A Model for Growth and Rejuvenation of Monthly Meetings

Growing up in Moorestown (N.J.) Meeting, I remember being in awe of a meetinghouse that was, at least to a small child, filled with weighty Quakers. I found them impressive, imposing, and maybe even a little scary. They expressed themselves with great seriousness of purpose, giving voice to their convictions with passion and precision. They filled the space physically and spiritually.

I left Moorestown in 1968 to go to college and did not return until more than 30 years later to head my alma mater, Moorestown Friends School. Like many nomadic Friends, I retained my membership in my home meeting over those many years, but living in places like West Virginia, Maine, and Vermont made my visits to Moorestown infrequent.

Upon my return in 2001, I found a dramatic change in my meeting. Though still one of the largest in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Moorestown Meeting is much smaller than it was in the 1960s. Even more worrisome, typical attendance on Sunday is rarely more than one-fifth of the membership. There are still weighty Friends in our meeting, but they are few in number and, with several notable exceptions, are of advanced age. My meeting is still a wonderful spiritual home, but unless something fundamental changes, its future does not look bright.

These problems are not limited to Moorestown Meeting. In the January/February 2007 issue of PYM News, Mark Myers, interim general secretary of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, cited serious erosion in membership and suggested that these losses, which are shared by other unprogrammed meetings in the United States, place "a cloud over [the] future" of the Religious Society of Friends. This decline may explain reports from many monthly meetings of snippy in-fighting, confusion over goals, and an overwhelming sense of worry and fatigue. There is even talk of a "death spiral."

Are the testimonies and ideas of the Religious Society of Friends obsolete? I certainly don’t think so, and many Friends I know feel that our beliefs cry out with greater relevance today than at any time in the Society’s long history.

When I hear the membership statistics, the expressions of anguish, and the cries for action, they all have a very familiar ring. Where have I heard them before? The answer may come as a surprise: the Appalachian Trail.

This feeling of decline describes the situation that existed 30 years ago within the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC)—the confederation of 30 volunteer-based trail clubs from Maine to Georgia that built and maintain the A.T. The solution that was developed on the Appalachian Trail—one that encouraged and enabled the local clubs to grow and renew themselves—might serve as a useful model for reinvigorating monthly meetings.

Conceived in 1921, the Appalachian Trail is the nation’s premier long-distance hiking trail, covering more than 2,100 miles in 14 states. Yet, 30 years ago, nearly half of the trail was located on private land, subject to degradation and closure by loggers and developers. The quality and even the continuity of the Appalachian Trail were threatened. The trail clubs, for their part, were burdened not only by the need to make frequent relocations but by the heavy impact of burgeoning hiker use on the trail and its facilities, all at a time when many were experiencing aging and shrinking membership.

The good news in 1978 that the Carter Administration would make acquisition of a permanent corridor for the Appalachian Trail a top priority was tempered by a fear within the already demoralized trail clubs that, in the face of a massive federal presence, they would be unable to preserve the volunteer-based system along the trail. Though no one wanted to say it, the trail had become in many ways a project for professionals, not for amateurs.

Into this situation stepped a visionary National Park Service (NPS) executive, the late David ("Dave") A. Richie. Dave was the nephew of David S. Richie, much beloved by Quakers and others for his social activism and the creation of his Weekend Workcamp program in West Philadelphia. Dave Richie, ike his uncle, grew up in Moorestown and attended Moorestown Friends School and Haverford College.

It was my good fortune to work with Dave Richie on the A.T. Project. As executive director of the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC), I headed the "private" side of the Project, representing the trail clubs and about 20,000 at-large members. Dave, as project manager of the NPS Appalachian Trail Project Office, headed the "public" side. Two Quaker Moorestonians leading this complex project and working and living a few blocks apart in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, was a remarkable and happy coincidence.

Dave was an ardent believer in grassroots volunteerism. Working with NPS and ATC colleagues, he recommended that the conference hire field representatives—young, idealistic people to be trained in trail work and organizational dynamics. The aim was to build the clubs by having the "field reps" help them on the complex issues that were initially beyond the clubs’ abilities, with the expectation that they would eventually be able to sustain many of these efforts themselves.

