Safe Meetings Don’t Avoid Conflict

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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. 

Donald W. McCormick

Donald W. McCormick is a member of Grass Valley Meeting, which is in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. He has long been interested in conflict in organizations. He received an award from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management for his research on gender and racial conflict at the National Institutes of Health. Contact: donmccormick2@gmail.com.

13 thoughts on “Safe Meetings Don’t Avoid Conflict

  1. Thank you for this article. I have recently left the Quaker world, after a number of cliquey, unaddressed behaviors by Quaker organizations and committee and meeting clerks over the past few years I’ve tried to be a part of it. These behaviors have shocked me, based on the values Quakers claim to practice.

    Some of the worst behaviors were being told that, at age 40 and a newer member, I was deemed “not seasoned enough” to be on the Care and Visiting committee in my meeting, because ageism and tenure reigned supreme in that meeting, apparently.

    Also I was told that I “wasn’t needed” as a volunteer at a Quaker retirement community, and apparently not wanted there either, and that my hopes to simply bake cookies for some people there last year when I was extremely isolated were considered by at least one long-term Quaker to be “inappropriate and odd.”

    I tried to bring all of this up with many people, first privately and then more publicly, multiple times, and only received avoidance or silence from everyone. Or veiled avoidance, like “don’t take it personally,” or “just join another committee.” Who cared if my gifts weren’t suited for other committees??

    Yet, someone privately called the committee clerk mentioned above and complained about my “inappropriate” behavior of trying to raise my deep hurt and concerns. That clerk then called me to talk, and he said that he never had even read a private email I had sent him about my hurt feelings months prior, because apparently to him the email appeared to be “too long.”

    So after all that heartbreak, avoidance, and silence, I have left the Quaker world and will practice my Quaker values alone in the larger world.

    Also, just FYI, even the term “eldering” is an ageist term, in case anyone cares. It indirectly implies that only older or “tenured” members or people in Quaker meetings or communities can or should be allowed to call someone out for hurtful behavior.

    You all need a new term, that is, if you have any desire whatsoever to be “eldered” by younger and newer people who actually want to practice George Fox’s values. Or if you have any desire to see your tradition continue.

    Because many in my generation are getting ignored and dismissed so much in these ways, and we are leaving the official Quaker world as fast as we try to enter it. We know our worth, and we know how much “seasoning” we have to offer a community, even if we are younger or newer. When we actually feel wanted, heard, and *truly* included, we *may* decide to return…..

    Good luck!

    1. I have also left my Quaker meeting after 28 years for very similar reasons. Over the years we replaced God with good works as the center of our worship. We have become Pharisees, with materialism our central concern.

  2. It’s disturbing to hear about the way you were treated. Nationally, we are trying to make our meetings more welcoming and the behavior you described is really unwelcoming. Although I don’t have experience with a lot of different meetings, and no experience with any meetings back East except Pendle Hill’s, I don’t get the impression that this kind of behavior is widespread. If you ever give us Quakers a second chance, be sure to try a different meeting.

    I think the point you make about the term “Eldering” is a good one.

    1. Thanks, Donald. And sadly, this behavior is actually more widespread than you might realize.

      There was a session from, I believe, PYM that I attended online last summer. There were about 35 others there, mostly in the left-out age demographic of between 30 and 65. There were many similar sentiments and experiences shared.

      We “younger” (under-65) adults have been trying to get through in multiple ways. Over two years ago, I had an article published in the Friends Journal, called, “Wanted: A Network of Soul Connection.” Obviously no action was taken after that one.

      And there have been a few other articles by younger people in the Quaker world regarding these topics also. One, I believe, was just in the last couple of months, detailing what younger people desire to feel included in Quaker meetings and organizations. Nine other people in my generation worked on that article. And there was another one written by someone else last October, I believe.

      We have been trying so hard to be heard. But your article is very on point in saying that because Quakers avoid conflict so much, there has only been silence, avoidance, or dismissal of us, to the point where we just give up and leave.

