Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 6B For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

Before I get to my proposed name change, let me say just a bit more about why I think it's time for a change. I'll make it explicit -- and that is the idea in the minds of many (primarily programmed Friends) that minster is synonymous with pastor. And that tain't necessarily so -- or at least it shouldn't be. We Quakers have long recognized various gifts of ministry. But this creeping clergyism is too quickly leading to the inevitable (I think) conclusion that the only ministry that is recognized is that of pastor.

That's already happening in some places. I live within the geographical confines of one yearly meeting and am a member of the yearly meeting "next door." I am a congregational consultant, which I consider very much a ministry. Yet, because I am not a pastor, I am not included in any mailings for ministers -- other than the yearly report I am asked to complete to demonstrate that I am using my ministry gifts. I am not invited to Pastor Short Courses, luncheons, retreats, information/training sessions, etc. It is as if, even though I have been a recorded minister for 30 years now, that I am not considered a minister by these yearly meetings since I am not a pastor.

I know I'm not the only recorded minister who has experienced this.

Another thing I worry about is, if we start using the title "Pastor" can there be a "Bishop" (in name or action) far behind? I fear we are closing in on the attitude, if not the title, already. And this goes against our call to present the Gospel of direct communication with God without a need for rite, ritual, or clergy.

So what do I propose? I have thought a long time about this and here's my ungainly name -- "released minister."

I think it's a good name for a number of reasons -- two of which I'll address here. One is that it gets us back to the idea of what we name all Friends. We are all ministers, are we not? Or at least we're supposed to be. Let's start by calling our paid staff person by the same name we all need to be going by.

Another is that this name will have to be explained. If, upon meeting somebody for the first time and they inquire about how I spend my days and I say that I am the pastor of Podunk Friends Church, they immediately know what that means based on their experience of what a pastor does. But if I say, "I'm the released minister at Podunk Friends" then I have, as Desi Arnaz used to say, some 'splaining to do. I then get to tell how we Friends believe that we are each ministers and that I am fortunate enough to have been released from seeking full time secular employment to use my ministry gifts in the service of the other ministers. I think that can be a powerful witness.

I think it also gives other Friends a chance to witness -- and relearn -- the amazing fact that we are all ministers. If we aren't allowed to say "She's our pastor" anymore and say "She's our released minister," then it is, like above, an opportunity to say what we believe about ministry and why. Which means, of course, that Friends need to be educated enough in our Gospel message that they can articulate it.

Another thing I think this title could help us do is to focus on what are we calling a staff person to come do for and with us as a local congregation. We could then move from some boiler-plate job description of pastor handed down by a committee from the Yearly Meeting to developing a position that meets our needs. We would then have to ask, what are we releasing someone to do? To preach? To visit the sick and dying? To teach us? What do we need done by a paid staff person that we cannot (not will not) do ourselves?

This then allows us to match the person and her or his gifts with the Meeting and its expressed needs. It is not about developing a professional quasi-clergy profession where congregations advertise for a pastor and everyone's resume looks the same because the job has been the same from location to location. What a joy to match gifts and strengths to a people and place that can make use of them in unique ways.

It also allows us to recover the Friendly idea that there are many types of ministry. A large Meeting might have released ministers serving as pastors, youth ministers, pastoral counselors, chaplains in local institutions and more. No one is senior pastor versus junior pastor -- all gifts and people are equally respected.

I think the title "released minister" is one that could be used for paid staff in unprogrammed meetings, too. It is no less arcane, and certainly more descriptive, than titles such as Meeting secretary.

Notice in this idea of the name change, I have nowhere advocated for an end to paid and/or trained ministers. While Friend George did say that "being bred at Oxford and Cambridge did not qualify or fit a man to be a minister of Christ," it doesn't necessarily hurt, either. I think we Friends can be well served by women and men who are trained in congregation administration, religious education, preaching, counseling, and the like. And if a woman or man feels called to serve Friends full time and her or his gifts in ministry are confirmed by the Meeting or Yearly Meeting or whatever, then she or he should be compensated.

Yes, this may all seem to be a bit idealistic. If so, I plead guilty. And yet, it seems to me, that the Quaker message is an idealistic one -- a Gospel that calls us -- and expects us -- to experience God individually in community. Our paid staff people should be empowered to help us keep to that ideal through various ministry roles. To be a released minister -- instead of pastor -- would be, I think, immensely freeing. If, that is, one truly cares about being a Friend of Jesus and not about being in a position of power or titular authority.

-- Brent

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 6A For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the Quaker pastors." Brently VI, part II, Act 4, scene 2 (with apologies to William Shakespeare -- and all the Quaker pastors.)

Okay, now that I have your attention, I do not mean that literally. Any more than Shakespeare did when he had Dick the Butcher utter that now famous line from Henry VI -- "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." As one scholarly analysis of those words says, "... the famous remark by the plotter of treachery in Shakespeare's King Henry VI shows [that] the surest way to chaos and tyranny even then was to remove the guardians of independent thinking."

So, with tongue firmly in cheek, I propose we kill off the Quaker pastorate. Well, with tongue out of cheek, at least the way it is currently constituted.

Since our earliest days, Friends have railed against the hireling ministry. As George Fox himself said, "Christ saith to his ministers, 'freely you have received, freely give,' and they laboured 'to keep the gospel without charge.'"

And yet, in the late 19th century many Quaker adopted what Fox would have seen as a hireling ministry -- the pastoral system.

Now I am not going to rant against the pastoral system per se. I find it it gauche to bite the hand that fed me, so to speak. Nor do I think that the Quaker paid ministry is necessarily a bad thing -- as an idea.

