In 2007, Friends World Committee for Consultation reported 35,413 unprogrammed Friends, about one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population. This was a 3 percent drop in our membership numbers in the past 30 years. I don’t wish to be an alarmist, but no group can maintain the integrity of its traditions or its viability when it drops below a certain critical mass. It is hard to say what the critical mass is, but this is a problem we need to address now before we reach that point. Quakers have a proud heritage of what they have contributed to U.S. history, and I believe we can play a critical role in the 21st century as well. It is of the utmost importance that we look seriously at, and address the factors leading to, a decline in our membership. For decades now, the number of our members lost through death has exceeded the number of children born into Quakerism, as evidenced by the majority of gray and white heads at any Quaker gathering. There is no problem with having many long-living Friends, but we need to gain at least as many new members as the number of those dying! The issues are not attracting enough new members, not retaining the members we have, and not keeping our youth.
We must go to the heart of our relationship with each other as a community of faith if we want to address declining membership. The reason that people come to our church, or any church, is to share religious fellowship with others whom we perceive share common theological beliefs and choose to worship in the same manner. It is my firm belief that if more people knew about Quakerism, more people would indeed choose Quakerism. (In fact, a popular website, beliefnet.com, which provides a quiz on theological belief to match people with the religion that best fits their beliefs, directs thousands of people a year to the Religious Society of Friends.) I believe Quakerism combines many elements that people long for: a non-dogmatic approach to the Divine, an open and accepting environment, a proud history of aligning values with actions for justice, the space to find Truth, and one’s Inner Voice or Teacher, and a deep mystical union with the Holy One. How many people who long for just such a faith are discouraged by churches that are bound by close-minded dogmas, have ugly histories of oppression or apathy, or lack the space to allow for experientially found Truths? Somehow in our historic opposition to proselytizing we seem to have forgotten that we have something uniquely wonderful to offer friends, family, and co-workers. If we would enthusiastically lend someone a favorite book, or recommend a movie or TV show that we found enriching, then why on Earth would we not recommend to them that which we find fulfilling in our meetings?
Disturbingly, I think this is because many of us are not enriched in our meetings. We may go because our family does, because we have decades-old friendships there, because it’s a nice group of people to hang out with, or because we want our children to have a religion. These aren’t terrible reasons to go; probably all churches have some percentage of people who attend for these reasons. But these are not the reasons that will cause us to enthusiastically encourage a friend to go, nor will they draw a newcomer back again.
What will allow us to do genuine and moving outreach is if our meetings are, or once again will be, places of spiritual inspiration that nourish our souls. Places where spoken ministry sometimes moves us to tears or stuns us by how amazingly it articulates our unspoken condition. Places where we are so closely connected by Light that a message for another can come through one person’s mouth and be spoken in total faithfulness—even words or ideas alien to the speaker—clearly intended for one of the community members sitting among us. Places where souls weary and wounded from the events of the world can come and in the silence be restored again. When our meetings are such places, how could we fail to recommend them to those we care for, and how could a seeker finding us for the first time not be enthralled and delighted at having found what they sought? Why would our young people want to leave such a home?
Now before hundreds of Friends take up paper to write Friends Journal protesting that their meetings are just such places, I want to say that I know there are, thank God, many such meetings. But I also know that, sadly, there are many that are not. In many meetings, because of dangerously low numbers (bordering on dissolution) or meeting dry spells left unaddressed, there is no spoken ministry Sunday after Sunday, little happens in the silence. There are also meetings so large and undisciplined (or uneldered) that popcorn messages with much chaff and conflict are delivered every Sunday, leaving the recipients overfed and dull, but not nourished.
We have work to do in our local meetings and our yearly meetings if we wish to see a spiritual health that can again lead to the growth of our Religious Society as a whole.
The easiest place to begin is to take an earnest stock of why we have lost members or longtime attenders from our meetings. Many meetings have no process in place for even checking in with Friends who suddenly stop attending. Such meetings feel it is none of their business or the Friend’s own choice to make. Such complete autonomy from each other, I believe, renders meaningless the idea of membership, having a marriage under our care, or being in fellowship with each other. Early Friends understood that living a truly Spirit-centered life is no easy matter, but one in which we help each other achieve this in loving fellowship. This suggests to me, at bare minimum, that our Ministry and Oversight or our Pastoral Care committees call Friends who have been absent for several months to check on them! Reasons may range from poor health or family crisis to a spiritual crisis or a dark night of the soul, to perhaps being really angry with the meeting or some of its members over things that have happened—all of which may call for some ministry by caring meeting members. This last reason should also be addressed because where one is driven away by conflict, others will be, too. Two close and dear friends of mine, attending meetings on different ends of the country, have stopped going to their meetings to worship because of badly handled conflicts there, and in each case no one has even called them. This should never happen! Calling a year after the person has stopped coming and after they have sent a letter declining to serve on any committees simply adds insult to injury.
