The Four Structures of Unprogrammed Quaker Meetings

There are four distinct structural arrangements utilized by unprogrammed Quaker meetings.  Meetings tend to gravitate to one of these, or may use a hybrid structure taken from one or more of these. Here’s my assessment of them.  Which structure does your meeting use, and how does it work for your community of Friends?

Laissez-faire Arrangement

This is where a spiritual core Presence is not a priority at the meeting.  Friends are there basically as individuals to worship or meditate together or join in causes together. 

Situations and issues are dealt with as they arise through an agreement of egos rather than a deep spiritual seeking for the divine will (although the meeting’s stated position may be they are seeking the divine will).  Cliques easily form, since unity is based on friendships and petty personal preferences (like "We should use this spiritual terminology in vocal ministry during worship and not that one").  A danger is that a toxic environment can form because ego-struggles will undoubtedly passively or aggressively form from time to time, with stronger egos often prevailing.  Therefore, the environment is not "safe" for those who understand they need an environment that encourages self-reflection, listening, openness, exploration, and vulnerability so their spiritual life is able to thrive. 

A Quaker meeting operating under this laissez-faire (no effective structure) arrangement can easily devolve into a living hell if difficult or abusive behavior from a Friend should manifest.  There is no spiritual core (as opposed to the prevailing ego core) from which to deal with the situation, and there often is not an engaged/respected Friend willing to step in to help. Often, a committee arrangement is in place – but without a predominant spiritual core Presence within the meeting, the committee members often become ineffective as they become demoralized or disinterested in the meeting’s general welfare.

Permanent Appointments based on observed 'gifts'

Operates under various labels; most often used are "elders", "overseers", and "ministers".  Meetings with such a structure are tightly controlled to adhere to an agreed upon standard, which does not change easily.   This is due to a two-fold reality: (1) Quaker process by design results in slow incremental changes over long periods of time, (2) Permanently appointed elders/ministers/overseers, being human beings, may become ego invested in what they've helped to create for their meeting. 

On the plus side, those appointed have demonstrated over a long period of time their particular gift(s).  And Friends indeed benefit from their guidance because they lovingly serve Friends within the meeting. 

In this era of "equality", a recording of spiritual recognition that has been made by the meeting can 'feel' offensive and wrong to some.  There is a danger that this group of appointed elders/ministers/overseers may become perceived similarly to a beloved pastor in a protestant church: over-depended upon, possibly resented by some, and sometimes idolized by a few.  When something goes wrong with one of these elders/ministers/overseers, it can be difficult to remove them without some trauma for the meeting; although the occurrence of such a situation is likely rare. 

This arrangement, mostly used by Conservative Friends, is modeled after the arrangement first advocated by George Fox after loss of informal control arose in the early years of the Quaker movement.  Control of order, theology, and hierarchy became important to the survival of the religious movement as envisioned by him.

Rotating Appointments based on observed gifts or growth areas needed

First introduced by Progressive Quakers in the mid-1800s and then later adopted by liberal (Hicksite) Friends once they absorbed Progressive Friends.  Some liberal meetings still utilize the labels "elders", "overseers", and "ministers"; many do not.  It is designed to counter the abuses perceived with the Permanent Appointment arrangement instituted by Fox, so a meeting would more easily be able to respond to the nudging of the Spirit as circumstances change. 

An obvious drawback is that no matter what a meeting calls the Friends placed on ministry, care, and oversight committees under this Rotating Appointment arrangement, they may or may not have the level of spiritual gift(s) experienced within the Permanent Appointment arrangement or even a traditional 'church with a pastor' arrangement.  One year those gifts could be there, and another year they may not. The need to rotate committee members every year or so, places a strain on the whole meeting to constantly be required to fill meeting positions and roles.  Often, the goal becomes to just get a warm body in the position - whether the Nominating committee members admit it or not. 

So, while in one way this arrangement succeeded in removing perceived abuses with the Permanent Appointment arrangement, it also introduced a transiency to the meeting culture, as well as a busyness and complexity to the operation of the meeting.  Such a complex, intensively-fed structure - by its nature - limits the operation of the Spirit which is at its best when it is free-flowing within each of us.  So, the original reasoning for abandoning the permanency of appointments - which was a desire to allow free-flowing response to the Spirit, has now reared its ugly head again due to an unstable, complex meeting operational environment.  The free-flow of the Spirit within the meeting is stifled due to rigid boundaries of roles within and between committees; there is little incentive for individual Friends to respond to the promptings of the Spirit and offer a leading or concern to the whole meeting for discernment – for fear of either offending members of the committee established to handle a particular activity, or being viewed as a renegade. 

