There are not many people who know George Schaefer and do not turn to him for wisdom, or for a much-needed and deft delivery of just-in-time Quaker advice and knowledge. This has been true on PYM staff, at every Annual Sessions, in crisis situations, and for those moments of song, fellowship, and joy that come our way as Friends in community.
Within the PYM Monthly Meetings he’s been part of (Abington and Radnor) he’s served as a gifted, nimble, clerk. George is also one of the Faith’s leading experts on Quaker practice, and a person who knows a good cup of tea, the perfect haiku, and how to wrestle a beautiful chord from a guitar. The interview that follows, and minutes of appreciation we include, capture a bit of the magic that George brings to us all as he looks ahead to retiring and serving the community in new ways in 2022.
Interview with George
Q: Since you started at PYM in 2009, you have been covering pastoral care, aging issues, granting, and conflict resolution at monthly meetings. How has that work changed over time; how has it impacted you and your personal faith?
I started at PYM in February of 2009 in my current position of Care & Aging Coordinator–which at the time was a new position created out of staffing changes and membership needs. But, I had been working on care or aging issues already for three years, since 2006, when I joined the Friends Counseling Service (FCS) to and began providing social work support to FCS clients (many of whom were on the verge of becoming homeless).
In the late 1980’s I had been the clerk of the PYM Working Group on Homelessness and had spent the early part of my social work career serving homeless persons struggling with housing and behavioral challenges in New York City. This service was a concern which began when I was a member of 15th Street Friends Meeting, in NYC, over forty years ago.
As Care & Aging Coordinator, I help support meetings in their pastoral care function, which includes addressing financial support for aging Friends provided by PYM. From 2010 to 2012, I worked with Tricia Coscia, she was the PYM Aging Resources Coordinator, to create the Quaker Aging Resources program which includes a library and a website addressing aging from a distinctly Quaker perspective. I think both of us were extremely proud of this work.
Q: You have a background in mental health counseling and social work; how does that background relate to the needs that Friends and meetings have for pastoral care?
Whenever people gather with an expressed religious intention, like a Friends Meeting they create an emotional system. And, for a Friends community to flourish, a kind of spiritual intimacy is required if it is to provide the healing and growth that most of us are searching.
I like to say that after a short while everyone’s spiritual condition becomes apparent. And, responding to each other’s condition with care and compassion when the challenges of life present themselves is the function of Quaker pastoral care.
Q: In addition to your work at PYM, you’ve always continued your work as a counselor with clients outside PYM. Does your faith make that work easier? Do you find that being a Quaker somehow feeds your professional life in and outside PYM?
Absolutely! Helping people cope with physical and emotional trauma as a counselor is very challenging. Worshiping with Friends on a regular basis has been a tremendous source of emotional strength and spiritual renewal for me. Turning to spirit for guidance and finding wholeness and unity with others in community for me is essential.
I honestly don’t know how folks can do this work without having some form of spiritual practice as part of their lives.
Q: PYM delivers a significant amount of care and aging assistance within the Quaker community; how are you part of that process and how does it work?
That can work in several ways. Sometimes, I am contacted by members of the pastoral care committee at a meeting with a concern about a member. Other times, I am contacted by Friends directly with a need or a concern.
My part in the process is to help clarify the need and then to initiate the application process to an appropriate source of support, such as the Greenleaf Granting Group or the Aging Assistance Granting Group. Of course, the approval of applications and requests for assistance are made by the granting committees which are composed of PYM member volunteers. In addition to supporting the application, it is my job to provide staff assistance to the committees as they make their determinations.
Q: On PYM staff, along with other members of the Community Engagement Team, you occupy the knowledge center of our faith. Can you give some examples of how knowing the history and practices of Quaker faith changes the trajectory of your work with Friends? Is it a comfort to know so much?
I think understanding how Quakerism started and how it has developed over the past three hundred and fifty years—the broad swept of our historical story—provides valuable insight into how best to respond to our current concerns and witness.
It is important to remember that as Friends, we have addressed spiritual, organizational, and cultural challenges in the past and through what I call the genius of the “Quaker Polity” we have survived and even thrived. So, I see Quakerism as an evolving response, a continuing revelation of Truth and Love rooted in the Christian tradition. Quaker spirituality has an eternal or perennial quality to it.
Q: If there were such a thing as an essential bibliography of books that Friends should read, what would be on it?
I don’t know if there is one essential bibliography of books that Friends should read.
My reading started with George Fox’s journal and then Barclay’s Apology. These contrasting literary and theological styles were confusing to me as a young seeker.
Then I discovered John Woolman’s Journal and it opened my eyes to a devotional faithfulness within Quakerism that continues to move me. Today we are witnessing a flowering of Quaker historical interpretation and spiritual writing by Friends that is wonderful and welcoming.
The recent writings of Douglas Gwyn, Rex Ambler, Rachel Muers, Marty Grundy and Ben Pink Dandelion are accessible, and I would say essential for understanding this present moment in Quakerism.
Q: You are a reader of poetry, philosophy, and history. How does all that match with the Quaker faith and your work at PYM.
Quakers have always been in dialogue with the spiritual and intellectual and literary currents of their times, however much our “particular people” tag may seem to deny it.
In the late eighteenth century, Friends developed an approach to helping persons with serious emotional problems that was called moral treatment. This approach was strongly influenced by ideas from the French enlightenment and European rationalism. It has always been important to Friends to be engaged with the world.
