Can Quakerism Survive?

How can we speak truth to ourselves if we deny its existence? I worry that we are in denial about a truth that threatens Quakerism’s survival. Membership in many of our yearly meetings has been shrinking for decades. There are relatively few young members and attenders, and many (if not most) of our meetings are primarily made up of aging baby boomers. When they are gone, there will likely be a sudden decrease in overall membership—maybe even a collapse—because there won’t be younger people to replace them. If membership continues to decrease, Quakerism in the United States will eventually die out.

The urgency of this problem struck me this past summer, when I attended Pacific Yearly Meeting for the first time. Although it was fulfilling and I was glad that I went, I expected to see at least some time devoted to the problem of dwindling membership. None was. I also have seen little about it in Quaker magazines, books, and pamphlets. This is what leads me to suspect that we avoid speaking truth to ourselves about our future—that we don’t want to face it. Acknowledging and dealing with the real threat to our existence may be so anxiety provoking that we ignore it and instead focus inward on less threatening topics.

I’ve seen this dynamic before. Over the past 40 years, I have been part of and seen organizations that had high ideals and did good work but were focused on internal dynamics and paid little attention to threats to their existence. As a result, they went under. I worry that our yearly, quarterly, and monthly meetings will also.

As part of vocal ministry during a plenary session at Pacific Yearly Meeting, I expressed some concern about the problem of decline. Afterwards, many people thanked me and said that they had had similar thoughts. Former presiding clerk Steve Smith wanted to start an email conversation about the topic, and so I sent him an email detailing my concerns and some possible solutions. It seemed to me that we didn’t know what methods or programs could be used to turn things around.

He wrote back and mentioned that in his own library he had a copies of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Outreach Handbook: Suggestions for Attracting and Nurturing Newcomers and Enriching Quaker Meetings, published in 1986. FGC, which has seen an overall decline in attendance at its annual Gathering of Friends in the last decade, had also produced some material on outreach, found at “Outreach: Friends General Conference” with a link to “Growing Our Meetings Toolkit.”

I thought about what Steve had written, the resources he described (including FGC’s Quaker Quest outreach program and the Spiritual Deepening small group program), and realized that my initial diagnosis of the problem was wrong: it isn’t a lack of methods or programs; it’s a problem of motivation. Steve had written, “It appears to me that most Pacific Yearly Meeting Friends have come around to a fatalistic attitude, and take it for granted that our numbers will continue to shrink.”

This attitude needs to change. We need to be much more active if we’re going to survive and flourish.

Discontent, Urgency, and the Brutal Facts

Becoming active starts with acknowledging the problem. This may go against a tendency in Quakerism to avoid conflict and unpleasant truths, but you can’t solve a problem if you don’t recognize it. Acknowledgement often begins with a frank discussion—“confronting the brutal facts,” as American organizational theorist Jim Collins puts it. This is the start of speaking truth to ourselves. There are many forums in which to begin such a conversation, including monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings; Quaker publications; and FGC and other larger Quaker bodies.

The point of frank discussion is to break out of complacency and increase discontent with the status quo. This is likely to create conflict, but dissatisfaction is the fuel of organizational change. Without dissatisfaction and a sense of urgency, people won’t act. And many motivated individuals need to act to turn around Quakerism. The strongest possible case for change needs to be made. Author and emeritus professor of leadership John Kotter writes that the point of increasing a sense of urgency is “to make the status quo seem more dangerous than launching into the unknown.” (Many of the ideas in this article came from the work of Kotter, organizational design researchers Bert A. Spector and Todd Jick, and church consultant Lyle E. Schaller.)

Why Is There No Vision of the Future of Quakerism?

Increasing discontent and fostering a sense of urgency is a good start, but without creating a vision of the future and showing the path to get there, people will just feel helpless. A well-defined vision allows people to clearly see the discrepancy between their hopes and reality. Confronting this gap is motivating, and the more people who do it, the better—because people who act to create change are more committed to it. Burning discontent with the status quo moves people to get away from an intolerable situation. A stirring vision of the future attracts people towards it. This combination of two forms of motivation is uniquely powerful.

