Sunday, March 10, 2013

Much Muttering...

After a discussion about this with a couple of elders after our (shiny new!) Monthly Meeting held in Rotorua last weekend they asked me to put it into writing so they could share it with MM elders & overseers and at the Yearly Meeting E&O's meeting in May. When I mentioned this on facebook Lee suggested I share it more widely... so here you go, blame Lee! (I've edited this slightly from the original to protect the not-so-innocent. Apologies if you don't speak Quaker jargon or know the alphabet soup of acronyms - I've added some links to help out!)

At YM last year in Matamata there were 5 of us under 60 years of age. Four of whom were presenting and could only be there for part of the time (for 3 of us due to having to get home to work on Monday or on to the next speaking engagement - not sure about the 4th as she arrived so shortly before I left!). Rick was the only under 60yr old there for the full time and completely through choice rather than obligation! A YF was there to help set up but had other commitments and was not able to stay for any sessions.

An increasing proportion of regular attenders at YM are in their 80s and unless we encourage some younger members to attend YM we are soon going to find ourselves with a very limited pool of experienced YM'ers who are familiar with YM business practice and right ordering.

When I have raised this with people the usual response is 'so how do we encourage our YFs to participate?' - I would argue that the 30-60yr old group are as much an issue as YFs if not more.

Often family committments is cited as a reason for non-participation - in the UK the public holiday long weekend YMs (they have a longer full week residential event every 3yrs or so) have the full scope of ages from creche to 90s, some of the American YMs send out epistles from their main sessions, Young Adult Friends, JYFs, older and younger children's groups - some of these groups may only have 3 or 4 children in them, but they are still programmed to be an integral part of the YM event. By not providing anything for children and young people during YM what message are we giving to those families in terms of how we value them as part of our YM structure? Both the children and young people but also their parents. When you have grown up attending YM, gradually attending more of the main sessions then attending it fully as a YF or older adult is a natural step, not a scary step into the unknown.

Image is another reason given - YM is often perceived as lots of old people doing Quaker business for a weekend. As a description it is hardly a massive draw card! Yes it is predominantly elderly but that won't change unless we help it to, however the perception of it being a weekend full of business is fairly misleading - most years recently we have had the Quaker lecture, there are several presentations by YM committees/appointees on a number of really interesting topics of concern, there is the opportunity for F/friendship and fellowship, Meetings for Worship, retreat days, meeting overseas visitors... all of which sound far more appealing! Yes there are business sessions which can on occassions be lengthy and difficult, but better Friends come and dip in and out as they build up their YM stamina than not come at all. I know many in Britain YM who started attending mainly for social reasons - it was an opportunity to meet up with Friends, and as the years went on they attended more and more sessions and became self-confessed YM-junkies, they don't want to miss one or even a session in case they end up missing something truly momentous - the session on agreeing to actively campaign for same sex marriage, and BYM making a committment to aim to be a low carbon organisation being some recent examples. They want to be able to say with pride 'yes I was there!' - I've yet to hear anyone speak like that about our YM, but maybe I'm not talking to the right people about it?

Other obstacles include financial, especially if YM isn't in the school holidays those tied to the education sector as participants or staff need to miss school/lectures or take unpaid leave to attend, for parents it can add many complciations to home life and many of those working in any sector need to use up scarce leave entitlement or take unpaid leave. How well do we make it known that financial assistance is available to anyone who needs it (not just the two MM reps) - and if it isn't available then why not? How can we acknowledge the sacrifice Friends need to make up to attend YM and make it more worth their while? Perhaps a koha from a hardship fund for those who have to take unpaid leave who can ill afford to do so on top of travel expenses? Or a reduction in registration fees?

Another obstacle is timing - running from Friday afternoon to Monday lunchtime on an ordinary w/e means missing two days of school/college/work for many - if we did provide programmes for children & young people they would be missing two days of schooling to attend which probably isn't a good thing to be encouraging! If we aren't to meet in the term breaks would a weekend with a public holiday attached work better? Easter is the obvious one - yes YF Camp is that w/e however Australian YFs organise their YF Camp to be in the same vicinity as YM each year, this would not be impossible to replicate here, and then it would be easier for more of them to attend particular (more appealing?) sessions of YM (as happens elsewhere around the world).

So what this boils down to is some major inreach - how do we present YM in session to Friends in our Meetings? Do we encourage those other than 'the regulars' to attend - what incentives might we offer? A first timers discount perhaps as an introduction to YM (a good use of the Quaker Education Fund I would have thought - especially if you got some booklets on Quaker business practice thrown in to the bargain, there are some Pendle Hill pamplets and booklets from Britain YM if we don't have something suitable of our own yet). When we discuss Documents in Advance/White Papers do we just go through with a nit-picking comb or spend time discussing some of the work that is being done by/for Friends expanding our knowledge and sharing experiences and raising wider concerns as to how Meetings can do more to support the work that is being done in our name? Who would we like to invite to come and tell us more about what they have shared? I know from having written several reports for Docs in Advance that there is always far more you could say if you thought anyone was interested! Do we use it as a tool to generate interest within our MMs in the work of Friends at home and overseas (via QPSANZ, FWCC, QUNO etc) or is the idea to get through it as fast as possible so we can all go home?

Which leads me nicely on to participation in MM....

During the evening session at the gathering in Rotorua last weekend which covered the old MMs of Waitemata North, Bay of Plenty/Auckland and Waikato/Hauraki and the new MMs of Northern and Mid North Island we lined up in order of years of involvement with Friends - the person at the bottom of the line with the least experience had been a Friend for 10yrs.

