This text received preliminary approval at Yearly Meeting Sessions in August 2019 for inclusion in Faith and Practice, the book that provides guidance for Friends in New England Yearly Meeting.
The personal decision to request membership in a monthly meeting in New England Yearly Meeting of Friends represents a marker in a person’s relationship to their spiritual community and in their relationship to the Divine presence. This section is addressed both to attenders who are considering applying for membership and to those who have been members for many years, or a lifetime. It also provides guidance to monthly meetings. Appendix 4 includes templates and other information concerning practical aspects of the membership process.
There was no formal membership in the Religious Society of Friends for the first 85 years. Individuals were considered Quakers if they participated in meetings for worship, had experienced the Living Christ or Inward Light, felt themselves in unity with Friends, and were prepared to make public witness to their faith. Commitment to how Friends lived their faith was a defining trait and Quakers took care to know, keep in touch with, and support one another. Today the commitment and intention of a person to live according to the faith and practice of Friends is recorded as membership in a monthly meeting following the discernment process of a meeting’s clearness committee on membership.
Friends trust that there is an underlying Truth that can unify all our individual perceptions when we open ourselves to direct and unmediated encounters with God. In New England Yearly Meeting we do not ask that all who come into membership name this encounter in the same way. New England Friends name this experience variously, including God, Christ Jesus, Spirit, Inward Light, Truth, and Love. Trust in the possibility of Divine guidance that transcends our individual will is crucial because on this rests unity and spiritual authority within the Religious Society of Friends. Experience of the Inward Light gives us the basis for spoken ministry during worship, for how we do business, and for how we “let our lives speak” as we live our testimony in the world. The Society holds the faith that we can witness with transformed lives to the power of the Spirit, known to us individually and collectively. The meeting holds us accountable for our willingness to seek Truth, and the actions that arise from that search.
When entering into membership, we ask individuals to describe their spiritual experience and understanding from a place of openness and to hear the experience of others with openness and respect. The life of the Spirit is released and vitalized when we use our own authentic spiritual language and voice. Yet it is also true that the words used to convey spiritual mysteries and understandings that are life-affirming to one person may be distressing for another. The Society will not ask its members, and members should not expect to ask others, to change authentic descriptions of spiritual experience to accommodate another member’s discomfort with that language or way of encountering the Divine. Each member’s perception and attunement to the Spirit of Truth is valuable and needs to be offered and received with humility, knowing that we each perceive Truth only in part. We continually seek through honest and sensitive exploration of our differences to uncover our spiritual unity.
It is important for meetings to articulate clearly the expectations and understandings that go along with membership. Uncertainty, vagueness, or a superficial membership process can inadvertently result in dilution of Quaker faith and practice.
Membership is held in a monthly meeting, and by virtue of that membership one also holds membership in a quarterly meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting, our ultimate denominational body. But it should also be recognized that membership is in the Religious Society of Friends as a whole; that we are a part of something larger than the Quakers in the six states of New England. The yearly meeting holds membership in and supports several national and international groups: Friends General Conference (FGC), Friends United Meeting (FUM), and Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC). These cover a diversity of Quaker practice, experience, theology, history, and cultural background. Awareness of this implies acknowledgment that not all Friends meetings are alike and that we sometimes struggle with those whose beliefs, language, or practices differ from our own, in some way.
To Those Considering Membership
It is through experience that a person grows in the Spirit. The journey may begin with powerful experiences of Divine presence and guidance, a pressing need to be in relationship with God, or a feeling of discomfort with other religious paths. At some point a person may become convinced that the Quaker path is where they can best serve others or that their way of seeking and following Divine guidance is Quaker. For other individuals the journey begins through participation in social justice activities and witness of Friends, where they encounter the spiritual impulse that lies at the heart of this work. The most transformative values and actions of Friends arise as an outgrowth of obedient listening to the Inward Teacher.
