Spring Friends Meeting: A Success Story

A Friend and I were working in the basement of the Hege Library at Guilford College, sorting books for the upcoming Friends of the Library book sale. He asked me what meeting I attended, and I replied, "Spring Friends in Snow Camp, North Carolina."

"I thought that meeting had been laid down," my Friend replied.

"Not by a long shot! We are alive and well!" I said.

The story of Spring Friends Meeting is the story of rebirth and renewal. It is a story worth telling in the hope that other struggling meetings may find a way forward, but tempered with the idea that each meeting must seek its own way with its own people, and its own sense of the Spirit. This is the story of what happened to one meeting and to its members. The meeting has blended traditional Quaker open worship with prepared messages from a variety of members, visitors, pastors, and lay people. Someone described Spring as a pastoral meeting with no pastor. I wince slightly at that description, recalling that Quakerism is famous for the thought that we didn’t abolish the pastorate, we abolished the laity. Indeed, that is exactly what Spring did. Spring has struck a chord of independence, and its members have been empowered in the process.

Just walk into Spring Friends Meeting and you feel something special. Some have described it as a discrete and immediate sense of the Spirit; one elderly woman in the community said she’d seen angels at the meetinghouse grounds. One Civil War soldier came to the meetinghouse door where he took refuge from returning to the front, ready to declare himself a conscientious objector. Our cemetery shares space for the bodies of our members with the bodies of Revolutionary War soldiers. Historically, the meetinghouse has been a sanctuary in the truest sense of the word. Fortunately, it remains so today. Laid down? No, indeed!

Although a traditional Friends meeting for the first 150 years after its founding in 1761, Spring Friends came to share a pastor with Chatham Meeting, less than two miles as the crow flies across Cane Creek in central North Carolina. In the 1900s, Spring would have "preaching" once a month from either the Chatham pastor or another guest pastor. On other First Days, Firstday school was held; and otherwise the meeting was left to its own devices. An independent spirit prevails at Spring, both today and throughout its history.

Spring’s membership numbers over the years waxed and waned, dropping low during immigration to the Midwest, rising again in the late 1800s, and taking dips and rises ever since. There is a favorite story told about my husband’s great-grandfather, Alfred Zackery, who in the early 1900s, returned home one First Day to report that there were three present at meeting that morning: he, the Lord, and the Devil. The low point of its membership was reached in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the meeting had only a handful of members and there was serious discussion about it being laid down.

Just when things were looking desperate, in the mid-1990s there was another upswing in membership. The surrounding community was growing, and Southern Alamance County farms were being sold and converted into residential subdivisions. Interest re-awakened in the several small Quaker meetings that dot Cane Creek Valley. New families came to Spring Meeting from diverse religious traditions: Catholics, Episcopalians, and Quakers of Friends General Conference (FGC) and Friends United Meeting (FUM) affiliations. The meeting developed a deep and thoughtful presence again in the Alamance community.

In July 1997, Spring Meeting hired its first full-time pastor, Richard Briggs. This was an exceptionally bold move for Spring in light of the recent discussions about being laid down. Briggs had pastored at Chatham Friends (North Carolina Yearly Meeting-FUM) and welcomed the opportunity to serve Spring as its first full-time pastor and continue the growth. The yearly meeting committed funds for the pastor’s salary while Spring grew and prospered quietly and steadily.

By the summer of 2002, Spring felt that the pastorate no longer served the meeting’s diverse interests. Over many months of labored meetings of Ministry and Counsel in the monthly business meetings, the congregation bid farewell to the pastor and his family and embarked upon a journey of independence. It was felt that given the resources and spirituality present at Spring, it could fashion its own worship schedule to suit its diverse needs.

Spring Friends is a semi-programmed meeting. It is blessed by the presence of a number of spiritual elders. Each month, someone volunteers to be the "worship leader," a facilitator, for the 11 a.m. service. The role of the worship leader is to welcome attenders, make announcements, and settle the meeting into centering with an opening reading or thought. We include our children in the worship service, asking them to take up the offering, and there is a time for a children’s message. Often the children’s message is enjoyed by the adults as well as by the children at the front of the meetinghouse.

This introductory part of our worship takes less than a half hour, and provides a flexible and creative time for the worship leader, congregation, and children to share and reflect together. Next, we have either a brief prepared message or open worship. Over the years members or attenders have volunteered to give these "worship hour messages," or members of the community are asked to speak. The members of Spring Meeting have pulled together to create a menu of worship styles that satisfies the appetites of all. On First Days when we have a message, there is open worship before the close, and there is more extended open worship on First Days when there is no prepared message.

