PYM’s Crossroads with Young Adult Friends: Reflections from Outgoing YAF Coordinator

Young Adult Friends

By Sadie Forsythe

After four years serving as the Young Adult Friends (YAF) Coordinator for Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, this is my last day. In the drawn out, public debates about which positions to lay down in the wake of PYM’s budget shortfall, it has become increasingly clear that there is a widespread lack of understanding about why this position was important, or indeed what it was. I’ve been asked by several Friends, including YAF Working Group co-clerk Colin Bussiere-Nichols, to write about what my ministry with young adults has entailed in the last four years at PYM. This post is my attempt to address these concerns, with some commentary along the way about where we find ourselves now. I am not speaking for PYM, but from my individual experience in this post.

There is a lot I could say about young adult psychology, and why ministry focused specifically on nurturing young adults is relevant and vital in this time, I could draw upon my extensive study of literature and research, experiences of leading countless workshops & giving lectures, and listening to individuals and groups of young adults Friends, but not ALL of that will fit in this post. (You may wish to read my related article in the Spring 2011 issue of PYM Today entitled Why Bother with Youth and Young Adult Programs?) Without trying to make this an all-inclusive piece, I will just share what is on the top of my head as I reflect on this time.

If you want to skip the sections about what I have done in this job and just read my analysis of the current situation, move ahead to the section ‘So what’s next…’

The Call:

Before working at PYM, I served as Campus Ministries Associate at Earlham College, and then as Co-Coordinator of the Pendle Hill Young Adult Leadership Development Program, and also worked for the Experiment in International Living summer abroad program. I was already focused on supporting young adults as they found their voices and helping Quakerism feel relevant to them. I saw the opportunity to work at PYM as an experiment in what might be possible in other regions since there were so many YAFs in the PYM region that could potentially help build a Beloved Community.

The work:

I have come to describe this position as having three main components:

1) Advocacy – reminding Friends about the existence of young adulthood as a specific life stage that should be nurtured and attended to, and that carries specific needs, and encouraging YAF inclusion in MEANINGFUL roles in Quaker bodies…

2) Peer-oriented opportunities – bringing groups of YAFs (ages 18-35ish) together to experience the range of YAFs (across geography, age, and theological diversity) increasing connections and sense of one’s own identity through others example –whether in opposition or connection to others… This enhanced sense of identity enables deeper engagement in the wider Quaker community.

3) Accompaniment – Support for individual YAFs in their discernment, networking, pastoral care, helping them feel truly seen and heard, and supporting their leadership development…

So… what from those categories stands out in the last four years?

In my role advocating for young adults in PYM, I have worked closely with the PYM Sessions Planning Group, encouraging them to include YAFs in visible ways in both the planning and programming at Sessions. In 2010, I hosted and served as an elder for two young adult plenary speakers – Shane Claiborne & Noah Baker Merrill. For three consecutive years, YAF attendance at Sessions doubled.

I strived to remind Friends that there is not a monolithic experience among YAFs, since there are many life stages within the 18-35 age range. Not everyone within that age group self identifies as a young adult. Many have felt marginalized and unwelcome or unseen because of their age. Others have felt tokenized when they were recognized as reliable and engaged YAFs, and then invited to serve in way–too-many capacities at once, capacities that didn’t necessarily have connection with their gifts and leadings. Becoming recognized as someone who could speak up on behalf of these experiences has been an interesting experience.

I have been called upon by many Quaker organizations for insight on their ministry with young adults, whether they were expanding their YAF programming in the case of New York Yearly Meeting, Pacific Yearly Meeting, Canadian Yearly Meeting, and Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre; or discerning way forward with decreased financial resources for these programs in the case of Friends General Conference, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Pendle Hill, and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.

I had the formational experience of serving as a member of the Youth Ministry Committee of Friends General Conference, learning from others who were engaged in this work and forming deep relationships of mutual support. The committee met at Friends meetings around the country, providing workshops for the host meeting on building intergenerational community. Out of this committee’s work grew several resources, including recently published Built It! A Toolkit for Nurturing Intergenerational Spiritual Community. (You can read my review of the toolkit here.)

Peer-oriented opportunities:
I learned a lot through work across the branches of Friends, both as a liaison to other Quaker organizations focusing on their ministry with young adults, and in helping to organize cross-branch conferences for YAFs, including Living As Friends, Listening Within, the 2008 gathering in Richmond Indiana that brought together over 100 YAFs from across the US & Canada.

