Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Exploring the Meaning and Purpose of Quaker Structure" by Scott

I have been exploring and mulling over in my mind the purpose and intent of Quaker structure. Years ago when I worked in a Yearly Meeting office the Superintendent I served with had a great way of looking at it. He would say, "The Yearly Meeting serves the local meeting, the local meeting does not serve the Yearly Meeting." I often think about that because my experience is that Yearly Meeting structures and often international Quaker organizations often seem set up for the local meeting to serve them.

This is not to say that Yearly Meeting offices and international offices don't have a purpose or place. But could it be said that a huge paradigm shift needs to take place and we might need to reimagine the whole set up? What would it look like if rather then the Yearly Meeting structures being set up that all the local meeting energy was flowing towards the Yearly Meeting programming the energy and resources flowed from the Yearly Meeting to the local meeting? (I would like to add to that the idea that rather then sending the Yearly Meeting's "Askings" or "Assessments" the Yearly Meetings sent money to the local meetings - but that's another post).

I recognize that at some point early Friends established structure and organization. My sense, though, is that their vision was that the structure would serve the vision and mission and not that the mission was to serve the structure. Quakers often seem in survival mode these days and in that mode there is a scrambling for resources and a piece of the pie. In that mode, immense pressure is put on local meetings to make sure that the Yearly Meetings survive.

What if the structure of Yearly Meetings in their present form are not meant to stay that way? In other words, can local meetings survive if there were Yearly Meeting offices? Could local meetings still minister and function if there were no Yearly Meeting committees? Could local meetings continue to thrive if there were no Yearly Meeting programs? My sense is they could. To be sure, there would still be some things that Yearly Meetings structures would and should need to provide but have the layers of what Yearly Meeting structures off have become so heavy and thick that it's weighing down the mission of what Friends need to be about?

I'm exploring this...and certainly don't have all the answers. All I know is that the life blood of Friends is the local meeting if there are no local meetings there are no Yearly Meetings and international organizations. It would seem that the thriving and flourishing of the local meeting would be of prime importance.


Tom Smith said...

Thanks for the posting.

I just read an Op-ed piece by David Brooks in today's NYTimes that speaks to a "successful" organization. It seems to speak to the building of a Friends' structure.

"Each member of an A.A. group is distinct. Each group is distinct. Each moment is distinct. There is simply no way for social scientists to reduce this kind of complexity into equations and formula that can be replicated one place after another."

The 12 steps in such an organization are clearly defined, but each local group and individual is responsible for the following of these steps. Responsibility AND Authority lie with the local group and individual and each individual recognizes this responsibility and authority. This would seem to be the basis for Friends structure and organization.

Another organizational concept, proposed by a Friend in a "secular" organization is "Servant Leadership." This works to provide support for the acceptance of responsibility and authority by the individuals within the organization rather than accumulating these at the "upper" levels.

Scott Wagoner said...

I like the idea of "responsibility" and "authority". The local meetings carry alot of responsibility in terms of being the reason Yearly Meetings exist. For that reason, it would seem that local meetings need to posses their own authority as to how they need to be and do in terms of fulfilling God's call. In other words, don't strap them with alot of bueracracy.

johnfitzgerald said...

Interesting stuff! A while back I questioned the 'big centre' model of Quaker structures in an essay on the future of Quakers in Britain: http://johnfitzgerald.me.uk/2009/11/30/what-is-the-future-of-the-religious-society-of-friends-in-britain-friends-quarterly-essay/ (see the section on 'Ministry at arm's length')

DaveB said...

Our culture easily reifies organizational structures as if they were concrete things. Yearly Meeting and Quarterly Meeting are collections of people, all of whom come from Monthly Meetings. If they have paid staff and offices and equipment and bank accounts with revenue and expenses, they are still ultimately instruments of the people who meet weekly for worship. To frame our concerns as what should the Yearly Meeting do for, or about, such and such, is an invitation to lose one's grip on the truth of things. Rather ask what is it we Friends would like to do; are there shared concerns with other Friends from farther away? Do we feel led to find ways to contribute financially to other Meetings with less resources than ours? Are there new ideas and new activities emerging in our Meeting that other Friends might find useful to learn about? Are their possibilities for collective actions that would be most efficient or effective if coordinated by Friends joining together across geographic boundaries to work in concert? Our Yearly and Quarterly Meetings are not objects or things or beings that have minds of their own, they are ways and mechanisms and processes that we actual Friends (who really are beings) can use as tools to accomplish objectives that we have come to unity in believing are worthwhile. Organizational reification creates power struggles, dependency and a false sense of authority that undermine clearness and simplicity.