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Is It Time to Get Rid of Yearly Meetings?

Is It Time to Get Rid of Yearly Meetings?

I’ve been deeply embedded in the Quaker Industrial Complex for a long time. I’ve been one of those professional Quakers. I first became a Christian while studying at a Quaker seminary, and subsequently worked for years in official Quaker circles – at Earlham School of Religion, and later at Friends United Meeting. I’ve lived, breathed, and dreamed Quakerism.

During this time, I’ve spent lots of time visiting local Quaker congregations, gatherings, and regional bodies. Often during these visits, Quaker leaders would tell me what they were most worried about. Some of these concerns were very specific to a particular group or situation, but others were more universal.

This Is My Concern, Dude

One of the most regular and consistent laments that I’ve heard from Quaker leaders is that the rank and file in their congregations don’t see the purpose of the yearly meeting* structures. They say things like this:

We can’t figure out how to help our people understand how important the Yearly Meeting really is. People ask us, What does the Yearly Meeting do for me?, but they’re missing the entire point! The Yearly Meeting is about being body. It’s not about what the Yearly Meeting provides for the local churches; it’s how we’re called together as a people, the shared experience we have of God when we’re together. After all, how are we supposed to do the work of the church if we don’t gather and support one another?

I’ve heard words like these so many times I’ve lost count. What’s more, I’ve said words like these on numerous occasions. As a person so dedicated to institutional Quakerism, the idea that many of our members no longer find the Yearly Meeting necessary was really threatening to me. After all, what is the Quaker community without our wider fellowship? How can we even exist without the Yearly Meeting?

Another Way?

Despite my misgivings, I’ve recently begun to wonder whether those naysayers might actually be right. Is there something fundamentally unhelpful about the Yearly Meeting system as it presently exists? What if the best thing that could happen would be for us to release our institutional structures altogether, opening ourselves to a more organic, responsive way of being Christ’s body?

In order to really consider these questions, it’s been helpful to take a step back from the Quaker bubble for a little bit. For the past couple of years, I haven’t been actively participating in a traditional Yearly Meeting. Instead, I’ve been part of a new, missional Quaker network called the Friends of Jesus Fellowship.

At first, we thought of ourselves as a sort of proto-Yearly-Meeting. We figured that our local missional communities were essentially Monthly Meetings, and that our Fall and Spring gatherings were more or less our Yearly Meeting (bi)annual sessions.

But as time has gone on, it’s become clear that we’re not a Yearly Meeting, and probably never will be. Instead, we’re finding something new and different, something born into the challenges that the church is facing in our present world.

As members and leaders in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, we take seriously the question, How does our community sustain and propel us in the mission where Christ has called us? Our fellowship does not exist for its own sake, but for the purpose of making disciples and demonstrating the love of Jesus Christ for our neighbors. The structures of the Fellowship are exist for this purpose, and they evolve as the Spirit leads us.

A New Kind of Community

This openness to Christ’s ongoing direction is creating a network of disciples that looks quite different than what we had experienced before. Here are some key characteristics we’re finding that make the Friends of Jesus Fellowship a truly vibrant community:

1. We empower individual leaders to operate in their gifts and unlock their potential as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. By emphasizing the giftedness and unique calling of each person, we come together as a body with all parts working together in harmony.

2. The Friends of Jesus Fellowship is rooted in spiritual affinity and shared calling by Christ. The Fellowship is most strongly based in the eastern half of the United States, but we are not necessarily limited by geography. We have friends and co-workers scattered from Berkeley to Baltimore, from Madrid to Moscow.

3. Our membership is based on shared commitment and mutual accountability. We are members of one another because we have come together as disciples, followers of Jesus who are engaged together in learning from Jesus himself. Becoming a Friend of Jesus isn’t a matter of clearness committees and paperwork. We’re not a club to be joined primarily for a sense of identity and belonging. It’s about doing the work, showing ourselves to be friends of Jesus by our love for one another.

4. Rather than preserving an institution, we are focused on igniting a movement. In place of nostalgia for the past – even the admittedly glorious past of the early Quaker movement – we are inspired by a vision for the new things that God wants to do right here, right now.

It’s not that we don’t need institutions. We definitely do, and we are actively developing appropriate structures under the guidance of the Spirit. Still, we know that our institutions are means, not ends. No matter how efficient our structures and procedures are, their purpose is always to move us forward together in the dynamic mission of Jesus and his reign.

Freedom from the Quaker Law

As a recovering Quaker process junkie, this is all very new, disturbing, and refreshing! I have some sense of how Paul must have felt when he was released from the deadening straight jacket of the Law. This is what gospel freedom feels like: It’s the end of all the shoulds of religious observance, an invitation to a life of deep relationship with Jesus and his friends.

