”Building Multigenerational Community within Monthly Meetings

One of the most powerful moments of my spiritual journey when I was growing up came when the youth director of the Episcopal church community I was active in told us teenagers: You are not the future of the church. You are the church.

This statement landed on me like a pronouncement of Truth. It affected both my activity in the church and my inward attention to my relationship with God. Seeing myself now as a relevant member of the church with something important to offer, it was clear that attending church was important, and I went nearly every week until I left for college. I was also involved in other activities: the youth group that ran a groceries program for low-income and homeless people; a youth prayer group that I started with adult help; and the Church Vestry (the decision-making committee of an Episcopal church), which I was asked to join after I insisted there should be youth representation.

The truth that I was the church revved up my yearning to be at the center of the center. I remember walking in the woods, sitting in school, hanging with friends, and always being aware that the Power that unites creation resides in me. I remember struggling with the fact that my family owned a house and two cars while so many people had so much less. I remember being furious when I discovered that our downtown church was locked up at night and anyone needing solace would just have to wait until the next morning. These beliefs, ideas, and experiences were always with me, even before words to describe them could get in the way of my experience of them. But with the "Pronouncement of Truth" came the permission to say and live out loud: "I am a spiritual creature, I am this church, I am responsible and accountable now even as I am a child." These are the understandings that one simple sentence opened up for me.

Children are not the future of the church; they are the church.

Now that I am an adult, my role is to make space in this adult-oriented world for the recognition that children and youth are not the future of Quakerism but the now of this Religious Society. Quakerism even has this message built into its basics: each of us has that of God within us. This understanding is a powerful place to start. However, it does not give a single clue about how we can nurture and support children’s inclusion in the now of Quakerism.

There are two well-intentioned and frequently used ways that adults in any community first try to include children in the structures of adult-dominated culture. I identify it as a positive sign when adults go in these directions because it means that they recognize the importance, the gifts, and the strength that come from valuing children as the now. One of the ways adults include children is by inviting them to participate in the adult community. My first experience of this was when I was asked to serve on the vestry of St. Paul’s Church. They genuinely wanted my input and presence. They recognized my commitment to creating God’s Kingdom, they loved me, and they respected my ideas and work in the church. I felt honored and trusted.

And then I felt bored beyond belief. I went to meetings that began at 8 o’clock on a school night and lasted for hours. Those grownups just talked and talked and talked—and drank coffee. They did not have one ounce of fun, and they didn’t—as far as I could tell—try to change the world in any kind of way.

Including me in their meetings was a valuable impulse, but by simply doing their same old thing in my presence, I was not able to add what I had to give: my idealism, my willingness to risk everything to manifest the Divine, and my desire to have fun while doing the work. The end result was pretty unsatisfying for everyone. The same impulses underlie Friends’ actions when they invite teens to their adult business meetings or they ask kids to please give their opinion about a topic. These impulses are wonderful and important aspects of including kids in the community. They tell kids how much adults value their ideas, thoughts, and presence. It can be a way of letting them know how much adults love them. But adults need to be aware that they are asking kids to function as adults when this is how they include them in the now of Quakerism. A deadening result is that the community is denied what the kids really have to offer, like a sense of fun and silliness, a remembrance that friendship and playing is essential to living well, a belief that anything is possible, and a manner of processing ideas that is sometimes more rooted in art and movement than in words.

A second way that we include children in the structures of the Quaker community is by ensuring that there are programs for them. First-day school, Junior Yearly Meeting, and weekend events for middle- and high-schoolers (and even elementary kids in New England Yearly Meeting) are the standard opportunities for kids to be active in the Religious Society of Friends. Just as adults need their committee meetings where they can talk and talk and drink their coffee, kids need these opportunities for gathering. Here is where they can express their spiritual connection and their creative idealism, and where their funny/angry/active/joyful/shy energy is expected and welcomed. In addition to the wonderfulness and perfect appropriateness of youth programs, there are some tendencies here that adults need to watch out for when focusing on recognizing children and youth as part of the now of Quakerism.

One of these tendencies is for adults to feel complacent about kids’ noninvolvement in the wider Quaker community. When kids have high-quality, spiritually grounding, action-oriented programs, it’s easy to believe that they’ve got everything they need. They do have an essential part of what they need—but it becomes easy to miss the fact that the kids’ Quaker experience is frequently separate from the adults’.

Another tendency adults need to be aware of is the desire to want to teach children everything adults know, everything adults believe and love. While this is necessary as one ingredient in adult interactions with children, it is not sufficient. If adults take up all of the children’s time teaching them, adults are not allowing them to learn the basics: God is within them—they can experience God all on their own without adult intervention, even without adult teaching. Adults certainly make time to learn and study, but that is only one piece of faith. Adults also worship, explore their own and others’ leadings, and participate in outreach/ peacework/social action.

