When you are a passenger in a car, you know that you will eventually arrive at the same place as the driver, but you might not pay much attention to how you get there. If suddenly you have to get behind the wheel, you might realize that you do not know as much as you wished you knew about your journey.
This experience is similar to the one Friends may find themselves in when asked to serve as clerk of a meeting committee. They may ask, how can I provide leadership that is rooted and grounded in our Quaker faith and practice?
Many meeting communities face the challenge of nurturing leadership among younger Friends, as older members are no longer able to accept such positions. Some older and seasoned Friends have moved to retirement communities, some do not drive at night or have other reasons for letting go of leadership roles.
My meeting, Abington Monthly Meeting, has relatively few members in the “young middle- age” category (40 to 60 years old) in leadership positions. We are faced with a demographic problem which is beginning to affect our ability to nurture the future leadership which will sustain our meeting community. Perhaps other meetings are in the same situation as Abington Meeting. I would like to share my experience and make some suggestions for meetings to address this issue.
We have many younger Friends coming to the meeting. The whole Quaker experience is totally new to some of them. Some have come from faith traditions where “Roberts Rules of Order” (parliamentary procedure) was the prevailing way to do business and a hierarchical ministry staff did most of the work. Others did not have any spiritual guidance or formation when they were growing up. It is a challenge to guide newer members from being “passengers” to being “behind the wheel”. We need to model their participation in committee work, and demonstrate the role of a committee clerk.
In my opinion, several things need to happen on the road to developing leadership. We need to help each person (adult and child), feel that they are socially included on many levels as a valuable part of the community, that they feel spiritually nurtured by the meeting in worship and that they understand the Quaker way of conducting business: making decisions which are rightly ordered and in keeping with our faith tradition.
Helping newcomers feel welcomed in the life of the meeting will be different for each monthly meeting. For example, having an extended coffee hour or a monthly fellowship lunch after meeting for worship allows a time to mix and mingle with the newer attenders and members. One small meeting in New Jersey finds that it works for everyone to go out to lunch after meeting for worship since they all drive a distance to get to meeting. Inviting newcomers and recent attenders to come home for lunch after meeting for worship would be another choice.
Some meetings organize “Friendly Eights”, which allow a small number of people to become better acquainted in the intimacy of someone’s home. Asking attenders to be greeters or help with a coffee hour or fellowship luncheon relatively soon after they start coming to meeting helps them feel that they belong and that they are making a contribution to the life of the community, another strong incentive for people to want to stay engaged.
As important it is to attend meeting for worship – the core Quaker experience – new members and attenders need to be spiritually nurtured beyond the meeting hour. They need a time when they can ask questions and enter into dialogue with others about their beliefs and explore the Quaker testimonies. Small discussion groups work best to accomplish this type of sharing. It is always helpful for a discussion group to include both those who are new to the meeting and those who have been in the meeting for some time. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting library has materials that provide guidance in helping small groups to get started, such as Quakerism 101. Pendle Hill pamphlets are a good source of topics for a discussion group.
The Religious Society of Friends has a unique way of doing business. Quaker decision-making that is “rightly ordered,” has to be learned by observation and experienced through participation. There is no substitute for observing first-hand how a clerk handles the agenda, how the minutes are crafted and how they sound, and how those present respond and contribute to the process of finding unity in their decisions. New members and attenders should be encouraged to regularly attend meeting for business. Some Friends meetings make attendance at business meeting a requirement of those seeking applications for membership.
The Pendle Hill pamphlet Beyond Consensus, Salvaging the Sense of the Meeting by Barry Morley provides a good explanation of how to do business, although his explanations cannot replace participation. Morley advises that each person can help the clerk in meeting for Business or the clerk of a committee by thinking “what is God expecting of me in this situation?” He emphasizes that we can and should be guided by the Light. He challenges Friends to be active participants rather than spectators. Barry Morley makes a clear case that the “sense of the meeting” is not the same as consensus. It is vital that new members attend meeting for business to truly grasp these concepts and to know them experientially.
The Nominating Committee can be important in this process of helping newer members feel included in the community. They can appoint less experienced members to well-run committees, knowing that while they are not as seasoned as others, they will have the opportunity to learn. An individual may not have considered participating unless invited to do so.
Serving on a committee is a good place to start observing “how things work” the Quaker way. Someone on the committee could assume the role of mentor to the new member to explain things when it is not clear what is happening and why. It always helps a new member to receive the agenda before the date of the meeting so they are familiar with the topics to be addressed.
When a committee works at its best it becomes a small supportive and nurturing community. The members get to know each other in a close and intimate way. In a healthy committee, differences of opinions are respected, all members share in the tasks and the committee can be a safe place to take risks and develop new skills.
Some committees carry more responsibilities in a meeting but all committees have a part in keeping the meeting functioning. Of course, there are detailed ways that each committee accomplishes its work. If the detailed work of a committee is written down, new committee members will have a better idea of what is expected of themselves and their committee and they can feel more helpful and effective. Information as simple as “where is the key to this closet” might be forgotten if it is not written down somewhere. More importantly, a less-experienced person is more likely to agree to be a clerk of a committee if they know that there is a guide book that they can consult.
The Care of Members Committee (formerly Overseers) of Abington Meeting has a wide variety of responsibilities. It also has several new and younger members. The clerk created a “Clerk’s Book” for committee members to serve as guidance for those who will have to get behind the driver’s wheel but have not observed all the details of how things are done. Some topics covered are committee responsibilities, matters relating to membership and marriage, agenda preparation, financial matters, age-related practices and naming committee, among others. It also contains samples of letters sent for various circumstances.
The Care of Members Committee has been using the clerk’s book for several years, with one update. This year, as clerk of the Care of Members Committee, I have experimented with a new model for clerking. I listed the many different tasks that this committee handles, and divided all of the individual responsibilities within the committee. Some involve much more time than others. After trying the new system for six months, the committee was asked how they felt about the new way the committee was working. They felt that it was a stronger committee with each taking a part of the leadership responsibility.
Now that we have tried this new system, I am confident that it will make it much easier for a new clerk or co/clerks to “get behind the wheel”, and drive in a manner which is rightly ordered and in keeping with good Quaker practice.
To be sure, not all comments and suggestions in this article will apply to every monthly meeting, but I hope Friends will find some of these ideas useful as they endeavor to foster Friends meetings which are welcoming, vibrant and sustainable.
Ruth Peterson is a member of Abington Monthly Meeting.
(Note: My thanks to George Schaefer, Care and Aging Coordinator, for his advice and guidance in writing this article.)