Uncertainty ahead of seminal Friends meeting
With the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends (NWYM) still in the early stages of splitting into two denominations over differing views on human sexuality, the annual summer gathering of Evangelical Friends churches at George Fox University next week promises to be unlike any in the regional group's history.
That's certainly true in terms of logistics, as both the current and newly forming yearly meetings will hold parallel but separate business sessions to address the restructuring.
But in other ways, the hope is that the social and spiritual components of the five-day event, which begins Monday, will remain as unchanged and unified as possible.
"We are opening up opportunities for more fellowship, social times, to build relationships," NWYM interim superintendent Retha McCutchen said. "I don't think our sessions are going to look particularly different than they have in the past, except they'll be divided. Two groups will be doing what they do and all of the meal things will be together."
While there won't be the usual guest speakers at evening worship sessions, they will not be divided. That choice was made as part of an effort to foster a conciliatory and receptive atmosphere amid a time of turbulent and painful change that has resulted in a wide range of emotions for entire congregations and individuals alike.
Correspondingly, Newberg's four NWYM meeting churches find themselves spread out along a wide spectrum when it comes to their reaction to the schism, how they are addressing their options moving forward and how far along in that process they are just six months after the denomination's administrative council announced the split.
At one end, Newberg Friends Church, arguably the NWYM's flagship, is a bit emblematic of the denomination as a whole in that it is headed for an internal split itself, yet so much is yet to be decided.
A group of NFC leaders and members have already made their intentions to split known and taken preliminary steps to plan for what is being referred to as the Newberg Emerging Friends Church (NEFC) after the NFC opted to remain in the NWYM, but simultaneously, that so much is still to be decided both at the local and denominational levels.
On the other end, 2nd Street Community Church, itself an offshoot (although not contentiously) of NFC has not yet begun addressing the split.
"Right now we're just trying to be who we are and we just don't think that's the most important question to ask right now," Bruce Steffensen said. "We just feel like serving Christ in the community and figuring out how to give each other space to work through things together rather than feeling like we have to make a decision that could be very divisive. There are a lot of high feelings about it everywhere and sometimes that's not the best time to talk about something."
According to Pastor Leslie Murray, North Valley Friends Church is still evaluating the situation not only because of the uncertainty of the overall landscape, but due to concerns about the how the decision to split itself was made.
North Valley met on July 12 to discuss approving a statement expressing both dissatisfaction with the decision, as well as to add that the community is experiencing grief and sadness as a result.
"We believe that the process used to make the decision may have been flawed and was not representative of our commonly held values regarding Quaker decision-making," the statement reads. "We realize that it has been stated that there will be no reversal of the decision. However, we desire to inform you and other churches historically a part of Northwest Yearly Meeting of our deep concern with the process and decision."
West Chehalem Friends Church Pastor Paul Almquist said that his congregation is leaning toward remaining in the NWYM, but is still quite far away from making a final decision.
He points out that each congregation is not only dealing with strong emotions stirred by the threat of changing or severing of long-held and deeply formed relationships within the NWYM, but that even if more clarity is gained at the upcoming summer meetings, an additional year has been laid out for the churches and denominations to decide the specifics of the restructuring.
Despite the challenges involved, Almquist also expressed what seems to be a widely held desire for the process to be undertaken in the proper spirit of mutual respect and regard both at the upcoming sessions at George Fox and moving forward locally, as Newberg is unique in that it already features several congregations, not the usual one for towns of its size.
"We are trying to walk through this season with grace and dignity," Almquist wrote in an email. "We hope that every congregation will be able to have health and wholeness and will be blessed as well as to continue to bless the communities in which they are placed. Newberg is an example of a city that would not be nearly the great place it is without the historical impact of Friends and other wonderful denominations present."
In an attempt to set the stage for a similarly positive overall atmosphere at the meetings, the NWYM launched a photographic storytelling campaign earlier this year. The project encourages people to tell their answer at the prompt "Because of the Northwest Yearly Meeting I …" on a card, then submit a photo of themselves holding it.
"We're collecting them ahead and are doing power points to flash at different times," McCutchen said. "And we'll probably post them on the wall for people to read who want to."
McCutchen, who is leading the NWYM transition team that is overseeing the restructuring, said that while they won't release any information on the decisions it's making until its work is complete, added that the new yearly meeting's interim council is expected to elect officers at this year's sessions.
She added that the transition team has done well so far to lead by example when it comes to how it's approached the plethora of difficult choices it has already faced.
"It's really been cooperative and congenial and a lot of good, hard work being done," McCutchen said.