A Message from the Presiding Clerk about Gathering 2022
When the wind blows, the reed shifts and flows, moving with the current and remaining intact. When the turbulence has passed, the reed rises again to find that the more rigid among us—like the mighty oak that will not bend—are broken by the storm.Aesop
I am amazed by the ways that while we sometimes have disagreements among us as Friends, we often feel called to remain in relationship and find ways to move forward over time. FGC’s Executive Committee charged a working group to monitor the various challenges we’re all living through in North America and to make a decision on whether Friends General Conference could hold the in-person portion of the 2022 Gathering in addition to an online Gathering. The group wrestled with the issue for some time, especially paying attention to changes in masking rules handed down by the governor of Virginia, the state of COVID, disruptions to the economy, and much feedback about the willingness or unwillingness of Friends to attend in-person and volunteer while at the event. The wrestling was so challenging that a special threshing session of Executive Committee was recently called to help advise the deliberations of this working group. The group was made up of many Friends who love and have attended the Gathering for years. There was an enormous desire among us to see the in-person portion of the Gathering held.
After many weeks of meetings and discernment, the group came to unity (with one member standing aside but feeling clear they would continue to help) that FGC is not in a position to hold the all-ages, in-person portion of the annual Gathering in 2022. However, we do have the resources to hold an online Gathering with a special in-person youth event. As mentioned in the opening letter, more will be shared about this in the days to come.
There are a few reasons why we came to this decision.
First and foremost, we had multiple indications that we would not have enough volunteers to properly staff the event. Many Friends were telling us they were not ready to gather in-person and recruiting volunteers, not only for the Gathering but across FGC, has been growing more difficult. This has really accelerated during the pandemic. What’s so challenging is many Friends were also telling us they were ready including some incredibly dedicated, amazing volunteers and committee members who we appreciate so much. However, the total feedback that several staff and clerks received pointed to a high probability that there would be a significant attendance drop and a corresponding drop in the number of volunteers. Ironically, due to COVID protocols that involved masking and mid-week testing we actually needed more volunteers than usual and we were faced with having far fewer. The thought that we might stage an in-person event where people would travel long distances, invest vacation time, and significant money, only for some, and perhaps many Friends, to possibly have a poor experience weighed heavily on us. We want the in-person Gathering to be a loving, empowering experience. It was also observed by a couple of Friends of Color on the working group that if we hold a Gathering, knowing we will likely be understaffed, it will be those with the fewest resources, the least privileged attenders, who will be most affected by some of the things that could go wrong.
Further, our COVID policy and our community’s response to the policy was a consideration, though lesser, in all this. We’re very grateful to the dedicated group of Friends who volunteered to construct our COVID policy, a group that included a physician. It was constructed based on medical guidance and on feedback from some Friends that they would not attend an in-person Gathering or an in-person FGC event of any kind unless there were strict masking protocols. The challenge is that many Friends also told us that COVID infection numbers are down, the world was moving on from COVID, and they had no interest in attending the Gathering if they had to wear a mask. Again, Friends were telling us whether we had a strict policy or a lax policy we were likely going to see low attendance and volunteer numbers. Executive Committee decided to adopt the policy that they felt was based in research and might allow Friends with COVID concerns to attend. It was hoped that for the sake of creating a caring space for many Friends, that Friends would be willing to mask.
What become disturbing after publication of the COVID policy were not the Friends who disagreed with the policy. There are reasons for many of us to be in different places around what’s needed at this time, especially with a lull in COVID. For example, we recognize that for some Friends with hearing impairments masks are a very real problem. We recognize the complexity of this moment and the difficulty of trying to meet different needs. Things like this point to the importance of also having virtual programming where closed captioning is available and people who cannot travel can attend as ways to try to serve as many Friends as possible.
No, what was disturbing in the response to the COVID policy were a few Friends who shared that they would come to the Gathering and refuse to mask as a protest. It’s been a long two years, Friends. Many of us are worn-out and there is great disunity across the countries where we live. However, we find it disturbing to think some Friends, even if it’s a small number, would feel entitled to break the community covenant. It made us worry that achieving consistent masking might be a fraught endeavor. To have Friends show up in an FGC sponsored space where other Friends might not respect their needs was deeply concerning. It was another piece of data that we’re not yet ready to gather in-person as a large community. This query is being offered by the assistant clerk for the committee that has long term care of the Gathering, “Are we willing to prioritize the well-being of our community even when that requires some inconvenience for us as individuals?”
