“The Sabbath year has been unfolding so wonderfully. . . . I feel like we are growing and sprouting individually and as a community.”
“I had the awareness that there are two sides to the coin of spiritual movement. One side is doing the work of getting out of the way of the Spirit; the other is consenting to the work of the Spirit in me.”
“I find myself trusting more in the meeting community. At times that took the form of surprising myself with what I shared. At times it manifested as a yearning to be closer to individuals in the meeting.”
“I had some of the best discussions about who we think God is since I joined the meeting.”
In 2001 Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting (CPMM) set aside a Sabbath year “for the spiritual deepening and renewal for which many of us seem to long.” It proved to be powerfully nurturing to the meeting, and the fruits continue to be harvested.
When, more than a year earlier, the clerk of CPMM had proposed that we take a Sabbath year, the proposal was greeted with eagerness by some and with horror by others. Ours is a large and active urban meeting, with 264 members, of whom 230 are adults. “What work is nonessential?” asked some. “What will we do with the time that is liberated?” Others asserted that we gain spiritual nurture from outward work and resisted having a more contemplative time. Some Friends could not visualize the possibilities of the experience without specifics, yet we wanted to take care to leave room for the work of the Spirit. It took CPMM several months to be clear that we wanted to embark on this experiment “trusting in God’s bounty to see us through a fallow year.”
In the meantime, a committee was appointed to explore what a Sabbath year might look like. We consulted with Friends in New York Yearly Meet-ing, which had recently held a Jubilee year, and with other Friends around the country.
The planners for CPMM considered several models for our year:
- It could be based on leisure and community building in which business would be greatly curtailed and we would take time together for community events: play days, work projects, potlucks in small groups—true re-creation without heavy intellectual content.
- The focus could be on deepening our spiritual life as a community through study groups, prayer groups, and worship-sharing groups.
- We could use the time for threshing through large community issues such as race, the meeting’s use of money, and education of our children.
- We could engage in restructuring our life as a community by looking at how the work of the meeting is carried out and experimenting with alternative models.
The meeting chose to focus on deepening our spiritual life and our grounding in Quakerism. The Sabbath year was scheduled to begin in January 2001 and continue through the calendar year.
Lightening the Meeting’s Work Load
The Sabbath year was approved in June 2000, giving us several months to prepare. Meeting committees were asked to reflect on how they could “enter into the spirit of the Sabbath,” and the clerk began to work on ways to lighten the agenda of our monthly meetings for business.
Committees found varied ways to live into the Sabbath year. There was some work of the meeting that could not be fully laid down—the children would still need a First-day school, meeting for worship would continue to need the care of the Worship and Ministry Committee, and members were still likely to need the pastoral attention of the Membership Care Committee. These committees continued to convene but they and others added more worship to their meeting time and attempted to approach their work in new ways. Still other committees decided to meet less frequently or not at all. The Finance Advisory Committee prepared a two-year budget so the meeting wouldn’t have to go through a budgeting exercise in the middle of the Sabbath year. The Nominating Committee proposed that all meeting appointments be extended for a year. Some committees used the Sabbath year to look more broadly at their work.
Only one proposal for simplifying committee life aroused serious concern. Membership Care, which carries as many as a dozen clearness processes each year, proposed that clearness for membership and marriage be postponed during the Sabbath year. When this was considered in meeting for business, Friends felt it would be unwelcoming to defer requests for clearness. The meeting decided to release Membership Care Committee from this responsibility, but not to lay down the work. Three members of Membership Care agreed to coordinate a group of volunteers from the meeting at large to carry out clearness committees based on guidelines already put in place by Membership Care.
We decided to modify the conduct of monthly meeting for business by giving the first half of each meeting to reflections directly relating to that portion of the Sabbath year. This was seen as an opportunity to address the topic from the perspective of the whole community rather than from the individual search, which is more appropriate in the retreats and small groups.