I collaborated with William Penn House in 2008 to organize Sustaining Our Spirit Led Service: A Consultation for Young Adult Quaker Professionals. There, YAFs had a safe space to share about their experiences of working for their faith community – the joys and struggles, especially addressing ageism. We spent time with older Friends who shared their wisdom on how to avoid burnout and seek balance while serving Friends.

Within Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, I supported the formation of the Young Adult Friends Working Group, working closely with and providing stability during the transitions between 4 different YAF WG clerks. We collaborated on many projects, including two well-attended YAF weekend retreats held at local meetings this year.

Supporting the witness of young adults, I organized opportunities for young adults attendees to come together throughout Heading God’s Call: A Gathering on Peace, the ecumenical conference hosted by PYM in 2009. And, in 2010, I supported PYM’s Middle East Working Group in organizing a YAF delegation to Israel and Palestine. (Read blog posts from the delegates here.)

I also hosted a series of Desert & Discussion Nights, bringing together YAFs for conversations around a specific theme. These opportunities supported my preparation for talks I was invited to give at Haddonfield Quarter on Reviving Our Meetings by Being Welcoming to Young People, and at Newtown meeting on Young Adult Friends and a Modern Quaker Revival. These discussion nights also gave me fodder for workshops and interest groups I led about building multigenerational holistic communities at PYM Annual Sessions, and FGC Summer Gatherings. I wanted to carry the voices and experiences of YAFs with me at these events. In these discussions we considered we considered why we felt welcome (or NOT) by meetings we attended over the years, and why we stayed connected or drifted away. YAFs found these discussions to be valuable opportunities to learn that they were not alone in their experiences. The other discussion that stands out most to me was on The Meaning of Membership. This was constructed in part as a listening session with PYM’s General Secretary, Arthur Larrabee, in follow up to the 2008 PYM YAF Epistle which shared:

“…YAFs spent time discussing what it meant to have a spiritual home. Many of us long to feel more visible and appreciated in our monthly meetings. The PYM Clerk visited with us for several hours. All appreciated this time of deep sharing about our journeys, and desire for deepened multigenerational community. We shared candidly with the clerk that YAFs are often not members of a particular meeting because we may have been away from our home meeting when our associate membership expired, or because we are too transient to ask for membership in one place at this time in our lives. The requirement of meeting membership for some committee service led us to consider how this may inhibit the full participation of some among us who are eager to serve. While acknowledging that some YAFs are already quite active in committee service, we would be excited to see even more involved in this way…”

Following that discussion night, Emily Higgs wrote an article in the Spring 2011 issue of PYM Today about how this experience brought clarity for her to become a member in Lancaster meeting.

I hosted a lecture and workshop series on Spiritual Discernment, in collaboration with FGC’s Traveling Ministries Program, and funded in part by the Friends Institute Grant. The lectures were open to all, followed by workshops for YAFs led by the speakers. (Podcasts of these Spiritual Discernment lectures are available here.)

The Spiritual Discernment series led, in part, to the revival of the William Penn Lecture this year, which, at my urging, this series is now under the care of the Young Adult Friends Working Group, honoring the history of young adults hosting this series in PYM.

I encouraged YAFs to write for various Friends publications to share their experiences more widely. I hosted many events soliciting submissions and then celebrating the release of Spirit Rising: Young Quaker Voices.

This year, I started the PYM YAF blog as a forum for YAFs to share reflections about their events, and individual ministry. I hope this will continue past my tenure here as it seems to be a great way to share stories, especially for those who don’t have a regular blog of their own.

I was invited to organize and moderate YAF panels in the Pendle Hill Summer Lecture Series on Discernment in 2010 and Faith in Action 2011. I was invited to speak, and discerned that I had plenty of opportunities to give talks, and wanted to lift up the voices of other YAFs, having had the opportunity to hear so many of their stories myself through this position. (A podcast of the 2011 panel is available on the Pendle Hill website.)

I collaborated with Stephen Dotson, PYM’s Middle School Friends Coordinator, in the creation of the Emerging Leaders Scholarship Program. This program supports YAFs leadership development within the PYM youth programs in return for scholarship assistance to attend Quaker events or professional development activities related to Quaker work.

I served as a link between many Friends groups to YAFs in the PYM area, through increased online communications to YAFs about Quaker events, jobs, and committees specifically seeking YAF involvement. I made individual contacts when I saw an opportunity that met the gifts of a specific YAF. I heard from many YAFs that they made important, sometimes life-changing, connections through these networking efforts.

