What Does Quaker Membership Mean?

Several weeks ago Reno Friends met online for a spiritual discussion about membership, which was something of a rare event. Usually, modern-day Quakers don’t talk much about who’s a member and who’s an “attender.” Many devoted Quakers spend their lives as attenders of Monthly Meetings, volunteering for leadership roles and participating in Silent Worship, Business Meetings and social events, but deciding against the step of membership. In truth, that pretty much describes me: I’ve been attending Quaker Meeting (with varying levels of devotion) since I first went to the Florida Avenue Meeting in Washington, D.C., more than 35 years ago. I’m a really good attender.

Recently, however, I’ve been wondering if it isn’t time to become a member. A Reno member I deeply respect (a life-long Quaker and thoughtful guy) asked me about it the other day, saying that since I’m so active in the Meeting, why don’t I take the leap? “Because I have doubts,” I told him. He nodded sagely.  “We all have doubts. Looks to me like you are contributing as members do, so you might as well become a member.”

Membership in a Quaker Meeting is not a simple affair, partly because membership is a question not just for the individual but also for the Meeting. To determine if someone is ready, the Meeting convenes a Clearness Committee of several members who sit with the person seeking membership for a series of discussions. Clearness Committees can be convened for any number of reasons; if someone needs help working out a personal or spiritual problem, they can ask for a Clearness Committee and the Meeting will put one together for them. Clearness Committees are there to help the individual find clarity. Those on the committee are told to ask questions rather than doling out advice.

In the case of membership, a Clearness Committee might ask whether the person thinks they are ready for the commitment implicit in becoming a member, or whether they feel they know and understand enough about the Quaker testimonies and Quaker process. It’s also an opportunity for the person to air doubts or concerns. Those who come out of the Clearness Committee convinced they want to move forward write a letter requesting membership, which is considered first by the Ministry and Oversight Committee, and then by the Meeting as a whole at Business Meeting. Both the individual and the Meeting need to agree that they are a good fit for one another.

Quaker membership has this sort of weight partly because Quakers originally developed as a persecuted group in England, back in the 17th century, and membership provided a form of protection and support for Quakers who were thrown in jail or impoverished because of their faith. At that time, people in jails had to pay for their food, so Quaker Meetings would collect funds so that members who had been jailed for their religious beliefs wouldn’t starve, and to also help their families survive.

In our spiritual discussion the other day, several members of our Meeting shared what it meant to them. One person said she became a member after years of attending because she finally felt she was truly “home.” Another said that becoming a member served as a public acknowledgment of spiritual growth that had already happened. Another pointed out that getting new members could be affirming for a Meeting, as it would mean attenders valued the group and wanted to participate on a deeper level.  

What I know is that, in my heart, I am a Quaker. I believe in the power of Silent Worship, having found it a grounding and liberating form of worship. I agree with the Quaker testimonies, and believe it is important for Quaker values to be alive in the world. I also deeply appreciate that the Quakers are a religious organization that does not require me to decide about spiritual questions or state a creed. My spiritual doubts are gently tolerated by the Quaker faith, and the focus on action over words is fundamental to how I want to live my spiritual life. When I really think about it, I know I will never be a member of any other church again.

So maybe it’s time I ask for that Clearness Committee. I’m curious what they will ask, and how I will answer.  

Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.