      Our energies are better spent in healthier environments where people actually listen to us, consider our viewpoints, and work to find ways to more fully include us and see and appreciate our value. For a group that’s so desperate for “young people,” you’d think they would care a lot more about treating us better.

      The first Quaker meeting I attended for over a year (before the one I mentioned above) didn’t even have a regular weekly social hour (pre-Covid). It took them over a year to listen to my suggestion enough to start one, since I was the only new person there who didn’t know everyone else like they all knew each other.

      They started a *monthly* one, which went so well. And then the next month they moved it to a person’s house, without telling everyone except for sign-up sheets in the meeting which I had missed, as I’d been away. So I came to meeting that morning, only to be told that virtually everyone else was at that person’s house that morning.

      And then, later, they dared to ask me why I didn’t join their new Friendly Eights group when I complained (still) about feeling left out and not knowing people more deeply.

      This, after I had also suggested *that* idea over a year prior, and everyone just brushed that off, saying there probably wouldn’t be the interest for that group.

      So over a year later they finally started one, without having even *told* me that they’d now started it or having invited me to be a part.

      I swear, it all feels like a big high-school clique all over again….

      I don’t have the energy to try out yet another meeting until more of these problems get solved internally. Quakers have to be willing to take off their ageist and classist blinders and do better. It’s such a shame, because there are so many good souls in these groups that simply seem ignorant of the ways they are treating us, and then when we dare “elder” them about it, they stonewall us and don’t change.

      The philosophies and ideals in Quakerism really are so beautiful. I just wish they’d tackle their blind spots like these, which are driving the “younger” people away…..

  3. I am not a believer in “safe” space – in Quakerdom nor anywhere else. I understand the concept as an ideal, but it seems to be no more than that – an ideal.

    That said, I can testify that the *white* middle-class cultural norms that pervade our meetings can be particularly insidious when directed against folks who inhabit more marginal identities. Particularly Friends of Color.

    For example, I have lost track of the number of times I have heard about/ personally witnessed vocal, culturally proud, and righteously angry BIPOC Friends being “eldered” (tone policed) over how they show up in Quaker spaces. And that is just the tip of the iceberg…

    All Quaker meetings need to introspect and examine what is meant by “safety” (safe for whom?) and what needs to happen to make our spaces open and welcoming beyond platitudes. Too often we define/confuse “safe” with “comfortable” which actually feeds the toxic conflict adverse pattern.

    1. I like your question “safe for whom?” If we don’t make Quaker meetings safe for Friends of Color, and for people from groups that are disempowered yet increasingly make up the majority, Quakerism will disappear in the Americas all too soon.

  4. Let’s start with empathy, respect for that of God within, listening, sharing concerns. Then ask them to meet with a Clearness Committee–and/or arrange for them to meet with other concerned Friends.
    Help them start to hear and change their action and be a loved part of the community, if possible.
    That feels Quakerly to me. (And I’m from a meeting that actually tried all of this over a period of many months with a disruptive, disturbed and disturbing attender. And failing at last, though, we still continued to try to keep the psychologically troubled man in our hearts. That was a priority for Friends, we felt. It drew us together, too, as seekers, as would-be problem solvers. When at last it failed, we actually felt we had to take him to court, where the judge told him to leave our meeting OR go to jail!! What a memory! I’d go that route again, though, before simply “confronting and expelling.” What’s a Quaker to do!

  5. I agree with the comments from this post. I love Quakerism but find it hard to feel safe. Meetings lack the insight and skills to deal with conflict. Things are swept under the rug. I have even heard we don’t want to air our dirty laundry outside of meeting regarding getting help from Yearly Meeting. Opening your eyes to new ideas and Friends concerns are a way to become closer at heart and to be a healthier community. Thank you so much for writing this article. I hope it encourages personal and community reflection.

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I too hope that it spurs reflection on the question of whether we are conflict avoidant and if that serves us. It will be interesting to see if that happens. If you hear of anything, please let me know.

