29 May 2008

Should all evangelical Friends be in one organization?

In my last Quaker Life editorial, back in the summer of 2000, I wrote a "wish list" for Friends United Meeting, including the following item:
Christian unity among Friends: FUM occupies a central place in the world of Friends; as someone said at the February meeting of our General Board, FUM at its core is "unapologetically evangelical and authentically Quaker." Based on this identity, FUM is well-placed to work with Christian Friends from every corner of the Quaker world. During my time, we have collaborated with Friends General Conference on publications in Russian and with Evangelical Friends International on work in Ramallah and pastors' conferences in East Africa and Latin America. At one point, we had field staff working together in Palestine from Northwest, Iowa, North Carolina and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings. Eventually it will make sense for Friends United Meeting and Evangelical Friends International to merge, but in the meantime, whenever collaboration allows us to be more faithful, we ought to jump at the chance.
Concerning the merger of FUM and Evangelical Friends International: I think I've changed my mind.

At the time I wrote those words, I knew first-hand the enormous effort involved in the care and feeding of a Friends organization, particularly one with the comprehensive responsibilities of a (more or less) denomination. It just didn't make sense to me that two such organizations with similar core values but fairly small constituencies could justify operating in parallel. Surely a unified evangelical body would have more economies of scale. All that was necessary was for a new generation of leaders to come on the scene, leaders who perhaps weren't so personally invested in seeing the flaws in each other's organizations.

I also believed that the two bodies would strengthen each other. EFI and its mission arm, Evangelical Friends Mission, seemed to me to have a "why not?" energy and attitude towards new missions, whereas FUM seemed to be permanently oriented toward maintaining very mature (charitably stated) mission relationships, with no energy left for reaching people who'd never heard of us. Individual FUM yearly meetings, including some in Kenya, were becoming more active, but I don't think FUM could take credit for that.

If EFI could be seen as more mission-oriented, what would FUM bring to a merger? As a whole, FUM Friends seemed to me to be more committed to, and more patient with, Friends' traditions, especially in decisionmaking. I also felt, rightly or wrongly, that Friends in FUM were more accustomed to Christian diversity.

(I am now defining FUM as those Friends who actually value their FUM affiliation, not those who are in dual-affiliation Quaker bodies but not personally committed at all to FUM or to what earlier generations charmingly called "orthodox" Quakerism. Also note: Capital-E Evangelical Friends are part of EFI; small-e evangelical Friends also include those Friends in FUM who agree with FUM's purpose statement, and also include significant numbers of Friends in the so-called liberal and conservative yearly meetings. If this paragraph makes no sense at all to you, consider yourself fortunate!)

I've now been in an Evangelical Friends yearly meeting a year longer than I was head of the FUM staff, and I'm starting to make some comparisons. But those comparisons are not what led me to begin doubting the wisdom of merger. Despite some distressing innovations in a few parts of the EFI side (abandonment of monthly meetings, for example, and increased use of ceremony), and what looks to me like a decline in FUM's vitality, the similarities outweigh the differences. Instead, here's what leads me to doubt the wisdom of merging:
    I'm wondering more and more whether these organizations really need to exist at all. The mission departments (FUM Global Ministries and Evangelical Friends Mission) might be needed for their specific functions, but what else do the wider associations add? I first wrote that question as a rhetorical one, but maybe I should pose it seriously. What do they add?

    Many Friends already cross the boundaries between the various Friends associations without any problems. Eliminating the boundaries would be irrelevant for them. But, within the associations, there are years of established patterns of social networks that would merge imperfectly, if at all. And why should they? After all, most Friends probably relate mostly to their own congregation, and beyond that, to the yearly meeting.

    Friends have demonstrated remarkable and enduring irritability (for supposedly peaceable people!) in the FUM governance committees and bodies. There's less outward irritability, as far as I can tell, in EFI circles, but even so, EFI Friends are hardly placid. Northwest Yearly Meeting has its share of assertive Friends on both sides of several issues. Of course, some of the issues which periodically erupt among all kinds of Friends are genuinely important controversies, but I also think that some of us are perennially discontented. Why give us an even larger arena for our quarrels?

    Ad hoc consultations, as needed, seem to go on all the time, and there's a wonderful, time-honored history of Friends groups collaborating on specific projects. I mentioned a couple of examples in my editorial. Why divert energy from those collaborations for the sake of tinkering with the organizational infrastructure?

