Consultation Among Friends and New Directions

In 1998, ESR welcomed a new Dean, Jay Marshall, who became the School's fifth head administrator since its founding in 1960.  One of the early initiatives during his tenure, directed by Earlham President Douglas Bennett, was to conduct a major consultation among Friends as requested by the Board of Trustees of Earlham College and the Board of Advisors of ESR.  This consultation involved conducting extensive surveys of Friends from all across the United States on the current state of Quakerism and its Religious Society.  Overall, this consultation asked Friends to respond to three general sets of questions:

  1. What is the current situation of the Religious Society of Friends?  What are the main strengths, and what are the main challenges before us at the present time?
  2. More specifically, what is the situation with regard to leadership?  Are we finding the leaders we need, and are they being prepared for leadership roles as well as they might be?
  3. What are the potential contributions that the Earlham School of Religion can make to meet these needs and challenges in the preparation of leaders?

In all, this consultation received feedback from approximately 250 Friends, representing leaders from every branch of Quakerism in every region of the United States.  The results of this survey are contained in a book subsequently published by the Earlham Press entitled, Among Friends.

Among the major findings of the Among Friends consultation was an acute sense among respondents of the dwindling number of Friends in the United States (Among Friends: A consultation with Friends about the condition of Quakers in the U.S. today, pg 18).  One respondent complained that Friends had become too worried about maintenance and survival, and not enough on what good and new can emerge from Quakers in the next 100 years (Ibid., pg. 57).  A number of respondents in the survey also noted what they felt to be a loss of identity among Quakers.  As various branches of Friends increasingly came to identify with other non-Quaker elements in society, they became ever more estranged from the beliefs and ideas they shared with other branches of Friends (Ibid., pg. 85).

In terms of the issue of leadership, and its relation to the larger problems experienced by the Society of Friends, respondents noted that there was a lack of adequate leadership to address the problems of declining numbers and loss of identity.  Several respondents observed that Quakers are not doing an adequate job of cultivating the next generation of leaders (Ibid., pg. 32).  In a related vein, one respondent pointed out a prominent and persistent paradox in Quaker attitudes toward leadership, noting that "Quakers want leadership, but they don't want leaders" (Ibid., pg. 84).  Still another respondent observed that the most serious deficiency of Quakers at the present time is a "glaring scarcity of trained and active Quaker thinkers and scholars" (Ibid., pg. 89).

Although the major thrust of the Among Friends consultation was to uncover problems and identify needs in relation to the question of leadership and the Society of Friends, there were also a number of positive notes sounded by respondents.  One gave voice to the thoughts of many others in pointing out the persistent need for Quaker values in the world; in particular, the values of peace, simplicity, equality and silence (Ibid., pg. 54).  Another respondent observed that there is presently less hostility between Friends than there was even two or three decades ago, and that ESR had contributed much to this still nascent process of reconciliation (Ibid., pg. 89).  Overall, the general impression conveyed by respondents was that Friends still had something extremely valuable to offer the world, but that their Society did not presently possess the wherewithal to project that vision into the world at large.

In terms of the prospective role ESR had to play in developing leadership and bringing about renewal in the Society of Friends, many respondents were highly emphatic and specific in their answers.  One pertinent recommendation was that ESR should conduct research into why Friends are failing in their outreach efforts, and design programs based on that research to train Meeting leaders.  Several people recommended that ESR develop a more comprehensive distance education program, including a selection of on-line courses.  Another respondent challenged ESR to put more of Earlham's own extensive library resources on Quakerism on-line (Ibid., pg. 191-202).  Probably the most truculent response, though, was from the Friend who challenged ESR to be more mindful of its role and responsibility in seminary education as a whole:

"ESR needs to emphasize performance and they need to get serious about being the best, not just the best Quaker seminary.  Since it's the only one, that's not a problem.  They need to compete head to head with the top seminaries in the United States and they need to settle for nothing less.  The problem is that the vision among Quakers is so small.  If we've got the best religion in the world, let's start acting like it.  And that goes for the students they recruit as well" (Ibid., pg. 208).

In sum, these and many other responses may be read to point to a broad consensus among Friends on the following issues.  First, after nearly three hundred and fifty years of history as a Religious Society, Friends still have much to offer the world.  Second, the Society of Friends faces daunting challenges, particularly in terms of stemming membership decline and restoring unity to Quaker identity.  Third, the development of adequate leadership is the key to properly addressing these challenges.  Finally, there is a palpable sense that ESR can and must play an instrumental role in helping developing this leadership pool.  The following sections of this case offer a cursory examination of ESR's more recent efforts in this regard.