On Saturday, January 7, almost 30 Friends from 15 local meetings gathered at West Chester Meeting for a Thread Gathering to explore in community the connection between religious education and how a meeting welcomes and includes newcomers. Some came in pairs and groups from their meetings, bringing questions, examples of resources, and stories of experiences in meetings to the conversation together. The afternoon program included a presentation on welcome and belonging, small group conversations with queries, and threshing of the issues raised in the larger group. As we parted into the evening, overheard was the word, “hope.”
What an impactful event! The conversations were insightful. I appreciate the time and effort put into making this happen.
Thread Gatherings are opportunities to share ideas and explore topics with a wider group of Friends from across our PYM community who gather around an interest or concern. This event was no exception! Our time together was grounded in worship, and a participant shared the image of a tree; like a tree rooted in the earth and reaching upward and out through its branches and blossoms, preparation to welcome newcomers can ground us to reach out and share our faith and practice through religious education for both children and adults. This image of the tree brought together the two “threads” of this gathering, religious education & youth work, and outreach & communications. How can they walk “hand in hand?”
In the experience of seekers and newcomers, families are often seeking formation for their children in a new faith community, and adult seekers of all ages come to a meeting hoping to learn about Quakerism and deepen their spiritual lives. An opening presentation shared by Melinda Wenner Bradley, Director of Programs, explored how practices that nurture belonging for all ages are the first step toward sustaining our current communities and growing through outreach. Religious education (for adults as well as children and youth) deepens our experience of what it means to be a Friend, and offering that formation is vital for newcomers to put down roots in a meeting and grow their faith. The presentation also challenged us to think about how some structures and practices may be outdated and need to change in order to meet the needs of individuals and families in our society today. The example of IKEA stores was used as a humorous way to illustrate practices that welcome, include, and guide people in an experience.
Queries explored in small groups made space for deeper sharing by participants:
- How do meetings prepare to receive newcomers and speak to their needs?
- In our outreach, what do we share about what is available to learn more about Quaker faith and practice, and explore spiritual formation?
- Are we open to new ways to offer religious education that might speak to the needs of seekers? (what “new” needs can you identify as a result of the pandemic and society today?)
Friends in the small groups were given post-its to take notes and share back with the whole group what was shared and learned from one another.
The invitation to participants to bring examples of “ideas that work” — a handout, program, something that worked well to connect with newcomers and support both the religious education program and the community in a meeting — led to lively sharing and discussion with the whole group. Topics that emerged in this sharing included:
- the importance of spaces, signs, and schedules to create transparency and welcome
- the PYM Membership Development Granting Group as a resource for meetings
- the not-to-be-underestimated importance of hospitality, which has taken on some new shapes in the pandemic
- there is abundant religious education curricula to choose from, including newer resources like “Walking in the World as a Friend: Essential Quaker Practices” (youth and adults)
- always, the importance of ongoing pastoral care for members, attenders, and newcomers in meeting communities
In just an afternoon, we experienced deep listening, fellowship and laughter, and the wisdom of many Friends sharing their experiences. Thanks to those who participated, and to Olivia Brangan, Community Engagement Coordinator, for her care of hospitality. Gratitude to West Chester Meeting for opening their meetinghouse to host the event!
There is an intention to reprise this Thread Gathering as an online experience in coming months, to extend its reach to those who could not attend. If you’re interested in connecting to share ideas or a consultation about religious education and outreach “hand in hand,” reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Olivia Brangan