Enough With the Anti-Institutional Sloganeering: A Divergent Friend Speaks

I’m increasingly troubled by the repetition of anti-institutional slogans in what is sometimes called “emergent” Quaker circles and conversations. Much of this, in my reading, consists of about one per cent of insight, that’s being puffed up like a bit of rubber into a big-looking balloon of empty hot air.

Some of this talk comes from younger Friends, who appear uneasy facing the seemingly endless array (or dead weight) of Quaker institutions. (”Institution” here refers to an organization which has existed for at least 40 years; it will often, but not always, have paid staff.)

Young adult Friends are entitled to feel nervous about all this alphabet soup, which constitutes perforce “The Quaker Establishment” (even if its gray-haired stewards still secretly think of ourselves as the radicals we thought we were forty-plus years ago). Such initial discomfort is part of growing up.
Quakers-A Great Institution

Further, among these younger Friends there may be (and if my prayers are answered there will be) some few who have the vision and gumption to push past us Geezers in Grey and turn their unease into something new and exciting, which can make its mark — and likely endure until its founders join our weathered ranks.

However, many of these complaints are distressingly vague and generalized, dissing “Quaker institutions” in general or as a body. And here is where I start to have trouble with them, for some specific reasons:

First, such generalized complaints are likely to be as false as they are true. That’s because actual “Quaker Institutions” in the real world are not all bad — and in any case they are unavoidable.

Consider: the fact that any of us today can be having this conversation is due in very large measure to Quaker institutions which have preserved and transmitted to us the basics of Quaker history and documents which are the basis for our arguments about them. Like it or lump it, there it is.

But I'm Not Ready?

A not-so humble example: John Woolman’s Journal is close to holy writ for many Friends, myself not least. But we are able to have a clear view of what Woolman wrote ONLY because of the dedicated labor of an institution called the Friends Historical Library, on the campus of Swarthmore College in PA, where the original hand-written copy thereof has been lovingly preserved.

(I have seen this Quaker Holy Grail on several occasions, even come close enough to make out the handwriting on the small, Ipod-size brown pages, hand-sewn with thick thread. I’ve never actually touched it, of course; but then, I am not worthy).

The late scholar Phillips Moulton, however, was worthy to touch this book, and he spent long labor at this library scraping away the editorial alterations, euphemizations, and general mucking up of the Journal by its presumably well-intentioned editors of days gone by. As a result, we now can read all of what Woolman really wrote. And argue about it.

The same goes for lots of other Quaker bodies. The mere fact that Quakerism has survived for 360 years, as small a group as we are, is the legacy of its institutions. This fact hardly exempts them from criticism (more on that presently), but it pokes a big needle into the balloon of generalized anti-institutional posturing.

Besides the Friends Historical Library, there are numerous other Quaker institutions that have done similar good or even great service.

And now I hear the splutters , “But, but, I wasn’t talking about those institutions. . . .”

Right. So, which ones WERE you talking about?

The question points up a twofold shortcoming of generalized anti-institutional sloganeering: on the one hand, it exhibits lazy, sloppy thinking, a readiness to repeat a meme rather than do some actual hard analysis and diagnosis.

That’s bad enough; the habit of sloppy thinking by Quakers about Quakerism is widely entrenched, but needs to be named and challenged.

And on the other hand, there’s an even more unhappy Quaker habit in evidence here: passive aggression masquerading as conflict avoidance.

Beat Up Your Honor Student

In the anti-institutional screeds I have read, where I know enough about the context to make an educated guess, I am morally certain that the writers were not really speaking ill of ALL Quaker institutions, but only some, a specific set with which they have issues or grievances. Yet they lack the wherewithal to name names, and take any resulting heat. So they hide behind the sweeping generalization.

That will not do, Friends. It is unworthy. Also unhelpful.

For such discussion to become serviceable, we need those involved to undertake some Quaker triage:

That is, to make up three lists of Quaker institutions

List A includes those we think are good, worth keeping and strengthening;

On List B go those bodies which are pernicious, outdated, useless, or otherwise need to be laid down; and:

List C will name those institutions which are a mixed bag: partly useful, partly not, but which could be reformed and made worth keeping.

Now, praise is cheap and popular, so populating List A should be relatively easy. The real labor here will come in connection with lists B and C: for them to be useful, and their authors responsible, they will be ready to explain WHY a particular institution needs to be laid down (List B), and not only why but HOW some other institution, currently in a mess, can be salvaged (List C).

(Meanwhile, the real innovators can skip all this and get busy creating their exciting new Quaker institutions. Yet if in the process they are to escape some of the errors of The Old Quaker Establishment, they will be well-advised to make a close study of how those fading groups on List B ended up there.)

The real innovators are usually few in number, though. So the triage process will be the more likely one for most of us. And it comes with hazards, which may be why many avoid it:

For one thing, it requires some actual knowledge to be able to say, credibly: “Organization X belongs on List B, bound for Quakerism’s trash heap.” And then, having said it, to brave the likely wrath of organization X’s defenders and beneficiaries. The former process involves work, serious study and analysis; the latter takes courage and perseverance. (Been there and done that, BTW.)

And List C is no easier. To tell Organization Y it is a mess, but if it repents and changes it ways it may yet be saved, not only can require fortitude. One runs the further risk that — OMG — the criticism might be accepted — and then you’ll be expected to pitch in and help bring about the needed reforms. WTF–more work!

It is easy to understand, in light of this, the temptation to simply float, and take refuge in vague potshots about those yukky “Quaker institutions,” or spiritual-sounding rants about how God wants us to step forward boldly into the future, yada yada.

