The Johnson House is Philadelphia’s only documented, accessible, and intact Germantown stop on the Underground Railroad. It is open to the public as a place of historic importance. Johnson House was built in 1768 and owned by a family of Quaker abolitionists who worked with free and enslaved people to secure a safe passage to freedom for numerous African Americans.
Germantown Friends Monthly Meeting 2017 State of the Meeting Report
In response to the January 9, 2018 call from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Quaker Life Council, we undertook an examination of the state of Germantown Monthly Meeting (“GMM”). Following is our report, which we submit with gratitude for having been led to engage in this meaningful process.
In gathering the information for this report, the Meeting decided to involve as many members and attenders as possible. We recognized at the outset that simply appointing an ad hoc committee, or convening the committee clerks, to write the report would not allow us to arrive at a right and true spiritual assessment of our Meeting. Over a period of several months the Meeting undertook the following:
On January 31st, 2018, all committee clerks met to discuss the strengths, challenges and future aspirations of each committee. This group of about 25 people decided that each clerk would meet with their committee to discuss these questions and then provide a summary of the state of their committee.
- The next phase of the process was a meeting-wide Retreat on March 10. Sixty-five members and attenders participated. This daylong event included group activities such as singing, games, a shared meal, and breakout groups to discuss the queries provided by Yearly Meeting. After lunch each breakout group reported its findings to the larger gathering for discussion.
- On March 17th there was a follow-up Adult Class, with focus on the query about how the meeting helps its members prepare for worship.
- The Standing Nominating Committee created and sent out a survey to assess interest in committee service and to learn of any concerns.
- The clerks’ committee reports, summaries of our discussions at the Retreat and the Adult Class, minutes from the 2017 monthly Meetings for Business, and letters and concerns from individuals were summarized in a draft report. Penny Colgan-Davis (clerk of Meeting) then convened a group consisting of Becky Johnson (recording clerk), Karen Lightner (clerk of Worship & Ministry), Ed Nakawatase (clerk of Racial and Social Justice), David Mettler (clerk of Standing Nominating Committee) and members Ruth Seeley and Moira Clare Duggan, who reviewed, supplemented, and edited the draft.
- The report was sent out to all members and attenders on May 9th and discussed in Meeting for Business on May 13th.
- On May 27th there was a follow-up discussion and final meeting to approve the report. The Queries
What are the challenges to and opportunities for enhancing the worship of our Meeting, and what are we doing to address these? And what opportunities are provided to address topics important to deepening both personal spiritual journey of member and the spiritual life of the Meeting?
As with many Meetings, the drop in general attendance has been challenging. Some of our older members recall 60 years ago needing to arrive early on First Day in order to be guaranteed a seat; today, we fall far short of filling the room. In a meeting room that can sit 400, a weekly attendance now of 45 to 55 imparts a feeling of emptiness and a lack of vitality; the echo quite literally makes it harder to hear one another’s testimony. This decrease in attendance has had a ripple effect on many aspects of the Meeting, which will be addressed later in this report.
Despite these challenges, much has been done to enhance the worship of our Meeting, expand on the spiritual life of the Meeting, and to promote attendance.
- 5th Sunday – Three or four times a year there are five Sundays in a month. Like some other Meetings, GMM uses 5th Sundays as a way of experimenting with or providing a different format for Meeting for Worship to help revitalize attendance. During the past year we have used bible stories, singing, meeting outdoors, exploring how other religions use sacred music in their service, and had a special meeting for worship led by our Young Friends.
- Quaker Basics – On consecutive weeks in the fall of 2017 we held short informative sessions after Meeting for Worship for new attenders and anyone else who wished to participate. Meeting members gave short presentations on worship, the testimonies, how Quakers do business, the work of committees, Quaker alphabet soup (local and national organizations like AFSC, PYM, FGC, FCNL, etc.) and invited questions and discussion.
- In light of decreasing attendance, we have experimented with roping off part of the meeting room and asking everyone to sit closer together. We have also met in our committee room, which is much smaller than our meeting room. Some Friends felt the worship was deeper and more gathered when we sat physically closer. Many Friends commented that they could hear better, and some felt the group seemed larger and more vital. We have not, however, reached unity about making any significant change, as some Friends feel strongly about the historical connections to the meeting room, or that roping off a section could be perceived as unwelcoming.
- The Worship & Ministry and Care & Visiting Committees held their annual joint meeting and discussed William Taber’s Pendle Hill pamphlet, Four Doors to Meeting for Worship. We then used the pamphlet for an all-meeting read and discussed it during an Adult Class.
- Once a month during Meeting for Worship and Meeting for Business, we read one of the twelve queries from Faith and Practice.
- Our vital Adult Class program addresses diverse topics that both deepen our spiritual growth as individuals and as a faith community; many of the topics are listed under the anti-racism query.