One of the keystones of the "new format," as it was called, was establishing a relationship with Guilford College. Spring Meeting wrote to members of the Guilford faculty to explore whether faculty or students might be interested in coming once or twice a month to bring a worship hour message. The idea of reestablishing a relationship was well received, and Guilford faculty members Algie Newlin, Hiram Hilty, J. Floyd Moore, and others filled the pulpit in the early 1900s. Friends Center at Guilford College responded with an idea to provide student speakers from the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program (QLSP). Sara Beth Terrell initiated the yoking of Spring Meeting with QLSP, and with Max Carter, Frank Massey, and Scott Pierce-Coleman they offered gentle guidance to the students as they made their foray into the world of spoken ministry. Many of the Guilford students came from non-pastored traditions, and the delivery of a prepared message was entirely foreign to them.

These worship hour messages started in the summer of 2002 with current and former students of the Quaker Leadership Scholars Program including Betsy Blake, Michael Fulp, and Ciahnan Darrell. In the last six years, Spring Meeting and these students and community members have experienced a remarkable sharing through worship. Spring members and the faculty of Friends Center at Guilford College have been pleased with the youthful wisdom these students have brought to the congregation and with the collective mentoring of the meeting by the QLSP community.

Here is an example of such wisdom from a worship hour message brought by Betsy Blake, a 1999 Guilford graduate who now is on the path to pastoral recording by North Carolina Yearly Meeting. Betsy talked about cleaning her fish tank—perhaps an unusual topic for a religious message. She spoke excitedly one First Day about how she cleaned the tank on a regular basis, and how she hoped that the fish would learn that this was a refreshing process, a betterment. She hoped that her fish would eventually learn to swim into the net as she scooped them out and into a temporary holding tank, pending their return to the cleaned tank. But the fish never learned that the net was a good thing. They always turned and flitted away, darting to avoid the net, and never seemed to realize that what Betsy was doing was good for them. Then Betsy captivated us: "Isn’t this just like our relationship with God?" God offers the net, a saving grace, a betterment, a cleansing, which will make our lives more comfortable, but we turn and run, dart and avoid. That message was voiced years ago, but I continue to think of it often. These profound words coming from a woman in her early 20s have been meaningful to my mid-60s mind and spirit.

I wish I could list all the inspired moments from Spring Meeting’s worship with QLSP students. There have been many of them, and much learning has resulted for Spring members, attenders, and students. It is with a sense of joy that we celebrate these students who got up early on a First Day when they might want to sleep, climbed into the Guilford College van, and arrived at Spring to speak or to support a fellow QLSP speaker. We have had student speakers who were Jewish, others who were uncertain if their parents even owned a Bible, and others who moved us to tears with stories of their spiritual journeys, their semesters abroad, and their personal struggles. We hope we have given some of these students a way forward to a public ministry, to deeper personal ministry, and we are happy to have offered a shoulder and hand as they tested and sought their way forward.

If we have given a hand up (and "heart up") to the students of Guilford’s QLSP program, what has that done for Spring? It has developed in our congregation an opening—to our own gifts, to the gifts of young Friends, and to the Spirit. This new direction has stabilized us financially and allowed us to use our resources to support community organizations and causes that we as a meeting wish to support. It has challenged our members to become more involved in the meeting and inspired us to take leadership roles. It has allowed us to become more committed to Quaker causes and organizations, in terms of time and fiscal support. Spring now has dual affiliation with FGC, through Piedmont Friends Fellowship and with North Carolina YM-FUM, allowing us to move more completely into support of causes espoused by these entities. We have become leaders within and beyond Spring Meeting, not pushing or pulling, but standing humbly in the meetinghouse sharing our faith, our prayers, and our everyday encounters with God and the nuggets of God within each of us.

By having a diversity of leadership and experiences in our meeting, we have developed a liveliness of spirit, which has helped to draw new members and has given the old members a sense of freshness about their relationship with Spring. The presence of the students has kept us young, and open to the idea that we all have a great deal to contribute and that age is not the standard by which wisdom is meted out. The new direction has kept us connected to our own children, and yet has allowed us to place the students as friends to both the children and adults. Several of our speakers have been Quaker Lake Camp counselors, and when these speakers come to Spring, the children flock to renew themselves with the Quaker Lake personnel who meant so much to them the previous summer.

Something special has happened in our meeting, something that is not tangible or easy to describe. One example is encapsulated in this story: Guilford’s Scott Pierce-Coleman brings the student speakers (and support team) from the college in Greensboro to Spring Meeting twice a month during the academic year. On the ride down, he often tells them not to be surprised if their independently prepared message meshes with our worship opening, welcome, or children’s message. There is no prepared theme, no coordination between the students and Spring, just the moving of the Spirit in their message preparation and in our worship leaders. Flexibility is key, because by serendipity or uncertainty of the moment, sometimes a message-giver is sick or lost, but this is not a concern: way will open. It always has. Many times, there is a clear sense that a unifying Spirit has brought us and our messages together, and the students and the Spring congregation bask in that warmth.
Please join us at Spring for worship and more discussion of this wonderful experiment, now over six years old. Our worship schedule is listed in the newsletter on our website springfriends.quaker.org. Our clerk, Eric Smith, is available at (919) 663-3639.