Location, Perspective, and a Compass

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An interview with Brent Bill

Brent Bill is a Quaker minister, retreat leader, and congregational consultant. He serves as Coordinator of the New Meetings Project for Friends General Conference (FGC), and has written more  than twenty books, including Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality and Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment. Brent is a member of West Newton Friends Meeting in Indianapolis, IN. He spoke with Western Friend by phone on February 12, 2015. The text below is an edited transcript of that interview. You can find longer version at: westernfriend.org/media/location-perspective-and-compass-unabridged

Western Friend: How long have you been the Coordinator of the New Meetings Project, and what were you doing before that?

Brent Bill: I’ve been with the project since it started in September of 2012. Before that, for twelve years, I was the Chief Operating Officer of a large religious not-for-profit here in Indianapolis. We worked with congregations across the state of Indiana – consulting with them, putting on educational events, grant making – responding to whatever the churches called us about.

WF: So would you talk a bit about the beginnings of the New Meetings Project, how it came into being?

BB: Well, I have to give credit to FGC’s administrative team from a few years ago, which was Barry Crossno, Deborah Fisch, and Michael Wajda, because they had the vision initially. They asked themselves, if FGC was going to do something new, something important, what would that be? The idea of seeding and nurturing new meetings arose, based on a number of things that they were seeing. The goal is to produce a replicable model that new groups can use that will lead to a greater chance of success – if, of course, Spirit is involved. If Spirit is not involved, no plan is going to matter much.

The national average for new congregations is that 60% of them fail within the first four years. That’s one reason we wanted to learn how to create a good model, one that puts together the ingredients for success. So we did the research and put together the model and created materials for new groups to use. All of our resources are three-to-five-page PDFs on specific topics. You can download them from the “resources” section of FGC’s website.

WF: So how many meetings are you working with now?

BB: We have helped seventeen new Quaker groups get started since September 2012. And eighteen more are in active discernment about whether to start new Quaker meetings or worship groups. We have had over 80 inquiries, but quite a few of those didn’t go anywhere.

WF: How much of that activity is out in the West?

BB: Of groups that have started, there’s one in Utah, one in Texas, one in Colorado, and one in California. The one in California is one of the newest, in Livermore. And as of last Thursday, they’re under the care of Berkeley Meeting. 

WF: I’m interested in how you have seen – through your travels for FGC – whether there is something real to this idea of “the West,” whether there is such a things as a “Western Friend.” And what effects do you see that having on the formation of Quaker communities? 

BB: I think there is a variety of types of Western Friends. The impact of the local culture affects Friends all across the country. If I look at Southern Friends, I see a guarded distinctiveness, because Quakers are kind of unknown in the South. The group that started in Jackson, Mississippi, I mean, they’re in the heart of the Bible Belt, so they have a certain kind of outsider perspective. Whereas the Philadelphia Friends and the East Coast Friends, they often seem very insider, very secure. And Midwestern Friends seem nice and hesitant. “We don’t want to rush in to change too much. We’ve been doing it this way for years.”

When I think of the Western Friends I have worked with, I see a lot of variety. I see the Pacific Northwest Quaker mentality is very much affected by the general skepticism about religious activity in the Northwest. Unlike here in Indiana where everybody goes to church, in the Northwest you only go if you’re really committed, you don’t go just because there’s an expectation. And the attitude in the Northwest is also quite deliberative; it’s like, “Well, let’s think about this. We don’t want to be rushing into this.”

Now Utah, Arizona, Colorado – in those places I see much more of the rugged individualism. “We’re just gonna do it!” People who say, “We’re used to being out here in these huge spaces. So what if it takes two hours to get to meeting?” The new Quaker group in Montrose, Colorado, is really “can-do” like that. I visited there in November with Connie McPeak Green, and we asked, “Is there anything we can do for you?” And they said, “No, we’re doing pretty well. What are some of the things the other groups need? Maybe we could help them.”

The attitude in California seems like it’s somewhat between the Northwest folks and the Intermountain folks. Like, “We’re going to discern for a long time;” and then, “Now that we’re ready, get us the stuff.” And it’s more of a city mentality. But despite the differences among all these groups, there is a certain Quaker sensibility that goes across all the lines. 

WF: How do you describe that?

BB: Whether we’re new to Quakers or not, we tend to attract people with a certain sensibility, people who are contemplative, people who tend to be deliberative. We may get impatient with the other Quakers who are deliberative, but we don’t want to rush anything ourselves, either. 

We want something deeper, beyond the process. We’re good spiritual listeners. There’s  talk about correct belief, but what we’re really concerned about is how we’re living – how we’re living out our Quaker faith and practice.

That’s what I find at the heart of it – Friends are people who really have found something that has “spoken to their condition,” as Fox said. They may use different words for it, but they are seeking a common experience. One of my dearest friends is non-theist, and the words she uses describes her spirit, what she’s longing for in her heart, she uses those words in the same way that I use the Christian language that I grew up with. 

