What We Cannot Do Alone

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But are [these] two diverse aims inconsistent and exclusive? Is it not possible to have both aims united in a larger synthesis? May we not become efficient in fact just because we have succeeded in finding God? Can we not be flooded with the consciousness of God and at the same time perfect some form of organization that will be the effective body and instrument of that experience?

That is the goal of this search.

—Rufus Jones, New Studies in Mystical Religion (1909)

I am as convinced as ever of the invitation and challenge before us. In the 1650s, the Quaker movement came together when it seemed the world was coming apart—a time very much like our own. These times call for no less courage, resilience, and vision.

If we can rediscover, reclaim, and reinterpret the gifts our tradition offers to encourage faithfulness in the context of today’s needs, Friends can make a precious contribution for the future of our planet. We have much to do to more fully take our place alongside all who are seeking and living a way of deep hope and love in a time of turmoil, separation, and fear in our world.

We need to renew our openness to bold vision. We need to be ever more clear about the Life and Power we are inviting people to discover and encounter. We need to help one another to know and abide in that Life and Power ourselves. And we need to deepen our shared work to reclaim and renew our institutions.

What follows are field notes from my experience serving at the intersection of institutional leadership and renewal in the Quaker movement. I hope this reflection might offer encouragement to your work of exploration and discovery in your own context: your local meeting, yearly meeting, other Friends institution, or in some new garden where you find yourself called to labor. I hope it will kindle something, stir something. It’s time to engage with our institutions in fresh ways.

Focus on Quaker institutions—really?

Facing the challenges in the United States and in our wider world, it’s easy to see how it could seem short-sighted, selfish, and privileged to devote energy to something as seemingly inward-looking as the present and future vitality of Quaker institutions. But I believe that movements need tools, and that’s what institutions are, essentially. The usefulness of tools depends not on their form but on how well they function—how well they serve the purpose for which they were made. And just like keeping a hoe sharp to help with the coming year’s garden, how we care for our tools matters.

It is through our institutions that we govern, administer, serve, and strengthen the Quaker movement. The integrity, strength, and vitality of these institutions affects our witness in the world: the inclusivity and depth of the welcome we offer, the boldness and vitality of our ministry, and the ways we relate and witness. Our shared values and behaviors as faith communities are shaped by these institutions: they influence where we invest our attention, our time, and our resources—ultimately, where we give our love and find our common life.

Stories of institutional decline, struggle, and crisis have become a common narrative among Friends in recent years: exhaustion of leadership, internecine conflict, budget shortfalls, declining membership, challenges with generational transitions, obstacles to diversity and inclusion, poor management, and lack of volunteers to serve in the many committee roles that need to be filled. We see the strains at all levels and in every dimension. Some days facing these challenges seems daunting and fruitless. The truth is that many of the forms we’ve inherited aren’t serving anymore.

It can be tempting to depict the situation as a choice between having institutions and being free from them, pacifying ourselves with the idea of being Spirit-led and not having to pay attention to the burdens of administration. But that’s ultimately a false choice. As Moses understood when he shaped a new way of living for the prophetic people he led into the wilderness, institutions are inevitable. The issue is whether the institutions are the right size and in right relationship; whether they are effective, accountable, and wisely used to support and strengthen the movement, as the Spirit leads. What matters is whether they help us to be more available and responsive as instruments of God’s Love.

As changing ways of working, living, believing, belonging, and connecting spiritually reshape religious life, the need for adaptation, growth, and renewal in Friends institutions—and especially in our denominational structures—is undeniable. Much work is happening; there are signs of health and hope. But in many places, we still aren’t responding with the vigor, courage, speed, and scope of vision that renewal demands of us.

But renewal of what? What essential qualities of Friends tradition will we invest in? What will we allow to be transformed or to die so that something new can be born?

An Answer to a Question

Fundamentally, I believe that Quaker institutions arose in response to a simple question:

What is needed for this life-changing—even world-changing—spiritual movement to grow and thrive?

