It's My Language Now: Thinking About Youth Ministry

Category: fgc , ministry , quaker , youth      Posted March 16, 2005

This past weekend I took part in a “Youth Ministries Consultation” sponsored by Friends General Conference. Thirty Friends, most under the age of 35, came together to talk about their experience of Quakerism.

Conformed to the World

The issue that spoke most strongly this weekend was the experience of not being known. Young and old we longed for a naming & nurturing of gifts. We longed to be seen as members one of another. Early on a young Friend from a well-known family said she often felt she was seen as her mother’s daughter or confused with cousins and aunts. Another Friend with pedigree complained that as a young person interested in Quakerism he was seen by nominating committees as a generic “Young Friend” who could be slotted into any committee as its token youth representative. Another young Friend agreed that, yes, there is “affirmative action for young Friends.”

Affirmative action?!? For young Friends?? At this statement my jaw dropped. Throughout most of my time as a twenty- and thirty-something Friend I have felt almost completely invisible. I’d have to walk on water to be named to a committee by my yearly meeting (only in the last year has a yearly meeting nominating committee-member approached me). I can get profiled in the New York Times for my peace work but request as I try I can’t even get on the mailing list for my yearly meeting’s peace committee!

And yet the deeper issue is the same for me and the annointed young Friends: we are seen not as ourselves but in relation (or non-relation) to other Friends. We are all tokens. As a small group of us met to talk about the issue of gift-naming, we realized the problem wasn’t just limited to those under forty. Even older Friends longed to be part of meetings that would know us, meetings that would see beyond our most obvious skins of age, race and birth family to our deeper, ever-changing and refreshing souls. We all long for others to give nurturing guidance and loving oversight to that deepest part of ourselves! How we long to whisper, sing and shout to one another about the Spirit’s movement inside us. We all long for a religious society where expectations aren’t limited by our outward differences.

This isn’t about filling committees and finding clerks. What if we could go beyond the superficial communities of niceness maintained in so many Meetings to find something more real—a “capital ‘C’ Community” as one Friend put it? This is about living that beloved Community. Consultations and programs are easy but the hard work is changing attitudes and changing our expectations of one another, expectations that keep us from having to get to know one another.

One Body in Christ

As the consultation wrapped up we were given an overview of the next steps: setting up committees, doing fundraising, supporting identified youth work. It’s all fine and good but it was a pretty generic list of next-steps that could have been generated even before the meeting.

Caught up in the idea of a “youth ministries program” are assumptions that the problem is with the youth and that the solution will come through some sort of programming. I don’t think either premise is accurate. The real change needs to be cultural and it needs to extend far past youth. Even most of the older Friends at the consultation saw that. But will they bring it back to the larger organization? Last November I shared some concerns about the Youth Ministries initative with its organizing committee:

I haven’t heard any apologizing from older Friends for the neglect and invisibility that they’ve given my generation. I haven’t heard anyone talk about addressing the issues of Quaker ageism or the the culture of FGC institutional nepotism. At [the FGC governing board’s annual meeting] I heard a statement that a youth ministries program would be built on the ongoing work of half-a-dozen listed committees, most of which I know haven’t done anything for youth ministries.

The point was hit home by an older Friend at the consultation during a small-group breakout. He explained the all-too-familiar rationale for why we should support youth: “because they are an investment in our future, they’re our leadership twenty and thirty years from now.” I suspect that a number of Friends on governing boards—not just of FGC but of our service programs and yearly meetings—look at “youth ministries” in a similarly-condescending, dismissive way, as investment work in the future. Why else would younger Friends be so under-represented in most Quaker committees and program work?

The problems transcend Quaker institutions. But Friends General Conference is in a particularly good position to model the work. Will FGC create a youth ministries ghetto or will it do the hard work of integrating its committees? Will it finally start sponsoring young ministers in its Traveling Ministries program? Will FGC initiate outreach efforts specifically targeted at 20-somethings (the demographic of the great majority of seekers who come to our doors)? Will there ever be a Friend under thirty-five invited to give a major Gathering plenary talk?