The way that it is practiced today, by and large, though, I think is not helpful to a revitalization of the Quaker message in the United States.

These are just my thoughts, but the issue is something I've wrestled with for a long time (since before I was recorded in 1980) -- how does my role differ from the Presbyterian pastor next door -- and how, or can, the idea of Quaker pastor be reconciled with the Friendly testimony against hireling ministers?

This is a pretty involved topic, though I do think it's high time, especially given the number of seminaries preparing women and men for Friends pastoral work, that someone write a relevant guidebook or apology (or both) for the nature and work of the Quaker paid ministry.

Having said all that -- here goes (again these are my thoughts! I'm very open to disagreements or rebuttals):Elton Trueblood asserts that men in the clerical profession in the times of the early Friends were considered “hirelings’ because “they seemed to make the ministry more of a job than a calling.”

This whole idea of calling and following a leading is central to the nature of Friends pastoral work. It has to be a call, not just to general service, but to particular places of service at particular times. I see this differing from many other, especially mainline traditions, where women and men prepare for the ministry in general and that it becomes their career path.

I saw this most clearly in the semester I studied at a Lutheran seminary and various folks talked about their path into ministry. I was one of very few who used the concept of call as I delineated it above.

A concern about Quaker pastoral ministry has always been that it will evolve into "profession."

Richard John Neuhaus (certainly no left leaning type), in Freedom for Ministry: A Critical Affirmation of the Church and Its Mission, points to the increasing consideration of the pastoral ministry as a “profession”.

This sounds to me a lot like what is going on at times among Friends in pastoral ministry. This move toward profession, Neuhaus says, “is a poignant confession of vocational bankruptcy.”

Sounds like he and Fox and some other early Friends might agree.

Another difference (besides calling) is, I think, the question of authority. Many pastors in many denominations have authority by virtue of their ordination. A Catholic priest and Presbyterian pastor are both, in effect, the c.e.o's of their congregation. That is not true for the Quaker paid minister (no matter how some might wish it was).

The Clerk is the authority in our Meetings. That's a significant difference that we need to ensure is not blurred.

I do think there are a number of Biblical models for a Quaker paid ministry.

One is Ephesians 4:11&12 “It was he [Jesus] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…”

My understanding of what the Friendly model should be is reflective of the passage in Ephesians. Throughout the history of Friends, we have had folks in these various services. Evangelists – the Valiant Sixty, John Camm and John Audland to Bristol. Pastors – “Second Day Morning Meeting” which supervised the “nourishing of various flocks” (Elton Trueblood) and supporting various ministerial/pastoral types (not with salaries, but in support of their families).

Robert Barclay says, “We do believe and affirm that some are more particularly called to the work of the ministry ….”

The paradox for Quaker paid ministry today is to find a third way where the paid minister is not the c.e.o. of the local Meeting nor slave. The role of the Quaker paid minister must be to prepare God’s people for works of service. I see the Quaker paid minister as a fellow spiritual pilgrim -- moving toward God with the rest of the congregation, set apart only because he or she was called to serve the members (even -- or maybe even especially -- the annoying ones).

If authority or weight is granted, it comes not from the title, but because the congregation recognizes the spiritual depth of the paid minister in the same way it recognizes other weighty Friends. For Friends today, I believe that involves both the specialized ministry of a trained and called pastor and the universal ministry of a called and equipped congregation.

To facilitate that, Lorton Huesel says four things are essential

  • The meeting for worship must be free from rigidity which prevents the workings of the Spirit

  • Preaching in our meetings for worship must be under the leadership of the Spirit.

  • We must adhere to Friends’ business methods and never let power and authority be centralized in the pastor.

  • Paid ministers and the other members of the meeting must be trained in the art of silence.

Seth Hinshaw, in The Spoken Ministry Among Friends, said, “The pastor’s role in a Friend’s meeting is exacting and difficult. The pastor is not hired to preach, but liberated to serve.” The italics are mine. We need to recover, I think, that sense that the Quaker paid ministry is an exacting and difficult liberation to serve.

Notice that I have quit using the phrase Quaker pastor and moved to Quaker paid minister. I did that because I am concerned about the use of the title "pastor" and its implications. One of which is that the Quaker "pastor" functions exactly the same as a pastor in any other faith group.

When I served as pastor of Friends Memorial Church in Muncie, I had sign on my door that said, “His Eminence’s Study.” Everyone knew it was a joke, because we Quaker pastoral types don’t use titles.

Or do we?

I’ve noticed, to my dismay, a creeping “title-ism,” lately. Like in a few of the newsletters I read from when the pastor signs her name “Pastor Betty Joy” or some such thing. I even read a piece by a Quaker pastor type who signed it "The Reverend Doctor." This bothers me, even if these are folks whose ministry and friendship I respect and cherish.

It bothers me because I worry that by doing so we blur one of the distinguishing differences between being a Friends pastor and one in any other denomination.

Scott Russell Sanders, an unprogrammed Friend from Bloomington, Indiana and professor at Indiana University, writes in Falling Toward Grace: Images of Religion and Culture in the Heartland, about how in the 19 century many Friends congregations began hiring ministers. The result, he says, is that they began behaving “for all the world like other low-temperature Protestant churches.”

That may sound harsh, but Elton Trueblood, in the 1960 Quaker Lecture at Indiana Yearly Meeting (and later in Quaker Religious Thought) said something similar when he noted that “our pastoral system in … some areas…of Friends is merely a poor reflection of … stronger Christian bodies.”