This time on the agenda would be opened partly because committees, observing the Sabbath year, would be bringing fewer matters for discussion. It was also proposed that matters that had a precedent and seemed straightforward would be put on a “consent agenda.” The issue for consideration would be outlined in writing and mailed out with the agenda. Members were asked to read those materials and raise any questions prior to the meeting for business. At meeting for business the consent agenda was presented for approval without discussion, unless concerns had been raised that needed further consideration. Items that required the reflection of the meeting would come forward in the usual manner. A steering committee made up of the clerks of key committees (or their designees) helped the meeting clerk discern which items to place on the consent agenda.
What Happened during the Sabbath Year
We knew from the outset that “one size fits all” would not meet the spiritual needs of our diverse meeting. The Coordinating Committee set out to plan a variety of activities over the year, hoping that most members would be drawn into an activity that they would find spiritually nurturing and that would draw them closer to the meeting.
The Sabbath year was divided into four periods, each with a topical theme:
- What does it mean to be in right relationship with God?
- How has God spoken to Quakers in the past? How does Quakerism prepare us to respond to the Spirit?
- What is God saying to us today? What are we led to as a community?
- What have we learned and how do we integrate it into our lives individually and into our life as a meeting?
Each period began with a meeting-wide weekend retreat to enter into considering the topic. We chose to invite facilitators from outside the meeting, not because we lacked the skills among us, but to free everyone in the meeting community to participate and to bring in an outside perspective.
Each quarter a packet of materials was circulated which included a book list, quotations from earlier Friends and other sources, and queries on the topic. Small groups were formed to reflect on Sabbath year themes. The meeting continued its practice of holding periodic “Friendly 8” dinners, and there were proposed queries for after-dinner conversation relating to the theme of the period. Each week’s announcement bulletin included a quotation relating to the topic of the period, and articles were prepared for the meeting’s newsletter.
At the beginning of the Sabbath year members received a packet with suggestions on keeping a personal Sabbath and on creating an atmosphere of Sabbath for children and families. Throughout the year, Friends were encouraged to come to meeting for worship early and settle into that quiet space. Half a dozen Friends made this a regular practice during the Sabbath year. Some weeks there was singing in the social room prior to meeting for worship, and their music floated over those already gathered in quiet. In the summer we had a one-day silent retreat, which was a high point of the Sabbath year for a small group of Friends.
How Did It Go?
“I feel like a rocket that has just left the ground. I’m internally committed to moving forward.”
“I was not boycotting or disapproving of the Sabbath year process, [but] simply not called to rearrange much of my life over it.”
For some in the meeting the Sabbath year had a powerful effect of deepening their spiritual lives and bonding them more closely to the meeting. For most, there was a sense of being glad that we had done it. The effects have rippled through our corporate life as a meeting as we continue to use the first half of meeting for business for considering broad issues such as race and restructuring our committees.
There was a very high level of participation in the Sabbath year. Three-quarters of the estimated 221active adult members and attenders participated in at least one Sabbath year activity. Attendance at retreats ranged from 50 to 100 adults and 10 to 20 children. Nearly half of all active members and attenders participated in some kind of small group experience at least once during the year. A few Friends who had not been active in the life of the meeting in recent years came out for a Sabbath year event or two. It turned out to be a very helpful vehicle for attenders to come to know the meeting in a deep way. Various segments of the meeting community—young and old; member and attender; European, African, and Asian descent; male and female—seemed to be drawn equally into the Sabbath year.
Some members of the meeting answered that they were glad that the Sabbath year was happening, but that they found group activities stressful and chose not to participate. Others had busy periods in their personal lives that prevented active participation. A few others disagreed in principle with setting aside a special time in this way and chose not to participate.
Following every retreat, regardless of topic or leadership, the most common response was gratitude for having had the opportunity to get to know other members of the meeting more deeply. Over the year we significantly surmounted our fear of talking together about God (by whatever name we use) and about the workings of the Spirit in our lives. Many felt an increased understanding of Quaker-ism. Some observed a deepened quality of worship as a fruit of the work we did together.
Not surprisingly, those who most fully participated felt they got the most out of the Sabbath year. Those who participated both in a small group and in the retreats indicated the highest level of satisfaction at the end of the year, followed by those who were in a small group alone and then by those who attended retreats but not a small group.
