In the summer of 2013, I agreed to serve as the interim treasurer at Abington Friends School (AFS) for one year. I’m just completing that “one-year” term now, only seven years behind schedule. Meanwhile, in the summer of 2018, I agreed to serve as a co-clerk of the Finance Committee at Abington (Pa.) Meeting. Between these two roles, I’ve now served for more than a decade as a Quaker finance clerk. This is longer than I’ve held any other job in my life, other than being a husband and dad.
It’s funny to me that I ended up in this place. For one thing, I grew up hearing from my family that I wasn’t very good at math. That isn’t true, but the myth persisted for a long time, and made numbers of all kinds feel scary to me. I majored in English in college. I’ve never held a professional finance job of any kind. My own personal finances are a work in progress, to put it kindly.
In my years as a Friend, I have always felt that my true calling was pastoral care, not finance. I stepped down from the Care of Members Committee in order to begin serving on the Finance Committee at our meeting, and it was not an easy transition for me. Still, if we are what we repeatedly do, then I must reluctantly admit that I am a Quaker finance person after all.
The history of Quakerism tells us that early Friends were well-known for their trustworthiness in business. They were thrifty, clever, and disciplined. Those generations of Friends before us invested in the future—our present—by creating trusts and endowments that were built to last pretty much forever.
Facts and Feelings
Most of us have a hard time talking about money. Sadly, our strongest feeling about money might be shame of one kind or another. This feeling of shame could be rooted in our upbringing, our level of exposure to poverty, or the current state of our own finances. As a result, we may not have spent much time exploring our own feelings about money. Those feelings might come out of us in surprising ways when we’re talking about money with other people.
We also lack a shared language and practice for working on financial topics with each other. Some schools teach kids about personal finance, but relatively few schools are insisting that kids learn how to read a balance sheet before they graduate. People who don’t have financial training or a finance-related career often feel shut out of the world of finance.
Within the Quaker world in the United States, we also live with two financial issues that might be less common elsewhere in our lives: a persistent narrative of decline and the special challenges posed by forever money.
We seem convinced as a group that Quakerism is doomed to fade away. We believe this despite the incredible longevity of our meetings and schools. Abington Meeting had already existed for nearly 100 years when the Declaration of Independence was written!
This narrative of decline shows up constantly in my experiences with Quakers and finance. For example, someone at our meeting might say that our meeting is living beyond its means and running deficits every year. Never mind that our donations are exceeding our forecasts every year; that we’re averaging a net surplus for the past seven years; or that our deficits and surpluses average out to less than 1 percent of our operating budget, meaning we are operating well within normal variances. The facts are right there on the page. But the feeling of decline dominates our conversations, as long as we allow it.
Meanwhile, the history of Quakerism tells us that early Friends were well-known for their trustworthiness in business. They were thrifty, clever, and disciplined. Those generations of Friends before us invested in the future—our present—by creating trusts and endowments that were built to last pretty much forever.
I didn’t have any experience with asset management before I started serving in these finance roles. I had to learn about things like draw rates, and how to conduct a portfolio review. I also learned that most people have a hard time knowing how to think about forever money: Do we have a million dollars right now, or not? Is our meeting actually wealthy, or is it poor?
Our confusion about forever money can lead to the “magic Quaker elves” problem in our communities. Let’s say we want to invest in a project that requires a fair bit of money, and the project is not already part of our budget. With a little bit of effort, we can often find some long-forgotten trust to pay for some or all of the project. Just like that, the magic Quaker elves come to the rescue!
This feels like using a credit card: spending money gives a kind of “sugar rush” in the moment; it doesn’t feel quite so good when the bill arrives later. In the same way, spending forever money today can have long-lasting effects on the financial future of the community. But it’s not always easy for people to understand those effects.
We have run adult education sessions at Abington Meeting to talk about the many layers of money and time that exist within our meeting. Because people come and go over the years, I suspect this education effort is with us forever. That’s okay, because we are all overlooking the very best thing about Quaker finance—the chance to form a healthier relationship with money.
