Sayonara to FGC and The Gathering?

From the reports I see, the pandemic was bad for most churches: attendance is off, and (more important) ka-ching in the collection plates is down.

The possible exceptions are clustered among the most shamelessly antivaxx megabucks preachers. Theirs was a win-win setup: if they died, they were martyrs gone home to Jesus; if they lived, they could brag about beating the pagan socialist groomers with the poison vaxx needles, burn their masks and feel bulletproof (at least til the next spike).

And what about Quakers? I haven’t seen recent overall attendance numbers (and Quaker attendance figures are mostly baloney anyway); but a few significant bits of hard data have turned up. Among them are four numbers that sketch in the pandemic impact in an important sector, and the sum is not good.

The first two big numbers aren’t public, but their impact is: in early April, Friends General Conference announced that its 2022 summer Gathering, which had been set to be held in-person at Radford University in southwest Virginia, was off; in its place would be another all-online gathering (the third in a row).

Plans for the 2022 online Gathering program are, as of April 13, still “under discernment.” (Usually, by mid-April a detailed Gathering program schedule is ready, and registration is open.)

Next year, FGC pledged, the Gathering would be back, live & in-person, in Oregon.

We’ll see about that.

The first two of the key numbers behind the cancellation came from extensive surveys of former and potential attenders. The first showed that likely attendance this year would be way below that of the last in-person Gathering, at Iowa’s Grinnell College, in 2019.

Second, the surveys showed a similar decline in attender volunteers to staff out the very labor intensive run-up to the very labor intensive Gathering week itself.

The attendance/volunteer projections underlie the third key Gathering number, denominated in dollars, namely: income. The Gathering costs a lot of money, and over time, it has to break even.

This pay-as-you-gather policy has served FGC and its constituency well. Bottom line, it has meant that for more than 120 years, enough living Friends actually wanted the FGC community experience enough to pay what it costs, either in cash, in volunteer labor, or a mix.

Sure, FGC raises and gives out substantial financial aid and work grants. And there’s always uncertainty when fees are set and attendance is projected months ahead of time: in some lucky years, the Gathering comes out a bit ahead. In others, it falls short.
But “projections” are predictions, and the  prophet Yogi Berra said truly that predictions are tough, especially about the future.
Yogi Berra, a true seer

Will it rain tomorrow? What about a market or economic crash six months from now? A war or an oil shock? A pandemic?  Or, you know, the collapse of democracy? (Hey I’m just asking questions . . . .)

FGC does not have anything like the endowment needed to underwrite the whole event.

Besides, breakeven paid attendance yields a measurable authentication that the Gathering maintains a place in the lives of enough living Friends to stay viable.

But foreseeing a big drop in likely attendance/volunteers, the planners’ calculations for 2022 also projected a deficit of around $70,000.

Some shrugged off that number: FGC could raise the difference with a special fundraiser.

But others held fast to the breakeven tradition: finances were, and had been, uncertain for FGC since even before the pandemic; and while COVID was currently declining, there was still plenty of other uncertainties to grapple with.

Further, beyond short-term volatility, which is unsettling enough, FGC faces the biggest challenge in the fourth big number, which comes down to three fateful digits: Eight zero zero.

What’s that?

Let’s set the scene for the answer: run the Calendar app backward almost twenty-two years, to early July, 2000. I was with some family in Rochester, New York: a few miles north was the rippling blue expanse of Lake Ontario. Closer in were landmarks including historic houses where Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass had lived.
“Let’s have tea.” (And plot a revolution.) A memorial to Susan B. Anthony & Frederick Douglass, Rochester NY.

We were on the campus of the University of Rochester, at the FGC Gathering.

It was to be a special one, because FGC picked that year to mark its centennial (mistakenly, in fact; FGC was actually about twenty years older. But no one on the planning committee really knew much FGC history, so never mind.)

I was on that planning committee, and we had all sorts of special events scheduled. A highlight was an all-attender panoramic photo: I squeezed in for it, crouched on the grass next to a granddaughter. As a memento, I ordered a print of the photo. It cost $25, a lot; but worth it (though sadly it was lost somewhere, likely in one of the decluttering attacks).

I remember looking it over later, before it was mislaid: so many Quakers together, packed like sardines, but all smiles.

I recalled the tally of those dozen-plus long rows: we had hoped and worked hard to get at least 2000 attenders. We came very close, about 1960, but didn’t quite make it.

It wasn’t unusual in those years for attendance to top 2000. More than once the Gathering filled every available bed on a host campus, and a few frantic late callers were reluctantly turned away. (What did the registrar say when a tardy Friend choked up on the phone and sobbed, “But God TOLD me to be there . . .”?)

So — Rochester in 2000, with almost 2000 Quakers. A new century. Heck, a new millennium. A lot to celebrate.

Yet since then, year by year, a graph of the Gathering attendance figures would be jagged, but the trend line was unmistakable; and it’s not a rumor. Which brings us back to that fourth big number, 800.

