Quaker Vulnerability

Today, I’m thinking about the incredible amount of vulnerability required in Quaker business process. It’s vulnerable in that we each have to be willing to show up, do our best work of listening, hold out our piece or angle on the truth with the fiercest, most solid conviction we know how, and let it go, trusting one another and the Spirit to sift and sort and aim us toward the best direction we collectively know how to find.

It’s also vulnerable to authoritarian intrusion, and this is what has, sadly, occurred of late in Northwest Yearly Meeting, the group of Friends I have belonged to since birth.

Because our polity and decision-making is based on the process of consensus, we must trust one another to bring everything to the table and truly listen to the Spirit, rather than making backroom deals or pushing one’s own agenda to the exclusion of listening together. The ideal Quaker process works in such a way that, although we each share our own conviction and sense of leading, we listen for the Spirit’s guidance. We let go of our own understanding, our own need to be right, our own fears, and we submit to the will of the Spirit: the one who enlivens the scriptures and who we will recognize by the embodiment of Love.

Instead, of late, our yearly meeting became divided and untrusting. People chose “sides,” did not trust others, and worked through political strategy rather than through a sense of leading to get “our” people on boards and in positions of leadership, rather than “their” people.

In the culmination of this dysfunctional behavior, the “leadership” laid down an ultimatum: the yearly meeting “restructures” (read: kicks out the four meetings who have minuted LGBTQ welcoming and affirming stances), or everyone at the representatives meeting last month had to come to consensus around another option. The rationale was that, since the four meetings were acting in ways contrary to our Faith & Practice, they can and should be removed from the body. (The irony, of course, is that the authoritarian action taken by the Administrative Committee to force this decision is so far outside of Faith & Practice’s policy as to be laughable.)

I don’t want this post to be about that split so much as about vulnerability, however.

I recognize now, more than ever, the extreme vulnerability of the polity we espouse as Friends, and it is incredibly painful that people could come in and use the good faith and trust of others in the yearly meeting to push through their own agenda. It is so difficult, now, to even imagine trusting others, and in some ways I would like to just give up trusting people altogether. It would be much easier to just become cynical, and to attempt to use political means to manipulate my way in the future.

Much more difficult, however, is remaining vulnerable and open, trusting and hoping, and remaining open to the radical and intense freedom and joy of coming together as a group of Friends to discern together, fully and wholly, unreservedly, bringing our whole selves.

I say it is more difficult, but to me, it is also the only Way worth living. I do not want to become cold and shriveled, protecting and controlling. Instead, I choose life, I choose joy, I choose trust and vulnerability: I choose Love.

It may not be the way of most power and prestige. It may be a difficult Way. But it is the Way of Christ for any who choose to follow it.

It is a Way that includes boundaries: while I choose to be radically open and vulnerable in settings of Quaker worship through business, I choose to set a firm boundary regarding an abusive and authoritarian structure that no longer resembles anything close to the Law of Love. While I can love the people who did this, and desire what’s best for them as they continue their journey, I set a strong boundary with a firm, No. This is unhealthy behavior and I will not participate in it; I will not tolerate it. I will remove myself from this unhealthy relationship. I will go to the margins, where others have been sent, and I will find Christ there, amongst those cast out by the “church” based on a dead reading of words on a page, rather than a willingness to courageously engage in a dynamic reading led by the Living Word. I will live out love. There is no other Way I would wish to go.

This is the path of strength through vulnerability, and I think I have never understood the verse, “my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor 12:9) before this and other similar experiences bestowed upon me by NWYM. It’s a path of courage, of taking heart, of opening and opening again to the Light, filled with grace and truth. It’s a willingness to trust myself and the Light of Christ I know and connect with inside, connecting with that Light in others, and being guided by it.

May the Spirit guide your path, as you choose the strength of vulnerability today and always.

May the breath of the Spirit enliven you, wake up the Society of Friends, and draw us toward a new intensity and conviction of justice through love in these difficult times.

