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.


  1. Yearly Meeting undoubtedly differ on their approach to authority!

    I do think that good leaders in both types have the same characteristics. They build relationships, earn respect and authority, develop resources needed by the monthly meetings, and encourage meetings to take advantage of these offerings. Ultimately, the written authority of a centralized Yearly Meeting does not give it authority in reality.

    It may be frustrating to nicely badger a monthly meeting for the fourteenth time about supporting a pastor's participation in Yearly Meeting committees, or about coming up with a plan to deal with the assets of a meeting that is closing down. I feel ridiculous when I bug someone for the ninth time about the missing part of their application or the form that we really need. I'll go and ask nicely again, but I know that all of this is not my plan, but rather God's . . . At a certain point, I have to let go.


  2. I think, ultimately, the struggle and tension around authority ultimately boils down to the individual and his/her beliefs.

    I also think that the Civil War analogy and Jefferson analogy can be misleading. Jefferson, as an idealist, was certainly more about de-centralized government, but as President, operated very differently (New Orleans purchase). And really, what led to the Civil War was not so much the consolidation of power in the federal government, but the shift of that power. For most of the years from 1800-1860, "Slave Power" was disproportionately strong at the federal level as slave owners had voting power that included 3/5 person for each slave he owned. And, in the instances where it was decided that new territories could determine their own laws regarding slavery, there were pre-Civil War battles as pro-and anti-slavery settlers clashed for land and authority. It was actually the threat to the central authority of "Slave Power" that was the final nail in the coffin. Pretty much all had agreed (Lincoln included) that ending slavery was not the agenda, just not expanding it.

    All to say the issue is complex. It's a good analogy, but not one to be over-simplified if we are to really learn from it. I think it ultimately is an issue of "who has authority over me", and the minute we externalize this, there is tension with no right answer, just more questions.

  3. Thank you, Matt, for this really thought-provoking post. Your essay got me thinking about the role of authority in our Meetings, and in the wider Church. I wrote a response on my blog, The Lamb's War.

    You can read my post, here: Discerning Christ's Authority

    In friendship,

    Micah Bales

  4. A more precise point I was trying to get to in my article is that we have somehow allowed the notion that the Yearly Meeting has no authority (period) over Monthly Meetings to the point that some of us (often times staff) are withheld from making more assertive forays in the internal workings of Monthly Meetings until they are in such disarray that they implode and then disintegrate. Before our very eyes. Our governance or jurisdiction statement in our Discipline states that the Yearly Meeting has the authroity to start up or lay down a Monthly Meeting. But we don't have clear language that helps us in knowing when and how to become involved in a dysfunctional situation. If we wait on the Monthly Meeting to call for help it is often to late. Just like in a marriage, when disputing partners don't seek outside assistance until there is to much damage for healing. My personal opinion is that most all disruptions in a churh or marriage could be resolved if both partners were willing to seek, receive and incorporate outside counsel.

  5. Coincidentally, I saw this quote today: "We need international authorities that can keep interstate and interethnic conflict from erupting into outright war, and adjudicate and enforce measures to punish acts of genocide" (Carl Coon, Humanist, quoted from "One Planet, One People: Beyond 'Us' and 'Them'"). To what extent is authority about dictating vs. moderating/mediating?

  6. Hello Ron,
    Thanks for writing and offering some clarification!

    I think you're probably right that many of the difficulties monthly meetings face could benefit from outside assistance. The question that rises for me after reflecting on the situation you describe, though, is why monthly do not seek out the counsel of yearly meetings, and whether a more robust understanding of authority would improve the sense of trust necessary for such counsel to be received and incorporated.

    What steps could yearly meetings take to become trusted partners whose advice and counsel is sought by default?

    Thanks again,

  7. Hello Brad,

    I certainly wouldn't disagree that this is a complex issue!

    In terms of the Jefferson/Hamilton split, I think Thomas DiLorenzo (the author of "Hamilton's Curse") makes a good case both for how Jefferson did - at least in general - act on the principles he articulated once in office, and also for the role increasing centralization of authority played in the growing tensions leading to the Civil War as government and business interests in the north aligned. That isn't to say, of course, that other factors weren't at work, but his analysis remains worth consideration precisely because the issues he raises have too often been overlooked.

    As for your quote regarding international authority and punishment, this is definitely a question that all of us - and especially Friends - have to wrestle with. At what point does forceful intervention become justified, and what body is best suited to mediation? Howard Zinn tackles some of this in his "Three Holy Wars" lecture:

  8. FYI - The Alban Institute just posted a column on authority v. leadership by Dan Hotchkiss.

    He states that, "[An] opportunity for us lies in developing a new capacity for leadership. Ron Heifetz, in Leadership without Easy Answers, sheds light on the differences between authority and leadership, and suggests how by depending on authority less and learning to lead better, we can redevelop a more varied, robust, and disease-resistant strain of congregations in America."