The Meaning of Membership
The Religious Society of Friends is a community of faith based on experience of a transforming power named many ways: the Inner Light, the Spirit of Christ, the Guide, the Living God, the Divine Presence. Membership includes openness to an ongoing relationship with God and willingness to live one’s life according to the leadings of the Spirit as affirmed by the community of faith. For generations of Friends, membership has been an outward sign of an inward experience of Christ, the “true light which gives light to everyone” (John 1:9).
In Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Friends gather to worship in stillness, waiting upon the Divine Presence. From this have come revelations of the love and guiding will of God, revelations inwardly experienced that may be shared in words with others present and expressed in attitude and action. Participation in this form of worship is intrinsic to membership, since ours is above all an experiential religion. Friends do not require acceptance of a creed as a test of membership, believing that no creedal statement can adequately describe spiritual reality.
Membership establishes a commitment. It means that for each member the Religious Society of Friends provides the most promising home for spiritual enlightenment and growth. It commits a person to the daily pursuit of truth after the manner of Friends and commits the Meeting to support the member in that pursuit. Membership includes a willingness to live in spiritual unity with other members of the Religious Society of Friends.
Members are expected to participate in communal worship, to share in the work and service of the Society, and to live in harmony with its basic beliefs and practices. Membership entails readiness to live as part of the monthly, quarterly, and yearly meeting. Specifically, this means participation in meeting for worship, meeting for business, committee work, and giving time, skills, and financial support to Meeting activities such as religious education, pastoral care, and witness to the broader community. Since Friends reject the distinction between clergy and laity, responsibility for the full range of Meeting activities rests with the membership.
Friends Meetings are often visited by people from other religious backgrounds or with no religious ties. All visitors should be made welcome, with continuing attention given to those who return frequently and become regular attenders. Meeting members should endeavor to get acquainted with attenders and be available for spiritual support and guidance. Some Meetings have committees concerned specifically for the care of visitors and attenders.
The Meeting should invite regular attenders to participate in its life, recognizing that they may become members. They should be made familiar with Friends’ way of worship, manner of conducting business, organizational structure, finances, and major spiritual and historical writings, as well as Friends’ periodicals. They should be encouraged to attend business meetings and, at the discretion of the monthly meeting, to serve on committees. Attenders should also be urged to attend sessions of quarterly and yearly meeting and gatherings of Friends General Conference. Information about groups such as the American Friends Service Committee, Friends Committee on National Legislation, and Friends World Committee for Consultation should be made available. All regular attenders should be provided a copy of Faith and Practice.
Attenders who seem nourished through their involvement with the Meeting, are comfortable with Friends’ basic beliefs and practices, and understand the responsibilities of membership, should apply for membership. The Meeting, for its part, should encourage such attenders to apply.
Before attenders apply, they may find it valuable to discuss their spiritual goals and concerns with Friends in whose wisdom, experience, and personal sympathy they have confidence. These Friends will guide the attender in deciding whether he or she is ready to apply or should first become more familiar with the Religious Society of Friends.
Application for Membership
The monthly meeting is the final authority in all matters concerning an individual’s membership. A person joining a monthly meeting becomes thereby a member of a quarterly meeting, the yearly meeting, and the Religious Society of Friends. There is no membership in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting other than membership in a particular monthly meeting.
Attenders who apply for membership should do so in a formal request to the clerk of the monthly meeting, stating why they are moved to join the Religious Society of Friends and relating briefly their response to Friends’ beliefs and practices. The clerk may share such requests with the Meeting and then refer them to the overseers, or may refer them directly to the overseers, who in either case promptly appoint a clearness committee to visit the applicant.
The clearness committee should undertake this visit as a serious responsibility both to the Meeting and to the applicant. The visit should take place in an atmosphere of openness and caring so that both the committee members and the applicant feel comfortable in exploring fundamental questions of religious belief and practice and the responsibilities involved in membership in the Society. Some questions the committee might ask are:
- What are some milestones in your spiritual journey? How do you expect membership in the Meeting to help you in this journey?
- What gifts do you believe you might bring to the Meeting community? In what ways would you like to share your time and talents with the Meeting?