The typical liberal Quaker meeting using this Rotating Appointment arrangement has much operational overhead.  It can be burdensome for everyone in the meeting, again lessening the direct and spontaneous operation of the Spirit in the life of the meeting.  In fact, this burdensome operational environment is the main cause for the revolving door experienced within liberal Quaker meetings. It is anything but simple.

Situational Leading Controlled by the Spirit

This arrangement that effectively eliminates appointed leaders is seldom utilized because it takes enormous faith to go on this group spiritual journey - since over a period of years control must be given up, the ego of Friends must be subdued, and an intensely spiritual and egalitarian environment must be cultivated within the meeting community.  It requires truly believing there is ‘that of God’ in everyone, and a willingness to embrace that reality within the life of the meeting and within each and every person who steps foot inside the meetinghouse. These understandings are a prerequisite in order for this arrangement to work. 

Once a meeting establishes a culture of persistently inviting, exploring, and allowing the Spirit to infuse it with Light (without human organizational constraints), the Spirit truly becomes in charge and it chooses who to use in each given situation.  Just as with unprogrammed worship, this seemingly simple and hap-hazard Situational Leading arrangement actually takes discipline, understanding, continuous discernment, and loving attention. 

Under this arrangement, if the Spirit leads the meeting to continue with the same clerk of meeting year after year for ten years, then that should happen.  If the meeting is led to form an ad-hoc committee to handle something, then the meeting should do so.  If the Spirit leads the meeting to form an interest group (such as in Peace and Social action), then it should do it and not necessarily feel compelled to call it a "committee" if that doesn’t seem to work for that meeting.  While committees may certainly be utilized whenever the meeting is led to create them, these committees in no way direct or control the meeting or the Friends who are a part of the meeting.  Nor do committees interfere with seeds of Light that may spring within any Friend who wants to bring a leading or concern to the whole meeting community for discernment.  Committees  serve wholly as a tool of the meeting once the meeting is directed by the Spirit to carry out a long-term action (such as maintain the building and grounds or continuously explore ways to enhance ‘Light and Love’ within the meeting community that can be brought back to the whole meeting for discernment).  Under this Situational Leading arrangement, although a committee may bring a leading or concern to the whole meeting for discernment, others may also bring to the whole meeting a leading or concern for discernment.  In contrast, under the Rotating Appointment arrangement used by most liberal Quaker meetings, only the appropriate committee would be expected to bring items for discernment to the whole meeting.

Under a Situational Leading arrangement, the work of a Care committee (if one exists) is minimized because unlike under a Rotating Appointment arrangement, the Care committee members are not responsible for the pastoral care of individual Friends.  A spiritual environment is cultivated where needs are handled naturally.  If  a need arises for a Friend, any Friend can coordinate it and they do, by sharing the need privately with others or at monthly meetings for business, after Sunday worship, or through email notification.  On the spot solutions are often derived such as forming a clearness committee to help a Friend with a life issue, providing food or other material needs, or simply lending a listening ear. 

Under this Situational Leading arrangement, understanding and handling inappropriate behavior from a troubled Friend that affects the meeting community is best accomplished by any observing and caring Friend within the meeting - and this will naturally happen due to the egalitarian spiritual environment that has developed within the meeting community.  In extreme situations of abusive or disruptive behavior that will not respond to an offer of help, the whole meeting community may choose to take any number of actions, including the use of an ad-hoc group of Friends to labor with the troubled Friend as well as others in the meeting community if needed. 

At all times the operation of the meeting is fearlessly allowed to be under the watchful eye of the Spirit who might choose to manifest a leading or concern within any Friend or even within a one-time visitor to the meeting.  And the whole meeting community joins together to constantly discern the divine will for it - often using the leadings and concerns of Friends as a springboard for further discernment.  All Friends in the meeting are invited to be responsive to the nudging of the Spirit to accomplish the needs of their spiritual community.  This is not an elimination of structure.  It is a structure that is as pure and simple as ‘expectant waiting’ worship.

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Comment by Kirby Urner on 8th mo. 5, 2016 at 11:20am

Although management by rotation may be "burdensome", it is also a religious practice and so not necessarily burdensome to those who consider it important work.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 8th mo. 5, 2016 at 2:21pm

That means that all the work of the organization gets done by crazy people who think it matters...

