Quaker membership is important. Mutual commitment matters. Membership is a relationship, not an achievement.
Quaker meetings rely on membership to let them know whom the meeting can count on. Membership also encourages individuals, as members, to feel allowed to ask for help or make suggestions about how the meeting should act. Many attenders also feel allowed to ask and suggest. They should. Not all people in meetings have that confidence. Membership might help them.
The process of a meeting and a Friend joining together in membership offers an opportunity for all to seek greater clearness together. A small group of Friends focuses on the relationship with a prospective member and their inward life. Let’s not miss this chance to share our lives with each other out of a sense of privacy, or from anxiety about self-exposure, or by attempting to be so egalitarian that we needlessly avoid labels.
When I became a member of Corvallis Friends Meeting, it wasn’t a sudden soul-changing opening to the Commonwealth of God. The process of becoming a member and the following decades of practicing membership have been a precious, profound, and on-going influence in my life.
If the members of a meeting don’t practice care for each other, membership may be less important. If we practice indiscriminate care for everyone, it might not be realistic to suggest we can offer a special depth of care to anyone. However, if we mutually commit to each other’s welfare and spiritual growth – as a clearly identified collection of individuals – some amazing things can happen.
One attender of our meeting lived in his van. At worship one Sunday over a year ago, he seemed unhealthy. He’d fallen, hit his head, and had some internal bleeding. His brain was dying. With the help of Friends, he has found medical care and transitional housing. A return to employment and self-support is now in process.
It’s a nice story, but why do we extend this care to him? Why not extend help to all the people with vacant faces we see in our neighborhoods? Attenders appear in our meeting and then disappear about as frequently as these neighbors. Clarity about membership might help us be franker about the practical limits on our ability to help each other in various ways, might help us practice mutual care with an honestly defined community of members. Questions about who gives and who gets help would be clearer, though not necessarily easier.
The biggest problem I sense with contemporary membership is inaccurate lists. We have too many Friends-In-Membership-Only (FIMOs). Plus, too many Attenders-Fooling-Themselves (AFTs) into thinking they aren’t good enough. Let’s make it easier and less judgmental to enter membership, easier to exit, and easier for a meeting to phase a FIMO off of the membership list.
If a FIMO, a long-time member who’s not attended in years, needed practical help, how would the meeting know? If we did find out, would we respond? Unanswerable questions like these undermine the integrity of a meeting community.
Underneath those problems is a common confusion that membership implies status or achievement, rather than relationship. Membership doesn’t say you know anything, do anything, or have qualified in any way. It’s a statement of the relationship you and the meeting are working to have with each other.
My local meeting is not doing well at recognizing when membership relationships start and when they’re over. We practice meeting commitment to the spiritual and physical well-being of each other, but who is included in that commitment is a muddle. On the one hand, we let too many people hang around our meetinghouses, committees, and projects without even inviting them to join. On the other hand, we let too many people hang onto the formality of “membership” even though it’s become a relationship we’ve long left untended. We need to let each other go.
I’m not quite sure how to make membership easier to get into. One clue I have is to invite people. Friends who value their own membership and value a meeting’s need for functioning membership should notice AFTs who are acting as members. Invite them to join. Make it simple. Emphasize the relationship that already exists and the simplicity of the process of joining. The letter that a prospective member writes to the meeting need be nothing special. “Dear Meeting: I’d like to join.” That would be good enough.
A meeting could also make its becoming-a-member clearness process simpler and should reduce the opportunities for the appearance or reality of Friends judging the applicant. Clarify that the applicant is an equal member of the clearness committee. Heck! Why not give an applicant permission to choose and gather the clearness committee? Give the membership decision to that committee. The meeting can record the membership, rather than decide upon it. The Pastoral Care Committee (whatever you call it) can be there to support the process. The committee must not merely serve as a hurdle to clear.
And here’s a radical idea for making it easier to leave membership: Set all memberships for a fixed term, ending on an easy-to-remember date. How about 12/31/2024? If a member wishes to retain the relationship, they must simply let the Pastoral Care Committee or the Clerk know within the year preceding that date. No justification need be offered, just an affirmation of continued intent. Announcements at meeting and in the meeting’s newsletter would remind Friends to make this statement. Anyone who doesn’t ask would be left off the membership list. Do this again five years later at 12/31/2029.
Quaker membership is important. Let’s treat it with love and attention, as we do with all our dearest relationships. ~~~
Jay Thatcher is a member of the Western Friend Board of Directors and of Corvallis Friends Meeting (NPYM).