The Runway to Annual Sessions launched on May 4th. Our first gathering engaged 80 participants who convened virtually to share concerns and hopes regarding the process of re-opening to in-person gatherings by the end of 2021. The evening was facilitated by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s (PYM) Associate Secretary for Program and Religious Life, Zachary Dutton, and supported by General Secretary Christie Duncan-Tessmer.
Themes of the Coming Year: Rest, Reflection, and Reconnection
Zachary Dutton opened the gathering with worship, and a statement about the losses and gains the pandemic bought us.
We have lost people we love. We have lost cherished Friends and habits. We need time to mourn. We also need to rest, reconnect and reflect. We need to synthesize who we are today, as opposed to what we once were. We need to acknowledge the yearning to be ‘through the pandemic’ alongside the reality that herd immunity is not yet achieved. We have gained new ways of convening and embraced returning Friends worshiping from a distance. But who are the people left on the margins? Who needs to be included in the larger circle we now need to create?
In the first breakout session with small groups of 5-6 people Friends responded to this query: What are our biggest challenges and our biggest opportunities when we re-open?
After the small group conversation, there was a reconvening to reflect on shared themes heard in groups. Feedback is still being gathered, but some challenges named initially include:
- Some meetings are divided on the issue of technology in the meetinghouse
- Missing Friends, including parents and youth, who are zoomed out
- Meetings have met so successfully by Zoom they feel less affinity for in-person worship
- Some people have melted away
- There is Zoom fatigue among cohorts and particularly with groups of young people and parents
- Worries about reopening
- Refusal to re-open
- Fellowship time (person-to-person empathy) is not as possible
- Concerns over tech costs and intrusion into the meeting house of technology
Named benefits and opportunities in this time were:
- Seeing faces on Zoom can be intimate
- Meeting can be gathered, impactful
- New friends have been coming regularly and like the ease of virtual gatherings
- People who could not come before find it newly possible
- Less committee work
- Distance is not an impediment
- Fellowship time is just as meaningful and more personal
This time of reflection and sharing was followed by another breakout session where the conversations centered on the following specific topics, which Friends self-selected to join. The groups were facilitated by staff and a member of Administrative Council.
- Group 1 – John Marquette; exploring interest in becoming a Resource Friend to help with re-opening and hybrid meetings.
- Group 2 – Zachary Dutton; exploring interest in contributing to forming a guidance document.
- Group 3 – Melinda Wenner Bradley and Oskar Castro; discussing how we center those in the margins and those who’ve been absent.
- Group 4 – Meg Rose; discussing how we attend to healing and ongoing spiritual and mental wellness.
John Marquette noted that Tuesday’s Runway gathering introduced a new Resource Friends practice area to the session’s attendees. A Resource Friend is a person with specialized skills and abilities that can be shared with local meetings. John explained, “A Resource Friend can help a monthly meeting assess its technological readiness to introduce hybrid meeting for worship. Many meetings are preparing to blend their online worship community with Friends returning to their familiar benches. A Resource Friend, in conjunction with membership care and worship and ministry committees, can help develop and implement weekly hybrid meetings for worship. Meetings successfully beginning hybrid worship may, in the coming months, be able to share their skills and process with other monthly meetings seeking their own way forward into wider worship.”
Oskar Castro, who co-facilitated the group on belonging and those on the margins, noticed that “the Gathering on Reopening was a moment of sharing concerns, insights, and potential best practices for being in community.”
“My small group was incredible as they really thought through the complexities of how to center those in our Meeting communities who have existed on the margins and may have been doubly impacted by losing a sense of physical community. I am encouraged by Friends who take seriously the need to think about the intent and the impact of reopening and look forward to seeing how Meetings adapt to their new realities!”
Some of the queries lifted up in this group:
- What seemed important before that’s less/not important now? What has been revealed to be vital?
- What relationships do we need to build or center?
- What long-term changes in the bigger picture of our meetings and Quakerism would we like to be part of bringing to fruition?
- How are we to become the Radical faith we were founded to be? How can we seek to listen to those who are not present and remove barriers to participation?
Supporting Families with Children & Youth
During the pandemic, meetings might have shifted First Day programs online, or met for safely planned outdoor activities, or put religious education programs on hiatus. There was no one correct way of doing this, and the combination of limitations and possibilities led to creativity and innovation. We tried new formats and times to meet, holiday and other traditions were continued in online spaces or new ways, and meetings worked to stay connected to families through calls, letters, and care packages.
Questions remain: Even if we “stayed together” online or in other ways during the pandemic distancing, some families stepped away from Zoom fatigue or to meet other needs. Will they return? When will children be vaccinated, and how does this impact families’ comfort with in-person gathering?
Meetings are encouraged to use this brief questionnaire to share (1) what you have done in the last year; (2) plans and questions for resuming programs; (3) what resources and support would best serve you in this time? How can PYM staff and Resource Friends in the practice area of Religious Education come alongside the Friends in your meeting who care for children and youth?
What we have innovated in this time — and what we have released — demonstrates readiness to leave behind an outdated “scholastic” model of religious education and shift to a more experiential, community and relationship-focused model for religious formation and inclusion of young people in meeting life. This was the sense shared by Friends in one of the small groups on Tuesday evening, alongside the question: How do we do this?
Some questions and answers we might consider are included in the presentation, “Where Have We Been, Where are We Going?”, which includes learnings, affirmations, queries, and links to articles about resuming programs for children and youth.
A website story from August 2020, Fall Religious Education Planning: Connection and New Directions, outlines questions and planning ideas that continue to be generative as we look to Fall 2021.
On Tuesday evening, Melinda Wenner Bradley shared: “When children and youth return to the meetinghouse, if they have been absent or on Zoom, it will be important to pay attention to helping them rebuild community with their peers. Our meeting had our first outdoor, in-person (with masks and other precautions) program with young Friends last week. We were very intentional about making a “threshold” for them to cross and be welcomed into the group. There were children holding back (who told me they had only seen the other children on Zoom in the last year), and the adults reconnected everyone with care. There may also be anxiety for some children, after months of degrees of isolation, so asking families what they need and what their children need is important pastoral care.”
Information Previously Shared
Photo: West Chester Friends Meeting by Melinda Wenner Bradley