- Our annual “Bring a Friend to Meeting” month encourages members and attenders to invite friends, family and acquaintances of like mind to worship with us.
What is most needed to strengthen the communal witness of the Meeting to the local community and beyond?
We have an active Outreach Committee which sponsors many programs and events. In group discussions at the Retreat we acknowledged that we could be doing more, both with respect to Germantown Friends School (“GFS”) and the larger Germantown community. The Meeting needs to grow and sustain membership to be able to continue outreach. We need to learn how to become more open and welcoming to all kinds of visitors and seekers. Our hope is that, as we become more diverse, GMM will be more welcoming to the Germantown community.
Ways in which we have sought to strengthen our ties with GFS have included a jazz concert featuring GFS jazz bands, and a GMM outreach table at the school’s Fun Day. To help us maintain a connection with our older and treasured Friends, each year we plant and maintain a vegetable garden at Wesley Enhanced Living, a local continuing care facility formerly known as Stapeley Hall. Our Outreach Committee, in cooperation with individuals from nearby Green Street Monthly Meeting, held a Germantown Summit to which we invited “Men Who Care of Germantown” and several other organizations for a chili lunch, fellowship and discussion, and will sponsor the event again in June. Several members have become very involved with the John B. Kelly Elementary School in Germantown, where fifteen volunteers now provide library classes and activities for the 650 students. Looking outward to the greater Philadelphia area, last year GMM joined POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Renew) on the recommendation of our Racial and Social Justice Committee. Our Outreach Committee prepares and serves an annual breakfast for families staying at the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House.
In addition to the corporate community events and relationships formed by the Meeting, many of our members and attenders are engaged in work for Germantown and Philadelphia-area non- profits and community groups confronting issues such as food insecurity, youth, housing, parks, and the arts. These individuals draw strength from and are nurtured by our Meeting just as we are enriched by their participation and ministry.
What specific issues of concern has your community experienced in the past year? What threshing, dialogue and or discernment has your community recently experienced regarding the purpose and importance of membership?
Racial inequality and racism continue to be weighty concerns for this meeting. Please refer to other sections of this report for a description of our ongoing work in this regard.
As noted above, attendance at Meeting for Worship has dropped over the last ten years or so. Likewise, attendance has decreased in our First Day School and Young Friends programs. For the second year in a row, we canceled the yearly Meeting Retreat at Camp Swatara. There has been much exploration by the various committees on how to best address this. Cogent questions raised are, “Whose role is it to promote the importance of membership?” and “What are the benefits of being a member?”
The total membership of GMM is 393 (this is not an accurate representation as many members do not live in the area and this number does not include regular attenders). On any given 1st Day as mentioned earlier we have approximately 45-55 attending, this is down from a few years when it was closer to 65-75. There are 117 members and attenders who fill approximately 230 committee positions. In recent years, as membership and attendance have declined and the outside pressures of time, family, travel, and other commitments increase, the Standing Nominating Committee has found it difficult to fill some of the open positions. We must address how we will continue the work of the Meeting with fewer individuals. We are truly grateful to all those who serve so diligently on committees; however, during this assessment process we heard that some feel marginalized and left out. Wishing to ensure that no one feels excluded from committee service, the Standing Nominating Committee quickly sent out a survey to the membership regarding this concern. We ask ourselves: Do we adequately call upon and utilize all of our members’ and attenders’ wealth of talents and skills? Have any committees become stale, and are any in need of a fresh point of view?
Germantown MM has served as an official sponsoring meeting alongside Green Street MM for Quaker Voluntary Service Philadelphia for a number of years. Recent years, however, have been disappointing as meeting members and Fellows have not felt connected or supported. There does not seem to be one specific cause for this deterioration, but a confluence of differing personalities and events have conspired to erode the relationship. The 2017 QVS Fellows sent a minute to the Meeting relaying their experience of coming to meeting and certain things they noticed that made them feel uncomfortable. Worship and Ministry invited the fellows to come, meet and discuss their concerns, and later invited them for a picnic at a member’s home. While W&M thought the issue was resolved, in actuality, communication just stopped and the gap was not bridged. In 2018 the Fellows have been even less receptive to invitations from Germantown community members to participate in the life of the meeting. In April, a called meeting with Mike Huber, the Program Director at QVS, allowed for members and attenders to publicly address this dissatisfaction. The sense of the meeting was to move forward from a place of love and care, rather than expect a transactional relationship in which success is defined by reciprocal exchange and benefit.
Other concerns we have addressed in our Meeting include:
Concerns raised in connection with FCNL, including letter writing campaigns; several Adult Classes dedicated toward what we see as priorities
Minute on the moratorium on fracking in the Delaware river watershed
Minute on the prohibition of nuclear weapons
A called meeting on racism (further described under the query on anti-racism).
