Monday, September 16, 2013

The Final Clerk's Report

At the end of this year, my committee responsibilities will be no more. I'll have spent three years on Ministry and Worship and one year as the committee's clerk. Truthfully, I am spent. Much like the month of March, I went in like a lion and am going out like a lamb. I began this endeavor charging hard, seeking to make reforms all over the place. Now I recognize how slow and deliberative is Quaker process, and how it resists much structural change.

Quaker process was designed, in my estimation, to make Friends take a step back and carefully consider their proposals. In certain sensitive matters, this approach may be precisely what is needed. But often I find that a plodding pace impedes progress, rather than seasoning an idea that might be rash, impulsive, or otherwise not fully realized. I can't change the culture, but I do wish I had some ways of knowing what my limits would be before I plunged in head first.

Many people admire our consensus process as the ideal and fairest method of resolving conflict or making decisions. I will say that I have seen it work miracles and also seen it fail dismally. The personalities involved inevitably determine success from failure. In theory, it is a optimist's paradise. In reality, it can be a nightmare for everyone, regardless of outlook on life.

I'm most proud of my willingness to look outside the box. Though I did set up a successful system of sending specially designed postcards to visitors, this is modest change, though essential. I arranged Head of Meeting assignments into a codified, orderly schedule, making sure someone would always begin and conclude Worship; I see that more as common sense than innovation. It was my intention to sidestep incremental, protracted stuffiness and constipation, something likely common to the decision process of every house of worship.

Allow me to elaborate further. The British comedian Josie Long mentions Friends favorably in her 2008 film Trying is Good. I happened to watch the film initially only to be entertained, not expecting a reference to Friends. I was overjoyed that we were given such a resounding endorsement. In particular, she makes Light of that old Quaker standard, the Edward Hicks painting The Peaceable Kingdom.

A minor celebrity in her native United Kingdom, she is a virtual unknown in the United States. For the past month I've asked her if she might consider flying out here to Washington, DC. Unfortunately, she can't afford a visit at the moment and is booked up with UK engagements for the rest of the year. I wish our budget was infinite and that we could get her out here for a talk when her schedule clears.

The good news is that Long is willing to Skype chat with our Young Adult Friends group, though this will need to wait until December. I hope it will allow her the ability to have a richer understanding of the Religious Society of Friends. Like many of liberal sensibilities, I believe Josie Long is in love with a superficial ideal of Quakerism. I myself was when I became Convinced (converted).

A few years ago, some enterprising soul decided to put the face of a plain dress Quaker on a box of oatmeal. Quakers became well regarded for setting fixed prices for goods in their shops and had a reputation for being honest in their business dealings. The implication was that Quakers were trustworthy and any product bearing their likeness could be seen in the same way. Even Abraham Lincoln, should his written discourse with Friends of the period be shown as evidence, might have believed in the very same set of high expectations.

I do have a few regrets here and there. At the beginning of my tenure, I sought to have Rush Holt, a U.S. Representative from New Jersey, speak to our children. He is the sole Quaker in the Congress. Congressman Holt was willing to do it, but scheduling conflicts ultimately doomed the proposal. We rent out our Meeting space to a variety of other organizations, and the dates that worked for him did not work for us. When I tried again, months later, Holt no longer had the time. I'm sure it was nothing personal.

I turn 33 next month, meaning I am not yet older than Jesus. I had just turned thirty when I accepted a role in leadership. What has kept me working harder than others is that I am significantly younger than most committee members. I am the youngest clerk by far, at least for the time being. In the beginning, I do know that there was some question as to whether I was responsible enough for the role. I admit to being a little overzealous at first, but I found my stride within a couple months on the job.

My approach was unorthodox and confrontational. My activist identity led me to stress both of these qualities heavily. When I became established within the system, those who opposed me moved from abstract bogeymen to real people. When one lashes out at unknown enemies or impediments, it's easy to want to come crashing down on offenders. When one's eyes are opened and people are known as flesh and blood beings, a gentler pragmatism takes its place. With time, they knew me and I knew them, and diplomacy starts there.

As I said, I seek to depart with gentle pragmatism, not anger or resentment. I recognize that the stress I've taken on is to be expected for the most high impact and responsible of all committee assignments. As I have implored people to leave their safety zones, so too have I been encouraged to do the same myself. Committee service tends to deplete everyone in leadership with enough time. Members and regular attenders expect much from the Meeting, but sometimes lay that burden on everyone else's shoulders but their own.

One final thought. Ego aside, I would like to leave a legacy behind me, and I may very well have. More than one Friend has told me that people recognize and are thankful for my service. I've tried to keep the Meeting aware of the biblical teachings that were important enough to our founders that they faced persecution, trial, jail, and sometimes death. I've sought to keep politics and non-religious topics out of Meeting for Worship, even though they are seductive to many.

But mainly I've sought to remind Friends of the reverence and awe of God and an experience with the Divine that can easily be lost if we look only for rational explanations of what we have experienced.

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