Speaking to Our Members’ Conditions

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When I applied for membership in my first Quaker meeting, I was actively hostile to Christianity and the Bible. I told this to the Friends who served on my clearness committee, feeling that I should be honest about this for the process. Also, I later realized, I might have been putting them on notice that I would cause trouble—not consciously, but in effect.

But I wanted the meeting, and the meeting wanted me. My ex-wife (with whom I was on pretty good terms), my kids, and some of my closest friends were already members. The clearness process wasn’t quite a pro forma exercise, but nobody was surprised when the meeting accepted my application.

Then I proceeded to make good on my tacit threats. I harassed a Christian member for her vocal ministry. I acted to keep the First-day school from teaching my kids the Bible. I don’t remember anybody talking to me about my behavior, but maybe they did and I’ve blocked it out.

Several years later—against my will, more or less—I felt led to write a book of Bible-based earth stewardship theology. As I followed that leading, I regained the love of the Bible that I’d had as a teenager. I woke up to the harm I had been causing in my meeting and the wrongness of my militancy. And I developed a deep personal concern, born of my own experience, for how we approach membership and what membership means.

I do not fault my meeting or the Friends who served on my clearness committee. I am grateful that my meeting brought me in. But I wish they had said something like: Steve, we want your presence, your gifts, your spirit, but we’re a little worried about your attitude regarding Christianity and the Bible. As a meeting, we want to protect our worship and our fellowship from undue disturbance, so we ask that you labor with us some more about these feelings you have.

I would like to think that just being asked to work with the meeting on my attitude would have brought me around to a good state of mind right then and there. But I don’t think the meeting understood itself to be a covenantal community in this way. By “covenantal,” I mean a community in which members and the community have a mutual responsibility to each other for both nurture and correction under the guidance of the Holy Spirit: that the meeting’s role in one’s spiritual life includes active and loving engagement in our personal spiritual growth.

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Emily Provance has a great definition of this kind of covenant in her blog Turning, Turning: “we give ourselves to God and God, in turn, gives us to a group of people” (for God, I think it’s fine to substitute Spirit or Christ or whatever your experience is). I think there’s a third leg to this triangle of meeting covenant: the community then gives us back to ourselves. The meeting helps Steven become a more loving, more whole, more aware, and more fulfilled person.

In the first leg of this triangle, we give ourselves to God by turning toward the Light within us, toward our inner Teacher and Guide, because we want to be taught, guided, renewed, inspired, healed, forgiven, and be made more whole. We want to be raised up to our true and better selves, and we know we need help with all that.

In the second leg of the triangle, God gives us to community because God’s primary agents for this kind of transformation are our fellow humans. This is one reason we are joining a Quaker meeting: we don’t want to pursue the life of the Spirit alone.

Sometimes, we grow out of our faults as a gift of divine grace. I came to my senses through just such a gift of grace. In a sense, my meeting “got lucky.” We both missed an opportunity in my clearness committee and my subsequent membership to help each other grow.

Our clearness committees for membership should explore the meeting’s role in the applicant’s personal spiritual growth. And that means that the meeting itself must be clear about its role. It must be prepared to elder those who are walking disorderly.

But that’s just the disciplinary side of eldership. More importantly, the meeting should engage with its members as active nurturers of the Spirit. This means proactively helping members to clarify their personal spiritual practice, identify and recognize members’ spiritual gifts, and discern their leadings and ministries. In this way, the meeting gives us back to ourselves.

In practice, this means asking two sets of questions that may not be on the list that our clearness committees bring to the clearness process. The first set is about what we invite members to bring to the meeting; the second set is about what the meeting offers the members, and I do mean “offers,” not coerces.

We tend to be relatively clear about what we want from our members: the classic triad of time, talent, and treasure. In concrete terms, this means service on committees and money. We often don’t ask, however, for something even more important: for members to bring their spiritual lives to us.

This is the “us to God” part of the covenant triangle. Once we give ourselves over to our Guide, we can expect to be guided, and some of this guidance will be for the meeting. And, if we at some point act out of our shadow selves, as I did, this will invite some pastoral care.

So this first set of questions might include: What spiritual gifts do you think you bring to the meeting? Do you already feel led into some activity that we might call a leading or ministry? And there is another question worth asking: Do you have any negative feelings about religion that we should know about?

This leads into the second set of questions about what the meeting is offering the applicant with room for the applicant to share what they’re looking for. These questions should be considered by the meeting: Are we offering covenantal community? What does that mean for us? One possible answer could be proactive help with spiritual formation, spiritual nurture, discernment, and support for callings of any kind.