“The mistake,” Elton says, “was that a fundamentally alien system was taken over, almost intact, from other Christian bodies.”

One of the ways he said he knew that to be true was the preponderance of Friends pastors who allowed themselves to be referred to as Rev. So and So at community and other gatherings.

Scott and Elton, though poles apart on other issues, are in agreement on this one. And I’m with them. The role of the paid minister among Friends is like that in no other denomination. To be sure, there are similarities. But we need to keep the distinctives in mind, too.

We need to remember that we are neither CEO nor doormat. We are called to be co-laborers with Christ and congregation. That understanding of the unique relationship between the one called to pastor and the other Friends who are members of the Meeting begins to erode the moment I begin referring to myself as Pastor Brent or Rev. Bill.

I read this piece the other day and wondered: Does this describe us?

At the core of this dilemma is the role of the Pastor as a spiritual leader. The late Erich Fromm noted that most people fear freedom, and seek to escape it by turning to a leader who can relieve them of any responsibility for their identity, character, and future. Many people treat their pastors as such shields against accountability. But that is not the Quaker way. Ultimately, a pastor who agrees to serve in that capacity is an accomplice in stunting someone’s spiritual maturation, depriving them (and God) of the distinct rewards of an adult faith.

Rather than imposing a dictatorial control on the seeker or believer, the pastor is, above all, a teacher. ... Teaching happens only in an environment of freedom and curiosity, of commitment freely entered and community voluntarily joined. ... Robots are not told to “choose life that you may live,” nor are computers informed of the consequences of their choices. But the people called Quakers are, because God cherishes our voluntary service and our obedience freely offered.

In that journey, no Quaker is under the compulsion of another. We have not given up an Egyptian Pharaoh to take on a pastoral one. Instead, God has liberated us from the very model of despotism, of ever abdicating our souls to another human being.

Pastors traditionally do not seek to deaden the mind or to stifle the heart. We provide authoritative information about what the Bible teaches and what the Lord requires of us. We embody (or seek to) the best of what Quaker living and Quaker values can attain. As teachers and as role models, pastors are essential to Quaker survival. But when acting as vicarious Quakers (living a Quaker life and thinking Quaker thoughts so the rest of us don’t have to) or as externalized authorities (making all the tough choices), some pastors and their followers subvert the very tradition they claim to love.

Instead, as partners, by meeting our congregants and students in the sea of the Bible, we navigate together those ancient words and powerful insights. Pastors ... offer the shimmering wares of faith. But the Quaker, each Quaker, must decide for him or herself: do I buy it? Do I cherish it? Do I care for it so I can transmit it to my children?

Actually that's a piece by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson about the role of the Rabbi. I just cut out Rabbi and inserted Pastor (and Bible for Torah, Jew for Quaker, etc). Those who serve as paid ministers among Friends live in a dynamic tension of serving as spiritual guides while remaining fellow spiritual travelers of a local congregation. It's very much like the role -- not of other Christian pastors -- but of a rabbi.

I am not proposing that we paid ministers in the Society of Friends begin to call ourselves rabbis. Instead, the sixth part of my modest proposal is to drop the term pastor in favor of a new name that I think gets back to the original intent of the pastoral system among Friends (and indeed, back to ministry among Friends). The new name and how I see it working will be in the next post -- Part 6B For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States.

-- Brent

Friday, September 24, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 5 For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

From our beginnings, we Friends have held that one place is not more sacred than another -- all places are fit for the worship of God. And early on we established a sort of generic Meetinghouse look -- free from the ornamentation and classic cross arrangement of most Christian churches.

This architecture stayed consistent among Friends (regardless of persuasion) until the rise of the pastoral movement. Then the buildings of Friends churches (primarily) began to resemble other church buildings of the time they were constructed. For example, I've been in Friends churches constructed in the late 19th and early 20th century and they look a lot like the Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, et al churches built in that era -- often following the Akron plan (the name came from the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Akron, Ohio) which was based on increasing Sunday school attendance. Some even have a modified bell tower -- sans the bell, of course!

This trend continued. The congregation I grew up in (Highland Avenue Friends) moved from a building that was a modified Akron plan building into a modern, straight lined building with Sunday school wings growing off each side of the sanctuary. Yes, we used the the word sanctuary. About the only thing that differentiated the Westgate Friends Church building from the Lutheran, Wesleyan, Nazarene, Evangelical United Brethren and other church buildings of the 50s and 60s was the lack of a cross hanging in the front above the pulpit.

Even old Friends buildings were modified to fit the pastoral system. Benches were removed and pews brought in. Organs and pianos and pulpits were installed on a raised platform at one end. So now many, if not most, Friends church buildings (speaking primarily of programmed meetings) look something like this:

Which is fine, I think, for most preaching-centric or rite-centric faith groups. If the proclamation of the Word is the primary purpose of a faith group, then naturally the congregation should face the place where that Word is going to be preached. Also, if the acts of taking communion or baptism were central expressions of the faith, then it makes sense to be looking at the altar where the Host was consecrated or the font or pool where baptisms would take place.

But it really doesn't fit what Quaker worship should be about -- welcoming the presence of Christ in our midst. The very nature of this seating arrangement puts the focus on people and performance -- not on God. We, who worship in such a setting, then look through our fellow worshippers (or the back of their heads) to a preacher, a worship leader, a choir to take us through the parts of worship in the same we we would sit in an auditorium to watch a play. We, except for congregational singing, mostly observe. We participate mostly in singing -- which is preplanned. But mostly we sit and watch others.