What anti-racism work has your community engaged in or explored in the past year?
The Meeting has incorporated anti-racism work as part of its basic identity. The identity is still being forged and is not sustained easily. Through the commitment of Meeting members, it has been built upon several years of external activities, public events, historical presentations, as well as ongoing and sometimes painful internal discussions and struggles.
That extended process within the Meeting has resulted in a foundational document, the Meeting’s Declaration on Racial Justice; an increase in connections with local community organizations; participation in city wide and national coalitions on racial and economic justice issues; and during the past year, approval of a minute, since supported by the Philadelphia Quarter, on the impact of racism in our country and our obligation as Friends to address it.
The Adult Class Committee has focused consistently on racism and related topics, and has invited speakers and sponsored book groups, including:
- A book group on Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Dr. Joy DeGruy
- Sa’ed Atshan, Palestinian Friend, on the topic of Joining the Struggles against Anti-Semitism, Christianophobia, and Islamophobia: Reflections from a Palestinian Quaker
- Pat Bass, board president of Johnson House, discussing its renewed local activities
- Rochelle Bilal, president of the Guardian Civic League, the association of African American Philadelphia police officers
- David Mosenkis, POWER, analyzing the racial bias in the funding of Pennsylvania’s public schools and the efforts to remedy it
- The Racial and Social Justice Committee (RSJC) functions within the Meeting to deal with issues of racism and social justice. Their work during the past year has included the following actions:
Facilitated the membership and participation of the Meeting in POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Renew), an ecumenical citywide, congregational based social justice coalition of over 40 religious bodies
- Co-sponsored and provided committee resources for Uprooted, a photo exhibit of Japanese American internees who worked in labor camps during World War II; the exhibit was organized by GMM member Teresa Maebori
- Dispersed Corporate Giving funds, administered by RSJC, as strategic support to the Ujima Peace Center initiative of the Friends of African Descent; financial support was also given to the Crossroads Women’s Center in Germantown, and other Friends and community based initiatives
- Helped facilitate activities after a special called meeting in May 2017, on racism among Friends; those activities included communications with public officials on the police shooting of an African American parent of a Germantown Friends School student.
To what priorities does God call our Meeting? How do our annual budget, our Meeting’s standing committees and other aspects of the Meeting’s life reflect those priorities?
We are called to increase our membership, with special focus on young adults and young families. We may be doing a good job of sharing our values, but that doesn’t necessarily attract people to membership. Also, we are called to examine whether we are meeting the needs of those people who don’t come back, or don’t stay.
Recognizing that our school is the biggest outreach we have — and feeling led to help GFS be an even better member of the community — we are called to strengthen our connection to our school.
We are called to increase the level of social activism among our members and attenders.
We are called to provide a spiritual home and community so that Friends are grounded and can go out in the world and do the work they are called to do. An important part of “walking cheerfully” is to be a model of true community and to support each other in our individual and corporate work.
We are called to examine whether our current committee structure needs updating, and whether we can reduce the number of committees and positions while still doing the work of the Meeting with efficiency and care.
The Quaker Life Council has asked how our priorities are reflected in our budget. In reviewing our annual budget, we see that 92% of it is spent on four large areas: scholarship assistance for Quaker education, PYM giving, taking care of our Meetinghouse and grounds, and running our office. Together, corporate giving, PQM support and childcare make up roughly another 6%. Each year our Meeting struggles to reach its financial goals; though we use what we bring in wisely, it feels at times that we are trying to live up to our past, when our membership was both wealthier and larger.
Despite the drop in attendance and many other challenges we face, what we continue to witness is a vitality among the membership and committees to continue as a strong and vibrant community.
All total there are 25 committees and 13 individual appointments. There is no way that we can give justice to all the work that has been undertaken, beyond those committees mentioned above we would like to at least recognize them.
CARE AND VISITING for the pastoral care of our community
CHILDCARE, 1ST DAY SCHOOL, YOUNG FRIENDS for taking care of our youngest members and attenders
FELLOWSHIP and RETREAT COMMITTEES for their continuing efforts to build our community
PROPERTY COMMITTEE for stewardship of our physical home
MARRIAGE AND FUNERAL ARRANGEMENT COMMITTEES for guiding us through some of life’s transitions.
There is also the quiet behind the scenes work of ASSISTANCE COMMITTEE, BURIAL GROUNDS, COMMUNICATIONS WORKING GROUP AND SCHOLARSHIP.
OFFICE AND RECORDS for the daily running of our Meeting.
SCHOOL COM ITTEE for their service and guidance to the School
FISCAL, FUNDRAISING, TRUSTEES for managing all of our financial matters.
Special thanks to the individual appointments; for our Clerk, Recording Secretary, Treasurer, Custodians of Records, Coordinator for Refreshments and Closers and the many other appointments to Quarterly and Yearly Meeting.