I’ve been transcribing Monthly Meeting minutes to pay for college, and while I was transcribing these minutes I’ve been wondering how modern Friends could recapture the growth of the last half of the 19th century.
In the 19th century, there was a clear system of church planting which we could rather easily copy. I can summarize the process as follows: First, the monthly meeting appoints a team to care for a fully dependent meeting. Over time, the dependent meeting matures and moves from dependent to a partner sharing in the decision-making process of the whole community. Finally, there is the option of independence instead of partnership. If the new worship community desires independence, the treasurer figures how much they need to pay to balance the books, and the request to form a new Monthly meeting is forwarded to the Quarter.
EFC-MA only gives advice in church planting at the point when the preparative meeting is ready for full independence — meaning there is no policy for actually planting a church. Churches that announce that they are a plant too soon are judged on their ability to be a full monthly meeting — with the result that they are closed. I submit we should learn from the past.
The first step in church planting is a group of people want to meet. The people might have heard an evangelist, they might live in a different town, or they might want a different time (or even style) of worship… the point is, people want to start a worship group. The desire is brought before the Monthly Meeting, and if the meeting wishes to move forward, they appoint a committee (in the case of Deer Creek 5 men, 5 women) to care for the new “indulged meeting” and report back.
At this point, the new meeting is fully dependent. Their leadership is appointed by the Monthly Meeting, and the new meeting has no say in Monthly Meeting business. Not only are they dependent, but if the leadership team feels this ministry is not working, they recommend closure to the Monthly Meeting, and most likely the “indulged meeting’ will no longer be indulged but will be closed. The policy for Deer Creek was to rotate members of the leadership team regularly — thus getting as many people involved in the meeting plant as possible.
At some point, if a ‘indulged meeting’ stays open its attenders should become mature. At this point, the indulged meeting is elevated to something called a “Preparative meeting.” A Preparative meeting actually prepares for Monthly Meetings. If a Monthly Meeting has more than one Preparative (that is, more than one worship community that has a say in business) then these preparatives are equal partners. Each preparative is responsible to nominate representatives to committees, and their own leaders (Elders and Overseers/pastoral care givers). All appointments are approved (or rejected) by the Monthly meeting, thus the preparatives mutually submit to one another.
Not only were pastoral concerns and leadership decisions started at the preparative level but membership decisions were also started at the preparative level. If the Monthly Meeting is to accept a member, or to remove a member the Preparative meeting makes the initial request to the monthly meeting — again, like officers, the monthly meeting then must accept or reject the Preparative’s requests.
For accountability, the Preparative meetings reported their spiritual and behavioral state to one another by actually publically answering the querries. As long as there were multiple preparative meetings in a monthly meeting — they shared common business, and a common purse. They kept each other accountable and had a method of looking after each others needs. Preparatives in this case are equal partners — all are accountable to one another.
In the case of a church plant — when the new church is clearly capable of independence, no longer needs the connection to the monthly meeting, and wants independence, (some may like shared business and accountability) it was customary for the preparative to request the formation of a new Monthly Meeting. Policy then was that the Monthly Meeting finance committee would go over the books, and decide how much the Preparative meeting owes the Monthly Meeting. If the Preparative meeting agrees to pay back, the Monthly Meeting petitioned the Quarterly Meeting to create a new Monthly meeting. The current Yearly Meeting policy would be to contact the Yearly Meeting at this point, so that they could become what EFC-MA calls an “Extension Church” (as far as I can tell, an Extension church is what the Yearly Meeting calls a monthly meeting on probation… Areas (Quarters) have lost the right to create new Monthly Meetings.)
While this is still a valid model for Church planting, I suggest we look at this model to fulfill another need that has recently developed in Mid America Yearly Meeting, and likely other Yearly Meetings as well — that of multiple services. We need to realize that creating a new worship service is creating a new worship community, it is a type of church plant. This is relevant in Mid America because many of our larger meetings have two or three main worship services. Most often these are divided by a recent argument in practical theology: “Is the most important element of a worship service the sermon, the music, or the silence.” The monthly meetings that have three separate worship communities have the problem: “How do our worship communities engage with one another? How do we invite all to take part in business?” Unfortunately the extra services tend to be ignored or subordinate. We need a route to create a partnership of worship communities, otherwise the Monthly Meeting will not address the unique needs of the various communities. A path from indulged to preparative meeting would fill this role — and, with luck would create a system where instead of a ‘main service’ that makes all decisions, the various communities can become equal partners and a stronger church.
We need to remember that sometimes the goal is not independence, but a way of assuring that all have a voice, and that needs which would otherwise be out of sight are considered in the decision making process. If we have multiple worship communities with common business, we must make sure that all are invited to the table. I suggest that we consider past practice as a path to the table — but no matter what, we must find such a path.