The lessons we learn from accompanying people as they die can help inform our understanding of the care that Quaker meetings need as they change and age. While closure is an expected and important part of any life, including the life of a meeting, in our youth-focused culture, it can be hard to tend this part of our life cycle. We believe that Quakers are missing some important opportunities for deep spiritual experiences and growth when we don’t address these challenges. Here, we will consider what it might mean to tend the Spirit and the spiritual life of a meeting that is in the later stages of its life.
We will briefly describe all six stages in this model. Then we will focus more specifically on the “final” phase, laying down a meeting. This model is a tool that helps us understand how Spirit is moving, speaking, and guiding us through the ongoing lives of our meetings. The life cycle of a meeting is not fixed, nor is the cycle unidirectional. Additionally, everyone in a particular meeting may not agree about which life-cycle stage they are in. As we accompany meetings, we are called to be present to the spiritual needs of the meeting throughout its life cycle.
The model we use for The Life Cycle of a Quaker Meeting is a model that has six potential stages: 1) Yearning, 2) Gathering, 3) New Meeting, 4) Maturing Meeting, 4) Aging Meeting, and 6) Final Stage / Laying Down. Additionally, we note that “pivot points” can occur within any stage in a meeting’s life. These are opportunities or challenges that might change the direction of a meeting’s expected path. Here then, briefly, are descriptions of this model’s six stages and of potential “pivot points.”
1) Yearning: At this stage, people have a desire for something more, feel unmet spiritual needs. Yearning may arise at any stage in the life cycle of a meeting and, if tended, might present opportunities for growth in the community. Individuals need support in acting on their yearnings.
2) Gathering: People with the same or similar yearnings gather together. They discern whether to become a new worship group, a new meeting, or whether to hold an additional time for worship (for example, mid-week worship). The community begins to identify emerging gifts, leadings, needs, and energy among its participants.
3) New Meeting: A new meeting can form independently or as part of an existing yearly meeting. Naming gifts and supporting ministries are important tasks during this phase in the meeting’s life. During this stage, the community also needs to formalize its structures, identify spiritual and physical supports for the meeting, and develop its collective identity.
4) Maturing Meeting: As the body worships together, the ministry of the meeting matures. This ministry may be focused both inwardly and outwardly. Individuals in the meeting community receive the spiritual care they need. The meeting listens and discerns which emerging ministries to support, as well as which to lay down. For example, as more people in the community address racism, the community may discern a shift in priorities and resources to support this growing ministry.
5) Aging Meeting: During this stage, ministry within the meeting may diminish or may become more powerful. The size or vitality of the community may decrease. During this stage, the community needs to discern possible paths forward, to review the life of the meeting, and to provide spiritual care to individuals as the meeting changes.
6) Final Stage / Laying Down: In the final stage, the meeting prepares to be laid down. This preparation includes celebrating and grieving the life of the meeting, assisting individuals in finding new spiritual communities, and transitioning any resources according to Faith and Practice.
Pivot Points: Throughout all stages in the life cycle of a meeting, pivot points occur. These are spiritual opportunities and challenges for the meeting, times when the community might discern a call to embrace unexpected possibilities. Some examples of “pivot points” that might impact the course of a meeting are:
At such junctures, the spiritual life of a meeting can flourish or diminish. People may be drawn to the community at such times, or they may leave. Navigating these pivot points is an important aspect of the spiritual life of the meeting.
When a Quaker community faces a pivot point, it has choices. For example, Grass Valley Friends Meeting recently faced the pivot point of “change in resources.” Their resources had diminished. Based on communal discernment, the meeting restructured to have fewer committees. Today, the meeting is experiencing growing participation by members and attenders. It has also been attracting more newcomers, another attribute of vitality.
Pivot points often raise questions of identity: Who are we as a meeting? Who are we as Quakers? What is important to us as a community? If the meeting takes time to remember its history together and to remember what drew individuals to the meeting, this can help the community clarify its values and identity. Articulating the identity of the meeting together can help the community discern its way forward.
The spiritual, emotional, and psychological needs of individuals and the meeting need to be tended throughout life cycle of a meeting. Each transition between stages brings a new opportunity to reconsider where and who we are now, and what Spirit is asking of us. Fear may arise in the community during such transitions. Previous experiences with change impact how we individually navigate change. There are needs of individuals which can aid or hinder the meeting in navigating a meeting’s life cycle changes. Individuals may resist change. It is important to consider what needs might be reflected in such resistance. Transitions are potential opportunities to offer pastoral care. The Friends who care for the spiritual life of the meeting have special responsibilities during times of transition. Faithful navigation through the life cycle of a meeting will include both looking at the meeting’s past faithfulness as well as listening for continuing revelation. In a culture that values youth and growth, supporting meetings that are diminishing is challenging and an important spiritual task.
When a meeting realizes that it faces diminishment or when it begins to consider being laid down, the community can embark upon spiritual preparation for the tasks of discernment ahead. Guiding this preparation will be the role of the committee that tends the spiritual life of the meeting (Ministry and Counsel, Ministry and Worship, Faith and Witness, etc.). Where a meeting has committees, they may be able to take responsibility for practical preparations such as care of meetinghouses, cemeteries, or endowments. The meeting may need to turn to the quarterly meeting or yearly meeting for practical and spiritual guidance.
It is important for the community to listen to the values that underlie feelings and concerns expressed by individuals in the meeting. Naming these values can aid the transition. If we remember that tending the life cycle of the meeting is an act of faithfulness, this can help to offset the sense of scarcity that may come with loss.
Laying down a monthly meeting is a tender process, requiring loving care and intention. Care of the meeting across the life cycle is sacred work in the same way that hospice or palliative work is sacred. All are acts of faithfulness.
This article has grown out of the work of a group of Friends organized by Emily Provance. Drawn from several yearly meetings, this group has been meeting in an ongoing way to consider the Quaker particularities of the end stages of a meeting’s life. There are many aspects to the end of life of meetings, and there is room for the gifts of many Friends in this work. Might you be one of them?
Here are two resources to help Quaker meetings examine their own stories, wherever they might be in the life cycle of Quaker meetings:
Sandy Kewman is a member of Sacramento Monthly Meeting and a recent presiding clerk of Pacific Yearly Meeting.
Anne Pomeroy is a Quaker spiritual director and a member of New Paltz Monthly Meeting in New York Yearly Meeting.