Transformed by the Renewing of Our Minds

The consultation was just 30 Friends. Most of the most exciting young Friends I know weren’t even invited and really couldn’t be with such a limited attendance cap. One older Friend tried to sum up the weekend by saying it was the start of something important, but that’s the wrong way to look at it. It’s really only another step along the way, the continuation of work that’s been going on for 100 years, 350 years, 2000 years or more depending on your frame of reference. This is work that will continue to be done over the course of generations, in hundreds of meetinghouses and it will involve everyone in the Religious Society of Friends in one way or another.

Lurking unnamed in the background of the Youth Ministries Consultation is the popular “Quaker” sweat lodge, which became so popular precisely because it was partly organized by young Friends, gave them real leadership opportunities and knew—knew with a certainty—that they could experience the divine and share that experience with their peers. If FGC’s programs can’t match those criteria, then FGC will suffer the loss of yet another generation.

What was important to me were the trends represented. There was a definite interest in getting more deeply involved in Quakerism and in exploring the religious side of this Society of Friends.

Grace Given Us

One struggle we’re going to continue to have is with language. For one small-group breakout, the organizing committee broke issues down by topics. One was dubbed “Leadership Training.” With that moniker it was surely going to focus on some sort of delimited, secular—and quite frankly boring—program that would be based on an organizational design model. It wasn’t the concern I had heard raised so I asked if we could rename it to a “naming of gifts” group; thankfully the suggestion was eagerly accepted. Renaming it helped ground it and gave the small group that gathered permission to look at the deeper issues involved. No one in our small group pointed out that our discussion unconsciously echoed Paul’s letter to the Romans:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect… For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us. Romans 12.

This unconscious Christianity is very strong among our branch of Quakers. As our small group discussed naming of gifts we turned to the roles of our monthly meetings and started labeling their functions. As the mission statement was worked out point by point, I noticed we were recreating gospel order. I suggested that one was to “forgive each other our trespasses,” which was an idea the small group liked. Even so, a few members didn’t want to use that language.

We were talking gospel order, but with sanitized language; it’s an oddity that we modern liberal Friends turn so often to secular vocabulary: we talk of childhood development models, we use organizational design lingo, we speak in the Quaker committee-speak.

My feeling is that liberal Friends do want to be religious. But we’ve spent a generation replacing any word that hints of religion with secularized alternatives and that now we often can’t think past this self-limited vocabulary. One word that needs to be exercised more is “God.” If you want to be a modern day Quaker minister, just reformulate every secularized Quakerspeak query you see to include “God.” When Friends ask “How can my monthly meeting meet my needs,” nicely suggest that we also ask “How can my monthly meeting meet God’s needs.” I found myself constantly reformulating queries over the weekend. It’s kind of odd that the word “God” has become so absent from a People gathered in the knowledge that “Christ has come to teach the people Himself,” but that’s the Society we’ve inherited and this is where our ministry must start.

Near the end of the consultation one college-age Friend explained a moment when her Quakerism was transformed from outward identity to an inward knowledge. “It’s my language now” she declared to us. Yes, it is. And that’s youth ministry and elder ministry, the good news that there’s a God we can name who will reveal what is “good and acceptable and perfect.” That’s our work today, that is the ministry of our ages.

More Reading:

The Consultation generated quite a bit of data. I worked the project wish-list into a color coded chart and published it here

FGC published a Good News Bulletin about the Youth Ministries Consultation.


Speaking as a 40-something Friend, I am soooo glad you took the time to write about your experience. There are far too many things I agree with you about for me to mention, but what I’ll offer here is: Were you faithful to your measure of Light in your participation?


Posted by: Liz Opp at March 16, 2005 07:36 PM


Liz with the good question (but of course!). Yes, actually I do feel I was faithful. I was able to stay in that space that was loose and open to the Spirit’s instructions. Just now I was moved by a jolt of recognition by your description of the teaching clerk in your Meeting: “its clerk was the type who took advantage of ‘teachable moments,’ making transparent for me and for others just what we were doing as Friends and why we doing it the way we were.” I feel I was patient to wait for the moments. I might have been playing that sort of a role! What joy!

