Conflict in meeting and the role of heartbreak and testing

A few weeks ago a newslet­ter brought writ­ten reports about the lat­est round of con­flict at a local meet­ing that’s been fight­ing for the past 180 years or so. As my wife and I read through it we were a bit under­whelmed by the accounts of the newest con­flict res­o­lu­tion attempts. The medi­a­tors seemed more wor­ried about alien­at­ing a few long-term dis­rup­tive char­ac­ters than about pre­serv­ing the spir­i­tu­al vital­i­ty of the meet­ing. It’s a phe­nom­e­na I’ve seen in a lot of Quak­er meetings. 

Call it the FDR Prin­ci­ple after Franklin D Roo­sevelt, who sup­pos­ed­ly defend­ed his sup­port of one of Nicaragua’s most bru­tal dic­ta­tors by say­ing “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Even casu­al his­to­ri­ans of Latin Amer­i­can his­to­ry will know this only led to fifty years of wars with rever­ber­a­tions across the world with the Iran/Contra scan­dal. The FDR Prin­ci­ple didn’t make for good U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy and, if I may, I’d sug­gest it doesn’t make for good Quak­er pol­i­cy either. Any dis­cus­sion board mod­er­a­tor or pop­u­lar blog­ger knows that to keep an online discussion’s integri­ty you need to know when to cut a dis­rup­tive trouble-maker off – polite­ly and suc­cint­ly, but also firm­ly. If you don’t, the peo­ple there to actu­al­ly dis­cuss your issues – the peo­ple you want – will leave.

I didn’t know how to talk about this until a post called Con­flict in Meet­ing came through Live­jour­nal this past First Day. The poster, jan­drewm, wrote in part:

Yet my recog­ni­tion of all that doesn’t negate the painful feel­ings that arise when hos­til­i­ty enters the meet­ing room, when long-held grudges boil over and harsh words are spo­ken.  After a few months of reg­u­lar atten­dance at my meet­ing, I came close to aban­don­ing this “exper­i­ment” with Quak­erism because some Friends were so con­sis­tent­ly ran­corous, divi­sive, dis­rup­tive.  I had to ask myself: “Do I need this neg­a­tiv­i­ty in my life right now?”

I com­ment­ed about the need to take the tes­ti­monies seriously:

I’ve been in that sit­u­a­tion. A lot of Friends aren’t very good at putting their foot down on fla­grant­ly dis­rup­tive behav­ior. I wish I could buy the “it even­tu­al­ly sorts out” argu­ment but it often doesn’t. I’ve seen meet­ings where all the sane peo­ple are dri­ven out, leav­ing the dis­rup­tive folks and arm­chair ther­a­pists. It’s a sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship, per­haps, but doesn’t make for a healthy spir­i­tu­al community.

The unpop­u­lar solu­tion is for us to take our tes­ti­monies seri­ous­ly. And I mean those more spe­cif­ic tes­ti­monies buried deep in copies in Faith & Prac­tice that act as a kind of col­lec­tive wis­dom for Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty life. Tes­ti­monies against detrac­tion and for right­ly ordered deci­sion mak­ing, etc. If someone’s actions tear apart the meet­ing they should be coun­seled; if they con­tin­ue to dis­rupt then their decision-making input should be dis­re­gard­ed. This is the real effect of the old much-maligned Quak­er process of dis­own­ing (which allowed con­tin­ued atten­dance at wor­ship and life in the com­mu­ni­ty but stopped busi­ness par­tic­i­pa­tion). Lim­it­ing input like this makes sense to me.