Comment by Kirby Urner on 8th mo. 5, 2016 at 2:26pm

Fine by me. I have a fairly "liberal" (as in "all-encompassing") definition of "crazy people". Some people even think it looks good on their resume, that they've had all these responsible-sounding roles, like "Overseer".

Comment by Keith Saylor on 8th mo. 6, 2016 at 1:40am
Howard, The whole of your piece is compelling. I have read it now a few times over and each time I read it some words from an interesting article William Rushby referenced on another thread keep coming to the forefront of my mind. I'm trying to work through something and wondered whether you had any thoughts. In the article entitled "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" the author Jo Freeman writes:

" Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a
‘structureless’ group. Any group of people of whatever nature coming together for any length of time, for any
purpose, will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure
may be flexible, it may vary over time,
it may evenly or unevenly distribute
tasks, power and resources over the
members of the group. But it will be
formed regardless of the abilities, personalities and intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals with different talents, predispositions and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate
‘structurelessness’ and that is not the
nature of a human group."

It is clear when she is talking about structure she means outward forms, rules, guidelines, institutions, leaders, etc. She means to say that there is no such thing as a group that is not formed and informed by outward forms. It is the last sentence that is so captivating to me.

" Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate
‘structurelessness’ and that is not the
nature of a human group."

First, she has concluded that the refusal to relate or interact on any (outward) basis whatsoever is not the nature of a human being. Notice he can imagine such a refusal, but she does cannot come to acknowledging it as a part of human nature. It is as if there is something within her nudging her in her imagination even though she does not affirm its reality. What if her imagination is pointing to a reality or a way of human being where people relate and interact not in relation to outward forms or structures but who are structured in a different manner? She calls this structurelessness because she, admittedly, only knows ... practically speaking ... a way of human interaction and relationship that is founded upon some sort of outward formal structure.

As Jo Freeman imagined, I suggest some Quakers have literally experienced from the 17th century up until today. Would you agree that your testimony of your Meeting's witness is one of moving into, relatively speaking, a way of relating and interacting that approximates a withdraw (her word is refusal) from being formed and informed by outward structure through silent waiting upon the guidance of the inward Light or immanent Being itself in itself ? As an individual, I testimony to such a Witness.

It is so full of wonder that there are Quakers in this world who can respond to Jo Freeman by saying: "Yes, we know through the power of Presence itself in itself illuminating our conscious and conscience that human beings can and do interact and relate without reference to outwardly set or established formal, rules, leaders, creeds, doctrines, traditions and principles. There are those of us who do not relate or interact on the basis of outward forms but who are structured and guided on the basis of immanent Presence itself in itself."

While Jo Freeman could imagine human interaction and relationship based upon no outward structure "whatsoever," she could only see such interaction and relationship as "structurelessness." Many Quakers have responded throughout history by saying, "There is a way of being that is not based upon outward forms or structures but is based and structured upon the inward movement and presence of immanent being itself in itself ... the inward Light.

I am thankful for your Meeting's witness (experience) of another way of relating and interacting.
Comment by Howard Brod on 8th mo. 6, 2016 at 9:19am


There certainly are structures all around us that are used to guide (at best) and control (at worse) the interactions of human beings.  And these are certainly useful (when these structures are not overly oppressive) for our physical safety and maneuvering with and around each other when often we are not coming from the same point of view in regards to the physical aspects of our lives.

And certainly, people disagree about the need, design, degree, and format of these structures in the aspects of our physical beings.  Even the value of certain structures are often questioned.

The issue at hand (for me) is: Do we want to bring the structures needed in corporations, clubs, governments, etc. into a spiritual relationship with one another and the Source of all existence?  This question is especially pertinent for a religious practice that claims it was first created to recognize and promote a direct spiritual relationship with the divine, and its first founders are known as establishing their religious practice with nothing but silence to bring an awareness and experience of the divine. 

The result of doing so (over utilizing structures) has certainly minimized and even deadened the spirituality of the Quaker movement - all branches.  I can speak from experience about the liberal Quaker tradition.  The complexities and attention given to the traditional liberal Quaker organizational structure sits in stark contrast to the simplicity of our worship.  This complex structure (Rotating Appointments with all it implies) has severely lessened the free-flowing of the Spirit within a meeting's participants.  As Kirby wrote, the structure itself has become a "religious practice".  This is not to say that the original intentions of the Progressive Quakers in implementing it, were not worthwhile.  But now, some 150 years later, perhaps it is time to go back to the original intent of the Quaker movement when it first began, and we should place the operation of the meeting wholly in the free-flow of the Spirit.