It could have been different. After all, I wasn’t just challenging a branch of Friends that I generally love and respect. I was also at times challenging the very institution that employs me. But I tried to speak as led, without worrying about internal FGC politics (fortunately the General Secretary of FGC Bruce Birchard has lifted up a model of a leader who has seasoned judgment, the inner strength, and the open style which earns them considerable trust and respect from their colleagues, so it was fine to be open).

I have been just a little worried that teaching this summer’s Gathering workshop, Strangers to the Covenant to an audience of 18-35 year-olds might not be as smooth as the Quakerism 101 class I taught at Medford Monthly Meeting last fall. But I really felt comfortable in the consultation’s small groups and I’m really excited by the energy, enthusiasm and insight of the young adult Friends there.

Posted by: Martin Kelley [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 16, 2005 08:50 PM


You didn’t even mention that you posted anything new! I liked this piece a lot. Unfortunately I think the answer to your various questions about whether or not anything will change institutionally, bringing younger Friends into committees and actually understanding the problems that currently exist is “No,” “No,” and “No.” I’d bet money on it. It won’t happen. There were plans going into the consultation and ideas about what needed to be done. These plans remained after the weekend was over. I don’t see the powers that be in FGC as even remotely “getting it,” or giving a crap when younger employees can’t make ends meet because of their insufficient salaries for that matter… even though I know you are slightly more optimistic. I think that’s because I don’t see them even trying to listen or recognize cultural problems in their institutions. More importantly, I don’t see them as really and truly open to the will of God, and that’s where it starts and ends in any and all cases, right? (I’m not just picking on FGC here—I think PYM, many Monthly Meetings, and other Quaker institutions have the same problems.) A really good piece though, so thanks. I hope some older adult Friends came away changed.

Posted by: Julie DeMarchi Heiland at March 17, 2005 10:38 AM


Dear Valued Wife Julino,
Well, you’ve certainly earned your cynicism. I agree that institutional change will lag far behind any emerging consciousness by younger Friends.

Posted by: Martin Kelley at March 17, 2005 11:52 AM


Hi Martin: Thank you for your profound thoughts on the strengths/status/position of young adult Friends within FGC. I hear great struggle in your words, and want you to know there are many of us out here who find insight and understanding in your experiences. It sounds like you deal with FGC and Quaker hierarchy far more than most of us, and I certainly sympathize with your/our frustrations. I lend a cautionary note on seeking apologies from older Friends. We each share in the work that needs to be done; forgiveness requires no apology. Moving on; however, appears to at least require acknowledgement.

Your upcoming FGC workshop sounds exciting. You have my encouragement. I hope to attend!

Posted by: Rob at March 17, 2005 04:55 PM


Dear Martin,

I’m not clear what kind of programming you or FGC mean by Youth Ministries. Maybe they aren’t either? Accepting that programming alone isn’t enough, what do you think would be helpful?

Is it acceptable to include in a comment a question related to Young Friends but not posed in your post?

Among the issues that Pacific Yearly Meeting is talking about regarding Young Friends is the question of membership among a highly transient population. How do young men and women become members of a particular Monthly Meeting when they have grown up in one place, are now spending four years in another place 100-3000 miles away, and expect to move after that to possibly a third location equally distant that may or may not have a local Quaker Meeting? What are the obligations of a Meeting to nurture a young Friend who will only be here for a year? How can we make the transitions between Meetings easier?
One of my personal concerns: How does this affect our traditions of marriage, i.e. how can a Meeting take a marriage under its care if the couple has been here for two years but is moving away in six months? (a serious problem in my personal experience)

One of my leadings is that we (my Monthly Meeting at least and probably everybody else:) should work more closely with our young teens to consider membership when they are still firmly living in their home community, and the relationship can be still go both ways - the Meeting teaching/supporting/holding accountable the young person and the young person serving the Meeting (on committees, etc.) and teaching/supporting/holding accountable the other folks. And then when they do move on, they would go as Members of our Meetings, with letters of introduction to whatever Meeting is closest to wherever they will be.

