Dear Children of the Day,
Dear Children of the Day,
This past week, I visited Friends at North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), held this year at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. This gathering was a blessed time to share worship and fellowship with Friends from across the South and experience the active movement and teaching of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
I had originally planned to attend the Friends United Meeting Triennial (which, interestingly enough, will be held in Wilmington, Ohio next week!). However, as I began to solidify my summer travel plans, it became clear that God was not calling me to attend the Triennial. As much as I personally thought I should be there, there was a heaviness in the idea of making the trip. My sense that God was calling me to lay that trip aside was confirmed by the lightness and peace I felt when I gave up and cancelled my plans.
At first, I thought that the Lord had simply asked me to cancel the trip to the FUM Triennial. Soon, however, I felt clear that I was being asked to undertake another trip instead. I experienced the Lord drawing my heart to Friends in North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). Though I had not previously considered a visit to North Carolina, the call felt clear and grounded in the love of Christ.
I approached my Monthly Meeting and requested release to travel on this concern. This was granted, as well as being endorsed by my Quarterly Meeting. With the blessing of these Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting, I undertook the journey as a labor of gospel love.
I am so glad that I yielded to the Lord’s guidance in this matter. My time among Friends in North Carolina was blessed with a deep sense of Christ’s presence in our midst. Jesus was present, teaching his people, and I was blessed to take part in the labor.
I also learned a great deal about our spiritual cousins in NCYMc. I saw that we hold many things in common. While we do our business in slightly different ways and have developed slightly different structures, Friends in Ohio and North Carolina are strikingly similar in the way we operate. In both bodies, there is a strong emphasis on expectant waiting and reliance on the present-moment guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Historically speaking, it makes sense that Friends in North Carolina would share many similarities with Friends in my Yearly Meeting. Ohio Yearly Meeting has a long history of relationship with Iowa and North Carolina Yearly Meetings (Conservative). In 1912, the Conservative Yearly Meetings issued a joint statement of faith, and during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a rich culture of intervisitation and exchange of ministers between the bodies of Conservative Friends in North America. However, in recent decades, there has been a marked decline in the traveling ministry between the Conservative Yearly Meetings.
In many ways, the living connections between our Yearly Meetings are in danger of being lost. Ever since the emergence of the Conservative Friends tradition, the primary way that we have recognized one another is through the formal exchange of epistles. In continuance of this tradition, the Yearly Meetings in Iowa, North Carolina and Ohio all exchange personalized epistles with one another. Yet, the organic and relational connections between our bodies have become so tenuous that it is no longer clear to many Friends why these epistles are exchanged. One well-meaning Friend in North Carolina last week posed the question of whether NCYMc should adopt the practice of composing only one epistle – “to all Friends everywhere.”
This Friend was not trying to make a negative statement about Friends in Iowa and Ohio. She simply did not understand the deep historical connection between our Yearly Meetings. There were plenty of Friends present, of course, who had more background knowledge, and it was soon explained why the personalized epistles are important. The three Conservative Yearly Meetings will, I suspect, continue to formally correspond for the foreseeable future. But the fact that this question could even be asked speaks to the lack of spiritual and relational unity among Friends in the Conservative tradition.
This trip convinced me that, if we continue down the course we are on as Conservative Friends, our exchange of epistles will soon be a formality – a fiction that masks a lack of real community. I do not believe it is too late to revitalize these relationships, but it will not happen without care and effort on the part of concerned Friends.
Christ calls us into unity with one another, and I pray that Friends in the Conservative tradition will consider how it is the Lord might be calling us to reach out. I believe that Jesus has a purpose for us as a wider body of Conservative Friends. If we are willing to submit ourselves to one another in his Holy Spirit, I do believe that God could use our witness in fresh and powerful ways.
We were reminded in our worship last week that we are the temple of the living God(1). Just as the Temple in Jerusalem was purified by fire from on high(2), we, too, must be purified and made ready for the work that God has for us. If we will open ourselves to this Fire, the Holy Spirit will heal the pain and indifference that divide us, drawing us together to be a light to the world.
1. 1 Corinthians 3:16
2. 2 Chronicles 7:1
This week I am visiting the sessions of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), sister body to my own Ohio Yearly Meeting. During my brief time among Friends here in North Carolina, I have noticed that one area of commonality between our groups is our sense of corporate witness. Friends in both OYM and NCYMc understand our faith as being not merely a matter of individual conscience, but instead a question of corporate commitment, faith and practice.
This was made clear during the business sessions this morning, when Friends here in North Carolina considered the question of their Yearly Meeting’s presence on Facebook. It turned out that an individual, years ago, had created a Facebook group for NCYMc, which most members of the Yearly Meeting had never heard about. This revelation presented an opportunity for Friends to consider how they as a Yearly Meeting might relate to this new form of communications technology.
