Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Community: Or Why You Should Quit Your Day Job

10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”- 1 Corinthians 10-12

Ours is, we say, a leaderless faith. And yet, patterns of leadership arise quite naturally in all of the democratic back and forth. We don’t have leaders until we do. We are of one voice until multiple voices grab control of the microphone and the floor during Business Meeting. We are proud of the weighty Friend who, during Worship, always condenses every message that came before into an inspiring synopsis. We like our favorite speakers and dislike the ones that seem to us to ring hollow, or to challenge our preconceptions.

Proclaiming that we don’t have this often uneasy range of emotional response simultaneously married to cold logic is in opposition to the facts. It is slight of hand, mere magical thinking to believe otherwise. Better that we swallow hard and admit that while all Friends are equal, some are more equal than others. In that same spirit, all arguments are persuasive, but some are more persuasive than others.

The courses of action undertaken to resolve concerns also reflect who we are and what we believe. Problems are routinely brought to a resolution not within ourselves, but by way of intermediaries. Need an objective voice? Hire an expert. More often than not, we rent-a-Quaker from an adjacent Monthly Meeting or Yearly Meeting. This sounds proactive enough, but it serves as mere window dressing when a full makeover is required.

I often hear ineffective resolutions excused by saying that novices, not experts have sought to resolve them. Under this line of thinking, mediocrity is and should be tolerated because Meeting work is no one’s day job. This is not an incorrect statement, but the logic is faulty. Friends did away with the clergy and left the responsibility to the rank and file for good reason. Doing what needs to be done with precision and accuracy is not good enough for government work, so to speak.

I am not unsympathetic towards the challenges that face such an exacting, careful standard. The larger a Monthly Meeting or Yearly Meeting, the more difficult it is to keep good intentions from grinding to a halt. The anonymity of a megachurch will work in a programmed setting, but it would be a dismal failure within unprogrammed Worship. Imagine straining to hear the ministry of a worshiper from the upper deck, seeking to locate a speaker who seems to you to be about the size of an ant.

Growth is a desired state, but it is my opinion that Monthly Meetings for Worship ought to be restricted to a certain size, then split neatly in two. The really hard work is in developing strategies for people to truly get to know each other. This is why many Protestant denominations have placed such reliance upon small groups, conceding that Worship alone is not sufficient for building real, not superficial community.

Recall, if you will, that Community is one of our Testimonies. It proves to be the most difficult to grasp for many Meetings and, indeed, many individual Quakers. Should one read the First Epistle to the Corinthians, one might make a strong case that Community is what the church was lacking most acutely. Though not as immediately appealing to Quaker eyes as Peace or Simplicity, it should not be overlooked.

It was fortunate for me that I first found Quakerism in a Meeting with only ten to fifteen regular attenders. My first few plaintive attempts towards vocal ministry were accepted and nurtured, not callously discarded or silently ignored. I was made to feel a part of a larger ecosystem of believers. Most of us, I would hope, are familiar with this family environment, this intimacy in communication. For every person added to the rolls, success requires we take their own unique cares, causes, and personality into account. No one said this was easy. The very fact that it is not simple is why many fall short of the mark.    

As I give the troubled church in Corinth one more read, I’m reminded of something that’s always kept me curious. We know the problems, the charismatic figures, and the theological diagnoses. What is unknown is whether or not Paul’s words made a dramatic difference either way. Certainly had the first attempt succeeded, there would have been no need for a second. Scholarship over the centuries has suggested that there might very well be a third letter to the Corinthians that has been lost over time.

By way of an exercise in critical thinking, what critique do you think your Monthly Meeting would receive? Some relatively new Quaker meetings have an institutional memory of their founders, a person or persons who remembers the beginning and the building up. Other Meetings have been around for hundreds of years, leaving behind them only a dimly recalled historical record. The Pauline Epistles would cease to be relevant to the current day if organized religion wasn’t such a formidable challenge.

But this does not let us off the hook. Our fore-parents adopted a radical course of self-denial and morality. We inherit a legacy that stretches beyond five days a week, eight hours a day. Leaders without ego are needed. They will step aside when planting is done, tending to new shoots and leaves. Newcomers will be welcomed with open arms. Quit your day job. Don’t give your religious life short-shift. It takes everyone’s effort.

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