Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Are Quakers Ready for Quaker Youth and are Quaker Youth Ready?

“The Quaker Meeting is a faith community, grounded in the shared experience of God’s guidance and grace felt in our Meetings for Worship, our Business Meetings, and our fellowship. We are a diverse group of individuals who have been drawn together by the Spirit and a longing to find a faith and community that could speak to our condition. This brought us to Quaker Meeting. It is only with God’s Spirit that such a diverse group of individuals can realize and embody the kind of unity, belonging, and community that answers to that of God within us.

The Quaker Meeting is meant to be a Blessed Community – a living testimony to a social order that embodies God’s peace, justice, love, compassion, and joy; an example and invitation to a better way of life. Like our other testimonies, Community can be a prophetic call to the rest of society”.-Southeastern Yearly Meeting

My cousin, Rob Sandford, a Baptist minister in Virginia shared the following:

” Over half of our Baptist churches in VA are plateaued and many are dwindling down to handful of seniors. Thus the emphasis on 'church planting' or church starting with a focus on young families, college & youth.

The passing of the torch is difficult if no one is coming along who wants to pick it up or sees its value. But part of the church problem is that youth were excluded from decision making from day one. They do not see the church as "their" church as a result.”

Last year as Pendle Hill was reorganizing, a proposal to remove the requirement that the Executive Director be a Quaker was suggested due to the limited number of individuals who are Quaker and who have management experience.

How did Quakers reach the point where our knowledge about the Religious Society of Friends is so limited and that our pool of leaders who are both Quaker and have experience in management requires us to look elsewhere?

This is reflected in the average age of participants in business meetings, in our committee appointees and in the number of our young people who were raised as Quakers and no longer participate.

For many organizations, leadership is shared based on ability not age. By being open to the gifts of others we are enriched and challenged to be more than the sum of our parts. We cannot assume that age, education, or traditions are precursors of wisdom. If our Quaker faith is to grow and survive, our youth must be engaged at all levels. They must be given roles in leadership and in the challenges inherent in a vital faith. We must ask the younger Friends to serve and then give them meaningful work and respect their decisions and approaches. We must recognize that with young people, the past informs but does not dictate. We must accept that we will be challenged. When cost is a factor the funds needed must be provided.

At William Penn House, we have worked to make this a reality,
1) The average age of the staff is 34.
2) The Hospitality coordinator is in her mid 20’s, as was our Workcamps coordinator.
3) 5 of the members of our board of directors are 30 or younger.
4) We release our staff to travel among Friends and allow them to serve our broader community by paying their travel and registration costs.

If our small Quaker organization can do this then the challenge is for each monthly and yearly meeting to recognize the gifts of our younger Friends and to change priorities to fund this service and to nurture the many gifts that these younger Friends bring.

"You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.” Book of James

In the 1950’s, the Young Friends of North America was a vital and spirit led organization and during this time there was a very strong group of Young Friends from all over at Earlham College which was our mailing address. They generally had their meetings several times a year at Earlham College and elsewhere. FUM had always been a strong supporter of YFNA, as was Philadelphia YM. But beyond that YFNA did all of their own fund raising and paid their own way to meetings etc. And had very little supervision or support from any Quaker organizations.

Our problems with engaging Young Adult Friends are systemic. From a blog was this clear statement:

The expectation was that young Friends wouldn't want to attend much of the "adult" stuff. And so the program was segregated. Our kids left frustrated and unhappy. We talk a lot about "including youth." We are asked to consider young Friends for our committee work and in other capacities. But if we really expected that that would happen would we have teen programming at the very same time as worship, business meeting and committee meetings?

Our Young Friends are often ill equipped to discuss their faith, because we seldom teach what our faith is about, how it fits into the faith of others and why what we believe is important. When we know why we believe as we do then we can live our faith. If we are to be a big tent of beliefs then we must be open to a broader range of beliefs and be willing to listen to others.

Adults are to pattern behavior, if our kids never attend worship, never attend business meetings, how do they learn to be Quakers. Is it hormonal, one day they wake up and go wow, let’s go to meeting for worship with a concern for business! And we keep it up. We discount their preparedness, their convictions and their responsibilities. Since they function in a parallel universe, we are not exposed to them nor they to us. So when we are seeking engagement from our younger Friends, we do not even know who they are.

So the problem of the older Friends recognizing the gifts of our younger Friends starts with First Day and is codified at Yearly Meeting. And we do not know when to make the change. Do we ever see or hear young Friends at worship, other than to shake their hands and grin as they leave worship after 20 minutes or return to worship at the end. Do we ever see or hear them at business meeting. And at Yearly Meetings they are paraded in for a dog and pony show with the teachers serving as their voice then they disappear and we can continue with adult stuff.

Studies of Young Adults have shown willingness if not a yearning to serve but they like to be asked and to be valued and they know what they can do and they know their abilities and time constraints.

How do we engage our youth if we do not ask them? How do we prepare the next generation to nurture the RSOF if we do not nurture them? How do we grow our faith if we do not share and yield? How do we change if the change agents are not at the table?

Among Friends, are blue collar workers welcome? Are business leaders welcome? Are young people following a different path welcome? Are Republicans and Tea Party followers welcome? Have we become so homogeneous that our sameness excludes others? Among liberal friends, can we talk about Jesus? Among Christ centered Friends, can we talk about Buddha? Can we challenge our elders? As the baby boomers retire from our jobs, will we step aside and let younger folks, who may or may not listen to our muse change Quakers to be relevant to them?

