I have read and re-read the wonderful Friends Journal article “Quakers Are Way Cooler Than You Think” by Emma M. Churchman (Apr. 2012). She names various dimensions of disconnect that many young Friends (teenage through 30s) feel toward Quaker institutions. She counsels:
Be willing to transform. The structure of monthly and yearly meetings doesn’t work for a lot of younger Friends. Many young adult Friends (YAFs) identify with a yearly meeting rather than a monthly meeting. Other YAFs identify themselves as Quaker without membership in a monthly or yearly meeting at all. These young people are unable to commit to a monthly meeting, primarily because they move so frequently, or because they attend school far away from the meeting in which they grew up. They struggle with membership in a religious society that requires them to remain in one place. Often, they also are unable to fulfill the financial requirements of membership. . . . What are we willing to do, as a religious society or at least as a specific branch of Quakerism, to embrace these young people in new ways?
This sentiment hits home in a number of ways for me. Canadian Quakers have gone through a lengthy discussion on exactly this topic, prompted by a proposal from Canadian Young Friends Yearly Meeting to allow membership in our yearly meeting, half-yearly meeting, or other larger regional group.
My intellect, heart, and spirit have been pulled in all sorts of directions over the realities young and transitional Friends face. I have only recently emerged from a long transitional period myself. First, I recognize that Friends and inquirers can be in transitional periods at many points in their lives, not just as YAFs. I respect the voices of young people who feel that the established membership processes are incompatible with their lives but who also identify as Quaker in the depth of their beings. Second, I have a deep concern that the Quaker structures that can offer help—such as clearness committees to assist with big life decisions and upheavals—may be inaccessible to these individuals while in the middle of such a transition.
I am clear in my mind that God does not care one whit about membership structures and administrivia as things themselves, aside from how they shape our lives to be more loving and faithful as individuals and within community.
Lastly, in my experience I have found that it is exceedingly difficult for a predominantly virtual group, meeting in person only once or twice a year, to act like a proper monthly meeting between gatherings—to do the discernment necessary to support decisions; to provide important accountability between Friends; to nurture the vitality of Spirit that makes the difference between an ongoing spiritual path that offers fulfillment to its traveler and a wonderful yet vulnerable intention that falls by the wayside without the necessary care, potentially causing spiritual damage rather than growth.
I came to Quakers as a 19-year-old while I was in college in Ithaca, New York. The first morning I sat down in meeting for worship, I discovered to my surprise that I was home. Ithaca Meeting was my home for the next seven years. I found that I absorbed spirituality more intensely while in community—finding it easier to approach God with other people, and finding that of God within others.
I formally applied for membership less than a year before I followed my partner to Boston, Massachusetts, then a year later to Kitchener, Ontario. After leaving Ithaca, I felt very clear that I wasn’t home. I knew I would be in Boston for a short time, and I didn’t feel right in any of the meeting options there, partly because they weren’t my old meeting. I felt in transition, even after settling in Kitchener with the expectation of living here long term. And despite holding membership in Ithaca Meeting, I was no longer a fully participating member. I missed Ithaca Meeting more than I could say, but it wasn’t really my home anymore.
Through all these years of transition, I had a strong connection with Friends for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Concerns (FLGBTQC), a group which gathers only twice a year but whose gatherings always bring out deep spiritual interconnectedness. The wonderful souls of FLGBTQC helped keep me Quaker when I felt spiritually dead, showed me what the Blessed Community looks and feels like, and otherwise acted as superb role models and elders (of all ages). Over the years, I’ve seen discernment at work as our meetings for worship with attention to business considered how to live up to God’s charges to us. I’ve also seen how we fail, sometimes modeling what one dear Friend has called “a ministry of public imperfection.” Being a part of this group, I’ve felt wonderfully well-used, serving on committees that meet during gatherings. And I’ve once or twice requested short-term clearness committees for discernment.
