Structure

Meetings for Worship

Meetings for Worship are the most important element of the Society of Friends. However, in order to support these Meetings and provide continuity it is necessary to have a framework. The organisational structure of Friends is as simple as possible, and the basics have remained almost unchanged for three centuries.

Friends Organisational Structure - Showing Local, Regional, Provincial and Yearly Meetings in ascending order in a pyramid
Friends Organisational Structure

Members of the Religious Society of Friends are known as ‘Friends’ or ‘Quakers’

Attenders are people who worship and work with Friends, but have not applied for membership.

When Friends or Attenders speak in Meeting for Worship we refer to this as ‘spoken ministry’. In the wider sense, ministry is service of many kinds. Within our Religious Society this can be in caring for one another, in practical tasks such as making tea or cleaning, or in organisational or business tasks such as looking after funds, organising meetings etc.

Meetings for Business

Friends’ decision making happens in a meeting for worship for business. This begins and ends with a period of silent worship. The topic is introduced and then Friends consider it in a manner of waiting on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The outcome is what Friends describe as “the sense (or feeling) of the meeting”.

In “sense of the Meeting”, the Spirit gets a voice. It is a product not of will, but of willingness in which we allow ourselves to be led.

Each Meeting has a Clerk whose role is to introduce the various items for consideration and to record the decisions in the form of minutes. A minute is written to record each item and it is read out and agreement is confirmed before moving on to the next one. The Clerk also looks after the correspondence of the Meeting. Large meetings also have an Assistant Clerk and a Treasurer.

The types of decisions may be:

  • about spiritual matters – a recent example was on the topic of lifestyles and spirituality
  • about tasks we need to do and who will do them (pay the bills, fix the heating, provide the coffee, etc….)
  • about events we will organise e.g. meetings, discussion groups, collections for charities

In Ireland there are 29 local Meetings, 7 Monthly Meetings, 3 Quarterly Meetings and 1 Yearly Meeting.

Preparative Meetings

Local Meetings, known as ‘Preparative Meetings’, hold a monthly business meeting in preparation for the Monthly Meeting, to consider local and wider issues.  Attenders are encouraged to be present and to help with the business.  The Preparative Meeting appoints representatives to the Monthly Meeting, and they report on it on the following Sunday at the end of Meeting for Worship.

Monthly and Quarterly Meetings

Monthly Meetings are made up of several Preparative Meetings and are held according to preset dates. The frequency of these varies in each Monthly Meeting.

There is a Quarterly Meeting of Friends for each of the Provinces of Leinster, Ulster and Munster (Galway is affiliated to the latter).   Quarterly Meetings were formerly held four times a year.  Nowadays Leinster takes place twice yearly, Ulster 3 times and Munster twice.

Ireland Yearly Meeting

Friends from all over Ireland come together annually for Ireland Yearly Meeting which last for four days. Here reports are given and decisions are made, in addition to explicitly spiritual content in the form of talks and interest groups. This takes place in Dublin, Lisburn and Waterford in various years. Special Preparative, Monthly, Quarterly or Yearly Meetings may be held if a particular situation or decision indicates that it is needed.

Quaker Elders

Elders are Friends whose focus is the spiritual life of the Meeting. They are officially responsible for the good order of the Meeting – and they announce the end of the Meeting by shaking hands.  An elder is entitled to ask a speaker to end their spoken ministry – but this is an extremely rare happening.  Elders are appointed by Quarterly Meetings and take charge of weddings and funerals.  They meet regularly to consider the spiritual state of the Meeting and organise occasional seminars to concentrate on matters that arise.

Quaker Overseers

Overseers ensure the pastoral care of the members of the Meeting. Overseers organise care in particular situations. An example would be visiting young Friends and Attenders who are leaving school. Overseers are appointed by Monthly Meetings.

Elders, Overseers and the Clerk of each Preparative Meeting, with co-opted members, meet together regularly. These ‘congregational’ meetings are held to consider the welfare of all members of the meeting and to arrange appropriate actions, such as visiting the sick.

Friends do business through numerous committees. These may be ongoing, may be time-limited or may be for a particular event. Each committee has a Clerk or Convenor – a role which combines chair and secretary.

Committees

Friends and Attenders are proposed for positions and committees by Nominations Committees. If the person approached says he or she would be willing to serve, the Nominations Committee brings the name before the business meeting for consideration. The Appointment must be confirmed by the business meeting.

People must be Members of the Religious Society of Friends before being considered to serve in some positions such as Elders, Overseers, or Clerks of Meetings. Attenders serve, with equal status, together with Members on many of the committees.

Friends Trust (Eire) Ltd.

Most of the property and financial investments, which are in the ownership of Meetings, are legally held by the company Friends Trusts (Eire) Ltd and Ulster Friends Trustees (N.I).  This ensures continuity of legal ownership, while all the decisions and benefits of ownership remain with the meeting.

This article is based on the pamphlet Who does what in Quakers issued by the Elders and Overseers of Dublin Monthly Meeting.  Details of the structure and of the underlying principles are set out in two publications:

The book Organisation and Christian Discipline contains details of agreed procedures at meetings, marriages, funerals and the duties of Elders and Overseers.

Yearly Meeting Minutes contains the Minutes of the annual meeting, together with reports on Quaker  activities throughout Ireland and a list of all national Committees and their members.

CM and BSMH – 2010

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