I became aware that our meeting wasn’t safe when a friend (I’ll call her Barbara) told me that she spoke to an older woman from meeting. The woman said, “I’d like to come to meeting more often, but I don’t feel safe. John corners me in the parking lot and tries to sell me things.” John isn’t his real name.
Barbara said, “I’ll meet you in the parking lot every Sunday. I’ll walk you to your car after meeting. This is not OK.” After the call, Barbara looked into things and found that John had been trying to get relatively well-to-do widowed and single, older women from meeting to buy expensive, sketchy vitamin supplements and dubious investments, including mining operations on asteroids. Although he had been doing this for years and many people knew about it, no one had done anything.
This didn’t surprise Barbara. Years earlier she’d been struck with Meniere’s disease and suffered from episodes of vertigo and vomiting. In meeting, people asked that Barbara be held in the Light. Soon after, John called her and gave her the hard sell: “These vitamins will cure your problem!” She listened for a while and then blurted out, “Do you even know what’s wrong with me?” He quickly got off the phone and avoided Barbara at meeting. (Although for weeks afterwards, John pestered her husband to buy the vitamins for her.)
Barbara was angry. Unafraid of conflict, she brought this problem to Ministry and Worship Committee and the meeting’s clerk, and they became concerned. This started a months-long process of discernment, during which the committee and the clerk dealt with open conflict in business meeting and the meeting as a whole. Eventually, the meeting decided to expel John.
What Is a Safe Meeting?
We want safe meetings, but what does that mean? In safe meetings people are free from bullying, bigotry, predatory behavior (like John’s), abuse, harassment, racism, and being attacked for their vocal ministry.
Quaker meetings need more psychological safety than ordinary organizations—even more than churches. That’s because we share intimate messages from the Spirit in our worship services. To say, out loud, things that are close to our soul makes us vulnerable, but we need to be able to share these in meetings for worship, business meetings, and clearness committees without fear of being attacked or excluded. If we don’t speak because we don’t feel safe enough to share what the Spirit calls us to say, Quakerism falls apart.
To say, out loud, things that are close to our soul makes us vulnerable, but we need to be able to share these in meetings for worship, business meetings, and clearness committees without fear of being attacked or excluded. If we don’t speak because we don’t feel safe enough to share what the Spirit calls us to say, Quakerism falls apart.
If We Avoid Conflict, We Can’t Confront Behavior That Makes Meetings Unsafe
Why did so many of us stay silent about John? Why did we take years to work together to protect the meeting? Why didn’t we feel safe enough to raise our concerns?
Conflict avoidance is a big reason. It prevents us from confronting people who make a meeting unsafe. And as long as we avoid conflict, the meeting stays unsafe.
My first taste of Quaker conflict avoidance came soon after I began attending meeting. Much like in high school, where I got the message about what clothes to wear even though no one told me directly, in meeting I got the message that conflict was unquakerly and that good Quakers don’t get angry. This impression lingered for years until I organized a Quaker movie night at my monthly meeting, watched a video about George Fox’s life, and saw that he wasn’t afraid of conflict. Sometimes he got really angry. He did things like stand up during a Church of England service and ask the preacher: “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say?”
Learning about Fox made me realize that I didn’t have to suppress emotions like anger or avoid conflict to be a good Quaker. I asked a psychiatrist friend, who has been an active Quaker for decades, if there was much conflict avoidance in Quakerism. She emphatically said there was. She also pointed out the importance of distinguishing between feeling angry, and acting on your anger to hurt someone. Healthy anger, and the response to it, brings people closer together.
Where does Quaker conflict avoidance come from? In Friends Journal, George Lakey said:
It’s very middle-class, professional behavior to mince words, not to tell the truth that’s uncomfortable, and to avoid conflict. . . . Among early Quakers there was real conflict and expression of a range of human emotion.
He says that over time, as the middle class increasingly captured Quaker culture:
we also became reluctant to state hard truths. . . . [E]arly Quakers . . . were willing to call things as they saw them, being chiefly concerned to be faithful to the truth even at considerable cost.
Reluctance to state hard truths isn’t an essential part of Quakerism. It’s just a preference of the middle class—one that can make meetings unsafe.
Although some may see conflict as destructive, our experience shows that a meeting can grow and become healthier if it doesn’t avoid conflict, maintains its integrity, and is willing to set boundaries by confronting behavior that makes the meeting unsafe.
How Can We Encourage People to Confront Behavior That Makes Meetings Unsafe?
First, we can create a climate in meetings that encourages people to raise their safety concerns. In Friends Journal, Herb Lape writes about a committee in his meeting that created this climate. The committee members called everyone in the meeting and asked them how well the meeting was serving their needs. This made it clear that the meeting wanted to know their concerns. These calls also allowed the committee:
to hear first hand the frustrations that some individuals have about individual behavior and messages in our meetings for worship and business. In the past, these folks might have left, figuring that there was no avenue for expressing their concerns or that no one would take action.