As part of the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, God is introducing me to a whole new way of being a follower of Jesus. Rather than seeking to defend the Quaker tradition and my insider bona fides, I am discovering a way of ministry that goes far beyond anything that Quaker tribalism could offer.

For all my friends who remain faithfully serving within a traditional Quaker context, I know this essay might feel like an attack. I hope you’ll believe me when I say it’s not. I have been among the fiercest Quaker loyalists, defending tooth and nail what I considered a traditional Quaker vision of gospel order. I still value this tradition, even as I join with a community that is radically re-mixing it in order to be faithful to where the Spirit is leading us today.

Whether you’re a Quaker insider or have never heard of a Yearly Meeting before reading this post, I want to invite you into something bigger. Something deeper. Something more beautiful than any human structure.

What would it look like for us to let go of the traditional Yearly Meeting altogether? What discoveries might we make if we started fresh, rooting community in our 21st-century context? What kind of power could we unlock?

I think we’re in for some beautiful surprises.

*For my non-Quaker readers: A Yearly Meeting is a regionally and theologically defined association of local congregations. It is the highest decision-making body that Quakers have, and is roughly equivalent to a diocese, district, or conference in other denominations.

Related Posts:

Get Your Hand Out of that Pickle Jar!

Burn Down the Meeting House

  • Kevin Bales

    The question ‘do we need a Yearly Meeting?’ seems to be an American question, perhaps reflecting somehow the schismatic nature of American Friends. In the UK, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the question or the idea expressed as a concern. Of course, Friends have a lot of thoughts about the needfulness and point of YM, but I know I feel as many others do when I think about how YM, for example, led the UK in making it clear that Friends would marry same-sex couples no matter what the national law happened to say. To have a unified voice of the Society was important in helping other faith communities (and some politicians) in the UK to see their way forward. The Friends of Jesus Fellowship certainly speaks to my condition, but rather than leaving YM behind, perhaps you could take the FoJF into YM – something like a Jesus vaccination?

    • barbara.hrrsn@gmail.com

      Hate to iterate this, but the UK is a relatively compact geographic region. I’m not even certain how many YMs there are in the US (we do have four conferences, and then there are the independents), some of which have MMs in more than one state, so speaking with a unified voice is just NOT going to happen here. To keep things in perspective, Friends aren’t the only denomination(s) reconsidering whether their overarching structure(s) might be a hindrance to doing the Lord’s work.

      • I agree. Britain is such a different context, I don’t even know where to start. I look to the brothers and sisters in Britain to lead the way on solutions for greater faithfulness and disciple-making in the UK.

    • I’d love to see you take the FOJF “vaccination” into your YM, Kevin! 🙂

  • barbara.hrrsn@gmail.com

    Amen.

  • Stephanie Crumley-Effinger

    Micah, it may be that in the time you’ve been away from visiting yearly meetings you have missed some of the ways in which various ones are growing and changing to be faithful in their own calling and responding to the opportunities for helping and empowering their member Monthly Meetings. I was recently at Philadelphia YM, and while you would not feel at home their theologically, I think that you would be moved and inspired by the life and witness at work there. From their journey to undo racism and to witness to God’s love for and presence within every person, to the invitation for individuals to engage others in conversation about “how Truth fares with thee” to inter-visitation, there is spiritual life and energy which I found inspiring and exciting to experience.

    Perhaps you could see it less that YMs should be replaced by the model of a Fellowship that you are developing than that each may grow and encourage one another into faithful expressions of what God is doing in their respective contexts and member groups.

    • Hi Stephanie,

      Thanks for this comment. I’m glad to hear that PYM had good sessions this year.

      I still think that the traditional Yearly Meeting structures need an update for our (post)modern context, but there is definitely a place of greater health that our existing, traditional YMs can come to!

      I think that the mutual support & spiritual check-ins you mention are great uses of YM time!

  • Michael Jay

    I tend to disagree for pragmatic reasons, though I do think we should ask if there are too many Yearly meetings.

    Essentially, a yearly meeting is an autonomous ‘church’ — a group that does not (or should not) have to look to another body for their administration, or fulfilling their calls to ministry. The local meetings are interdependent upon each other, and the larger body that represents the whole interdependent network. In a liturgical church, such autonomy requires 3 bishops and a seminary.

    While there is not an exact analogy — this means, in order to be autonomous, a church body really needs to have a way of training and building new leadership without looking to an outside body, and… the church should not be strictly ‘local’… there should be voices, and significant administrative level leadership from at least 3 geographic ‘areas’.

    If I were to go through the list of Yearly meetings, I would quickly demonstrate that most of them are lacking somewhere. Many are failing to train and build up new leaders (while I’m not insisting that this be in a seminary, it is the same as lacking a seminary)… and others are dominated by a single municipality — and even a single demographic within that municipality…

    • Interesting observations, Michael. Thank you.