So part five of my modest proposal is that we scrap this seating arrangement in favor of something like this --

There are three reasons for doing this. One is so that our view changes from looking at a particular place where ministry will come from to one where our view is that ministry could come from anywhere in the room. Which would also imply "from anyone" in the room. It moves us from an expectation that others will do worship while we watch to watching for where the Spirit is moving (both externally -- in the room -- and internally -- in our souls).

The second reason is that it acoustically makes sense for Quakers. Sitting in pews that all face one direction does not make it easy to hear vocal ministry that arises from the people seated in those pews. Yes, some congregations have ushers who rush a microphone to a person who stands to minister, but that seems to me to be almost an act of sabotage to the holiness of that moment. It breaks the holy stillness to have someone hurrying to bring a microphone to the speaker. Sitting facing each other means we can hear each other. We will not be scattered all around the room looking away from each other.

The third reason is that we actually will behold our fellow worshippers and not just gaze at the backs of their heads. We will see the faces of those God has gathered that day. We will see the joy, the sorrow, the expectation, and all the other emotions that are writ large on our visages. As we see the gathered community we can be moved to pray for them, care for them, love them.

As with ditching bulletins and programming, this part of my modest proposal is fraught with difficulty, I suppose. We have huge investments, emotionally and financially, in our buildings. Our parents were married there or our grandfather was on the trustees who bought the pews or it would just be too expensive to move everything.


But maybe, if we want to revitalize the Quaker message for this time, it is worth the investment emotionally and financially. For some congregations it may mean, like the video above, rearranging the pews in the sanctuary and making it a Meetingroom. (I would advise speaking with an architect about that and not just unscrewing the benches and moving them around -- but that's my congregational consultant side kicking in).

For other congregations it could mean moving out of the Meetingroom to some other location in the building. Leave the Meetingroom configured as it is for things such as weddings or public events and use another space for worship. It would be no difficult task to put chairs in a circle or square. Indeed, setting up just a few more chairs that the number of folks who usually comes to worship can help us feel as if we are "full" rather than worshipping in a big mostly empty space. And have chairs ready to add if the Spirit moves new people to join.

So that's part five of my modest proposal. Obviously, it applies mostly to programmed Friends. I think unprogrammed Friends have their own architecture issues -- among which could be replacing the benches that have been there since 1766 to something a week bit more comfortable. But unprogrammed Quakers have largely kept to the original Quaker architectural ethos.

Let's rearrange our worship space so that we look to Jesus and look at each other.

-- Brent

Two resources I recommend are:
Quaker Aesthetics: Reflections on a Quaker Ethic in American Design and Consumption, 1720-1920 by Emma Jones Lapsansky and Anne A. Verplanck
Holy Places: Matching Sacred Space with Mission and Message by Nancy DeMott, Tim Shapiro, and J. Brent Bill

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 4 For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

"'Have you anything to declare?' is a vital challenge to which every one of us is personally called to respond and is also a challenge that every meeting should consider of primary importance. it should lead us to define, with such clarity as we can reach, precisely what it is the Friends of this generation have to say that is not, as we believe, being said effectively by others. What, indeed, have we to declare to this generation that is of sufficient importance to justify our separate existence as part of the Christian fellowship?" -- Edgar Dunstan

"What, indeed, have we to declare...?"

I believe that what we have to declare begins with worship. Indeed, as Britain Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice says, "Worship is at the heart of Quaker experience. For God is met in the gathered meeting and through the Spirit leads us into ways of life and understandings of truth ..." -- (Quaker faith & practice: The book of Christian discipline of the Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain)

Okay, so far you may be thinking, all Christian groups say that worship is central. So what's different enough to justify our separate existence (in Dunstan's words)?

Hmmm. Perhaps it's not what is different enough just now -- but what should be.

I think Quakerism has one of the most winsome invitations ever to offer to people. The heart of Quaker worship is gathering to meet God. The distinctive of the Quaker message of worship is that we are not inviting you to come hear a specialist speak about God, another person read a book about God, others sing some songs about God, but rather to come and experience God. We come to meet God. To encounter the Divine. Not just to be told about the Divine through story, sermon, song, and silence, but to actually gaze into the face of our loving God and listen for God's words to our souls. Could there be a better invitation than that?

At least, in my opinion, that's what worship should be -- about participatory listening to/for God. That would be distinctive from the Catholic tradition or the Methodists or the mega-church.

Instead, I fear(and confess to having participated in), we are maintaining a Quaker worship pattern among programmed traditions (I will speak about unprogrammed later)that leads to a worship service (I use that word intentionally) that is a pale imitation of other Protestant traditions. The service is outlined in a bulletin and is centered, like a Protestant service, primarily on the sermon -- the proclamation of the Word.

Now this is fine, I suppose, but is it enough, in Dunstan's words to "...justify our separate existence..."? Drop the name Friends from the front of the building and maybe it is.

But I don't think so. I think all this bulletin making and worship planning takes us away from the central call of Friends to invite others to come and hear that Voice that will say to them "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition..." When they hear that, their hearts and souls will leap for joy.

So, part four of my modest proposal, is to scrap the bulletin and the worship planning. Ditch them completely. And trust the Spirit to lead worship. If George Fox was right (and all us various branches of the Quaker tree claim him) then Christ is our present teacher. Let's let Him teach. "Let us let go and let God" as my Evangelical Friends pastor J. Earl Geil often said in many of the sermons I heard as a teen (about the only thing I remember specifically, him saying).

Let Jesus lead worship.

