Viewpoint: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Responds

In his article, “When Quaker Process Fails” (FJ, October), John Coleman presents to Quaker meetings and organizations an opportunity not to be ignored. It is an invitation to see ourselves as someone else sees us and to ask ourselves, in a spirit of self-examination and self-reflection: What can we learn? How should we be changing? As well, what doesn’t apply to us? In the article, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) is used as an example of poor Quaker process and although I might wish that some other Quaker organization had been chosen, it would be a wasted opportunity if we did not take advantage of the insight John offers.

Differences between Quaker corporations and Quaker meetings. John Coleman brings a passion for good corporate governance and a wealth of experience in the boardrooms of several of our nation’s largest corporations. I honor the insight and wisdom that he brings from this experience to our Religious Society of Friends. There are differences, however, between Quaker corporations and Quaker faith communities, “Quaker meetings” (monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings), that a fair analysis will acknowledge and appreciate. (In this piece, I will focus on Quaker meetings such as PYM). I don’t think that the differences between Quaker corporations and Quaker meetings mean that the Coleman analysis and principles are irrelevant to Quaker meetings, but I do think that the differences require thoughtfulness about how they may be applied.

Quaker meetings function first and foremost as faith communities. Quaker meetings are inclusive, welcoming all who come regardless of background, education or training. Quaker meetings are non-hierarchical and highly participatory, involving many in the governance of the community as a positive spiritual practice, and are often required by circumstances to invite members into leadership roles for which the person chosen may not have a great deal of relevant training or expertise. Quaker corporations, on the other hand, are often governed by carefully selected boards; they are able to select for the specific background, education and training they desire; and decision-making is limited to those chosen to be on the board, not a “whole community.”

I embrace many if not all of the principles which the article lifts up, but in my experience it is not always easy to apply these good principles to the governance structure of a Quaker meeting. I offer two examples out of my experience with PYM and some thoughts about future actions PYM might take.

Applying the principle of accountability. In recent memory, at PYM we’ve had the experience that a former treasurer reported to the yearly meeting for more than several years that we were running deficits that the organization could not sustain. This information was presented to a large number of members attending yearly meeting sessions (and at other times, Interim Meeting). The meeting and its committees had the authority to take action, but took none. So, who should be held accountable? The treasurer who did her job and reported to the governing body? Or the governing body or committees which took no action? Going forward, the thoughtful application of the principle of accountability invites us first to look at what we expect from our treasurer, a volunteer, so that the expectations of accountability can be clear, and then to look at the question of whether it makes any sense for decision-making authority for budgets and finances to be lodged with such a large body as the whole yearly meeting. My experience is that such a large body may not function well in the role of holding others accountable. I hope we will look at this question, keeping in mind the need for balance between an efficient organization, on one hand, and an inclusive faith community on the other.

A workable organizational structure. The article suggests that PYM’s organizational structure is unworkable and resembles a bowl of spaghetti. I agree that it often seems unwieldy, but again, in my view, there is a balance that needs to be maintained between the requirements of an efficient organization, on one hand, and a faith community whose purpose is to involve members in a wide variety of activities, often in the form of committees that do the valuable work of the organization. Going forward, I hope we will examine our committee and working group structure. I think there are ways PYM’s structure can be consolidated and simplified but I want us to be careful about the risk of eliminating meaningful opportunities for members to participate in the life of the meeting.

PYM’s response to the recent financial crisis. The article uses PYM as an example of poor Quaker process, citing our recent financial challenges. The article does not, however, report on the way in which PYM responded to the crisis. We did so with remarkable transparency, communicating in detail with all our meetings and members. A dedicated leadership team worked tirelessly to stabilize our financial structure. We adopted a three-year, sustainable budget. We have put into place new budgeting and financial responsibility practices. And we lifted up a caring spirit, mindful of the many worries, risks and opportunities our financial crisis presented.

Long Range Planning at PYM. There is yet another occurrence at PYM that is worth mentioning. A year ago, PYM established a Long Range Planning Group that has had the benefit of professional counsel. The group meets regularly and is charged with thinking freshly and strategically about PYM structures and practice, and with making recommendations to the yearly meeting about change.

In conclusion. The Coleman article identifies some good principles that need to be taken seriously. In their application, we need to be thoughtful about the differences between Quaker corporations and Quaker meetings, and patient with ourselves as we seek to make changes and put best practices in place.

Arthur M. Larrabee
General Secretary, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting

3 thoughts on “Viewpoint: Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Responds

  1. While a dedicated group of Friends has recently started to right PYM
    finances, the fundamental problem remains that PYM is too large for our
    dwindling membership. As a result, it sucks up energy and time that should
    be spent strengthening our meetings and reachng out to our neighbors, many
    of whom would be surprised and delighted to find out about our way of
    worship and our beliefs.

    Friends need to stop thinking that PYM is going to do it all for us. An alternative
    way of organizing is the Fair Hill Burial Ground which consciously decided not
    to incorporate itself under PYM’s care. The original members (of which I was one though I am no longer on the board) weighed the advantages and concluded that given our limited resources, we could either
    spend our time sitting on benches in committee meetings downtown or we could do valuable work in one one of Philadelphia’s most blighted corners. We chose the later.

    Our oversight is from the Philadelphia Quarter and from Friends foundations which review our budget and progress before granting us money.
    We have also recieved money from outside donors who like how we have transformed a derelict, historic burial ground to a serene place where neighbors and nearby school students can play, learn about the history of abolition and womens rights, grow food, and experience nature.

    Fair Hill has had ups and downs but its steady leadership has created an effective Friends presence in a neglected corner of the city. The wider Quaker fellowship gets the reflected credit.

    Instead of depending on PYM to “do” something for us, Friends with concerns might consider starting their project under the care of their own meeting or quarter and build from there. Lucretia Mott did not have grants from Yearly Meeting to create her ministry. She did not have a staff member doing her work for her. Getting back to that spirit would invigorate our meetings and the Quaker world.

  2. I and many other Friends in our Monthly Meeting as well as a neighboring MM are deeply troubled by the conduct of the Yearly Meeting’s leadership in relation to finance and by the YM’s evasive response. Those entrusted with leadership of the YM failed to tell YM members, for a period of several years prior to 2012, that restricted funds were being spent for purposes prohibited by the restrictions. The only people who knew about that impropriety at the time were the Treasurer and people with similar positions of leadership. To fail to disclose and address that fact in the response, and to blame “the faith community,” rather than those who actually knew those facts, is the height of arrogance and suggests a need for a forensic investigation.

  3. Fiscal discipline is and should be a fundamental value in the operation of any organization, and certainly in my mind – at least among Friends groups – ought to be standard practice. It seems to me to be sound and ethical operating policy to always make certain that a Quaker organization does not budget and spend resources that it does not have, at least without very publicly making such practice known in advance of the action. Further, if it is done – hopefully only for essential reasons – there needs to be a sound plan clearly in place to set things back in balance as soon as possible. This article and discussion raises very important financial issues which should we weighed VERY carefully, and I am grateful for the extensive thought it has provoked. Bruce B. Stewart, Head Emeritus, Sidwell Friends School, Washington, DC

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