Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Growing Edge of the Religious Society of Friends: the Work of FGC Central Committee

This past week I went to Maryland to attend the annual gathering of the Central Committee of Friends General Conference, which serves the Religious Society of Friends (RSOF) by providing educational and other services, such as organizing the annual FGC gathering that takes place each year during the first week of July. This amazing gathering of Friends takes place in different cities around the USA (next year it will be in Greeley, Colorado) and draws from 1,100 + Friends from the US. Participants have an intensive experience of Quakerism through workshops, talks, music, and worship in small and large groups. I have been attending FGC Gatherings off and on for over 20 years, and have given a dozen or workshops; and I find the Gathering to be one of the spiritual highpoints of my life as a Friend. I have also attended Cent Com for at least five years, as a member of the Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee (CIRC); and it's always a joy to be a part of this remarkable body of seasoned Friends who are on the “growing edge” of Quakerism.

We have usually met at a Mennonite conference center in a rustic rural area of western Maryland, but this center went out of business, so we met instead at a nearby Jewish conference center called Pearlstone. This site was even more beautiful than the Mennonite one, since it has a lake, an organic garden, and even goats and chickens! It was also delightful to see vibrant evidences of Jewish spirituality displayed in many ways, in art and photos and quotations scattered around the various buildings. Pearlstone also asks its guest to observe certain shabbat rituals, such as not using cell phones and other devices in public places from sunset on Friday till sunset on Saturday. This was the most challenging part of being at Pearlstone, and I confess I was eldered by two different Friends when I inadvertently used my iphone on Friday night. I knew that some of our best Friends are Jews, but I had no idea that Friends could be such good Jews!

I'd like to share some of the highlights of the weekend for me.

One highlight was hearing about how the FGC website has been reconfigured to make it more user-friendly or “constituent-based.” $150,000 was raised to pay for this  important new online service. When you go to the new website, the focus is on you, the visitor, not us, the provider: how can the services of FGC help you to find a meeting, learn more about Quakerism, discover opportunities for service, etc. Because of this new approach, use of the website has increased by 84%!

FGC is also providing a new service for meetings and worship groups: a template that enables meetings to have a professional-looking and easily up-datable website at a very modest cost. This will make it much easier for Meetings to have an effective online presence with a very useful “toolkit,” such as an online directory, minutes, etc. that is secure and searchable. Six meetings have signed on to this service so far and it is hoped that over 100 will eventually utilize it.

Because this service was called “Quakers in the clouds,” I was reminded that Luke Howard, a birthright Friend from the 18th century, was the first scientist to create a taxonomy of clouds, thereby becoming one of the first modern meteorologists. I shared this bit of trivia with John Helding, who shared it with the body, much to everyone's delight and amusement. I am glad that this little known Friend finally received the recognition he deserves from his fellow cloud-loving Quakers!

Another exciting highlight was the “New Meetings Program,” coordinated by the prolific Quaker author Brent Bill. This program will provide support for newly emergent worship groups and for individuals who want to start a worship group. There will be a consultation on starting new meetings at Pendle Hill in January, to which yearly meeting clerks and others are being invited. This program will do research and develop educational material to help new meetings to grow and thrive.

There appears to be a growing need for this program. Around 63 meetings were started in the past decade. Brent Bill received and responded to 15 inquiries during the first month.

I am excited because I believe there is a real need for what unprogrammed Quakerism has to offer here in the USA and the world. As the Occupy movement made clear, many young people are seeking a non-dogmatic, non-hierarchical spiritual community committed to peace and justice. And belief.net surveys show a large number of respondents are already Quaker in their theological beliefs.

I had a chance to talk with Brent and was deeply impressed by his vision and experience. I'm glad that FGC has initiated this program despite financial challenges.

Barry Crosno, our new FGC exec sec, reported FGC had a $280,000 annual shortfall. This is a serious concern, but the good news is that we have experienced robust giving (unlike some other Quaker organizations) during the Great Recession. Donors to FGC have contributed 1.2 million this past year. The “Stoking the Spiritual Fires of Quakerism” campaign raised over 6.5 million over the past few years.

FGC has significant reserves and could continue to function for a dozen years or more at the current rate of deficit simply by drawing down the Cornell Fund. Nonetheless, the fiscally responsible thing to do is to have a balanced, sustainable budget. If in order to attain this goal we make cuts that are too deep, it could lead to decreased revenues.

Another option is to keep the current level of spending and try to raise an additional $280,000 yearly, but this is highly unlikely.

The 3rd option is to reduce expenses, seek additional $100,000 in fundraising, and use $100,000 of the Cornell Fund.

Barry proposed cuts such as reducing CIRC travel budget by $5,000 to $5,500; reducing budget for Bookstore and Publications, etc.

While I appreciate the need for austerity, I find it disturbing that we cut the budget of publications since FGC is the only Quaker publishing house in the USA, now that Pendle Hill has ceased to publish books. With admirable frugality FGC publications managed to publish four books last year on a shoestring budget. I spoke with Chel Avery, the director of the publications event, and she assured me that FGC's new publishing model--called "Quaker Bridge"--has ensured that worthwhile Quaker books continue to be published at minimal cost to FGC.