I think we need to grab them and focus on them right when they are most likely to duck the other way. Some/many other religions have traditions like this. Maybe Quakers didn’t need one when people didn’t move so often, but I think we have to continually find new ways to meet this gaping need. I think adolescence is a good time to ask people to consider their spiritual leanings, to think about their lives in terms of what God expects of them, and a membership clearness committee is a time-honored means of doing this.

I think if we committed to having these conversations in our Monthly Meetings, it would change how young people see the purpose of Yearly and Quarterly Meetings. From not just a social highlight of the year and a chance for puppy piles, but to really stretch their understanding of their own spiritual selves. I hear both yearnings among our Junior Yearly Meeting folks - they want to be known, they want to know Friends who are working deeply in their own spiritual fields, but when it comes right down to a choice between a meeting for worship and swimming, well, it’s hard. But then, that’s one of the roles of elders and parents. To listen to the complaining, to just sit there and take it, and still hold our youngers to their highest potential.

What do you think? Would this help?

Posted by: Robin Mohr at March 18, 2005 11:42 AM


Hi Robin,
I don’t think it’s hard. When a young person comes to you, you support them. You don’t care about their membership status. You don’t care how long they’ve been there. You don’t care how long they’ll be there. Formal membership is the hobgoblin of little Quaker bureaucratic minds. Quakers are Quakers and Quakers should support Quakers.

It is our duty as Friends and Christians to reach out to everyone who reaches out to us in the Light. It’s very simple really.

Posted by: Martin Kelley at March 18, 2005 02:01 PM


I think that membership is one of the issues that Friends have unofficially laid down and to our own detriment.

I think Friends have traditionally, and we should again, distinguish between people who simply choose to worship with us and those who wish to make a commitment to our community.

I think we should have rampant seekers’ classes for newcomers and other forms of welcoming and move people who are interested along to membership. I think this has been and is a current lameness among Friends, but it doesn’t have to be. The formal process for applying in Pacific Yearly Meeting is really minimal. In my Monthly Meeting, we are actually working at making the process more meaningful for people. I don’t mean more difficult, but recognizing it as a powerful step in the spiritual journey of a seeker, young or old, and not giving it short shrift, so to speak.

I think we need to make a more serious investment in our members. I think we should have more spiritual support committees and classes that are particularly aimed, not at the beginner’s level, but at those who want to go deeper. I think that deeper levels of spiritual development require deeper levels of intimacy and that requires a certain degree of exclusivity. Not everyone who enjoys meeting for worship wants to convert to plain dress and the stricter testimonies on simple and sustainable and peaceable living, and that’s okay for them. They are welcome to worship and potluck with us, but I want a deeper level of engagement. I think that discerning God’s will and holding each other accountable is very difficult with people I don’t know (yet). Naming gifts and eldering people into leadership and supporting emerging ministers will be part of that. I think that membership is not a final resting place but a step across the threshold into the covenant community.

We (SFMM and broadly) have been unwilling to define the responsibilities of membership at even basic levels of attendance. We are usually unable to state what are the spiritual benefits of membership. If we are to wrestle with what God is calling us to do, this is going to be part of the work.

I think that the fact that Friends have lost sight of what membership means is part of the problem. We are unable to say, this Friend speaks for us, and that non-Friend doesn’t. I think that being able to articulate what we believe and define who we are are two parts of the same process.


Posted by: Robin Mohr at March 18, 2005 03:27 PM


Hi, Martin.

I had commented earlier to this post, and I’m re-reading what you’ve written because of your reference in a later post. While re-reading this essay, I remembered a comment that I had wanted to make originally but didn’t.

It’s about the specific musing you had, Will there ever be a Friend under thirty-five invited to give a major Gathering plenary talk?

In 1996 in Hamilton, Ontario, I believe, a panel of young adult Canadian Friends provided the plenary one night. I believe Evalyn Parry and Jane Orion Smith were among the panelists. Though it was only my second Gathering and I had not embraced Quakerism fully then, I recall the power of the testimony and stories of these Friends.

I’m sure you’ll have some response that may “disqualify” that particular plenary session from what you intended in your question, but I wish to affirm that I have heard from Friends nearly 10 years later how that particular evening still lives within them…

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Posted by: Liz Opp at May 18, 2005 05:35 PM


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