The first organizational forms, including the first yearly meeting, were an answer to that question. At their best, our institutions are still helping us to do together what we cannot do alone.

Searching for Roots of Renewal

I’ve come to trust that by understanding the origins of the organizational forms we’ve inherited, we can find helpful glimpses of how we might reimagine them now. Following the threads of our institutional inheritance back through time, we can discover the necessary functions these forms played and the needs they originally addressed. Keeping our eyes on the function—the life in the form—and not the form by itself, we can glean fresh insights. Our movement’s history has much to teach us as we seek to be faithful to the Spirit now.

Here’s one such glimpse: The practice of keeping membership records wasn’t part of the plan. As the movement grew, many Friends were being imprisoned or killed for their faith, and it became essential to clarify which local group of Friends would take responsibility—financial and otherwise—for caring for and educating children in the absence of their parents. From this perspective, the creation of membership rolls wasn’t originally an effort to keep a census or establish who was “in” and who was not; it was a response to oppression, adding resilience to a movement growing rapidly in numbers, spiritual vitality, and influence.

How might our changing understanding of membership today—and more deeply, of belonging and mutual responsibility—be informed by the power of the shared commitment and relationship that early Friends witness offers?

Here’s another glimpse: The Meeting for Sufferings was one of the first bodies responsible for the day-to-day governance and care of the Quaker community. It was established to provide for the time-sensitive needs of imprisoned Friends and those who suffered for the Truth. The nascent institution was created to enable Friends to respond quickly, meaningfully, and effectively to the needs of the movement. Because of the close and concrete nature of the work to be done, feedback would have been clear, direct, and immediate; learning and adaptation would have been swift. The form arose out of necessity, and form followed function.

How might our contemporary business meetings and institutional governance change if we sought to be as responsive and agile as our spiritual ancestors in embracing the challenges before us? What might we give less weight? What would we find is essential? What might we let go of?

Beneath the spiritual story of the Quaker movement, there’s a parallel story of institutions. Institutions don’t bring renewal; they aren’t the source of our hope. But they can be—in fact, must be—part of how we rediscover and embrace God’s invitation for new life today. Faithful, skillful stewardship of organizations has an essential part to play in freeing the Life among us.

Institutions are fundamentally an integration of people, money, structures, processes, capacities, values, and behaviors that are crafted and employed for a purpose. But from many of our oldest stories (Moses at Sinai, Jeremiah before the Exile, the ministry of Jesus, and early Friends witness to religious oppression), we know that institutions can become the purpose, rather than serving the purpose. Our energy, focus, and attention can be diverted to serving the organization as an end unto itself, to the detriment of the movement it was created to serve. Sometimes we get lost on our way home. Despite a self-identity as rebels and the ever-present invitation for us to be a prophetic people, it turns out we’re just as prone to this as everyone else.

But there’s good news: It’s in our spiritual DNA to renew, redeem, and reimagine our institutions. That’s how Friends got started in the first place: reclaiming the life-giving energy that kindled primitive Christianity.

And there’s more good news: there’s nothing sacred or timeless about the form of today’s Quaker institutions. We can change them; in fact, we’re always changing them, often unconsciously. The better we know our roots, the functions that the forms were created to serve and what we need from them now and going forward, the more intentional, discerning, and courageous we can be.

The foundational institutions of the Quaker movement—monthly meetings, quarterly meetings, and yearly meetings—weren’t established to take us out of our wider communities into monocultural enclaves. Early Friends were able to be so radically inclusive precisely because they were powerfully clear about the invitation they were offering. They knew what they were about, and they shared it.

The movement was kinetic: it was always in motion, realigning and reorganizing itself in response to changing conditions. It was strategic: early investments in pamphlet printing and well-positioned real estate, coupled with shrewd provocation of public controversy, demonstrate early Quakers’ keen awareness of emerging technologies and the effective use of mass communication. Friends’ organizing center at the Bull and Mouth tavern combined a base for printing and distribution of publications with a space for meetings, public preaching, worship, and religious education, all of which greatly increased their capabilities and fueled the success of the Quaker movement during its dramatic expansion into London.