I helped YAFs form clearness & support committees, find funding possibilities to support their leadings and ministry, and served as references in countless instances. Most recently, I walked along side Madeline Schaefer in the development of her new Quaker radio project: Friend Speaks My Mind. I helped Madeline think about how to frame her series, and connected her with Friends with various relevant expertise that proved influential in this project. We met multiple times to discuss her project, and exchanged countless emails. And then, joyfully, I got to help promote her project when it was launched! This is just one of countless stories of individual connection – the piece that has given me the most joy in this ministry among YAFs.

At PYM Sessions in July, YAFs held a listening session sparked by the decision to cut the YAF Coordinator position. YAFs shared many beautiful testimonies about how their lives were impacted by my work in this position. This was a moving experience for me after a process that had felt very impersonal and painful. In the months leading up to Sessions, I felt silenced as my position was removed, re-instated, and removed again in various drafts of the budget while its merits were debated by Friends on blogs. The decision to lay down this position completely, rather than proportionate reductions across other programs has been hurtful and alienating for many YAFs, as expressed in their 2011 Epistle. PYM is at a crossroads in its relationship with YAFs.

So what’s next?

There are conversations happening across Quakerism today about the shifting shape of young adult programming, and how to continue support for this transient population, with less financial resources. Because of this position, I have been privy to more of these conversations than many. I hope an opportunity will arise to bring together Friends from across North America who carry this concern, so that we can consider how to work collaboratively across organizations and regions as we move forward.

Even as institutional support for YAFs is waning in many cases, I am heartened by the independent projects are popping up. A group of YAFs have come together out of the YAF Consultation on Cross-branch Inter-visitation to envision an independent website that would serve YAFs across theological and geographic barriers, providing YA-specific resources and information and networking in a central digital location. (They are still seeking funding to move forward.) Similarly, a group of individual Friends are working on a new initiative called the Young Adult Friend Leadership Institute that seeks to increase YAF involvement in the governance of Quaker organizations. (An article about YAFLI is available in the Summer 2011 issue of PYM Today.) Quaker Voluntary Service is also relatively new and exciting Initiative. “QVS is a national network that supports and cultivates voluntary service opportunities for Quakers and affiliated individuals in locations throughout North America. … QVS intends to strengthen and nurture the Religious Society of Friends by providing transformational opportunities for individuals to live their Quakerism in an experience of direct service and faithful community…” I believe all three of these efforts have the potential to make a substantial impact in the ways YAFs feel connected to Quakerism, and I hope Friends will be led to support independent projects like these in tangible ways.

YAFs are moving to Philadelphia from other regions to join the growing and vibrant community of YAFs here. PYM has a unique opportunity to be in relationship with large numbers of YAFs in this moment in time if it chooses to be intentional about it. This COULD be an opportunity for YAFs to be increasingly engaged in local Quaker structures, including the yearly meeting, if Friends prioritize developing these relationships, and helping YAFs feel these structures are relevant in their lives. This COULD be an opportunity for PYM to strengthen its future, by strengthening its future leaders. OR we could slide backwards from the progress that has been made in the last several years and forget the need to intentionally make room at the table for this population, just as we do with other minority groups. I believe any level of staff support to link to this population will make a difference. Some Friends have debated the benefits of funding a reduced position at 1 day per week – but this could at least continue the communication functions linking YAFs to other Quaker entities… Regardless of my opinion, Friends within PYM now has some discernment to do about how to support and include YAFs without the designated staff support of a nearly full time position enjoyed in the last several years. The sustainability of any faith community depends on ensuring that there are clear and supportive paths to walk through every life stage as valued and contributing members of the community, so that individuals feel like their gifts are well used and don’t drift away.

Since so many Friends have asked what I will do next, I thought this was a good time to share as I leave that in leaving this job, I am beginning graduate studies in September at the UPenn School for Social Policy and Practice. I see this as an extension of the work I’ve been doing among and for YAFs, only seeking to expand the diversity of constituents I work with.

I want to conclude by saying that I have not, and could not have done this work alone, and I am grateful for the many volunteers, mentors, and colleagues who have been on this journey with me. Special thanks to my ministry support committee for their encouragement and deep grounding.

Young adults have been the leaders in many social and religious movements throughout history, including many influential times in our past as Quakers. I see that happening in exciting ways today, as YAFs call for renewal of spiritual accompaniment and accountability, seek deep authentic spiritual connections across differences, and use technology to share across boundaries of all types. As they said in sidewalk drawings at PYM Sessions, “PYM needs Young Adult Friends”. I look forward to witnessing the sustained vibrancy among this community, with hope that it will continue to influence the face of Quakerism.