Quakerism has often described as a religion which centers its inquiry—its seeking—around consciousness itself.
In this way, Friends have been interested in the development of humanity as expressed in philosophy and science, and more recently, the arts. I think my own interest in cognitive science and meditative approaches to consciousness reflect this tradition.
The one thing I enjoy so much about contemporary poetry is the shift in consciousness required to understand it. Like Meeting for Worship, we are asked to decenter our ‘selves’ and enter into another way of knowing. I find this to be fun.
Q: Looking ahead, what is next for you? What about at PYM — where do you think the Quaker Faith will take us?
I will certainly be around, and I hope to continue to serve our Yearly Meeting. I will be rejoining the Friends Counseling Service in 2022 and am planning on being a Resource Friends in Ministry & Care which includes aging resources.
The Quaker faith that I’ve experienced as formative was rooted in a mid-20th century American world view. This view assumed certain privileges and fundamental rights about how society should be ordered and governed. Much of this is rapidly changing and mostly for the better.
I like to say that the 21st century started for Quakers in 2010 with the collapse of the post-WWII economic boom and the shrinking of the middle class. The global pandemic has also pushed us into the new century and is a reckoning of sorts with the effects of economic globalization.
I think Quakers have much to offer a changing world as we confront the challenges created by our history. The Quaker faith will continue to evolve, to be engaged with the world, and to offer it a way of finding a stable center within each one of us which can guide our actions in ways that promote love and peace and understanding.
Q: Looking back, what accomplishments during these 15 years give you greatest satisfaction?
Certainly, the creation of the Quaker Aging Resources website was a significant early accomplishment as well as a series of webinars I developed in 2013 on issues of aging and spirituality.
Interestingly, I also conducted a series of talks on Friends and aging at some of the area Continuing Care Retirement Communities and found the connections with older Quakers and others in these communities quiet inspiring.
It led me to a greater understanding of the concept of ‘gero-transcendence,’ the idea that as we age, we can become wiser and more peaceful or as Friends might say, we grow into a greater awareness of the Light as we connect with the generations that have come before us and support the generations that are rising.
I had the pleasure of meeting many older Friends who appeared to be beacons of serenity and compassion. They have inspired me to learn more about this idea in my own retirement. It has been a gift given.
I would also have to add as an accomplishment my work with trying to revive the concept of “eldership” among us liberal Friends. And, it has not been one without struggle.
But, as I see it, many of the difficulties meetings find themselves in can be through a profound misunderstanding of Quaker leadership. We are actually ‘called to provided loving assistance’ to each other, and that kind of assistance in the form of thoughtful ‘edlering’ can help foster spiritual growth and wholeness.
As Friends we talk about the communal nature of our worship, but does this communal experience extend to the growing edges of our spirit journey? I think it does. I am happy that a new generation of leaders is rising to the calling of Quaker eldership in our Yearly Meeting.
Quaker Life Council Minute of Appreciation for George Schaefer
George Schaefer of Abington Monthly Meeting has served as Care & Aging Coordinator on the Staff of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for over ten years. He will retire at the end of 2021.The PYM community has benefited powerfully from George’s gifts of eldership, relationship, and teaching ministry.
His work has formed the foundation of our approach to addressing conflict, mental wellness, and spiritual deepening through the elaboration of Quaker tradition and Friends decision-making processes. George has ably stewarded the care and support of aging Friends, the Friends Counseling Service, and the burgeoning communities of practice in aging and ministry and care.
Throughout his tenure and the PYM community, George has been regarded warmly as a source of wisdom. With deftness, he has lovingly guided many individuals and groups in times of struggle and crisis. The PYM office’s mailboxes continually overflow with thank-you cards addressed to George. He has become the ostensible dean of PYM staff, often providing the imperative, “glue,” as it were, of mutual accountability in the staff community.
We hope that his gifts will continue to benefit us in other ways after retirement, and we hold George’s legacy with overflowing affections as he begins his next chapter.
— Approved by the Quaker Life Council on Seventh Day, November, 2021
George Cares! QLC Ministry and Care Committee Minute of Appreciation for George Schaefer
Members of the Ministry and Care Committee of Quaker Life Council settled into worship during the committee’s regular meeting on 15 of 11th month 2021. to lift up ministry about George Schafer in anticipation of his retirement at the end of 2021.
George Cares! Even those who are new to their relationship with George are struck by his gentleness and tenderness, echos of the spirit some Friends experienced in Bill Tabor. Although George is deeply knowledgeable about Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and its services, the real service is George himself as he brings information deeply grounded in Spirit and held with love.
Friends experience George as generous, responsive and relevant in addressing the needs brought forward by Meetings, particularly with regard for care of those who are aging and also for pastoral care needs of the meeting as a whole. He is well and deeply grounded in Quaker history and in the history of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and shares that knowledge with both humor and a calm spirit. George has been a presence anchoring staff and volunteers alike with the deep love and reverence he carries for individual Friends and Friends’ practices and institutions.
George will be much missed in the many roles he has served at PYM. We are comforted by the knowledge that although he is retiring, he will still be among us and we will continue to profit from his presence.
— Compiled by Jean-Marie Prestwidge Barch, clerk, on behalf of the committee.
Photo of George Schaefer taken on Pendle Hill in August 2018 – by Grace Cooke