  6. What if there are multiple ‘taboo’ subjects around ‘safety’ in Quaker meetings?

    What if there are many assumptions and misinformation applied on top of many surface layer assumptions around ‘safety’ and how to ‘enforce’ it?

    Hard truths are sometimes very difficult to talk about. An experienced clerk can navigate these rough waters and help the community find the deeper unity within diversity beneath the surface tumult.

    By avoiding difficult subjects and not airing them out in public, and by not allowing all ‘sides’ and perspectives to be talked about or discussed, what ends up happening in many cases, is a ‘purge’ by force, or by some feeling very unwelcome, via ‘group think’.

    Quaker process is all about finding unity within diversity, even with ‘hard truths’, or difficult to talk about subjects. There are many ‘hard truths’ including things like racism, sexism, militarism, predatory capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, nuclearism, homelessness, LGBTQ, atheism, paganism, Christianity, and many more. Quakers have found unity within diversity in these ‘hard truths’, which is very courageous and noble.

    Quaker process around ‘hard truths’ often involves opening up the meeting and inviting in outside community members who may not even be Quakers at all, and who may have very different opinions from those attending Quaker meetings. In my experience among 3 meetings, Quakers are pretty good at talking about the above ‘hard truths’, and it was a large part of what attracted me to Unprogrammed Quakers, in addition to going deeper spiritually inside of the silence of silent worship.

    Unity CANNOT EVER BE FOUND by AVOIDING hard truths. De-nial is not a river in Egypt. Deeper truths such as unity within diversity or how to feel safe in a meeting is not found by making ‘hard truth’ discussions TABOO, nor by demonizing, dehumanizing, expelling, firing, threatening, coercing, bribing, jailing or killing all those who disagree with us.

    True Unity is not found by purging those who disagree with the ‘majority’. ‘Hard truth’ discussion involves inclusive, open discussion, debate, and by being led via the sense of the meeting. Everyone has to feel ‘safe’ enough in a meeting like this, so that they can freely express their truth and/or point of view, and not be ‘punished’ for it by being expelling just for stating their viewpoint.

    By seeking unity with opposing viewpoints, deeper truths are found inside of diversity, underneath the seeming surface disagreement and ‘certainty’ of being absolutely ‘right’, or of staying ‘safe’ inside of a cocoon of absolute guaranteed ‘I am right, you are wrong’ opinions. I have not seen any of the above happening recently around two subjects that are causing harm, and may even threaten the very existence of Quaker meetings generally, in the longer term.

    For example, in my experience, no bottoms up community discussion is ‘allowed’ around the ‘taboo’ Quaker subjects of masks and vaccines. Why is no community based discussion allowed around these two subjects, when other ‘hard truths’ like different beliefs around religion, skin colors, sexual orientation, militarism and other ‘hard truth’ issues are regularly and normally discussed by the Quaker community?

    [Truncated. FJ comments limited to 500 words]

  7. I had not thought about safety in meetings in terms of COVID before, but now that you mention it, of course safety in meetings involves keeping participants safe from getting it. That’s a whole new dimension of safety that I hadn’t thought of before. I wonder if it is mentioned in other articles or comments on articles.

  8. I really appreciated this article as it helped me understand why Quakers have such difficulty addressing conflict even though it certainly can create “wounded meetings and those who have been attacked left to feel completely unsupported and further isolated. While the term “eldering” can have different meanings, someone who is considered an “elder” should not automatically be associated with age as anyone deeply grounded in the spirit can be an elder and this person can come in all ages. Someone can serve as an elder for a person facilitating a meeting and/or a committee, holding the person and/or meeting in prayer. And the term most people think of which tends to have a negative connotation, is “eldering” when someone is spoken to for disruptive and/or inappropriate behavior. When done with love and positive intentions this too can be productive to a point and then I’m all for more drastic actions in order to protect the meeting when necessary.

  9. Hi Leigh,

    I agree that “someone who is considered an “elder” should not automatically be associated with age as anyone deeply grounded in the spirit can be an elder and this person can come in all ages.” One of the best elders I know is in his 30’s.

    – Don

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