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Vitality and Ministry in the Monthly Meeting: One Participant's View

NOTE to my Pagan readership: This is going to be one of those posts where I'm going to write almost entirely from a Quaker point of view. It's not that I don't think these ideas have implications for Pagan leadership and spiritual communities, because I do. But I have not yet digested this material very well, so I am (mostly) setting that question aside for this post.

As I've said, I had a pretty wonderful--if overwhelming--weekend at Woolman Hill, attending the retreat Vitality and Ministry in the Monthly Meeting, led by Jennie Isbell and Jay Marshall of Earlham School of Religion.

Though they never said it in so many words, the weekend seemed to be a kind of experiential "train-the-trainers" approach. There were at least six specific "units" of study, packed into less than forty-eight hours of time, and the pace at times seemed blistering. (When Jay acknowledged that, in the end of session wrap-up, there was a pretty universal laugh of recognition in response.)

The core of the weekend took observations from Jay's research on vital Friends' meetings across the theological spectrum, and insights from Jennie's work on developing a leadership model among Quakers, and drew on them both to explore how we, engaged in our meetings, could perhaps take ideas and techniques from the workshop home with us, to help our monthly meetings deepen and grow stronger.

That might sound like there was a single model for what that vital meeting might look like, or for what good Quaker leadership or ministry would be, but that was not the case. Instead, what Jay and Jennie seemed to be saying was, look to your strengths (your own and your meeting's) to begin looking for your spiritual gifts; explore the implications of those gifts and of your shared values together, and you may find ways out of some of the stuck places our meetings sometimes get trapped in. You may find where Spirit is calling you to be present for one another.

That's quite philosophical, I suppose, and at times, as when Jay was summarizing his research after dinner on Saturday, it did seem abstract. (Though sleepiness from a good supper might have contributed to that, at least on my part.) Overall, however, the approach was practical and hands-on. We did a lot of direct work, trying out techniques for discussion we might want to bring back to our meetings.

The first session after the overview, for instance, focused on vocabulary. I think we all know that there are words that push people's buttons, words that it may not feel safe to use in our Quaker meetings. There is a temptation I often hear expressed to self-censor, even to censor vocal ministry, when it might lead us into using Forbidden Vocabulary.

However, rather than evade the charged or difficult language we carry, or enter conflict about it, Jennie led us in an exercise in identifying vocabulary that will allow us to enter deeper communication with one another. A lofty goal, but a pretty straightforward process: she shared with us a list of terms that had the potential to cause strong positive or negative reactions among Quakers. Our list included:
  • Obedience
  • Discipleship
  • Worship
  • Stewardship
  • Authority
  • Gifts/Giftedness
  • Witness
  • Ministry
  • Body of Christ
  • Membership
We were then asked to identify the words that had the strongest positive and negative associations for us (marked on the flip-chart with a + or - for each time the word was named) .

The next step was forming small groups--three people each--that were assigned two of the most highly charged words (positively or negatively--it made no difference) and given the task of working out our definitions.

We were given a resource, a set of definition pages designed for this exercise from Jennie's book, but otherwise not told how to approach our job. Some groups read the sample definition immediately and created their own in response to it; some groups created their own definitions and turned to the sample ones only after finding some agreement together.

There was no one right way to approach the task, and as is probably obvious, it was the process and not the outcome which was important. Admittedly, in this group, establishing trust was not exactly difficult, but it did seem as though the process would likely yield interesting discussions in almost any group. And since the object was not to create binding definitions in any legal sense, but to get a sense of the personal meanings (connotative as much as denotative) of significant terms in our spiritual discourse, it was the journey that mattered.

My own Ministry and Worship committee has been talking for the past two years about perhaps having some form of exploration of our different spiritual vocabularies; we've wanted to do so in a way that makes room for our extraordinary spiritual diversity, and that is not adverserial or confrontational, but supportive. Will this process work for us? I don't know, but I'm certainly going to bring it back to the committee for discussion and discernment.