    • chrisew

      Kenya has how many yearly meetings? Like a dozen or so?

  • chrisew

    I grew up in the Christian Church (Disciples) which had its structures beyond the local congregation. However, before coming to Friends, I was ordained through a congregation of the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ (Independent). All those congregations were locally autonomous. But they held themselves together as a movement by teaching conventions in states and nationally. No legislation was ever passed beyond the local church. Interestingly, the Independent Christian Churches have grown enormously through the years. I wonder if we Friends would do as well without the yearly meeting? I would like to see the area meeting become more prominent, maybe even the main extra-congregational entity. It could take care of area concerns, recordings, etc. Then, a “yearly” meeting would be merely an annual teaching and fellowship gathering. I doubt something like this will ever come to fruition but I’ve been wrong before.

    • I think that’s a great idea, chrisew. Definitely worth considering.

  • Jim Breiling

    1. Let the attendance as a proportion of monthly meeting members and in absolute numbers give direction. If on a downward trajectory and low, suspend (maybe new energy will arise to fill the void),

    • I certainly don’t think Yearly Meetings are going anywhere anytime soon. But it is an open question as to whether these are the most effective structures for nurturing a disciple-making movement.

  • Christine Greenland

    I was at New England YM (not Philadelphia YM) where I feel supported theologically and spiritually; the theme was what it means to be a covenant community. Jackie Stillwell, the outgoing clerk, reminded us that our structures are not as important as our faithfulness. I needed to hear that.

    Because of the timing this year, I was not able to be present at both Philadelphia and New England Yearly Meetings. There was work to do in New England.

    I checked in with Friends at our Quarterly Meeting picnic yesterday; responses were mixed for a variety of reasons, some having to do with resistance to changing the ways in which we are Friends, and other responses that I can only describe as “institutional cheer-leading”.

    Some of this has to do with expected tensions as we grapple with matters of both race and class; still other matters have to do with the fact that our structures have changed at least twice in 30 years, as has the outline of our faith and practice. The question I have (of myself and others) is “How do we — individually and corporately — show that we truly love one another as Christ has loved us?” By that, I mean all others.

    The most hopeful exchange was speaking with a dear Friend in my former meeting who had gone for the first time in decades, and feels strongly led to encourage her meeting to assist in work going on at both the quarter and yearly meeting level; this will cross boundaries. I was hopeful in part because this Friend exudes consistent love. … and has in the 25 years I’ve known her. Love of God/neighbor are inseparable. She lives that better than I do.

    It seems I have much to learn.

  • Bravo, Micah, for asking these questions and sharing your thoughts.

    As an outsider, let me confirm this discussion is not unique to Quakers. Many people, especially younger ones, question their own tribe’s meetings and formal infrastructure. Others give up, and some drop out.

    Personally, I’m against the institution of church in favor of organic church. That gives the Holy Spirit the most room to act. And I think it’s more like the early church.

  • broschultz

    I think this is going to work out differently in different places. The spirit is definitely talking to Quakers but like the scriptures say: Let them that have ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying. Each monthly meeting has to discern which church they are in Revelations. Has a prophet already told them but they ignored him or her? What church do the YM prophets see their YM as? Some YMs have united for the sake of unity and property but the Spirit isn’t interested in a false unity or the goods of this world (check out the letter to the church of the Laodiceans). Are YM’s too far down the road of being led by those who have the organizational skills recognized to the detriment of those with spiritual gifts or will they recognize the sign of the times as the Major Christian denominational church did when they decided it was time to give their people a spiritual leader regardless of where the chips may fall?

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  • I don’t think this applies very well to those of us in the more liberal Yearly Meetings where evangelism and a relationship with Jesus are not our primary concerns, and where words like “prophets” and “apostles” in referring to current leadership would turn people off more than excite them. I see Quaker leadership as “servant leadership”. This is not to say that issues about level of support for our YM don’t apply to us – they certainly do here in Canadian YM. But I don’t find this blog helps us in that regard.

    • broschultz

      I understand that very much. NYYM is pretty liberal but I see people with a prophetic gift walking among them. I hear a prophetic call for service but I am afraid it’s not being understood. Instead of trying to represent monthly meetings on the “LARGE” issues, I think the YM’s are being called to assist the monthly meetings in feeding the poor, clothing the naked and housing the homeless. Not with government assistance but with their own resources. That’s what love is. If the former can be done without diminishing the latter, I would say fine, but I don’t see that as being the case.