There was a sense that our year may have been misnamed. It certainly wasn’t a “Sabbath” in terms of having less to do. Many found themselves doing more in the meeting than they had done before. It was a major commitment for individuals in the meeting to set time aside for four full-weekend retreats and other activities. And it certainly wasn’t a year of rest for the coordinating committee that worked very actively throughout the year, nurturing small groups, planning and promoting retreats, and attending to the many details that it takes to provide an environment of deep sharing in our large and diverse meeting.
Children and the Sabbath Year
“Oh, what a light shone through our meeting from a sunburst of 80 brightly colored paper sunbeams! Each sunbeam represented a child or adult and on it Friends had listed some gifts that person brings to the meeting. The assembled group applauded as each person—from ages 3 to 90—read off their gifts and pasted their ray of light onto the sunburst.”
A strong principle in preparing for the year was to be inclusive of children and families in every dimension of the Sabbath year. For each retreat we hired a resource person for adults and one for the children, and we worked with the two to integrate programming. Part of the time the children and adults were in their own age-appropriate groupings but working on similar concerns. At other times children and adults met together. A couple of the ongoing small groups were organized to be “family friendly” so that children could be present.
We found integration of children and adults to be difficult to achieve. Our meeting doesn’t have a custom of deep sharing between adults and children outside of the First-day school. Resource people found it challenging to develop a program that was inclusive of children and adults, but we got better as we went along. The third retreat, held at a summer camp with 20 children present, was the high point for intergenerational sharing. The evening programs provided structures through which all could share based on the separate programs earlier in the day, culminating in the sunburst activity described above. This retreat fell on the weekend just after September 11, 2001, which made it a particularly poignant time of community-building and sharing.
A third of the families in the meeting didn’t participate in Sabbath-year activities at all. The children in some of these families have busy weekend schedules of school- and sports-related activities. On the other hand, the parents of a couple of families made a commitment to participate fully in the Sabbath year and organized their family schedules accordingly. At one Sabbath-year event, the preteen daughters of one of those families were having such a good time that they didn’t want to leave even to go home and prepare for a birthday party!
The meeting continues to long for better integration of adults and children in the life of the meeting. The Sabbath year did not bridge that gap as fully as we had hoped. Still, some wonderful relationships were formed between adults and young people who had not previously known one another.
The effect on the life of the meeting
At the closing retreat of the Sabbath year we reflected: “What seeds have been planted that we want to continue to nurture in the coming year?” Then we made plans to incorporate some of the changes in the ongoing life of the meeting. We continue to use the consent agenda to simplify and focus our meetings for business, and we continue to spend half of the meeting for business focusing on a single topic of particular concern. We have maintained the practice of calling on members at large to assist with clearness for membership and marriage. A group that was formed at the final retreat continued for more than a year to look at how we might structure the meeting’s committee life in more satisfying ways, and its recommendations are being considered by the meeting. Another group meets to look at how the meeting can nurture the gifts and leadings of all members. Some of the small groups formed during the Sabbath year continue to meet. We made a commitment to have retreats at least once a year. CPMM was already a vital meeting with a lot going on, so it is hard to know what parts of that vitality are results of the Sabbath year.
In the end, there was a general feeling of gladness that the meeting had done a Sabbath year, pride in our accomplishments, and gratitude to those who helped make it happen. While some were eager at the end of the year to get back to matters that had been laid aside, others were sorry to see the Sabbath year end.
We asked in the final questionnaire what advice Friends in CPMM would have for other meetings considering a Sabbath year. Here is a sampling of that advice:
“I think it was a terrific thing to do. There might be ways to ‘lie fallow’ to a better degree than we did. I am surprised to come to the end of the year and see that the bearing of its fruit will take devoted and loving attention using some of the tools we learned during our ‘year off.'”
“I think it has been a wonderful year. I’d stress the importance of developing a variety of small groups. They are like the shallows where the baby fish of the Spirit can incubate.”
“Try it: I cannot imagine that some good things wouldn’t happen—things you can’t predict and will be surprised by.”
“Go for it!”
For electronic copies of a somewhat more extensive report on how the Sabbath year was organized and the initial Sabbath year packet of materials, contact the author at email@example.com.