WF: So how do you see the tension between Friends’ fundamental disavowal of creeds on the one hand and the danger of trying to be all things to all people on the other hand?

BB: We get so weary of language, I think. So many have been wounded by language. That makes it doubly hard to talk about what we believe in most deeply. I have long been an advocate for what I call “theological hospitality.” And by that I mean: Can we learn to “listen in tongues?” In the Early Church, on the day of Pentecost, they began speaking in tongues so everyone who was present could hear the good news in their own language, without translation. Can we learn to listen to each other in tongues, instead of taking offense at theistic language or non-theistic language? Can we listen and then ask, “What’s behind what you’ve said? Tell me more about your experience.”

We are never going to all be like-minded, but there is a possibility that we could be like-hearted. It is certain that every faith community is going to have differences among people’s individual beliefs and experiences. So how do we move beyond the attitude that “My experience of Quakerism is the norm and is therefore normative for all Quakers,” and get to a more generous Quaker way of speaking?

That’s not to say that we ought to be all things to all people. I think that we do sometimes make the mistake of trying to do that. Some meetings, in their attempts to be generous, sometimes lose what their core is. Now I can’t define what the core is for any meeting – not in Podunk, Iowa, and not in Yerba Buena, California – but I think the gathered community there can and should labor together over what they can say about what it is that brings them together. That way, when newcomers visit, Friends can be welcoming regardless of where they are on the theological spectrum, because we can be clear to newcomers what it is that we are about. They can know what they might be getting themselves into, so to speak.

And at another level, that sort of clarity helps us protect the vision that we have for our group, helps protect us from being hijacked. Because even though we’re excited when we have new people coming, they come wearing their own spiritual lenses, and not everyone’s views are necessarily compatible with Friends. Whether it’s an ultra-evangelical or ultra-liberal or non-theist lens or whatever, the community needs to be able to see whether or not it is compatible. The fact is that we’re all wearing some kind of lens, and some of our past experiences and beliefs and practices actually might not be helpful to us or to the group.

There’s this myth out there that it’s because of their clear theologies that fundamentalist and evangelical churches are growing. But the church growth studies actually show that that the congregations that grow are the ones that understand why they exist. Any congregation – conservative, liberal, middle-of-the-road – when they can articulate their faith and when they live their faith out to each other and to newcomers, those places grow.

WF: I appreciate your emphasis on corporate discernment here. I think part of my struggle in this area has been when the conversation turns into one about being “a good Quaker.” And speaking of that, would you mind talking some about your upcoming presentation in Claremont on “the spiritual compass” and the importance of that idea? 

BB: Sure. Well, I grew up among evangelical Friends, and we did a lot of talking about finding God’s plan for your life. And I always seemed to be messing up. I always seemed to be saying, “Jeez oh Pete, if this is God’s plan for my life, why do I keep getting it wrong? Why am I so bad at being good?”

And then I started thinking, if there’s “a plan” for me, well, I can mess up “a plan” pretty quickly. If there’s only “a plan,” only one way, I’ve kind of royally had it. And yet, God seems to keep loving me anyway, despite all my mess-ups. And the more I read scripture, the more I thought, “all the heroes are a mess.” David is called “a man after God’s own heart,” and yet he falls in love with a married woman and gets her husband killed so he can have her. That used to bug me, but then I found it comforting. I started thinking, okay, if David screwed up, then there’s a chance for me.

I sometimes think I have spiritual ADHD. I may start off with this clear view, “Here’s where the loving face of God is calling me to be.” And then, “Oh, look! There’s a squirrel!” Then I want to to sit down and play with the squirrel, while the rest of God’s people move on down the path. And then there I am, wandering in the meadow and the woods, but if I pull out the compass, I can still find north. I can still get reoriented back to the Spirit, and my life is even richer because of the experiences that I’ve had. I’ve learned a lot along the way in my wanderings, and I’ve met a lot of people who have helped me out. And instead of being “bad experiences” or “good experiences,” they are just parts of my life, and I would not be the person I am If I had not been through them. 

I began to understand that spiritual discernment is not primarily about questions like who should I marry, what college should I go to, all the big questions in life – though there is a lot of discernment involved in those questions. I started to see that spiritual discernment is more about the daily discernment of living my life. My life is not about making correct decisions; it’s about learning to walk with God continuously. It’s about learning to live more fully into what Paul calls “the fruits of the spirit” – kindness, meekness, gentleness, and love. So it’s about moving in the direction God calls me to. And it’s not direction like a GPS gives, which implies that you need to know exactly where you are now and exactly where you’re going. It’s not like that; it’s more like a compass. The only exactness that I have is that I feel I am going toward the Light and the Love of a God who loves me more than I can comprehend.  ~~~