Friday, January 28, 2011

Quaker Authority: Jefferson or Hamilton?

Part of my role as Ministerial Advocate for Indiana Yearly Meeting is to put thought into how to foster renewal within our monthly meetings and the yearly meeting as a whole. I think authority plays at least a part in this discussion, and I wrote a piece touching on this for Quaker Life a few months ago.

It’s no surprise then that I was pleased to see Quaker Life addressing this topic head on in the first issue of 2011. Is a lack of sufficient authority at the yearly meeting level the main obstacle – or even a significant impediment – to meeting health and vitality? That’s certainly the position Iowa Yearly Meeting superintendent Ron Bryan takes in his contribution, “The Need for a Clearly Defined Authority of the Yearly Meeting.” Bryan even goes so far as to say that yearly meetings need hiring and firing authority at the monthly meeting level.

As I reflect on the question of authority within yearly meetings, I am reminded of a recent book I came across called Hamilton’s Curse. The basic premise of author Thomas J. DiLorenzo is that Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson had diametrically opposed ideas regarding the structure of American government – Hamilton favoring a strong, centralized version and Jefferson preferring a decentralized model that emphasized states’ rights. As something of a political junkie, I certainly find this interesting from an American history/political science perspective, but also potentially instructive in terms of yearly meetings.

In one section where the author discusses how different sections of the U.S. had different characters and economic interests, and I found the following quote particularly relevant: “With a truly consolidated or monopoly government, only one of those interests could prevail at any one time….This is precisely why the founders created a system of federalism, or decentralized government.” The author concludes that the move to a more centralized government sowed the seeds of the civil war - a sobering thought for any yearly meeting faced with current or potential conflict.

Do different yearly meetings lean in different directions when it comes to centralized or decentralized authority, and is there a connection between the structure of authority and yearly and monthly meeting health?

Matt Hisrich is the Ministerial Advocate for Indiana Yearly Meeting. He lives in Richmond, Indiana, with his wife and two daughters, and is a member of First Friends Meeting there. Matt is a graduate of Hillsdale College in Michigan and ESR, where he received his MDiv in teaching and theology. Prior to enrolling in seminary, he worked with non-profit public policy organizations in Indiana, Kansas, and Ohio.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stories from the Community: The White Elephant Gift Exchange

Note Nancy’s shirt, Christmas-time favorite.
Welcome!  Our second blog post picks up one stream of the ongoing discussion we hope to have—sharing the richness of our community life together at ESR.  Our second semester began yesterday, but we’ll be rewinding to share a story from the last Common Meal of fall semester.  Every Tuesday here during the regular semester is Common Meal and most weeks we have an educational program—a visiting speaker, an MA student presenting his or her research, a traveler sharing their experiences from another country.  That’s all well and good, but there are always a few planned during the semester that are considerably less educational, including annual White Elephant Gift Exchange, held Tuesday, November 30. 

Jim takes a break from doing dishes.
For those of you who have never experienced a White Elephant Gift exchange, I will explain the rules.  Each person playing brings one wrapped gift and pulls a number from a hat.  ESR provides extra wrapped presents so that those who tried to avoid this activity by not bringing a gift can also participate.  The gift exchange begins with the person who drew number 1 picking out a gift and opening it, showing the whole room what they have.  The second person opens another gift and decides whether they want the gift they opened, or whether they want to “steal” the first gift, and so on.  If someone steals a gift from another, the second person gets the gift that the “stealer” opened.  Each gift may only be stolen twice, but other than that a person may choose to steal any gift.  (An alternate way of playing the game is to have each person decide whether to steal before they are allowed to open another gift, but that is not how ESR plays.)
Nancy shares her chocolate. 

“Stealing?!”, you say, “At a Quaker seminary concerned with Peace and Justice? “ You may think that ESR students and faculty would bring nice gifts and would never, ever steal a gift from someone else.  You would be quite wrong.

First of all, our very own Nancy Bowen, Professor of Biblical Studies, supervised the festivities.  If you look carefully, you can see that Nancy is wearing her annual Christmas sweater, well known to students and recent alums.  On the front is a picture of the stable in Bethlehem with someone shouting “It’s a girl!”  She wears a crown because the faculty have just announced that she has successfully completed her twenty-year review (ESR does not operate on a tenure system, but instead has a five-year review system for teaching faculty.  The review committee awarded her with chocolate, which she shared.

Jerry's gift: jell-o.

