A ministry of encouragement

I love opportunities to get together informally with Friends – this was the original basis of the convergent Friends dinner parties I organized a few years ago. In the last year, the Quaker Revival and Nursery of Truth had some of the same characteristics of taking advantage of the presence of a visiting minister to gather local Friends for worship and conversation and a shared meal. I think the most important part of these gatherings is the opportunity to share our joys and concerns with other Friends, some familiar and some new faces, and the encouragement we take home from them, knowing we are not alone in walking the Quaker path.

I recently had the opportunity to visit with several small groups of Friends while traveling for work. In each case, the gathering was around 15 people from multiple monthly meetings in a local area. In each case the conversation somewhat naturally turned to the future of the Religious Society of Friends. And the message I was given to share with the group in each case was
“Do not be discouraged.” 
I understand that the state of the Religious Society of Friends and of any particular local group can be discouraging. I think that is par for the course. In life. At least in this lifetime.

So if Quakerism  and Quakers are just going to be discouraging, what are we supposed to do?

The answer is perseverance. Forgiving 70 times 7 times. And coming back, and showing up, and not letting the tedious or the insidious or the pompous get you down so much that you give up and go away and don't come back. That is the Tempter speaking to you: telling you it’s not worth it; these people will never change; there’s a better group out there somewhere.

Just as God and grace frequently become present to us through other people, Evil becomes present to us through other people, sometimes in the most banal ways. C.S. Lewis said that better than I can, but he was right. Evil is not always grandiose. Even the biggest evils, for example, apartheid, are made up of a lot of small pedantries.

This is different from Way Closing. There can be a sense of rightness in something ending. People, and all animals, die. Campaigns end. People change religions. Meetings in a particular place are laid down. This can be rightly ordered. Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between this and giving up prematurely. That’s advanced discernment, for sure.

In any case, this is not a new phenomenon.
Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged*
Take it to the Lord in prayer 

That's an old song, written by Joseph Scriven in 1855. Isaiah 42 was written long before that, and it's a whole chapter on the same theme.

As far as positive advice for Friends who are feeling discouraged, I have two thoughts. One is that we have to encourage each other, in living rooms and at kitchen tables, in meetinghouses, on street corners and in the pickup line at preschool. This is one of my favorite parts of my calling to ministry, which is further enabled by my current employment, but certainly didn't start with getting hired and I doubt will end when the paychecks do. If you know someone who is doing good work, encourage him/her and be encouraged by her/him. It's not actually all that complicated, and it's really important.

I actually think this is my personal answer to what the Religious Society of Friends needs right now. On my better days, I practice a ministry of encouragement. I aspire to humbly and boldly follow in the footsteps of Margaret Fell as a nursing mother of Quakerism. If you have ever felt that you weren’t getting enough encouragement among Friends, consider whether instead God is calling you to encourage others.

Second, and here I'm cheating a little because this is really seven things, read Chuck Fager's article, The Seven Ups, courtesy of Western Friend magazine, and follow his advice:
Show Up.
Read Up.
Speak up.
Ante up.
Smarten Up.
Toughen Up. And
Don’t Hurry Up. 

Keep up the good work, all of you.

*I wanted to quote this song in the title of this post, but I found that I had already used the most relevant line as a title of a previous blogpost. Here is a set of other blog posts by me referencing the same song: http://robinmsf.blogspot.com/search?q=take+it+to+the+lord+in+prayer [This was just a simple search, but I think it produced a fascinating cross-section of this blog.]

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Blogger Gil S said...

Thanks so much for this encouragement Robin. You are a true nursing mother of Quakerism for today!

12/31/2013 2:08 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks Gil! Your book, Strength in Weakness has so many helpful examples. And your encouragement means a lot to me.

12/31/2013 7:22 AM  
Anonymous Bill Rushby said...

Hello, Robin!
You wrote: "So if Quakerism and Quakers are just going to be discouraging, what are we supposed to do? The answer is perseverance. Forgiving 70 times 7 times. And coming back, and showing up, and not letting the tedious or the insidious or the pompous get you down so much that you give up and go away and don't come back. That is the Tempter speaking to you: telling you it’s not worth it; these people will never change; there’s a better group out there somewhere."

I have followed Stephanie Stuckwisch's discipline of not replying immediately to a post I have a quarrel with. But now, a day later, I feel prepared to reply to your letter of advice!

We need to understand that circumstances of the Friends you are advising are not all alike; some leave from discouragement or harassment, and others are "released" by a meeting for reasons that are often "fishy". I challenge the idea that "perseverance" is the answer to all of these circumstances. Sometimes, the "departure", whether forced or voluntary, comes after a long period of perseverance and failure to see any change. Leaving may be an act of desperation, or...of self-preservation. The party in question needs to do their best to maintain their personal integrity and spiritual well-being. If circumstances show no promise of changing, remaining in a toxic meeting or returning to it may be quite self-dsestructive.

I caution you to avoid advising others who may be in circumstances that you have never been in yourself, or known much about.

