Who Is Sitting on the Facing Bench?

Maurine Pyle (What Canst Thou Say? August, 2017)

Peacemaking first begins in the meeting family and in the lives of its members. So often we Quakers cast our nets far out into the world when we seek to heal the causes of aggression. I start my work closer to home. As Jesus said to the apostles when they were not catching any fish, “Cast your nets on the other side.” I catch more fish that way by opening the conversations about the hidden conflict.

Traditional Quaker practice offers pastoral support through the meeting’s Ministry and Counsel committee, which is a group of seasoned elders. In our yearly meeting the most experienced elders, those who grew up in Quaker families, have died or moved away. Our current population of Friends mostly grew up in another faith tradition where a priest or pastor provided care for members in trouble. We were not trained from birth with the skills to support one another in times of crisis, and we may even feel we have no business interfering. What I mean by pastoral care is offering compassionate listening and prayer for a member when a problem has not been clearly defined. I am not speaking of offering the equivalent of professional therapeutic services. What is needed in the beginning is assistance with discerning the depth of the problem and direction toward solving it. As a result, the community’s fearfulness about interfering in personal matters of members leaves many issues festering and untended.

If a member is experiencing a physical ailment, Quaker communities are quick to arrange meals for the family and visits to the hospital. We are often frustrated and incapacitated when trying to respond to the hot issues in the meeting. We tend to hear about problems in a marriage after one member files for divorce. In the case of suicide or mental illness, silence often envelopes the community. Often there is no appointed ministry committee because the community is so tiny it must handle all of the business of the meeting as a body with no privacy possible. The result is that important pastoral care issues are often neglected. In these situations, a visit from a traveling minister can offer primary support to a small community. It is important to note that this ministry does not carry any authority from outside the meeting. We come only to listen and to help with discernment within the community, to turn them to their Inner Guide.

Ministry of Reconciliation: Traveling Ministry

When I enter a Quaker community, my intention is to discover what is really happening there and help the community see it clearly. This is one of the benefits of traveling ministry. If we are invited into the inner circle, we can hold up a mirror for what needs healing in the Quaker meeting. A request for a retreat is often more than a desire for education on a particular topic. I have found that can also indicate an unspoken need for reconciliation in the community. To know that you don’t know is the beginning of wisdom, and so I enter a community in a state of “not knowing.”

Once on a traveling ministry visit, I met with the leaders of a meeting who were deadlocked over the issue of approving gay marriage. Over the years, they had settled into a dark silence, walking around the “elephant in the living room.” Their healthy development as a community had ground to a halt. People began slowly leaving the meeting, and eventually no one wanted to volunteer for service.

The initial request for my services came from the Nominating Committee asking for help in envisioning their future. I proposed a series of retreats to address the conditions they were avoiding. Following two retreats, it was revealed to me privately that there were two hidden gay people in the meeting and that the gay marriage issue was the tip of the iceberg.

At a subsequent retreat a lesbian member told her story of being suicidal and her fears of asking the community for help. Over a long period, and after receiving assistance from other traveling elders from the yearly meeting, many other hidden issues were revealed and healed. The presenting problem of gay marriage was eventually reconciled. Now the meeting is a welcoming community for all people.

As a traveling minister I am given access to closely held secrets, sometimes willingly but more often through a process that I call a ministry of reconciliation. Usually it begins this way: someone calls me to request a workshop on what they term “Quaker process.” I have found this terminology to be a code phrase for a family fight going on in the meeting. People are too polite to name it so they blame it on improper business process. Quakers are excellent conflict avoiders.

I have a theory that most of us joined the Religious Society of Friends because it looked so peaceful. A few years ago, I received a request to offer a retreat for a troubled meeting in a nearby state. When the request was for a Quaker process retreat, I suspected that a hidden conflict needed healing.

Since no one in the meeting stepped forth to help me design the retreat, I told my contact that I would simply bring my talking stick and open a conversation. When I arrived, I felt the tenseness in the group. Smiles were pasted on with great care, and eye contact was limited. I sensed their uneasiness in being together. I began by introducing the talking stick as a means of free and open communication, which Native Americans have used to encourage truth sharing. Only the person who holds the stick may speak, and the others are encouraged to listen deeply. I reminded them that the talking stick couldn’t be used to express anger or blame, only truth. They could only make “I” statements.

The query I posed was, “What suffering of your heart do you need to share with your meeting?” The group centered into an uneasy silence. As we passed the stick for several hours in surrounding silence, we heard the hidden pain in the community. Some women began weeping. One of the founders, whom I had been told was an angry resistor, softened and showed her deeper nature to the group.

An emotional shift occurred as members saw her in a clearer light. She had been standing in the way of change because she felt she was the holder of the founding vision. At the close of the ceremony the group had moved to a place of reconciliation without actually naming the conflicts. We closed the circle with gratitude for a new truth revealed and a deepening of Spirit.

Later, in response to their request to learn more about Quaker process, I invited my companion-elder to lead a discussion. At that time she was serving as the clerk of her yearly meeting and was well suited to the task. From the outset of her presentation some of the meeting members began to attack her verbally with intellectual sharpness. I discovered that many of them were leaders in local, national and international organizations.

I allowed the aggressive behavior to continue for a while and then I stopped the action, asking them to notice how differently they were speaking to one another than they had in the morning session. They appeared shocked. One said, “This is how we speak to one another in meeting for business.” Laying down our secular experience as leaders is often difficult. Assuming the role of servant-leader in a Quaker setting asks us to do symbolic foot washing. Jesus was the role model for this type of leadership, which instructs us to act as the humblest, not the smartest, person in the room. What did we learn in our time together? As a spiritual midwife, I offered them the opportunity to look deeply in the mirror at their reflection as a community. I had come without any prior knowledge of their conflicts, yet we were able to uncover and heal them. One year later I happened to meet one of their leaders at a conference. She said that the meeting community had experienced a turning point at the retreat.

In the 21st century there have been major changes in our Quaker culture with secular ways of organizing the meeting creeping into the structure and process. For example, instead of turning to elders for help we might turn to the DSM5 (a mental health diagnostic manual). And since we have become less attentive in a traditional Quakerly way, we often fall apart when conflicts arise between members or over what we like to call “Quaker process.”

Many times I have seen a single angry episode break the membership into small isolated groups with no one talking about the problem in an open manner. They smile and suppress the conflict. I call this condition “terminal niceness,” and Quakers suffer greatly from it. Some people feel it is not nice to call attention to conflicts in the community; it is not nice to get angry. But tamping the fire down will not eliminate it. The flames just travel underground for a while and then pop up elsewhere. My prescription regarding conflict is that there is no way around it—we have to go through it!

These stories I am telling beg the question—Where is the source of authority in liberal Quaker meetings today? We often no longer rely on the authority of scripture, such as Matthew 18. Nowadays there are few, if any, seasoned elders in our meetings to stand up for traditional Quaker practice. So, in the absence of these tried and true methods, it is vital that we pay careful attention to conflicts in meeting as they arise. As Simone Weil has said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Maurine Pyle has traveled the wide world for Friends to bring a message of peace. Now., as an ESL teacher, she lives in southern Illinois, where the world comes to her door.

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