Beyond all this, we received information about other organizations that their in-person conferences were seeing poor in-person attendance. Two FGC staff attended the White Privilege Conference (WPC) this March in-person, an event many Friends have long attended. WPC, pre-COVID, had an attendance of approximately1,500 people per year. This March they decided to hold their conference hybrid. In-person, they seem to have drawn less than 400 people, though many more came virtually. Also, in the past there have often been 50 or more Friends who register through FGC to attend the White Privilege Conference in-person. Quaker in-person attendance this March, including our staff, was six. In checking other conferences held in-person or hybrid so far in 2022, many high-profile events such as medical conferences, consumer shows, etc. are seeing attendance drops between 40-70% versus their pre-COVID numbers. Given that many individual Friends have already told us they won’t be coming in-person, there’s little reason to think our conference will see a different outcome. We recognize that some Friends have said those conferences likely had registration open during the last surge and that affected the outcome. That may be true, but it seems even as the surge has subsided many people are waiting to see if we’re really in a different place with COVID. It may be, at minimum, a number of months with low COVID numbers before conferences see their in-person attendance significantly rebound. We’re hoping extra time will allow us to both have strong in-person 2023 attendance and to reimagine the structure of the Gathering so that even if there are fewer in-person attenders and volunteers we can have a meaningful shared experience.
The working group made the decision go virtual with an in-person special youth event knowing that the virtual Gatherings in 2020 and 2021 attracted many new Friends. Virtually, FGC provided the possibility of a rich, deepening spiritual experience in community for over 1000 people each of the past two years. We gladly welcomed almost 500 first time attenders who were able to join in the Gathering because it was offered virtually. Many Friends have pointed out the importance of the expanded access the virtual Gathering provides for Friends with modest means, medical problems, mobility issues, and/or limited vacation time. We expect strong virtual Gathering offerings to continue in future years. While sharing the good of the virtual Gathering, we also heard clearly that the virtual experience is less accessible to, insufficient for, and simply not enjoyed by some Friends. It was emphasized that this is especially true for younger Friends, including children, high schoolers, and Adult Young Friends who have been spending large amounts of time online for school and work. They need to see one another in-person. We had incredibly few children and teens at last year’s virtual Gathering underscoring this truth. A number of Friends shared they are worried, after two years of online Gatherings, that we are poorly serving an entire cohort of children, teens and young adults. For this reason, we listened carefully to those within FGC who told us that while we didn’t have the number of people needed for an all-ages, in-person Gathering, we did have enough volunteers and staff to hold a smaller, more manageable in-person youth event. We decided it was important to try to do the most good we could for the largest number of Friends with the resources we have.
It’s also important to name that some Friends believe the working group succumbed to fear; fear of COVID, fear of uncertainty and fear of financial losses. It’s important to be queried, to have a mirror held up and to sit with the concerns that those around you raise. FGC tries to have the Gathering break even each year. When Central Committee adopted the 2022 budget it showed a projected loss for a hybrid Gathering of almost $70,000. We knew for various reasons breakeven would be impossible given the state of the world around us and the need of many Friends for both in-person and online Gathering events. We were prepared to take that loss. Many Friends have donated specifically because they want to see the Gathering thrive long-term. We know the Gathering is important. It’s true that lower than projected in-person attendance would have deepened the loss. The working group and FGC’s Executive Committee both had a responsibility to prayerfully hold that information. However, it was my experience that governance did not fear the loss and it was not a motivating factor in the decision. In fact, committing ourselves to a special youth event likely means the loss will be higher than what was budgeted. My experience is that FGC’s Executive Committee on the whole is committed to seeing the greatest good be done with the resources we have. With this said, there may have been some fear, however, that informed the decision making. We need to sit more with that. However, my gut tells me that it was not fear as much as concern; concern on the part of some working group members that we wanted to hold the in-person event so much we were ignoring signs all around us that we didn’t have the people power necessary to hold a nurturing, responsive container for the community we love.
The working group expresses deep gratitude for everyone involved with all the many preparations for the 2022 Gathering. The Gathering Clerking Team took on a challenging task in a difficult year. Thank you. Making this change at this time is challenging. We ask that our community please hold them, staff and all the volunteers and committee members in the Light. Please help where you can to bring forward a community-building online Gathering. One member of the Gathering Clerking Team, Toby Berla, has clearly heard the call of Spirit to spend his energy in other spaces and will be stepping away from the team in mid-April. Thank you, Toby, for your service to the community.
As part of this discernment process, the working group heard a variety of concerns and hopes lifted up for ways that FGC can use this time of change to explore deeply the goals of the Gathering and reimagine it to be more equitable, accessible, and fulfilling to our broad community. Stay tuned for what that might look like and how you can be involved.
Finally, I would like to thank the members of the Working Group for their difficult service in making this important decision.