Benjamin Franklin once said, "Rather go to bed without dinner than to rise in debt." This might be difficult advice for us to hear in 2006—exactly 300 years after the birth of our most eminent scientist, statesman, and publisher emeritus. Ben was not a Quaker, but he lived and worked comfortably with our ancestral Friends. Can his sage words also speak to the economy of our modern Quaker faith?
I was hungry during my first year in college. There was enough money for one meal a day in the cafeteria. I later found work part-time to make money to bridge the gap. During that period I was a double major, in Business and in Music, and I became aware of two different, coexisting worlds. I began each day in an old theater hanging with tie-dye shirt wearers talking jazz chord changes. Then I’d go across the street to sit in new fluorescent-lighted classrooms next to students dressed in suits and ties talking marketing plans and internal rates of return.
Similar to the misunderstood relationship between the worlds of music and business, how do religion and the costs we incur within our Religious Society work together? Not well, one could say.
I once spoke in meeting to what I felt the economy of Mozart’s composition meant to the beauty, longevity, and genius that the music expresses. (The year 2006 marks the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth.) Many great musical works, including his, were made of few thematic ingredients within a framework of harmonic restrictions. I asked if Friends similarly could consider our own economy, and how it relates to the endurance and the beauty of our faith.
I travel among and ask them to consider the ways monthly meetings spend money. Do these costs speak to the Life in each community? I ask if the scale and proportion of expense reflects what is most important in this religious context. Can living simply within our means as a community free us to make the right decisions more easily? Do our decisions express the remarkable nature of our faith?
My first essay for Friends Journal ("Quakers in the News," August 2005) was about Friends viewing our Religious Society from an exterior perspective: how the broader informed public sees us in the news. I wrote, "We know ourselves from the workings of our internal business affairs." But sometimes generalizations express half-truths. In reality, I believe, most Friends know the why but not much of the what or the how of our own affairs.
I’ve experienced two different worlds among Friends, too. I’ve served as treasurer for a large monthly meeting, and on the Financial Services Committee of New York Yearly Meeting. Both jobs were mostly thankless and solitary. I’ve been to "financial Friends" support meetings in Philadelphia, and discovered that I was not alone. However, these isolated caucuses, comforting though they are, don’t really affect how the majority of Friends think about money. So, I decided to try to make Quaker finance approachable and accessible to larger numbers of Friends by using graphic illustrations to describe what I see in the numbers.
When visiting local communities, my message is that the money each monthly meeting spends is an outline for the Life in that meeting—a roadmap to the mission and purpose of that community. I’ve heard numerous monthly and yearly meeting State of the Society reports that are worded thoughtfully. Words are fine, but what really speaks plainly and succinctly to me are the financial statements. The numbers tell a story of a meeting that Friends mostly ignore. In fact, most Friends are quite defensive in a discussion of money. Some meetings even refuse to share their financial statements.
After college, I taught myself photography and worked commercially for ten years. So when I referred in my first Friends Journal article to seeing ourselves from a different perspective, I was thinking as a photographer would think— as if I had taken a camera to a different height, moved or modified a light source, or used a different lens to make an image more telling or more dynamic.
Returning to the realm of Quaker finance but continuing with a photographic metaphor: After some travel, thought, and inspiration, I hypothesized a "Quaker Rule of Thirds" analogous to the photographic "Rule of Thirds." To illustrate the latter concept: in a portrait composition the main focus is usually the eyes of the subject, which are located on one of the "third" lines:
Not every photograph I make obeys the rule; but when I break it, there is usually a good reason for doing so. But it is critical for any photographer who breaks the rule to do the hard work of thinking through why the photograph is better because of breaking it.
My hypothesis of the "Quaker Rule of Thirds" also draws on my experience in monthly meeting finances, on my readings, and on casual queries of Friends far and wide about their meetings’ expenditures.
