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The Value of the AFSC Corporation
by Douglas Bennett
Each year as we approach the annual meeting of the AFSC Corporation, I hear people wondering whether the Corporation has outlived its usefulness – or indeed whether it ever had one.
Newcomers wonder what the Corporation is for, whether it matters that they attend, and whether, if they do, they will really understand the issues in play. Those with experience of past Corporation meetings have many of the same questions.
I am one who believes the Corporation has immense potential value to AFSC – and also that AFSC has immense value to Quakers in the U.S.
Simply stated: The AFSC Corporation is the way AFSC grounds itself in the worship life of American Quakers. At the same time, AFSC is a radical witness that enriches the faith and practice of Friends.
The existence of the Corporation is a little odd; let’s acknowledge that. Very few not-for-profits have any such structure: a larger Corporation that gathers annually, and a Board of Directors (chosen by and out of the Corporation) that gathers more frequently to direct AFSC’s programs and activities. In formal governance terms, the Corporation simply appoints members of the Board of Directors and makes arrangements to generate nominations for appointments the following year. How can that be enough to justify the effort to gather 150 Friends in Philadelphia each March?
A little history may be helpful. When some Philadelphia Friends urged the founding of a Quaker college in the 1840s, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting couldn’t come to unity on the wisdom of such an undertaking. So a group of Friends organized themselves into a Corporation and set about founding Haverford College. In due course, this Corporation appointed a smaller Board of Managers to direct the affairs of the new college. Haverford ‘s governance still has this structure.
Rufus Jones encountered this governance apparatus when he became a member of the Haverford faculty more than a century ago. When he joined with others to create AFSC, he urged use of the same structure for AFSC. The problem he was trying to solve this time was not the unwillingness of a single yearly meeting, but the lack of an overarching body for the whole of American Friends. U.S. yearly meetings were divided among Hicksite, Orthodox, Evangelical, Conservative (etc.) groupings. The Corporation was to be a gathering ground that asked Friends to lay aside their disagreements and join in common works of service that would do God’s work on earth and also strengthen the faith and practice of Friends.
The Corporation, in short, stands in place of a wider yearly meeting. It is a gathering-in-worship of American Friends that seeks both to vitalize the ongoing work of AFSC and also to vitalize the worshipping communities of Friends.
That history and that conception help us see what we must do to realize the value of the Corporation. We must come from the many tribes of Quakers across the U.S. and gather together in worship. We must come to that worship with sufficient understanding of the accomplishments and challenges of AFSC’s program work, not only to appoint a Board that can carry out its work of oversight, but also to enrich that Board with an understanding of the leadings that arise from the worship life of American Friends. And Corporation members must take back what they learn to their monthly and yearly meetings.
For this to work, everyone has to breathe life into this daring design.
- Yearly meetings across the U.S. and across the theological divides must appoint and support members of the Corporation. Those who become Corporation members must bracket their disagreements with other kinds of Friends.
- The staff must prepare Corporation members with honest (not just positive) appraisals of the work being done by AFSC.
- Corporation members must gather and settle into worship together. They must carry with them the leadings and emergent understandings arising from worship in their home churches, monthly and yearly meetings.
- Board members must look to this worshipping together for deep guidance. They need to pose questions in advance and be ready to listen.
- All must see what arises from this worship together. All must listen together for God’s will. All must carry home, in their heads and their hearts and their souls, what they have learned together.
Out of this worship together the Corporation will appoint Board members. This is the Corporation’s narrow, formal role. But out of this worship together the Corporation will also re-infuse the Board of Directors with understandings that arise from the worship life of Friends, and challenge Corporation members with new understandings gained from reflecting on AFSC’s works.
The AFSC Corporation is the way AFSC grounds itself in the worship life of American Quakers. At the same time, AFSC is a radical witness that enriches the faith and practice of Friends. I will be anticipating the value in both propositions this March 1st and 2nd when we gather at Friends Center in Philadelphia.
About the author: Douglas Bennett is a member of AFSC's Corporation, as well as both the Standing Nominating and AFSC Friends Relations Committees. Doug is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. His scholarly publications include Transnational Corporations Versus the State: the Political Economy of the Mexican Automobile Industry, co-authored with Kenneth Sharpe (Princeton University Press, 1985), and many articles on transnational corporations in developing countries, immigration, and other topics in public policy and in higher education. In the past Doug has served on various of AFSC's advisory committees. He is married to Ellen Trout Bennett, and has two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003). He is a member of First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, part of Indiana Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. You can learn more about Doug at his blog.