Facing Hard Truths
by Robin Mohr
Executive Secretary, Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas
When Dorothy Grannell became clerk of Falmouth Quarterly Meeting in 2013, she realized that she hadn’t received the standard annual report from a few of its monthly meetings. Checking the files, she discovered one of them hadn’t reported in several years. Being a curious person as well as a diligent clerk, she decided to follow up and ask why not. The planning group of the quarter had already been concerned enough about the lack of participation that they had developed a visitation procedure. What she found was that this monthly meeting had not met regularly in several years. Upon further investigation, she learned there were only two remaining members still alive, neither of whom lived in the area anymore. The last clerk of the meeting had become a member of another local church. He was able to show that he had cared for the remaining finances, library, and records responsibly; he just didn’t notify anyone about the process. The final remaining member was encouraged to transfer his membership, either to a meeting closer to where he now lived or to another monthly meeting in the quarter. Then, over several months, the quarterly meeting officially laid down the monthly meeting, which had ceased to exist for all practical purposes long before this formal process.
When Dorothy accepted the clerkship of the quarterly meeting, it certainly wasn’t clear that this was part of her responsibilities. However, she didn’t just shrug and pass the list of nonresponsive meetings on to the next clerk. Instead she named and addressed the challenges of the situation:
"Our reluctance to face conflict and unmask truth to help a healing process is a major barrier to the health of our meetings. If quarters were more active, we might not be losing meetings. Falmouth Quarter has lost two of our six meetings in five years. We were either afraid to confront a conflict situation or were not doing pastoral care of meetings we were not seeing or hearing from. Vigilance, paying attention, and truth-telling are all part of the testimonies of community and integrity."
Have you heard of situations like this before? I hear these stories all over the country, across all the branches of Friends, and God has laid it on my heart to share them, not as a professional but as a Friend: I believe that an extraordinary number of Quaker meetings and churches are not going to survive the next decade. I don’t have exact statistics, but I don’t think this is really news. The real question I have is how will we (meaning the whole Religious Society of Friends) care for the monthly meetings that will not be continuing?
I started sharing this concern with other Quaker leaders a couple of years ago. For every story I hear about how a meeting that had dwindled to oblivion was revived by just one person moving there, I hear three others about an abandoned burial ground that has to be reclaimed and then sold to the local municipality, or the financial loss of money invested in a meetinghouse where nobody meets, or a fight over a meetinghouse property between siblings or cousins that is never reconciled.…
We can learn to do this gracefully. The life cycle does not just affect individuals. Institutions of all sizes also come into existence, serve a purpose, and sometimes come to the end of their faithful service. Over the last 50 years, the hospice movement has been a healthy counterbalance to our society’s long-standing aversion to talk about death as well as to the increased medicalization of the end of life. We can learn to talk openly about the end of life with dignity, love, and respect for the life that has been. The hospice movement pays deep attention to people living their best lives in what time remains. But it also assists with resolving legal and financial issues before the end arrives and with providing pastoral care for the caregivers....
This is going to be hard work. Beginning a conversation about the end of life is always difficult, whether for an individual or an institution. Perhaps more miracles will happen as we take responsibility for the facts of life. Facing how many monthly meetings will not survive the next decade is a daunting task, but knowing you are not alone in facing the existential questions is one of the reasons for the existence of religious communities. Doing even some of this work now will release more energy for the growth and faithfulness of Friends in the rest of this century, but only if we start talking about it now.
This is an excerpt from an article originally published in Friends Journal in April 2020. You can read the remainder of the article at friendsjournal.org/facing-hard-truths/ Robin Mohr can be contacted at [email protected].