It seems to me that having such a complex, labor intensive operational structure represents a lack of trust in the original premise from which the Quaker faith  was first established.  It is so basic to me that the structures surrounding the operation of our meetings should be as simple and relatively structureless as the worship first advocated by those founding Quakers.  If our worship is relatively structureless so the Spirit has the opportunity to fully manifest within us, why would we not want to do similarly in all aspects of our religious life together?

At my meeting, any structural suggestion for our spiritual journey together is questioned as to whether it is remaining true to that original premise from which Quakers first began: a direct experience of the divine without human structural/organizational confines.  Are we always pure in this intent?  No, we at times are not.  But we are all well aware that structures and human organizational complexities will stifle the Spirit’s natural operation among us.  That is the price we will pay for our lack of trust in the earliest Quaker way.

It certainly must be admitted that the process of coming together in silence itself is a structural arrangement.  And rather than structureless, Situational Leadings Controlled by the Spirit are indeed based on a structural premise of a spiritual relationship with the divine.  But we do that just as the very earliest Quakers did to facilitate (once we leave the meetinghouse) a more fuller awareness (in our daily lives) of the Spirit that is our true being,  Just as I suppose Jesus hoped, we hope that one day a place like our meeting is no longer needed to remind us of our true spiritual Selves, because the world we live in and the people we interact with all day have a fullness of the Spirit operating within them.

Comment by William F Rushby on 8th mo. 6, 2016 at 11:57am

 A few comments:

1. I think Jo Freeman is trying to make the point that every enduring human group has a (human) structure.  The issue is not structure vs. structurelessness, but formal structure vs. implicit structure.  The problem with an implicit structure is that it often is not recognized and/or admitted, and therefore is not accountable for its actions.

2. Howard addresses the issues involved here on a hypothetical level.  He assesses the strengths and problems involved in each approach on a speculative level, not by reference to "the rest of the story" (re: Paul Harvey).

I have had the good fortune (or misfortune) of having been involved in meetings reflecting at least the last three of the arrangements he discusses (excepting the laissez-faire approach).  I have seen how these arrangements actually worked out in the small sample of meetings I have attended.  I conclude that they all have strengths and weaknesses.  I am not sure Howard explores these as much as would be desirable.

3. It is quite obvious that Howard idealizes the last approach, "situational leading controlled by the Spirit."  I see this as perhaps the weakest approach!  Asserting that we are all responsible for every function in the meeting often means that no one assumes responsibility, and that the functions in question get short-changed!  For example, spoken ministry and counseling IMHO both call for extensive preparation and commitment over an extended period of time.  These functions do not lend themselves to ad hoc implementation.

The liberal unprogrammed Friends both in Britain and America dispensed with "acknowledging" (the older terminology for "recording") ministers a hundred or more years ago.  Especially among American Hicksites, the result was a "let George do it" approach, and George rarely stepped up to the plate!!  Hicksite meeting after meeting went without any spoken ministry, and many of these meetings declined or died.

The way the Hicksite movement survived was the emergence of "college meetings" where ministry such as it was became the province of those who made a living as members of the "chattering classes."  They were usually educators or other professionals who simply transferred their speaking skills to their religious context.  A few Hicksite meetings hired "meeting secretaries" who often offered a weekly message in the meeting for worship.  George Selleck of Cambridge Meeting was alleged (by a son) to speak every week at the same time during the meeting for worship.

I have most likely said too much already, so I had better stop before you run me out of town!!  Gulp, maybe it is too late already!

Comment by Kirby Urner on 8th mo. 6, 2016 at 1:04pm

Howard wrote: "Do we want to bring the structures needed in corporations, clubs, governments, etc. into a spiritual relationship with one another and the Source of all existence?"

The way I see it, the early Quakers were in rebellion against a top-down, royalty rules, religion-by-edict styles of government, characteristic of 1600s England. Highly classist.  Authoritarian, not egalitarian.

The promise of the New World beaconed from the start and thanks to William Penn, the prospect of a Quaker utopia, Pennsylvania -- built around the premise that all are created equal, with access to God -- seemed within reach. We'd have no slavery or thralldom and live in peace with the "Indians".

Whereas the Anglo-Euros were still in the throes of feudalism and monarchism, the Native Americans had hammered out structures more conducive to federation among equals, and thinkers like Benjamin Franklin (especially Benjamin Franklin) drew inspiration from those, such that when the United States was founded, the ideology was somewhat a blend of Penn style egalitarianism, and Iroquois-inspired federalism (or at least those were key ingredients).