Many early leaders were gifted administrators. Margaret Fell was the architect of the whole system, a powerful complement to her spiritual eldership that made her the movement’s midwife. James Nayler served for years as a military quartermaster in the war against the King before becoming one of the most influential voices of the Quaker movement. In later years, George Fox held regular office hours through which he managed and adjudicated the affairs of Friends.

The organizational structures these leaders established were intended to serve as birthing rooms, conduits, amplifiers, watering cans, and catapults for a movement at the growing edge of change and possibility for the world. Early Friends heralded and modeled the revealing of a new way of Life, Love, and Truth born from the ashes of struggle, despair, and suffering. To do this, they forged fresh tools whose form followed their function. They paired compelling vision with effective action; a great People was gathered. And the Spirit moved powerfully through it all.

What happened? Thoughts on how we got here

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Friends led by visionaries like Rufus Jones created many of the wider Quaker institutions we know today. Largely through these efforts, a divided, scattered religious society at risk of irrelevance, following the separations and decline of the previous century, was reconnected and molded into the shapes we recognize. They forged new forms to sustain and transmit the Quaker movement in their time. This was vital and needed work. And now it’s our turn, a century later, to reimagine how to reclaim and recycle the tools we’ve inherited to respond to today’s needs.

Like their religious contemporaries and the whole society, those Friends were influenced by an early twentieth-century worldview that institutions and organizations were like machines. In subsequent generations, the energy of newness and renewal that fueled their efforts has subsided; in many places an attitude of “this is how it’s always been” has set in.

In the early twenty-first century, our human community is finding in the natural world wisdom to help us re-learn what we have forgotten about living on this planet. While not losing what we’ve learned, we now need more organic, ecological, and relational ways of understanding how our institutions function and support the wider Quaker movement—the whole ecosystem. Perhaps not surprisingly, much of what we are discovering resonates deeply with far older understandings of nourishing spiritual community.

So where do we go from here?

We don’t know how this story ends. But I am convinced and daily see fresh evidence that a new vision—a new way of relating organizationally—is breaking through the numbness that sometimes clings so closely in our institutional life. It’s on its way, and already here.

There is shift happening from an industrial lens to a view that also includes an ecological or relational lens, from the institution-centric orientation to an emerging—and also much older—movement-centric one. Both are present in our Friends institutions and culture today, often in the very same space. These two ways of seeing and being show up in and shape our meetings, our institutions, our worship, our witness, and our relationships with one another. It isn’t always an either-or; both have something to offer us, and both are available. Have you seen signs of this transition?

When we can create shared vocabularies and shared understandings, we can have shared conversations. Those shared conversations can inform our discernment and decision making, and build our capacity to envision our way forward. They may allow us to be more intentional about what we’re valuing and what tradeoffs we’re making. They may help us to adapt or create fresh forms that will serve the functions we most need at this crucial time in the life of this still life-changing, world-changing spiritual movement.

We have choices before us, Friends. These choices matter more than ever. What are you daring to risk in faith? What are you learning? Please share your news, your discoveries, and your challenges. Our journey of faithfulness continues.

Now faith is the turning of dreams into deeds; it is betting your life on the unseen realities.

—Clarence Jordan’s translation of Hebrews 11:1, The Cotton Patch Gospel


Web extra:

Download a printable version of Noah Merrill’s chart.

Noah Merrill

Noah Merrill is a member of Putney (Vt.) Meeting, which has care and oversight of his service in ministry. He serves as secretary of New England Yearly Meeting.

12 thoughts on “What We Cannot Do Alone

  1. Thanks for the comparative tables at the end, Noah. I hope many people take them to heart and adapt our institutions so we can better serve the whole in our times.

