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Meeting Stressors

(c) Lucy Sikes

© Lucy Sikes

Change is the unending expression of the magnificence of life, the cycle of birth, abundance, diminishment, and death that is in every aspect of life. Quaker meetings are not unique in needing to be attentive to change—change in Friends’ lives and in the life of the meeting, as well as in the wider community. How can we learn to embrace change rather than resist and deny it? How can we learn the wisdom lessons of change?

Change can be stressful for communities. How can we create a culture in which longtimers stay engaged and feel valued? How do we support Friends across a wider geographic spread or who might be the only Quaker in their household? I hope to reassure Friends that what they may be experiencing is common.

The dynamics that follow have their roots in change, or in our blindness or resistance to change. They provide the opportunity for self-reflection and growth.

Old wounds or not being Quakerly

We suffer under the notion that to “be Quakerly” means that we should float an inch off the ground, constantly beam lovingly at others, and never know grief, fear, shame, frustration, greed, lust, or hurt. When we do experience human emotions, we often deny them or run away, not wanting to crack the Quakerly façade, afraid our Q card will be revoked.

In particular, addressing our pain and discomfort—conflict—is to be avoided at all costs. It’s so scary when we imagine saying what we really think and feel directly to the person whose actions have hurt us! We end up with festering wounds: resentments and hurts that we carry around for years into business meeting, committee work, meeting for worship, even social gatherings, where they erupt in baffling, indirect ways. Think of the geysers at Yosemite Park—we become scalding jets of steam exploding unpredictably.

Judging others—and ourselves—closes our hearts. So while on the surface we all get along, rather than truly loving one another, we are simply avoiding our truth. Peter Steinke calls this “sloppy agape”; M. Scott Peck calls it false community. We cheat ourselves and each other and the meeting out of the chance to experience radical, transforming love. Our hearts feed on hard, bitter crackers instead of sharing an amazing feast.

Leadership

Leaders are vital in our meetings. We need Friends who take on responsibility for various aspects of the life of the meeting. We need to nurture leaders in our meetings, and cultivate an environment where they feel happy and positive about committing to a leadership role, and where they in turn nurture new leaders.

Lack of leadership can show up as magical thinking: “Maybe next week will be different.” “Maybe she’ll get the point.” “Maybe he’ll stop coming to meeting.”

Meetings can and must encourage leadership that is alive to dynamics in the meeting and is confident about how to address dynamics that threaten to sap the group’s energy. Such leaders sense when someone’s anxiety might hijack the meeting, and they set in motion steps to help that Friend and the meeting navigate those waters.

Meeting as a drain, not a sanctuary

Friends speak about dropping away from meeting because “If I go there I know they’re just going to ask me to do some work, and I’ll feel bad if I say no, so I don’t go.” Friends speak about staying away from meeting “until I get over this bad time I’ve been having. I’ll go back when I feel better. I don’t want people’s questions and pity.” Or they reason, “I know I’ll spend my time in worship just worrying about what’s going on at home, so why bother coming?”

Some Friends yearn to receive vocal ministry from others that deepens and focuses, perhaps an opening message to help settle meeting for worship. Often we count on osmosis rather than active spiritual formation or religious education, and so we lose a sense of identity and mission that could guide us.

Expectations and scorekeeping

We bring a range of expectations to our meeting. Some want a group of like-minded people. Some grew up in a Quaker meeting and bring more nostalgia than spiritual rigor. Such expectations, for ourselves and others, can lead to scorekeeping. Who doesn’t make meeting a priority, and gives just what’s left, not what’s first? Who doesn’t do enough; who does too much; who didn’t show up?

Friends who feel unvalued in meeting often set up camps, perhaps not realizing that the group identified as opposing has set up its own camp of judgment and hurt as well. And so we create duality—us and them—when in fact diversity in our meetings is critical to our corporate health. We understand intellectually that when embraced with grace, diversity provides balance, vitality, and mutual support in our meetings—and yet we often struggle and resist the “other” from the perceived safety of our camp.

