North Carolina YM Split: Stick A Fork In It
This past weekend, August 12-14, North Carolina YM-FUM met, for its 319th annual session. As yearly meetings do, it deliberated, adopted minutes, and issued an epistle. We’re interested in here in one particular minute, and an epistle.
The minute in question was the proposal to split the YM into two separate groups. We’ll skip the suspense: that plan was rejected.
But that’s only the beginning.
The split plan, drafted by NCYM’s Executive Committee (EC) and described in detail here, was viewed by too many meetings as essentially a disguised purge, aimed at a handful of “liberal” meetings, as described in a demand letter from evangelically-oriented Yadkin Quarter. The Yadkin letter insisted the purge must be completed by November 2016, or a large number of meetings would quit NCYM.
This demand was the latest in a series that goes back openly to the summer of 2014, and has been chronicled extensively in this blog, and in the journal Quaker Theology, in issues #26-#28, with more reports forthcoming.
The Yadkin threat was not an idle one: as of the opening of the 2016 YM session, nineteen meetings, all but one evangelically-oriented, had left NCYM since 2014. Southern Quarter, which has also seen some meetings depart, likewise formally called for the split.
“However,” the EC soon reported, “we did not hear a sufficiently strong consensus for unity” behind the split.
More than that: they DID hear many voices rejecting it. If objections had come only from the most “liberal” meetings, the steamroller pressure behind the split would likely have carried the day. Instead, it came as well from several other meetings which were not tarred with that brush.
This outpouring should have shown the EC the unwisdom of their earlier rapt attention to the “Gang of Nine,” pastors from meetings who selected themselves last spring and undertook to negotiate the split plan “on behalf of” the larger body, but without its knowledge or consent, and in secret. The EC’s attention to them was unwise because it turned out the gang didn’t know what they were talking about, or for whom, and their advice didn’t fly.
This secret process, reported in this blog here, should rather have given the EC pause, because two of the gang’s number vehemently refused to go along with the split idea (which was agreed to by the others anyway). Yet the division thus revealed turned out to be more representative of sentiment in the larger group than the plan the others swallowed. One wonders if the pastors involved have learned any humility from the experience.
When the annual session rejected the split scheme on Saturday August 14, that did not conclude the matter. The EC brought the same plan draft back to an afternoon session, but with a key change:
“. . . we return to you, as your Executive Committee, seeking approval of the plan as broadly outlined at this morning’s session, but with a focus on reorganization rather than separation.” [Emphasis added.]
But what did that mean? It was as if they had said, We brought you a plan for apples; but now we’re talking about oranges.
(For the record, I’m a fan of both fruits. Plus, there are some similarities: both are round, more or less; and nutritious. You can eat either without a fork. But they’re not the same. Ever tried to make a pie with oranges?)
The EC admitted that this notion was something of a “Hail Mary” pass:
“We know,” they wrote, “that there are questions to which we do not yet have answers and that there is now and will later be uncertainty, but as we acknowledge our depleted ranks and consider the rising volume of dissatisfied voices, we conclude that our only reasonable option is to work towards reorganization in whatever form it takes.”
“Whatever form it takes.” [the full text of the EC’s revised minute is here.] I admit it: there was something refreshing, almost winsome, about this admission of basic befuddlement. For the fact is that the Executive Committee has been the source of continuing mischief as they have brought forward one disastrous precooked plan after another in the past eighteen months. Maybe starting over from a point of administrative agnosticism will increase their odds.
So no real outline of the “reorganization” was yet in view; but the sketch recalled an option discussed in June of 2015, and reported here. (It didn’t get far last year; but that was then.)
The basic idea was that NCYM will remain as a kind of “holding company,” owning YM property and managing its trust funds. Under it will be two “associations” (to be named later; some suggestions follow), which would handle everything else.
According to the split plan, each association would be theologically defined, and local meetings would sort themselves into one or the other. Who would do the defining, and how, were . . . two of those unanswered questions.
