Is it time to get rid of Yearly Meeting — a Rebuttal to Micah Bales

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.


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Pastor at Raysville Friends Church

19 thoughts on “Is it time to get rid of Yearly Meeting — a Rebuttal to Micah Bales”

  1. Thanks for this critique, Michael. It’s definitely worth chewing on. I was especially struck by these lines:

    “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.”

    Provocative thoughts indeed!

    1. Thank you also for your original essay as well. It struck me enough to make me sit and think about organizational structure — honestly, it is something I rarely think about, as I don’t currently feel called into administrative ministry.

  2. Michael, Also within the two-state region of Ohio and Indiana are Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative), Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, Wilmington Yearly Meeting, Evangelical Friends Church (Eastern Region), Central Yearly Meeting, and Lake Erie Yearly Meeting. Wilmington also is FUM; Ohio Yearly Meeting, Eastern Region, and Central Yearly Meeting also come from the Orthodox Quaker tradition, but are in different Quaker branches from FUM (and indeed from each other): Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting is affiliated with the liberal, most unprogrammed Friends of Friends General Conference, and has two extant meetings that were formed by nineteenth century Hicksites; Lake Erie Yearly Meeting is also FGC, but all of its meetings were formed during the “New Meetings Movement” that began in the early twentieth century, and in some ways continue today. Some of these are more autonomous than others. Central Yearly Meeting, probably the smallest of these, is in some ways the most autonomous. But I still think that all of these yearly meetings are more dependent on each other than you might indicate here, and maybe more dependent on each other and wider bodies of Friends, including FWCC, than they might realize. Perhaps the same would be true of Mid-America Yearly Meeting as well? I guess what I’m saying is that I find the first half of your post more persuasive than the second half. I’m a proponent of yearly meetings — but I think we need to find a way to function better, expressly with the keen awareness that we precisely are dependent on other Friends, and other Friends’ organizations, and none functions really well if its aim is to be totally self-sufficient.

    1. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, autonomous church bodies also are “more dependent (I would say interdependent’) on each other than this essay might imply. An autonomous church is especially influenced by the autocephalous church that named them autonomous: The Metropolitan Bishop (highest autonomous bishop) does not have quite the influence as a Patriarch… but, being autonomous means that American (Antiochian Orthodox) bishops are no longer consecrated in Syria. (though, I believe that Greek Orthodox still must go to Greece… I believe that the Greek Orthodox church in America is only an Eparchy.)

  3. I think you might be missing the point. The Holy Spirit isn’t restricted to using Bishops and Seminaries. I think that was one of George Fox’s points. Those quakers wo want to follow the spirit have to decide if they are being called to come out from among her. I’m not saying they are but that is the question I had to answer when I left the Catholic Church I grew up in and if you are called to come out of something, historical and pragmatic reasons for staying are not sufficient to ignore it.

    1. This was intended as a metaphor — and, I don’t believe that all bodies must be autonomous. I even believe there is a place for protest-bodies (that are technically dependent upon the group that they are protesting — but, for some reason cannot belong to that group) I have a lot of respect, for example, for Indiana Yearly Meeting Anti-Slavery, but, when their need to protest Indiana YM went away, the smaller Yearly Meeting rapidly fell apart. They were not enough to maintain the continuing needs of the meeting, even though their leading membership never wanted to return to Indiana YM.

  4. I wonder what is the “necessary function” that the outward yearly meeting serves that is not better served by holding to a conscious anchored in and conscience informed by Presence itself? Is it not true that by the power of the inward light illuminating and guiding human being that we are lead out of outward forms and institutional structure and into a new life guided directly and without mediation by divine Presence itself?

    1. In that case, what purpose does a preparative meeting serve? We could rely on every person doing good himself or herself — have one last meeting at every ‘level’ where all assets are sold and divested, close every Friends school, hospital and social service. Each human might do good, but, we would no longer be able to maintain work that requires multiple people.

      I hate to tell you this, but without some sort of structure — you can’t have property or donations. Once you decide who is going to be responsible to clean the building, and who is going to keep track of the bank account… you have organizational structure.

      Even if you don’t have money or property — making a person responsible to tell ‘everybody’ when and where to meet, is still organizational structure. When two or three gather together, somebody tells everybody when and where — and somebody prepares the space for gathering.

    2. There is a different way of being, a different way of gathering. A conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by Presence itself is different from a conscious anchored in and informed by outward institutional structures, practices, formalized meeting structures, times and places, etc. In the intuitive gathering, the inward light itself brings people together and also disbands them. The Light itself is the “somebody that tells everybody when and where.” The inward light itself prepares the space for gathering. Guided and informed by the Light itself, there is no need for an outwardly owned buildings and centralized governing bodies. The Light itself will gather those who wait and watch. Presence itself is the inward institution.