Boundaries

Unprogrammed Friends meetings are particularly prone to suffer from abuse, neglect, and good intentions. Untrained people take on others’ personal problems and get overwhelmed and discouraged. Meeting for worship becomes someone’s soapbox. Friends are reluctant to take responsibility for ongoing education about Quaker practice and process. Refugees from other religions try to turn the meeting into the religion they have left. Meetings try to be all things to all people, terrified that someone will leave if they encounter boundaries, limits, or rules. Our identity and purpose get diluted. We watch ourselves wither and feel hopelessness settle in.

Longtimers belong here too

We talk a lot about welcoming newcomers; we also need to look at how we welcome longtime members and attenders as they transition from one phase of life to another and as the meeting changes over time. Friends who have been around the longest carry the institutional memory, which can be both a blessing and a curse, to them and to the meeting. They know how things used to be, who used to be part of meeting and no longer is, what practices and phases the meeting has gone through, all the things that didn’t work, and all the things that were glorious.

Often longtimers settle into a particular niche in the meeting. They experience it as their ministry, their calling. New people coming along may perceive it as claimed turf and feel excluded, and passively register their frustration by staying away. The longtimers start to feel unvalued, which, compiled with other diminishments and changes in their lives, brings a great deal of grief and pain. They question whether they still belong in the meeting, and feel hurt (to put it mildly) when they feel pushed away.

Single-Quaker households

It used to be common for entire families to be engaged in meeting life. Couples would be involved in ministry and witness work together. Increasingly Friends participate in meeting by themselves. Meeting thus becomes a source of tension in their home lives, as Friends feel that they are constantly disappointing someone. In the end, the family and the intimate partner usually win.

Geographic spread

It’s not uncommon for Friends to travel an hour and a half to two hours round trip to and from meeting—in some cases even more. We rarely encounter each other in our home communities, and so we miss opportunities for those casual engagements that can soften our rough edges and help us better understand each other. Due to environmental, scheduling, and other concerns, Friends who travel a distance are unlikely to want to return to the meeting place for midweek events. This means that the meeting schedule often gets packed on Sundays, creating tension with Friends who don’t want to or can’t spend all day at meeting. For those meetings that own their space, the Sunday-only schedule results in a building that stands empty and unused six days a week.

An outdated model

We often flog ourselves for not being more like (we imagine) Friends were in the 1650s. Is there any other aspect of our lives where we wish such an outdated model on ourselves? We exhaust ourselves fretting about getting our modern American peg into a 350-year-old white, agrarian, Christian, English hole. Our spiritual ancestors spent hours each day studying the Bible as a family, were deeply involved in each other’s daily lives, and worshipped together several times a week, including a meeting for worship on Sunday that could last for six or seven hours and that often involved sermons that lasted for hours. And we who spend two or three hours together a week, often with little preparation for worship or shared work, wonder why we’re not the valiant, faithful, and glorious community that we imagine former Quakers were. How can we possibly come up to that standard when we don’t live that life or do that work?

A member of Chatham-Summit (N.J.) Meeting and former clerk of New York Yearly Meeting, Heather M. Cook’s work as a certified professional life coach beautifully marries her faith and gifts to support others in transforming their lives. She loves learning from her children, birding, and being with her beloved.


Posted in: April 2013: Conflict and Eldering, Features

2 Responses to Meeting Stressors

  1. Chad April 8, 2013 at 12:11 am #

    So helpful! It’s like you were reading my mind! I’m sharing this with our Ministry and Oversight committee meeting this week as an icebreaker. Thanks, Heather.

  2. John Thompson May 27, 2016 at 9:34 pm #

    City & State
    Barneveld, NY
    Member of PYM, London Grove MM, living in CNY Upstate, board member of UU Church of 25 attenders. Interesting info, we just had two people who have been involved with building access updates which they took personal control of while one was the President of the board. New board brought changes and conflict with couple who ended up leaving for another church. Now we are dealing with a mother who is fighting for her disabled adult child by striking fear into those of the church. She threatened to call 911 on the kindest long term member who asked her to move the wheelchair because it was blocking the isle. Now we are busy trying to develop Policy for these issues. Looking at what they were both requesting and how the church would have to change, the board would rather loose them as members. The 3 people personalities brought conflict to those they were around. Distance from the church and the limited contact members have besides on Sunday, doesn’t provide the connections which I experienced in London Grove MM growing up. Thanks for sharing the insight.

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