Report of the General Secretary, Spring Sessions 2016
On Being Covenant Community
The following is based on an oral report given by Christopher Sammond at Spring Sessions, 2016. Some material has been added for clarification.
Part of how I understand one dimension of my work is to gather impressions of how we are doing as a community, and to reflect that back to us as a gathered body. What I have been led to share today would fall into that category.
We are called into deeper community, and deeper communion. This starts with each of us deepening individually in our walk with the Divine. There is perhaps no more challenging work than this. We can’t do it alone. Parker Palmer has this to say about the need for community in the work of “sinking down to the Seed,” of living out who God created us to be, central to our practice as Friends:
The journey toward inner truth is too taxing to be made solo:
lacking support, the solitary traveler soon becomes weary or fearful and is likely to quit the road.
The path is too deeply hidden to be traveled without company:
finding our way involves clues that are subtle and sometimes misleading, requiring the kind of discernment that can happen only in dialogue.
The destination is too daunting to be achieved alone:
we need community to find the courage to venture into the alien lands to which the inner teacher may call us.
We are called to be in communion with each other, one with another, each of us with our whole meeting, and our meetings together forming one body of the yearly meeting- a body, a people. This is what I mean when I talk about Covenant Community- a people united in seeking the Divine and how to live in awareness of the Divine while at the same time living in Empire.
The Leadings and Priorities process has pointed us as a yearly meeting body to attend to how God is at work in our monthly meetings. This is a much needed orientation. But we run a risk here. We risk supplanting our true calling, to be faithful in living into Covenant Community, with the understandable desire to make our meetings prosper.
“He who seeks to save his life shall lose it, and he who seeks to lose his life for the sake of the Gospel shall have life abundant.” Luke 9:24
This extends to our monthly meetings as well. If we seek to save our monthly meetings, we will lose them. If we seek to save our monthly meetings for their own sakes, we run the risk of them only having life in themselves, not rooted and grounded in God. If we seek to make our monthly meetings outposts from which we create the the reign of love and unity and justice which we variably call the Blessed Community, The Reign of God, the Kingdom of God, they will thrive. Our work is not to save our meetings, or to “save” Quakerism. Our work is to be faithful to the good news of the reality of the Beloved Community, and to invite others into what we have touched of that reality.
Of course, The Kingdom is something that is both here, and, “not yet.” We catch glimpses of its power, we touch upon its Presence enough to know it is real, and we also struggle to live it out. There are symptoms, hallmarks, aspects of it that we can experience, and yet still struggle to live out fully. These are what I know to be aspects of the Blessed Community, lived out in our monthly meetings, and in the fabric of our wider community as a yearly meeting:
Open hearts: We live with hearts wide open to each other and to the Divine, tender and undefended, even as we do the difficult work of being community together.
Our wills directed to God: This is the core of every spiritual tradition, and certainly central to Friends efforts to shift from “the creature” to “the new Adam.”
Connected to one another: We are united in a covenant community, supporting each other in our search for Truth. We “carry” each other spiritually.
Effectively dealing with conflict: All communities have conflict. When we live out conflict effectively, it strengthens our community, rather than erodes it.
Engaged with the wider world: We are fully aware of, and engaged with, the currents of the world. We unflinching face that we live in Empire at the same time we are called to live out the Blessed Community.
We Are Turning a Corner
In many ways, I see us turning a corner as a community. This is really heartening to see. Here are some of ways I am seeing us live more into Covenant Community, living into the hopes behind the Statement of Leadings and Priorities:
- Advancement and outreach: I have never seen more energy, across this yearly meeting, for advancement and outreach as I am seeing currently. The new Outreach Working Group is an experiment in supporting outreach and advancement work across this yearly meeting in a new way. We are seeking to create a supportive network rather than to try to support outreach work through a yearly meeting committee. Friends involved in this network can participate as much or as little as they have leading and energy. We hope it will be a forum, a community, and an extended laboratory for how to do effective outreach work in our local meetings.