      By the power of the inward Light itself illuminating and guiding the conscious and conscience, people will and do gather … being lead out of outward forms, static meeting times and places, institutional structure and into a new way guided directly and without mediation by divine Presence itself.

      Yes, sell all the assets and give them to the poor walk in a new life and consciousness. This is the New Way of the Gospel … it is the new covenant.

      Where to or three are gathered in the Name … Presence itself gathered them!

  5. For unprogrammed liberal Friends, I think the yearly meetings have certainly become more of a ‘shared understanding’ vehicle for the meetings within a particular yearly meeting; with no assumption that a local meeting will even follow the yearly meeting’s Faith and Practice. The acceptance of this reality occurred decades ago for these liberal yearly meetings. Now, Friends in these yearly meetings aren’t so much asking why we need the yearly meeting because they understand the value of sharing Quaker concerns and practice; rather, they are asking how can we reduce the financial burden (the apportionment) generated upon the local meeting when the yearly meeting is now really just a sharing network with no necessity for overblown overhead. It seems that the newer liberal yearly meetings in the internet age (Piedmont Yearly Meeting?) have figured this out. Even newer FUM yearly meetings are embracing this ‘yearly meeting’ lite approach (New Association of Friends?).

    I’m certain that yearly meetings that have amassed property and programs over hundreds of years would find this lite approach difficult to implement without threatening physical structures, tradition, jobs, and bureaucracy, OUCH!

  6. @Howard — Yes! “difficult to implement” is true. I’ve seen attempts at reorganization — and, it is very hard work. It is hard to know exactly how to alter the supporting structures. It is especially hard when you realize that you’ve been spending down the ‘endowment’… and you further realize that not all those cuts are dead wood — some of them will harm valued programs and services. I know that FGC has a yearly meeting (PYM) that make anything I’ve experienced look lightweight.

    @Keith — unfortunately, I still have a body, and physical needs. Pretty much everybody I meet with also has a physical body and physical needs. Many of us believe that someday, we will be free from our corporeal limitations — but that’s not happened yet, and I don’t have the luxury of pretending that it has happened.

    More unfortunately, after dissolving those structures that feed the poor, and house the homeless — the poor will still be there.

    1. Michael, I’m wondering why you think that when unmediated Presence gathers and guides our bodies of flesh the poor, the hungry, the thirsty or the imprisoned will be neglected.

      My reading of George Fox tells me he rejected the idea of having to wait for some future time to be free from “corporeal limitation.”

    2. Because meeting ‘spiritually’ — without physically meeting, and making no decision to work to address issues such as hunger and poverty results in neglecting these issues.

      The extreme that I read is an extreme that people should not even agree to times and places to meet. My reading of Early Quakers tells me that they, including George Fox recognizes that… if times and places are not set, no meeting will occur. I’ll need a lot more than your words to convince me that George Fox didn’t believe himself to have a body that couldn’t be in two places at once.

      After scheduling no more meetings, selling all assets and *closing the food pantry*, closing the homeless shelters, closing the soup kitchen… we’ve closed the food pantry, homeless shelter, and soup kitchen and removed the very organization that allows it to exist. The work stops because it cannot continue. Some sort of feeling of spiritual community, while rejecting all physical meeting (and our physical limits of our bodies being one place at a time..) won’t solve physical problems.

    3. Michael, the extreme I’m talking about is letting Presence set the time and place of the meeting of our physical bodies. Without soup kitchens, food pantries or homeless shelters those needs could be met in the homes of people living in Presence.

      For the first twenty or thirty years the Children of Light apparently didn’t set times and places to gather. Then when things weren’t happening as some had expected, like with Abraham, an Ishmael was created.

  7. @Diane — you might find what Robert Barclay wrote helpful — in proposition 12, section 3 of his “Apology”, he writes: ” I would not be understood as if I intended the putting away of all set times and places to worship. God forbid I should think of such an opinion. Nay, we are none of those that “forsake the assembling of ourselves together,” but have even certain times and places in which we carefully meet together (nor can we be driven therefrom by the threats and persecutions of men) to wait upon God and worship him. ”

    Among the stories of the Early Friends I’ve read has been the stories of the children continuing to attend meeting for worship, at its appointed time and place, after the adults were all arrested… and likewise — people continuing to attend meeting for worship, at its scheduled time and place, even though the building they were to meet at was destroyed. The period of persecution that these stories speak of were well within this ‘first 20 or 30 years’.