I'm also glad that Jennie's book is available for follow-up. As with any potentially charged work, I want a chance to sit with this process and return to it, review it, before I'm sure I understand how I feel around it. But I'm very pleased to have had the chance to experience it as a participant before reading about it on the printed page; I don't know that the impact of it would have been clear from merely reading it.

This activity stands out for me in my memory the most clearly. Perhaps that is because it was early in the workshop; perhaps it is because, as a both/and Quaker Pagan, I have a particular concern for clearly defining otherwise potentially divisive terms.

It also sounds much more "work-shoppy" than it was, in practice. Because we really centered down in silence before beginning our work together, and because we crow-barred in worship both days (as well as at least a brief worship on Friday night), we were able to speak to and hear one another from a fairly worship-ful place. Jennie spoke at the closing of how challenging it was for her, as facilitator, to balance the need to present a large amount of content in a short span of time--what she'd come out to do, after all, not merely to worship with us--with the need to be open to God's leadings and to where the body of Friends met over the weekend found themselves led in the present moment. I don't envy her the task! Though she was pretty good at keeping that balance. On the other hand, it does emphasize for me the part that traveling in the ministry--as opposed to traveling in the workshoppery--has played in the life of Quakers. Sometimes, surely, staying in the worship and being willing to utterly abandon an agenda is the answer. I think it is a testament to how deep the periods of worship went that the tension was there, and that the comparison to traveling in the ministry is a natural one.

Without going into other parts of the weekend in the same level of detail, let me cover a few more of the high points.

In addition to the vocabulary discussions, we examined a series of other topics--sort of a microcosm to macrocosm look at what makes spiritual communities prosper. We spent one session, as I've mentioned, looking with Jay in detail at what some of the elements are of a whole spectrum of succesful Quaker meetings (and churches), including a Friends church with a charismatic/evangelical orientation, a Quaker meeting behind bars, and a suburban unprogrammed meeting. Some of the points that emerged included the importance, not only of worship in the shared life of each meeting, but also a sense of clarity of purpose, and the ability to speak explicitly about purpose and whatever sense of mission the members of each meeting held. Those missions varied tremendously: from a sense of purpose focused on outward, evangelizing activities, to more inwardly focused, pastoral concerns. One point Jay made was that vibrant meetings do not have to do everything well, but whatever shared vision a meeting possesses is lived out with integrity in a way that is evident to its members.

This led to a series of discussions and exercises intended to get us each reflecting on our own meetings, and on what ways the activities we engage in together as a community reflect our individual and our corporate (ie, communal) experiences of God. Speaking of the common terminology, "convinced Friend", Jennie asked us, "What is it you are convinced of?" After a bit of chalk-talk around that, we switched gears, and asked a different question, on how rooted our testimonies are, not just in our convincement, but in the "conversion" process following, which Jennie shared was not seen as the instantaneous transformation the term implies in some modern evangelical Christian circles, but rather, a lifelong process of spiritual unfolding and transformation as we attend to the leadings of Spirit.

From there, we looked at the ways our transformations inform our witness in the world. It was fun to spend time on the question, how could someone who knows you outside of your meeting tell you are a Quaker? We came up with some of the obvious stuff, like bumper stickers, comfortable shoes, and an unwillingness on the part of women members to wear make-up... but when encouraged to look at ways our individual practices connect to our lived experience of God--the ways, essentially, our witness in the world is guided by Spirit--we found deeper changes, which also formed patterns. We shifted gears again, and tried to detect patterns of witness among us, and to see how rooted in our corporate understandings of God's expectations of us our meeting's witness might be.

We examined the ways our meetings, in common with other vital meetings, were able to speak to each other and form common understandings that might help us see our spiritual communities as an anchor in the world, including things like the ever-prickly subject of what sources of authority we were willing to accept as legitimate, and how similar or different our own weight given various authorities (direct spiritual experience, reason, Scripture, and Friends' traditions) were with our perception of our meeting's sense of where authority properly resides. Again, as with the earlier discussion of vocabulary, the emphasis was not on settling the right relationship for all meetings with these sources of authority, but on how to create conversations which allow meetings to openly reflect together on how, as a community, they approach these authorities. We were a bit rushed at this point, and also perhaps more homogenous in our understandings than I might have wished us to be for walking through this exercise, but it did seem like a worthwhile and straightforward way to begin a conversation on otherwise difficult topics within a community. (Have I made it clear enough that there was no one correct answer implied by the process? The conversation, surely a first step to corporate discernment processes, was the point--not any given set of answers.)