An outsider might wonder if this arrangement could possibly work. (Insiders too.) Won’t there be quarrels over the money? Or the YM’s beloved Quaker Lake Camp?
In my view, this risk should be moderated by reality. On paper, NCYM has plenty of capital, worth many millions. But much of that is in land, and hanging over everything is a pastors pension fund that is woefully underfunded by — many millions. It is not hard to foresee that most of NCYM’s income over many years will need to be directed to keeping the pension fund solvent, with not all that much left to squabble over.
And for that matter, Quaker Lake Camp’s future course is also coming into view: it is likely to be more or less spun off under an essentially autonomous board, and charged to sink or swim on its own.
While many older Friends are deeply sentimental and nostalgic about it, Quaker Lake today draws a large chunk of its camper clientele from outside NCYM, and this chunk will only grow larger if the camp is to survive. (Indeed: the Young Friends program at NCYM this past weekend, which once drew hundreds, was officially reported to have numbered eight; as in10 minus 2.) The camp’s staff and board Clerk reported to the YM session (with little notice and no comment) that they are already developing a nonprofit structure of their own. Doubtless some kind of NCYM affiliation will continue; but increased autonomy seems unavoidable.
Overall, while some Friends from various factions will be involved in the camp or the capital, and while large pots of money always carry temptations, there appeared to be little interest in sectarian battling over them.
Two other possible sticking points come into view. One was — what if a meeting doesn’t want to pick A or B; fish or fowl; boxers or briefs? One pastor asked this, and at least one other meeting has a similar concern. After all, many meetings (surprise!) include a range of perspectives, and forcing such a choice is a recipe for trouble in the family. That’s not the way to “reorganization” but to DIS-organization”; and who needs it?
So perhaps there will end up being three collections of meetings. (Lions and tigers and bears?)
The EC insisted it was sensitive to this concern:
“Based on the collective suggestions made in each of your groups, the plan may look differently as we take measured and considered steps towards a reorganized body. At each step, our recommendations and decisions will be made according to your input and approval, and they will be taken in a manner that respects the needs and interests of all members of our Yearly Meeting. . . . Within this plan of reorganization, each meeting’s destiny will be controlled and determined by the meeting itself, and each resulting organization will determine its own theological identity.” [Emphasis added.]
When the time for decision came, representatives of two of the “liberal” meetings targeted by the splitters rose to say they could live with this reorganization “plan”; one even enthused that perhaps it could become a model for other denominations that are torn by internal strife. (Might be a bit soon for that.) Others were uneasy, but its approval was not loudly contested.
Two big benefits of this decision were immediately evident, at least to this writer: for the liberals, it seemed to definitively squash the purge effort. Stuck a fork in it. They can now stop wasting their time wondering if they’ll be kicked out of NCYM in a month or two.
For the uneasy evangelicals, they finally got some space, some daylight, between them and the liberals: they won’t have their own YM, but they will have their own brand. Now when questions come up about such strange liberal notions as, say, being friendly to LGBTs, or against the newest wars, they can simply jerk a thumb leftward and say, “That’s not us, it’s those Prius Friends. We’re with the Pickup Quakes.” (Or would it be the NPR Quakes and the Fox fans? UNC or Duke? Kale or collards? Ketchup or vinegar? Texas Pete or Sriracha? I must be hungry. Send us your suggestions!)
Yet before we get too excited here, one needs to recall a letter read to the body by the representative from Cedar Square, one of the largest remaining evangelical meetings. It held out no olive branch, but instead spewed a familiar biblical mishmash about the liberals and their meetings being “false prophets,” “false apostles,” workers for Satan and the Anti-Christ. Asked later, the representative said she thought it unlikely that Cedar Square would accept the reorganization plan; the “space” it gave them was not enough.
Indeed. We’ve heard such apocalyptic vitriol before. But most of the louder voices for it are gone; I don’t mind saying that Cedar Square is welcome to join them. Tomorrow would be good.