    Yes — there were chance meetings — God moments even where something happened without human planning, but, it would take very selective reading to pretend that these chance meetings were everything that was going on.

  8. I learned Quakerism from Friends of the Conservative tradition, and am now a member of a meeting affiliated with one of the Conservative yearly meetings. I’m struck by the assumptions you make in this essay: they are strange to me.

    In Conservative Quakerism, and in meetings with a Conservative bent, we have no bishops, nor anything equivalent. Many of our meetings have “overseers” (a literal translation of *episkopos*, the word from which “bishop” derives), but the people given that rôle are not, in any sense, “providers of leadership”. Their duties are to help individual members with crises in their marriages, jobs, and such, and with their struggles to live up to the testimonies and expectations of our faith. And the key word there is “help”. They are helpers, not leaders.

    We do, in our understanding, have One who does have leadership — Christ Jesus. But that declaration, I have found, makes sense only to those who understand that Christ Jesus is directly available to teach and lead us in the place of heart and conscience. To those who have no experience of that leadership of their own, our assertion that Christ suffices as a leader seems unreal.

    We do not have seminaries, though we do not bar our members from going to such places. We share the insight of George Fox, that training in such a place is not enough to fit a person to be a minister of Christ. (Fox’s *Journal*, 1646) We experience the one who is taught and led immediately by Christ’s Spirit as providing genuine ministry; others, no matter how educated, come across to our ears and hearts as unrooted and adrift.

    Our yearly meetings are indeed not autonomous (a term derived from Greek roots meaning “a law unto itself”), and we acknowledge that this is the case. But the reason, in our view, that they are not autonomous, is not that they lack three bishops and a seminary. The reason is that they and we are governed by a Logos, a Word and Law, that stands above us and them. Without that Logos, we’d have nothing to correct and reconcile our differences, and so we’d have anarchy. We need our meetings as a place where we are gathered in that Logos’s name, that He may be there also, to make our differences plain and bring us back to unity. We assemble in His presence as in the court of a king, and wait upon Him as courtiers and petitioners wait upon their king. That is ultimately the rationale for all our meetings, from the monthly level on up: to be listening together to the Logos, waiting on the Lord, that we may be brought together and reconciled.

    To me, steeped as I am in this understanding, Micah’s talk of not needing yearly meetings seems strange. Why should we not need to be gathered and reconciled to one another? And your talk of three bishops and a seminary seems equally strange. Why would Friends want human leadership and training, with all its failings and intolerances, when something so much better is available?

    I work at making sense of this, because I know it is meaningful to hundreds of thousands of Quakers the world over. I deeply appreciate the fact that you and Micah are giving me this chance to see into it more deeply. Thank you very much for opening yourselves to sharing.

    1. The metaphor came from an Orthodox priest explaining the process of becoming autonomous (in his context, local rule) to me — their Bishops used to be consecrated in Syria, because they are now autonomous, their Bishops are now consecrated in the United States. For me, the idea of ‘autonomy’, and the authority passage Micah quoted from who knows which Faith and Practice, made me think about how Quaker Yearly Meetings (no matter *how* informal the structure) do need to be able to somehow replace those who serve in various capacities. 3 bishops and a seminary is what my friends in the Orthodox church needed to replace their leadership… Obviously, our equivalent is something different… but, even without pastors — there needs to be a system to prepare people to serve as Clerks, overseers, elders, treasurers and trustees. Actually, without pastors more effort needs to go into preparing these volunteers for their roles.

      It is a metaphor that I’d been thinking about recently because I have some personal connections with people trying to start Spanish speaking meetings within the bounds of Indiana and Western Yearly meetings. What I have learned from their struggles is that there really is not a good support system for them. They find it extremely difficult to train volunteers. Nobody really knows how to be a treasurer of a non-profit, and the Yearly and Quarterly meetings are not equipped to help them. This challenge has caused me to try to find some way of understanding the challenges of ministry and one thing I saw is that the Spanish speaking Friends in the midwest suffer, because they lack a strong supporting wider community.

    2. Marshall,

      I wouldn’t be so sure that Michael’s procedural and academic explanations are “meaningful to hundreds of thousands of Quakers the world over”. I think your understanding (except perhaps for the terminology) would be very similar to that of most Friends within the liberal Quaker tradition. At least that’s how I see it. I assumed that Michael’s more historical academic explanations were offered for those who might find it interesting – not essential. Those terms “bishop, etc.” are not used anywhere within modern Quakerism.

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