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15 Replies to “Quaker Vulnerability”

  1. Jesus told his disciples to be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove. The problem is not being more discerning about who is accepted into membership. Most people are not going to give up their concept of truth to trust the Quaker Process as you describe it and as it should work. To trust the Process you have to touch the Source.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Jim! I’m not sure we should block membership–I think we just need to teach the Quaker business process well, and not just to youth. I grew up learning about Quaker business process and listening to the Spirit corporately when I was in middle school and high school, but have rarely seen it enacted as an adult. But membership should not be limited to those who “know our ways.” I think we need to be very careful about limiting membership. We also need to be careful (but this is another post for another time) that our “process” doesn’t become so calcified and obscure that only a certain demographic of people fit into it–the white, middle or upper-middle class individuals who grow up knowing it–and that we make sure that in our openness to the Spirit, we are open to changes in the way we do things so that others can participate fully. This is one of the ways that Friends tend to embody racism, albeit accidentally, by holding too closely to our traditions and membership parameters, so I hope that by the enlivening movement of the Spirit, we can break down some of those barriers, as well.

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      1. It’s not a question of limiting membership to those who “know our ways” but to those who believe God speaks today.

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      2. Makes sense. I’m still a bit leery of “limiting membership,” as that sounds exclusive. I’m all for including people, but making sure we do good education and listening together, rather than setting up a different litmus test/creed that people have to adhere to. This is always tricky for Friends, since we don’t want to be creedal, but we also want to have some sort of standard by which we gauge whether people are one of “us” or not. What defines who “we” are? If we are inclusive and don’t have a creed, do we have a “we”? Can anyone be Quaker? This is a challenge for most Friends, I think. But limiting membership just kind of grates on my conscience.

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  2. I believe that anyone who is open to hearing from God can see the value of the Quaker Process but if they are closed minded the Process can only work if the Clerk is willing to ignore their objections if the Clerk senses there is otherwise unity on the question before the meeting. The problem arises when the person in question is somehow considered to be a “weighty” Quaker or the Clerk doesn’t share this belief.

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    1. My experience with liberal unprogrammed Friends (at least within Baltimore Yearly Meeting) is more in-line with Cherice’s thinking on two fronts.

      First, I have never been part of an unprogrammed meeting (church) where the clerk of meeting would ever conclude that a Friend is “closed minded” and ignore that Friend’s objections just for the sake of proceeding with a decision or outcome. Instead, the path forward would be held over for discernment at future Meetings for Business. Meanwhile, Friends might informally labor with the objecting Friend to both listen and share with the Friend in the hopes that spiritual unity within the meeting would occur. I have seen when there is still no unity after some time, a meeting often discerns there are deeper problems at play and lovingly over years attempts to work through these together as a spiritual community. Generally, ignoring concerns or inclinations of some Friends for the sake of reaching a final decision does not occur. Perhaps this is because liberal Quaker bodies are not burdened with the need to have biblical or doctrinal unity – as are most Evangelical Friends.

      Secondly, it is common practice within liberal unprogrammed meetings to eagerly welcome anyone who participates in the meeting to also participate in Meeting for Business as an “equal” – no matter if they are a “member” or not.

      These two norms within liberal unprogrammed meetings come from a place of believing that the experience of Quaker process is more important than the outcome or decisions. This ‘holy’ process used by Friends is actually part of our spiritual practice, and not really a ‘business meeting’ as the world conducts business items in corporations and clubs – or even in non-Quaker churches. When dealing with all the surrounding issues that might immerge during our Quaker process, a ‘healthy’ liberal Quaker meeting relishes the opportunities that are abundant for each Friend to absorb valuable spiritual and interpersonal lessons for their lives outside the meetinghouse – lessons to carry over to our home life, our marriages, our work environments, and most importantly to our relationship with the divine.

