What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Fellowship . . . sometimes with conflict
January 8, 2014 § 6 Comments
I have a good Friend who feels so badly about the way s/he has been treated by her/his meeting that s/he has withdrawn from local meeting life. Another is so upset about things that have happened in her/his meeting that s/he is tempted to withdraw, as well, and sometimes suffers greatly in the moment. Probably most of us know of situations like this.
In any community, conflicts of one sort or another inevitably arise from time to time. Because we are a religious community, this can hurt extra deeply and in ways that we don’t experience in other communities or contexts. Because we have a peace testimony and, truth be told, sometimes a culture of conflict avoidance, we sometimes are either in denial about its causes or even its existence, and sometimes are ill-equipped to deal with it.
This is when the commandment of love should kick in, in the covenantal sense I discussed in my last post: remaining faithful to each other precisely when we don’t want to, staying at the table, continuing to talk, to forgive, to stay open, to seek reconciliation, to avoid backbiting, tail bearing, parking lot rumor mongering, and holding the meeting hostage with your emotions.
In our attempts to deal with conflict, we should avoid email. I believe, from experience, that sensitive pastoral care should never be done by email. Use it only to set up a time to talk on the phone, or better, in person face to face. You have to be able to hear voice inflections, at least, and at best, see facial expressions and body language in order to most effectively bring divine love into the work.
The main problem with email is that we occasionally say something in an email that we would never say to someone in person. Email encourages us to follow our usual habits with email: to be short but not necessarily concise, sometimes even to be terse; to be flip, or at least to write off the cuff and not to review what we have written before we send it; to send the message accidentally before it’s finished . . . well, you know. By contrast, personal contact keeps us more honest, allows for long, unbroken exchanges, helps us avoid misunderstandings, and it communicates the spirit of love, not just its letter.
Since the very beginning of the movement, Friends have turned to the practice of gospel order to deal with conflict in the meeting. This is one of several meanings for the phrase “gospel order”. This meaning comes from the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 18 on how to deal with conflict in his community:
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:15–20)
This passage also is one of the biblical foundations for the meeting for business in worship, and in fact for all our discernment processes, promising Jesus’ presence and guidance when making decisions under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This is the source of the image of the Presence in the Midst.
Early Friends took this advice seriously and adapted Jesus’ process in their own efforts at transforming conflict. You can click the following link to download a couple of excerpts from George Fox on early Friends exercise of gospel order according to Matthew 18.
As we in the Liberal tradition have progressively abandoned the biblical foundations of our faith and practice and the traditions early Friends had built on this foundation, so many meetings have lost both the knowledge of this form of gospel order and experience in its exercise. I think it would serve us well to recover it.
Conflict Transformation Committee of New York Yearly Meeting
Meanwhile, modern research and thought has greatly refined our understanding of he dynamics of conflict and we now have more tools for dealing with it.
New York Yearly Meeting has a Conflict Transformation Committee that has done excellent work in this area, focusing specifically on the dynamics that are common in Friends meetings. The Committee offers intervention services to meetings facing conflict and it conducts a workshop called Conflict in Quaker Meetings: Crisis or Opportunity?. You can view a (just published!) film of this workshop in its entirety and shorter videos of each of its seven modules by clicking on this link: Conflict in Quaker Meetings: Crisis or Opportunity? The Committee has other resources available on their web page here: NYYM Conflict Transformation Committee.
I recommend checking these resources out, if your meeting finds itself in trouble. Or anytime, actually. There’s nothing like facing a crisis with a sense of direction and with tools already at hand. Note that Friends World Committee for Consultation–Section of the Americas has invited the Conflict Transformation Committee to do its workshop at two events in the spring of 2014: March 14–16, Sacramento, California; April 11–13, High Point, North Carolina. Link to website: 2014 Consultations.
Some meetings have found that inviting parties in conflict to participate in “Quaker dialog” sometimes at least brings a moment of peace in which the parties are able to hear each other. Sometimes it also clears up confusions and misunderstandings about what has actually happened in the circumstances of the conflict, as all get to tell their story without interruption or contradiction. When you get a chance to really listen to the other side, you often hear things you really needed to know.
This process was first developed by Claremont Meeting in California. You can read a description of its basic format when used in conflict situations here (note that this is not a Quaker source, but it’s faithful to the process and it is clear and concise).
Claremont Meeting has published a pamphlet titled Fellowship; in Depth and Spiritual Renewal through Quaker Dialogue “Creative Listening”; Suggestions for Leaders of Group Dialogues Derived from the Experience of Claremont, California Friends. However, it seems that this pamphlet is no longer widely available. Text on the back says that you can order a copy by writing them at Library Committee, Claremont Monthly Meeting, 727 West Harrison Ave., Claremont, CA 91711; $1 each. They do not give an email address, as the pamphlet was published before we had email. I’m not sure whether they still provide this service. Also, an article they wrote for Friends Journal can be found in the online Friends Journal archive at Friends Journal, July 15, 1963: “A Meeting’s Creative Experience”.
The process described in the pamphlet is not specifically intended as a tool for conflict transformation, but rather is designed to deepen the fellowship of the meeting by posing queries that give participants a chance to share their spiritual lives. In this way, it is more like worship sharing. But I know of meetings that have adapted the basic process successfully in conflict situations, especially when it involves conflict between members in the community.
I have heard several stories of Friends who turned to prayer after suffering terribly from ill feelings regarding another person in their meeting. Having tried gospel order and other attempts at reconciliation and facing despair of any change in the relationship, they began praying for the party with whom they had difficulty, and for themselves. And it worked. Sometimes dramatically. At the very least, prayer can realign your own heart and unburden you from your own dark emotions. And sometimes just this change in one’s self can evoke change in another. And having seen it happen, I personally believe very strongly in the more transcendental and miraculous power of prayer to bring unexpected grace into the world.
Other resources for conflict transformation
FGC’s bookstore has a lot of books on what they call conflict resolution, which is a somewhat goal than the transformation that the NYYM Committee works toward. But there are a lot of resources here. Many relate to international conflict and peacemaking, but not all. And here are some resources more focused on conflict in meetings:
- Britain Yearly Meeting’s Committee on Eldership and Oversight has also published a rather lengthy pamphlet titled Conflict in Meetings, also available from QuakerBooks.org.
- Connie McPeak Green and Marty Paxson Grundy have authored a Pendle Hill Pamphlet (#399) titled Matthew 18: Wisdom for Living in Community.