Years ago a Friend told the story of an order of Catholic nuns who lived by the discipline that if all copies of their Rule Book (the equivalent of our Faith and Practice) were lost or burned, it could be rewritten by observing their lives and how they were in community with each other. That anecdote led me to ponder what would happen if a stranger came into a Friends meeting and had no knowledge of the core beliefs of Friends other than by what could be observed. What would the person conclude Quakerism is?
I particularly wonder what the stranger’s reflections would be regarding how we deal with conflict. Our Peace Testimony is one of the most precious dimensions of our faith; our invitation to the world is to join us in the transforming power of knowing that there are alternatives to violence and domination when we stop defining others as "our enemies." Do we, in our meetings, testify through our actions to this assertion?
Surely, in many meetings the stranger would discern that Friends do not favor war and would observe actions such as attending vigils, writing to members of Congress, and withholding the payment of war taxes. In many ways we do carry the message of our Testimony on Peace to the wider world. But what might the stranger observe about the care and nurture of that special seed within our meeting community? To be the possessor of a precious gift carries with it a special responsibility of stewardship. Our Peace Testimony is not a priceless vase to be kept protected on a high shelf lest it become chipped or scratched. It has authenticity only when it is taken down, used, and tested. And it is important not only that our testimony be tested in our day-to-day lives, but also that we, the possessors of that gift, become experienced in the practice of it. To the extent that we carry our message to the world but do not nurture it actively in the life of our meeting community, we are audacious at best and hypocritical at worst.
I am sad to say that my experience teaches me that we have a wide gap between what we preach and what we practice when it comes to engaging and transforming the conflicts that arise in our meetings. And why is this? To the extent that we do fail to practice what we preach, is it due to our fear of conflict? Is it due to our lives increasingly being overtaken by the wider culture within which we live, thus leaving our faith to be one more thing we fit into a busy schedule rather than being the thing around which we organize our lives? Or, might it be due to our failure to recognize that some of the things we do to each other in community, indeed some of the things we do to avoid conflict, are essentially violent?
Conflict comes unbidden, not only into our day to day lives, but into our life in community. Thus, the issue is not how to "avoid conflict," but rather, when it comes, how to engage it holistically, seeking a Spirit-filled resolution. Some more common opportunities to engage conflict include: 1) issues on which people have differing, deeply held views, such as the response to 9/11, same gender relationships/marriage, and/or what we teach our young people in First-day school, and what our expectations are of young people in worship; 2) decisions about the use of resources, human or financial, within the meeting, such as the level of support for a school under the care of the meeting or whether to undertake a building project; 3) how to relate to persons in the meeting who have very formed opinions; and 4) the entry or possible entry of a person into the community who is seen to be a threat to the safety of others.
Unfortunately, when unbidden conflicts arise, we too often slip into behavior which is the antithesis of what our faith teaches. In some meetings, skills in avoiding conflict have been honed to a fine point of perfection. In meetings for which conflict avoidance is a part of their pattern we may notice things such as vague minutes that obscure non-decision. Silence in the meetinghouse is sometimes made up for by "parking lot meetings," in which Friends collar their friends and express the views withheld inside—though seldom do such conversations cross lines of difference. Another way in which conflict is avoided, perhaps unconsciously, is by making statements which imply that all Friends in the meeting are of a similar persuasion—all are Democrats (or Republicans), all are opposed to the war in Iraq, all are Christians (or Universalists), etc. The effect of such generalizations is that it makes it very risky to be "other."
Another example of lost opportunities for creative engagement occurs when a given person’s behavior is seen to be unhelpful to the life of the community. Often an inordinate amount of the community’s energy is put into changing that person—an effort likely doomed to failure. That misdirection of energy, however, can keep the meeting from focusing on issues more at the heart of its life together. In some instances the misdirected focus succeeds in keeping all conflict, except that caused by the "troublemaker," at arm’s length. A final example is that which arises when misunderstanding of Friends’ decision-making process leads meetings to grant a de-facto veto power to each person present, thus causing an item involving a point of difference to be stopped dead in the water by one person’s declaration that s/he won’t consider moving forward in a given way.
Even if we were not under the special weight of having our meeting communities exemplify our Peace Testimony, I believe we should be deeply disturbed as Friends by the price we are paying for often not dealing more effectively with conflict when it arises. In my experience, the costs include: 1) a lack of intimacy in many of our meetings when the fear of encountering difference precludes deep sharing; 2) people being hurt, angered, or discouraged when initiatives are blocked by differences or a lack of trust; or 3) the silent exiting of people because of disillusionment.
The good news is that many meetings are increasingly aware of their need to engage the conflict that is inherent to the life of any healthy meeting. Lloyd Lee Wilson, in Essays on The Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, writes, "Meeting becomes a divine Potter’s wheel, where we are shaped into the form which as yet exists only in the mind of God. . . . Meeting is not a place of shelter from the world so much as a place where we are shaped in order to become God’s instrument in the world."
What are some of the ways in which we see that deeper shaping and molding manifest in the life of a meeting?
A strong and resilient meeting has a clear sense of itself as a community and not just a place to which a wide variety of persons come for their individual fulfillment. This includes a shared sense that there is a common endeavor to which one is giving energy and commitment. In a strong meeting, people come with an awareness of the need for their contribution to the common effort. Most meetings have not gone through the work of articulating who the meeting is, as a community. There is strong value, I believe, in answering questions such as: What is the glue that holds us together? What does it mean to be a Friends meeting? How are we different from a church down the street, or the local antiwar coalition? What are our expectations of each other for sharing the work of the meeting, and in regard to how we will deal with differences when they arise? What does it mean to be a member of the meeting?
