“Quakerism changed my life.”
I’ve heard statements like this many times over the years, and it’s inspiring every time. This is also true for me. I learned about Friends as a young adult. Quaker spirituality resonated with my values and experience while providing me with the tools and community I needed for transformation. By my early 30s, I was a deeply committed Friend. My service in my local meeting, then later at Pendle Hill conference center, and now at Friends General Conference (FGC) was and is a manifestation of both my deep gratitude for this spiritual tradition and a form of faithfulness to Spirit’s leadings. I believe this is true for all of us who choose this path. We know Quaker faith and practice can transform lives. It’s why we care so passionately about a future that includes Friends.
As much as we love our faith tradition, we also know that there are challenges. While many meetings are growing and thriving, others are struggling. I hear regularly from Friends that recruiting volunteers and finding the means to keep committee work going has become more difficult. Some yearly meetings have struggled with financial challenges and theological splits. A few Friends have shared that while attendance is good in their local meeting, they notice that those attenders are graying. One Friend said he worries that there may soon be a day when someone at his meeting says, “The last one out turns off the lights.” If the future is one where there are fewer local meetings, is there a future for the Religious Society of Friends and for Friends institutions like FGC? After all, FGC has had its own challenges the past several years as we have attempted to deliver programs for Friends on a smaller budget and with a smaller staff.
For there to be a Quaker future, we must embrace one of the core realities of our faith tradition: a reflection on the nature of reality itself. Things change, and revelation is ongoing. To shape our future as a spiritual tradition, we must consider the world in which we now live and consider what ability we have to act within it.
When FGC was founded in 1900, the horse and buggy were about to give way to automobiles and planes. Over the coming decades, many Friends found themselves in single-income, middle-class households where the primary wage earner worked a stable, long-term 40-hour-a-week job with a paid vacation. While we all know the oppressive inequality issues of that period, it’s also true that new economic and industrial realities gave many Friends the money, technology, and spare time to embark on a period of incredible institution-building that gave rise to FGC, American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and others. For several decades, many (mostly White) middle-class Friends had access to the resources necessary to gather themselves for large, periodic, multi-day conferences for fellowship, information sharing, spiritual enrichment, discernment, and shared work. One Friend referred to this time as the golden age of Quaker conferences, at least in terms of attendance numbers.
The social, technical, and economic landscape in which U.S. and Canadian Friends now operate is very different. In 2020, most households with children have two adults who work or a single working parent. While long-distance travel has become faster and cheaper, free time has become more precious. Finding the time to go to a week-long conference, consultation, or governance meeting has become more challenging. Stagnant incomes paired with spiraling household and healthcare costs have reduced discretionary income for many individuals and families. Young adults invest more time in education than ever before but face less secure employment opportunities after they graduate. Young adults are also far more mobile than previous generations, posing challenges to the local and decentralized membership and participation structures that characterize Friends. Lastly, the Internet has dramatically changed how we both communicate and work. These structural and societal changes have greatly affected FGC’s programming, particularly the annual FGC Gathering.
The Gathering reached some of its largest attendance numbers in the 1980s and 1990s, peaking at 2,300 attendees at the 1994 Gathering in Amherst, Massachusetts, just as the economic and social reality it was built upon began to shift. For almost two decades now, with spikes and dips, attendance has been slowly shrinking. Attendance at the Gathering now often runs 900 to 1,100 Friends. For those who attend, being in worship with 1,000 Friends is still a revelation. Evaluations year after year tell us that the Gathering remains deeply important to the spiritual lives of individual Friends and to the meetings to which they belong.
To secure the long-term success of the Gathering, FGC must adapt more rapidly to these current circumstances. In 2019, over 2,000 Friends participated in a marketing survey to help FGC understand where to take the Gathering (bit.ly/gatheringstudy2021). One significant takeaway was that the Gathering needs to restructure children’s programming and childcare during the week to better support the spiritual journeys of parents. We also learned that the Gathering is fabulous for previous attenders, but that newcomers to the Gathering sometimes feel overwhelmed and left out.
We’re now experimenting with ways to better welcome first-time attenders and continuing to explore ways to make the Gathering more welcoming to Friends of color. In addition to this, the Gathering may need to be fewer days (we’ve already reduced it from seven to six days) or be located within a single day of travel of the majority of attendees.
By and large, however, the biggest concern was cost. Attendance fees have been climbing for some time. College campuses are getting more expensive to rent, and the Gathering is getting more complex for both legal and social reasons. It’s also true that as Gathering attendance falls, fixed expenses are spread over fewer people, which has led to increased fees. It’s a cost spiral that reinforces a negative trend. By making changes to the Gathering, we hope to reduce fees and increase attendance. In 2017, FGC’s Central Committee approved the formation of a Gathering endowment, and we’ve launched a campaign feasibility study to see if we can raise at least $2,000,000 to help make the Gathering more affordable. Initial feedback on the feasibility study has been encouraging, though we will seek the input of many more Friends over the coming months.
Just as the number of Friends attending worship impacts a monthly meeting, the number of Friends in North America directly impacts potential Gathering attendance, along with demand and support for FGC’s other year-round services. As Friends, we must be candid about whether we’re going to commit the time, energy, and money necessary to make our presence more visible to the broader society and to welcome those who visit us.
Let’s be clear: we’re not being more visible and welcoming to ensure our faith tradition continues; that’s a byproduct. We do these things out of love for the people who are searching for meaning and connection in their lives. We do it because we are led by Spirit and because we know in our hearts that what we have—including difficult issues that we’re working to address—is powerful, positive, and transformative. In a world where some religions are still deeply exclusionary, enforce the status quo, and are used by political leaders to sanction violence and oppression, the Quaker message of radical equality, nonviolence, and continuing revelation is powerful and life-changing.
Many individual meetings are already making a difference and increasing their visibility, as are yearly meetings and Quaker institutions. Friends Publishing Corporation’s QuakerSpeak video series is creating conversations among Friends and inviting newcomers and curious seekers around the world to engage us with their own questions.
FGC previously nurtured newcomers and new worship groups through its programs QuakerQuest and the New Meetings Project. Currently, the Welcoming Friend project and our anti-racism efforts are intended to help the collective actions of FGC and FGC Friends truly reflect and honor that of God in everyone. Creating awareness of Quakers is only part of the story. What really matters is the experience that newcomers have when they walk through the door of a Quaker meetinghouse, arrive at yearly meeting annual sessions, or attend a Gathering workshop. The future of Friends really depends on how well we listen and respond to one another and Spirit. It depends on the love and respect that we show to one another. As Tertullian, an early Christian writer, said, “See how they love one another.”