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Challenging Conflicts in Our Meeting

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🔒

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This article was written by four longtime members of a Midwestern monthly meeting. The authors have chosen not to identify themselves or their meeting in order to maintain confidentiality.

Editors’ Note: Friends Journal publishes anonymous articles only in rare cases. We have confirmed the basic outlines of this case.


Posted in: Conflict and Controversy, Features

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2 Responses to Challenging Conflicts in Our Meeting

  1. Lisa Klopfer December 23, 2017 at 7:04 pm #

    City & State
    Ann Arbor, MI
    Two elements stood out in my reading of this essay. First, I noted a refrain of confusion about the difficulty in identifying what was happening. Second, there was regret and uncertainty about courses of action. These are both familiar to me, and probably familiar to anyone who has encountered difficultly with people in any circle, including political or social groups, work, or family. I recall the confusion and dismay in my own family when a young person for whom we were responsible began expressing defiance, and eventually shifted into an alternative reality that we could not share. In our meeting over the years we have also had difficult experiences (some of which I only know by hearsay) of members making unfounded accusations; making threats; stealing; and generating distressing scenes. In most of those situations there was confusion about what was happening and uncertainty about who should do what.

    What seems key to me in all these situations is that we do not shrink from describing exactly what is going on. I want to emphasize the word “describe.” It does not help to jump quickly to evaluation or explanation. Evaluation and explanation, even when completely correct, keeps the problem (and the person) at an intellectual level. In our meetings, as we strive to realize a beloved community, it is compassion, not intellectual understanding, that connects us. Above all, I have learned to move toward the problem, and to move toward it with curiosity and an open mind, abstaining from assumptions about motive or cause.

    So, first describe, and then move closer, but with compassion. For example, consider a middle-aged man who regularly chooses to sit very close to a young female newcomer, converses with her exclusively after worship. We could evaluate this behavior as “creepy,” or explain it away as, “X is just clueless,” but X may evaluate or explain the behavior differently (not to mention the young newcomer, who should also be met with and heard from), and our thinking about it doesn’t really change anything anyway. It certainly doesn’t help to pull X aside and ask him not to be creepy, because he will likely not agree with that evaluation to begin with. Instead, it is more helpful to describe in painful detail the literal behavior (‘for the last three Sundays you walked past empty benches and sat next to Y with only a few inches between you”) and make an explicit request (“starting next Sunday, please sit next to one of the adult men”). It is important to do this intervention with the understanding that most likely X is behaving in this way without an intent to be “creepy,” and most likely there is a part of X that is also unhappy with the outcomes of his behavior. If Ministry & Nurture meets with him, it is likely that compassionate inquiry into his need for companionship will help draw him back into the community (in a way that keeps others safe from discomfort) faster than judging or shunning ever would. Move toward the problem, but with compassion for the as yet unknown motives!

    In emphasizing the importance of describing (I think of it as like a biologist observing animals, when motivations cannot be assessed), I am influenced by the Nonviolent Communication (NVC) community, and highly recommend it to Friends. This sweet little video gives an example of applying NVC principles to children expressing defiance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQO7h9MNCqI

    When a Friend seems to be devolving into patterns that we might associate with mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, dementia or paranoia, it is even more important to stay with description and avoid jumping to conclusions. This is because the conclusion might be wrong, but also because it rarely helps a person to be offered a diagnosis in place of compassion. Imagine an elderly member who has recently displayed uncharacteristic outbursts of disproportionate rage. Asking him to go to a doctor for dementia tests would weaken his trust in the community and likely not improve his behavior. Describing his behavior with concern but without judgment or diagnosis invites him to share more about what might be troubling him, and to start discerning next steps, if any. Move toward the problem, but with compassion!

    Another reason I emphasize describing behavior without attributing cause is to check our tendency to maintain a smooth but false veneer. Sometimes our impulse to control disruption is not in the interest of the spiritual community. Behavior we label as rude or offensive might turn out to be a needed intervention in a meeting that is spiritually dead and covering it up with a gingham tablecloth of niceness. Think how a child pointing out dysfunction in a family can end up being blamed as the problem. Consider how people have pointed out uncomfortable realities of cliques, of self-proclaimed leaders, of unchallenged male privilege, of the privilege of wealth, elitism, unspoken barriers to people of color, etc. – such disruptions, even if uncomfortable, need to be heard. Recently in a little group of Friends I know, the behavior of small children during meeting for worship was raised. Was this “disruptive” behavior demanding discipline, or was it a valid challenge to convention or what 17th century Friends would call “forms”? To me, no matter how the question was answered, I wanted it to be considered as an open-ended spiritual enquiry and not automatically as a matter of discipline. In many situations that appear at first to be problems or disruptions, if we approach with curiosity and keep an open mind, there is a universe of possibility.

  2. Joyce Hopkins January 3, 2018 at 1:39 pm #

    City & State
    Chicago, Illinois
    Thank you, Lisa Klopher for your well considered reply. Let me add this, though rather obvious, disruptive behaviors at Friends meetings are exacerbated by the way those attending the meeting choose to react. Those reactions cause harm to all, Yes, being direct saves everyone heartache.

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