“God So Loved the World that He Didn’t Send a Committee”

by Herb Lape
Westbury Meeting


Recovering a Spirit-Led structure in NYYM has been a New York Yearly Meeting concern for many years now. In 2001, I served on an ad hoc “Committee on Committees”—you have to love the ironic wisdom of naming it this. It was “charged with bringing forward recommendations on ways to simplify and strengthen the yearly meeting’s committee structure.” 


In addition to listening to current thoughts and testimony, we sought guidance from the past, from Friends who have gone before us and wrestled with the same problem of finding that elusive balance between energetic spirit-led service that can at times “out run its guide” and structures of accountability that can become rigid and stifling of Life. This has been a delicate balancing act throughout our history. We were born in an enthusiastic outburst of Spirit that “turned the world upside down.” Early Quaker leaders saw little need for structure. George Fox described his early ministry as simply, “turning people to their Inward Teacher and leaving them there,” and many responded, discovering a life-giving transformation within and social transformation and justice without. 


However, Quaker leaders soon realized that “some are so great pretenders to inward motions and revelations of the Spirit that there are no extravagances so wild, which they will not cloak with it.” (William Barclay’s Anarchy of Ranters). Quaker leaders responded by setting up structures—monthly, regional, and yearly meetings, and publishing a Book of Discipline to provide the support and discipline needed to knit a community together on a firm spiritual foundation. 


These structures were minimal at first, but institutions inevitably take on a life of their own to the point where they become bureaucratic and rigid and inhibit or even replace Spirit with Forms. The creative balance between Spirit and Structure gets lost.  When NYYM formed the Committee on Committees in 2001, it was evident to all that a bureaucratic structure had  grown that was sustained more by money in the budget and an often desperate pleading by Nominating Committee to fill nearly 500 committee slots than it was by Spirit-led individuals with gifts and callings to serve the body. The recommended action was to set up criteria for determining whether a committee had life and was bearing fruit. If it did not demonstrate this, it would be laid down to free up the energy and resources for a Spirit-led task or working group to rise up. The coordinating committees were envisioned to be oversight bodies for these task groups in their area of concern. Task groups would be centered around individuals with recognized gifts and callings and would be free to add others without an official nomination. The coordinating committees would control the money allocated and exercise the necessary oversight to guard enthusiasm from outrunning its leading. 


I’ve been pleased to see many of these recommendations implemented over time. Last year, Nurture Coordinating Committee was laid down because no clerk could be found and energy was clearly lacking, and the tasks formerly under its care are being apportioned out to other coordinating committees and oversight bodies. At summer sessions, Ministry Coordinating Committee embraced a new clerk, Emily Provance, despite the fact that she will be absent in Palestine for much of the fall, because she has clearly demonstrated spiritual energy and a calling to this work. I also heard an exciting proposal from a laid-down Advancement Committee reborn as a task group, led by Robin Whitely and Arlene Johnson with some much needed energy and openness, to reach out and invite others called to this work to join in without waiting for a bureaucratic nomination. 


There’s an unattributed statement often quoted in committee-laden organizations that captures this yearning for more spirit-led structures—“God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee!” At this time in our history, we clearly need the energy of individuals on fire with the Spirit who feel called to use their gifts to serve the body and the world. Our task is to clear the ground of dead wood that sucks community resources but no longer bears fruit, and plow up the ground so new seeds can be planted; when we recognize gifts and support callings of individuals to a service that will bear fruit because it is centered in God’s living spirit, not our own human wills.