by Ellen Deacon
After the Worship and Care conference call on 2/7/17, I was asked to write some stories from our meeting’s spiritual life. (I serve on the worship and ministry committee at Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting.) Here is one about ways we seek to support spiritual deepening and learning among those in our meeting: our “Friendly companions” project, and our spiritual friendship groups.
Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting has been adding new members annually for a number of years. This growth seems to be created by a number of factors: location, our new building, the lively commitment of some meeting members to sustaining a thriving First Day school, our meeting’s ongoing commitment to serving community needs through the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network, among others. The increase in attendance has presented an opportunity and challenge for our worship and ministry committee as we think both about new seekers and also people becoming members.
Some of these new members are long-time attenders or are transferring membership from another meeting, and their transition into membership does not involve a lot that is new. By contrast, for those who are new to the Society of Friends, their convincement is only a beginning in learning what being a Quaker means to them. It occurred to our committee that these new Friends might welcome support for their early experience as members of our meeting. Likewise, long-time members of the meeting always have more to learn in our own spiritual journey as Friends, as well as much to share from their experience.
In this light, worship and ministry found itself led to create for new members the option of having a long-time member as a designated partner-in-learning-and-growing, as part of the follow-up to their being welcomed into membership. In addition to a welcoming committee who provide an evening of fellowship to celebrate the new member’s joining our meeting, we offer the possibility of a “Friendly companion.” One of our committee meets with the person to explain the process and explore who they know in the meeting who they might welcome doing this with. Once a pairing is set up, the two find their own way to building their purposeful relationship. It is hoped this will last for a year or even two, as seems helpful.
Some Friendly companions meet in person every month or two; others check in by phone or email. They are able to explore the new member’s questions and interests, and find ways to meet the needs that are revealed. It may be too obvious to state, but the seasoned member benefits and grows fully as much as their companion who is newer to Friends’ practices and activities. In one family, not only do the parents each have their own companion, but also their 10-year-old daughter, whose leading to join our meeting was so strong and clear, expressed in a letter she came personally to read to meeting for worship for business, that she has become a full member (with the option to re-examine her leading as she passes into adulthood). Her clarity of faith and intention inspired her parents to join as well. Each of these three new Friends have chosen their own Friendly companion. (A younger brother has simply accepted associate membership, as is more common with young people.)
This idea is relatively new, having been in operation only for the past two years or so, but results so far indicate that it is welcome and successful in its goal of supporting both companions to deepen their understanding and lives as Quakers.
Spiritual Friendship Groups
The idea of forming small groups of people within our meeting community for the purpose of sustaining and nurturing spiritual growth is not new. Indeed, our meeting found its way to this idea when we set up an all-meeting year-long program of spiritual growth with the help of the Spiritual Formation Working Group (as it was then called) from our yearly meeting. Only one of the small spiritual support groups which formed during that year has continued, and its membership changed some, but it is still active now after more than four years. And the idea has had “legs.”
The worship and ministry committee, which had coordinated the project of the Spiritual Formation year-long program, has continued to encourage people in our meeting to try being part of a spiritual friendship group. It has taken some trial-and-error, and persistence in inviting participation, but we now have four such groups in process. One of our committee who had been part of the spiritual formation work at the yearly meeting level was able to provide verbal and written guidance about how the group might use its time together. He is also available for check-ins when there may be problems or questions.
Because of the number of people who have shown interest, there has been opportunity for some affinity connections to be nurtured when the groups are formed. For example, we were able to provide, at one person’s request, a group expressly welcoming to Christ-loving people. One group is all women. At the same time, our groups all have a welcoming perspective, within the numbers that work (4-5 seems best).
Group participants do not need to be meeting members, and joining a group can provide welcome support to seekers in their process of learning and discernment. Having a place to connect deeply, in the Light, with no pressure toward a particular outcome, with complete confidentiality, is a precious gift in these troubled times. We are encouraged by the ongoing interest shown in having such groups within our meeting community.