The trou­ble that if your meet­ing is in this kind of spi­ral there might not be much you can do by your­self. Peo­ple take some sort of weird com­fort in these pre­dictable fights and if you start talk­ing tes­ti­monies you might become very unpop­u­lar very quick­ly. Par­tic­i­pat­ing in the bick­er­ing isn’t help­ful (of course) and just eats away your own self. Dis­tanc­ing your­self for a time might be help­ful. Get­ting involved in oth­er Quak­er venues. It’s a shame. Month­ly meet­ing is sup­posed to be the cen­ter of our Quak­er spir­i­tu­al life. But some­times it can’t be. I try to draw lessons from these cir­cum­stances. I cer­tain­ly under­stand the val­ue and need for the Quak­er tes­ti­monies bet­ter sim­ply because I’ve seen the prob­lems meet­ings face when they haven’t. But that doesn’t make it any eas­i­er for you.

But all of this begs an awk­ward ques­tion: are we real­ly build­ing Christ’s king­dom by drop­ping out? It’s an age-old ten­sion between puri­ty and par­tic­i­pa­tion at all costs. Tim­o­thy asked a sim­i­lar ques­tion of me in a com­ment to my last post. Before we answer, we should rec­og­nize that there are indeed many peo­ple who have “aban­doned” their “Quak­er exper­i­ment” because we’re not liv­ing up to our own ideals. 

Maybe I’m more aware of this drop-out class than oth­ers. It some­times seems like an email cor­re­spon­dence with the “Quak­er Ranter” has become the last step on the way out the door. But I also get mes­sages from seek­ers new­ly con­vinced of Quak­er prin­ci­ples but unable to con­nect local­ly because of the diver­gent prac­tices or juve­nile behav­ior of their local Friends meet­ing or church. A typ­i­cal email last week asked me why the plain Quak­ers weren’t evan­gel­i­cal and why evan­gel­i­cal Quak­ers weren’t con­ser­v­a­tive and asked “Is there a place in the quak­ers for a Plain Dress­ing, Bible Thump­ing, Gospel Preach­ing, Evan­gel­i­cal, Con­ser­v­a­tive, Spir­it Led, Charis­mat­ic fam­i­ly?” (Any­one want to sug­gest their local meet­ing?)

We should be more wor­ried about the peo­ple of integri­ty we’re los­ing than about the grumpy trouble-makers embed­ded in some of our meet­ings. If some­one is con­sis­tent­ly dis­rup­tive, is clear­ly break­ing spe­cif­ic Quak­er tes­ti­monies we’ve lumped under com­mu­ni­ty and intergri­ty, and stub­born­ly immune to any coun­cil then read them out of busi­ness meet­ing. If the peo­ple you want in your meet­ing are leav­ing because of the peo­ple you real­ly don’t want, then it’s time to do some­thing. Our Quak­er tool­box pro­vides us tool for that action – ways to define, name and address the issues. Our tra­di­tion gives us access to hun­dreds of years of expe­ri­ence, both mis­takes and suc­cess­es, and can be a more use­ful guide than con­tem­po­rary pop psy­chol­o­gy or plain old head-burying.

Not all meet­ings have these prob­lems. But enough do that we’re los­ing peo­ple. And the dynam­ics get more acute when there’s a vision­ary project on the table and/or some­one younger is at the cen­ter of them. While our meet­ings sort out their issues, the inter­net is pro­vid­ing one type of sup­port lifeline.

Blog­ger jan­drewm was able to seek advice and con­so­la­tion on Live­jour­nal. Some of the folks I spoke about in the 2003 “Lost Quak­er Gen­er­a­tion” series of posts are now lurk­ing away on my Face­book friends list. Maybe we can stop the full depar­ture of some of these Friends. They can drop back but still be involved, still engag­ing their local meet­ing. They can be read­ing and dis­cussing tes­ti­monies (“detrac­tion” is a won­der­ful place to start) so they can spot and explain behav­ior. We can use the web to coör­di­nate work­shops, online dis­cus­sions, local meet-ups, new work­ship groups, etc., but even email from a Friend thou­sands of miles away can help give us clar­i­ty and strength.

