Montrose, Colorado, is a city of almost 20,000 nestled in the Uncompahgre Valley on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains. Until fall of 2012, the nearest Friends meeting was in Durango, a three-hour, potentially treacherous drive down the Million Dollar Highway, known for its sharp shifts in elevation, guardrail-less switchbacks, and vertical drops right next to the outside lane. And that’s in the summer—in the winter, it’s often closed due to snow.
In early autumn of 2012, a group of Friends contacted Friends General Conference’s New Meetings Project (NMP) to see what assistance it might be in helping them start a Quaker group in Montrose. Bill Yett, one of the lead planning committee members, had looked on FGC’s Quaker Finder and gotten the name of a contact from a former worship group that met in Montrose. That person gave him the email addresses of some other former attendees of that laid-down group. Yett convened these Friends and, after discussion and worship, they felt led to see if there was interest in starting a new Friends group there. These Friends publicized around town (including placing an advertisement in the Montrose Daily Press) and reserved a space at the local library for an information meeting. NMP staff helped with suggestions regarding outreach, materials on welcoming and assimilating newcomers, and other tools from the New Meetings Toolbox (featured on FGC’s website). The publicity efforts brought forth some experienced Friends who had recently moved to the area. The information meeting led to weekly worship, which began in October. Since that time they have begun monthly meetings for business, have been given access to a local Episcopal church to hold meeting for worship, are in touch with Intermountain Yearly Meeting about affiliating with them, are listed on Quaker Finder, and have a new name: Three Valleys Worship Group.
The NMP will continue to support Three Valleys Worship Group through resources, personal visits, email and Skype, and the assignment of a team of two volunteers who will be in touch on a regular basis to nurture and support the new group.
While Three Valleys Worship Group is unique—as all Friends groups are—it does share a number of things in common with other groups contacting the NMP and other groups founded since 2002 (which number more than 80 in the United States and Canada). One thing is that the majority of new groups or those wishing to form a group have a strong core of experienced Friends when they begin. So far, 80 percent of the inquiries about starting a new meeting or worship group have come from “seasoned” Friends.
Like Three Valleys, one half of the new groups that responded to a survey by the NMP also had new Friends and seekers involved in starting the group.
This mixed core group is one of the things that helped Three Valleys get off to a good start. When asked what was most helpful to them as they got started, Yett replied, “An immediate critical mass of experienced friends and interested seekers who were committed to creating a community.”
Another thing Three Valleys has in common with 66 percent of other newer meetings is that the nearest existing Friends meeting is at least 20 miles away. Four newer groups are more than 100 miles away from their nearest Quaker neighbor. Many of the calls for support the NMP receives come from places where there are currently no Friends meetings.
Less than half of the new groups are currently unaffiliated with a yearly meeting or other larger Friends organization. Of those that are unaffiliated, about one third are exploring affiliation with a yearly meeting, regional Friends association, or larger group. Sara Keeney, clerk of Intermountain Yearly Meeting reports, “We are on the verge of connecting Three Valleys with another Colorado meeting and then welcoming them at Intermountain Yearly Meeting Gathering.”
A bare majority of newer groups, like Three Valleys, are meeting in church buildings (either their own or rented or borrowed). Three Valleys rents space from a local Episcopal congregation and configures the space just the way they need it for worship.
Slightly less than half of the groups are meeting in a home or various homes owned or rented by attendees. The majority are also unprogrammed, though there are some which are semi-programmed or programmed. Most meet on First Day morning, while just under half meet on First Day afternoon or evening; and a few also hold weekday meetings for worship. Three Valleys is considering adding a mid-week service as a way to reach folks who can’t attend on First Day mornings.
Like Three Valleys, one half of the groups surveyed report that they consider themselves strong or thriving and describe their worship as “vital” or “Spirit-filled.” The First Day meeting for worship I attended was both. The silence was deep and the vocal ministry was moving. And, not surprisingly, the coffee and snacks after meeting were tasty!
As with any new worship group or meeting, Three Valleys faces challenges. These growing pains are not unique to Quaker congregations. A national study of new congregation starts reveals that close to 60 percent of them close within five years. While Yett says that Three Valley’s biggest challenges are “getting to know each other better” and “sorting out direction” for this new group, they are off to a solid, spiritually-deep start. Support and nurture from Intermountain Yearly Meeting Quakers and the NMP will help them continue to grow in faith and practice and bring a Friend-ly presence to Colorado’s western slopes.