Cultural Barrier #5: Idolatry of Quaker process
Why is this a barrier to multiage inclusion?
I talked a lot about this in A Conversation About Delay. Essentially, when someone’s led to new work on behalf of the body, it often takes weeks, or months, or years to get the pieces into place, not because it actually takes that much time to do the discernment but because the such-and-such committee only meets on second Thursdays, and the other-relevant-committee just met last Monday and won’t meet again for two months…this kind of delay wears on people. Eventually, we decide that the bar is too high. We might not even be conscious of it, but we begin to weigh leadings differently—is this spark that I’m carrying really worth the amount of institutional work it will take? When institutional delay snuffs out one spark, that’s sad. When it snuffs out sparks routinely—and it does—that’s a spiritual crisis.
Like many of our cultural tendencies, idolatry of Quaker process disproportionately affects the young (and, of course, anyone who is new.) If you’ve been around for many years, you’re likely to know exactly which committees do what and which committees meet when and which clerks are semi-non-functional and when you should cc other people in the meeting and when you shouldn’t and, especially, the right combination of words to phrase something in such a way that a committee will actually take it on. And if you don’t know all these things, an attempt to get anything through our process will generally be thwarted by our process, not by discernment in the Light of the Spirit of God.
That’s an important difference. Sometimes it’s right to say no, but more often, we sort of wind up saying no by default because our Quaker process, rather than being used to support Spirit-led discernment, winds up being used to replace it. We say nofor all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with Spirit. The request came in after the deadline; it hasn’t been seasoned by the right committee; we had to push it to next month’s agenda three times because we ran out of time.
Our younger Friends are absolutely right when they look at these patterns of behavior and declare them absurd, and many times, instead of sticking around and pushing through it, they (and the Light they are carrying) either leave our communities entirely or, at the very least, put the majority of what is often deeply-grounded, well-led energy into some other organization, somewhere else.
Culture Flip #5: Building a permission-giving culture (the default answer is ‘yes, and how can I help?’ unless there is a strong, Spirit-led reason to hesitate)
What does this look like in a monthly meeting?
It’s important to cultivate a culture that is supportive and permission-giving, in which new ideas and initiatives are met as openly and helpfully as possible. In other words, the default answer is “Yes, and how can I help?,” unless there is a strong, Spirit-led reason to hesitate.
For example, suppose that at social hour, someone in your meeting says, “What if we sat around one day after meeting and talked about our spiritual journeys?”
|Permission-giving and supportive…||You say: “Great idea! How can I help?”|
|Permission-giving but not supportive…||You say: “Okay. Go ahead.”|
|Permission-begrudging but supportive…||You say: “That’s a good idea. I’ll help you run it past Ministry and Counsel, which is our committee that oversees things related to spiritual discussions. They meet on second Tuesdays at 7:00pm. Does that work for you? Can I give you a ride to the meeting?”|
|Permission-begrudging and not supportive…||You say: “You need to take that to Ministry and Counsel.”|
|Permission-denying but supportive…||You say: “That’s not something that works very well here, but I’m glad that you’re thinking about spiritual deepening.”|
|Permission-denying and not supportive…||You say: “We’ve tried that. It doesn’t work.”|
A permission-giving culture helps everyone feel that their ideas are valued, and a supportive culture helps everyone feel that they themselves are valued. Both are important.
Obviously, there are times when, “Great idea! How can I help?” is not an adequate or appropriate response . . . for example, if someone has just proposed doing business by majority vote. But even then, there are more and less supportive ways to respond. You could try, “I’m so glad that you came to business meeting and you’re interested in our process. Has anyone given you a chance to ask questions about why Quakers do business the way we do?”
And sometimes, of course, it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes a new spark arises that could mean serious change or a new commitment for the meeting, and it’s not immediately clear what the next steps should be. That’s the time to respectfully guide someone through Quaker process, which we’ve put in place over the years so that we have an institutional path by which to carefully discern significant matters as a community. If this in-depth process is a response to certain types of situations, rather than a default response to every suggestion, then using it becomes a symbol that something is being taken seriously, rather than something that we laugh about that often becomes a blockade. Suddenly we find ourselves saying to someone, “Friend, what I hear you saying is a message for the whole community and, if well led, may bring us all into something new and spiritually significant. May I help you know who to bring this to so that the entire community may hear it?”
Generally speaking, a supportive and permission-giving culture gives our young people a fighting chance. We all grow by way of opportunities to experience and follow leadings, and it’s unfaithful for the community to make even small proposals so difficult that they don’t seem worth making. By flipping our culture from default no to default yes, we commit to a new and adventurous relationship with each other and with the Holy Spirit.