A few gifts were practical, like the beautiful white scarf Robin Anderson stole from Emma Condori.  A few were comical, including the jell-o that Jerry Knutson traded for Brent Walsh’s gift (it turns out, actually, that Brent loves jell-o).  The joke was eventually on Jerry, who (when the dust cleared) ended up with several bottles of flowery bath gel.  Some decided that the wrapping was the true gift, including our Pastoral Care professor (Jim Higginbotham), who was spotted wearing a purple bow on his head.  Marilyn Sizer opened a wooden pen in the shape of a giraffe and blessed the crowd with it.  As a former museum curator, this was an excellent gift for Marilyn . . . until someone else stole it from her.
Marilyn Sizer blesses the crowd the giraffe pen.

The prize of the day, however, was a librarian action figure.  It was stolen twice, eventually ending up in the hands of Robin Anderson (yes, the same Robin Anderson who stole Emma’s scarf, which was later stolen from Robin, leaving her open to steal the librarian action figure).  Perhaps it is representative of our community that most contested possession to come out of the gift exchange was library-related.

Shelley Bourdon, MDiv/MMin student, is the first to open the coveted librarian action figure.
Diane Reynolds attempts to protect the librarian figurine.
A spirit of fair play wins out.
In the end, not everyone got what she or he wanted, but people had a good time.  Hopefully the jell-o will be used, and I’m sure Robin will cherish the library figurine (although Diane and Shelley looked ready to request a timeshare).  As I sit in my office on a cold and gray January day, writing about this brings some warmth and merriment into my office.  A belated Happy Holidays from ESR! 

Valerie Hurwitz
Silas Wanjala, MA student from Kenya, seems content to stick with the tennis balls he unwraps (or perhaps thinks this is an odd tradition and he’d be wise not to get too involved!)

All Pictures by Brent Walsh, MDiv/MMin student!

Monday, January 24, 2011

Welcome to Learning and Leading

In 1960, when many Friends were highly skeptical of the idea of theological education, Earlham School of Religion dared to be the first Quaker seminary. In subsequent decades, ESR has continued to challenge the Religious Society of Friends to go deeper in its preparation as disciples of Jesus. Over the past fifty years, we have taken part in the faith journeys of thousands of women and men who have explored with us how God calls us to Christian discipleship and the ministry of all believers. Well into the twenty-first century, and with our first five decades behind us, ESR has come of age as a Christian seminary in the Quaker tradition.

Last year, ESR celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, which naturally involved a lot of nostalgic reminiscing. We remembered past deans and past students; past glories and past failures. But, above all, our year-long fiftieth anniversary celebration was a time for us to look forward to what God is calling us to in the next five decades. As we have reflected on our emerging call in this new century, one of the areas that we have felt clear to pursue is an ongoing development of the ways we communicate and build relationships online.

In recent years, ESR has been actively involved on various social networking networks, and some individual faculty members and students have maintained personal blogs. With the launch of Learning and Leading, our hope is that we might continue to foster the ongoing online conversation that in recent years has been burgeoning throughout the Quaker community. We seek to be a faithful participant in the already robust Quaker blogging community, recognizing that we are coming in relatively late in the game. We hope that the content we provide might serve to fill in some of the gaps that remain in the Quaker blogosphere.

As we begin our blogging career as an institution, we plan to make content available in several ways. First, we will seek to be proactive in highlighting the experiences of those currently studying at ESR, sharing the life of the student and faculty community that has developed in our shared search for God's presence, power, and word in our midst. Life at ESR is a deeply joyful, deeply challenging experience, and we hope to give Friends everywhere a glimpse into our life together.

Second, we will bring forward some of the fruits of our disciplined study, sharing theological reflections and fresh research. Many times, the rich discussions that we have at ESR stay within the seminary walls, but we would like to see them released into the wider community. Finally, we plan to feature content created by and about people and events happening in the wider world, especially among Friends. Coverage on the internet of events, programs and Friends bodies is haphazard at best, and we hope to deepen the online narrative of the Religious Society of Friends.

In all of the ways that we seek to bridge the distances between us, we will rely upon the participation and contribution of Friends from around the world. We are hopeful that our readers might have material to contribute - whether in the form of essays, videos, photos, music, art, or even the occasional poem. We encourage you to contact us with any material you would like to submit for publication. In the months ahead, we look forward to engaging more deeply with the online Quaker community, and with other people of faith around the world. May Christ bless us as we deepen our efforts to connect across our diverse, worldwide Religious Society of Friends.