On a related subject, we looked at our ability, as Friends, to accept and receive different styles of leadership. Often, I hear members of committees decry the difficulty of getting Friends to engage in service to the meeting--and more often than I would like, I have seen the ways Quakers are not immune to the human tendency to make sure that no good work, especially in leadership, goes unpunished. Stated more positively, it is clear to me that for Quaker process to work, Friends need to place an enormous amount of trust in their clerks and committees to do the time-consuming work of discernment of many, many matters. Clerks and committee members then must live up to that trust, practicing discernment rather than secular decision-making, and truly relying on the Holy Spirit to guide their work together. The level of trust required is beyond anything I have seen any other religious body, let alone secular organization, even attempt, and when it works, it is a very beautiful thing to witness.

When it does not work, and matters carefully and prayerfully discerned by a committee are reopened, not because of a carefully-tested individual concern for an item of business, but through an inability to trust to Quaker process--to trust God to lead and the people to follow--it gets ugly.

So Quakers do need to spend time reflecting on what forms of leadership we are prepared to accept, what forms of leadership will be difficult (or maybe even, for a particular body, inappropriate for us to accept) and what forms may be difficult to accept but worth laboring to better understand and accept as we are able.

The method Jay and Jennie chose to allow us to begin that reflection was to begin with our visions of God. How do we think of God? As liberal Friends, we came up with many descriptions that were quite abstract: a Light, a fountain, living water... but also a few old standards: God as father, God as "mother hen", God as teacher. We acknowledged that some historic visions of God (such as the warrior God of the Old Testament) are probably not acceptable to modern liberal Friends--and so, authorities that reflect some of the traits of such a being (authoritarianism, use of force, anger, etc) would not likely be acceptable to our communities. And while, obviously, there are other readings of the Old Testament God that are more nuanced, and no human will have the gifts or authority we accord God, what forms of authority we are likely to see as good for God we are likely to be most able to accept in one another; and vice versa.

Reflecting on the images of God, we asked ourselves how we would expect a "mother hen" God to behave, for instance. (Involved, sheltering, present, and so on.) We took this approach to each of the recurring images that we had arrived at as a group, and were encouraged to think about how an activity like this might be one way to bring a community into a discussion about forms of leadership, even on a human level, that we might be more or less able easily to accept and follow. The point again was not so much to push toward one acceptable form of human authority or leadership style as it was to begin to engage together in explicit conversations on the nature of leadership, in order to build up a culture of respect and trust that will allow more fruitful participation both as leaders and as followers--roles we will most of us take on in one place or another at some time in our lives as Friends.

As an aside, this was among the more fruitful exercises of the weekend for me. Perhaps it is my grounding in Paganism that draws me immediately to look into the shadow side of a question. I found it helpful, personally, to reexamine my instinctive rejection of some forms of authority--the angry Old Testament God, for instance. How is my rejection of that way of seeing God different from the knee-jerk reaction many Christians might have to some of the darker, cthonic deities of Paganism? Is not Odin a god of the berserker as well as of hospitality and mystery? Is not my beloved Herne a god of death and dying as well as fertility and the hunt? It is only because I have looked deeply into those god-forms, spent time with them and listened to them, that I understand that the simplistic way of seeing them as violent or bad is itself a distortion. If I can see what many Christians will miss, the compassion and love of a god apparently of violence or death, what am I unable to see in Yahweh that at least some spirit-led Christians may be perceiving? And, to draw the conclusion that springs from the context of the exercise, what forms of right authority am I cutting myself off from in myself, as well as in the world, by my blindness?

I don't have answers, but I am finding it fertile to sit with the questions, and see if answers will come.