This second set of questions about meeting involvement need to arise organically from the first set of questions. But in general terms, they would try to bring the applicant and the committee to clarity about how involved the applicant wants the meeting to be in their spiritual life. The committee should clarify what the meeting is offering and its approach and practice of active spiritual engagement.

This, of course, assumes that the meeting is itself clear about its role and these practices. I’m afraid some meetings are not even clear what I’m talking about. Some might be thinking, Isn’t being a safe haven and a caring community enough?

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One area of meeting life brings all of this into clear focus: vocal ministry. In many ways, vocal ministry is the heart of our religion. It is the signature form of our spirituality as a community, a direct continuing revelation from the Spirit to the community channeled through its members. It is God giving God’s self to the community through us.

It could not be more important. Do our clearness committees for membership straightforwardly ask applicants whether they are open to the meeting’s engagement with their vocal ministry? Many meetings might share religious education resources and programs on vocal ministry, but what about personal spiritual mentorship or companionship, or even vocal ministry support groups? I would include eldering in this: Does the applicant understand that the meeting may request to labor with them if their ministry is inappropriate?

This would mean being clear about what “inappropriate” means. It also means having a unified culture of eldership in the meeting, such that the worship and ministry committee has a sense of the meeting’s support for this kind of eldership and some clarity about when it needs to be done, how, and by whom.

Even if the meeting has no such sense of the meeting about the eldership of vocal ministry, I still would not recommend sliding past this area of meeting life in the clearness committee conversations. I feel that the testimony of integrity requires that we say we are still working out how we elder vocal ministry, and so ask the applicant to discipline themself, to try to internalize the Quaker way of vocal ministry from the many resources given (rather than from the examples an attender may learn from in actual worship), and then to commit inwardly to bring Spirit-led ministry to the meeting. Of course, even saying this implies that the meeting understands itself to be a covenantal community in some way. I suspect that a lot of us don’t, either meetings or members.

Many of our members, I suspect, want their meeting to be a safe haven from the turmoil of the world, not a spiritual “gym” for personal transformation. They seek a safe community as a refuge from some prior unsafe community. They see our worship as a recharging station, as a place to get away from the demands of the world. They seek the silence, the peace, and the people—not the crucible.

On the other hand, most people seeking to join a religious community presumably do so because they think it will help them realize their higher selves, whatever that means to them. So how do the spiritual desires of seekers who come to us match up with how the meeting understands its relationship with its attenders and members?

Some of our meetings will need to operate on two channels at the same time. For the members who did not sign on for the kind of proactive spiritual nurture I’ve been describing, we need to respect their expectations and give them the safe haven they expect. In many small meetings, this may be everyone. But for those members who want more from their meeting, we should try to offer that, as well.

In the case of meetings that don’t provide a more substantial covenantal community, members wanting that will have to seek one another out and perhaps go elsewhere. We are out there—quite a few of us—feeling just as bereft in our home meetings but still needing community.

Christ-centered Friends and theistic Friends more generally seem to feel this need and this pain most acutely. I think this is because, for these Friends, religious life is about relationship. In a personal relationship with Jesus or with God, the stakes for faithful discipleship are much higher than for those of us for whom the Spirit is more of a “what” than a “who.” In more post-Christian meetings, Friends who share or even understand this kind of religious life can be rare.

Small spiritual support groups of all kinds are emerging all over the place, and if you’re feeling this need, there may be a critical mass of such fellow travelers in your geographic region, or at least online, who can speak to thy condition.

In the meantime, we might explore whether there is a calling to season our home meeting’s culture of eldership ourselves, so that it might at some time in the future be mature enough spiritually to meet the needs of those who seek covenantal community. The calling is all we need; the strength, the wisdom, the “how” will come if we are faithful. At least, that’s our faith.

One of the core missions of a meeting is to try to speak to our members’ conditions, to answer that of God in them, as God is trying to do. For we humans are the only agents here on earth that can serve the commonwealth of God. That’s what the meeting is for.

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Show notes and additional information about this video.

Steven Dale Davison

Steven Dale Davison is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, now living in central New Jersey. He is the author of the Pendle Hill pamphlet The Gathered Meeting and of the Quaker blog Through the Flaming Sword. He’s also published chapters in several Quaker books, including “Quakers and Capitalism: A History of Paradoxes” in Quakers, Politics, and Economics.

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