Healing Our Conflicts
Our unresolved conflicts are probably one of the biggest ways we lose people. I hate to say it, but for our reputation as peacemakers, we Quakers are not very good at conflict! Too many come to us attracted to the peace, wishing to leave behind troubling memories of conflict elsewhere, but without having learned skills for conflict—which many of our lifelong members haven’t learned either. We don’t teach conflict skills, because one of our great myths is that we all get along. I think it would be much more productive if we accepted that peace is our ideal, and, like the rest of the human race, that we still have to work on how to do it. The next step would be to start telling the truth about the conflicts in our meetings—the decade-old conflicts between two parties or two factions (sometimes carried on beyond our memory of why). If we put on the table the fresh, still bleeding, and still festering conflicts and hurts about contentious decisions and figured out what resources to call on to create personal or meeting-wide events for healing, then there might be forgiveness and reconstruction of new ways forward. The good news is that all yearly meetings, as well as programs like FGC, FWCC, and our retreat centers have skilled, seasoned Friends who do know how to help facilitate and give birth to such healing.
Keeping Our Youth
No church keeps a very high percentage of its youth. This is in the nature of life. Parents’ choices are not always right for their offspring. As seekers we know people are drawn to different expressions. It is part of the developmental work of teenagers to differentiate from their parents. I don’t expect us to keep all our youth or view it as failure when we don’t. But I would like to feel that we have something to offer and nourish youth who are drawn to us. Unfortunately I am not confident that this is what happens. Many, many meetings, even those with large First-day programs, do not have high school programs. Myths exist that teenage Friends just don’t like going to churches; that we have no high school Friends in our meeting; that we don’t have enough teenagers to hold a program together; or that they are happy to just go to yearly meeting events once or twice a year. (Does once or twice a year nourish any soul?) Usually our meetings have not ever directly asked the high school Friends what they would like. For me to go on much longer runs the danger of trying to speak for them, a form of ageism we practice far too often. Instead, I encourage taking seriously the charge to mentor the next generation of Friends, and that we may be ministered to by the passion and intensity of their Lights.
One important part of this is accepting them as adults in their meetings. I went to Earlham College and so knew many other young adult Friends my age. I remember one of my Friends telling me a few years after we graduated that he felt he had to leave the meeting he grew up in (and the only one near him) because too many people could not see him as an adult. He said they continued to refer to him as "X’s son," even though he was a member. I on the other hand grew up a Friend and stayed one, so I know it is possible. But I have sat in a business meeting that a young Friend, home from college, was attending and someone referred to the "children" of the meeting while gesturing at him!
Routinely our nominating committees do not approach young adult Friends about service on committees, still seeing them as children. A few meetings do have some sort of ritual designed to acknowledge passage into adulthood for their teen members. This may be more important for the members of meeting than for the young person if we have trouble seeing them as adults.
Much of what our youth need is what our newcomers need—a way to learn Quaker practice that does not leave them constantly worrying that they are making faux pas or are forever lacking a mountain of inside knowledge and rules. This ranges all the way from Quakerspeak (including our alphabet soup of acronyms: FGC, FWCC, AFSC, etc., to our historic phrases: "seasoned," "the way opens," "eldering," etc.). Yes, the ambitious new Friend may pick up a book of Quaker history or Quaker practice, but not all are so inclined to learn this way. How do we lovingly and non-critically help them learn those things as well as our practices for business and committee work? How do you teach the history and experiences that have led to our testimonies? How do we teach our meeting’s unique way of doing certain things?
This is a vital part of welcoming newcomers because no one likes feeling stupid, awkward, or like an outsider, and if we leave them feeling that way too long they simply don’t return. Maybe worse yet, in large meetings with big influxes of new Friends and a shortage of seasoned Friends to help explain our practices, newcomers simply substitute ways they have learned outside. Sometimes this may be good, but more often it can lead to poor process, more conflict, more issues to heal, and more loss of what is unique and powerful in Quakerism. Therefore, mentoring newcomers is of key importance.
Some meetings are so small that the newcomer is attended to by every member of meeting, which can be overwhelming and cause much self-consciousness. Small meetings have to figure out how to do this lightly. Large meetings may have a regular Introductory Quakerism class or monthly "intro" talk, which is very helpful. They still may need to add intentional mentoring to that structure. In the medium-size meetings there may be no systematic way, and it is here that unseasoned Friends pressed into committee service can find themselves navigating without a map. It is important that these meetings give attention to how they help their newcomers. Recent newcomers can be great sources of information about what is needed and where the holes are.
The Heart of the Matter
I have touched upon sharing Quakerism, attending to lost members, healing our conflicts, keeping our youth, and making a place for newcomers. Obviously this is enough to keep Ministry and Oversight committees busy for a long time. However, these are only structural matters unless they come from a spiritual center. The heart of the matter is really that our fellowship be infused with a tender love for one another. Early Friends were on fire with the mission of living a life completely faithful to God. They saw their relationships with each other as key to that, they held each other accountable, they prayed for each other, and they bathed in the Light of God together in worship. Committee work was a joyful carrying forward of the spiritual work of the community and a time of spiritual fellowship. It is still possible that we can infuse our nominating process and our committee work with this Spirit. It is also possible that we can find ways to deepen the spiritual life of the meeting to make the silence again a living silence, not a dead one; that we can tend to the growth of membership in our meetings with a sense of the vital and vibrant spirituality that we have to share with each other; and that we can come to a Living Center that is compelling to any seeker to return to again and again.