Stewardship without Fear
Working on the Finance Committee at Abington has given me a chance to think and feel differently about money in every part of my life. I’m still learning how to talk about this with other people, but I already know it has become a kind of superpower for me. In that spirit, I invite you to consider some new ways of relating to money in your own life and in the life of your community of Friends.
Let’s start with a fresh look at capitalism. We need to recognize that we live in a system that compels us to think of money in terms of scarcity, competition, and fear. But we don’t have to bring those feelings into the lives of our Quaker communities. When I started serving as treasurer for AFS, our Finance Committee was made up of people from business backgrounds, like me (I work in sales for a software company.) We all knew that we were serving a not-for-profit school, but we couldn’t help thinking about AFS in terms of a business. We talked about profit margins and debt ratios: financial concepts that we knew from our professional lives.
In those days, we behaved a little bit like gladiators, moving from one arena to another as we came to finance meetings after work. We showed up ready to do battle with lions. But the result was that we were treating the staff of the school with suspicion and contempt for doing their jobs. We looked for bad management and financial ruin around every corner, because that’s what our day jobs had taught us to see.
After a year or two, I wised up. I asked the Membership Committee clerk to seek out people with nonprofit operating experience to serve on the School Committee. We needed hospital executives, charity administrators, heads of other schools: people who understood that the job of a mission-driven organization is to spend every possible dollar in support of that mission.
Over time, I’ve found this query most helpful when clerking in financial settings: How will we know when our valid concerns about stewardship might be leading us toward unhelpful fears?
This query can put Friendly financial conversations on a more useful footing. We are not called to be passive or willfully ignorant of challenges. We are simply called to be present for our mission and for each other. We are called to walk cheerfully, not with distrust and doubt.
Our faith is the only thing we truly control in our work. If we come to our work with faith in each other, we will experience the same surprises and setbacks that were always coming
to us. But we will accept those moments as our chance to shine.
Matters of Faith
About three years into my one-year term as the interim treasurer at AFS, the school began its first major capital campaign in more than a decade. We conducted a feasibility study for a new athletic center, built a case statement and a gift pyramid, and started calling on potential donors. I had been involved in fundraising work at the school over the years, but this was a thrilling new adventure for all of us.
Every fundraising campaign has its surprises and setbacks. At one point in the middle of the campaign, the school’s Finance Committee met to discuss our progress. One key gift had not come in as hoped, and a few other key tasks were still unresolved. It felt like we had a long way to go; the team was feeling down.
Just then, I had a flash of inspiration. I heard myself say aloud, “We’re a faith-based institution. Seems like we need to have some faith right now.”
In the end, the athletic center opened ahead of our original schedule.
Scripture defines faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). I don’t think of my own faith as a belief in magic. Quite the opposite. My faith reminds me that in every moment, the future contains a range of possible outcomes. Some of them might sound better to me than others, but that’s mainly because my imagination is limited. It is likely that things will come down right, not because an invisible deity gave us what we wanted when we asked nicely but because our community can handle whatever comes our way.
My faith is in the Divine Spark within each of us. We have such a hard time remembering our own resilience, as individuals and as a community. So the query I ask of myself in finance work is this: How can I place my faith in this community right now?
Our faith is the only thing we truly control in our work. If we come to our work with faith in each other, we will experience the same surprises and setbacks that were always coming to us. But we will accept those moments as our chance to shine.
Talking about the Future
I’ve found in the life of my meeting that we talk much more about the past and the present than we do about the future. This has always felt strange to me. I’ve always thought that a faith based on continuing revelation should feel comfortable working in the future tense.
In so many ways, Friends have always lived in the future: a future of equality and justice that most people still hope to experience in their own lives. The racial balance at AFS today, with nearly 50 percent being students of color, matches the overall racial balance that the United States will achieve by the end of this decade. Our kids enjoy the great advantage of learning how to live in their own future before it arrives.