- How familiar are you with Friends’ beliefs and practices? Are there some in particular which attracted you to Friends? Are there some you find puzzling or disturbing?
- Are you comfortable with a Society whose unity of spirit coexists with a diversity of beliefs? Are you prepared to join a Meeting family which includes people whose perspectives may differ considerably from yours?
- Have you weighed the Queries and Advices? Does their guidance speak to you?
- How closely are you in harmony with Friends’ testimonies? With Friends’ work for social justice?
- Are you prepared to suffer (as Friends have done) if God calls you to take actions which are difficult, unpopular, or even contrary to the civil laws?
- Do you understand the relationship between the monthly, quarterly, and yearly meeting? Are you aware of and willing to meet our expectation of financial support for programs, services, and facilities at these three levels of our organizational structure?
The clearness committee needs to be prepared to respond faithfully to a wide range of questions that the applicant may ask. The applicant should be encouraged to share expectations concerning the Meeting and the significance of membership.
Applicants who are members of another religious body are expected to give up that membership as they join the Meeting, formally advising the other organization of their intent to join the Religious Society of Friends, and endeavoring to obtain a letter of release from their previous religious affiliation.
If the overseers approve the application, they recommend acceptance to the monthly meeting. Action may be postponed until a later session to give time where needed for members to become well acquainted with the prospective member.
If the monthly meeting approves the application, it records the acceptance into membership and appoints two or more Friends to welcome the new member.
While the desire of an attender to become a member is generally a cause for rejoicing, the overseers should not hesitate to advise the Meeting to postpone acceptance or even to reject an application if there is good reason to do so, such as an applicant’s inflexible disagreement with some significant aspect of Friends’ religious practice or belief. In cases where the overseers recommend postponement of a decision and the Meeting agrees, the overseers should keep in sympathetic touch with the applicant, explaining the reason for the hesitancy and seeking to help remove it. If and when the overseers judge the applicant to be ready for membership, they should encourage the Meeting to reconsider and accept the application.
If a person whose residence is remote from Meetings of Friends wishes to become a member, the monthly meeting should consider carefully whether the applicant’s needs, as well as those of the Meeting, will be served by membership in absentia. Quakerism grows as we give and receive within a living community. It may help to recommend participation in the Wider Quaker Fellowship rather than membership in a particular monthly meeting.
All children from birth to maturity need to feel themselves full participants in the fellowship of the Meeting, to be nurtured in their spiritual development and their understanding of the faith and practice of Friends, and to be guided and encouraged in preparation for Quaker adulthood. The Meeting should sympathetically help children prepare for the decisions they must face, such as those regarding cultural conformity and military service. As they mature, if they have received this care from their Meeting, they will become increasingly conscious of the full meaning of the responsibilities of membership in the Religious Society of Friends and be ready to make their own decision regarding membership. Growing up in a Meeting offers children an extended religious family. It is the Meeting’s joyful responsibility to provide an atmosphere of care, love, and recognition—in short, a spiritual home—for all young people in the Meeting, regardless of their membership status or that of their parents.
A monthly meeting’s approach to membership for children should promote the goal of a Religious Society of Friends made up of members by mature convincement. Some Friends believe the process of nurture of the young toward mature convincement is aided by a child’s sense of belonging fully to a Meeting, a sense that comes only with membership. Other Friends believe the process is aided by a status of associate member that calls for a child to make an assertion of mature convincement when ready to do so. Still others believe that any form of involuntary membership limits a child’s freedom to choose. Monthly meetings are encouraged to respect parents’ sense as to what is best for their children.
Thus, either on their own initiative or in response to an inquiry from the Meeting, parents who are members may, at the time of their child’s birth or adoption or later:  request membership for their child;  request associate membership for their child;  not request any enrollment for the child. If the parents are members of different Meetings, the parents decide which Meeting records the child. When only one parent is a member, children may be recorded upon the request of one parent and with the permission of the other or, under unusual circumstances, upon the request of one parent. Where there is only one legal parent, that member may request membership or associate membership for the child. Meetings are urged to recognize the diversity of family patterns and be sensitive to the concerns of all involved.
