After two years of turmoil, meeting departures, and apocalyptic rhetoric, North Carolina Yearly Meeting held a representative session in Goldsboro on November 5, 2016 which was remarkably drama free.
This was despite the fact that the session made several major decisions. And among the biggest was a decision they did not make.
We’ve spoken here before of the Blockbuster Video effect, the fact that both technological and demographic changes are making the NCYM structure obsolete; not unlike “Blockbuster Video,” which was toppled by failure to adapt to changes in its industry.
On Saturday, NCYM took two major steps in a similar process: first, it decided to end its pastor’s pension program; and second, they gave its showpiece, Quaker Lake Camp, a green light to become de facto independent.
There’s no question that closing down the pension program marks the end of an era. NCYM figures are that 173 people are vested in it, or already receiving checks. The payments were supposed to last for life; now they will end after June 2017. Each beneficiary will get a final settlement check, adjusted actuarially.
This decision will cost the yearly meeting about $5.5 million to do this. They are more than $1 million short, with the deficit projected to grow year by year, month by month. The reasons for this are simple: NCYM is much smaller, and older than it was, say 30 years ago. That means fewer contributors, and many are on reduced or fixed incomes.
Moreover, it was pointed out that as a church body, NCYM is exempt from federal regulations about pension plans — which means NCYM doesn’t have to make a settlement; they could walk away and leave the plan members empty-handed, holding the bag. (As many, many employers have.)
“But we want to do what’s fair,” said Tom Terrell, a Quaker attorney who is clerking the committee that put together the shutdown plan. To make up the gap, the meeting authorized sale of real estate now owned by NCYM; one property includes the house now used as its office. Once this is sold, NCYM will downside further, with its office in someone’s home, or space in a meetinghouse.
What will happen to working pastors and meeting staff after that? Local meetings and YM-related groups can make their own pension plans; 401Ks and such. Numerous companies are ready to help them do it. But they will all have to start from scratch.
There’s nothing unique here; the collapse of old-style pension plans is a nationwide phenomenon. So the plan was approved without dissent, or even much discussion; the condition of the fund was not news, and all in the room could read “the handwriting on the wall” (this time in the form of slides projected on it).
There was similar unanimity behind authorizing a plan for Quaker Lake camp to move toward independence. There was some concern that factions in NCYM would want to fight over control; but independence makes sense to all sides. That’s not least because NCYM’s shrinkage means it can’t support or help run Quaker Lake the way it has in the past; and its subgroups would be even less able to.
So independence will free up the camp staff and board to work at making it viable in the broader, highly competitive camping industry. That’s what it has to do to survive as NCYM gets smaller and older, with fewer children to send to the camp. NCYM and its remaining meetings can still be customers and benefactors.
The finances and membership decline made this transition inevitable. And approval was aided by the realization that while the changes mark the end of an era, they did not benefit one faction of the body more than another; so they did not spark more controversy.
There was one moment in the meeting when the old squabbles surfaced. Shortly before lunch, the pastor at New Hope Friends, where the session was held, stood to say that the new arrangements weren’t really satisfactory, and he believed the yearly meeting needed to do what it declined to do at annual session last August, and split into two separate yearly meetings.
New Hope’s current church bulletin featured an announcement urging “all members to be in attendance at this meeting to ask questions and to satisfy your decision that will be made at our monthly meeting . . . . We believe that God will lead and bless us in the decision that will be made on November 22nd.”
“The decision” will likely be whether to stay in NCYM or leave. About twenty Friends from New Hope were present in the morning session.
Earlier on Saturday, the NCYM Clerk read a letter from Mt. Carmel Meeting in Yadkin Quarter, announcing its withdrawal; Mt. Carmel has about 80 members. And we reported earlier that Hopewell Meeting sent out a letter late last month declaring that unless the November 5 session rescinded the reorganization plan adopted in August and returned to the discarded plan to split in two, Hopewell would leave NCYM at the end of the year.
Neither this letter nor its demand were mentioned in the Representative session. Mt. Carmel’s withdrawal was met with quiet acceptance, without discussion.
And when New Hope’s pastor spoke for this previous option, there was no response from the clerk, and no support voiced for it from the benches. The comment was heard, and disappeared, and the session soon broke for lunch. Afterward, very few of the New Hope Friends returned, and the topic was not heard of again.
If Hopewell and New Hope leave, the NCYM membership will decrease by close to 400, leaving a total of about 5200. Hopewell’s letter said other meetings were also considering departure. But all this appeared to be of no interest to those at the session; such threats and ultimatums seem to have lost the ability to shock, or even hold attention, particularly in light of the weighty decisions on the table Saturday, and the atmosphere of comity with which they were approached.
So that was the important decision NOT made: to be drawn back into the old business of the past two years. The meetings who can’t bear to be in fellowship with those still in NCYM seem to be pretty much gone. If a few more join them, then so be it; meantime, as of Saturday the rest were busy getting on with it.
But as we have seen, NCYM is not the same. In August, when it rejected the split-in-two plan, the YM agreed to “reorganize” around two distinct sub-associations, with the NCYM structure as a kind of skeletal holding company managing common assets and property and not much more. So the other significant item presented to the body on Saturday was a tentative list of meetings under the two new provisional headings of the “Authority” group and the “Autonomy” group.
There were approximately a dozen meetings in the “Autonomy” grouping, and 37 in the “Authority” section. (I say “approximately,” because there are a few meetings which don’t wish to be put in either group, and their status is still to be worked out.)
The “Authority” group will function under the pending revision of NCYM’s Faith & Practice, which had inserted into it a year ago a provision making the yearly meeting supreme over the meetings.
The “autonomy” group members will decide what Faith & Practice they want, if any, but most seem inclined to go with the 2012 edition of the yearly meeting document minus the “supreme authority” insertion.
Within each group, funds, committees & programs will be handled separately .
How will these groups function? Well, there is some basis on which to speculate: it was a repeated complaint from the “authority” side that the diversity in the YM prevented them from organizing what were promised to be “vigorous” and “successful” ministries which could reverse the membership and funding slide. So they’ll now have a chance to do that.
On the autonomy side, there is an example to consider, that of what’s called the “New Association of Friends” in Indiana. It’s made up of the meetings formerly part of Indiana Yearly Meeting who were forced out by an evangelical coup. (More about that struggle in the journal Quaker Theology, here.)
Their association structure is very loose, with no staff or office, and only occasional joint meetings, mostly for fellowship. My own sense is that this dispersion is exacerbated by the fact that they did not come together on their own initiative, based on common interests and projects, but as refugees, essentially expelled from Indiana YM. So while the grouping is not contentious, the members’ attention and energy have mostly remained local. My sense is that the “autonomy” grouping in NCYM will start out much the same way.
What will be left for the NCYM umbrella to do? Besides managing the assets (there will still be about $12 million in trust funds after the pension fund is liquidated), not all that much. Indeed, the plan presented for annual session in 2017 was for an abbreviated gathering with not all that much of an agenda, beyond finalizing the reorganization plans set in motion on Saturday. And if the spirit of cooperation continues, that would not take much time. Considering what a big production the annual sessions were only a few years ago, this would be a vivid example of the Blockbuster Effect.
Some might mourn the passing of the big gathering-of-the-tribe-yearly meeting sessions; but it seems to be going the way of 8-track tapes. But what’s to say something useful and enjoyable might arise to take its place? In any event, while the future is uncertain, it was still a big relief to have an entire session of the NCYM Representative Body conducted in such a peaceable spirit, and be so productive as well.