Bureaucratic overload subverts the ministry of nominations to discern Friends’ gifts and leadings, turning it into a weary necessity of ‘filling jobs’. Committees and roles are readily set up but very rarely laid down, even where they are clearly no longer serving the life of the Spirit. But as long as we keep on devoting most of our energies to simply keeping the structures going, we only postpone the profound changes that are actually needed.
Instead of continually working harder just to keep going, the renewal of our Quaker practice asks us to refocus on what is essential – serving the leadings of the Spirit rather than the demands of property and administration. Quaker organisation is not an end in itself. All of our structures, committees, roles and property exist for just one purpose – to help us to attend to the Inward Guide and to follow it. All other functions are secondary to these, and wherever administrative tasks interfere with Friends’ capacity to practise the Quaker way, they need to be reduced, shared with other Meetings or eliminated altogether. Instead of allowing ourselves to become societies for the preservation of historic buildings, we need to recall our vocation as communities of faithful discernment and testimony to divine leadings.
The essential responsibilities of a Quaker Meeting are those that enable our core practices of worship, discernment and testimony. Our Meetings for Worship and for Business are essential for our formation as a community that is responsive to divine guidance. Friends’ leadings need the discernment of the Meeting, so that they can be recognised and supported by the community and lived out as our testimony to the world. For these spiritual practices, we need the service of Friends who, between them, can offer the ministries of clerking and pastoral care that enable our Meetings to be rightly ordered. All other roles and responsibilities, including for legal and financial matters, are entirely secondary.
Perhaps we should support our nominations committees in resisting the pressure to treat Quaker roles as jobs that must be filled. Instead we could encourage them to concentrate on recognising Friends’ gifts and providing opportunities to exercise them. We might consider adopting a new discipline of no longer expect anyone to fulfil more than one significant Quaker responsibility at a time, reducing the number of roles to suit the Friends available. In this way each of us might be able to concentrate on undertaking one Quaker ministry wholeheartedly, instead of continuing to spread ourselves ever more thinly across too many tasks.
Perhaps we also need to discern the particular ministry of our Local or Area Meeting - what are we called to as a local community of Friends? Is it to build an inclusive and caring local community, to offer our testimony by challenging social injustices, to engage in interfaith learning and dialogue, or something else? By focussing on the particular ministry that our Meeting has to offer at this time, and letting go of other responsibilities that have become burdens, we might rediscover the vitality of the 'concern-orientated life' described by Thomas Kelly, as our lives and our Meetings become simplified by 'faithfulness to a few concerns’:
"I wish I might emphasise how a life becomes simplified when dominated by faithfulness to a few concerns. Too many of us have too many irons in the fire. We get distracted by the intellectual claim to our interest in a thousand and one good things, and before we know it we are pulled and hauled breathlessly along by an over-burdened programme of good committees and good undertakings. I am persuaded that this fevered life of church workers is not wholesome. Undertakings get plastered on from the outside because we can’t turn down a friend. Acceptance of service on a weighty committee should really depend upon an answering imperative within us, not merely upon a rational calculation of the factors involved. The concern-orientated life is ordered and organised from within. And we learn to say No as well as Yes by attending to the guidance of inner responsibility. Quaker simplicity needs to be expressed not merely in dress and architecture and height of tombstones but also in the structure of a relatively simplified and co-ordinated life-programme of social responsibilities."
(Thomas R Kelly, 1941, Quaker faith & practice 20.36)Has your Meeting found ways to simplify its structures or processes? How can we restore attention to our spiritual practices rather than the demands of administration?