New beginnings are hard. Endings may be even harder. It is hard to say goodbye. It is hard to see all the hard work, all the investment evaporate before our very eyes. It is hard to know when to let go. Some endings are not hard. Some endings are more like heroic escapes in the nick of time. That’s not what I want to address here. I want to address those endings that are hard to come by, hard fought, hard won: endings that feel more like death than relief.
I have experienced many endings in my life. Most of those endings were extremely difficult. I have shared some of them here. But most of these were more personal.
I want to lift up collective endings. Endings that mark a change in leadership. Endings that mark a change in the existence of a community: a church, an important program, or an organization or set of relationships we came to rely on.
We had the great privilege of having Ashley Wilcox come to Guilford College this past semester to share her gift of insight, passion, and theological acumen with us. In her time here, she did a lot of great work, including speaking to my contextual theology class on feminist and narrative theologies, giving a moving public presentation on the nature of recording and the struggle for the Religious Society of Friends to incorporate new – often younger and more marginalized – voices into its framework and she led a workshop for our Quaker Leadership Scholars Program on clearness committees.
However, there was a subtext. Something else I picked up on which is the source of my reflection.
Ashley made it clear through a set of stories in the importance of having a practice of discerning when it is time to lay things down, and the uncommon willingness to even ask the question.
Sometimes the thing in question has come to an end – in this context a church/meeting, a yearly meeting, or institution, but it could be many different things – and sometimes we lay things down in order to allow new possibilities to emerge. We need to let go here, so we can put more energy into something over there.
Ashley shared three stories that emerged as a new block in my thinking around renewal. The part of renewal that requires that we ask if it is time to let something die, or lie fallow for a while. I remember a number of years ago reading about a faith community in San Francisco that decided to have a “jubilee year” on all its committees and so other than a few important meetings to keep the community running they laid everything down for a year so they could come back to it with fresh eyes. When I learned about this, I found it so refreshing that a community could do something so unheard of out of respect for the health of the members and the whole of the community itself.*
The first story Ashley shared was the story of the church she was a member at in Salem, Oregon, called Freedom Friends Church. Friends familiar with my work and interests know that Freedom Friends is a key subject in my research. This past week Freedom Friends discerned that it was time to lay down their ministry as a church and as a part of their final act of discernment they collectively decided where to give all their money away to.
A second story she shared was about discerning to “close the doors” of the Church of Mary Magdalene, a church she co-founded in Atlanta, Georgia and the process that took place to come to that decision. She talked about the impact of that community which was both local and online.
And finally, a third story was centered around a Quaker women’s conference in the Pacific Northwest that meets once every two years. At the end of their weekend conference each year the women gathered there discern one piece of business: whether they should meet again or lay their work down. For 25 years or so, they continue to discern that they want to keep going, but each year they meet, they ask the same question again.
There’s more to these stories, the impact, the sense of loss and grief work that goes along with asking the question, let alone actually doing it, but it seems significant to me that all three of these stories are about women-led organizations that seem to have a different orientation to their work than many that we are accustomed to today. This is not to say that for Freedom Friends or the Church of Mary Magdalene it wasn’t hard work, I’m sure it was, but the fact remains that they leaned into it and did it.
This is very uncommon in the Quaker world.
I think it is uncommon everywhere.
We are so focused on resuscitation after resuscitation. Clinging on to whatever little pieces of security, identity, or the past, at all costs. Ironically, I see the absolute unwillingness and inability to let go and let things change coming from people who in other parts of their lives are demanding change from their institutions. I see meetings hemorrhaging people, money, and other resources, while some continue to bail water out the back of the boat. People afraid of a break, split, a big change, or a whole new thing, while in the midst of the old thing slowly fading away.
Not only does this kind of clinging to make it difficult for the community to move forward and find renewal, but it also keeps new voices from gaining leadership. In each of the instances of above, I see an alternative: what it looks like to allow for trial, experimentation, and leadership to form and be reformed over time.
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”-Neil Young
After hearing these three stories, I’ve been thinking a lot about how Friends can build this discernment of endings better into what we do? I have been thinking about it in my own life as well. Is it time to lay a project, a commitment, even a story I say about myself or others down? What makes it so hard to lay something down and to let it go? Where am I unaware of something that needs to be laid down? Where am I unwilling to enter into this kind of discernment? And what might come from a new level of grace with this thing? What do we keep from happening when we refuse to let go? What kind of help and support might I need to finally discern an ending?
* Another example is Fuller Theological Seminary selling its Pasadena Campus and moving to Pomona, CA. I may be in a minority on this, but when I heard the news I was completely energized by the act of imagination and courage it takes to sell one’s campus and move to a different city. This kind of imagination, courage, and ability to take risk is almost completely unheard of in our educational institutions.