The key mechanism for volunteer development and accountability was to have the field reps work with the clubs on Local Management Plans (LMPs). These plans, developed by each of the clubs according to a loose template, encouraged them to think comprehensively about their responsibilities on the trail and to the public. The ATC field representatives played a major role in guiding the LMP process, but they were never the authors of these plans.

These efforts worked remarkably well. The combination of the Local Management Plans and field rep system stimulated growth in the trail clubs to the point that, in 1986, the federal government made an unprecedented formal "delegation" of management responsibility to the Appalachian Trail Conference and its member clubs for the thousands of acres of Park Service-acquired portionsof the A.T. Today, 99 percent of the Appalachian Trail is permanently protected and the management delegation to ATC has just passed its 20th anniversary. The volunteer trail clubs have been reinvigorated by taking clear responsibility for complex trail and corridor management projects—tasks that almost everyone assumed in the 1980s they would never be able to do. The clubs have grown in membership, energy, and effectiveness.

It seems to me that the situation facing our yearly and monthly meetings is in many ways similar to the situation facing the Appalachian Trail Conference and its member clubs in 1978. Mark Myers asks, "Will Quakers pass into memory . . . , or have we found the secret of life that will allow our religious body to be present here in this place 300 years from now?"

I don’t claim to have a secret. But I do have a suggestion that might yield very positive results not only in meeting membership growth but in meeting vitality if applied with sensitivity, patience, and adequate resources.

I propose that our yearly meetings use the Appalachian Trail as a model by creating a program to recruit, train, and support a team of "outreach coordinators" to work with local monthly meetings on membership and growth. If the A.T. model holds, these coordinators are likely to be young people—idealistic, energetic, and open-minded. They would have little or no history with the meetings with which they work. They would have to be Quakers. Hiring would focus on recent college graduates—people looking for their first or second job in a career that will eventually take them other places. Pay would be modest. Training would be intensive and would involve marketing and communications as well as Quaker history, faith, and practice. The outreach coordinators would focus especially on the tenets of Robert Greenleaf and his philosophy of Servant Leadership.

In addition to getting to know the meetings in a given "territory" (a quarter or some other logical breakdown), the outreach reps would focus on working with the monthly meetings that have agreed to embark on Meeting Growth Plans. Again borrowing from the A.T. model, an overarching strategic plan at the yearly meeting level would set broad institutional goals and yield a template for these plans. With the assistance of the outreach coordinator, meetings would engage in the participative process of developing their plans for growth, with specific recommendations on open houses, news releases, website improvements, outreach publications, guest-greeting protocols, etc. Each meeting would set clear, quantifiable membership goals, both in total attendance and in weekly attendance at meeting for worship and First-day school. Special emphasis would be placed on youth outreach. As with most well-designed plans, the value will be as much in the process as in the product.

Meetings might well wish to reflect on the core learnings of the successful Quaker Quest program now underway in the United Kingdom. These learnings include correcting potential failings in the ways we present ourselves to outsiders. We tend to be quick to say what we don’t believe and what we are not, and to struggle when it comes to saying what we do believe and what is affirmatively distinctive about us. Also, and understandably in light of our rich past, many Friends tend to dwell too much on our history and not enough on what we believe right now.

Creating a Meeting Growth Plan would be optional for monthly meetings. However, I hope that a number of particularly energetic meetings would jump at the opportunity and create enough momentum that, eventually, all meetings would choose to develop a plan.

If this idea resonates with Friends, I hope that discussions can begin soon on how this—or a similar idea—might be implemented.

Is this the way to lift the "cloud" that Mark Myers referred to? Maybe yes; maybe no. Decentralization and volunteerism are among the great strengths of the Religious Society of Friends, but they can also be liabilities. Our volunteers need serious professional assistance, and our existing structure of yearly and quarterly meetings is the ideal place to find it. I hope these ideas stimulate enough discussion to enable us to focus on the future of our branch of Quakerism and the many gifts it offers to a troubled world.

Larry Van Meter

Larry Van Meter, a member of Moorestown (N.J.) Meeting, is head of Moorestown Friends School.