- Meetings renewal: Many of our meetings showing signs of renewal, with newcomers, families, children joining our worship. In many meetings, I sense renewed energy and enthusiasm.
- Hiring a Children and Youth Field Secretary (CYFS): With the hire of our newest staff person, we finally have barely enough staff to actually meet the needs we as staff encounter as we travel around the yearly meeting. For years, it has been particularly frustrating to me for us to not have enough staff to make a difference, which has left many Friends feeling like they did not get anything from their contribution to the yearly meeting, which in turn did not inspire them to give financial support, which meant that we lacked the funds to have staff to meet present needs, etc., in a “Catch 22” situation. We finally have enough staff to make the difference we need to make. At the same time, I need to tell you that your staff is stretched to the absolute limit.
- Project Partners: With the help of the grant from the Shoemaker Fund, and in collaboration with NEYM, our new Children and Youth Field Secretary will be giving concentrated attention to six Project Partner monthly meetings, working intensively with them to help them do effective outreach to young families and to do a better job of welcoming and integrating children into the fabric of their meetings. She will also be available for this same work across the yearly meeting, but in a less intensive fashion. If you think your monthly meeting might want to be a Project Partner, please look for information on that program, which should be coming out next week.
- Witness Work: NYYM’s Witness Coordinating Committee has been doing discernment on what witness work is arising and finding life in our constituent monthly meetings, so that the work done through the yearly meeting is a better reflection of that work.
- Tending the Garden: The Spiritual Nurture Working Group has now given quite a few workshops and retreats for monthly and Quarterly/Regional meetings as part of the Tending the Garden program, with more in the planning stages. Check out the yearly meeting website for information on the various retreats being offered both in local meetings, and at Powell House, as part of this program.
- Supporting Children and Youth: Fifty Friends, eighteen of them children, signed up for the “One Spiritual Community” retreat, sponsored by the Nurture Coordinating Committee and held at Brooklyn MM. And the Youth Committee has sponsored one Youth Institute, with another scheduled, gatherings designed to share best practices and learn new ones in better integrating children and youth into the lives of our monthly meetings.
- Direction of the Yearly Meeting Organization: The organizational aspect of our yearly meeting has been much more pointed towards needs of our constituent monthly meetings, in harmony with the Statement of Leadings and Priorities.
- New Financial Contributors: Our initial 2016 Appeal Letter highlighted this change of direction, with a surprisingly positive response. Many Friends who had heretofore not given were led to make contributions, including some sizeable ones. I take this to be positive feedback that we are heading in the right direction. If you have given in the past, and have not yet done so this year, please consider supporting our growing edges.
Risks of Insularity
It is unquestionably a blessing to witness the clearer direction, renewed energy, and focus on supporting the life of our monthly meetings. And yet, in this, I see a risk in our reinforcing a tendency I witness in some of our monthly meetings towards insularity. One study, done by FGC many years ago, and titled Fostering Vital Quaker Meetings, concluded that meetings not connected to some larger body, whether Quarter, Yearly Meeting, or larger Quaker organization, did not tend to do well. Over time, they lost vitality.
If we forget that the heart of our life as a community is our monthly meetings, we will cease to exist. We need to remember that without our monthly meetings, there is no point for us to exist as a yearly meeting. But if we are only about our monthly meetings, we will dwindle and die. If our focus is on preserving our meeting communities as an end in themselves, they don’t tend to do well. If we seek to bring about the Beloved Community, the Reign of God, in and through our meeting communities, they will flourish.
If our meetings are only about themselves, as insular entities, we run the risk of having an idolatrous relationship with them. We cannot create community, any more than we can “create” vibrant worship by our own will. However, if we are intent on being Covenant Community together, on supporting each other in our walk with the Divine, endeavoring to live out the spiritual reality that we are a people, then our meetings will have life. The way to that life, as individuals, as communities, and as a people, is to follow our inner guide, to not outrun it, and to mutually support each other in this root of our faith as Friends of Truth, Children of the Light, and as the Blessed Community.
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