Here is a recent column from the April issue of Friends Journal. It acknowledges the elephant in many Meetingrooms, that of conflict. The entire column is lengthy and can be accessed here. As I read it, I found myself nodding my head up and down in agreement.
Crisis or Invitation?
As Quakers, our attitudes towards conflict can be ambivalent. Some
aspects of Friends testimonies suggest that we would not be prone to
conflict among ourselves. We like to see ourselves as peace loving; we
certainly hope to never be violent or coercive. Friends aspire to
spiritual tolerance and being open to diverse views and beliefs. We hold
that there is that of God in every person, and thus that each person is
deserving of respect. Believing this, how could we ever hurt each
other, even unintentionally?
At the same time, our commitment to truth and integrity means that
Friends can be strong-minded. What we experience as the truth is the
truth to those who experience it, and we can sometimes forget that none
of us carries the entire truth. Like all other humans, Friends can be
stubborn, accusatory, judgmental, persnickety, eccentric, dismissive,
irritatingly over-buoyant, pedantic, and persistent, particularly in
matters that we believe arise from the Spirit. Sometimes we behave like
bumper stickers that, while sincere, are the quintessential one-way
communication, affording neither an invitation nor an intention to
engage in dialogue.
Our structural traditions may contribute to fostering internal
conflict. Unlike most other faith communities and secular institutions,
monthly meetings do not have an operational hierarchy that can be called
upon to lend authority at times of internal strife. Our quarterly
meetings no longer serve as enforcers of spiritual discipline,
chastising Friends who “walk wayward.” Within programmed meetings, the
pastor seldom has authority to correct or admonish behavior that is
hurtful to the body. Meetings without pastors have Ministry and Counsel
Committees, but no corporately authorized source of admonishment or
adjudication in the event of misbehavior. The delicate practice of
eldering has too often come to be seen as authoritarian and punitive
instead of authoritative and lovingly instructive. We have no human
resources department, no bishopric or Holy See or episcopacy. Quaker
communities caught in self-destructive conflict have no institutional
resource to which to turn for a ruling.
So what happens when conflicts do arise? How do monthly meetings
respond when an attender is made uncomfortable by the physical advances
shown to her by an elderly member, and is prompted to no longer attend?
What happens when the treasurer cannot account for some thousands of
dollars entrusted to her? What happens when during a building project to
restore the meetinghouse, the advice of a long-standing and experienced
member is not followed, causing profound hurt? What happens when a
coldness between two Friends goes beyond ignoring each other at social
hour, beyond parking lot gossip, and blossoms into a public, toxic
dance, making the rest of the meeting flee? What about the Friend who
preaches at length every First Day, on inscrutable topics, reading from a
By tolerating such dysfunction in our meetings, we end up enabling bad behavior, and realize
too late that we are paying a price: our meeting shrinks; the joy
disappears; and our labors become wearisome. We have abandoned the gifts
of Light and Spirit.