Rekindling the Fire

Department: 

Looking towards the future of Quakerism, we see that the power to rekindle our fire for social justice lies within our local meetings. Supporting individuals to pursue the spirit’s leadings to work for peace and social justice will strengthen the Religious Society of Friends overall and connect us back to our historical roots.

In Santa Cruz Meeting, we have discovered one helpful approach for reclaiming our witness for peace and justice in the 21st Century. We have developed an intentional set of structures and processes for supporting individual leadings, which can then inspire action by the whole meeting.

For several years, our meeting had been concerned that our Peace and Social Order Committee had become inactive, with fewer and fewer members.  It seemed to lack the life, aliveness and fire that it needed to do its work, and that was present in our Meeting’s history. But rather than lay the committee down, we laid it aside and waited for inner promptings of the Spirit. 

For a while, we experimented with an approach in which our co-clerks brought new peace and social justice concerns to our whole meeting. But we did not feel confident that we had found a fresh approach to discernment.  And we found that intentional follow-up on concerns was difficult to achieve.

Finally, last year, our meeting approved a new process based on the idea that Quaker social action traditionally has been initiated through the personal concerns of individuals that grow into personal leadings.  Eventually, they may grow into leadings that move a whole meeting.

Douglas Steere describes the unfolding of a personal concern as an idiosyncratic and experimental process.  When a person feels the stirring of a concern, occasionally “the concern has put its finger on a specific thing to be done and on the initial steps of carrying it out…More often the concern has laid hold of the person in terms of a deep inner distress over the wrongness of some situation or a yearning to minister to some condition of need without more than the first minute step being clear to him as to how to deal with it… If the first step that is laid upon him is not undertaken, the later ones are not disclosed.”

Our experience is that meetings as corporate bodies tend to overlook individual leadings when they emerge, or they are reluctant to support leadings that they do notice, whether those leadings have emerged tentatively or stridently.  If a meeting understood that an individual’s leading might be intended by the Spirit to move the whole meeting, then the meeting might hold that individual more closely and supportively as they explore the meaning of their concern. William Taber stated, “A reading of Quaker journals from George Fox onward makes it clear that this inward work takes time and may cause us to make painful changes in our lives as we become more and more sensitive and obedient to the inward guide.  Although this inward work continues as long as we live and remain open to new learning, there is a sense in which seekers do become finders through the inward work of the Spirit.”

Our meeting began developing a support system for personal leadings by setting three goals: 

1) Keep energy flowing in the corporate body of the meeting around social witness concerns while raising the meeting’s awareness of Spirit moving within it.

2) Instill intentionality to the meeting’s process of watching for promptings of the Spirit as they emerge in concerns and in using Quaker process to ensure that signs of the Spirit are not overlooked.

3) Bring corporate accountability to ongoing concerns to prevent them from gathering dust in the attics of our minds and ensure good order in the process.

Our meeting then proposed and approved a “Leadings and Social Witness Mentor” role to identify leadings in the meeting and nurturing them to fruition if appropriate. The mentor serves as a mid-wife to concerns and leadings in individuals, helps with spiritual and logistical support for the individuals, helps keep concerns and leadings in the meeting’s awareness, and provides accountability and visibility for leadings.  Important parts of this Mentor role include being alert to signs of a leading, offering guidance to those who might be sensing leadings, and arranging for clearness committees when appropriate.   Of course, others in the meeting are encouraged to watch for leadings and let the mentor know when they see signs of them. 

Some concerns are simple and might involve simple responses, for example: petition signing or letter writing with no further action. The person bearing the concern might then feel released from it after taking action. If a person still feels weighed down by a concern after simple actions have been taken, then the Leadings and Social Witness Mentor may arrange a clearness committee for

the individual, with the explicit understanding that the committee will meet three times only.  This limit ensures that we conserve meeting energy for other leadings that might need attention.

Seeking Clearness:  An important first step in our clearness process is for the person seeking clearness to write a few succinct paragraphs that express the nature of their concern, ways they have labored with it, and some of the insights they have already gained in the process.  This statement is shared with all members of the clearness committee well in advance of its first meeting, so that all have a chance to consider the matter carefully.

Selecting and Educating Members of a Clearness Committee:  The composition of a clearness committee should balance skills and strengths, such as good time management and boundaries, experience with Quaker clearness process, specific skills or experiences related to the leading being considered, and wisdom in discernment. Serving on a clearness committee can be a beneficial spiritual experience for meeting members and attenders, whether they are new to Quakerism or seasoned Friends. To prepare for service on a clearness committee, its members are encouraged to read the booklet Faithfulness in Action by Pacific Yearly Meeting, which explains the manner and importance of Quaker process in discerning and supporting leadings.