Becoming a member is an outward sign of an inward reality. Membership shows an individual’s commitment to the Friends’ faith community, as well as the commitment of the Society to the individual member. While no act of joining imparts any special sanctity or favor, membership is of value and importance because it unites Friends in a shared commitment to a well-traveled path and its disciplines. Friends welcome fellow travelers to walk alongside them on their journeys, but not all fellow travelers seek or are taken into membership. When seasoned members of a meeting discern that a faithful attender may be ready to explore membership, it can be very helpful to gently suggest it to them. The consideration of membership can clarify the attender’s relationship to the meeting and bring increased vitality to their spiritual journey. Joining the Religious Society of Friends affirms to the outside world that a person wishes to be counted as a Quaker. It is a public acknowledgment, a statement of faith, and a commitment to the local meeting and to the Religious Society of Friends as a whole.
An understanding of all Quaker ways is not a requirement for membership. The patient accumulation of experience with other Friends and participation in the meeting’s life has been shown to be the most useful teacher. For those who are feeling called into membership, participation in meetings for worship and for business is essential. The essence of being a member is the relationship among the member, the meeting, and the Divine. A careful reading of NEYM’s Faith and Practice will help the applicant gain an understanding of Friends’ ways of worship, the transaction of business, and the responsibilities of membership. Friends come together to learn—to learn from one another, certainly, but most importantly to learn from the Inward Guide.
Queries for those considering membership are found at the end of this chapter following "Membership Advices and Queries.”
The Member and the Meeting Community: A Covenant Relationship
Membership is a mutual commitment between the individual and the Religious Society of Friends, within the framework of a particular monthly meeting. In accepting someone into membership the meeting’s commitment is to offer opportunities for, and assistance in, spiritual growth; to help individuals discover and use their gifts; and to offer pastoral care as needed. Members commit to living their daily life in accordance with the faith and practice of Friends, to encouraging and cherishing other individuals in the meeting, and to being supportive of the spiritual and temporal well being of others. Members commit to participation in the life of the meeting as they are able: regularly attending meetings for worship and business; contributing their time and energy; and, according to their means, contributing financially. Being a member of the Religious Society of Friends is a relationship of mutual trust before God, and like other intimate, trust-based human relationships it is not always easy or risk-free.
Responsibilities of Membership
Membership comes with different expectations than those held for attenders. With membership comes the privilege and challenge to participate fully in the life of the Society, to be stretched and sometimes made uncomfortable.
Some long-term attenders have become valued parts of the common life of their meetings without seeking membership. Some Friends see only afterward that they became inward members long before formally seeking membership, drawn by the bonds of relationship and responsibility that occur naturally in a religious community. In a welcoming meeting, all persons are nurtured by participation in activities and responsibilities at any level of involvement. Yet meetings should discern carefully who has the authority to make decisions important to the life of the meeting. It is the members of a meeting who bear the burden of spiritual and societal accountability for acts of conscience and for decisions that have legal ramifications. For this reason, trustees, treasurer, clerk, and recording clerk of a meeting; members of Ministry and Counsel; members of the Membership committee; and representatives to the quarterly and yearly meeting Ministry and Counsel should be members of the meeting. In small meetings with few members, care should be taken that all legal documents are signed by a member or an individual given such authority by the meeting.
Types of Membership
The process of becoming a member of a monthly meeting is always initiated by a request. A child becomes an associate member by parental or guardian request. An individual becomes an adult member by personal request. Both types of membership are a formal recognition that the person is a valued part of the life of the meeting and that the meeting has accepted responsibility for their pastoral care. It is hoped that children who are associate members will eventually choose to request membership in their own right. NEYM no longer grants “birthright” membership. Any member in NEYM who was granted birthright membership in the past retains their membership. Ultimately, all membership that embraces responsibility for full participation in the life of the meeting is through personal request of the individual.
When a person feels moved to apply for membership, an application should be made in writing to the monthly meeting, addressed to the clerk of the meeting. The details of the membership process are laid out in Appendix 4.