Dare we?

Now, for the programmed folk who (like me often) enjoy singing, hearing a choir, a sermon, etc, I have not said to scrap those things. Necessarily. I am saying scrap the programming part. Instead of fitting holy silence in, use it as the basis for worship. Then trust God to lead the choir to stand and share musically. And move the pastor to give a prepared sermon. And for someone (even a kid!) to suggest singing a hymn. And for a time of prayer for those in need. And times of vocal ministry from the various folks whom God has gathered that particular day.

Have hymn or song books in the pews/benches -- along with Bibles. And, instead of a bulletin with an outlined program, have one that contains a brief description of what Quaker worship is and how it will be planned by God, which may make it look unplanned to us. Until the Spirit brings it together.

That would be the kind of Meeting for Worship that would justify our separate existence! It would be experiential, spiritually experimental, and Spirit-led.

That would mean we would serve as a place where we can invite people encounter God and other like-hearted people. People searching for the sacred. Some having found more than others, some of us just learning the way or beginning to think about the Divine seriously.

I say like-hearted, notice, and not like-minded. We don't all have to think alike -- which is a good thing, since few of us do. Sometimes I'm of two minds about things all on my own!

That is the fourth part of my modest proposal -- as it relates to programmed and semi-programmed Friends. Quit planning a worship service and eliminate the play-by-play bulletin. Trust God

To unprogrammed Friends, I would say, "Don't gloat." Yes, you may not have to discard some of the obvious trappings that we programmed folks do, but there are some that, while perhaps more subtle, can be just as inhibiting.

One thing that can be inhibiting is the idea that the silence is sacrosanct to the point where we worship silence not worship in the silence. Unprogrammed Friends need to create a sense of hospitality in the silence and a feeling that "anything, God willing, can happen." Including -- gasp -- congregational singing in worship. Yes, that's theoretically possible, but how often does it happen? And are there items there to encourage it -- songbooks on the benches instead of a table in the corner? Bibles on the benches? Encouragement from the clerk that all -- young and old -- are invited to speak the words God brings to them.

Indeed, I would maintain, based on my experience of unprogrammed worship (which is not a slim as some folks might think for a fellow who grew up a "pastorized" Friend) is that it can be, in its worst form, as rigidly programmed as a programmed meeting. The order of service is just implied and/or understood by the insiders. And any outsiders or visitors keep to their benches because they are afraid of making any kind of Friendly faux pas -- like kneeling or standing at the wrong time in a Catholic mass.

Friend Thomas Green said, "Worship is essentially an act of adoration, adoration of the one true God in whom we live and move and have our being. Forgetting our little selves, our petty ambitions, our puny triumphs, our foolish cares and fretful anxieties, we reach out towards the beauty and majesty of God. The religious life is not a dull, grim drive towards moral virtues, but a response to a vision of greatness."

Our worship must facilitate this response to a vision of greatness and invite people into experiencing the presence of God. So, humbly (and I mean that sincerely) let's let go and let God lead worship. Bye-bye bulletin. So long planned worship service. Hello fresh movements of the Spirit.

That's part four of my "Modest Proposal for the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States."

Tomorrow, part five.

-- Brent

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 3 For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

This is the last of the research oriented pieces of my "modest proposal." Tomorrow I will move into my proposed action steps related directly to the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States. But first, a bit more from the various congregational studies -- both to inform and dispel a few more myths.

One of the things I hear posited as "conventional wisdom" is that only Evangelical and theologically conservative churches are growing. So what role does theology play in numerical growth?

  • There is very little relationship between growth and theological orientation
  • Highest growth is predominantly conservative congregations (38%) and liberal congregations (39%)
  • Among Evangelical denominations it is the less conservative churches that are most likely to grow (30%)
  • Growth is lowest among congregations in the middle (27%)

That's not to say theology is irrelevant. Of course, it's not. But a congregation's theology does not seem to be the prime indicator of whether it will grow or not. So if theology (conservative vs liberal vs whatever) isn't the factor, what is? The answer is -- a clear sense of mission.

  • More important than theological orientation is the religious character of the congregation and clarity of mission and purpose
  • Growing congregations are clear about why they exist
  • They grow because they understand their reason for being and they make sure they do the things that are essential to their life as a religious organization

That last point leads to an obvious further question -- what is essential? The research says:

  • Essential to the mission is to create a community where people encounter God
  • Congregations that involved children in worship were more likely to experience significant growth -- congregations that did not were much more likely to experience decline

There is a strong relationship between growth and the sense that the congregation is “spiritually vital and alive. And that it is welcoming and hospitable.

Congregations that grow do more than say they are welcoming and hospitable. They live those things out in very intentional ways.

  • They engage in a variety of recruitment-related activities (special events, community gatherings, bring a friend Sundays, etc)
  • Attendees tell others about their congregation
  • They make themselves more visible through various forms of advertising

There is one programmatic activity that is most strongly related to growth -- establishing or maintaining a web site for the congregation Congregations that have started or maintained a web site in the past year are most likely to grow.

This last piece, and moving beyond it into using social networking, is crucial. It is not a fad (or only for the young -- the fastest growing segment on facebook is 55-65 year old females).

So the third part of this modest proposal is to learn to be more mission-centric and people oriented. Why are we here and how do we let know others that we'd be happy to have them join with us? In a word, we need to think like a missional church.

Below is a list of some of the resources I've used in helping me prepare these thoughts. And some sites about the missional church movement.

Tomorrow is the first of my Friendly specifics.