  2. Noah—on my way to deliver a message to Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, I was placed by the Spirit in my own Monthly Meeting when you and Honor came last week traveling in the ministry to Treble the Water (high range, penetrating pitch of spiritual work) for a gathering very much intent on and successful about doing together what we cannot do alone. You only asked us to ask ourselves “Where is the Life?” And we were given answers for us, for today, and for the immediate sequence of todays that will make our time in the Kingdom. Thank you. Now you and Friends Journal have put in circulation what you have been given on “what We Cannot Do Alone.”. The Spirit will direct me as I work with Ohio Valley YM on their theme “Moving together with the Spirit,” but I feel your quick and faithful work in this Friends Journal piece has a lot of what I hear rising: Your accompaniment from afar will keep me honest in the Life.

    This is how I teased them into the Life in their theme:
    What is the first motion when you invite me to a party for “Moving Together with the Spirit”?
    First I hear — BYOV — Bring Your Own Voice, and therefore the early Friends come with me, and
    a lot of the Quakers outside of my modern liberal, moderately Christ-allergic monthly meeting also
    come with me.
    Because you are interested in “Moving Together with the Spirit,” we will
    explore how Quakers may have said and lived that in the past. You will also be
    invited to translate the Quaker Christian affirmation that we Move Together with
    the Spirit because-and-when we live and work like the body of Christ. You are
    not going to have to say those words, but we are going to look for a way of saying
    something along those lines that you will feel free and compelled to affirm.
    Another way of phrasing the invitation maybe to say: How would you
    translate 1 Corinthians 12 into a modern, liberal, universalist Quaker way of saying
    precisely what Paul needed to say so you could hear it inside the boundaries
    of your spiritual language? As we go along I will point to a few passages of
    George Fox, Isaac Penington, William Penn and Elizabeth Bathurst just to taste how they said it.

  3. Your insight is welcomed by this Quaker. Too many times have I seen a Spirit curtailed by “That’s not the Quaker Process” when the Spirit is in full display. Instead of nurturing it it gets placed back in the person who is charged by that Spirit and is unaware how to proceed as “Quaker process” is a power statement. It is a hurdle that takes a person time to understand why and how to get over it. It takes courage for someone new to stand in this area of confusion and to over come it. Most will feel abandoned.

  4. I am participating in the FGC Beloved Community e-Retreat.
    This was my question and answer for today:

    “What truths comprise your personal framework of hope? ”

    This article summarizes my hope in the Light within/among/working through us. For me, it is a practical , personal and communal framework for our religious society of Friends.


  5. Beautiful!! I have Quaker roots in my family. My Maternal Great Grandmother was a Coffin and I have no idea how they left their Quaker roots. I believe you are born with the spiritual path of your soul and if you listen it will carry you back home. Noah, what you wrote: It’s in our spiritual DNA to renew, redeem, and reimagine our institutions. YES!

  6. “…the intersection of institutional leadership and renewal in the Quaker movement.”

    This exactly where we who are leaving Northwest Yearly Meeting find ourselves. We are now charged by the Spirit with creating something new that serves all human beings. Thank you for this set of signposts to help guide our way.

  7. Friend speaks my mind. Suggest a great tool for organizations called the Delphi process, a high tech Quaker process of decision making. The Delphi process is an iterative process where data from one wave informs data from the next. (continuing revelation:) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphi_method The participants in a delphi do not get to see the responses from the other participants until later in the process (or not at all) so that the voice of influential or powerful participants does not influence the thinking or views of another.

    With yearly meetings imploding, we must forge ahead. Making group decisions in ‘crisis’ (read opportunity as well) will determine the Society’s ability to survive in a turbulent new millennium. Avoiding power plays and embracing conflict is essential if we are to adapt. The Delphi process helps avoid lengthy discussions that waste everyone’s time, and keeps the group rational and focused on the task. Time is the hottest commodity of the new millennium folks.
    Here is just one software package. http://armstrong.wharton.upenn.edu/delphi2/ Time to retool Friends:)

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