I think (I hope) we’re help­ing to forge a group of Friends with a clear under­stand­ing of the work to be done and the tech­niques of Quak­er dis­cern­ment. It’s no won­der that Quak­er bod­ies some­times fail to live up to their ideals: the jour­nals of  olde tyme Quak­er min­is­ters are full of dis­ap­point­ing sto­ries and Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion is rich with tales of the road­blocks the Tempter puts up in our path. How can we learn to  cen­ter in the Lord when our meet­ings become too polit­i­cal or dis­func­tion­al (I think I should start look­ing hard­er at Anabap­tist non-resistance the­o­ry). This is the work, Friends, and it’s always been the work. Through what­ev­er comes we need to trust that any test­ing and heart­break has a pur­pose, that the Lord is using us through all, and that any suf­fer­ing will be pro­duc­tive to His pur­pose if we can keep low and lis­ten­ing for follow-up instructions.

  • I would like to sug­gest my meet­ing as “a place in the quak­ers for a Plain Dress­ing, Bible Thump­ing, Gospel Preach­ing, Evan­gel­i­cal, Con­ser­v­a­tive, Spir­it Led, Charis­mat­ic fam­i­ly.” You prob­a­bly won’t find any­one exact­ly fit­ting that descrip­tion at Free­dom Friends Church (www​.free​dom​friends​.org), but you would be welcome!

  • I do believe there are gen­uine rea­sons why the Bible-thumping Evan­gel­i­cal Friends have always been a dif­fer­ent lot from the Spirit-led Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends. They involve two dif­fer­ent ways of under­stand­ing and prac­tic­ing, and under­stand­ing and prac­tic­ing in one way tends to take you in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion, and lead you to dif­fer­ent modes of relat­ing to oth­er peo­ple and to the world, from prac­tic­ing in the oth­er way. I doubt that even first-generation Chris­tians did both.

    I also think there are mul­ti­ple mean­ings of “integri­ty”, and the most com­mon mean­ing — “being true to your­self” — is not very com­pat­i­ble with orga­nized reli­gion, which demands that we let go a lit­tle from our­selves in order to be with others.

    The word “integri­ty” comes from the Latin word inte­ger, which means “com­plete”, “undi­vid­ed”, or “whole”. The type of integri­ty that is taught in scrip­ture, and encour­aged by Christ in our hearts and con­sciences, has more to do with not divid­ing our­selves from oth­er peo­ple by means of games and false­hoods — mak­ing the com­mu­ni­ty com­plete and whole by our own fufil­ment of our duties toward it — and only by impli­ca­tion refers to not divid­ing our­selves from fac­tu­al hon­esty in our deal­ings with oth­ers. That kind of integri­ty is very com­pat­i­ble with orga­nized reli­gion, because it is pre­cise­ly that kind of integri­ty that dri­ves us to stick with a con­gre­ga­tion even when the con­gre­ga­tion is being difficult.

  • isis1769

    God Bless you!

  • Dale Dewar

    Some­times there’s the “wheat from the chaff” issue that plagues Quak­er­dom. Often­times we are so anx­ious for new mem­bers that we don’t dis­cuss or warn them about bound­ary issues. For eg — just because some­one has some­thing that has kept them awake for nights on end doesn’t mean that it is a “lead­ing” — it could be an obses­sive idea which def­i­nite­ly doesn’t car­ry the same spir­i­tu­al con­text. Just because some­one has had a near death expe­ri­ence, doesn’t mean that they have been ele­vat­ed to a high­er spir­i­tu­al lev­el. New par­tic­i­pants to the Quak­er process should be acquaint­ed with this dif­fer­ence — which poss­es a new challenge.……how many of us are in the posi­tion that we can dis­cern between what is “move­ment of the Spir­it” and what is “pres­sure of speech”?

    There are all kinds of chal­lenges that can arise — what about the ear­ly demen­tia mem­ber whose con­di­tion is such that you real­ly can’t tell the entire meet­ing in spite of the behav­iour being disruptive. 

    For exam­ple: I find much of the post titled “Con­flict in Meet­ing” very inter­est­ing but tedious in length. Pres­sure of speech?