Tuesday, April 02, 2013

When Conflicts Arise

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 prepared paper?

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.

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