-- Brent


Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Modest Proposal: Part 2 For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

While it may seem that I am being a bit research heavy in these early posts, it does all have point. The point is to make decisions and/or proposals from a basis more solid than hunches or impressions. It does seem, to me, to be statistically significant to see what 350,000 congregation members (Christian and n0n-Christian) have to say about their congregations' strengths and weaknesses (US Congregations). And that's just one example.

The research shows that vital congregations share (across denominational/faith lines) certain characteristics.

  • Vital congregations help people grow spiritually. - -They focus on the long-term development of the ministry of the entire congregation (spiritual development and providing ministry opportunities).
  • Vital congregations encourage participation. -- They move people into meaningful ministry roles. They ask attendees what they feel passionate about and what they see as their ministry. They identify what types of new people the congregation attracts (e.g., returnees, switchers). They ask new people what made the congregation attractive to them. They create small group experiences, such as prayer or study groups.
  • Vital congregations offer meaningful worship experiences. -- They evaluate current worship service for vitality and involvement (by all age groups).
  • Vital congregations welcome new people. -- They increase the visibility of the congregation in the community (e.g., Web site, Twitter, paid newspaper and telephone book ads, good outdoor signage, participation in community events). They encourage members to invite others and give them the tools to invite effectively (e.g. Bring a Friend Sundays, special events). They identify and make personal and telephone follow-up contact with all visitors, especially first time worship visitors. They offer a group for new attendees.
  • Vital congregations commit to a positive future. --They identify congregational strengths and ask how the congregation can optimize and leverage these strengths? They evaluate current congregation organization and committee structure and then minimize the number of maintenance committees. They create ministry teams (worship, education, outreach) instead of standing committees.

The second part of my modest proposal is for our congregations to look at these characteristics and actions and ask "Which of these is an accurate representation of our congregation?" "Are we doing things that commit to a positive future, provide meaningful worship for all ages, welcome new people, etc?

Or do we behave more like the people in this video parable?

So again some congregational queries, as part of Part 2 of a modest proposal.

  • Who are we?
  • Why do we exist -- what's our mission?
  • What is God calling us to be and do?
  • Do we welcome others?
  • How do we relate to our community?
  • How do we adapt to change?

These are queries the entire congregation should work on -- not just a committee or some named congregational leaders (i.e., a pastor. And please note, I think this is the first time I've used the word/role in any of my posts on this topic). There are a variety of ways that you can do this. I recommend "World Cafe'" -- it is very participational and fits well with Friends.

-- Brent

A Modest Proposal: Part 1 For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United States

Religious life in America is in decline. That's a statement I've heard over and over. And yet research seems to tell another tale. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, in the past 20 years

  • there are 32,000+ new congregations dotting the US landscape
  • there are almost 29 million new worship attendees
  • identified affliation with a recognized religious body or faith group is up 26+%

These statistics do not, so far as I can tell, take into account the emergent church plants, house churches, or the new monastic communities.

Then there are the Quakers. In the past 20 years:
  • we've added 311 new congregations
  • have lost 17,000 members
  • and dropped recognized affiliation by -14%
  • Friends United Meeting has dropped 15,000 members
  • Evangelical Friends International has dropped 3,000 members
  • Friends General Conference has grown 1,000 members

Hmmm. All of this at a time when there is renewed interest in Quaker life and spirituality. This is shown by the number of Quaker titles on and their strong sales and through other things, such as's "Belief-O-Matic." 30 thousand people a day try Belief-O-Matic. An issue of Newsweek magazine reported that a "disproportionate number" of respondents to the quiz identified themselves as 'liberal Quakers.'" The article notes that the page on the BeliefNet web site devoted to Quakers has become one of Beliefnet's top 50 links!

So why aren't our Meetinghouses bursting with newcomers?

One reason, in my opinion, is that many Quaker congregations (especially pastoral ones) have bought into what U.S. Congregations (Friends congregations were a part of this amazing study) researchers call "10 Myths" --

  1. “Nothing ever changes here” is an accurate statement about congregational life
  2. Congregations grow by attracting new people who are not attending religious services anywhere
  3. Worshipers who regularly attend are almost always members of the congregation
  4. Because worshipers are highly involved in their congregations, they spend little time being involved in their community
  5. A typical worshiper is over 65 years of age and retired
  6. Worship is boring.
  7. Most worshipers attend services in small congregations
  8. Congregations have difficulty adapting to the changing world around them because the majority of worshipers are not open to change
  9. People under 30 do not participate in religious activities
  10. All of today's worshipers prefer traditional hymns
    (you can find out more about these myths by going to the US Congregations website or reading their "A Field Guide to U.S. Congregations: Who's Going Where and Why")
Living these myths leads to a reality of lack (instead of abundance ) and scrambling to "fix" what's wrong and to find "best practices" to remedy the the deficiencies identified by the myths. Our congregations fail to see the obvious lacks (the need for hospitality, vital worship, appealling buildings, signage, community outreach) and accept the myths and then wonder why nobody "likes us." Just like the congregation below.

Instead, the first part of my modest proposal is that our congregations need to look at what flourishing congregations nationally are doing well and see where their strengths converge. The research (US Congregations, National Congregations Study, Faith Communities Today, and more) tell us that congregations that are growing (and not just numerically -- that is just one measurement) have certain characteristics. A flourishing congregation:

  • Provides a sense of community
  • Seeks to educate attendees about the faith
  • Shares their faith with others
  • Serves others (outside the congregation)
  • Conveys the sense that life has meaning

These all may seem obvious. But we (as Friends) often do not do any sort of self-examination that looks at what we're doing well. One of the things to notice about these signs of vitality is that they have very little to do with specific "programs." They are about attitudes and how faith is lived out. They move a congregation from saying (or doing) such things as "If we just had someone to minister to youth and bring them in" or "Let's make worship more contemporary" to asking which of these strengths do we already have and how can we build on them? To make them queries for study.