The symbol I use to illustrate this rule is the peace sign that appeared widely during the 1960s and ’70s. I’m hopeful that my generation, and elder Friends whose faith was heavily influenced by the social upheaval of that period, will respond positively to the symbol. And my use of the word "rule" is deliberately provocative, since our Religious Society has grown from 350-year-old antiauthoritarian roots. We tend to bristle if someone suggests that we should obey rules.
I’m not suggesting that any monthly meeting has to obey the Quaker Rule of Thirds any more than that a photographer has to follow the photographic rule of thirds. As in civil disobedience, if your meeting doesn’t conform to the rule, you might consider worshiping about why the expenses don’t conform. Once your meeting has considered its expenses deeply, and then has approved a nonconforming budget, any member will be able to articulate the reasons why. This will be quite a step beyond the practice of most meetings, which tweak their expenses each year from the previous year and do not come up with zero-based rationales for continuing or discontinuing expenses.
Let me illustrate the Life of a meeting—its wholeness, its integrity—with a circle. The monthly meeting is the grass-roots unit of the Religious Society of Friends, and the circle symbolizes both the unity of the group and its total expenditures. By the Quaker Rule of Thirds, monthly meeting expenses are grouped in three major sections, with each comprising one-third of the total. The third section is further divided in half, into nurture costs (focusing inward) and witness costs (focusing outward).
I’ve seen conflict in small and large groups of Friends where there was disagreement as to whether the size and apportionment of expenses of the community was right. This is, I believe, the main reason why many of us turn our attention away upon seeing full pages of numbers. I think Friends are better at the why than at the how, and the budget is an outline for the how.
When I compare my music school experience to the how of Quaker finance, I focus on the basics that every musician learns thoroughly. One learns to play jazz by playing scales up and down and backwards and forwards until you don’t have to think about them anymore. Then one is able to finally let go of the mechanics, move forward, and play beautiful music. I don’t think that most Friends have learned the basics of our own financial affairs.
Your Monthly Meeting Expenses
Here is a valuable exercise: Take the expense lines of your meeting’s budget and group them in the above sections of the pie. The components will form a graphic where the proportions of the pie will likely vary from the proportion of the "peace pie" of the Quaker Rule of Thirds. Of course, every local community is different. Deviations give special meaning to rules. Your meeting’s expenses and how they differ from the benchmark rule tell a story about your monthly meeting. I think that if your meeting has done its homework—the hard work of discernment—your community will be richer spiritually for it.
Some Friends have said in discussions that there are no rules about anything, and that we as Children of the Light should face committee and business meetings and the world as children—seeking, naïve, trusting. Some feel that we should just ignore our material surroundings and restrictions. But just as a ballet dancer has to learn first and second position before performing at Lincoln Center, and a musician has to learn scales before playing jazz at the Vanguard, a member of a Quaker meeting has to learn the basics of faith and finance to participate responsibly.
In his book Integrity, Stephen L. Carter explains what rules might mean in religious context: "In Islam, this notion is captured in the understanding that all rules, legal or moral, are guided by the sharia, the divine path that God directs humans to walk. In Judaism, study of the Torah and Talmud reveals the rules under which God’s people are expected to live. And Christians are called by the Gospel to be ‘pure in heart’ (Matt. 5:8), which implies an undividedness in following God’s rules."
So my question—Can we have peace without integrity?—asks Friends to consider seriously the size and proportion of monthly meeting expenditures as critical to the underlying harmony in the monthly meeting community. Is your meeting budget a moral document? Does it give occasion for real peace and unity to live in your local community?
Pieces of the Pie
Witness (17 percent)
This part of the pie is where we show the outward world what we feel are the most important inward lessons we’ve learned.
We sponsor homeless shelters, we serve meals to needy community residents, we counter-recruit to military recruiting, we sponsor local economic development and reconciliation programs—we do many things. I know of one monthly meeting that has a rule that 25 percent of its annual expenses are spent in witness activities.
