An Interview with Robin Mohr by Martin Kelley
Do you have a short definition or “elevator pitch” for Convergent Friends?
I don’t have a good elevator-pitch description of Convergent Friends because every time I try to make it really short, it becomes vague, and when I try to make it longer, it becomes really involved. I first used the phrase in a comment on my blog of November 2, 2005, but wrote a clearer definition later in January 2006 (See sidebar for links to these articles.)
[Reflecting later, Robin gave us this definition: Friends who are seeking a deeper understanding of our Quaker heritage and a more authentic life in the kingdom of God on Earth, radically inclusive of all who seek to live this life.]
At that time, I used the term (and I still return to this idea) to describe people I knew who were trying to understand what it means to be “the Quakers” in today’s world. There are Quakers in different yearly meetings and other institutions in the Religious Society of Friends who are struggling with the same questions: How are we to be the Quakers today? Which elements of our history still have the power to transform and improve our lives? What aspects need to be let go because they’re no longer relevant?
How did you come to the idea of Convergent Friends?
I already knew people in my monthly and yearly meeting in California who were wrestling with how to be serious Quakers responding to God’s calling in their lives. Many of them were reading Lloyd Lee Wilson’s book Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order. However, I didn’t know this was a broader phenomenon until March 2005 when my husband sent me a link to Martin Kelley’s blog, which had a post about similarities between younger evangelicals and Quakers (link below). I found people participating in that conversation who came from every part of the country: New Jersey, Minnesota, Florida, Massachusetts, New Mexico. The second wave was finding there were Evangelical Friends who were asking those same questions; many Friends in Newberg, Oreg., were struggling with and blogging about how to be the Quakers.
This was the inspiration. In online conversations, people were using long strings of adjectives to describe themselves, and the phrase “Convergent Friends” captured those disparate elements. They were trying to express a paradox about themselves and about their faith; they were coming from different perspectives but going toward the same conversation. To me, it felt like the winds of the Spirit blowing across all the branches of Friends, blowing us in the same direction. Also, “convergent” was a play on words; it referred to both Conservative Friends and the Emergent Church: the Con/Vergent Friends. It was important to me that the term wasn’t defined with mathematical precision; it’s fuzzy and changing, more like people, and people use the phrase in different ways.
How have Convergent Friends been seen outside of the Religious Society of Friends?
I ‘m not sure it has been. Well, now and then some from the emergent church realize that much of what they’ve been pushing for in their new religious communities already is a traditional Quaker practice. Just as in any group, the more people there are who learn about Quakerism, the more there are who want to be Quakers. For many, the emerging church is about leaving denominations and starting something new and different. However, there’s a renewal movement happening within many denominations: within Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Across the world, people are engaging with what it means to be authentically of their faith. I identify that engagement with the movement of the spirit in the emerging church.
You’ve recently been named executive director of Friends World Committee for Consultation’s Section of the Americas. How has your work with Convergent Friends played into new Quaker leadership?
I really couldn’t say for other organizations, but I know that I would not have been qualified or prepared for this job at Friends World Committee for Consultation without my experience with Convergent Friends. It was that discovery and those conversations that opened windows in the Quaker world, that created doors in walls I didn’t know I wanted to walk through. Coming to know those emerging voices among Evangelical Friends, brought me out of my liberal Quaker, Pacific Yearly Meeting box. I went through a time of being what I would call Christ-curious. The growing importance of Jesus in my own spiritual life was answered through my growing friendships with Evangelical Friends. They were willing to be patient with me and willing to answer my ignorant questions. They weren’t in the camp of people who say, “If you’re not already Christian, we’re not talking to you.” They were open to hearing about my wrestling in my relationship with Jesus and to responding honestly and profoundly from their own struggle with the meaning of being a Christian and its connection with being a Quaker.
The experience of the last six years has changed who I am and has prepared me to respond more clearly to Friends of all kinds, which is part of my job at FWCC. Through participation in FWCC events as a representative of Pacific Yearly Meeting, the scope of my experience was enlarged from an individual, informal level of meeting Evangelical Friends and Conservative Friends. These events also helped me to realize that this conversation has been happening for a long time among Friends who realize that we need to be talking with one another across institutional divisions. For 75 years now, FWCC has offered a place for Friends to have these conversations. Sometimes it has done this in a formal way. However, it’s also important to provide opportunities for us to be real and human and our own selves, rather than representatives for a group of people.
They were trying to express a paradox about themselves and about their faith; they were coming from different perspectives but going toward the same conversation. To me, it felt like the winds of the Spirit were blowing across all the branches of Friends, blowing us in the same direction.
Has your new job and its travels affected your definition or ideas on Convergent Friends?