Membership of Children by Parental Request
Adult members may request that their children be accepted as associate members. Such a request for membership is made in writing to the clerk of the monthly meeting. Associate membership is granted by the monthly meeting if both parents are adult members of the meeting or if one parent is an adult
Embracing young children as members in this way is an expression of the understanding that children and young people have a unique and valued role and relationship within the meeting community. It is a part of the meeting’s covenant to actively nurture the spiritual well-being and growth of its children and to provide spiritual and practical support to their parents in this endeavor. As spiritual maturity develops in parallel with an understanding of the Quaker faith, Friends hope that the young person will embrace this path as their own. At that time the young person writes a letter to the clerk of the monthly meeting stating their readiness for adult membership. The meeting takes up the request as in the case of any applicant for adult membership. The purpose of the clearness process at this time is to provide the meeting and the young friend an opportunity to clarify their relationship and to recognize that its nature has changed. When young adults apply for membership care should be taken to acknowledge that many young people relocate frequently and that this is not a barrier to membership. Some form of regular, reciprocal contact is, however, necessary to maintain the integrity of the membership relationship. Being received into adult membership acknowledges that Quakerism is the member’s spiritual path even though their attendance may be sporadic.
Some young adults may choose to postpone adult membership until they are settled and can fully engage with a meeting community. Many have active spiritual lives where they live their witness. The home meeting of such an associate member should inquire whether they would welcome the meeting’s regular contact and continued concern for their spiritual well-being. If the answer is affirmative, the meeting should make a commitment to the care of these Friends, maintaining regular contact with them as an encouragement to continue to stay engaged with their Quaker community.
A member who is temporarily living away from their home meeting may become a sojourning member of the meeting they are attending without giving up membership in their home meeting. (See Appendix 4F)
It is important for meetings to keep in touch with members who live at a distance, including those sojourning in another meeting or who spend part of the year in another location. For those living full-time in another location a personal letter at least yearly is suggested, with a message of kindly interest and inquiry into the Friend's religious life and activities. When appropriate, members should be advised of the advantages of transferring membership to a meeting in their immediate neighborhood or, if their absence is temporary, of becoming sojourning members in such a meeting. If, following outreach, no information is forthcoming from a member for a number of years, the monthly meeting may consider the membership to have lapsed.
For some non-resident members, attending a meeting is not possible due to distance, transportation limitations, or other extenuating circumstances. In these cases, it is especially important for the meeting to maintain regular contact with the absent member so that their spiritual connection with, and support from, the home meeting can be maintained.
New England Yearly Meeting recommends against a Friend holding membership in two different faith communities.
Membership in the Religious Society of Friends, at its best, expresses a settled recognition that this is the best framework to allow one’s spiritual and temporal life to flourish. It is a commitment to God and to the other members of the Meeting, in covenant relationship.
If an individual requests membership in the Religious Society of Friends, and at the same time wishes to retain membership in another tradition, to have dual membership, it is important for their clearness committee to explore with them their reasons for this and its implications. The same is true when a member of the Religious Society of Friends wishes to join another church and wants to retain their meeting membership. It is essential in each of these situations for a clearness committee to question whether the individual’s desire to be in a formal membership relationship with two faith traditions indicates a lack of clarity regarding their spiritual path and its expression. The clearness committee may well inquire if there are creedal aspects of the other faith which conflicts with Friends’ understanding of continuing revelation. In addition, there may be obligatory outward sacraments that contradict Friends witness that the sacraments are not a necessary vehicle to access the inward spiritual reality. Dual membership implies that an individual intends to commit fully and formally to the covenant responsibilities and spiritual understandings of two different religious traditions. Through membership, one is taking on the commitment of contributing to the life of the religious community not only through attendance at worship, committee work, and financial support, but also in the care, concern and responsibility for the other members and the children of the community.
Affiliation with Other Faith Communities
It is understood, and accepted, that many Friends in New England today have come to Quakerism from other spiritual traditions and often bring with them deep ties to that heritage. These Friends often continue to participate in these traditions when visiting family or at times of specific religious celebrations. The acknowledgment of these gifts from their ethnic or religious heritage, need not disturb their commitment and witness as Friends.
There are also Friends who find ongoing inspiration in the wisdom and devotional practices of various Christian churches, as well as other religions. This enriches their spiritual lives and brings that enlivened spirit to their meeting. Since the early days of the Quaker movement, Friends have recognized the unity of those who witness to the Light within their chosen religious traditions. Friends encourage members to expand their understanding of the spiritual insights of other religions through reading and participation as led and to seek the ways in which Friends can unite with them. Members are also encouraged to bear witness to Friends’ distinctive spiritual path and contribute their understanding to the spectrum of religious experience.
