How Monthly Meetings Can Support Their Youth

I first came to meeting when I was five years old, with my parents and my stuffed frog. The frog was made for signing, and the first person who I met was a nice lady who signed it! We went into meeting, and there were two other girls, sisters, with whom I went out and played. There was no First-day school. A few Sundays later we tried a different meeting, with many more kids and a larger First-day school program—but when my parents asked me which meeting I preferred, I immediately responded that the first meeting was for me because the nice lady there had signed my frog.

Over the years that we went there I never had more than two or three other kids who were the same age as me, but the adults of the meeting who were not my parents took a strong interest in talking with me about spiritual and theological topics during First-day school time. As I became a teenager, the meeting started to recognize my gifts and expertise in certain areas. I became a member when I was 12, and was then invited to join the Worship and Ministry Committee when I was 14. My longtime First-day school teacher picked me up and took me home again for all of this committee’s meetings, since he was on it too. At this point, I had an identity as a member of our meeting’s community who had responsibilities, and it was a completely separate identity from that of my parents, who happened to be extremely committed and involved members in their own right.

I went to all three years of my yearly meeting’s Middle School Friends programs, which had thoughtful, spiritual leadership, and then I attended the Young Friends program when I was in high school. Knowing that I was involved in this program, my meeting regarded me as an authority on it, and so they asked me to deliver a Forum address for them about Young Friends. Again, I was being asked to fulfill my duty as a contributing, responsible member of my meeting’s community who had a valuable, under-represented perspective: that of being young. The fact that I was 15 years old was irrelevant, except that it made me an excellent resource to them on the topic of being 15.

My experiences illustrate that it does not require large numbers of kids the same age or an impressive First-day school curriculum for a young person to feel supported in a monthly meeting, and to grow into a functioning Quaker adult. The only essential thing is a supportive, aware, and involved membership.

Adults need to value the contribution their youth can make to the rest of the meeting’s life, and not box them into the category of "First-day school participants for whom we need to find a volunteer to plan and teach them something." Meeting members can take responsibility for the spiritual growth and developing community responsibility of their younger members and attenders—and they need not leave it to the parents and the First-day school committee. The longtime members, the experienced Friends, the committee members, and the elders all play a part in calling on their young people to step forward as contributing meeting members. If one has no ownership of what is happening in a community, one is generally not very interested or invested in the process of making the community function. This is just as true for people under 14 as it is for those over 14.

But one cannot simply issue a general invitation to join a committee and expect numerous 7- or 12-year-olds to respond eagerly. It is up to experienced Friends to make the effort to get to know each of the young folk individually, and to then consider and evaluate what gifts, skills, expertise, or presence that person has that they could contribute to the meeting—and then to figure out the format in which they could contribute it. Perhaps it would be in leading a forum or joining a committee.

Alternatively it could be more practical: like organizing a social event or a fundraiser at the meeting, or providing hospitality after meeting for worship. After having come up with a suggestion, the meeting must then personally invite that particular young person to serve in that capacity. The invitation is best delivered in such a way that the person being invited has time to think about it rather than being put on the spot. It is also important that their parents not only know that this is happening, but are able to explain to their child what kind of responsibility it would mean, so that the young person can make an informed decision.

On a more casual level, there are ways to invite people under 14 to step forward as contributing members of their meeting community that do not involve such a commitment or serious evaluation process. These jobs are still meaningful. For instance, asking some of the young people to be the greeters who shake people’s hands as they walk into meeting for worship, or inviting newcomers to make nametags for themselves. (This second task can help young people realize that they recognize a lot of the faces at meeting, as they go about the job of discerning who is new.) Someone could have the job of facilitating the announcements at the end of meeting by calling on the people with their hands up, or calling the names on the announcement list (depending on how a meeting does it.) If facilitating announcements at a meeting requires some specialized knowledge, then a young person can do it in conjunction with an adult who has the specialized knowledge and who can jump in with it when appropriate. The adult can also prompt the younger person with people’s names, which will help the younger person learn the names. If a meeting or quarter does meal events like a Christmas breakfast or a strawberry festival, where there are tables set out, young folks can be the ones who keep the tables stocked with baskets of muffins or bowls of strawberries and pour beverages for people. Anyone worried about allowing a 9- or 10-year-old to pour a hot drink might consider that sometimes (depending on the individual) the best way for people to learn things is to do them.

I was asked to do many of these things myself when I was growing up, and I found them all to be effective ways in which the meeting made me feel that my talents and skills were being acknowledged and appreciated. I was a "wait person" for the tables and ran the cash register at our Christmas breakfast, and I helped sell baked goods as a fundraiser after meeting for worship —both when I was about 9 or 10 years old; when I was 16 years old, I served as greeter and invited newcomers to make nametags for themselves. None of these invitations ever felt like too large a task, or degrading in any way. Rather, I gained confidence by being asked to serve my meeting, I appreciated being asked to serve in a number of different ways, and in the process I was being transformed into a contributing and responsible member of my meeting.

One may wonder how asking young people to serve the meeting nurtures them and does not make them feel as though they are just being "roped into labor." I see two reasons as to why it is very important.

Firstly, paying attention to individuals and acknowledging their gifts, skills, talents, and presence is an irreplaceable act of love and support. As a young person emerges from the group identity of "kids who run around at Meeting," or "kids who are gluing cotton balls onto sheep for Easter," it is very satisfying and sometimes long overdue to finally acknowledge them for the talented individual that they are. Naming someone’s talents shows that person that they are recognized for who they are as an individual, and are therefore cared about. If their talents are not acknowledged or nothing at all is said, a young person will feel ignored, invisible, and certainly not valued or taken seriously—and taking our youth seriously is one of the most supportive things we can do.

Secondly, we want to support them specifically in becoming functioning Quaker adults—not just functioning adults. In order to properly nurture and support the gifts that people have, gifts that are going to serve them well in the business of being Quakers in the future, one needs to guide them along in developing those gifts, starting now. They need the adults in their life (not just their parents or the First-day School Committee) to be Quaker role models, and those role models need to be involved in helping to create younger members’ and attenders’ learning experiences of what it means to be a Quaker. (A lot of newcomers to Quakerism could do with this experience too, not just our youth.) Being a Quaker does not just mean sitting in silent worship for an hour on Sundays. Not only do we let our lives speak at other times, but we also owe service to our monthly meeting, and this is an important part of what we are supporting our youth in learning.

Elizabeth Walmsley

Elizabeth Walmsley, a member of Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., coordinates the Middle School Friends program for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.