by David Morse
Storrs Friends Meeting had been wishing for larger quarters- for the same reasons that prompt many meetings to expand. Our building was too small to accommodate large gatherings such as weddings and memorial services; it was unfriendly to children, and inaccessible to the handicapped.
After years of mostly vague talk, we began to ask the question more seriously. The pioneering families who had started the meeting in the 1950s were not getting any younger. If the meeting did not do something to make itself more attractive to young families, it was likely to atrophy and perhaps even vanish.
The mortgage had been paid off. We had accumulated about twenty thousand dollars in a building fund, mostly through rents received from the daycare center that used it during the week. We were a small meeting, totaling around 85, with an active core membership of about 25.
What could we afford? How should we proceed?
In 1993 a Space Committee was formed to investigate the possibilities. Yet there was a reluctance to move into action. Old-timers remembered hours of wrangling that had gone into selecting carpeting for the meeting-room years ago. Self-deprecating jokes about the slowness of Quaker process were bandied about over coffee. Feelings of bitterness were voiced by members whose children, now grown, had not been served well by the Meeting. Even younger parents were pessimistic about the ability of the Meeting to move forward with a building project in time to help the children currently in First Day school.
Listening to all this, it was clear to me that under the jokes and the war stories and the fatalism was a healthy dollop of fear.
It was a daunting task. We didn’t know whether we wanted to expand the old building, or sell it and find another building, or construct a new one from scratch. Moreover, we didn’t know quite how to begin the process of finding out these things. Even more threatening, the process itself seemed to threaten the peace of the Meeting.
Like most meetings, ours contained divisions which nobody liked to emphasize: divisions between long-time members and newcomers; differences in style between those with a need for confrontation, sometimes at the expense of unity, and those with a need to smooth things over at the expense of clarity; and there was the usual spectrum of belief within Quakerism, perhaps more eclectic in our university community than in some, ranging from Christ-centered faith to Buddhists and skeptics and seekers of various kinds. Would we exacerbate these differences?
We had other reservations. In a world of poverty and pressing social concerns, was this a proper use of our resources? Were we capable of mounting and sustaining the intense volunteer effort required to bring this project to fruition? Would the burden of new debt alter the character of our meeting, which-whatever its flaws- we deeply cherished?
For a time, the fears outweighed the urgency.
When I joined the Space Committee in November of 1994, it became clear after a couple of sessions that something was wrong. The committee, which included good and capable people, was somehow dysfunctional: individuals were volunteering for tasks and not completing them; reliable records were not kept; letters were misplaced. Moreover, the committee kept waiting on the University of Connecticut to turn loose of surplus property-an ever-elusive goal, thanks to the slow and capricious turning of bureaucratic wheels, but one which had kept the committee in limbo for more than a year. In short, it was not acting like a body that wanted to move forward.
A further source of paralysis was that the Meeting looked to the committee for leadership, and the committee was looking to the Meeting. It was clear too that no individual had chosen to commit himself or herself wholly to the project.
I don’t know how long this would have continued. Eventually, I think some other individual would have come forward. As it happened, that individual turned out to be me. I didn’t so much choose it as I felt chosen by something larger. The feeling was very clear and intense. I was not yet a Quaker, although I had been an active attender for four years. Yet so clearly did I feel called to this project that I was willing to use the word “ministry” to describe it.
What I have described so far seems to involve several stages, which are probably necessary for any meeting to move forward with a project this ambitious. First, there were those years of “vague talk,” the inchoate belief that something needed to be done. Second came a sense of urgency, that the time was right. Third came the more pointed questions, the realization of the magnitude of the task. Fourth came the formal step of convening a committee charged with exploring the options. Fifth came a perceived sense of mission in an individual who would serve as a conduit for the spirit of the Meeting.
When these stages come together in harmony, the effect is powerful. Ego is shed before the Light. Everyone moves forward as one.
David Morse, author of The Iron Bridge, is working on a booklet for Quaker meetings that are undertaking a process of deciding if and when, who and how their meeting house needs to change. FGC is considering this publication and is looking for case studies to include.