    The FUM Quaker identity and the EFI Quaker identity carry on (at least in my own mind, and arguably in Quaker periodicals and weblogs) an important conversation on what is most important about being Quaker. (Whether these identities require organizations with committees and boards to maintain them is another question.) Perhaps their very separateness keeps the mutual challenge sharp. If we were all one big organization, perhaps those sharp mutual challenges would degenerate into internal politics rather than being posed on their merits. Examples: Which deserves more energy, conversion or discipleship? Is the word "Quaker" too compromised for evangelical Friends to use prominently? Conversely, what does the label "Evangelical" add to our public message? When liberal Friends gain publicity for an action or position we don't agree with, do we respond with exasperation or with creativity?
Some years ago (1994?), a Cuban Friend proposed an "apostolic council" of Friends who would help us discern the Holy Spirit's guidance for the new challenges of the 21st century (and, I'd add, the post-denominational era). What would such a body do to help us maintain the Quaker identity without the organizational overhead? Could such a body of elders be credible without even the faint hint of accountability now occasionally provided by bodies such as FUM and EFI?

Righteous links:

Kafka Comes to America, and its author comes to Portland. (Thanks to Rachel Hampton for the news.)

Far from Moscow is a delightful blog on Russian contemporary music and culture.

Sean Guillory provided the above reference. His own outlet, Sean's Russia Blog, links to his recent eXile article examining the Nemtsov/Milov would-be expose of the Putin presidential era.

One more Russian link, utterly without political agenda: a Google-driven site to plan your Moscow city transportation online. (The site is building up a database for transportation between Russian cities as well.)

Goodbye to a courageous Iranian spiritual leader, Hassan Dehqani-Tafti.

Here's an amazing photo: the first time a camera has caught a spacecraft descending to the surface of another planet.

The Artis family enjoys playing blues, and we're invited to enjoy with them:

Online Videos by Veoh.com


Bill said...

Let me join you in your pessimism. The structures, whether at the FUM level for Yearly Meeting level, are not structured for mission -- they are structured for structure.
It's hard to see any way to change that other than (nonviolently) blowing them up and starting over. Or they may implode on their own.

There is good news -- Jesus is still speaking to our condition today and, in places, is leading his people himself.

Bill Samuel said...

Actually EFI has minimal structure outside of EFM - not even an office of its own. FUM has traditionally been the most structured of the associations, but FGC has structured up and may be a competitor for that dubious distinction today.

I'm wondering if it might actually make sense to go back to an earlier era that predated the formal associations where there were networks to work together around specific areas. There were essentially two sets of networks (I think much more developed on the Hicksite side) and it seemed to make sense to consolidate them because the sets had mostly the same membership in the different components.

I wonder if today Friends tried that approach if we wouldn't more likely see different combinations around different areas of work? It's very hard to imagine all 3 associations agreeing to that approach, but it might be an interesting thought exercise - perhaps the Superintendents and Secretaries might want to engage in such an exercise.

I wonder whether the North American component of FUM can survive in the long run, at least without really major alteration. FGC & EFI seem to be doing OK, but FUM has been struggling for a long time. It has been doing piecemeal changes in structure and program which in toto have been significant in scope, but I wonder if a more comprehensive and radical rethink is needed.

And we have to think about it at 2 levels - North American and world. A merger might make sense in some parts of the world, but in North American probably at a minimum there needs to be some other interim approach before that would happen. OTOH, neither EFI or FUM provide much in the way of services in North America today (FGC provides far more), so maybe a joint approach could fill what is somewhat of a void - but that might well be a stepping up of the project-level cooperation which there has been to some degree between the 2 for quite some time, rather than a merger per se.

Johan said...

Bill C: You're absolutely right. It's up to Friends to learn what Jesus is doing and join in, rather than defend/perpetuate our own patterns. Those patterns are great when they remain linked to their original "why" but that's exactly what I fear doesn't happen.

Bill S: EFI has less paid staff but still requires funding and travel and lots of volunteer time. (And with Friends organizations in general--the less structure, the more we find decisions being made offstage by just a few people.)

Thanks for taking my comments further. I'm glad for others to continue these thoughts, because our organizations must be openly discussed and challenged (and intelligently supported when they deserve it). I personally feel a bit churlish when I criticize the very organizations that I've poured so much of my life into, and that have been so hospitable to me. So I'm never going to be part of a simplistic campaign to tear them down, but I do want to contribute to a larger discussion on their future.