How do we make this change to engage others in the life of our meeting?

But as the saying goes it takes 2 to tango. The older Friends must reach out to the younger Friends but the younger Friends must also step forward. If young Friends do not attend business meetings, how will we know that they are ready to be involved? If young Friends do not participate in committees, how do they learn about the life of the meeting?

“When I was a child I acted as a child, but now that I am an adult I must give up my childish ways”. The young adults, the young friends must step up to the plate and deliver. They must be engaged in the life of the meeting and be willing to serve. The excuse of time is one all of us can use. The excuse of lack of experience is one that will be addressed by doing what it takes to serve. Quakerism is an On the Job Training faith. We can only become Quakers by being Quakers.

“You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Fragmentation of Friends?

I’ve been noticing a trend recently in Quakerism. Consider these:
• Last summer at a Yearly Meeting gathering, I heard a presenter talk about one Friends organization that has reduced programming by 50% while keeping pensions 100% funded
• A high-tuition Friends School and its sponsor Meeting are considering separating over concerns of the tuition not in-line with Quaker values, and concern about what it is that makes the school “Quaker”
• A Yearly Meeting’s budget proposal that would eliminate financial support for Young Adult Friends (YAFs) programming and support. As a result, young Friends and young-oriented Friends are passing around a petition of support, but using words like “organizing” and “standing in solidarity with YAF’s”.

Each one of these issues, in a vacuum, is of concern. In each case, I could easily take sides and say “sure, people who have worked all these years deserve their pensions, and yes, high-tuitions smack of greed and reek of arrogance and privilege, and no doubt we should support YAF’s as they are our future”. But when I take a step back and look at the bigger picture of what’s going on here, and then look at the larger world, I see a pattern emerging among Friends that is immensely disturbing to me. There seems to be a drawing of lines along wealth and generations that is somewhat convoluted, and all are driven by the current economy. But rather than coming together, we seem to be pulling ourselves apart at a time when we need each other the most. I would love to pose this: We are in a deep economic hole as a result of at least 30 (and more likely 60) years of punting on big issues, and now the chickens have come home to roost. The whole country (as well as other countries) is facing the same thing, and we Friends are no exception. Can Friends be truly prophetic, embracing the community as one entity not segregated or intimidated by generational divides (or any other divides for that matter) in dealing with these big issues? Basically, to use a phrase from a former intern, “Can we all just put on our big-kid panties, hold each other’s truths, while considering what we all need to give up so that our future is bright and our presence is felt”? This would mean that we should perhaps drop all long-standing committees (on race, glbt, Indian, environment) that tend to pull us apart more than bring us together, and reconsider where we see ourselves in the world. We will also need to put our egos aside and accept that, no matter where we fall in the generations, “it’s not about us”.

So, to go back to the three bullets above as an example, I propose the following questions:
• How can we use the unexpected drop in income to best serve the communities we have made commitments to (social justice requires a long-term commitment) while honoring our promise to our retirees and honoring the spirit of their work that only lives in the future through the next generation of workers (most-likely to be YAF’s). I would hope that some of the 100% pensioners might be willing to give up some of the pension to invest in the future, which would also be a wonderful Testimony to Simplicity, Integrity and Equality.
• Has anyone asked the students what it means to them to be at a Quaker School, regardless of the tuition? It’s the parents who have the wealth, not the kids, but it is the kids who will inherit the wealth. Shouldn’t we welcome the opportunity to work with these schools to nurture Quakerism – not as a political value or a practice of silent worship, but as a deeply committed lifestyle that promotes peace and justice, including economic equality? I’m not sure we help this effort by arrogantly looking down on the tuition or the ego-driven life to get into the best school and to be a huge success.
• To the YAF’s: How is “A movement of Solidarity” nurturing compassion and understanding? Does the loss of this position mean you can’t carry on? I don’t mean to sound harsh, but you are all adults now. You’re not disenfranchised voters or exploited and abused laborers. Yes, your concerns need to be weighed and considered by the whole body (that includes you), but a “movement of Solidarity” seems a little dramatic to me. I have to say that even embracing “YAF” as a separate category has added to a “separateness”, and the elders have certainly played along (or lead? I’m not sure which came first). At the same time, I do know that the current structure of much of Friends is not particularly welcoming of new ideas or thought.

I think these are extraordinary times. As these events unfold, my hope is that we can put our reactivity aside and see that we are all in this together. Let's recognize the challenges and conflicts, and come together rather than choose sides. We desperately need the vision, creativity and energy of all for whom that is a gift (most often the youthful ones), and we need the wisdom that can bring the learnings of the past to the present but not be constricted by past – and often false – visions of how things were. But we need these to make up one body, not separate bodies.

I am sure that this may very-well offend people who I deeply admire for their passion and work as humans and as Friends, so please know that this in no way is meant to cause any. I am really wondering if we Friends can take to heart that we all need each other to have a future; divisions and exclusions of any kinds, whether it is walking away from tables of people with whom we disagree, or focusing on funding only as the issue that matters seems to be little more than a lost opportunity for us to really practice our faith.