A further tendency adults have when it comes to children’s programs is to expect that anything that smacks of kids should be handled by the First-day School Committee (often peopled with young parents and newer Friends). An example is a monthly meeting that truly cherishes its children, but that tried to give its First-day School Committee the additional tasks of teaching kids about worship and maintaining the garden (since it was mostly kids who used the garden). These decisions meant that no one on the Worship and Ministry Committee or the Building and Grounds Committee of that meeting needed to include children in their thinking or action. By relegating children’s participation in Quakerism only to youth programs, we run the risk of isolating the children from the adults and the adults from the children.

A third alternative is necessary to welcome Friends of all ages into being the now of our existence. In addition to being open to children, including youth as members of the adult structures, and supporting the children’s structures, we need to intentionally plan ways to include adults and children in monthly and yearly meeting structures that are meaningful for each of them. I call this building multigenerational community. It is not intergenerational because we are not trying to find ways for different generations to interact with each other. It is multigenerational because we are multiple generations coming together for the same purposes: learning, worshiping, serving God, and having fun together regardless of age in order to bring community into a deeper relationship with each other and with the Divine. A successful multigenerational experience is one that allows kids and adults to interact while being reflective and expressive in a way that is meaningful for everyone. Children’s frank, simple, concrete, and magical ways of seeing the world can expand an adult’s understanding of a question. An adult who listens as earnestly to a young person’s answer as to a peer’s validates the child’s position in the community. A teen’s belief that we can and should change significant chunks of the culture today can jolt us all out of our complacency.

Multigenerational community is about asking the community to recognize the power, the gifts, the fun, and the potential of all of its members, regardless of age. It asks all members to be accountable to and respectful of each other, even if we wiggle a lot or talk too long. It is not appropriate for every situation—but when it is, the adult Quaker community needs to be willing to engage in some significant give and take. It needs to give itself the time, space, and resources to figure out how to meaningfully include everyone, and it needs to take the risk of being playful in the Spirit and of trusting children to be centered in the Spirit as children and adults move forward together.

These ways of being in community together are not part of our dominant culture and don’t come naturally to many of us. We may believe with all our hearts that they are important; we may want to create space in our meetings for all of us to be significant in our now. But that doesn’t give us the tools to do it.

Last year Philadelphia Yearly Meeting changed the structure for its annual Sessions so that the afternoons were open for recreation and time to connect with friends outside of business. This change was prompted by the children’s program insisting that kids were not well served by being in programs eight to ten hours a day while their parents spent that much time in business sessions (and one could think that adults were not well served either). Everyone on the planning committee agreed that the afternoons would be largely unprogrammed with opportunities for recreation offered to those who wanted them.

However, at every single planning meeting, someone would propose adding just one more business meeting on just one afternoon. Maybe childcare could be offered then, or maybe parents could just not participate, the planners thought. The planning committee needed constantly to remind itself that it made this plan for a reason and the afternoons were going to be open! In the end, we did have open afternoons except when there were workshops that included children’s and multigenerational options. And, can you believe it? In addition to the children’s programming being successful with fewer stressed-out kids, all the business was completed and adults reported feeling more positive about yearly meeting Sessions than they had in years. But it took an enormous amount of discipline and trust to make these changes. Changing the culture is hard; we don’t always see where it needs to be changed, and we don’t always want to make the changes when we do see them.

At a Philadelphia Yearly Meeting problem-solving meeting recently, a Friend stood up to offer a solution to the yearly meeting’s difficulty in finding enough people to staff all of its committees. She said that soon the baby-boomers will be retiring and we’ll have a huge crop of new young volunteers with time to sit on committees. Many people in the room nodded their heads, agreeing. By this timetable, people my age will be free to participate in yearly meeting in another 30 years! Well, I do believe that we have something to offer now. And our feisty children, our eye-rolling middle-schoolers, our insistent teenagers—they all have perspective, spirit, action, and love that they can offer to the now of the Religious Society of Friends as well.

Here are some specific suggestions for including children and adults in multigenerational community:

Four times a year, invite the adults to come into First-day school for the 15 minutes the kids are usually in worship. Plan an activity that includes movement or art as well as a vocal response. Ask adults to limit their response to two sentences—it’s a rich discipline for them and it keeps the kids from getting bored from their talking! Don’t pander, make the topic something important (in fact, with kids in the room, sometimes you can risk more talking about stuff adults shy away from): Who do you think Jesus was? When have you noticed God active in your life? (Use the word God—just try it out if it’s new to you; the younger kids will be comfortable with it.) Act out a Bible story and a related story from Quaker history using adult and child actors.

If your meeting has a daylong retreat, plan a children’s program on the same topic at the same time. Plan to begin and end with activities and worship together. Plan at least one time when everyone comes together. You may ask teens to invite their friends to come, and ask them to help plan it. Make sure that the multigenerational times are interactive and have some movement and color—don’t just sit around and talk! Adults will learn by interacting in different modes than the ones they are used to.