But the committee did take action—eldering some people and holding adult education sessions that addressed concerns that were raised. I suspect that if this had happened in my old meeting, people would have raised their concerns about John’s behavior much sooner.
Second, once concerns about safety are raised, a meeting can take steps that range from the empathic to the forceful. If possible, it’s good for the first step to be empathic. One or two people could talk with the person who is making the meeting less safe, try to understand their perspective, and share the meeting’s concerns. This is kinder and more effective than just telling them what to do. After all, we’re all more likely to be persuaded by someone who first genuinely listens to our views. My psychiatrist friend and I took this approach when eldering a member of our meeting, and while it didn’t stop the member’s offending behavior permanently, it did cause it to stop for quite a while.
Herb Lape writes that in his meeting, when this step doesn’t work, the committee’s next step is writing the person a letter that spells out the behavior that needs to change. A third step has committee members commit to speak to the person right away if they see them engaging in the behavior. If the behavior has significant enough consequences and continues (like John’s did), a fourth step may be to expel the person from the meeting. In Friends Journal, Margery Mears Larrabee urges people involved in eldering to be open to strong action. She also suggests that:
any desire to elder be taken to the appropriate standing committee first [as it can offer] clarity and direction [as well as] safeguards against individualism [and] egocentricity.
Unfortunately, we can’t always do this. Sometimes there isn’t enough time.
Third, we can interrupt the behavior by letting the person know that their words or actions won’t be tolerated. Sometimes you need to stop a person right away before they continue bullying, making racist comments, or verbally abusing someone. Committees can’t act in the moment, but individuals can. And each time someone publicly confronts behavior that interferes with meeting safety, it emboldens others to speak up in similar situations.
I received this kind of eldering years ago when I was new to Quakerism. During meeting for worship, another relative newcomer said something in vocal ministry that I strongly disagreed with. After a minute or two, I said something that—while not addressing him directly—did disagree with what he said. A couple of minutes later, he said something that refuted what I had just said. We went back and forth for a while. Then the meeting’s clerk eldered us. He interrupted us by standing up and saying that vocal ministry wasn’t a discussion. Although he didn’t single us out or address us directly, he was clearly talking about me and my unofficial debate partner. I’m glad he interrupted us; we were degrading the quality of meeting for worship and were likely to keep doing so. Also, we were giving people in meeting who were unfamiliar with Quakerism the wrong idea about worship. It’s important that people feel safe enough to give vocal ministry. My slow-motion argument with this guy could have led newcomers to think that if they gave vocal ministry, people would argue with them. In the future, this could scare them off from sharing a message from the Spirit.
Fourth, we can debunk mistaken beliefs that support conflict avoidance, like the idea that good Quakers don’t express the full range of human emotion (including anger), are always loving, and are nice all the time. For me, learning about George Fox broke the myth about anger. Margery Mears Larrabee debunked the continuous niceness myth when she wrote about John Woolman visiting slave owners’ homes. Many of them were his friends, were happy he was their guest, and made him feel welcome. He felt obligated to be nice to his hosts but knew this would interfere with the work the Spirit called him to do: initiating difficult conversations with them about owning slaves. He didn’t feel that he could avoid confronting his hosts about this. He believed that doing God’s work was more important than avoiding conflict.
Fifth, we can become more welcoming to people from a variety of social classes, ethnic groups, racial groups, and other societal groups that have different approaches to conflict.
And finally, we can celebrate eldering and teach people when and how to do it. We can teach this in sessions and workshops at monthly meetings, quarterly meetings, yearly meetings, Quaker retreat centers, and Friends General Conference Gatherings. We can also celebrate and teach eldering through Quaker magazines, newsletters, online discussion groups, online courses, pamphlets, and books. This is essential; people won’t engage in eldering unless they know when and how to do it.
Eldering gives us a way to confront people who make our meetings unsafe and a way to manage this conflict in a spiritual manner. If we don’t provide a spiritual way to do this, what will happen? Without a positive model for confrontation and handling conflict, we’re likely to accept the idea that conflict is inherently destructive and try to suppress it. When conflict finally surfaces, we’re likely to handle it in the only way we can think of—destructively. Either that, or the conflict will be denied or driven underground. And we will avoid issues that we should address. Luckily, though, our tradition of eldering gives us a model for how to confront unacceptable behavior and make our meetings safe.
So what happened to my meeting after John was expelled? Did the conflict over the decision tear the meeting apart and drive people away? No, just the opposite. Many people who hadn’t come to meeting for a long time started attending again. The total number of people who participated in our meeting increased. Although some may see conflict as destructive, our experience shows that a meeting can grow and become healthier if it doesn’t avoid conflict, maintains its integrity, and is willing to set boundaries by confronting behavior that makes the meeting unsafe.