Parents requesting membership for their child should intend to raise the child as a Friend in a Meeting community. The parents and the Meeting should help the child to grow gradually into the responsibilities of membership, and should encourage the child to take on specific responsibilities when ready. The meeting has an obligation to those recorded as members at a young age to ensure that as they reach adulthood they are aware that they should thoughtfully consider their own commitment to membership.
Associate membership is available only to children. It carries with it the full responsibilities and privileges of membership up to age 21. (For yearly meeting statistical purposes associate members will not be recorded after their 21st birthday.) Associate members, when they are led, may request full membership. The monthly meeting should encourage associate members nearing the age of 21 to apply. If an associate member does not take this step by the age of 21, that person’s name will be dropped from membership. If an associate member is not clear by that age about applying and is dropped from membership, it is the Meeting’s responsibility to continue a caring relationship. Such a person may be encouraged to apply for membership when ready.
A person may apply for membership in a Meeting at any age, following the procedure set forth above. Meetings are urged to show a loving flexibility which recognizes the uniqueness of each person’s spiritual growth. Some people are spiritually ready for membership early in their lives; others are ready only as adults. In the case of younger applicants, it may be desirable to ascertain the support of the parents or guardian.
Transfer of Membership to Another Meeting
Friends who live at a distance from their own monthly meeting but near another will do well to transfer their membership to the nearer one unless there is some very special reason not to do so. Residence in the vicinity makes it possible to enjoy the benefits, and to carry out the responsibilities, of membership in a particular Meeting. Inability to participate in the life of one’s own Meeting means a loss to both the individual and the Meeting. A member of one monthly meeting who moves to the area of another is normally accepted as a member of the Religious Society of Friends and welcomed into membership.
Pending transfer of membership, both Meetings should cooperate in discharging their responsibility toward the member.
Duties of the monthly meeting from which the member is moving
To initiate the transfer of membership, Friends who have moved away from their Meeting should apply to that Meeting for a letter of transfer to a Meeting near their new place of residence.
When a monthly meeting receives such an application for transfer, the overseers should, unless there is a strong reason to doubt their member’s willingness to contribute to the life of another Meeting, prepare in duplicate a letter of transfer, recommending the Friend to the care of the Meeting to which transfer is requested.
If the monthly meeting approves the application for transfer, the clerk should sign the letter, the principal copy being forwarded to the receiving monthly meeting, the duplicate being retained for the records.
When the Meeting issuing the transfer receives acknowledgment that the new Meeting has accepted the Friend into membership, the original Meeting terminates the Friend’s membership, noting its action in the minutes.
Duties of the monthly meeting to which the Friend is moving
The clerk of the monthly meeting to which a member is being transferred should acknowledge receipt of the letter. Then the clerk should refer it to the overseers who should recommend action to the monthly meeting. If there is ground for serious objection to the transfer, the letter should be returned to the Meeting which issued it. If there is no objection, the monthly meeting should accept the transfer and record the Friend as a member, sending information to that effect to the issuing Meeting, to which the Friend in the interim has continued to belong.
Following a transfer, the monthly meeting should appoint one or more Friends to welcome the new member, including an invitation to attend meetings for worship and business, serve on committees, and share in the financial support of the Meeting.
Duties of the recorder concerning letters of transfer
The recorder should keep a list of all letters of transfer issued and accepted by the Meeting. The accepting Meeting’s recorder should notify the yearly meeting of the new member.
On occasion, Friends request a transfer of membership for reasons other than a change of residence. The procedure noted above applies in any case.
Friends may attend a monthly meeting because they have moved temporarily into its vicinity, but may not wish to give up membership in their home Meeting, to which they expect to return eventually. Their desires in this regard should be set forth in a minute from their home Meeting. Such Friends are listed as sojourning members of the Meeting they attend. Sojourning Friends may fulfill all functions that they are willing to undertake and that the host Meeting sees fit to assign to them. However, they should not be counted in the statistical reports of the host Meeting. Their sojourning membership ends when they leave the area of the Meeting where they have sojourned. Its clerk should then notify their home Meeting. Those who continue as sojourning Friends for an extended period should be asked to examine their reasons for remaining in that status, and to consider a transfer of membership.