Many Friends wondered whether this Facebook page might be misconstrued as being an official expression of the Yearly Meeting, and they discussed how the page might be brought under the administration of the Yearly Meeting as a body. Friends hoped that NCYMc could find a way to administer the page in a manner that would positively affect the visibility of the Yearly Meeting. At the same time, Friends wanted to ensure that the message presented on Facebook would reflect the sense of the body.
There were also questions about the open commenting feature on the group. How would these comments reflect on the Yearly Meeting? While many Friends felt that it was not in right order to restrict public statements by individual Friends, they wondered how care and oversight might be extended to the Facebook group. In the future, might the elders of the Yearly Meeting be charged with administering the body’s Facebook presence?
I am heartened to see that Conservative Friends in Ohio and North Carolina(1) Yearly Meetings share the conviction that our Christian faith as Friends is not merely a matter of personal experience and expression. As Friends in North Carolina minuted today, “ours is an experience of a faith community, not an individual.” This is a belief and a way of life that I believe Conservative Friends hold in common.
Customs and technology change, but Friends here in North Carolina seem convinced that discernment and action based in community are worth conserving, despite the pressures of Western individualism. The new power that the internet grants for individuals to express themselves does not mean that we as Friends should abandon our tradition of waiting together as a community to find and act on the will of God. Conservative Friends are embracing new opportunities, but with a cautious eye towards preserving the unity and integrity of Christ’s body. I give thanks to God for this witness.
1. Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) may share this as well, but I do not feel as qualified to speak about them, as I have not visited them in some time.
I recently received an email from an American Quaker who had read my recent post, Freelance Ministry or the Body of Christ? They wrote:
“I am totally in agreement with what you advocate — and my behaviors as minister among Friends are strictly Lone Ranger-mode. It’s not only my culture, it’s how I survived childhood. Those habits are deep in my cells and tissues. From your experience getting re-enculturated among Ohio Conservative Friends, can you suggest how one can change the freelance ministry culture when one is within the culture?”
Here is my response, which I post with my correspondent’s permission:
I’m particularly pleased to hear how helpful my post on freelance ministry vs. the Body of Christ was for you. This reality of “body-ness” is really changing the way that I live and grow in Christ, and I am eager to share my experience in this regard with others. It is such a treasure, and I want to do everything I can to help others live into this reality.
Unfortunately, as we both know, such a way of life is not something we can achieve on our own. I mean this not only in the sense that this is work that God must do within us, rather than something we do ourselves; this is certainly true, but it is even harder than that. Living in the Body of Christ depends on other people and their response to the call of Christ’s Holy Spirit to live as members of the True Vine. We cannot live in the Body of Christ without other disciples of Jesus who are also willing to take his yoke upon them. We can take first steps in faith, but ultimately we rely on the faithful steps of others.
I have been thinking about your question a lot during this past week: What can you do where you are? How can you become an agent for change within a freelance ministry culture? This is a hard question, and one that I have dealt with in the past as a member of another Yearly Meeting before joining Ohio Yearly Meeting.
To provide a direct answer, I must begin by asking more questions. First of all, are there committed, Spirit-led Christians within your Meeting? Your Yearly Meeting? Your wider circle of Christian fellowship? Consider unilaterally submitting yourself to their care and oversight. Allow some disciples of Jesus whom you trust – women and men of spiritual maturity and depth of Christian commitment – to serve as your spiritual elders. Communicate with them regularly, and be open to changing your plans and even beliefs based on their guidance and the inward prompting of Jesus in your heart. These relationships will provide the fundamental support for your ongoing ministry, which will almost certainly be fiercely challenged as time goes on. Make sure that these relationships are strong before venturing out.
Now, more questions: Do you sense that you are being called to the work of nurturing the development of the Body of Christ within your local Meeting? Do you sense that there is an opening for you to begin enfleshing the Body of Christ in your local Meeting? If so, you might consider approaching your Meeting’s Ministry and Oversight (aka Ministry and Counsel or Ministry and Worship). You could lay your concern before them, asking them to consider how they might be called to begin (or deepen) a life of accountability and mutual submission within M&O and in the Meeting as a whole. Be ready to submit yourself to these Friends, too, if they respond in faith to the Holy Spirit. Be ready to be challenged and changed as the Meeting is challenged and changed. This is a time when you will need to rely heavily on your core of elders who can support you and serve as a check to the feedback you receive from your Meeting.
If you do indeed feel called of the Lord to this work, remember that prophetic engagement with the Meeting is a ministry that may take many years to bear any discernible fruit. And you might never see results. I encourage you to be sure of your leading and your motivations before engaging in this work. I also encourage you to regularly ask yourself what Christ is calling you to now.