  • How can we provide a deeper sense of community?
  • How can we educate attendees (no matter their age) about Quaker faith and life?
  • How can we share faith with those who do not currently attend but are looking for what we have to offer?
  • How can we serve others (i.e., our community) in addition to ourselves and Friends institutions?
  • How do we show that life and faith have intertwined meaning?

I would also propose that our Meetings stop and take time to answer the following query:

What is God calling us to do with these people in this place at this time?

  • These People!
  • This place!
  • This time!

That's the first part of my modest proposal.

-- Brent

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Modest Proposal: For the Revitalization of the Quaker Message in the United Staes

The only things that this post (and many of the ones that follow over the next few days or weeks) and Swift's book share are the title and the satire behind the title. The thoughts that follow are not satirical ala' Swift. The title certainly is satirical as what I am going to propose is far from modest.

I have been thinking about this topic for many years, beginning with when I was a 20-something college student who reengaged with the Religious Society of Friends after having grown up up among Quakers and then sojourning away from them for a brief period.

The most recent impetus to address this topic came, though, not from years of thought, but from my being asked to participate in Friends United Meeting's "Transforming Lives: A Conference for Emerging Leaders" held September 17-19 in Richmond, Indiana. The topic assigned to me was "Ministry in North America."

Toward the end of my presentation, I admitted that I had some interest in the future of the Friends message in North America. Particularly, I said, I was not so much interested in the institutional survival of the Religious Society of Friends (and it's various structures) as I was a recapturing of the vitality of the Quaker understanding of the Gospel -- a Good News that combines the story and work of Christ Jesus with the amazing power of the testimonies as an understanding of how the Gospel is to be lived. I then showed some statistics that appear to indicate there is widespread interest in the general public in the Quaker understanding of the Gospel and yet we, as the Friends "church," are failing to reach out to people who seek places to connect with this message.

One of the workshop participants, Stephen Dotson, engaged me with several questions. And I admitted that while I have had lots of thoughts on this issue, I have kept them mostly to myself, trying to stay out of the way of the primarily Young Adult Friends and others in the Convergent Friends movement who are working in very practical ways, I my opinion, on just this issue. I also admitted that I was a geezer (I will be 60 next year and wonder how I became one of the oldsters instead of one of young Turks of my college/seminary days) and so may be a bit out of touch.

Still, I make my living as a congregational consultant and a fair amount of research and information about American religious life passes over my desk and computer. And I do have a heart for the Quaker message -- a message that I would like to see more broadly lived out. I do not have the desire to have it lived out, as I said, because of any desire to keep institutions alive (indeed I think most Quaker institutions have to change radically or they will become increasingly anachronistic -- more about that later), but rather because I think it is a life/soul changing message that can bring hope and life to many who are hungering for it.

At the workshop, Stephen, while playfully agreeing with me that I was a geezer, asked how he and his compatriots in the emerging leader (or whatever you want to call it) movement could tap the wisdom of geezers such as me. I admit to having had no answer that day. I'm not sure I have a very complete one now. But that challenge has stayed with me and so, I have decided, that for my part, the best way for me to share any wisdom/ideas/hopes was through doing this series of blog posts that I'm calling "A Modest Proposal."

In it, I am going to share some of the presentation I made to the workshop the other day -- based on research I've read and things I've learned in working with congregations -- and thoughts about how the revitalization of the Quaker message in the United States might be achieved. I'm going to try to do this in short, narrowly focused posts that hopefully will build on each other and may just engender some thinking or discussion.

I have no illusion that anybody will read this. Nor do I have any particular desire that "my program" be adopted by anybody. I just feel led to share it and hope that it might be of some benefit to those who are thinking about the Quaker message and life in the 21st century.
I have often found a challenge -- and an inspiration -- in the words of Friend Edgar G. Dunstan -

The early Friends were fully assured that they had a message for all men -- not merely that one or other of their testimonies was specially relevant to their own time, but that message in its totality, in its wholeness, was god's good news for all sorts and conditions of men .... "Have you anything to declare?" is a vital challenge to which every one of us is personally called to respond and is also a challenge that every meeting should consider of primary importance. it should lead us to define, with such clarity as we can reach, precisely what it is the Friends of this generation have to say that is not, as we believe, being said effectively by others. What, indeed, have we to declare to this generation that is of sufficient importance to justify our separate existences as part of the Christian fellowship? If we regard the Society of Friends merely as an ethical society we have no message for a world that is bursting with sin and sorrow and suffering. It is insufficient to merely offer palliatives to physical suffering, important and necessary as they are. there are those whose needs are on a different level and we should covet to have these others at least an equal concern. Have we "good news" for them?

Indeed, I believe, we do. Hence my starting this "Modest Proposal."
-- Brent

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"Salt and Light" Comes to Indiana

Over the next two years, Friends, globally, will be connected through exploring a common theme: ‘Being Salt and Light,’ in preparation for the 2012 Sixth World Conference of Friends. You are invited to be part of this conversation. “Being Salt and Light: Friends living the kingdom of God in a broken world” will be held November 5-7 at Indianapolis First Friends Meeting (3030 Kessler Blvd East Dr.).

