Thursday, February 17, 2005

A discussion on Friends' Leadership

Recently, a Friend (Chris Japely) wrote to a few members of 15th Street Meeting and drew attention to an article by Bruce Birchard of Friends General Conference entitled The Dilemmas of Organizational Leadership in the Religious Society of Friends. A discussion ensued with contributions from myself and Cynthia Large. I imagine that the discussion may continue. I invite Friends and others who read this to throw in their own comments and reactions.

My response to Bruce's article was as follows:
Thanks to Chris for forwarding this article, which makes many very valid points. Some of it applies more to Quaker service organizations than to meetings, but most of it is very broadly applicable. In a meeting, I believe that what Bruce calls the "clerk style" of leadership is very appropriate for (surprise!) the clerk of the meeting, and that other kinds of leadership must come from other Friends. The clerk must seem to be and actually be a listener and process-guider, not a decision maker or visionary leader. The visionary or prophetic leaders are those Friends seized by concerns laid upon them by the Spirit and who present them to the meeting for discernment. This doesn't mean that the clerk is purely passive, however. As Bruce points out the clerk is the servant of the whole meeting, not particular members or their agendas. There are indeed times when clerks need to be very firm about behavior that obstructs the process.

One quibble I have with this article has to do with Bruce's reading of early Quaker history. Even though he wants to emphasize an acceptable role for leaders, he says (apparently as a concession to the contrary view) that "Early Friends refused to acknowledge the authority of kings and magistrates." Actually, the first generation of Friends (and the succeeding generations for at least two centuries) explicitly acknowledged and affirmed the authority of kings and magistrates and said that it should be exercised for the purpose of restraining evil-doers and protecting the innocent. They did refuse to give the authorities flattering customary titles and bow and scrape before them, but that was a rebuke to pride not to authority itself. They also, of course, insisted that the highest authority was God and that kings and magistrates should not interfere with the authority of God over the conscience, especially in purely religious matters. In general, I think the first generation of Friends had less trouble with the concept of leadership than any generation since. George Fox was an extremely dynamic and authoritative leader, as was James Nayler until his downfall, Margaret Fell, Stephen Crisp, Francis Howgill, and many many more. When conflicts arose over leadership it seemed to have more to do with who was leading and whether they were leading rightly than with whether there needed to be leaders at all.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

Cynthia Large's further response was:


Thank you for this article! I think it has some important ideas in it about Quaker leadership, some of which can apply on the Monthly Meeting level.

I read Rich's comments with interest, as well, about the recognition early Friends gave to the authority of worldly governments, as well as to their own leaders, while at the same time refusing to offer any forms of flattery or "respect" to these people. I suspect that this came from their understanding of Christian society functioning together as "one body, many parts." A hand may well have to acknowledge the authority of the more perceptive eye. And it takes a great measure of humility to accept, for instance, foot-hood as one's lot in life. "But now they are many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you." (1 Cor 12:20) So, the part with more authority is not a more neccessary part, it simply fulfills a different role. Each must accept his or her role with humility. The Lord is over all. I really think this was a vital part of the thinking of early Friends. Ideas about individuals, with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, while they may have been hinted at in some of the more radical groups in England at the time, had not been enshrined the way they later were in the United States.

There is one part of the article that I would disagree with. He follows this observation:

" And secondly, no one stands above the group; all 'leadings' must be tested and confirmed through a Spirit-guided group process."

with this conclusion:

"I believe that this distrust of power and authority undermines Quaker leadership to such an extent that Quaker institutions-from monthly meetings to large, national organizations-suffer."

A true leading, from God, will certainly hold up to the spirit-guided group process meant to test it. If anything, it will be clarified, burnished, and tempered in the process. The testing of leadings is what protects us from Ranterism, in ourselves as well as in others. It is a spiritual discipline, rising not out of a distrust of power and authority, but rather out of a humble acknowledgement of how fallible we are.

So, it was a very thought-provoking article! Thank you!



Blogger Joe G. said...

I appreciate your comments about how early Friends viewed authority figures. This idea that they rejected authority in toto seems to be the wishful thinking of a group of people that plainly have problems, for whatever reasons, with any authority figures (including God!). :) Thanks for a thoughtful post!

9:50 AM, February 18, 2005  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Wow, I just have to take off my "Quaker Ranter" blogging hat to put on my FGC Webmaster hat and say how amazed I am that a piece we put up five years ago has generated such a lively discussion! (But oh no!, those broken links, must fix!, sorry everyone!, it's so embarrassing to see my HTML circa 1996!)

I could comment on any of a number of different levels. Most obviously, as General Secretary of Friends General Conference, Bruce Birchard is my boss and as such I've seen how he's navigated the authority/leadership issues in real life situations.

I don't want to speak for Bruce, but my understanding is that he was trying to address the anti-authoritarian impulse that was strong in liberal Quakerism a decade or so ago (even a program as obviously cool and Spirit-centered as the FGC Traveling Ministries program would have been unthinkable twenty years ago). You might find his recent talk Roots and Fruits of the Quaker Peace Testimony, which could almost be read as a follow-up to his "Dilemmas" piece.
Martin Kelley

11:41 AM, February 18, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, the Quaker Ranter has joined out discussion! That's good -- we need a little ranting . . .
Martin, I think your various posts have something to say to our meeting, and I'm going to cull through and print out and pass them along, as 15th St goes through its various contortions.
Thank you, and peace.
--Chris Japely/15th StMM

9:21 AM, February 20, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I share Chris Japely's enthusiasm that Martin Kelley stopped by to comment. I don't think it should surprise Martin, though, that a piece published 5 years ago generates discussion today. I wasn't even aware of when it had first been published, but when Chris pointed me toward it and I read it it seemed to me that it raises issues which are pretty much always live issues in the Quaker Meetings I am familiar with. The particular interest here in New York seems to have something to do with some problems in our own meeting. I think Chris is suggesting that those problems have something to do with the way we conceive of leadership. I'm not sure that's my diagnosis, but I think it's worth exploring.

I hope it's clear that none of the contributors was in any way trashing Bruce Birchard, though some of us agreed with only part of what he said. I haven't yet read the other articles by Bruce that Martin recommends, but I surely will.

Thanks to everyone for their contributions to this discussion so far.

9:00 PM, February 20, 2005  

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