Johanna Jackson (she) is a member of State College Friends Meeting. She travels in the ministry with JT Dorr-Bremme, a Friend with a gift for eldering. They formed the Listening Project, a series of creative conversations rooted in love. Johanna writes about the spiritual community that sustains her, imagining how similar groups could help sustain others, too.
How do Quakers build strong, limber communities? How do we become relevant in 2050? I believe to answer these questions we need input from people across many different ages and lifestyles.
I am part of the Tuesday Worship Group, a peer support network that spans across several yearly meetings. We are all Friends ages 20-50. We work to support faithfulness with weekly worship-sharing. I believe that what we are doing is a new model among Friends. Our combination of worship-sharing and companionship may work for others, too.
The Tuesday Worship Group is small in number (4-6 Friends), yet we offer great richness to one another. We first tested out remote worship in November 2018, unsure if we would like it. In meeting, though, we found the courage and companionship that we needed. We decided to start meeting weekly in March 2019.
Later, two members of the group began to wonder if the barriers we’d faced in the Quaker world were happening to other people as well. JT and I started holding worship-sharing with many other Friends, mostly listening, and formed the Listening Project in 2020. The Listening Project is a series of creative conversations, rooted in love. From these interviews, we have learned much about the spiritual condition of Friends. What we had long suspected is true: many Friends under 55 are in need of spiritual peers. How do we help build community for younger Friends? Here’s a to-do list.
1. Find Spiritual Peers
I helped form this worship group because I needed peers on my journey. I was exploring new spiritual ground and had mentors, but no peers. My local meeting, deemed “medium to large” by Quaker standards, did not include anyone within ten years of my age. I continued like this for seven years. Then I met spiritual peers at the FGC Gathering in 2017. How revitalizing!
We need large gatherings like FGC to help people find their age-mates and travel mates. In our case, the Tuesday Worship Group was spread out across a wide distance. When we first started meeting, the average drive time between two houses was five hours. Some individual pairs lived closer than that, but it was rare. We spanned across four yearly meetings, but had only five members! That’s how far we needed to reach to find a core group. Offering scholarships to attend large gatherings, either individually or systemically, supports the future of the Religious Society of Friends.
2. Create Small Groups
In the past, as recently as the 1970s, Quakers enjoyed a boom of young people who supported and encouraged each other. Brian Drayton (On Living with a Concern for Gospel Ministry) talks about coming into spiritual maturity with a circle of other elders and ministers. Quakers I know, now in their 60s, recall potlucks and conversations with peers when they were in their 30s. As our numbers decline, younger Friends today need to reach beyond their local meetings to find that community of peers.
Small groups can help. We need new structures and alternatives to support Friends under 55. These include worship-sharing groups and networks, which can foster leadership in a new generation. The Tuesday Worship Group is one such group, but there are many models. The Three Rivers Meeting is a remote worship group. It focuses on reclaiming and reinventing Quaker practices for today. Other groups include spiritual friendship circles and a set of peer support groups recently sponsored by New York Yearly Meeting. We have an opportunity to intentionally build groups like these.
3. Find Similar Interests
At the Tuesday Worship Group, some of the power and intrigue, some of what makes it “work,” is that many of us carry leadings for the revitalization of Friends. One member described this as “breathing Life back into our communities.” We encourage each other, and are grounded in Quaker practice. This links our work to each other.
Our members are highly active in Quaker circles. They have served on FGC Planning Committees, attended retreats with the Alternatives to Violence Project, and clerked at their meetings. Some members have cofacilitated Powell House Youth Programs together. Many of us have completed spiritual deepening programs, including Marcelle Martin’s Nurturing Worship, Faith, and Faithfulness or School of the Spirit’s “On Being a Spiritual Nurturer” program. So we really care about Quakers and the Quaker cause.
The thing is, if we were left to do this work without spiritual nourishment, we would burn out fairly quickly. Having time to talk about life with people in our stage of life helps us continue and persevere. “I need connection to Young Adult Friends,” one member explained. “The group continues to provide that for me.”
