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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 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 me

eting. 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?

 

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 thoughts on “Challenging Conflicts in Our Meeting

  1. Lisa Klopfer says:

    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/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​I​Q​O​7​h​9​M​N​CqI

    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 says:

    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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