Quakers and youth membership

I’m currently interested in how this works in Quaker Meetings around the U.S. and specifically as part of Pacific Yearly Meeting, of which my Meeting is a part, and among unprogrammed Friends ages 13-17 (as opposed to 18+ year-olds who seem to have it figured out ;-)). Why? Several reasons, really, that I’ve noticed about youth and membership, at least in my Meeting, which seem to need addressing:

“I’m a Quaker” from George Fox University
  • the decline in membership among youth ages 13-17 among my Meeting (none, of which I’m aware at this point)
  • the need to reach out to this age group in a more structured way than simple conversation
  • a need to connect First Day program to an outcome, a process, which brings this age group closer to Meeting’s spiritual life
  • a way to focus on the age range of 13-17 year olds is needed for Quakers, the way other faith traditions do, in order to support them in the growth of their spiritual lives and include them in a more meaningful way in Meeting
  • delivering a developmentally-appropriate expectation of membership that is different than but connected to adult membership and which meets the unique needs and expectations of this age group
  • moving beyond issue-driven, social action, religious, and moral/ethical education for this group and into exploration, inclusion, participation, and engagement with the life of the Meeting
Quaker star

Currently, I’m seeing this arise as a new group of young people are moving into this age range. A few years ago, I worked with this age group in our Meeting and now realize there was a missed opportunity there to bring them in closer, to support their spiritual growth and meet their maturity level more than simply as a social-scene (or not) for them at our Meeting. A way to ask them “but what are we doing here? and do you feel a part of it belongs in your life?”  Somewhat jealously, I imagine other faith traditions doing a much better job!

So, I am embarking on creating a sample letter of introduction to membership. I’m expecting it will cover some basics such as an invitation to explore membership, a need to write a letter to M&O requesting a clearness committee for membership, a clearness committee process, and, if membership is recommended, a way for a young person (ages 13-17) to encounter responsibilities within the Meeting.

But, as stated in our own Faith and Practice, I want to remind myself in this process that “membership is not the accomplishment of a journey with God, but a covenant with the Meeting in the search for spiritual depth and personal knowledge of the Divine leading our lives.” The goal is not more youth members, but a way to help youth become more aware of their Quaker lives, to give it a grounding in membership and responsibility, and to help Meeting build a stronger basis for a relationship to its youth. A way for them to say more than “yes, I’m a Quaker” but to say “I’m a member of …” with knowledge, care, love and understanding of their home Meeting.

Is there a way your Meeting encourages membership among youth ages 13-17? What does membership entail? How does your meeting encourage responsible membership as this group moves to life beyond the Meeting (e.g. moving away to college or abroad once high school is completed)?

7 thoughts on “Quakers and youth membership

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this. My work at George Fox (yeah, with those students in the video above) also gets me out into Friends churches in the NW and beyond. As I interact with those who are 13-17, I see signs of hope for the Friends church, and I also see something that might be unchangeable – that this generation does not feel the need to connect with denominations. They are global, fluid, hard to define – they like it that way – and tend to go where their friends go, not necessarily to certain traditions.

    That said, I do think the Quaker movement has some significant things to offer this generation, specific points of connection that they are seeking out. I’ll be addressing this on my blog over the next week.

    All this said, membership is something that, as far as I can see, older generations do – not this generation. And that might be just fine…but maybe not.

  2. Pingback: What Can Quakers Offer? « Christ in the Quaker Church

  3. I have two initial thoughts. One is that I don’t see a decline in membership in this age group, I don’t think our meeting has ever had a member in this age group. But that shouldn’t keep us from trying to do better.

    Second is that we have to be clearer about what the benefits of membership are. For youth or adults. I think it’s true that younger folks don’t see the need to join just because they can. But if we can articulate why membership matters, that may have more appeal. Why do young people join any group? Why did you join your meeting?

    For me, it was the realization that I wanted to identify myself as a member of the Religious Society of Friends among other church people. And so I needed to make it official. The free subscription to Western Friend magazine was just a bonus. But I don’t think either of those would matter to the young people I know.

  4. There was an interest group on this at PYM in 2008, with a then-12-year-old who had just joined Berkeley Meeting, and a then-15-year-old in the process of applying to Redwood Forest. Chico had a 17-year-old join last year. Before them, I haven’t heard of other teen or younger members in our Quarterly Meeting since a 12-year-old joined Palo Alto about 18 years ago. Are there any others?

  5. To get to the heart of your question, you have to acknowledge a distinction which I think is necessary. There is a difference between the programmed, Christ-centered Quakers and the unprogrammed. All those George Fox kids in that video, obviously, come from Christ-centered Quaker groups.

    You don’t really have kids like that in Pacific Yearly Meeting. What you have at Pacific Yearly Meeting are the kids of Quakers who are functionally equivalent to kids of hippies who are given little structure and little real religious foundation. So, from my experience, many of them look like angsty teens — or what they call “Emo” these days. We aren’t telling them what to believe, we are without initiation sacraments (like those in most Churches), and so it is very unlikely that they are going “choose” Quaker membership. That is, most people “choose” their religion because of their parents’ (and general family’s) influence on them — it’s infused in their culture.

    Which brings me to another point: What do (unprogrammed) Quaker parents do at home to infuse Quaker religion? It seems to me that the lack of ritual, the lack of strong family ties (usually it’s just the parents, not the extended, who is Quaker because they were “convinced”), and the lack of a true sense of what it means to be a Quaker.

    In sum, I think because we do not give our kids structure or otherwise lead them to join, there is no external pressure or push, so why would they? I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, I’m just saying that’s how it seems to me.

    I hope this doesn’t offend. I’m trying to be honest here.

    • Hello John, I have just experienced exactly what you have illuminated with such clarity. Very little structure with quiet to NO parental expectation gave children and teenagers the freedom to seek out other forms of community rather than attending our Quaker community. We need to do something about this. Thanks for the clearness you bring to this issue.

  6. Thanks to all of you for your input, I’m finally getting to this. I think I may have realized a simple step to add would be to speak with the parents first, since they are the first way to introduce this concept, I believe, best. This might apply differently in different situations, but after doing this somewhat by accident already, I think it’s a good step to add.

    I’m also noticing that, per your comments, membership might not be all that significant to young people and I’ve tried to help bridge this by adding some clarification to the letter for membership I’ve put together. Youth membership among unprogrammed Friends might be helpful to be a) more spiritually grounded in the meeting, b) a way to the broader world of Quakers (e.g. travel or going off to college with a letter of travel), and c) as a way to become more engaged with faith and practice among the community, rather than simply the family or camps. I hope my meeting can acknowledge that membership can create an independent sense of belonging for young people, as well as acknowledging that their role is unique and can be supported better by acknowledging it through membership.

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