4. Set Relationships at the Center
Our group has no committees. Instead, spiritual friendship is at the center. We develop those relationships through remote worship, though in many cases they started in person. I asked folks in the group how they first met. Many of us met through the FGC Gathering, Young Adult Friend networks, or New England Yearly Meeting. We also had mutual friendships through Powell House and New York Yearly Meeting. Large-group gatherings provided a spark in the loneliness.
5. Rely On Mentors
We have relied on a rich network of mentors who guide us. In some cases, several younger Friends are connected to the same mentor or elder. Almost all of us have had a strong, personal connection with Anne Pomeroy. In addition to Anne, we have many common elders. These include Martin Melville, Danelle Laflower, Christopher Sammond, and Marcelle Martin. These Friends have helped us integrate new gifts, persevere through challenges, and trust our instincts.
The beauty of these mentoring relationships is that they are reciprocal. One mentor told me: “To be able to walk with you is, I think, a lot of what I am called to do.” Another Friend reminded me: “All ministry is mutual.” We live in a world that’s shy on intergenerational friendships, but these are essential. They help us trust ourselves more deeply.
6. Release Old Structures
Although committees have helped people find friends in the past, that may not be the case for younger generations. Interviews through the Listening Project have shown me that older and younger Friends may have different relationships with committees. While older Friends might see committees as the heart of our collaboration, many younger Friends have difficulty connecting to them. People in the Tuesday Worship Group, for instance, are mobile. We move houses or towns about once a year. As a result, it can be difficult for us to bring our gifts into committees.
Inside our group, we keep things fairly open and unstructured. We tested out having a rotating elder in the group, someone who would help to hold space, but eventually let this practice go. We found that flexibility and openness served us more than structure. Our “business” is whatever is relevant and alive for that day. We support each other in ongoing projects. The Quaker structure we have most retained is the use of clearness committees.
We also released ourselves from certain ideas of what we would or wouldn’t do. For the first few months, we were unsure of our purpose and focus. We tried calling ourselves a Faithfulness Group, because we focused on individual sharing. But most Faithfulness Groups use a timekeeper, and we did not. We tested out being an Accountability Group, because we work to hold each other accountable. But our worship-sharing flowed beyond “accountability” to include fits of laughter, intercessions, extended worship, and a puppet show. “What are we?” a Friend asked one day in worship. “We’re the Tuesday Group. We meet on Tuesdays.” This gave us a new name and purpose – both of which were very broad.
In my research and Quaker ministry, I have met many younger Friends who are either blocked by the Quaker structure, or unenthusiastic about it. These Friends tend to value openness and fluidity more than procedures. In some cases, they are revising Quaker structures to become more fluid. At the Tuesday Worship Group, we value fluidity. We start at 7:30, but have no specific end time. People can arrive late or leave early. The Three Rivers Meeting has a slightly different goal. They’re committed to ending on time, but are ready to move into breakout rooms during worship for Friends who need pastoral care. We need new structures like these.
7. Embrace Transience
In today’s society, many young folks are very mobile. Transnational migration is a reality for many Friends under 55. Unlike in the past, when job announcements were posted locally, young professionals and parents are now moving across the US for sustainable work.
This is especially true in the Tuesday Worship Group. We have a total of eight current (or former) members. Of these eight, seven have moved houses or towns in the last year. Some people moved for work; others for relationships. Some people moved across time zones. Some people moved across town. We are a transient group!
This mobility can block us from leadership roles in the Quaker world. Quakers have a structure that assumes physical stability at its core. Want to make something happen at your Quaker meeting? Then join a committee. Committee work forms our business meetings; committee work has weight. Want to join a committee? Well, you’d better have a life that’s pretty stable. I remember once looking at a list of committee slots at my meeting. Many slots were open. Some of these roles ran for three years. Three years! I didn’t even know what job I’d be working in a year, let alone where I would be living!
I am not advocating to “abolish the committees,” but I do think we need some awareness here. Yes, we need institutional memory for pastoral care and group leadership. But if we insist on long-term commitments in order to contribute, we often miss the gifts of Friends under 55.