The speakers for the event are Anne Bennett of Britain Yearly Meeting and Rachel Stacy of Baltimore. Anne is an author, peacemaker and former staff at Quaker House Belfast. She has supported peace making efforts in Africa, Europe and the Middle East during times of civil war. Rachel was a planner of the 2005 World Gathering of Young Friends and is coordinator of Pendle Hill’s Young Adult Leadership Development Program. She is a graduate student at Earlham School of Religion.

The event will have

  • Keynote Presentations
  • Worship & singing
  • Small group discussion
  • Fellowship
  • Meals Together

It costs $65 for the weekend ($45 Saturday only). Financial assistance is available. Preregistration is requested. Register online at or contact Beth Henricks at or 317-335-2701

“Salt and Light” is sponsored by Friends World Committee for Consultation. “Answering God's call to universal love, FWCC brings Friends of varying traditions and cultural experiences together in worship, communications and consultation, to express our common heritage and our Quaker message to the world.” Learn more about the 2012 Sixth World Conference of Friends at

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Skull-duggery Afoot

It started innocently enough. I posted the Hip-Hop version of my Quaker classic Holy Silence along with a picture of my rap persona (Rapmaster Johnnie B-Squared -- beaded hair and all).

Then, what I feared would happen happened. Some men, led by Jeff Wolfe, began to emulate my hairstyle, even posting it on their Facebook pages. As Jeff said, "Too cool! The beaded dreadlocks are a nice touch that I definitely think you should include in your overall look when you drop your lyrical bombs ... Based on the obvious quality of your rhymes, I foresee a whole new career blossoming in your future, Brent--er, um Johnnie."

And then Jeff posted a picture of the back of my head as his profile pic.

That's when the skull-duggery began. A female back-of-the-head-lash. From Jeff's wife Tonda. She sends poor Jeff a post demanding, yes demanding!!!, him to "Change your profile pic. ... Brent Bill's bald skull is coming between us."

What's up with that?

I cannot deny that the un-haired pate of a late 50ish gospel writing Hip Hop star is ... well... sexy. I'm a solar-paneled sentence machine. And younger men naturally want to tap into this raw sensuality. Jeff admits, "I desperately want the 'BrentBill Reverse Beaded Mohawk (TM)"..."

But he admits that he "lack[s] the dexterity to bead my own hair." He further goes on to lament that "Something tells me I won't be able to convince my wife to help me with it upon next seeing her. "

Tonda, Tonda, Tonda. Have you not read the Bible -- where it urges you to "Stand by your Man"? (Wynette 3:16). As a young woman going studying to be in a helping profession, I find your cold-heartedness just ... well... cold-hearted.

So, as I head off to Meeting this morning, I carry a concern in my heart. That the obvious tension my bald head has brought to Tonda and Jeff's relationship be eased, that their relationship be fully restored, and that she help him bead his hair.

-- Brent

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Website I Highly Recommend

I get notices of new web sites all the time and while many are interesting, most are just ... um... not. And even many of those that are interesting are not that helpful or useful.

But today I was alerted to one that is amazing and which I think is indispensable. It is True Knowledge dot com.

This site is freak-y amazing. You can ask it anything -- and it knows the answer!!! Like, I asked "What is J. Brent Bill's middle name?" (Yes, that was a bit vain, I suppose, but...).

A nano-second later, up popped the answer -- "Brent"! How did it know that?
So I asked, "What is J. Brent Bill's last name?" Ding! Up popped "Bill." Amazing.

I started asking harder questions --" What is the square root of 4.5749181?" (2.1389058184 ) , "What's the biggest animal in the world?" (Blue Whale), etc. It knows ALL THE ANSWERS.

So then I asked "What is the meaning of life?"

Once again, after a few seconds of computerized cogitating, up popped the answer --

The term 'life' has many distinct uses: 1: the organic phenomenon that distinguishes living organisms from nonliving ones; 2: a living person; 3: the period from the present until death; 4: living things collectively; 5: a characteristic state or mode of living; 6: an account of the series of events making up a person's life; 7: animation and energy in action or expression; 8: the period during which something is functional (as between birth and death); 9: the condition of living or the state of being alive; 10: a prison term lasting as long as the prisoner lives; 11: the course of existence of an individual; the actions and events that occur in living; 12: a motive for living; 13: the experience of being alive; the course of human events and activities; 14: the period between birth and the present time

WOW! I'm hooked. It's now bookmarked on my computer and I have a feeling I'll use it constantly. No more research or deep thinking for me. Thanks "True Knowledge" for saving me from false knowledge.

Now I think I'll ask it how to end this post.

-- Brent

Thursday, September 09, 2010

"They Call Him the Rapper" -- the Jaggerz, 1970

Yesterday I tweeted that Carrie Newcomer and I (along with some other folks) were going to be presenting at Earlham School of Religion's annual Ministry of Writing colloquium. It's a great event and I hope folks will take advantage of it. The chance to see and hear Carrie alone is worth the price of admission.

After posting on my facebook profile page that I promised not to sing, my friend Jeff Wolfe asked, "How about a little spoken word/rapping, Brent?"

Well, I had planned on doing a reading (in addition to leading my workshop), but in honor of Jeff's request, I am hereby unveiling (a little ahead of schedule) the Hip-Hop version of my book Holy Silence.

Yo, be quiet. Yo, yo, be quiet.
God is in da howse. Yahweh's in da howse.
He's in u soul. He's in u bonze.
Don't that just make u jonze, jonze, jonze?
Yo, be quiet...

Ah, thank u.

Rapmaster Johnnie B-Squared