Monday, July 7, 2008

Friends General Conference, Reflections

Now that I have made my way to a place where I have enough free time and access to a computer, I'll describe my experience at FGC Gathering this past week. As I indicated in my last email, the week was a difficult one for me, and took a lot of adjustment on my part. However, as the days went by, I was able to adapt myself more and more to the way of life and schedule at FGC Gathering, so that by the end I felt more or less comfortable. Of course, then it was time to leave.

I think that I was expecting FGC Gathering to be more like a yearly meeting session than anything else; but, in fact, it was far closer to being a festival, concert, or summer camp for adults and families. Coming to this gathering, I felt that my role was to be an observer, to rest in God and seek to understand a different culture. I found soon that simply being at FGC Gathering as an observer took a great deal of energy, and that, though I felt that I did very little, I was very drained by dinnertime each evening. At many times the gathering felt centerless, with many different individuals and groups involved in their own activities. At times it seemed that the overall energy of the gathering was one of "anything goes," a release from all inhibitions that had to be borne during the rest of the year.

I had hoped to be quite involved in the Young Adult Friends community at FGC Gathering, but to my chagrin almost all YAF events were scheduled for 9:15pm or later, with their business meetings regularly going well past midnight. Since I go to bed closer to "Quaker midnight," I felt unable to take much part in that community. Instead, I spent most of my time mingling with older folks, which was just fine - but I had wanted to make more of a connection with younger Friends there, as well. I was able to make a connection with a few wonderful individual YAFs, but being a part of the group as a whole seemed out of reach.

During FGC Gathering I spent a lot of time observing and ruminating on the work that the Holy Spirit is doing among Friends in preparing us to be the Body of Christ in the world. I noticed several hopeful movements of the Spirit at work in the liberal-unprogrammed branch that are emerging or becoming strengthened at this time. In terms of Friends General Conference as an organization, the two most inspiring initiatives now underway are the Traveling Ministries Program and the nascent Quaker Quest program. I see these two initiatives as representing the future of Quakerism - at least in its unprogrammed variety - two sides of what is happening as God seeks to enliven, renew, reignite this generation of the Religious Society of Friends.

FGC's fundraising campaign that is underway is called "Stoking the Spiritual Fires of Quakerism," and I am pleased to see the idea of "being on fire" become in-vogue. Imagine that: Taking our faith seriously! The Quaker Quest program seems incredibly promising as a tool for evangelism/outreach, but also for inreach. As meetings undertake this program, I believe that we will become clearer about who we are as Friends, what we believe, how we should be living in the world. At the same time that Quaker Quest begins to take root and quite possibly transform our meetings both in terms of spiritual depth and numerically, it seems clear to me that it is imperative that we prepare ourselves as a religious community for a potential influx of newly convinced Friends, on a scale that we have not seen since the mid nineteenth century.

I see the Traveling Ministries Program as a key part of this preparation, helping to energize, connect, encourage and organize our ministers and elders, both young and old in Christ. I believe that our traveling Friends will become an increasingly important force in the Religious Society as God seeks to bring us into greater levels of faithfulness as a body. As Quaker Quest serves as a tool for God to enrich and expand our local meetings, God willing, the Traveling Ministries Program may serve to connect these meetings to the wider Religious Society of Friends, both grounding the local meeting in the wider body and tradition, as well as encouraging the flow of vitality and groundedness to other, less healthy areas of our community, and to the wider Church.

In this vein, another program that seems very promising which is emerging out of the East Coast stream of unprogrammed Quakerism is the School of the Spirit. This ministry has been at work since 1990, "helping all who wish to be more faithful listeners and responders to the inward work of Christ." Until recently, the sole program of the School of the Spirit had been, "On Being a Spiritual Nurturer," which serves to guide and nurture the emerging gifts of eldership within our Religious Society. This coming year will be the first in a (hopefully) ongoing program entitled, "The Way of Ministry," which will serve a similar purpose for those called to Gospel, prophetic, traveling, teaching, or other kinds of ministry grounded within the meeting community, but often reaching out to the wider world.

The School of the Spirit seems very promising to me for a number of reasons: First, it appears to offer the kind of oversight and nurture that many monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings seem unable or unwilling to provide at the present time. Second, it seeks to encourage a grounded, caring fellowship of ministers and elders who support one another in their labors, providing nurture and guidance. Finally, and what is potentially most exciting about this program, the School of the Spirit is committed to the active participation of local meetings in the ministry of its students.

The School of the Spirit sees ministry of all kinds in the context of a corporate body - the local, quarterly and yearly meeting - and strives to involve these bodies to as great an extent as possible. They hold that it is essential that our meetings recognize the spiritual gifts and callings of their membership as not only being a call for that individual, but also for the body as a whole. Spiritual gifts are a gift from God to the body, held in trust by an individual; and calls from God, if true leadings, are not merely for the individual, but are in fact to some degree a call for the entire body, to be supported materially, encouraged, and overseen by the church community.

I am excited to see how these programs, along with many other smaller-scale initiatives that are blooming at present all over the Quaker landscape, will serve to enliven, enrich, and make more useful for God's service the Religious Society of Friends in this new century. At FGC Gathering, I was surprised and pleased to notice that many Friends are becoming enthusiastic about outreach. During one night's plenary session, when Peterson Toscano remarked during his presentation that he thought outreach was crucial, many in the audience began to cheer and clap spontaneously. This is an exciting day, when Friends in the unprogrammed branches are getting fired up about sharing their faith, inviting others into our meetings.

This has been a very difficult week for me, but I am glad that I was able to be at FGC Gathering. I feel that I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of FGC at this gathering, and I am encouraged that the Ocean of Light is overcoming the Ocean of Darkness. The grass is growing up from underneath the blanket of snow that has kept us "safe," hidden, for so long. Praise God. I pray that I was well used this past week, that the Seed of God was encouraged.


Anna said...

thank you so much for this post Micah and for your Spiritual work at FGC Gathering. I have been invited to attend Gathering for several years now, but have shied away from it because the reports I have heard have made me feel it would be more spiritually harmful then nurturing. I am encouraged by your honest and Spirit led report. I know many people in NY Yearly Meeting who are students in School of the Spirit and agree that if has much to offer Friends.

Peace and Joy,

Jeanne said...

I think you got it right. FGC's summer Gathering is an apt reflection of the larger body of liberal Friends.

Yes, Gathering is a summer camp. It's a place to hang out and be with people like you and people you like. There are pockets where you can see Spirit moving deeply. FLGBTQC is one place, where we have the biggest and, in my humble opinion, the most gathered Meeting for Worship. And we also have Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business in the afternoons. There are also many pockets where the social connection far outweighs Spirit.

But liberal Meetings are exactly like this. We mostly come together to be with people like us and who we like. There are pockets where Spirit moves deeply (individual committees, sometimes circle 8s, occasionally MfWfB), and there are pockets where social connection far outweighs Spirit.

The work I'm doing around social class is very much connected to outreach because I think until we own up to our collective class culture and privilege (as a body as well as individually), we won't be able to heal racism that's been all the talk of late among liberal Friends.

Unless, of course, when liberal Friends talk about outreach, they're talking about recruiting people just like us.


Jeanne said...

Oh, and I forgot to tell you, the conversation I had with you, Rex and Eric was the most interesting conversation I had all week. I wished I didn't have to leave.