I also note that your advice appears to be entirely directed at those who, for whatever reason, become "x-ed" from a meeting. (This term was used by someone lately on MennoDiscuss, and I think it is apt!) What about the meeting involved in "x-ing" participants for whatever reason. IMHO meetings need to work much harder at understanding why participants leave or get put out. Both the Conservative and the liberal meeting in a nearby community have lost several participants over the last several years. I am sure each group blames those who are "x-ed", but I think it unlikely that either group has done any searching self-examination about why they have lost committed participants. In that same urban community, there are a dozen or two ex-participants who are attending Anabaptist or Pentecostal churches.

You wrote that some "x-ed" participants believe that: " there’s a better group out there somewhere." In fact, in our region, there are many Anabaptist churches; they differ from Friends, but frequently offer a rather good fit with a much healthier corporate life. In our case, the "better group" was not "out there somewhere"; it was right on our doorstep! As I have said many times before (not original with me, but I don't have the reference in hand), the issue is not just how many come through the meeting's front door, but how many slip out the back door for whatever reason. A meeting that ignores these "back door" losses, or blames them on the departed, stands a good chance of dwindling or developing a very bad reputation.

1/01/2014 11:55 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Dear Bill Rushby,

Of course there are different circumstances for different people. No one blogpost can speak to all conditions at all times. One of the easy things about reading blogs is that one is free to ignore any that seem unhelpful.

I agree with you that meetings need to pay attention to those who come and those who leave. I disagree that my advice is entirely directed at people who have left a meeting.

I don't know where you live, but it sounds like you have found a healthy spiritual community for you. That is a blessing.

1/01/2014 12:23 PM  
Anonymous Bill Rushby said...

Hello again, Robin!

It is a vibrant spiritual community. Nevertheless, my wife lived all of her life as a Conservative Friend, but died without membership in a meeting. I have been a Conservative Friend for over half of my life, but expect to die without membership also.

Meanwhile, the Mennonite church we have attended since 2002 takes very good care of us, even though we aren't officially members.

Your comment that meetings need to pay attention to those who leave, as well as those who come, is an understatement. They need to pay focused attention to those who leave. By the way, I got the word wrong; it should be "ex-ed".

Prayers for you in your work!!

1/01/2014 5:15 PM  
Anonymous Bill Rushby said...

By the way, in reflecting on this blog, I realized that the most acute source of "shrinkage" in the numbers of Friends is the extraordinarily weak intergenerational transmission of Quaker faith and participation. I am most familiar with this phenomenon among Ohio Yearly Meeting Conservative Friends. There are perhaps five or six major lineages in the 20th Century within the yearly meeting. It bogles my mind to think of how these kin groups have moved in a couple of generations from large numbers to a few or no descendants involved in the yearly meeting.

I know that this shrinkage is not limited to Ohio Yearly Meeting, or even to Conservative Friends; it is pandemic among unprogrammed Friends, and perhaps pastoral Friends too. Yet there has been very little research on why this shrinkage takes place. I would love to study this problem in Ohio Yearly Meeting, but I know that there would be huge resistance to such research.

Comparing OYM Friends with the Mennonite conference we have been involved with, the differences in success in gaining the commitment of the young to their faith is stark!

1/02/2014 4:46 PM  
Anonymous Bill Rushby said...

Please remove my comment. It isn't consistent with your theme.

1/02/2014 8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much Bill Rushby for writing what you did. I do not dwell on the negative that happened to me. I have never written about it till now and I will not again. I was not one that was harmed by any other religion. I did not come in as the walking wounded to become a convinced quaker. I think each meeting should get feedback as to why members are leaving. Especially a new member who like myself go through a long term process to even be considered for membership. I left wounded (now OK) after being seriously mistreated, verbally threatened and verbally abused by one "weighty quaker". No one from the entire meeting ever even contacted me to discuss why I left or the other members threats. No I do not live in a bubble there are different and ill people everywhere but to allow it to go on and/or not even discuss it with me or try and address it in the meeting house. After years of belonging to another church, being active and involved and never having encounterted an issue of abuse. My leaving was an act of self preservation. Other Quakers had warned me that the meeting I was interested in was ill, accepting members that had beliefs not inline with our Faith and Practice. I thought they were being petty. Turns out they were being loving. Like Bill Rushby made clear many other choices exist. I did not leave because of one members behavior I left because the meeting did not address it, just like no one could tell me what if anything was in place for children's safety in the meetinghouse (some examples). How many times does one have hear as an answer I do not know I am not on that committee or worse as in the children's safety questions no one could provide me with an answer. I pray everyday for Quakers, their historic and expensive meeting houses and the serious decline of a beautiful religion. The meeting I left the majority of the members were almost all over 60.

1/07/2014 5:02 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Bill, I'm not sure which of your comments you want me to delete, but I think you can do that without me.

Anonymous and anyone else who is being hurt, if you are in an abusive situation, get out and get help. If you have no one else to help you, start here. To quote Glennon from the Momastery blog, "Any decent church will promise you that God loves you more than any institution God made for you - including marriage and including church."

To further quote her, "If you are not hurt or neglected, but you’ve “fallen out of love” and so you are disillusioned about marriage- join the club. All the married people in the whole world are in the club." And so are all the Quakers. A Friend of mine says that no one should become a member of a Meeting until they have been disappointed by Quakers at least once. And that is who this blogpost is written to, all the people who have been disappointed by Quakers at least once.

1/11/2014 9:58 AM  

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