Another thing to listen for is whether God is calling you to engage in this kind of ministry in your current Meeting. In my own case, I was called to this work for a season. However, God eventually called me out of my previous Monthly and Yearly Meeting and transplanted me into Ohio Yearly Meeting. While I would by no means insist that it is right for you to leave your Meeting, I encourage you to be open to that possibility. In my own experience, I was called out in order to be involved in the development of a new community.
Finally, I would encourage you to seek out opportunities to imbibe the community life of Friends groups that place more emphasis on corporate submission to Jesus Christ. Consider joining us for Ohio Yearly Meeting, which takes place in Barnesville, Ohio, August 8-13. Also, you could attend Stillwater Quarterly Meeting or some of OYM’s Monthly Meetings. And you would of course be a very welcome visitor at Rockingham Meeting and Capitol Hill Friends!
Also, while I do not have much personal experience of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), I have heard that their Yearly Meeting sessions are quite edifying. That might also be another gathering worth attending. I especially encourage you to attend the gatherings of covenanted communities (worship groups, Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings). These are places where you can really experience the mutual submission in Christ that is so essential for a community that seeks to live as Christ’s Body in the world.
And, of course, I would be happy to correspond with you in the months and years to come. I pray that we may support one another as we seek to be disciples of the Master, gathered together in him.
I am your friend in the Lord Jesus Christ,
Business began on Thursday with a roll call of yearly meetings, including US yearly meetings, Canada Yearly Meeting, many Kenyan yearly meetings, Jamaica Yearly Meeting, and visitors from FGC, FWCC, and Britain. Southeastern Yearly Meeting was present, with two observers. I was saddened to reflect on the possibility that this could be the last time that Southeastern is present at an FUM event in any official way, as they decide in this coming year whether to maintain their relationship with Friends United Meeting.
There is a clear sense of concern among Friends at these sessions, a feeling that we are at a turning point in FUM’s history. On the one hand, it seems that relations among Friends have grown more civil. On the other hand, despite our increased civility, it is not entirely clear who we are or what we are doing as a body. Perhaps the primary question that Friends gathered here are wrestling with is the question of FUM’s call and identity. What is FUM? A missions board? A denominational head? A non-profit foreign aid organization? An “umbrella group” for one branch of Friends to come together and share fellowship? At times it seems that FUM attempts to be all of these things, and more, but often fails to carry out any of these roles satisfactorily.
At these triennial sessions, there has been an enormous emphasis on overseas missions. Sylvia Graves, General Secretary of Friends United Meeting, made it clear in responding to questions on Thursday morning that at this point in history she sees FUM’s role as being in carrying out overseas mission work. The reasoning that she presented was that foreign missions is something that FUM can do far better than yearly meetings could do on their own. Encouraging and supporting Friends in North America is, in her view, the responsibility of each yearly meeting. This viewpoint, while having its merits, is very frustrating for me, as one who feels called to serve Friends in North America at the present time. The reality is, our yearly meetings are not adequately supporting home missions. What FUM’s role in all of this is, I am unsure, but I am uncomfortable with all attention being given to sending support to overseas projects when our Religious Society is in such dire condition here in North America.
The schedule at these sessions is packed full of business, though I haven’t seen any decisions made yet. The business sessions on Thursday and Friday have been largely filled by reports from field staff in East Africa, Belize, and the Ramallah Friends School. There has been very little time for worship beyond singing a few hymns and holding a moment of silence before field staff reports. There was a remarkable tension this morning, as open worship was cut off after only one minute by an FUM staff member introducing the next presenter. As she attempted to close the extremely brief worship, another woman rose from the body and read in a strong voice from an epistle of George Fox to Friends in New Jersey. The staff member stood aside, gave about fifteen seconds of space after the minister had sat down, and then proceeded to introduce the next speaker. I wonder at this lack of open worship at the feet of our Lord who we claim as our leader. Why is there not more expectant waiting on Christ? Do we imagine that there is not enough time to spare in our sessions to receive communion together? Are we afraid to wait on the Lord as a body?
When we are not hearing reports, we are listening to speakers. Wednesday evening was Sylvia Graves, who gave us an extensive report on FUM’s activities over the past three years. Landrum Bolling spoke on Thursday evening about the need to re-examine our Peace Testimony in light of current events. He insisted that, “there are consequences,” to our testimony of Christ’s call to peacemaking. Among these consequences, he stressed the imperative that we resist the current push for expanding the present war into Iran.
Thursday night, after Bolling’s presentation, the few Young Adult Friends present at this event gathered together, along with a few other YAFs who had come over from North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), which is holding its annual sessions in nearby Greensboro. There were about a dozen of us, and we shared together about our experiences in the past few years, as well as about our frustrations as young adults in a religious community that alternately pampers us and patronizes us. There was a great sense that we are hungry for a more intergenerational life in community. We are, first and foremost, adult Friends. We just happen to be part of a religious community that tends towards the upper age range. Christ is teaching his people himself, and it’s not limited to any age group.