I also suspect that, given our polytheism, this exercise might be a very useful one to do with a group of Pagans. We are notorious for our inability to accept even the most benign leadership! Could discussing the forms of acceptable divine authority lead us, in our communities, into some helpful reflections on the forms of human authority we may be able to accept with a bit more grace than we sometimes do?

Other areas we visited together: our needs and wishes for ministry and witness to the world. What would it be like to corporately, not just individually, find ways to witness to our convincements, our leadings together, in the world? What is the Light we have to share with the world?

We also asked what are the needs we feel in our own meetings? Pastoral care emerges everywhere as an important element, but we also noted the hunger for increased intimacy within our spiritual communities, a need to nurture gifts and ministry within our meetings, and the importance of bringing prayerfulness and discernment to the nominating process: that there is a relationship between nurturing and naming gifts and filling committee slots, and the need to fill blanks on a roster cannot be the driving force behind nominating committee work. As Jim L. said early in the weekend, "to increase vocal ministry, appoint more elders"--elders in the old-fashioned sense of those who support and nurture the developing ministers.

Finally, one way of reflecting on the whole smorgasbrod of the weekend was the importance, within our meetings, of encouraging theological thinking. It may be helpful for us, in examining our practices, to ask ourselves, what does this practice say about God (as we have come to understand Her)? What does it say about us as people? What does it say about how we are in relationship together--humans and the divine?

There was more. Much more--too much to digest easily, and I am certainly going to have to return to these ideas for longer looks before I will be able to find roots growing from them. But it was very, very helpful to work with these ideas, even in a blitzkreig schedule, in a small group, hands-on, taking them off the pages of a book and into our hearts before taking them forward into the world.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, Earlham has begun an explicit practice of offering this kind of work as outreach to Quakers all over the country--and a variety of other workshops, too. Apparently, they began by putting out the word to their faculty, that if there are gifts they know they would like to share, they should name them. Those have been put out there for local monthly, yearly, and quarterly meetings (or other Friends' organizations) to take advantage of. And when approached by such groups, Earlham is also willing to work to try to meet areas of locally-identified need. This workshop was possible in large part because Earlham was willing to sponsor it--and I can't say enough good things about how rich the weekend was, for me at least, and I think also for the more seasoned Friends in attendance too.

I know that the issues we were discussing are among the issues I hear Quakers from all over the country raising as concerns. Here's a resource; I think it's one worth investigating. (But take your vitamin pills... or, if you can, allow a longer period than a single weekend to absorb all this wisdom.)

For a more subjective look at this weekend, and how it affected me personally, see my earlier post, Back from Woolman Hill.


Liz Opp said…
Hey, Cat--

WoWzah! Thanks for going into more detail... I see you've linked to the School of Religion itself in that final paragraph and I wanted to say how excited I am to see this link, about the school's traveling ministries program...

Maybe I'll see if Jay and Jennie can come my way!

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up
Thank you for the link to the Traveling Ministries program, Liz! I'd overlooked it before, but I've added a link to it from the text of the blog post itself now, down at the bottom of the entry where I discuss the program.

I was thinking of some of our conversations, among others I've had with various Friends off and on over the course of the weekend. Just about anyone who is concerned with fostering greater vitality in their monthly meeting would probably have found the weekend fascinating. Obviously, there's a lot of good things we're all already doing--but not only did Jay and Jennie work to build on our strengths, but they definitely had practical ideas that were new to many of us. We were an enthusiastic bunch!
Yewtree said…
Dear Cat, it sounds fascinating. I am sure a lot of that is applicable to any spiritual community.

The UK Unitarians recently had an event called "Reclaiming the Language of Faith" which addressed some similar issues to the first part of your workshop.

A lot of Christian language pushes my buttons, especially the sort that limits the Divine to the Christian Trinity, implies inherent sinfulness in humanity, and makes out that Christianity is the only path to the Divine. But it's good to hear that some of that language pushes some Quakers' buttons too.
Hystery said…
Cat, I appreciated your comments regarding how one might compare and contrast the dark qualities of the Abrahamic God in light of our own appreciation of the symbolically complex qualities of our chthonic deities. I also do not have answers for that one because I sense that there are some critical differences in theological approach but it is indeed a compelling idea.

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