Many Friends who have grown up in meetings, or been active members of a meeting, understand themselves to be Quakers long after they have ceased to be active with Friends in any way. It is not a denial of this spiritual identity for a meeting to acknowledge that the individual is no longer a participating member of the Quaker community. Meetings should engage sensitively with such members, letting them know that the meeting believes that their membership has lapsed. In such a case, Ministry and Counsel recommends to the monthly meeting that it remove the name from the membership rolls. The meeting may encourage them to remain in contact with the meeting and with Friends. Such individuals may apply for membership in the future if so led.
If for a number of years the meeting has been unable to sustain a relationship with a member over the age of 25, it may consider the membership to have lapsed.
Transfer or Removal of Membership
Membership in good standing is transferable from one monthly meeting to another, unless either meeting has discerned for weighty reasons that transfer is not advisable. Members transferring to and from another yearly meeting should become familiar with the book of Faith and Practice of the new yearly meeting. Transfer may be requested for personal reasons after careful consideration, or it may be due to relocation. Transferring membership after one relocates encourages one to engage fully with the new meeting. A letter of transfer from the original meeting is sent to the clerk of the new meeting, recommending the member to the care of the new meeting. When the letter is received, Ministry and Counsel appoints a clearness committee to consider the request for the transfer and to acquaint the member with the spiritual life of the new meeting. There is wide diversity among Friends and care should be taken that both the meeting and the new member are aware of how this diversity might be present in the new relationship. When the membership transfer is accepted by the new meeting the member is formally welcomed into the new meeting. An adult who is a birthright member in another yearly meeting will transfer as a member. A child who is a birthright member will transfer as an associate member. An adult who is a member by parental request may apply for adult membership to their home meeting before transferring or may apply for adult membership in the new meeting. (See Appendix 4D for a full description of the process and a sample transfer certificate.)
Resignation of Membership
Members wishing to resign their membership in the Religious Society of Friends should put the request in writing to the clerk of the meeting. Where appropriate, the meeting may reach out to the individual and offer to convene a committee to visit the member in a spirit of loving care to be clear concerning the cause of the resignation. While a resignation may be a sign of alienation from the meeting, some Friends may simply grow in a direction that makes membership in a different religious body right for them. The meeting may grow from understanding and considering the reasons for a member’s resignation. Resignation of membership from the monthly meeting also signifies resignation from the Religious Society of Friends. The meeting drafts a minute accepting the Friend’s resignation with a copy of the minute sent to the individual.
Discontinuance of Membership
Discontinuing a Friend’s membership may be considered when the conduct or publicly expressed opinions of the member are so much at variance with the principles of the Society that the spiritual bond has been broken. Friends may find that for this person to continue to be considered a member carries with it a lack of individual and/or corporate integrity.
There may come a time when the meeting community can no longer live with the spiritual or human costs of maintaining a relationship with such a member. While the meeting does have significant responsibility to work with the person via support committees, clearness committees, counseling, and individual personal contact, the meeting cannot sacrifice itself for the preservation of the membership relationship with any one individual.
Much responsibility falls to Ministry and Counsel in times of such difficulties. The quarterly and/or yearly meeting Ministry and Counsel may be called upon for support and resources. Often these resources provide emotional and spiritual support for those within the meeting who are working to restore or maintain the unity of the meeting community and are working to provide pastoral care for the individual.
Within the meeting, the work needs to be done in a way that honors both the member in question and the members of the community. The final decision to discontinue membership is a meeting decision and must be made in a meeting for business after sufficient work within the community to be sure that everyone understands the process and the purpose. It is important that personal support be offered to the individual whose membership is being discontinued during this process in whatever way is acceptable, and that the individual be kept fully informed when such a meeting is being held.
It may also be possible to continue to care for the individual after membership is discontinued by working with the person’s community and family outside of meeting, making sure support systems are in place if they are needed.