Where were those Friends who have been involved for less? Why weren't they there? When you look around MM business meetings month to month is it just the seasoned Friends who have been around either as members or attenders for many years? My experience of attending MM in 3 MMs in this YM is that generally yes that is the case - and the few younger faces have almost all grown up in Quaker families and so have been Friends for far longer than many of those twice their age.

Some of the same reasons apply as for YM. But also many seasoned Friends will admit that yes MM sessions can be a bit dry and tedious but they have to be done and no-one wants to make them last any longer than is humanly possible!

I first attended MM in session at the age of 16, I had to give a verbal report on attending Junior Yearly Meeting which I had attended as a MM rep. I did the same the following year on the Quaker Youth Pilgrimage, and 3 other times that year (and the five years following) I reported back on Young Friends Central Committee. Given that as luck would have it all the first couple of years of reporting to MM were at Meeting Houses other than my local one I was stuck there for the whole of MM whether I liked it or not as I awaited my lift home! But that didn't matter so much as for a few years I had been going to MM about 3 or 4 times a year to meet up with the other children and young people, we'd go for walks, make music, do art work depending on which Meeting we were at and who was left to look after us - we knew what we would be doing so came prepared/suitably dressed. Then at the end there was always an amazing MM tea with so many cakes and other goodies it was like a birthday party!

Of course we got to know various adults in the MM this way so by the time I had to give my first report it wasn't entirely a room of strangers, I was definitely quaking though none the less! This pattern was much the same as I progressed through YFs and still reported back to whichever MM I was in at the time. Verbal reports were encouraged, written ones could follow but on their own were seen as a poor substitute - they wanted to see and hear us, and looking back now I realise that such reports were what made the more tedious premises and budget items etc more bearable. Reports by YFs or any other Friend who had attended an event etc were usually 3rd or 4th on the agenda, so even if the Friend did slip away after they had 'done their bit' they had still experienced some Quaker business and might feel more encouraged to stay longer next time (tedious items were usually after reports, once Friends had been lulled into a more relaxed frame of mind!).

Another practice we had was the Sunday following MM a Friend nominated in advance would give a short verbal report on MM to their worship group during notices, this way those who hadn't been there got to hear something of the flavour of the Meeting beyond the bare bones of the Minutes (and often included a comment on the quality of the MM spread - each Meeting had it's own specialities!), news of Friends from other Meetings within the MM might also be shared at this time. This strengthened the sense of being part of the MM community and gave a good basis for conversation starters for those curious to learn more. I started attending Preparative Meeting (the local Worship Group business meeting held the Sunday before MM) aged 14 as Mum was Assistant Clerk and then later Clerk and Dad was Treasurer, as a result I ended up being appointed to be one of our local Meeting's reps on the MM 'Friendship Day' committee (and annual event of all age activities and discussions, and of course including a spectacular shared meal!) - I've held some Quaker post or other pretty much constantly ever since! Do we encourage our young people to come along and get involved? (Hopefully none of them will ever have to sit through six months worth of discussion on toilet renovations like I did though...) { no doubt my parents will correct me on the actual timeframe - lets just agree it was too long! } After a while you get sucked in, you want to know how something resolved that was held over until next month, you want to be part of the ongoing discernment process over a Friends concern, was the Friend who applied accepted into membership? etc etc etc....  almost 30yrs later I'm still going to business meetings but these days more often than not I'm back to being the youngest person in the room, surely by now I shouldn't be?

I'm not saying MMs I've attended back in the UK were perfect - they were not by any means, in fact none of them lived up to the quality and spiritual depth of business meetings we had at YFCC (now called Young Friends General Meeting) - those of us who had been active YFs had high standards and grumbled endlessly about these older Friends who didn't live up to them outwith YM sessions, but at least we were there to know how 'bad' they were - and we still went back for more! When serving as an overseer in one MM we had a roster to ensure that there was at least one of us guaranteed to be at each MM and the elders did the same. Sometimes it felt like the short straw when your month came around it has to be said, but it was attending an MM because it was my 'turn' that led eventually to me now being here in Aotearoa NZ, the spirit moves in mysterious ways...

How can we engage more Friends to participate in the work of our MMs and YMs? YM Nominations Committee has been working hard to try to find 'new' names to bring into the fold and hopefully get them to YM in session at least once as a result - but it needs more than that. Somehow we are not reaching out to Friends, we are not offering what we have in a way that is attractive to them, and possibly that means changing what we offer. Yes what we have suits many of those who do attend, but given the proportion of over 80s at YM how much longer can we realistically expect these Friends to carry the weight of YM decision making on their shoulders without wider support? How do we give Friends sufficient first hand experience of Quaker business method so that they can later take on clerking in the manner of Friends rather than that of a secular society's committee meeting? Similarly how can we expect Friends to be able to provide elder support within business sessions if they aren't sure how it should be run?

At the 'Whoosh!' conference at Woodbrooke last year, Paul Parker, Recording Clerk of Britain YM, shared an anecdote about two small Meetings he had attended of roughly equal size, one had a sense of dwindling and dying, the other a sense of excitement and hope - I would like to think we can follow the example of the latter rather than the former and find ways in which our YM and MMs, particularly when gathered for business etc, can 'whoosh!' forwards with enthusiasm rather than become an inevitably smaller and increasingly elderly and frail collection of Friends with insufficient energy to follow our concerns and achieve our visions. I feel priviledged to have been able to read so much of the documentation that came out of that conference and would love to see its like happen here...

Sorry this is so long... succinct has never been my strong point! Thank you for bearing with me this far along what could prove to be an extended journey.

ps Mum's comment on reading this: "But was it only six months we had the toilet renovation on the agenda?! Surely longer..." - I rest my case! It was probably 6 mths just to decide whether to have two toilets or a toilet and a urinal in the gents... :/

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