Overall, however, FGC's prudent but not draconian approach to deficit reduction made sense to me. Despite short-term cuts, long-term prospects for the RSOF and FGC look good. Unprogrammed Friends have seen a 4% increase in members over the past decade while the mainstream Christians like the Presbyterians have seen at 20% decline.

But if we want the RSOF to grow, it is essential that Friends continue to give generously to FGC. FGC is the body that provides educational and outreach material that help us to grow Quakerism. If you want to help insure a bright future for Quakerism, just go to fgcquaker.org.

When the treasurer gave his report, I raised a concern about FGC banking practices. I expressed the hope that FGC is not using predatory banks like Wells Fargo, Chase or BOFA, and was assured by Ken Miller that FGC uses community banks that “aren't doing bad things.” This was good news. I plan to share this news with SCQM and PYM which, I'm sorry to say, still use Wells Fargo, one of the most predatory banks in the USA (it was recently fined 120 million dollars for defrauding and misleading low-income people of color).

Speaking of people of color, FGC has a program on racial justice and reconciliation. On Friday night there was program to help raise awareness about racism among Friends. As you know, there are very few people of color among Friends—fewer than half a dozen out of 150-200 people here in this gathering. There are no Latinos I am aware of, and only a few Asians. I'd estimate that over 90% of the attendees at Cent Com are white, Anglo-Saxon and middle class. Most Friends feel badly and many feel guilty about this.

The program on racism went like this: we did skits and were asked to express our feelings about what we observed.

The first skit consisted of a white Friend who gave a message saying she was deeply depressed: “I am going through a lot of darkness right now and I'm feeling surrounded by black despair, and I don't see much light.

We were asked how we would feel if we were an African-American and heard such a message. Friends spoke about how hurtful it must be for African Americans to hear language that equates blackness with negative feelings and light (white) as something positive.

I didn't speak out. I had a very different take. I felt sorry for the depressed Friend and wondered how helpful it would be to her to point out she may have used language that may or may not have offended an African American person.

I also questioned whether the use of “darkness” and “light” needs to be considered racist. Martin Luther King (like most Christians) frequently used such language, as in his famous line: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hatred cannot drive out hatred; only love can do that.”

Of course, if an African American attender is offended/hurt by such language, we need to be sensitive and to listen to that person's concerns and respond with respect and love, just as we would if someone were offended by using words like “God” or “Christ” or “Republican.”

We broke up into small groups and did similar skits in which white Friends made racially insensitive remarks.

At the end of the evening, I felt pretty depressed. The focus on avoiding insensitive language did not help me to see how we as Friends could reach out to people of color and form friendships and alliances with them.

During our worship sharing session, we continue to address this issue based on our personal experience. Each of us considered the query: “Talk about a time when you experienced discrimination or felt you were treated less than others.” This query seemed to be much more helpful since it enabled each of us to share our racial and sexual wounds and be listened to with compassion.

While the racial reconciliation exercises were definitely the lowpoint of the weekend for me, I later came up with a model for how we might have addressed this concern in a more positive way, one that would empower us to action. I shared this with Jean Barch and will share this in a subsequent blog, which I am tentatively entitling: “Some ideas on how to empower Friends to become more racially diverse.”

A lot of what happens at Cent Com involves forming committees to help staff to do the work of FGC, and we spend considerable time discussing governance. Since this would probably not be of much interest to anyone outside of Cent Com, I will spare you the details.

I'd like to conclude by sharing the new vision statement which John Helding shared with us with great enthusiasm and which we approved with our usual Quakerly calm:

FGC, with Divine guidance, nurtures the spiritual vitality of the Religious Society of Friends (RSOF) by providing programs and services for Friends, meetings and seekers.

We envision a vital and growing RSOF-- a faith that deepens spiritually, welcomes newcomers, builds supportive and inclusive community, and provides loving service and witness in the world.

Through FGC and led by Spirit, we see Quakers joining together in ministry to offer services that help Friends, meetings and seekers explore, deepen, connect, serve and witness within the context of our living faith.


As I mentioned, I serve on the Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee (CIRC), whose main function is to make sure that Quaker representatives are sent to ecumenical and interfaith bodies like the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, the Parliament of the World's Religion, as well as entities like the Historic Peace Churches and theSociety for Pentecostal Studies. Our committee includes Quakers who have theological and philosophical training, along with others who are excited by the idea of reaching out to the ecumenical and interfaith world. My role is to help publicize the work of CIRC through blogs, workshops, and my book, “Quakers and the Interfaith Movement.”

As a member of CIRC, I was very impressed with spirited report that Dot Warizer and Tom Paxson gave on the last day of Central Committee. They made a strong case for why it is important for the Quaker voice to be heard in ecumenical and interfaith circles, particularly at the World and National Council of Churches.

In my next blog I'll share with you my report and minutes on the work of CIRC. I also plan to publish CIRC annual report.