items that Ministry and Counsel keeps putting off discussing. There are many issues surrounding membership, but I’d like to discuss just two of them: junior membership and "Friends-between-the-cracks."

Many Friends feel strongly that membership should come from sincere conviction, which means to them that children cannot really be members, since they don’t have an adult idea of what it means to be a Quaker.

On the other hand, it’s important to many of us that children should be made to feel a part of our Friends community: since junior membership helps to establish this, what’s wrong with having junior membership?

My monthly meeting has not discussed this situation. My yearly meeting, New England, in its Faith and Practice provides for monthly meetings to record minor children as junior members upon request of parents or under other appropriate circumstances. However, in practice, a number of monthly meetings discourage junior membership.

I think we already have a mechanism for establishing a perhaps different kind of junior membership. In too many cases, our First-day schools are too small to be very workable. But the appropriate age group on the yearly meeting level, with its high activity, high participation, and quick bonding, are often the places where our children begin to feel like and identify themselves as Quakers.

Why not let the young people’s yearly meetings (there are five age levels in New England Yearly Meeting) be the places where young people who wish to apply for membership, do so? They could either write a letter or speak in meeting, telling about the Quakerism in their lives (whether it is at a home meeting or at yearly meeting), say what they like about it, and ask to become junior members. This would be a more meaningful rite of passage than a parental request to an adult group. There probably should be appropriate adult consultation and support, since membership issues notoriously can become quite difficult.

Granting of junior membership by such a group should give automatic junior membership at one’s home monthly or preparative meeting.

This role of handling membership would give the younger yearly meetings more practice and more responsibility. They, too, would be learning about clearness committees and welcoming committees, and would have the opportunity to learn about membership through defining it for themselves.

Young people’s activities between yearly meetings should probably be stepped up, with perhaps e-mail or hard-copy newsletters to keep membership meaningful. This they could do for themselves, with perhaps a little help from yearly meeting or their oversight group. There should also be some structure for ending junior membership at a certain age, with the understanding that at that point young Friends should consider adult membership.

This brings us to the second issue, Friends-between-the-cracks. Young people emerging into adulthood are often not quite ready to consider adult membership. They might be away at college, where there may or may not be a Friends meeting, or time between studies to become active in it. There is often hesitation about where one would apply for membership: at the parents’ meeting, the college meeting, or where they settle down later on.

There are other Friends who fall into this category, too. Friends who have moved to a location where there is not a meeting nearby; Friends who plan to be away for a year or two; Friends—particularly young adults—who may find they need to move on just as they are ready to apply. Friends who for other reasons may not find it easy to attend meeting, but who still consider themselves Friends.

The traditional attitude has been that if you aren’t active in a particular meeting, you can’t be a Quaker. I remember London Friends talking about "cheerfully cutting the deadwood’" from their meeting rolls, and most meetings spend much time and effort trying to locate misplaced Friends and determine what their wishes are.

I also remember that my son Tim was ready to join Beacon Hill Meeting but was about to start working at Friends Home in Hingham, so he waited. He was about ready to join there, but was about to move to Maine, so he waited. When he got to Acadia, I suggested he join, and never mind about waiting. He did.

On the whole, it seems we could help people like Tim by encouraging them to join where they are known, with the understanding that they will soon be transferring, and to encourage our monthly meetings to accept this as a fact of modern life. There have been occasions when a meeting has refused membership to someone about to leave the area— surely an unnecessary blow!

What can we do to make it easier, in this vastly more peripatetic world of today, for Friends to remain attached and involved?

There are several possibilities within our already existing structures. One is to have a database at the yearly meeting level, of people who are members and wish to be considered Quakers but are not currently attached to a particular meeting. These unattached Friends, or peripatetic Friends, or whatever we may end up calling them, could be randomly assigned to groups of about eight for mutual support (with perhaps a volunteer from Yearly Meeting Ministry and Counsel in each group as a contact point).

Each group could set up its own committee structure for possibly an e-mail newsletter, maintaining a database, establishing activities such as peace and social concerns letter writing, Claremont dialogues (nondiscussion sharings of our own experiences), or discussions or study sessions via e-mail or chat room. We have a tradition of running our own meetings, and we should let these small groups manage their own structure. There may be a minimal amount of money involved in getting started, but it shouldn’t be a drain on the yearly meeting.

There could even be more than one category: active Friends who are willing to participate in the group, and inactive Friends, who for whatever reason aren’t able to at the moment, but whose spiritual life is deeply felt to be Quaker.

Membership of this sort—individual, rather than through a meeting—may raise other questions, such as who decides who’s a member? One way would be a simple transfer of membership from a meeting to the new group. Another would be to ask for references from Friends in good standing. If necessary, there could even be a clearness committee that travels to meet with the prospective member. The yearly meeting could establish an oversight committee to answer such questions, or suggest that Ministry and Counsel try out that task.

It was a good idea, in England in 1652, to emphasize the local meeting. Friends were suffering oppression and needed the hands-on support of a visible, present community. But a lot of our claim to openness and inclusivity is lost in letting good Friends drop between the cracks the way we do now. Isn’t it time we opened up our practice to encourage membership, rather than discourage it?

Teddy Milne

Teddy Milne , a member of Northampton (Mass.) Meeting, is the author of several books including Thumbs Up, Peace Porridge Three, and Kids Who Have Made a Difference.