Our meeting is moderately sized and was founded in the middle of the twentieth century. We’re in a college town, home of a major university and several other colleges. Our meeting attracts many academics and students, and could fairly be labeled middle class. The meeting owns its meetinghouse, and 30 to 50 people attend weekly meeting for worship. In short, it is a typical college town meeting. As such, we presume other meetings deal with many of the issues that we have had to face and are likewise challenged by how to handle internal conflicts. Our reflections are focused on what we feel we’ve learned and what suggestions we’d make to others who ask what we wish we’d known at the beginning.
We frequently felt alone and outside of our comfort level and expertise in dealing with these problems. We recognize that we failed to access many good Quaker practices and Quaker resources that would have helped. Only late in the conflict were we successful in finding advice from Quakers outside our own meeting. One resource that could have helped us is Fostering Vital Friends Meetings Part Two, compiled by Jan Greene and Marty Walton and originally published in 1999. It is available as a downloadable PDF from the Friends General Conference website (fgcquaker.org). This collection of essays, advices, and specific guidelines would have helped us center our attention on the disruptive behavior, and then focus our efforts to act in good Quaker order to ensure the health of our community.
This action opened our meeting to the idea that though we are each a child of God, perhaps some people cannot be part of our meeting community.
Conflict often makes Friends uncomfortable, and we have a tendency to avoid dealing with it directly. Our meeting, however, has some history of facing difficult situations squarely, and growing through the process. Around eight years ago, we needed to educate ourselves about sexual abuse when a father in our meeting was imprisoned for sexual abuse of his child. The abuse occurred while the family was active in our meeting. Although this particular circumstance is probably not common in meetings, in the course of our work, we discovered a number of Friends in our meeting had been sexually abused when younger. We realize that sexual abuse is not rare, just not discussed and thus hidden.
That situation recently came to mind when the father was released from prison and set up residence in our town. We heard through one Friend of an inquiry about his coming to meeting. Due to his ex-wife not wanting to see him, our concerns about his daughter, and legal concerns about his presence among our children, our meeting decided to inform him that he cannot return to our regular meeting activities. This action opened our meeting to the idea that though we are each a child of God, perhaps some people cannot be part of our meeting community.
For many years, our meeting has been confronted with a conflict much more difficult to resolve. One attender—whom we’ll call “Q”—has presented us with many challenges. Q has been a part of our meeting for several decades, moving away and coming back a number of times. Q has had major conflicts with the meeting, as well as with particular Friends in our meeting.
One problem behavior we’ve witnessed over many years is Q’s angry outbursts when the meeting does not support actions he wants the meeting to take or actions of his that he wants the meeting to endorse. These outbursts have even happened in our meetings for business. Over time, we discussed our experiences and identified a number of problematic behaviors: loud, aggressive arguing; bullying; physical threats; and sarcastic remarks about the meeting and individual Friends, which were spread within and beyond the meeting community. These remarks seemed intended to undermine the leadership in the meeting. We have come to recognize that these behaviors amount to verbal abuse.
For many years, the clerks and other Friends in our meeting tried to reason with this Friend, hoping that through discussion we could change his behavior. We set limits and told him what behaviors were permissible. We focused on attempting to encourage Q to appreciate the damage that we saw being done, accept his part in that dynamic, and agree to change his behavior. Because these behaviors have taken place over many years, many different clerks and committee members have undertaken these efforts. In retrospect, we would have been wiser to have a committee, such as our Care and Nurture Committee, assume this role of eldering. This would have fostered continuity of action and eliminated any appearance that the conflict was between individuals.
In hindsight, we realize that there are practices that would have assisted us in identifying problem behavior: we might have recorded a history of our effort to resolve the conflicts.
The conflict with Q came to a head after his last angry outburst in a meeting for business. It became clear that his behavior was causing distress to a number of Friends in our meeting. Many Friends reported that they were afraid of his anger, feeling unease each time he entered our meetinghouse or attended one of our activities. Some even stopped coming to our activities because of their fear.
We began to look at the meeting’s responsibility to maintain a safe space for its members. We sought counsel and advice from the wider Quaker world, and we began to realize that beyond the ideal of keeping our doors open to anyone is the need to maintain a safe space for all to grow spiritually and socially. We did not feel comfortable with disownment or shunning, and many Friends in our meeting expressed this sentiment. Many others expressed that Q had so verbally abused and threatened them that they questioned whether they could continue their relationship with the meeting. Many Friends said that one effect of Q’s behavior was a diminishment of the quality of worship. We gained clarity that elders in the meeting (whomever they might be) were responsible for protecting the quality of worship in the meeting.
After a number of specially called threshing sessions and meetings for business, Friends approved a policy of asking Q not to attend any of our activities for two years. If there were to be a wider Quaker event at our meetinghouse in this period (for example, a quarterly meeting), we required an accompanying elder to be with Q, in order to ensure that damaging behavior was immediately addressed. We sent letters explaining this policy to the clerks of other meetings in our state, our quarterly and yearly meetings, and the meeting in which Q has his membership. We did this because we also felt responsible for the silence that had surrounded Q’s bad behavior. In fact, we realized we would like to see some accountability system set up to help Q remain true to Friends testimonies and practices, including that of traveling among Friends.
A small number of Friends in our meeting were also not happy with the policy we approved, though they did not stand in the way of our approving it. We have found that Friends who have not experienced Q’s abusive behavior find it hard to understand the necessity of taking such a seemingly drastic measure.
In hindsight, we realize that there are practices that would have assisted us in identifying problem behavior: we might have recorded a history of our effort to resolve the conflicts. The Gospel Order Sub-committee of New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM) contributed a section in Fostering Vital Friends Meetings Part Two called “Setting Limits: A Checklist of Questionable Behaviors in Meeting.” It contains a checklist to identify unhealthy behavior in meeting for worship, fellowship, Quaker process, meeting for business in worship, and the testimonies. Had our labors with Friend Q focused on this checklist, we might have realized that our goal needed to be beyond preventing hurt feelings to caring for our community’s spiritual fellowship and growth.
Additionally, we would have been well served had we early on followed the steps laid out in the section titled “Signals and Actions: A Sequence of Signals and Actions to Consider to Restore Order in the Meeting,” by the same NYYM committee. Keeping a written log of the labors that many Friends undertook over the years and following this suggested sequence would have removed complications arising from personalities. We would have seen earlier that Q was unable to control his disruptive behavior and that our effort to convince him that change was needed would not be successful.
Difficult conflicts like ours with Q are rare but do happen among Friends. For many years, we had no guidance on dealing with the extreme behaviors Q exhibited. We kept hoping that we could labor with him and come to an understanding with him, and he would modify his behavior.
In light of the two instances of conflict outlined in this article, we offer several queries for Friends to consider:
- Even though there is God in everyone, are there situations when a person is not able to be a part of the beloved community of a monthly meeting?
- What about people who have committed sexual abuse? Under what circumstances might we open our meetings to convicted sexual abusers?
- As we look at abusive behaviors like bullying, threats, undermining, sarcasm, etc., how can we prevent the full-blown conflict that results in exclusion?