There was a burger commercial of the last century that built a cult following (er, excuse me, “went viral”) around the slogan, “Where’s the beef?” shouted belligerently by an old lady

Doubtless today’s counterpart YouTube video would ask, “Where’s the tofu?”

Either way, I repeat the question to those complaining about “Quaker institutions”: You say you don’t like the ones we geezers are passing on?

Fine. Then do the homework, name names, take the heat, and either ditch the terminal ones, help fix the salvageable ones, or go out and start some better new ones.

My prayers go with you in all those options.

But spare me the blowing of balloons of vague unfocused complaining. That’s just playing; and I’ve got work to do.

Almost Touched Woolman's Journal

“When it comes to revolutionaries, only trust the sad ones. The enthusiastic ones are the oppressors of tomorrow – or else they are only kidding.”

– Peter Berger

4 thoughts on “Enough With the Anti-Institutional Sloganeering: A Divergent Friend Speaks”

  1. Hey Chuck: have to think I’m one of those you’re talking about. I worked inside the system for many years and I continue to work on the edges of the system but I do make general statements about Quaker institutionalism.

    I don’t name names because I know from experience that no one’s going to listen to whatever I say. And because some needed work does actually get done sometimes, even in the most disfunctional organization. I have a suitcase of stories of being ostracized when I asked too many “elephant in the middle of the room” questions. Yes, making a fuss gives me “I told you so” bragging rights when it’s all crashed down and been swept under the carpet, but by that time some slick development manager will have mixed together a new batch of kool-aid and everyone will have forgotten the money and effort wasted on the last great idea.

    My take is that a lot of the big staff-heavy organizations aren’t sustainable. They’re also not needed in the same way they were in the past. As money has tightened, they’re cranked up the hype and turned ever more attention to a shrinking donor class. Yes, we could name acronyms and tell stories but that would just be two jaded insiders whining and trading snarky barbs.

    All this is why I’ve taken a step sideways. The work of QuakerQuaker is different because:

    1) It’s not staffed. No development manager, no fundraising budget.

    2) It’s easily replicable and not based on any sort of monopoly position. If anyone disagrees with it, they can pay $15 to get their own website. This means it can be opinionated, which I think is the big reason for whatever success it has.

    3) It makes no claims to being “the” site for anything. Most of it’s work is sending people to other sites. We link to lots of organizations that don’t link back. That’s okay, no skin off our teeth.

    4) If it disappeared or transmogrified into some other sort of entity no one would care. No livlihoods at stake, no property to sell, no assets to fight over.

    I don’t just complain. I work with larger Quaker clients in my web consulting business. I regularly talk behind the scenes with staffers at various Quaker acroynms (mostly the younger, lower-level employees). I don’t think the decision-makers fully realize that the economic meltdown only speeded up some major changes in how small nonprofits relate to their mission and supporters. Tightend budgets are the new normal and are only going to get tighter. If we can get through the crunches, I think we’ll find that the internet and a kind of distributed volunteer network can spread the good news of Quakerism farther, faster and more full-bodily than the old model. We’ll see. >>

    Chuckfager replies: Well, yes, Martin I’ll cop that you were on the list I had in mind. But maybe not in the way you suspect: your work on quakerquaker (plus the consulting, about which I know less) is going in the direction of the organizational innovators I spoke about wanting to see emerge. Whether it succeeds in institutional terms or not, it’s an important experimental step forward. So props for that.

    So yes, we both know you’ve done your share of complaining about existing organizations. I have a feeling that your “List B” of groups that could/should be laid down would be a lengthy one. Nothing wrong with that. And the time may come when it’s appropriate to name some names.

    After all, Friends Journal already named itself as a candidate for dissolution. I understand they were trying to have a board meeting this weekend, in the midst of Snowmageddon, to make some decisions about that. I hope they’ll have the gumption to: 1) bite the necessary bullets; and 2) speak candidly to “outsiders” about what’s been done, beyond just issuing more fundraising yada yada.

    And in addition, Direct Aid to Iraq, a Quake-ish young nonprofit, shut down entirely late last year, too bad.

    More names to come, I expect.

  2. Chuck,
    as you know, I went into the lion’s den five years ago for holding an unpopular view (which was characterized as something that it was not). Because of the position that I took, I’ve faced all sorts of grief. I’ve had plenty of people say that it’s inappropriate for me to be able to do all sorts of things (including lead a workshop at yearly meeting).

    If young people stand up for views that differ from their older community members, there are efforts to punish them so that they might become “respectful community members” all the while disrespecting them at every opportunity. I can name all sorts of cruelty that I’ve faced for basically taking ONE position FIVE years ago at yearly meeting. I can name people who believe that my lack of repentance at that position indicates that I am not “mature” enough to provide valid input.

    One fundamental problem is that with a difference of age comes an assessment of capability. If a person who is half the age (or even younger) of someone taking a differing position, their age is directly plugged into a formula of “weight” that tries to function not by Spirit, but by might and by power. And THAT is not how Friends are supposed to work!

  3. I’ve been reading a lot about the so-called Convergent Friends, and more and more it just seems like aimless bitterness. It’s like reading your basic Evangelical Christian pop-culture, pop-psychology book… all the buzz words are there, and ironically, the same lack of substance is there too…
    It sounds more like rhetoical speach-writing than solutions to their gripes. Some, who shall remain nameless, use the genuine concerns of some of the “convergent friends” as a soapbox for their own bitterness against FGC. A long time ago, a king created Protestantism so he could get a divorce. It seems that for some, Convergent Friends is not a serious movement but rather more akin to a blogging meta-tag for rants against FGC.

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