However corporations, with boilerplate inherited from East India Company and landed venture capitalists, owe a lot more the ocean-going ships (enterprises), with a captain and hierarchy, with threats of punishment and hard labor for defiant sailors, with rations of rum, and license to abuse the locals at ports of call, as rewards for aye-aye sir obedience. 

Monarchism was never stamped out as a "meme-plex" and since those early days, US Americans have created an Empire and Imperial Presidency much more like Rome's, highly militarized, non-egalitarian, and only pseudo-democratic.

Many US Americans live as refugees from a harsh and unforgiving civilian life, on military bases, hardly models of democracy by any stretch of the imagination.  The rest of the world gets to know "Americans" as those people who wear camo and kick in doors, shining lights in peoples faces while looking for terrifying individuals to haul off and likely torture.

In my view, Quakerism, especially the kind with committees and rotating management, still contains the seeds of small communities and local economies, business-oriented, non-violent, not weapons makers. These structures are not a mere mirror of the non-Quaker world's structures.  They're structures we've evolved, largely as alternatives to the gangland and warlord economies.

If Quakerism has anything unique to offer the world, it's not some special access to the divine, which all humans intrinsically have, but a way of being in the world that acknowledges this truth of equal value among humans, and dispenses with one class of humans, e.g. overpaid CEOs, "lording it over" their minions, who live in thralldom.

For me, therefore, it's less a matter of bringing the structures of corporations and government into our community, and more a matter of practicing self governance for the purpose of taking our structures out into the world, where much work must be done. 

Just carving out a tiny piece of one's work week and calling that "religious" and making that semi-structureless hamster cage be the full expression of one's Quakerism seems a diminished version of the original vision. 

Our calling is to collaborate as equals (including with non-Friends) to improve the state of God's Kingdom, which could be a lot closer to a paradise, a global university, were we to practice less faithless and irresponsible forms of business management and government.  Quakers could be more of an example to the world, a source of blueprints for more competent, sustainable, and socially responsible companies (not necessarily "corporations" per US law, which have too much of the wrong DNA from the get go -- more like "churches" but not with priests).

Comment by Howard Brod on 8th mo. 6, 2016 at 1:11pm

It is so interesting to hear each of your opinions (along with mine), based on your experiences and spiritual walk; and all of our perceptions are certainly influenced by our own life experiences.

Bless you all!  I am eager to hear any other thoughts and experiences from readers if they with grace us by sharing them.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 8th mo. 6, 2016 at 1:35pm

The Quaker movement has survived reasonably well as "a human institution"; but in the process it's lost much of the juice it had as "a divinely-led institution."

I very much like this human institution; it just doesn't even remotely resemble the group Howard is describing.

That group, too, sounds as if too falls short of what I'd call ideal -- in that political differences among them seem to be entirely unaddressed rather than resolved. It isn't that these are as important as coming to know & rely on God -- but human beings who haven't entirely succeeded in that (most Quakers and other Americans) feel the political issues to be _even more important_!

If we in fact trust the Spirit, we should feel free to be guided by that even in our politics! Not because agreeing on the writing of some beautifully-principled 'minute' would make any difference to anyone, inside or outside our little mutual-adoration-&-deplorement society --

but because we should see clearly through the lies & distortions of all worldly rulers and all the allegedly "lesser" evils being offered, enough so as to at least find our own way forward...

Comment by Howard Brod on 8th mo. 6, 2016 at 1:38pm


To answer your question more specifically, I do think the meeting I am part of aims at relating and dealing with each person and issue from a place of immanent Presence, and not pre-determined forms and structures.  Structures and forms are generally used within my meeting to deal with things like maintaining the building, or handling finances; things that are not innately spiritual - but necessary if we are to sustain our meeting's physical presence.  Spiritually oriented endeavors that involve interactions between people and our relationship with the Spirit, are not subjected to structures and forms if at all possible.  Or, should I say the use of structures and forms in these cases is intentionally minimized as much as possible.  This is in keeping with the original Quaker message and experience.

I will point out an inherent danger with this Situational Leadings Controlled by the Spirit arrangement.  If the meeting should ever abandon its premise of operating on a spiritual core Presence, the environment and culture over time could (and likely would) deteriorate into a Laissez-faire Arrangement, and all the negative aspects of that structure.  Without that spiritual core Presence, an Ego core environment would fill the void and survival of the meeting would be in jeopardy.


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