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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: