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

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