A Friend whose membership has been discontinued by the monthly meeting may, if dissatisfied with the decision, file an appeal within one year with the quarterly meeting for a review of the matter. If either the Friend whose membership is in question, or the monthly meeting concerned, is dissatisfied with the decision of the quarterly meeting, an appeal may be addressed to the Permanent Board of the Yearly Meeting. The decision of the Permanent Board is final.
One whose membership has been discontinued may subsequently apply for membership in the usual manner, after one year.
Extracts on Membership
So I am now a Quaker. I am a member of this tribe and I’m committed to its health. But every time that I say yes to something there’s a new level, a new arena, a new something that I’m ready to learn that God is calling me into, and there is a deeper connection to Spirit.
So when I first came into the Religious Society of Friends, I was not conscious of the need to work on issues of racism, but recently I have become convinced that that is a part of my piece in this fellowship. And I don’t even know what it is are the future pieces of convincement that need to happen in me that I need to be open to.
And, so, yes, I’m a Quaker but I’m not yet fully the Quaker that I might be. And it’s when I stop and say “Been there, done that, it's over” that I think I stop being a Quaker. And I need to, maybe, become convinced again. (Walter Hjelt Sullivan, 2015)
Membership Advices and Queries
Advices to the Meeting
- Be clear with attenders considering membership that, while they are not expected to subscribe to specific beliefs they are choosing a spiritual path that is grounded in the guidance of the Inward Light.
- Provide instruction and mentoring for those interested in becoming members. Learn to articulate the spiritual grounding and the responsibilities of membership. Encourage prospective members to read NEYM’s book of Faith and Practice and be ready to engage with them about what they read there.
Advices to Meeting Members
- Become familiar with all aspects of the meeting’s life and help each other to discern where and how it might be appropriate to become engaged.
- Share the responsibility and privilege for the ongoing search for Divine guidance. This is fruitful both for the individual and for the group.
- Look upon members as fellow disciples seeking Divine guidance. If you feel discomfort with the spiritual language of others, ask yourself why and help others explore their discomfort with yours. Authentic religious expression does not exclude those with a differing experience or differing ways of expressing it.
- Become acquainted with the whole meeting community; share in its joys and sorrows and be willing to let the full community share in yours.
- Encourage one another in personal devotional practice outside of meeting for worship.
- Turn to the One who unites us in a perfect love when as members, we meet our limitations of understanding and ability to love.
Although Queries may often be answered with a simple affirmative or negative, it is vital to ask corollary questions, such as “why,” “how,” or “when.” A qualified answer arising from introspection is more meaningful and constructive than an uncritical “yes” or “no.” (North Carolina Yearly Meeting [Conservative], 1983)
Queries for the Meeting about Potential Members
- Are we aware and supportive of an individual who may be moving toward the commitment of membership?
- How do we help attenders learn more about Quaker faith and practice?
- Do we encourage seekers to find a spiritual home, whether or not it is with Quakers?
- Do we help individuals to become familiar with and participate in the life of the meeting community?
Queries for the Meeting about Membership
- Do we understand the responsibilities of membership to offer ongoing nurture and support to each other?
- Do we value, support and maintain connections with all our members?
- Are we living as a spiritual community under Divine guidance?
Queries for Individuals Considering Membership
- Why do I want to be a member of the Religious Society of Friends? What does membership mean to me?
- Am I actively engaged in nurturing my spiritual growth?
- How do I take responsibility for the spiritual vitality of the meeting?
- What part does meeting for worship play in my life?
- What is my understanding of the spiritual foundation of Quaker worship and of Quaker business process?
- What role does being a member of the Religious Society of Friends play in my relationship with the Divine?
- Am I familiar with New England Yearly Meeting’s book of Faith and Practice?
- To what extent have I become acquainted with the meeting community and what experiences have I shared with them?
- Do I trust the community to help me discern a leading? Do I participate in the discernment processes of the meeting?
- Am I willing to be vulnerable with meeting members and deal tenderly with their vulnerabilities?
- In what ways do I demonstrate my commitment to the meeting community and to the Religious Society of Friends?