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 a 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?
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.