Thursday, July 1, 2010

Who Are We? (Preparing for Western Yearly Meeting - 2010)

 About a year ago I wrote about "Preparing for Yearly Meeting".  Here is the 2010 installment:

Western Yearly Meeting is working through a process of self-identity.  It is often expressed as a simple question:  "Who are we?"  This attempt at self-identity has been going on for at least 15 years.  In that time there has been some confusion, anger, and heat. Sometimes there has been positive conversation as well.

Who are we?  One suggestion is that the Yearly Meeting is simply the collective identity of the people who constitute it.  If we can blend together our collection of leadings, understandings and personalities in some way, we can identify who we are.  But this only gives us a snapshot, like those group pictures that are taken on anniversaries and other special occasions.  A snapshot only shows us a single point in time and only shows what the camera lens can see.  There is a story behind that single picture but eventually the snapshot becomes all that is known of that story.

A Yearly Meeting is a group of people that has developed an identity over many points in time as they work alongside each other.  In order to identify who we are, we need to look at the story behind the snapshot. 

Any organized group has a history.  There are founders who bring a group together for identifiable reasons.  Over time, new issues come up and the original founding reasons are adapted, changed or added to.   I'm in the Plainfield Kiwanis Club and the Kiwanis motto is "For the children of the world."  Kiwanis began in 1914 as a social club for young businessmen, with no apparent concern for the children of the world.  Understanding how it changed helps me know what Kiwanis is all about.  An organization cannot know itself without knowing its history.

Structures are also created and adapted, changed or added to.  There is a tendency to see structure as negative, to suggest that all of that organization as getting in the way of doing things.  In fact, groups develop structure in order to get things done.  An organization needs some level of organization!  True, sometimes structures outlive their usefulness and there is often resistance to structuring things in new ways.  But to know who we are we need to understand the ways our history and structures interact with each other. 
And all organizations have some common belief structure that shapes the group.  The common element in the "Kiwanis belief system" is that we are doing things for the children of the world.  That shapes our activities.  If  I started urging the club to stop sending all our hard-earned elephant ear money to Riley Hospital for Children, some of my fellow Kiwanians would take me aside and suggest that I might need to find a different service club to join.  As a faith-centered organization, Western Yearly Meeting has described its belief system in some detail in Faith and Practice.  It is a belief system that has been shaped by history, is expressed in our structures and  shapes our ways of doing things.

The answer to the question of who we are is found in this intersection of beliefs, structures and history. 
For me, the answer to the question begins by taking seriously the faith that was agreed to in the Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice.  The "Essential Truths" are an excellent statement of a distinctively Christian faith.  We add to that our distintively Quaker history that is filled with people whose lives were transformed by that faith, and we begin to catch a glimpse of what we could be.  And then we need to examine our structures and ask some tough questions about how they connect with our beliefs and our history. 

pastor Bill