It was the attendance at the last in-person Gathering,  2019 in Iowa, the final summer of what many of us now think of as The Before Time.

FGC has been struggling with this attendance decline, with only fitful, temporary upticks.

There have been several surveys, and some recurrent complaints: the Gathering was becoming too expensive; it lasts too long; it’s become a Nanny State; etc. (I think FGC has made some big mistakes; but that’s not what this post is about, though some are listed here FYI.) Tweaks were made; yet the slide continued.

At a certain point, continued decline will push the Gathering to the brink of being no longer financially feasible.

Personally, that’s what I think it faces now. Besides finances, the email about the decision to go online includes a report on intense and unresolved struggles among planners over such matters as mask-wearing and Covid protocols. (WHAT?? Polarization among liberal Quakers too?? Is NO ONE safe? Evidently not.)

At this point, in most Quaker commentaries like this one, it is a rhetorical expectation — nay demand — for the writer, especially if they’ve been critical, to present what I dub the “Fix It List”. That’s a number of actions, usually about five, for Friends to take at once, to either solve a problem, or at least provide a sense of Having Done Something. (The ability to DO SOMETHING NOW seems to be one of the presumed keystones of our Quaker spiritual birthright and entitlement.)

Such lists almost always include, near the top, a mandate to Write to Congress, and Call for Action. Next is to Make a Donation to some do-good group or cause. And if the readership includes those from the programmed branches, a third will be a Summons to Pray. The other two will vary.

In this case, a Fix It List is something of a conundrum. For instance, while there are many good reasons to write Congress now (e.g., to save democracy), bailing out the FGC Gathering is not one of them. And while donations to the FGC (or relief for Ukrainian war refugees) are always welcome, the organization is not facing a temporary cash crunch, and we’ll all be dunned soon enough anyway. Still, if it’s your practice, one could Pray for All Of The Above.

But to be plain, as far as I can tell, the Fix It List mantra doesn’t really apply here.

Instead, what I increasingly suspect we may be witnessing is the natural sunset of an event and an organization: a life cycle, like that of a tree or a creature, or fossil-fuel powered automobiles. Or thee and me.

After all, the first Friends General Conference was organized in the early 1880s, more than 140 years ago. That’s a pretty good run; how many U. S. businesses have continued since then with their original name and ownership & mission? (Some churches have; but many have not.)

If the Gathering and FGC were to be laid down, would that be the end of Friends? I strongly doubt it. Other committees had come and gone. Quakerism had muddled through 200 years before they were started.

But what of those of us for whom the Gathering was one of the high points of our year?

That was me, for a couple of decades. And there will be a time to grieve. But I’m also one for whom the Gathering thrill is gone; its appeal has faded and wrinkled. Could that be, not something To Be Fixed, but just how it goes — more like leaves turning brown in the fall?

It feels more that way to me. And the 800 number, along with the latest projections, reinforce this impression.

So this summer, if I’m able to Zoom in and join in the online Gathering, as I have in a limited way the past two years, that may well be enough. It sounds like it will be for many others too.

And if the Gathering or FGC soon thereafter quietly folds its tents, my prediction is that before long some other concern or leading or event could take its place.

In any case, I’m now reminded of what one Friend said in jest, but might now be a promise of renewal:

“Our kind of Quakers don’t believe in Hell; that’s because we’ve got committees.”
Oh yes. Oh yes we still have.

7 thoughts on “Sayonara to FGC and The Gathering?”

  1. Thank you for this. I only went once and that was enough. I do hope to experience a Yearly Meeting again. But circumstances are not looking favorable and might never be again in my remaining years.
    Feeling glad about all the “unmasked” YMs in my past. It is so good to again see the face of someone you really like, respect or admire. May it all be so once again!

  2. Thank you for this post, Chuck. It has helped me to process my gradual estrangement from the Annual Gathering. My first Annual Gathering was the 2000 Rochester Gathering. (I am somewhere in the massive group photo you mention in your post.) I had experienced convincement the previous summer, I had been attending meeting for worship for slightly less than one year, and I had finally been admitted to membership in my local meeting. At the Gathering, I had the extraordinary opportunity to be a participant in your workshop on something like “A Century of FGC Theology,” and my fellow workshop participants included some very well-known Quakers. I could not understand why it was not the case that every Quaker in North America was there or at least would want to be there. I attended almost every Annual Gathering for the next decade, skipping just one because of some personal crisis that arose at the last minute (I don’t remember the details anymore). To my shock and amazement, I was named Co-Clerk of the 2010 Annual Gathering, an experience I profoundly treasure, because I felt that I was somehow helping other Friends to share in this profound spiritual experience. I continued to attend for a few more years.