And what about the like-minded fire breathers in Yadkin Quarter? Or Southern? Would “reorganization” mollify them? I asked Judy Ritter, the Clerk who signed Yadkin Quarter’s purge letter. She replied that for some maybe yes, for others perhaps not; they will meet again in October. Hugh Spaulding, the Clerk of NCYM’s Ministry & Counsel, said much the same regarding Southern Quarter. But now both these evangelical Friends are signed up with the reorganization; the purge effort is over. Can they sell that?
So will this as-yet vague “reorganization” stop the exodus of those who have declared they can no longer abide being “unequally yoked”? I make no predictions, but more departures would not be a surprise.
On Sunday, August 14, at the final session, NCYM’s “Message” or Epistle to Friends at large was read and approved. Many such epistles are useful mainly as cures for insomnia. But this one was both plain and appealing. So we close with it here:
North Carolina Yearly Meeting Epistle -319th Annual Session
We send greetings from North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Friends United Meeting) from our 319th annual session. This year we gathered at Camp Caraway, nestled deep in the woods of Randolph County,in the Uwharrie Mountains,an excellent setting for our work of seeking God’s will for the Yearly Meeting. Surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation, 175 attenders from across the state,representing 51 Monthly Meetings used our time to listen and discern God’s will.
For over two decades with increasing tensions over the last two years, we have wrestled with who we are, culminating in hurts, confusion, and financial challenges. This past year many of our meetings reaffirmed our faith in God, Jesus Christ, scripture, and our NCYM Faith and Practice. Regardless, a quarter of our monthly meetings have left North Carolina Yearly Meeting. We have heard of many yearly meetings and individuals who have prayed for us; we thank you.
Colin Saxton,General Secretary of Friends United Meeting, encouraged us in the opening worship session with the book of Acts. We tend to idealize early Friends, and the early church, forgetting that they also lived in the midst of theological arguments, political turmoil, poverty, and an unbelieving society. Colin challenged us to imagine an unhindered life and ministry as Paul did.
Committee reports, especially MOWA Choctaw, Quaker Lake Camp, Friends Disaster Service and Jamaica Ministries, demonstrated that we do have much in common as we share God’s love as we serve others. We may use different words when we talk of God’s saving action in our lives, but we speak a common language when serving others through God’s love and call on our lives.
The gathered body continued to listen to Friends’ concern about the direction of the yearly meeting, of whether or not to split, going our separate ways based on some arbitrary definition of “who we are.” We heard a call for tolerance of others, meetings that seek to live the Love of God differently in service to their community. We heard that “we are already divided.” Nineteen meetings have left the yearly meeting, and others are considering leaving the yearly meeting. We are splintering. Friends began to ask “Is intentional division better than unorganized splintering?” Everyone struggled to understand “authority”and “autonomy” and how to understand our life together in Christ. Is it better for NCYM-FUM to die to allow for a resurrection of a new organization? Could we serve Christ better if we reorganized our yearly meeting, our quarterly meetings, and our committees and ministries? Concerns were expressed about “Do we love one another, as Jesus teaches?” We were reminded of the words of Allen Jay over 100 years ago, “Separations have never brought one to Christ.”
Due to theological differences, several meetings indicated that they would leave if the yearly meeting does not divide. Several other meetings spoke out against division. Out of the chaos and lack of clarity, in an effort to work with Love without compromising Faith, Friends approved a way to move forward. NCYM-FUM will work on reorganizing with subgroups or associations remaining under one yearly meeting umbrella. We intend to remain joined in essential ministries that are important to all, staying in relationship with each other, while we seek clarity of our theologjcal distinctives for the groups that comprise the yearly meeting.
In the Saturday evening message, Colin Saxton reminded us that the Kingdom of God is in the deep places, not the shallow, easy-to-get-to places. We must have eyes to see, be willing to search. The Kingdom comes in glimpses and glimmers, but doors are always open.
We came here asking “Who has God called us to be? What has God called us to do?” We continue to discern these answers.