Opening conversation on some of these questions may be scary since it will bring into the open that we have a range of views on these matters. Can we take the risk of opening ourselves to hearing each other, and trust that if we listen deeply the Spirit will guide us to a place of understanding—a very basic tenet of our faith? For meetings that have undertaken such conversations in a Spirit-led way, the rewards have been rich. Not doing so can mean moving along for a good period of time without any overt conflict, but that tranquility can hide a ticking time bomb.
For example, two people may be asked to undertake a clearness for membership and find themselves dealing with an applicant who describes his/her faith journey and beliefs in ways which are likely to clash with those of some current members. Without resolving this, they bring a recommendation finding the person clear (or not clear) for membership. At monthly meeting either of two things could occur: 1) people will remain silent though not in agreement, thus adding one more thing to the pile of festering hurts, or 2) some will speak up, making it clear that the committee’s assumptions are not shared, leaving the meeting with a choice between going deeper or continuing to avoid dealing with underlying issues.
Meetings that have a strength and resilience in engaging conflict in a Spirit-led way are likely to be ones in which people active in the life of the meeting have developed relationships with each other that extend beyond Sunday worship and/or committee service. This can come about in any number of ways that are natural to the life of the meeting: meeting work days, intergenerational service projects, book discussion groups, potluck lunches or dinners etc. Such opportunities help us to know each other more fully, and, ideally, they lead to a natural, non-threatening sharing around points of difference. These relationships help to build a more solid foundation by which the community can be well served when it hits a rough patch.
Meetings can be helped in dealing creatively with conflict by having the vision to recognize a potentially divisive issue when it first appears on the horizon—and then planning accordingly. This lesson was taught compellingly in an experience in my own meeting, nearly 40 years ago. We owned two meetinghouses, and through an arduous process we determined that one would be sold. At the business meeting in which the decision was made and a tidy sum, $700,000, was received, Henry Cadbury said, following the decision, "This money will be the ruin of this meeting." The meeting took that warning very seriously, and though it would be several months to a year until the money came into our hands, a Proceeds Committee was immediately established. It had a clear charge of bringing a recommendation to monthly meeting regarding the right use of the money, and it was deliberately constituted with people who held a wide range of views on how the proceeds should be handled. The Proceeds Committee met regularly and wrestled mightily in seeking unity among its members.
It also organized a series of small group meetings, to give everyone involved in the meeting a similar opportunity. These were held in peoples’ homes, and again they were deliberately constituted to bring together a range of views.
Remember the Common Ground
The small group of which I was a part offered another lesson. Before starting the discussion one of our wiser members observed, "We’re about to start talking about our different views on the right use of the $700,000. I suggest that before we do that we start by sharing on what we feel we hold in common as Friends and as members of the meeting." We always need to be called back to that place. Who are we? What binds us together? When the report of the Proceeds Committee was brought to monthly meeting after a 12-month process, its report was thoughtfully reflected on by the meeting, some questions were posed for the Committee to speak to, and after less than 45 minutes it was given a firm approval.
Participation from the Beginning in a Challenging Discussion
It was several years later that I learned another very valuable lesson. This relates to a situation many of us have encountered: persons holding a strong opinion pro or con show up at the 11th hour when a difficult decision is being made and want their view to be given full weight, though it is absent the benefit of all reflections that have gone before. The lesson is simply this: at the front end of a process undertaken to deal with a challenging issue, all who are active in the life of the meeting should be reminded of the responsibility to take part in the process from the beginning in a spirit of openness, allowing ourselves to be changed. If we forego that aspect of the decision making, in the absence of a good reason for having done so, then we forgo the privilege of having a strong voice in the decision to be made.
A meeting does not always have the foresight, or indeed the luxury, of seeing a challenging issue coming at it. Nevertheless, there are certain matters that we can predict will be major challenges for most meetings. These issues warrant a holistic process for sharing information, gathering questions and concerns, and building toward a unity. These include, for example: building projects; the meeting’s coming into a significant unrestricted sum of money; the undertaking of a major new project such as opening a school under the care of the meeting; or addressing an issue such as same gender marriage, and whether such should be taken under the care of the meeting.
Some meetings that are trying to deepen their capacity to deal with conflict have recognized that they are hampered in that effort because of festering wounds or unhealed hurts from earlier situations. Usually this is not overt; nevertheless, it can have a corrosive effect. The choice made by some meetings facing this challenge has been to acknowledge that there is an elephant in the middle of the room, so to speak, and to then begin healing. The process will vary according to the circumstances and the meeting undertaking it. There are, however, certain key elements. These include recognition that there is seldom a way to undo what has been done. We need to listen deeply to the hurt and anger that is the residue of the past, and to understand the experience from the perspective of each of the parties. But we also need, I believe, to avoid the trap of debating perceptions from the past. Recognizing that the emotion is real, but the act causing it cannot be undone, the question then becomes: what can we do now, in this present time, to enable the parties to lay down the emotions being carried and to begin to rebuild trust?
Another key question is: What can we learn from what has happened that will help us avoid getting into a similar situation in the future? Would it make a difference if we had clarity on how to handle conflict in the moment it arises? Would clearer committee processes and ways of making decisions help? What created our vulnerability in this past situation, and what can we do to make ourselves stronger as a meeting?
Tending the Roots
Finally, in our effort to be faithful in our witness to our Peace Testimony in the life of the meeting, the essential challenge is to remain grounded in our faith and what it teaches us. Sandra Cronk put it simply and clearly when she said, "In a world which desires the fruit but does not understand the root of the Peace Testimony, we who would live this witness must take care not to succumb to the notion that the fruit can exist independent of the root." A.J. Muste said essentially the same thing in different words, "There is no way to peace; peace is the way." We may stumble in our effort, but the power of our witness and the authenticity of our testimony are made real in our effort to let our own lives speak.