Nurture (17 percent)
This part of the pie is the most neglected section in meetings I’ve seen. Consequently, over-support of other sections of the meeting’s expenditures can detract from our own self-development.
Some meetings love their newsletter so much that they feel the cost of such should go into the Nurture section. Fine. Place that cost there if Friends feel that way. This tells a meeting something about itself. Nurture costs are generally for scholarships to schools, stipends for sojourns, support for participation in yearly meeting sessions, costs of food for social hour, costs of the Ministry and Counsel Committee, costs of adult religious education, First-day school, and costs for welcoming and outreach to greet new members and attenders.
Building/Administrative/ Communication (33 percent)
I’ve grown up in monthly meetings that are not proprietors of real property. We rent or make contributions to an entity that owns the buildings we use.
Having a roof over our heads is sometimes taken for granted where I live, which we owe our forbears, who have set up trusts to maintain our property. Most meetings in New York City pay much less than a third of their total budget towards their rent and administrative costs. One meeting, abiding by the Rule of Thirds, pays its rent to a large church for a room in the building. A member there told me once, "We decided long ago that we didn’t want to be trust fund babies." Quite telling, I’d say; this is the same meeting that made the rule about the percentage of witness expenditures in their annual budget.
That most of our members worship in 150-year-old meetinghouses that are New York City landmarks is both a blessing and a curse. This especially when we have declining membership and soaring costs for maintaining these buildings. We can sometimes erroneously feel that a quaint meetinghouse in a nice neighborhood is the essence of Quaker faith. We have famous actors getting married in them, but are they sacred in conferring the Spirit upon anyone? Friends throughout history moved their place of worship when real estate got too pricey. We haven’t done that lately.
Building costs, which can increase over time, can skew expenses away from Nurture and Witness costs.
Contributions to Wider Quaker Bodies (33 percent)
An overcommitment to wider Friends bodies is also an example of how monthly meetings can find themselves, over time, losing the responsibility for their own nurture and witness activities. I’ve also seen overcommitment to wider bodies cause neglect of meetinghouses.
Friends sometimes lose the perspective that a wider body, like a quarterly or yearly meeting, is the tail, not the dog. Many feel that a dog wags its tail, especially when all of its parts are happy. But when local congregations lose their integrity, or their wholeness, by any combination of occurrences over time, Friends sometimes come to rely on the wider bodies, like quarterly and yearly meetings, to nourish their spiritual lives. These wider bodies take on the responsibilities in paid positions that were once taken on, face-to-face, by volunteers at monthly meetings.
Some yearly meetings have reaffirmed the decentralized, grass-roots nature of faith. These organizations have created a process for finance from the grass roots up, where "covenant" contributions to wider bodies are considered and approved by monthly meetings instead of discerned at the top and sent down. The larger Friends bodies like AFSC, FCNL, and Friends schools and colleges have encouraged professional participation by non-Friends in both financial and nonfinancial ways. These larger budgets generally rely heavily on a small number of very wealthy donors instead of broader smaller-donor support. It’s important that the wider religious Friends organizations—the quarterly and yearly meetings—continue to insist on bottom-up financing. In this way, our faith will be a truly remarkable gift to the world within our self-imposed restrictions. It is important for Friends to understand that costs of a monthly meeting are not the "overhead" to the our spiritual life—they are integral to that life.
I hope these thoughts will provide a simple motif for each meeting to develop. At the same time, I hope the contributions to our Religious Society are spread as evenly as possible across all members. With the hard work done in preparing the right budget, each Friend can more easily give according to the measure of Light reflected back by the monthly meeting. Each Friend will then grow spiritually from the gifts that are made, no matter the total amount given—one Friend relative to another. There are books written on the transforming power of prayerful giving.
We might agree that Benjamin Franklin was trying to tell us that living beyond our means takes its toll on the life of an individual. Inversely, we might consider that spending within our means, in the right proportions, gives Life to our religious community.
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