Recently my friend Micah Bales wrote an essay titled “Is it time to get rid of the Yearly meeting?” In this essay, Micah observes that many people don’t get why Yearly meeting is important, and suggests that maybe they are right. He goes on to tell about his experience forming a new network, the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, and how, while they are a supportive community, they never formed a Yearly Meeting. The suggestion is that the problem is with the model of Yearly meetings.
I believe that the observation that the models we are using are not working is important, however I think that we not only need to ask about better models, but to take a serious look at why the model which seemed to have worked for such a long time is failing now. We shouldn’t ask so much if the model needs scrapped in favor of new kinds of associations, as whether things need re-evaluated and reorganized within the existing systems.
Micah gave a definition of Yearly Meetings as follows:
*For my non-Quaker readers: A Yearly Meeting is a regionally and theologically defined association of local congregations. It is the highest decision-making body that Quakers have, and is roughly equivalent to a diocese, district, or conference in other denominations.
The words that stand out the most to me are: “highest decision making body.” A yearly meeting is, as the highest decision making body, autonomous. You cannot be the highest decision making body while you are dependent upon the decisions and works of other bodies for your existence. A diocese or a district is not autonomous, this means to function a Yearly Meeting must be an archdiocese.
Among traditionally structured Christians, such as the Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox Christians, in order for a national or regional church to function autonomously, there must be “Three bishops and a seminary”. Three bishops means at least three dioceses.
The most simplistic explanation of ‘three bishops and a seminary’ is that a clergy led church needs to be able to produce more clergy. The Seminary is required for training. Three bishops are required, because according to the 3rd cannon of the 2nd council of Nicaea, when consecrating a new bishop all bishops in the province should be consulted, and as many as can make it, but no fewer than three, should be at the consecration of a new Bishop. Without this minimum, the church would be dependent on an outside province to continue.
One of the pragmatic effects of the requirement that it took the whole community of leaders in the province to appoint high level administrative leadership is that it meant that a province was not completely dominated by any single Bishop. Even when it came time to replace the metropolitan bishop, there was a community of bishops that offered a continuation for the community. As the metropolitan Bishop did not have the power to consecrate whatever bishop he chose, leadership was not stacked in favor of one city. There were voices, at every level of leadership throughout the province.
Herein lies the problem of Micah’s critique: His experience, and his attempts to build a ministry that not only reaches the city he lives in, but encourages other with similar callings are not large enough to be what a yearly meeting tries to be. I respect the ministry, and I hope that this network grows, but I do not see it as a replacement for our current structures. Micah’s challenge is that the Yearly Meetings where he’s lived and ministered: Great Plains Yearly Meeting, Friends of Jesus Community, and even Western and Indiana Yearly meetings do not currently live up to the requirements for autonomy.
In the past, Quarterly Meetings served the function of the Diocese. With the formation of Friends United Meeting, something not unlike a national Yearly Meeting was formed. For a brief time, there was a common discipline, and a common understanding of how to recognize ministers, and what standards ministers should be held to. Eventually, the national unity was broken, and every yearly meeting went back to writing their own manuals — but, much of the work of the Yearly meeting has remained in FUM’s hands. The Yearly Meetings are dependent upon each other, and on FUM for maintaining the structures necessary to continue.
In order to explain how difficult the current Yearly meeting structure is in Friends United Meeting, I merely have to point out that I live and minister within the greater Indianapolis area. In the area dominated by this single metropolitan area, there are three FUM yearly meetings. These three bodies do not always have a healthy relationship with on another, yet none of them meet the “three bishops and a seminary” requirement for autonomy. All three are dependent upon FUM, and by extension, one another for leadership development.
I grew up in a Yearly Meeting that clearly meets the minimum requirements for autonomy and, while Mid-America Yearly meeting supplies ministers to other Yearly meetings, and from time to time brings in ministers from outside, this is not so much a dependency as a migration.
Mid America has churches in: The greater Kansas City area, the greater Wichita area, the greater Oklahoma City area, and the greater Houston Area. In addition, there are churches in locations without a clear urban center. The 60 churches are organized into 8 quarterly meetings (and while, I think two of them should be merged into larger quarters, this has not yet been necessary.)
Continuing committees, and oversight for the various Yearly Meeting functions are appointed by the Quarterly meetings — allowing the meetings of each regional section to be represented, without the unworkable committee size of 60 members. In theory, Quarterly meeting gives an opportunity for the larger group to be active in the works of the committees and administration of the Yearly meeting. (In practice, this does not always happen.)
Mid America has, in its territory, Barclay College, Friends University, and a relationship with Houston graduate school of Theology. Outside of these traditional institutions, the Yearly Meeting has set up monthly web-seminars for the training of volunteers, and continuing education for those active in the Ministry.
Mid America is not perfect, (no human organization is), but it has a structure that is able to function as a healthy autonomous Yearly Meeting.
Micah suggests that the yearly Meeting structure might need disbanded in favor of something smaller and less formal. My counter-suggestion is that Yearly Meetings serve a necessary function, but we need to evaluate whether they are large enough to function, and consider mergers and reorganization to create fewer, healthier Yearly meetings.