Joining Other Religious Bodies
If members wish to leave the Religious Society of Friends and join some other religious body, they should notify their monthly meeting. The monthly meeting may give them a letter stating their good standing in the Religious Society of Friends. When they have been received in membership by another religious group, their membership with Friends shall cease.
Requests for Dual Membership
Membership is a major commitment to participate in a particular community of Friends, and full participation in two religious bodies at once is usually impractical. Except in unusual circumstances, a member of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting belongs to a particular monthly meeting and should not hold membership in any other religious body, including another monthly meeting.
Termination of Membership
Resignation by the individual
Members may find that they are not in accord with the faith and practice of Friends or do not feel led to be involved actively in a monthly meeting over a significant period of time. They should seek the advice of the overseers or of others in the Meeting in whom they have confidence and try with their help to examine their own beliefs and practices and the reasons for disagreement or uninvolvement with Friends. If no resolution results, they may resign from the Religious Society of Friends in a letter to the clerk of their Meeting.
When a member resigns, the Meeting is not absolved from further care. A committee appointed either from overseers or from the Meeting at large should visit the Friend, inquire in love and forbearance into the cause of the resignation and, if appropriate, endeavor to bring the member back into the fellowship of Friends. A resignation may be accepted without appointing a committee when the Meeting is already well acquainted with the case and is satisfied that the member’s decision will not be altered by friendly efforts.
When the Meeting accedes to a member’s decision to resign, a minute should be made stating that this Friend is released at his/her own request. The individual should be informed of this action and is no longer a member of the Religious Society of Friends.
Letters written in acceptance of a resignation should always manifest a considerate regard for the person leaving membership.
Release by the monthly meeting
When a member disregards the obligations of membership and exhibits lack of interest or responsibility, fails to reply to communications from the overseers or others, or passes out of the knowledge of the Meeting, then being part of the Meeting is obviously of little value to that member. In such cases it is normally the task of overseers to attempt to restore interest and involvement. Under exceptional circumstances the monthly meeting may appoint a special committee for this purpose.
If continued efforts prove unavailing, the monthly meeting should make a minute noting the circumstances and recording removal of the individual from membership. The clerk of the Meeting should promptly send written notice of this action to the individual. Such notice should also remind the released individual that an appeal to quarterly meeting is possible; in such a case the quarterly meeting may be able to play a mediating role. It is, however, the monthly meeting’s responsibility to make the final decision.
In the case of a Friend whose actions seem out of harmony with the standard of conduct appropriate to the Religious Society of Friends, the Meeting, primarily through the overseers, may seek to renew the commitment of the member to Friends’ practice. If these efforts fail, and if the overseers believe that they can accomplish nothing further, they should report this to the monthly meeting, which may appoint a special committee to make further attempts to reach a satisfactory solution.
If all these efforts are to no avail, the monthly meeting should take steps toward removal of the Friend from membership. The overseers or a special committee should present in writing a proposed minute recommending such action. When the minute is received by the monthly meeting, a copy should be given promptly to the person involved, and action should be deferred to a future meeting. Friends toward whom the monthly meeting has acted in this way should be advised that they may explain their position to the monthly meeting in person or in writing.
If the monthly meeting subsequently believes that the membership of the Friend in question should be discontinued, the minute of removal should be adopted and the Friend notified of the action and of the potential mediating role of quarterly meeting. All dealings involving removal from membership should be handled with the utmost patience, forbearance, and consideration, for the sake of both the individual and the Meeting.
A person whose membership has been ended either by resignation or by action of the monthly meeting, and who desires to rejoin either the same or a different monthly meeting, may do so by following the procedure outlined earlier for application for membership.
Some persons may wish to retain membership in the Religious Society of Friends when, over a period of many years, they are not active in any monthly meeting. At its discretion, a monthly meeting may carry inactive persons on its membership rolls, while recognizing its obligation to report them as part of the basis for financial assessment by the quarterly and yearly meeting. Long-term nominal membership is generally discouraged, however, except when active Meeting participation is not possible because of poor health, residence far away from any Meeting (so that transfer of membership or sojourning membership is not feasible), or some other compelling factor.
Accurate information on the membership status of each member is kept by the recorder of each monthly meeting and shared with the quarterly meeting and yearly meeting as requested.