Plan adult and children’s First-day school to study the same topics at the same time. Plan one day when you all do a project together expressing what you’ve been learning about—perform a play, write a book together, or go on a treasure hunt for items that illustrate concepts from your studies.

Once a week have the meetinghouse open for anyone who wants to come to eat dinner together. Have 20 minutes of worship. While eating, ask everyone to share a sentence about how their lives expressed their faith, or didn’t, in the past week.

Have secret buddies.

Celebrate birthdays every month with a cake with everyone’s name on it who had a birthday.

Designate someone from each committee to go to the First-day school and report to the kids what the committee is doing (use short sentences and take visual examples). The adults all know what the work of the meeting is from reading the newsletter and hearing announcements, but these communications tend to be long-winded and go past the kids.

Invite the kids to send a representative to relevant committee meetings and business meeting to share what they are doing. Plan the meeting for a time and place that is convenient for the kids as well as for adults. Make arrangements with the kids’ parents for transportation.

Be sure that committee meetings are accessible to parents. Always offer childcare before anyone asks (ask older kids to provide it as a service to the meeting, or pay them). Meet in times and places that are possible for parents to attend. Children who grow up with parents involved in meeting and who get to play with other kids from meeting while their parents do their thing feel more connected. (My kids love committee meetings—especially yearly meeting committee meetings, where they can see their friends from other monthly meetings who they otherwise see only at annual Sessions.)

Constantly look for concrete ways in which kids can be involved in your work. If they are hearing about the work, they may come up with their own ideas. When my daughter was six she asked when she would get to be on a committee. I asked her what kind of work she’d like to do and she said she wanted to have a sale that benefited homeless people. Our meeting actually has such a sale and I contacted the clerk of the committee who invited her to come help sort and price the kids’ items for it. When someone kindly asked her if she was helping she said no and explained that she was the clerk of the children’s corner. My four-year-old son who loves to cook wanted in on the action, so he helps prepare food for members of the meeting who need help with meals.

Invite kids to be part of a committee once in a while or on a regular basis. When you do this, make sure that the time and place is convenient, make transportation arrangements with the children’s parents, and make sure that everyone knows everyone’s names (kids don’t always know all those grownups’ names, but know them more by their jobs—the one who is always in the kitchen, the one who always makes announcements about marches).

Include action and color in your meeting—it will be good for adults to think in a new way as well. Write ideas down on puzzle-shaped pieces instead of newsprint and color-code them; limit how long you talk; plan the first part of the meeting to be about ideas, and then release the kids when you talk about details. You need to be willing to go somewhere new when you invite kids’ participation. They are going to want some action and they’re probably going to want to do something fun to raise money. It’s not fair inviting them if you don’t go with their ideas when it’s possible. (It isn’t always: kids in my meeting want us to welcome all the homeless people of Philadelphia into our houses every night, for example.)

Children are walking (or being carried) into meeting for worship with a deep, innate, powerful connection with the Spirit, even if they don’t name it as such. But they are not necessarily walking into the meeting room with the skills or the knowledge of how to use that time. Kids need to learn how to worship in the manner of Friends, and they are not always going to learn quietly. They will learn what’s going on less by being told to be quiet than by adults inviting and welcoming them into that space, knowing the kids will not always be successful. Adults can choose to sit next to a child or invite a family to sit with them. Most importantly, adults can sink deep into that place of Love, opening themselves to the Divine, even while kids are fidgeting next to them. A gathered meeting has a palpable sense to it, even to those who don’t know what’s going on. Children can feel that sense and learn more from that than any number of reminders of what the point of worship is.

Adults have varying ideas about what expectations to have of children in worship. Discuss among the adults what the meeting hopes for the kids in worship, then plan how to support it.

Here’s a variation of worship sharing that works for kids: create small, mixed-age groups with as little fuss as possible. Explain that, after Friends have a moment to center into God, you are going to give the groups a query, a question that is important to think about.

People are asked to share with the others in their small groups—in one sentence (look significantly at the adults when you give that direction; it’s the hardest part for grownups)—their responses, the answers that are right on the top of their hearts. Say something like this to the adults: "We adults like to take a lot of time pondering queries and allowing our responses to come together carefully. This is different! We’re going to share our hearts’ responses in one sentence without censoring." Allow the group a short moment to center (be sure to tell them that’s what you’re doing–adults will probably know but younger children may not).

Then give them the query. Here are some samples that are good for this exercise: What is God? When do I notice God? What is the most important thing? What do I want most? What does God want most? I call this "heart-sharing."

Have fun
Include adults and children in next year’s Christmas pageant.

Go camping, roller-skating, hiking, or bike riding together. Have a movie night with popcorn, organic coffee, and fair trade chocolate. Wash everybody’s car and bike after worship one day.

This is the kids’ place to shine–ask them to be in charge of planning a fun event for the meeting. Ask them to think about how God wants the meeting to enjoy itself as a starting point for their planning.

Christie Duncan-Tessmer

Christie Duncan-Tessmer, a member of Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, is the children's religious education coordinator for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.