    But somehow, something started to shift, at least in my perception of the Annual Gathering. My final Annual Gathering was in 2014 at the California University of Pennsylvania. Mobility challenges related to my ever worsening arthritis were making it more difficult for me to negotiate the spaces of unfamiliar college campuses (especially those built on a hill), but it was more than that. The “nanny state” mentality you discuss in your 2016 post was part of my frustration as well, to be sure. But the big problem was that other “issues” seemed to be crowding out the QUAKER focus of my early experiences of the Gathering. Learning of the strife and accusations over something called “systemic racism” at later Gatherings was devastating for me.

    For me, your post helps me to realize that 2000-2014 may have been the “Annual Gathering Era” of my personal faith journey. Since then, several other opportunities for spiritual deepening in the Quaker faith have taken the place of the Annual Gathering in my life. Perhaps it is time for me to get past frustration with how the Annual Gathering has been developing and move on to grieving. It was a wonderful experience for many years, but for me it is probably a part of my past. There are many, many cherished memories.

    A theme that emerges for me from all of this is that of the struggle for Quakers to be “in the world” but not “of the world.” The Annual Gathering (and I suppose that this is also true of Annual Sessions of Yearly Meetings) represent(ed) an opportunity for further experimentation with being somewhat less “in the world” for a relatively brief period of time. Of course, at the Annual Gathering we’re not literally on Quaker Island somewhere, but we have more than the usual opportunity to establish a community with a distinctly Quaker orientation–sort of like back in the days of whole Quaker towns or neighborhoods in big cities. Do we genuinely seek God’s guidance to live together in Gospel Order? Or do we seek to impose essentially secular agendas and harshly judgmental authoritarian rules on each other? Is our focus on discerning and being faithful to the leadings of the Inner Light? Are we actually MODELING the Kingdom of God when we gather?

  3. An excellent post, a nudge to realistic thinking. I haven’t been to the Gathering in some time, but not because of a lack of interest. Trying to fit the Gathering, our week-long residential YM, and Quaker camp into the same summer became too much like work in my 70s. (I do miss doing the sacred chant workshops when I’m not at the Gathering, though.) Our residential YM (Canadian) is looking toward big change — in-person meetings perhaps every other year? Etc. And it’s not just time and interest making the difference here; there’s also a growing awareness of how much travel is harming our environment; as a society (not just the Religious Society of Friends) we have to rethink some of our habits.

    You ask about US businesses continuing since the 1880s. I don’t know much about that, but Lord and Taylor, your oldest retailer, was founded in 1824 and is still going. That’s one. Marshall Field’s started in 1852, but was bought by Macy’s (founded 1858) in 2005. That’s two. Our counterpart luxury department store is Holt Renfrew, which started in 1837. Of course, scarcely anything competes with Hudson’s Bay, begun as a retail department store in 1670.

  4. What current movies “pack them in”?

    The answer is not the “best movies.” It’s those oriented to a younger audience.

    The rest of us watch in the comfort of our homes. Most of them I see online together (yes, that’s a thing, technology syncs the playing on both computers) with my daughter, who lives in Rochester, NY (I am in Berea, KY). We call our weekly get-together The Breaks Your Heart Movie Club. We have a Zoom Meeting on the side, on our other monitor(s)

    Our ways of connecting (like this blog with its comments) have changed.

    The Yearly Meeting Planning Committee for SAYMA has met virtually for all our Meetings (yes, we will be live and be partially available virtually this year). We’ll see about attendance. And yes, hills (Warren Wilson is built on a hill) get to be an issue as the population ages.

    Speaking of aging — a major contributor to attendance in organized religion has always been kids. It’s well documented that when children are 2 or 3 years old, parents have looked for a religious home. Looked at the birth-rate for non-immigrants lately (last year for the first time in the U.S., below replacement level)?

    Younger Quakers is trending toward being an oxymoron.

    A time has come, and a time has gone. In the 1970’s, Lord & Taylor flourished (bought my first leisure suit there, in the Atlanta store in Buckhead, a great bargain).

    Cue the Pete Seeger song Turn! Turn! Turn! (as performed by The Byrds, please).

  5. Good analysis — and “prophecy(?)”. Twelve years ago I wrote:
    “If our current organizations cannot be reformed, perhaps it is time for re-forming. Or at least for forming new alliances/organization that meet the needs and marry faith and practice. ….In some ways, I think that is why groups such as Friends General Conference, Friends United Meeting,
    and Evangelical Friends International came into being. There was a need and something new was born. The same is true for Earlham School of Religion and Friends World Committee — and countless other Quaker groups.

    It is, I think, the nature of institutions to become frozen in their ways — no matter how well intentioned they are. And sometimes they need to be superseded with something fresh and new that allows room for the Spirit to move. … Perhaps it is an impossible task — but I hope that at least some of our groups and people will say, the time has come to ask, “What is God calling us to do?””

    1. Amen, Friend.

      And because just writing that was too short for this blog’s rules for posting:

      Amen, Friend.

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