When you have this kind of connection with a regional or yearly meeting and don’t have strong ties to a monthly meeting, your involvement in the larger group can feel like the only game in town—made all the sweeter for its brevity and intensity.
I’ve also served on a number of FLGBTQC committees with individuals who feel a call to do work between gatherings. The committees that were successful required diligent clerking; regular conference calls; intentionally avoiding discernment over email; as well as making the necessary time in one’s schedule to actually do the work, rather than relying on how it more naturally comes together at gatherings. The unsuccessful committees expected magic to happen between gatherings without enough hard work: we were unable to schedule time to talk on the phone, lacked strong cohesion or purpose, or overestimated how much each individual could accomplish. Being ineffectual in this way felt to me like a huge disappointment—letting down a leading, letting down each other, letting down God. In anticipation of the next gathering, I noticed I would feel a bit anxious: when faced with group discernment and my own personal leadings, what should I say yes to and what should I say no to? How in the world can one be faithful under these conditions?
I lived in a spiritual in-between space for a number of years, through life transitions and gradually becoming closer to Kitchener Area Meeting. Among other changes, I became open to the possibility I might have a leading toward ministry. I really needed the support of a clearness committee to be held accountable and to help form a plan for living more solidly in the Spirit. At the time, I felt like I was on a pendulum swinging back and forth between utter spiritual disconnect on one end and on the other, deep, deep community while at gatherings for Friends General Conference (FGC) or FLGBTQC. But I held off on asking Kitchener Meeting for help, unwilling to make what I felt was a huge request of my little meeting where everyone seemed to be already overcommitted and I wasn’t sure of my fit anyway.
Three years ago I was invited by Kitchener Meeting to give a presentation on my spiritual journey. Telling my own story to my meeting was a critical step on my spiritual path, and I am so grateful for that invitation. A week afterward, I spoke in worship at the FLGBTQC Midwinter Gathering. In response to George Fox’s statement that there is a great people to be gathered, I said that I felt certain he hadn’t meant “a great people to be gathered once or twice a year.” I shared this message even though I was speaking to a room full of widely flung, cherished Friends whom I seldom saw more frequently than twice a year and some of whom I knew felt complete disconnect with any local meeting. I spoke of the importance of the local meeting to one’s spiritual condition, and how we must make our meetings into homes for our spiritual selves even (and especially) if it takes a lot of work.
At that moment I knew I should apply to transfer membership to my local meeting in Kitchener, despite the questions I still had about my fit. The letter requesting transfer from Ithaca was difficult to write, but it felt deeply Spirit-led to do so. Transferring my membership had unexpected resonances within me. It felt like a door opening as another door finally eased closed.
A year later I requested a clearness committee to explore what I might do with my leadings toward writing and ministry. I asked two local Friends and one from another meeting (who would take part by conference call) to be a part of the committee. The first time we met, we talked about my leadings, desires, and what I felt I was missing. During that meeting I became more clear and expressed that I wanted a daily spiritual practice and I wanted accountability. The process that developed is a joy for me: I write these Friends a daily email about whatever form my practice has taken, whether it is sharing gratitude, a reading that spoke to me, or development of some other message. Initially, I expected writing the daily emails would be a short-term step, but now over two years have passed and the emails have felt like an ongoing blessing for each of us, not at all a burden. I feel supported, held accountable, and grounded.
At present I experience membership within my meeting as recognition of a relationship that was already present; I have also described it as a pairing made by God between the meeting and myself.
In previous periods of my life, I have felt very clear that my Quaker community isn’t a monthly meeting, and I have at times felt like the entire concept of membership is pro forma. Five years ago I could have listed a number of reasons why I shouldn’t become a member of the local meeting. Those reasons were true for me then. I can’t claim this truth for anyone but myself, but over time and through further life transitions, I’ve come into real relationship with a local meeting where I hope to continue deepening connections with community and Spirit. I’m left with this question for our religious society, which I know includes many individuals who struggle with disconnect: how can we build the strong connections that are necessary to being “members of one another”? (Romans 12:5)