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  3. Thanks for beautiful and concise article that speaks my mind (but more clearly than my mind speaks) and you offer an invitation rather than an admonition to vulnerability- which is most appreciated. I have a question, which is not meant to be a challenge and probably just reflects the one meeting I have had most of my experience in. The question is about your use of the word “consensus” which is studiously avoided in my context. If I understand right the reason is that we seek “unity” [with the Spirit] rather than consensus which could imply that everyone is in agreement with something that is not Divine will. It may just be language and again I am not seeking to challenge or correct, it is just that you have used a word I have never seen. Many of us in our meeting come from secular groups that use consensus model frequently and it also could be that one of our more seasoned Friends finds this an opportunity to contrast the two. All to say, any further comment would be most enlightening for me. Thank you.

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    1. Glenn Morison, thanks for your comment and question. We use the term consensus to refer to a sense of agreement that the decision we have come to reflects our best understanding of what the Spirit is trying to say to us. We may not all agree with the decision, but we agree that it is the sense of the meeting. I agree with you that the term consensus has been co-opted by groups that try to do consensus as in, getting to a decision that everyone can agree with, which is human-based rather than Spirit-based. While this is a better form of decision-making in secular settings than some other forms, it does not have the same sense of being led by the Spirit. The difference between consensus in a secular context and consensus in a Friends meeting for worship for business, in my opinion, is that although we as human beings cannot know for sure what the Spirit is saying to us, we can do our very best to listen together to the direction we’re being led, and to formulate that into words in a minute that encapsulates the sense of the meeting as well as is humanly possible. The consensus we reach regards our understanding that the decision reflects the Spirit’s guidance, not that we agree with the decision. (This is, of course, in the ideal, and is difficult to do in reality!)

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  4. Cherice and Glenn,

    I believe you have hit on a subtle difference of terminology between Evangelical leaning Friends and liberal leaning Friends. I have often seen used in speaking and writing by Evangelical Friends the term “consensus” to describe Quaker Meeting for Business, and I assumed they meant the same thing meant by liberal Friends when these Friends use the term “sense of the meeting”.

    To further elaborate on Glenn’s observation, liberal Friends view “consensus” as a worldly process used by businesses and clubs because they are seeking agreement at an ego level so that the group can reach an agreed-upon decision that can be implemented. In contrast liberal Friends use the term “sense of the meeting” for Quaker process because they strive to put aside their egos so that the Spirit will manifests within all Friends in their meeting with the way forward. The emphasis for liberal Friends is always the spiritual process underway rather than the outcome. How strictly Evangelical Friends hold to the same emphasis, I can’t say since I’ve never been at an Evangelical Friends Meeting for Business. Perhaps Cherice could comment.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Howard. Evangelical Friends (at least NWYM) also use the term “sense of the meeting.” We generally talk about the clerk or another Friend naming the sense of the meeting, and then the Friends present come to consensus regarding whether we think that sense encapsulates what we think we’re hearing from the Spirit. I think there would also be Evangelical Friends who would shy away from the use of the term “consensus,” for the reasons you state. It’s a term we use, perhaps as shorthand, for “discerning together what the Spirit is saying.”

      I’m a bit jaded, as you might see, regarding the process Evangelical Friends are using in meetings for business, but what we are trained and instructed to do is to find the sense of the meeting, the spiritual heart of what we are hearing together, and to try to put that into words as best we can. In theory, this is about the process of listening rather than the outcome of making a decision. Of late, NWYM has not been following that process well and has instead been focused on the outcome: making a decision now, because some of us are apparently tired of waiting. This is not the type of business process we are taught as young Friends, or in our written statements about our process. Thus, my frustration with the way that this situation was handled by NWYM “leadership,” which spawned the original post.

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  5. This is a wonderful conversation. I think Cherice captured the essence in this sentence: “The consensus we reach regards our understanding that the decision reflects the Spirit’s guidance, not that we agree with the decision. (This is, of course, in the ideal, and is difficult to do in reality!)” Thank you, dear Friends!

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  6. Thank you, Cherice, for taking the time ot think this out and write it. It gives me much encouragement and hope for Eugene Friends.

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