One of the hallmarks of Quakers (Friends) has been to put faith into action. Friends are known as one of the historic peace churches because of their refusal to participate in war. Quakers have acted in accordance with the principles of nonviolence, which much of Jesus’ teaching is about.
Despite this history and these ideals, I often hear of meetings having trouble dealing with conflict within the meeting. In recent years, conflicts among Friends have resulted, again, in some new yearly meetings forming from Quakers who no longer feel they can be part of, or are asked to leave, their yearly meeting.
But New York Yearly Meeting has chosen a different approach: what the Mennonite author and scholar John Paul Lederach terms “conflict transformation.” Resolve the behavior that disrupts the meeting, and the sources of the conflict are temporarily mollified but remain largely unchanged. Use the conflict to prompt a change and transform the Friends meeting into a place better able to acknowledge and deal with conflict in love and integrity, and the body deepens and enhances its own spiritual journey.
The question in conflict resolution is this: How can we get rid of this guy so we can go back to the meeting we used to be when everything was fine? The questions in conflict transformation are these: How can we use this event as an opportunity to change ourselves into a body that is not as susceptible to fostering hurt and anger? How can we advance to a new place in our journey? Resolve the conflict and the disputants cease. Transform the conflict and the disputants change. As John Paul Lederach writes in The Little Book of Conflict Transformation, this approach states the goal of “building healthy relationships and communities, locally and globally. This goal requires real change in our current ways of relating.”When Conflicts Arise by Peter Phillips and the New York Yearly Meeting Committee on Conflict Resolution, Friends Journal, March 27, 2013
My own monthly meeting, having a small number of members and attenders, most of whom have known each other for years, doesn’t often encounter significant conflicts. Within the past week though, a proposed “Minute on addressing the imbalance in Quaker writings regarding addressing racism” is causing some conflict. This Minute actually responds to a Minute regarding Racial Justice that Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) approved in 2017, which ended with “we urge Friends to speak out and take action against these systemic injustices and violence occurring today.”
One conflict regards whether to put attention on Friends’ history related to racial justice. Some feel we should concentrate on the present, on specific areas such as homelessness, addiction, mental health, etc. Others believe part of healing involves understanding the root causes of injustice, including any role our ancestors or we ourselves might have played. And learning about systemic racism today.
Another part of this conflict is a divide between those who have put a lot of prayer, time and effort into learning about racism and white privilege and those who have not. Unfortunately those with experience with white fragility often sound judgmental when they suggest that others have shortcomings in their beliefs or actions.
Quaker Social Change Ministry (QSCM)
I don’t believe there are easy answers for this type of conflict. But it is important to work toward resolution. It is never healthy to try to ignore these conflicts, because they won’t go away. And might drive some members away if not resolved.
I’d like to share my experience with Quaker Social Change Ministry (QSCM), an American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) program designed to help Quaker meetings become engaged/more engaged with social justice. The goals of QSCM include:
- Re-enliven and re-imagine corporate witness
- Follow the leadership of communities most impacted by injustice
- Build relationships within the meeting, with local organizations, and with AFSC
- Bring “Mystics” and “Activists” together
- Participate in a Spirit-led group process
- Tell our stories and learn in a supportive environment
- Co-create the Beloved Community
The basic principles of QSCM are to (1) bring the “mystics” and “activists” together by including the entire meeting in a social justice project, and (2) get Friends out of the meetinghouse and into the community.
The meeting I was attending several years ago in Indianapolis, North Meadow Circle of Friends, participated in the pilot year of the QSCM program. The meeting as a whole decided to work with a Black youth mentoring community, the Kheprw Institute (KI). This relationship was possible because several members of the meeting already knew some of the KI people, and KI was at a point where they were looking for partners for their work, which is to empower Black youth and develop their leadership in community building.
This was a long term, and I think successful, process. QSCM stresses that we Friends should be very careful to listen closely to what the impacted community, KI in this case, was saying. To be careful not to try to assert any leadership ourselves, and instead wait for KI to ask for what they needed from us.
One way we got to know each other and what we believe was to participate in the monthly book discussions that were led by the KI youth. The books were about social justice issues. We Quakers learned more about each other as well as a great deal from the KI community.
I’ve been gone from Indianapolis for 2 years and I’m very glad to know North Meadow Friends continue to work with KI. This long term commitment between North Meadow and KI is really important. Long term relationships are necessary for successful justice work. I am blessed to be able to continue my friendships with those at KI and North Meadow.
Coming back to conflicts within a meeting, my experience with QSCM indicates that model might provide some help, by getting the meeting to look outside itself. By meeting members learning more about each other as they do this work. And learning a great deal from communities impacted by injustice. One of the concepts of QSCM is that Friends gather regularly to discuss what they are learning from being out in the community, and specifically to express that in terms of their spirituality. Quakerism is defined as experiential, that each of us can experience what the Spirit is saying to us. And we gain experience as we translate what the Spirit is saying into practice.
One other practice that I found very valuable at North Meadow Friends was sharing our spiritual journeys with each other. These are powerful experiences that give us a deeper understand of each other’s formative experiences and how we view our own spiritual life. This can be very helpful to know especially when meetings are experiencing conflict.
As it says above, “use the conflict to prompt a change and transform the Friends meeting into a place better able to acknowledge and deal with conflict in love and integrity, and the body deepens and enhances its own spiritual journey.“
Harmony within the meeting
“This is my commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:1
It is sometimes difficult to remember that love is a gift of the Divine Spirit and not simply a human emotion. As imperfect human beings, it is not always possible for us to feel loving toward one another, but by opening ourselves to the Light Within, we can receive and give love beyond our human abilities.
Relationships among meeting members take time to evolve. Sometimes misunderstandings develop. When differences arise, they should not be ignored for the sake of superficial unity. We believe disagreements which might divide or disrupt a meeting can be resolved through human effort and divine grace, and may result in a stronger and more creative meeting. True harmony depends upon each persons deep respect of and faithful attention to the Divine Spirit within us all. We endeavor to practice humility, attempting to understand positions of others and being aware of the possibility that we may be mistaken.
It is the responsibility of the Ministry and Oversight Committee to be sensitive to needs which may arise. Others in the meeting may be equally concerned, and because of greater understanding in certain cases, be able to give counsel. In reconciliation of differences, a position not previously considered may prove mutually beneficial. At times it may be necessary to confront individuals whose behavior is disruptive. A clearness committee or professional help may be suggested in some situations. We must always remember the power of holding one another in the Light, and the healing that comes from forgiving ourselves as well as others.
What can we do to deepen our relationships with one another? How does gender affect the way we relate to each other?
How does our meeting balance the needs for honesty and kindness? What topics do we avoid for the sake of “unity”?
When in conflict with others, do we cultivate a forgiving spirit? Do we look to that of God in ourselves and seek to address that of God in those with whom we disagree?Faith and Practice: The Book of Discipline of Iowa Yearly Meeting of Friends (Conservative) Religious Society of Friends, 2011