The Experiment with Abundance Continues
The dining hall at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu, New Mexico, was abuzz in June of 2016. Jackie Stillwell had agreed to give an impromptu presentation about the new way New England Yearly Meeting (NEYM) was financing its annual sessions. They were using “pay as led,” wherein Friends support their own attendance at the annual session to the extent that God leads them. Stillwell, the past clerk of NEYM among other things, was talking right after dinner in the library lounge. The idea made immediate sense to me, and I was quite intrigued. However, as the rising presiding clerk of Intermountain Yearly Meeting (IMYM), I was already overwhelmed, and I had just driven for six hours. My plan was to eat, get settled, and enjoy the evening on the front porch of the O’Keeffe casita, visiting with Friends as they walked by.
The next morning, though, it was clear that many at the IMYM annual gathering were taken by the idea of pay as led and wanted to see if we could give it a try. June 2016 marked the beginning of our rapid—at least by Quaker standards—shift in how we finance our annual gathering.
We saw hope in pay as led. We could do away with the need for demeaning requests for travel funds from monthly meetings; there would be no more cumbersome calculations for who would receive a fee waiver based on the job done for the gathering.
Here’s a little background: Intermountain Yearly Meeting covers four large states and parts of other ones in the Rocky Mountain west of the United States: Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. El Paso (Tex.) Meeting is part of our yearly meeting, and sometimes Friends from Wyoming join us. Large in size but not in number, we have fewer than 800 members. For us, getting together with a critical mass of Friends is very valuable, especially for our children and young Friends. Most of us travel over five hours, and some for over 12, to be among Friends and to do our business. We have been gathering for a full week for a number of years, in part because we want to make the trip as valuable as possible. But a whole week is expensive.
At all levels of the yearly meeting, we have struggled with how to make the annual gathering more affordable and more available so more people could participate in fellowship and business. We saw hope in pay as led. We could do away with the need for demeaning requests for travel funds from monthly meetings; there would be no more cumbersome calculations for who would receive a fee waiver based on the job done for the gathering. Money would no longer be a barrier to participating in the annual gathering. Friends could ask for the accommodations that they needed without fear of the cost. Young adult Friends could afford to come. Hurray! We were excited to explore the possibility of shifting to pay as led.
In 2016, various committees investigated and seasoned the idea of pay as led, and each committee discerned that we should and could make this radical change. As it happened, we had robust reserves to safeguard against the experiment being a bust. The Finance Committee was sure that we should follow NEYM’s lead and create an equalization fund, asking monthly meetings to contribute to that fund the amount they usually spent to support people attending the annual gathering. The registrars had ideas for how to edit our online registration program so that Friends could have some concrete ideas of actual costs to consider as they sought their way. Friends also wanted to make it much easier for Friends who wanted to donate to the effort. A well-seasoned proposal emerged.
The approval of this proposal was minuted in the winter 2017 meeting of our Representatives Committee and sent to the annual gathering’s plenary meeting for worship for business in June 2017. In the meantime, the clerks had some explaining to do. Now the presiding clerk, I wrote letters to every monthly meeting clerk which explained the proposal. I arranged to have available many copies of the December 2015 Friends Journal article “An Experiment with Abundance” by John Humphries and Kathleen Wooten for Friends in advance of our business meetings, so they could learn about the experience of New England Yearly Meeting. Information about pay as led was included with registration materials, and various committee clerks held conversations at mealtime during the gathering. We answered questions, listened to concerns, considered the possibilities.
Friends spoke of taking this leap of faith because this is what we should be doing for our community.
The theme for the IMYM annual gathering in 2017 was “About Money: A Call to Integrity, Community, and Stewardship.” Pamela Haines from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting led us to think about issues of money in our personal lives, in our nation, and in global inequalities. The conversations around the theme provided a perfect backdrop for our consideration of changing how we finance our gathering. When shifting to pay as led came up on the agenda for the meeting for worship for business, Friends spoke of taking this leap of faith because this is what we should be doing for our community. Friends spoke of their concerns that some might take advantage of the offer. Our need to be attentive to how pay as led played out was underscored. Some Friends simply believed the money would take care of itself. In the end, we came to unity: let’s experiment with this new way of funding our gathering.
We now have the balance sheet for our first year. We came within $5,000 of breaking even, or about 4 percent. This is well within the tolerance range for our bold experiment. We had 11 percent more attenders at the annual gathering, 51 percent more newcomers, and 55 percent more young adult Friends who came and contributed. In their evaluations, Friends commented that pay as led either made a positive difference to them or no difference at all. The treasurer and the registrars are brimming with ideas for clarifying, streamlining, and making registration and accounting simpler. I call that a successful first year. IMYM will continue with pay as led for the foreseeable future.
In a recent video conference with other western yearly meeting clerks, registrars, and treasurers, set up by Mary Klein of Western Friend magazine, I learned that others, too, had struggled with making the annual gatherings affordable. North Pacific Yearly Meeting had tried pay as led, which they call “abundant financing,” and had been happy for the change. They increased their reserves because Friends were so generous.
During our video conference, we shared ideas about how to improve our mechanisms for registration, and we emphasized the importance of providing opportunities for Friends to study the philosophy/theology of pay as led and also its brass tacks. Mostly though, we shared our joy and surprises. Although not a solution to all that concerns us, pay as led made it easier to expand our beloved communities. We are excited to continue with pay as led, curious about where we will be led as individuals, as yearly meetings, and as a religious society.