Bringing the Concern Forward:  Once the clearness committee has completed its process (within three meetings), it may recommend that the leading has been seasoned enough and needs to be brought to the Business Meeting for assistance or further action. The committee usually does this by producing a report and recommendation for the Oversight Committee.  The committee might also feel that the wider meeting community needs to learn more about the concern.  In this case, the Leadings and Social  Mentor might join the clearness committee in offering logistical support for outreach activities, such as finding someone to set up an LCD projector for a presentation or distributing literature about the concern. 

One of the inspirational seeds of this proposal in Santa Cruz Meeting was the emergence of leadings in several meeting attenders and members over a short period of time.  They each took spontaneous action on a social concern without clear, intentional, ongoing meeting support:  A new member decided to experiment with music and dinners in a Quaker worship context at a homeless shelter.  An active attender announced after worship that she had started a petition to end the death penalty.  Another member created an illustrated pamphlet about vast military spending in relation to sparse education spending.  And yet another member became an active and insightful advocate for the rights of the homeless.  All are “classic” Quaker concerns.  Each of these Friends seemed to have taken the lonely step of jumping right in to work as an individual.

Still, each of these Friends also shared their thoughts with the meeting in some way, like by sending messages to the meeting’s email list or by making announcements after Meeting for Worship.  These Friends did not see their actions as leadings.  They merely wanted the Meeting to know about their concerns.  Our meeting’s new process for supporting personal leadings can help us avoid missed opportunities.  It can help remind us to follow up on individual concerns, so that we don’t miss the important moment of the birth of a leading.

The principles of leadings and of being led are central parts of our Quaker heritage, but they are not fully understood or realized in modern Quaker life. According to Hugh Barbour and Arthur O. Roberts in their book Early Quaker Writings, three conditions helped early Friends learn to follow their Inner Guide:

“First was their language of Truth, … a process of ‘truing up’ one’s awareness … Truth was acted, not just understood or believed… Friends preached that every person had within his mind and conscience an ability to recognize Truth, which was one of the meanings they gave to the Seed of the ‘new man’ which could grow within…

“Second, Friends were gathered in small Meetings, where members who had been through the period of inner struggle could reassure others that it was not final. Shared experience made the concurrence of leadings of conscience important, making the ‘Sense of the Meeting’ central in shared decisions…

“Third, the power of the early Quaker movement was its combination of dramatic inner changes in life … with its character as the religious awakening of a region … [and] we must add the overwhelming power of the love and appreciation which Friends felt for each other… as they shared awareness of victory over evil in themselves and the world...”

By seeking to foster these three conditions today, we can perhaps deepen the Spirit in our lives and meetings. This process can deeply affect worship and the Spirit’s working within our meetings, tapping into our Quaker legacy. Clearness committees, in our recent experience, also have the effect of creating small “home groups” within meetings, where values are shared and friendships are deepened.

Thomas Kelly states in his Testament of Devotion that “Our meetings were meant to be such groups, but now too many of them are dulled and cooled and flooded by the secular.  But within our meetings such inner bands of men and women, internally set apart, living by a vow of perpetual obedience to the Inner Voice, in the world yet not of the world, ready to go the second half, obedient as a shadow—such bands of humble prophets can recreate the Society of Friends.”

It seems crucial that meetings become more intentional about attending to the Spirit moving among us and holding close to Friends who are being led. Doing so might allow us to better understand and study what leadings really are and perhaps to follow future leadings ourselves. In our Meeting we held a series of mini-meetings for learning about leadings and provided background from PYM’s Faithfulness in Action and early Quaker writings. Leadings emerge in all of us, not just the activists among us. Ultimately, we all hold the tension between the corporate spiritual body and the individual through our awareness of Spirit moving in meeting as a whole and within an individual’s calling.  As Friends, we carry the spiritual tools we need for discerning where Spirit is moving us as a corporate body, including the recognition of instances when we are not in unity on a concern.

Ian Thiermann, a longtime, beloved activist in Santa Cruz Meeting, often closes his ministry by remembering a profound sign that he once saw hung over a worship room door: “Enter to Worship, Depart to Serve.” 

Indeed.  And how might we be led to do so?  ♦

Betty Devalcourt is a member of Santa Cruz Friends Meeting, where she has been active for 30 years and where she nurtures social witness leadings in others. She has followed her own leadings to engage in civil disobedience on war and nuclear power issues, to facilitate AVP workshops, to participate in a Nigerian education project, and to work with her local community on homelessness and peace issues.

Diego Navarro is a member of Santa Cruz Friends Meeting and a former Clerk of Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Ministry and Oversight Committee.  He has developed and conducted a three-session workshop on leadings, drawing in part from his personal experience with following a leading to create a nationally recognized program to help underprepared college students succeed in meeting their goals.