  • kathleen bell

    I’m also from Britain Yearly Meeting and therefore from a different context (and find YM very valuable whether I attend or not). However the terms that seem alien and strange to me are “leaders” and “members.” As I experience Quakerism in a different environment, I see a society in which we all are all members and, in old Quaker parlance, followers of the leadings of the Spirit. There are people who occupy key roles, but I see their role as listening and not as leading, whether they are listening to the spirit of the Meeting, to that of God in those they encounter, or to leadings of the Spirit experienced in another way. The idea of leadership is one that is much promoted in politics and the workplace at the moment but it’s not one I find helpful in a Quaker setting. I do appreciate, however, that the experience of Friends elsewhere, including in North America, may be very different and may also have something valuable to teach me.

  • forrestcuro

    The energy expenditure on travel is obscene in a time when the Earth is clearly terminal, to survive (if we do) only by the grace of God. The expense of housing so many people, even briefly, in the style to which middle-classist Friends prefer, does use up funds that might well be better spent.

    The gathering of a critical spiritual mass every year, for a brief period, gets many of us high and temporarily illuminated — a condition I miss very much, although indulging that yearning in my worthless old age no longer seems deserving of by my own Meeting. But I also noticed, even in years where this intensely inspired me, that the influence on my ongoing life and on my own local Meeting was observable only to God…

    The business of Yearly Meetings, so far as I know it, seems to be largely Quaker Football — (see http://sneezingflower.blogspot.com/2009/08/i-hadnt-planned-to-attend-yearly.html ) which is probably a worthy exercise, but not one of any practical value. The gathering aspect is wonderful… but when the sparks are scattered again, where did the fire go?

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  • Brent Bill

    Thanks for these thoughts, Micah. As a person who works for a Quaker institution, I still stand by my words in part 7 of my “Modest Proposal” from a few years back.

    … part seven of my modest proposal is that Yearly Meetings and other Friends bodies (whether they are centuries old, decades old or relatively new) stop and do serious examination of their purpose and programs.

    By that, Friends (and the institutions) need to ask things such as

    • Why do we have Yearly Meetings or other institutions?

    • What is their role?

    • What is their purpose?

    • Why were they created?

    • Does that need still exist? What are they doing that needs to continue to be done?

    • Is there a better way of doing these things?

    • Is the institution serving the needs of the local Meetings or are the Meetings serving the needs of
    the institution

    Further, I think these larger institutions and their staff and constituencies need to look at every program
    and staff position and ask the question “How does this fit with our mission — our raison d’être?”

    We shouldn’t be asking “Is it good or worthy?”

    Many programs and staff people may be good and worthy, but they may also detract from the institution’s primary purposes. In which case the organization then does not do the ministry for which it was created. I fear we spend too much time staffing boards and committees that may no longer be needed — simply because Faith and Practice tells us that we need X number of representatives from each Meeting, Quarterly Meeting or whatever to serve on such and such a board. We spend too much time hearing reports, doing a little bit of business, while rarely taking time to ask, “Is this what God is calling us to at this time?”

    http://brentbill.com/files/AModestProposalsmallerversion.pdf

  • Marshall Massey

    Three thoughts.

    One: my involvement in the yearly meetings I’ve been part of has been a blessing to me personally. I don’t know where I’d be today without that experience — without the inspiring rôle models, and the deep challenges, I’ve met at yearly meeting sessions.

    Two: I’m fine with the fact that it’s not for everyone. Quakerism used to understand that fact a lot better than it does today: yearly meeting used to be a *representative* gathering, which meant that people who didn’t feel the need of going, didn’t get harangued for not attending.

    Three: a few of the monthly meetings within our yearly meeting are relatively young ones that began not well grounded, either in Quakerism or in Christianity or in both. The yearly meeting’s support helped one of those through a painful crisis in its infancy, and it continues to help seekers in all of them to learn what they had not known existed: the wisdom and kindness of these two intertwined traditions.

  • Olivia

    Hello friends,

    a) I agree with Dan Cooperstock’s comment below about the liberal meetings and when he says “I see Quaker leadership as “servant leadership”.”

    b) I notice something in the larger bodies at other denominations:
    something warm and easier to see the purpose in…something that seems
    to naturally be useful and needed by the local “meetings” / the
    churches. I wonder why (some) Quaker Yearly Meetings may be seen as
    lacking that? Is that warm usefulness and integrated presence more about the spirit-based Structure of the larger body (embraced as a good thing), more about rooting in a clear, common spiritual message (Christ or the Light), or something else?

    c) Maaybe, the rules are just different for unprogrammed liberal Quakers, who are deeply focused on the local, grass roots Light, undervalue Structures sometimes and don’t value Authority at all as a concept. I for one have never felt this disappointment or oppression you have from the Quakers, but of course I wasn’t seeking a position of leadership either.