Often a small group of three to five activists start a change process like this. They usually operate outside of normal organizational channels and committees. Individuals in such a group may want to look toward another person who changed Quakerism—John Woolman. He modeled the changes he advocated and had enormous determination. A small group may be all that’s needed in the first year, but a larger group is needed to pull together a rousing vision of the future, and this takes time.

Without the clear goal a vision provides, a change effort can fall apart and become a mishmash of unrelated programs that work against each other or lead nowhere. In The Vision Thing, author Todd Jick argues that an effective vision is “clear, concise, easily understood. Memorable. Exciting and inspiring. Challenging. Excellence centered. Stable, but flexible. Implementable and tangible.”

Is there such an inspiring vision for the future of Quakerism? If there is, I am unaware of it. And that’s a problem, because a vision needs to be widely held throughout Quakerism, if it is going to motivate people to change. It needs to be continually “reinforced through words, symbols, and actions or else it will be viewed as temporary or insincere,” according to Jick.

A Starter Vision

It may help to see a specific example of such a vision, so here is my vision of Quakerism in five years. It is just a possible starting point. If it proves effective, many people will add to it, correct it, and change it to fit their needs.

You can walk into any monthly meeting and see strong First-day school and youth programs. There are people of all ages sitting down for worship. Some newcomers are there because members and attenders invited them. Others are there because of the meeting’s outreach programs. People explain to newcomers what to do in meeting for worship before it starts, and they have a meaningful first experience of worship. The meetinghouse has the look of a spiritual home that is vibrant and growing. People new to meeting are greeted warmly during fellowship. A lot of newcomers are staying because they’re finding a spiritual friendship and intimacy in the small groups. People in meetings are focusing their lives on the Spirit more and more—discerning leadings and acting on them. This has led to inspiring, influential peace and justice programs.

We Must Commit and Persist

The changes suggested here won’t be accomplished if they’re the result of weak or intermittent efforts. In an email, Steve Smith wrote:

Dwindling membership and attendance in Pacific Yearly Meeting has been on the front burner at times, both at Pacific Yearly Meeting and in various monthly meetings and worship groups in Pacific Yearly Meeting. A few years ago, there was a modest burst of energy invested in Quaker Quest.

A burst of effort that fades away won’t work. We need long-term, persistent, strong effort at all levels—local, regional, and national. Half-hearted measures, like adding a session to a yearly meeting’s annual gathering, won’t do it. Tenacious effort is essential.

I’m only touching on the first steps that are needed to change the direction of Quakerism. There are more. Kotter suggests that they include communicating the vision; empowering others to act on it; creating short-term wins; consolidating improvements, and producing still more change; and institutionalizing new approaches.

There Is Hope

I don’t want to give the impression that all Quaker meetings are slowly dying or that all of us really don’t want to face this crisis. Some meetings are growing, and that shows that it is possible to counter the slow decline that afflicts so many meetings.

In 2013, I was a member of Santa Monica Meeting in southern California. Attendance at meeting for worship had been shrinking for at least ten years. But that year we started an outreach committee. We examined the problem of declining attendance, looked at what other denominations were doing, came up with some ideas of our own, and put what we learned into action. The next year, attendance increased somewhere between 15 to 20 percent. Since then, my wife and I moved about 400 miles north and now attend the Grass Valley Meeting in Nevada City, California. I still get back to Santa Monica Meeting once in a while, and every time I visit, it just seems to keep growing and flourishing.

The change made by Santa Monica shows that decline is not inevitable. Even though it may be controversial or cause conflict, we need to speak truth to ourselves by breaking out of denial and publicly acknowledging the problem, increase discontent with the way things are, clarify the urgent need for change, forge an inspiring vision of the future, start to take action, and persist until we’ve reversed the trends that threaten our survival.

Donald W. McCormick

Donald W. McCormick was a professor for 30 years. He taught leadership and organizational change. Currently he is the director of education for Unified Mindfulness, a mindfulness teacher training organization. He is a member of Grass Valley Meeting in Nevada City, Calif. Contact: [email protected].

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