This is the first post in a 3-part series by Karl Gibbs. In this first post, he focuses on thinking about why Quakers exist.

People are naturally cynical. It is a part of our survival mechanism, and we need to honour this and tell our stories with honesty. We also need to bear in mind that a little structure can make this compelling. We want to bring the listener to an understanding of the Quaker Way which truly opens it up as a possibility for them to try. That’s the best we can hope for. For me, this defines outreach.

There are a few different aspects of this that I will expand on in this 3-part series. I come at this from communications expertise gained from NLP training and MBA training. Additionally, I’ve spent 13 years working with and for Friends in the Central Offices of Britain Yearly Meeting. I hope some of these thoughts will serve as stepping stones to your understanding of outreach. Hopefully, we can have a conversation so my thoughts can continue developing too.

I come from a liberal tradition, so some of what I say may not chime as well for programmed meetings.

The elephant in the room: Why do Quakers exist?

When did you last buy something without knowing what it should do for you? I am guessing rarely if ever. So we need to find a way of saying what the Quaker way is. In my experience, we shy away from this topic. Instead, we talk about the type of people Quakers are (more on that in the next article) and the type of things that we are interested in. Yet, we say nothing about why the movement/organisation exists.

My interests and concerns can nearly always be more efficiently and probably more effectively pursued through organisations that are set up specifically to deal with those concerns. Thus, it is difficult to build a case on people being interested in the Quaker way as a (poor) way of achieving their social goals. And yet we shy away from talking about the core of what we actually are for fear of not having the right language or that in talking about what we believe we will insult other Quakers who have different beliefs or will then find ourselves saying “But when I say ‘…’ I don’t mean it in the way you probably think I mean it”. No wonder we shy away from having those discussions!

So what we need is a plain-speaking way of sharing the heart of who we are.

I believe there is a route through this which should liberate us as individuals to tell our stories.

What we believe vs. how we believe

Firstly, I can point, in my own meeting, to a wide variety of beliefs, from atheism, eastern traditions to pantheism and those whose main inspiration is the stories of Jesus of Nazareth. This tells me that what we share is not our beliefs but our approach to belief. Don’t be afraid of this! If we handle it properly, this should be a great source of strength. It is what enables us, through listening to diverse approaches to life and the spiritual journey, to live both adventurously and authentically.

There is a great TED talk by Simon Sinek where he explains the route to success for companies. He says they must differentiate themselves by talking about their values, why they exist, and how they go about their business. You really want to put the big bits in first. What could be better for a group that is so values-based? And yet why do Quakers exist? If that is a bit difficult, think of it the other way round. What would the world lose if Quakers did not exist?

We ran this exercise in my Area Meeting. We suggested that Friends should if the opportunity presents itself, be ready to say:

‘Quakers give space to explore your deepest values and how to live them.’

So that is ‘why’ taken care of. If there is any interest and let’s face it, it is quite a bold aspiration, be ready with the ‘How’:

‘We come together to find a sense of shared stillness in which each can listen for the deeper truths both for themselves and those around them. Sometimes someone may feel moved to speak but mostly it will be silent’

If your listener hears nothing else they will have a good ‘broad-brush’ idea of who we are.

If they are interested to hear more, you will be starting from quite a deep level when can tell your story without needing to backtrack.

Let your life speak

Personally I think your life should speak, and I think your mouth should too. You will not have served your fellow man well if you deny them access to what could be the most liberating and spiritually intimate experience of their lives. And that, all because you hid your Quakerism under a bushel while you did good. No need to shout about it but be prepared to quietly share your spiritual journey.

Have a couple of stock lines prepared, either these or your own. Wear a badge which clearly says you are a Quaker, and see what happens!

Karl Gibbs is a British Friend who has worked for Britain Yearly Meeting, in the Central Offices. His educational background includes Natural Language Processing and a Masters in Business Administration.