Does the idea of convergence resonate with Friends outside North America?
Yes, it does resonate. A renewal movement is happening throughout the Religious Society of Friends. The more widely I travel, the more I am convinced of that. I had a very interesting conversation last week about plain dress with some Friends in Bolivia. It was sparked by what I was wearing, which is probably my most Conservative Quaker-looking outfit. One of the younger Friends asked about it, and we talked about the importance and relevance of plain dress among Quakers. For me, it’s about avoiding distractions; at the same time, I think that worrying too much about what other people wear is also a distraction. That was a rich discussion, and some of the Friends in Bolivia would have liked to continue it. Younger Friends in Africa also have this concern about their Quaker identity and how traditional testimonies like peace are being taught in their churches. Friends everywhere are addressing questions about being authentic Quakers, not just Evangelical Christians and not just liberal do-gooders. What is the unique contribution of Quakers to our postmodern society, wherever we are? I have met people around the world who are interested and concerned about that conversation.
What do you see as the future of Convergent Friends?
Is there any chance it will become redundant?
Key for me is never having had some plan for where Convergent Friends should go; it’s more an acknowledgement of what’s already happening. Convergent Friends is definitely not about trying to meld all of the institutions of Friends. It is about acknowledging that none of our institutions are monolithic: they all contain people who are interested in exploring what it means to be Quaker, and these people have something to say to each other. In every yearly meeting there are radical fringes that don’t want to talk to other kinds of Quakers; that’s okay: I’m not in charge of changing that. It is not my ministry to convert the unwilling but to encourage the timid. The people who want to talk to each other need opportunities to find one another; that matters deeply to me.
How would you suggest people find others in their meeting or open up this conversation?
Do Convergent Friends need to start their own worship groups, meetings, or churches?
My experience of becoming a Convergent Friend was enriched by being a member of San Francisco Monthly Meeting. It was fostered by the experience of other Friends who were wrestling with what it means to be authentically Quaker in the real world. I don’t know if every meeting or every church will encourage that, but I know there are some meetings and churches across the country who will. I have heard people say, “I’m the only one” in my monthly meeting or church who cares about these things, but sometimes when we’re brave, especially about our spiritual yearnings, we find people who will say, “Yes, me too.” I think we need to be braver about that.
|Convergent Friends hold a retreat at Ben Lomond Quaker Center, 2009.
C. Wess Daniels
We don’t need to start our own meeting or worship group, but we might need to start our own discussion group within a meeting. Suggest a reading group at someone’s house, have popcorn, and read Lloyd Lee Wilson’s book, or offer to have an interest group or lunch table at your quarterly meeting on a topic like plain dress. If there are retreat centers in your area, workshops connected to these topics are likely to be offered, and you may find other people with whom to have that conversation.
One of the best things I’ve read in the last year is Chuck Fager’s essay “The Seven Ups.” He wrote the essay for young adult Friends, but I think it applies to Convergent Friends as well. He gave seven “ups” that will facilitate being taken seriously in your meeting. The first is “you’ve got to show up”; among the others were “read up,” “toughen up,” “smarten up,” and “ante up.” The instructions weren’t for taking over your meeting but for making an impact and being taken seriously. I recommend it highly. (See link.)
Do you see Convergent Friends as having the potential to grow the Religious Society of Friends?
In 1944 Rufus Jones said, “Persons are set on fire by someone who is already aflame.” People wrestling deeply and out loud with their faith are an attractive force in a meeting or church. People who are still exploring what it means to be a Quaker and who are open to others’ questions are engaging and inspiring. Part of what holds people to the Religious Society of Friends is finding others who want to have that same conversation. (See link.)
Though it may be different in other places, San Francisco always had people visiting; there was no shortage of new visitors. The key was getting them to come back. When people are authentically engaged in their own spiritual journey and willing to share, they attract new people who likely will be deeply engaged in their own spiritual journey within the Society of Friends.
I don’t think there is any shortage of people who would like to be Quakers if they knew that Quakers existed. I don’t think the Convergent Friends movement is necessarily going to solve our outreach issues, but it can absolutely change the retention rate.
Posts referred to in Robin’s interview
“Quaker History as a Uniting Force,” Robin Mohr (2005):
“Robinopedia: Convergent Friends,” Robin Mohr (2006):
“Emergent Church Movement: The Younger Evangelicals and Quaker Renewal,” Martin Kelley (2003):
“What Will Get Us Ready?,” Rufus Jones (1944):
“The Gospel According to YAFS: Are Friends ‘Tired?’ Plus: Fix It With ‘The Seven UPs,'” Chuck Fager (2011):