Report of the General Secretary, Fall Sessions 2013

General Secretary Report

Fall Sessions, 2013

Challenges and Opportunities

It is clear the future holds opportunities—it also holds pitfalls. The trick will be to seize the opportunities, avoid the pitfalls, and get back home by 6:00. ~ Woody Allen


We are at a juncture in the life of this yearly meeting which does hold both great promise and significant challenge. On one level, some of our capacity has eroded, and continues to erode.

  • We continue to decrease in numbers, at about the rate of 1% per year. This affects the strength of many of our monthly meetings to do their work and meet their budgets, and affects their capacity to support the yearly meeting’s work and budget as well.
  • Our average attendance at Sunday worship fell by almost 13% last year, with decreases in attendance in twenty-five of our monthly meetings.
  • I know of several meetings who have considered doing Quaker Quest, but decided that they did not have sufficient energy to take on that level of inreach and outreach. Some have considered a more scaled down version, which holds some promise. Others fear they have grown too small even for that.
  • Many of our meetings no longer have First Day Schools, and have struggled to attract and retain young families because there aren’t enough other children there for the meeting to be a nurturing place for their children.
  • Some meetings have questioned how many committees their diminished numbers can support, and are making hard decisions between work they see as important, and Friends being stressed and stretched too thin.
  • We have laid down two meetings in the past five years, and there are several more that are down to very small numbers.

These are some of the challenges that are upon us. We continue to ignore them at our peril, and to the detriment of the precious legacy offered us by our Quaker forebears.

At the same time, I see reason for great optimism. As I have seen and our Young Adult Field Secretary has reflected back to us in some of her reports, there is great life and vitality in this yearly meeting. • We have greatly increased our capacities in our practice as Friends, reclaiming the positive role that those with gifts as elders can play. This has deepened and enriched our worship and our business.

  • We just celebrated the opening of a new meetinghouse, the second in as many years.
  • Attendance has increased in sixteen of our meetings, and stayed the same in twenty-two.
  • In each of the last three years we have added new worship groups.
  • The two (count ‘em, two) young adult Friends active at 15th Street Monthly Meeting decided to hold a brunch once a month for other young adults. The group is now up to forty, and is a significant presence in the meeting.
  • Many of our meetings report a depth of worship which is vital and nourishing.
  • Some meetings which had been concerned about their shrinking numbers are now glad to be welcoming newcomers who are staying.

We need to be willing to be present to both of these realities, neither ignoring the serious challenges before us, nor losing heart in facing them. God is still powerfully at work in us. We need to be concerned, and to act accordingly, but not from a place of fear or of being overwhelmed by the challenges.

Four years ago I warned of the budget crunch we are now facing. At the time, I said we needed to focus on Vision, Communication, and Development in order to proactively address the coming problem. At that time I thought we had at most two years for the yearly meeting as an organization to do the work necessary in these areas to avoid where we now find ourselves. As it turned out, we had some anomalies last year, with several monthly meetings giving us sizeable covenant donation checks which should have fallen in the previous year. And this year, we were able to shift the pay period for salaried staff from our being paid before we work, at the beginning of the month, to after we have done our work, at the end. These anomalies bought us some time, allowing us to maintain a flat-line budget.

In the meantime, we have not been idle. We have revamped how we do communication, and hired a new Communications Director. We spent several years designing a process for discerning a grass-roots vision for our work as a yearly meeting, and the past two implementing that process through the Priorities Working Group. We have formed a Development Committee, and they have begun their work addressing what Michael Wajda, Development Director of FGC for many years, calls “the ministry of money.”

In all these areas, we are about two thirds of the way through the process necessary whereby, in the words of Woody Allen, we can avoid the pitfalls, and avail ourselves of the opportunities in front of us. In our slow, deliberate Quaker way, we are doing the necessary work, and have been for these past four years.

I offer all this to give Friends the context for where we find ourselves now, in a shortfall of over $60,000 in our operating budget, if you include the amount that the Development Committee has been asked to raise. I would not call this a crisis, though it could become one if we don’t continue to act prudently and proactively.

With the recommendations from the Priorities Working Group, we will be entering into a place of substantial organizational change. At the very least, we will be realigning our priorities so that they are more in keeping with the leadings and needs of the Friends who provide the financial support for the work of the yearly meeting. Quite likely, the vision arising from the work of the PWG will require much more change than that. We are about to launch ourselves away from the shore of the known, and into the area of the unknown. We will soon be in the middle of change, where we cannot yet see the shore we are making for, and can no longer see the shore we took off from. Being in that place of the unknown and unfamiliar is a condition that most of us respond to with anxiety. And in a place of anxiety, it is human nature to want to go back to the familiar, the habitual, the “old normal.” Remember the place in Exodus when the Hebrews, former slaves, forgetting the bone-crushing oppression they had lived with, said “It wasn’t so bad making bricks back in Egypt. Let us go back there. This wandering in the wilderness is too hard.” The pull to try to go back to the way the way things were will be very strong. Resisting its call will require a lot of faith in our being well led by the Spirit.

The opportunity before us is to become one integral yearly meeting, led by the Spirit, rather than an organization distinct from the monthly meetings which pay for it. This opportunity is to be knit into one body, faithful, discerning, well led, empowered. Can we meet it?

In the past I have shared this call to faithful community with you in broad and general terms. Today I offer two very specific actions for the days ahead. First of all, when in business here or in your monthly meeting, test and double test your leading to speak. Does it come from the tender heart led by the Spirit? Or does the urge to speak come from some other place, such as our attachment to the way things have been, our perception of “our turf,” “our money,” “my committee,” etc. Can we hold ourselves to the same discipline of the Spirit to speak in our business meetings as we do in our Meetings for Worship? Can we only rise to speak if we are clearly and powerfully compelled to do so? After all, that is our practice, though I often witness us fudging it in our business.

Second, when you get the request for funds from the Development Committee, please give something. Even if it’s just $5- give something- the cost of a latte. Our goal is for everyone to give something, no matter how small. This is as much about participation and relationship as it is about raising money to support our work. It is our interrelationship which builds the fabric of community, and money is one aspect of being in relationship. And please don’t let your support for the 2014 Appeal diminish support you would have given the Sharing Fund. The first supports the operating budget, and the ministry done through that, and the second supports our witness efforts.

If we do these two things, guarding the Spirit-led nature of our decision –making, and making our support of the work of the yearly meeting tangible through our action, we will be moving a step closer to becoming the beloved community we are called to be. And we will successfully meet this opportunity, and avoid the pitfalls, even if we don’t get home by 6:00.

Christopher Sammond

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