For these reasons, the narrative of decline has never truly matched my own experience of life as a Friend. I believe that in the rest of my lifetime, we are more likely to see growth than decline. The search for meaning is eternal in human life. We have a faith and practice that happen to fit with modern life incredibly well. Our schools are full of energy and potential. It seems to me that a very bright future awaits us.
So we must remember that continuing revelation is an invitation to growth—not growth for its own sake, which Edward Abbey called “the ideology of the cancer cell,” but authentic growth in the form of deepening community. That could take the form of greater numbers in our membership and our finances; it could also take the form of stronger faith and richer practice. If we are called to grow our Quaker communities, we should open ourselves to this blessing. We should have faith in each other and in our ability to rise to this calling.
We must use every available resource to bring about justice in our time. We live in an age of structural inequality, which affects every discussion we have about money. The problems we hope to solve can feel much too big sometimes, which can lead us to inaction.
The query that I like to use for staying focused on action is this: What can we do right now in this community to invest in a just and joyful future?
There is great strength in our numbers, regardless of whether or not they are growing. We may even find that working for justice in our communities will attract people to join us, much as we experienced with the Baby Boomers during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Quakerism is built for times like these.
What can we do right now in this community to invest in a just and joyful future? There is great strength in our numbers, regardless of whether or not they are growing. We may even find that working for justice in our communities will attract people to join us. . . . Quakerism is built
for times like these.
Care and Loyalty
My favorite thing I’ve learned from Quaker finance work is the concept of fiduciary duty. It’s a legal concept in the United States and other systems derived from English law. As a treasurer or a clerk of finance, I have a duty of care and a duty of loyalty to the organizations I serve. I must act with the best interests of the organization at heart, and I must not engage in self-dealing or other acts of harm.
I think of my Quaker life as a relay race. The care of our meeting and school gets handed from one generation to the next. My duty while carrying these batons is to make the best choices I can during my part of the race, while giving the best possible start to those who come after me.
I invite you to consider how your own relationship with money affects the life of your Friends community. Are you taking care of both the present and the future? Are you working against the tide of inequality to seek justice? Are you finding a helpful balance between alertness and fear?
If you are doing financial work in the Quaker world, I hope you will carry your own duties of care and loyalty joyfully. This is wonderful work that we are called to do. And if you haven’t served as a treasurer or finance committee clerk yet, give it a try—maybe just for a year—and see what happens.
1 thought on “Confessions of a Reluctant Quaker Treasurer”
Reading through this essay reminds me of the first FGC Gathering that I attended. Young Adult Friends joined the Quakers in Business folks for a dialogue about money. The conversation quickly became heated, frank, and challenging. What an exciting moment!
That retreat was one of the few times that I have witnessed Quakers talk about money, wealth, or debt in their personal lives. Some people were focused on how to use the stock market for good; others needed room to talk about student debt. Some people (mostly older Friends) had great faith in our financial institutions; other Friends (mainly younger Friends) were suspicious about continuing current financial systems. At one point a younger Friend said something to the effect of: “You don’t understand! You’re teaching us how to use the capitalist system to preserve our wealth, but what we want to do is to take down the capitalist system entirely!”
That conflict, for me, was fresh and inspiring — much like Michael’s essay. Looking back, I wish we’d had some of the queries from his article to guide us through that wonderful and murky territory. I’d like to offer some thoughts on the queries:
1. How will we know when our valid concerns about stewardship might be leading us toward unhelpful fears?
This question calls for a balance between thriftiness and fear. It reminds me that thriftiness is wonderful; excessive caution blocks Spirit.
2. How can I place my faith in this community right now?
What a gutsy question! This calls me to let go of hopes, fears, desires for control, and simply to trust. Even when I’m in moments of conflict with my community, there is something below the conflict that I can trust.
3. What can we do right now in this community to invest in a just and joyful future?
This calls us to collaborative action: one person cannot make a just and joyful future alone.
Thank you to Michael for opening up more conversations about money!
– Johanna Jackson
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