Does Your Meeting Need a Bill of Rights?

About ten years ago, West Richmond (Ind.) Meeting was shattered by a case of sexual harassment, where a respected member of the meeting had made unwelcome approaches to several women over a period of years. Since then, the Catholic Church has been ripped by revelations of sexual abuse and cover-up. A Friends meeting in New York where I had previously been a member, was crippled by a major disagreement over how money was handled. And many people come to Friends with horror stories about church experiences where they were emotionally and spiritually battered.

Faith and Practice doesn’t usually address these issues in a concise, systematic way. There are lots of details on how to run a business meeting, how to transfer membership from one place to another, what words to put in a Quaker marriage certificate, and legal language on how to leave money in your will to the yearly meeting. It’s about as exciting to read as a set of corporate bylaws. What was needed, I became convinced, was open discussion about the climate of expectations and behavior within our meetings.

I arranged to talk with one of our meeting’s adult study groups for several weeks about what they thought would be important areas to cover. I knew that it could easily turn into a series of complaints and "war stories" about bad church experiences, so I insisted that the group focus on positive expectations. What would a good Friends meeting look like? How does a good, healthy, open spiritual fellowship behave?

We covered the main areas where abuse can occur: money, sex, and power. We looked at existing meeting policies, and we didn’t hesitate to suggest new ones. Over several weeks, we grouped our ideas into major categories, and we worked out a rough draft of a Bill of Rights to share with the rest of the meeting. Meeting leaders and Friends who were not part of the discussion group had an opportunity to suggest changes or additions. This broad-based discussion format made sure that everyone in the meeting knew we were looking for a higher standard for our life together.

Different Backgrounds, Different Expectations

Our meeting has a lot of turnover—50 percent of our attenders weren’t here six years ago. Earlham College, Earlham School of Religion, and Bethany Theological Seminary (Church of the Brethren) are located within two blocks of our meetinghouse, so new faculty members and students join us each year. Richmond is also the administrative headquarters for Friends United Meeting, and we enjoy visits from traveling Friends and Quaker mission workers home on furlough or in town for training and orientation. As the economy has changed, we’ve also welcomed many new families who have moved into our area.

All of these people bring different expectations about worship, ministry, stewardship, and how decisions are made. Many of them come from other denominations or have no prior church background. They aren’t always familiar with Quaker traditions. In the past, newcomers were expected to keep quiet and learn what they needed to know by observation and osmosis. In today’s world, it’s more realistic to provide a clear, explicit statement of what to expect.

Bruised by the Past

Churches and—yes—Quaker meetings aren’t always good, fair, or honest. Many people come to our meeting with hurt feelings because they’ve been abused somewhere they’ve previously attended. It may have been a fight or split; it may have been an individual or pastor who browbeat them; it may have been a bad experience with how money was raised or mishandled.

Every religious leader can tell stories of affairs or adultery or sexual harassment that have taken place in the supposedly safe environment of a church or meeting. Many Friends are calling for background checks on First-day school teachers and youth workers—a meeting can easily be a place for molesters to prey on our children.

When people have been badly hurt by a previous experience, it’s important for them to know that it won’t be repeated when they come to our meeting. We don’t just promise to be a safe place, either. Our Bill of Rights gives new people clear expectations and says what kinds of behavior we will not tolerate. It spells out the process our meeting will use when mistakes are made, or when abuse takes place. When people know what to expect, they feel safe.

Spiritual Safety: A Hot Issue

Some speakers soothe; others scold. Soothing isn’t always appropriate—Jeremiah has harsh words for those who say "Peace, peace" when there is no peace. Many Friends meetings have built up a culture of politeness and denial, which makes it impossible for pressing spiritual issues to be addressed.

On the other hand, many speakers who think they’re speaking prophetically are simply scolding. Many people who come to West Richmond have been "burned" by ministers in other places, who tried to build themselves up by putting other people down, or who just seemed angry all the time.

The issue isn’t soothing or scolding, but safety. In a spiritually safe place, people can hear hard words that lead to healing. They know that the truth won’t be exaggerated or understated, but presented clearly, fully, and accurately. The Bible won’t be misquoted or used for proof-texting the speaker’s pet peeves.

A related spiritual safety issue is confidentiality. In a safe place, people can speak fully to a counselor, elder, or clearness committee without fear of their conversation being shared inappropriately. Even in a public setting like meeting for worship, people often need to be able to confess their brokenness without becoming grist for the grapevine or the rumor mill.

West Richmond Meeting is semi-programmed, which may not be a familiar form to all Friends Journal readers. Our worship usually includes a short prepared message, two or three hymns, a children’s message, and 20 to 30 minutes of unprogrammed worship. As in any Friends meeting, this wide-open, unprogrammed time is one of the most exciting parts of worship—but it can also be abused. We wanted to set some clear guidelines for what goes and doesn’t go in open worship.

Goals for a Bill of Rights

We agreed that there are certain minimums—our meeting should have spiritual freedoms, practical safeguards, and standards of behavior. The working group argued whether "rights" was the best term; to some people, it seemed legalistic. But we agreed that these are more than just privileges, and more than guidelines. These are how every person who comes to West Richmond Friends should expect to be treated, at all times.

Most of the points in our Bill of Rights aren’t new. Some are things we had discussed or affirmed in meeting for business years ago. Other things fall into the "of course" category—expectations that are so obvious that people are surprised that we bothered to spell them out. In every case, though, we found someone who said, "Yes, this needs to be said!"

Another gain from our Bill of Rights project is that now we take a comprehensive view of our spiritual standards and practical expectations. Before, we had a piecemeal, haphazard, higgledy-piggledy approach, built up over many years and often based on bitter experience. The weeks of discussion allowed us to make an intentional statement about what kind of a meeting we want to be.

So, Now What?

Many church policy statements wind up in the dead letter file. Once they’re approved, they’re forgotten.

As soon as our meeting’s Bill of Rights was put together, we started sharing it as widely as possible. It went into a special issue of the newsletter. We went over it line by line with our Ministry and Oversight committee, and we made it the focus of the prepared message at meeting one Sunday. It’s in a prominent place on our meeting’s website, and it’s been featured in several ecumenical journals.

Our Bill of Rights is now one of the basic components of our meeting’s membership class. Every new member of our meeting gets a copy, and we discuss it carefully and make sure everyone knows what it means.

Several Friends meetings and churches of other denominations have asked to use it as the basis for their own discussions about safety and accountability.

What About Responsibilities?

One step we’ve talked about is another round of study and discussion, this time centered on responsibilities. Most of the "rights" we’ve talked about suggest corresponding responsibilities—active participation in worship, generous giving, taking part in our meeting’s various ministries. One reason we haven’t pushed on this is that the Bill of Rights spells out the bottom-line issues for us as a group. We haven’t felt we can make our members and attenders decide what they "must" do as individuals.

I encourage you to start these kinds of discussions in your own meeting. They have helped us to get past old hurts, create solid and comprehensive guide-lines for our life together, and let new people know what they can expect at West Richmond Friends.

Joshua Brown

Joshua Brown is a member and serves as a pastoral minister of West Richmond (Ind.) Meeting. He has worked with Friends in New England, New York, and Indiana Yearly Meetings. He builds musical instruments, collects folk songs and gives concerts, and turns wooden bowls. He writes that he has "one wife, two college-age children, and four evangelical cats."