In the Tuesday Worship Group, we set up a different structure entirely. We built transience and mobility into the equation. Our goal is to support faithfulness. We commit to being as fully present as we can be, whenever we are present. This is a pledge we can renew each week, if we want. We do not have to join a committee for three years in order to bring something. This frees us up to contribute!
8. Focus on Gifts
In the Tuesday Worship Group, many spiritual gifts are present in our worship group. Here are a few gifts I see
Welcoming / Hospitality: being warm and inviting
Gentleness: compassion when someone’s in pain
Evangelism: bringing new folks in; enthusiasm
Eldering: accompanying people on their spiritual journeys
Discernment: having a sense of purpose or rightness before it forms
Exhortation: coaching someone as they navigate a challenge
Service: noticing small tasks, and doing those
(This list is inspired by Sara Beth Terrell.) I believe that a focus on spiritual gifts helps draw a community together. We can name gifts in each other. Different groups have different gifts present. These work together to form a unique kind of beauty.
9. Use What You Know
If you are forming a small community that it includes younger folks, take a look at the strengths and gifts they have. Many younger folks today have dialogue skills, antiracism training, or education on consent. These reflect the growing trends in our culture.
In the Tuesday Worship Group, all Friends present had learned about effective dialogue before joining the group. We gained this experience from community groups, college classes, and cooperative housing before – mostly secular spaces. We also gained tools from the Alternatives to Violence Project and Friends Couples Enrichment, both Quaker groups. This experience helped us prevent dominators and share the space. We could meet without a timekeeper, because we were aware of how much space we were taking up.
As American society changes, young people may have a number of opportunities to learn about dialogue first-hand. We might gain an awareness of “when to step in, when to step back” from growing up. What strengths and awareness are present in your group? Who can be a teacher?
10. Starting from “Yes”
Emily Provance, a Quaker minister, encourages Friends to form a “permission-giving culture” that allows new ideas to grow. Three Rivers Meeting talks about “starting from yes” as a core value. These ideas help us to shift our culture and nurture new ideas.
At the Tuesday Worship Group, I can affirm someone or ask for a change without raising eyebrows. I can ask an evoking question that draws in new awareness. I feel relevant in this group: I can participate freely. This feels different than my local meeting.
11. Define Group Norms
Another way to welcome new energy is to share your group norms. At the Tuesday Worship Group, we’ve started sharing our group norms with newcomers. Stating norms helps new people know how to act. We tell people that we all have an equal say in the experience that we’re having here together, and all emotions are welcome. In my experience, Quakers have a poor track record when it comes to stating norms. My Al-Anon group, in contrast says that they “let newcomers know the meeting structure, so they will not be embarrassed by ignorance.”
12. Be Surprised
Building strong and limber communities requires faithfulness during uncertainty. We may need to say ‘yes’ to Spirit without knowing what we’re bargaining for, and this can take a great deal of trust.
In our worship group, we are often willing to experiment and be surprised. We’ve been forming a new community and a new culture in fits and spurts. We don’t know how long we will be an active group, and sometimes we sag. In these times, we wonder if we should lay the group down. We trust that when it’s time to move on, we will pay attention and let go. We also trust that the gifts and confidence we’ve developed in this community will flow into the next one.
It is the same with a wider system. We Quakers don’t know how long we’ll last, or what will happen when we say ‘yes’ to Spirit. I feel clear, though, that even with our low numbers, we have something that is very badly needed inside today’s times. We are good at listening, and the world needs listeners. We have good grounding inside a time of great change. We have creative sources of strength. If we are willing to make changes to some of our structure, then I believe we’ll be able to offer these gifts for another generation to come. Which would be a beautiful thing.
Johanna Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. She and JT created a website for Quaker revitalization: forwardinfaithfulness.org. This essay was written with feedback from members of the Tuesday Worship Group, including Alice Grendon, Nick Dosch, and JT Dorr-Bremme.
Photo credit – paving in the Lu San Chinese Garden, Portland, Oregon by Grace Cooke