Friends follow rules both spoken and unspoken; these guide our practices and behaviors, and they change over time and distance. In some cases, rules may have been followed long ago for good reasons, but are no longer common practice now. Similarly, what is standard in one meeting might be unusual in another. We like to think we are generally responding to continuing revelation, but sometimes we are merely reflecting contemporary attitudes.
Let’s look at the example of a meeting taking a marriage under its care. If you have seen the film Friendly Persuasion, you might remember this story of a family trying to interpret the rules for “orderly walking” in the Religious Society of Friends. This includes a humorous sequence of events in which the Elders become concerned and pay a visit. “A Meeting’s responsibility for . . . a marriage under its care does not end with the wedding, but endures throughout the whole of life. . . Friends with a concern about their own or others’ marriages should bring such concern to the Oversight Committee. . . Overseers may see a need for concern and action before the couple does. . .” (Faith and Practice, Pacific Yearly Meeting (2001), p. 159).
These days, most meetings don’t even have Elders, at least not the kind that concern themselves with our orderly walking. Most of us today would not appreciate everyone in the meeting knowing about all our little foibles; we are probably also reluctant to share many personal problems and challenges with each other. We tend to feel uncomfortable knowing too many intimate details about others in our meetings. In giving up the practice of naming Elders, Friends may have inadvertently diminished the commitment we have to one another to labor together to create a community truly striving to live together in the corporate understanding of God’s will.
Any of us may feel led to become a member of a Worship and Ministry or an Oversight committee, and consequently, become privy to information that should be kept confidential. Even without such a leading, we might serve on a clearness committee, where some or all of the information discussed is confidential. This question of information that is not for public consumption arises informally as well, such as when a Friend approaches us to talk about a difficult time they’re having, either in their personal life or in the life of the meeting.
We are all clergy, and each of us might be called at any time to help a Friend in need. In keeping with our testimony of integrity, this always comes with an implicit bond of trust. That trust should not be broken unless there is a clear reason to do so. Matters of financial hardship, marital difficulties, a troubled child, problems at work – these are best kept to a small circle of Friends who are working to support a person in need.
There is one clear exception, however: Abuse. It might happen that, in Friendly confidence, someone tells you about an instance of emotional or physical harm that has occurred recently, or is on-going, or is an immediate threat; an instance that you find to be alarming; so alarming that you might wonder whether or not the authorities should be involved. Currently, clergy are considered mandatory reporters in about half of all states in the U.S. Like therapists, physicians, social workers, and many others, clergy in these states are legally required to report abuse of children, elders, and other persons to the proper legal authorities, which vary from state to state.
Quakers are not mandated reporters, but in our roles as pastors to one another, we carry similar responsibilities.
Sometimes we feel caught between our obligation to protect information that has been shared with us in confidence and our obligation to care for the safety of our entire community. Sometimes we are required to make difficult and complicated determinations about whether certain information needs to be shared more broadly, even if doing so might damage an individual’s reputation. It does happen sometimes that a choice to keep information private causes more harm than if it had been aired it publicly. Obviously, recognizing such situations is easier said than done. And in such situations, it can be hard to see where the line lies between gossip and necessary communication.
Outside of the “formal” contexts of “pastoral care,” these kinds of decisions can be even harder. It is clear, however, that too many secrets among too many people can corrode the life of a meeting. Cliques form; one person tells a second some juicy item about a third, and the comment quickly spirals out of control into games of “he-said, she-said” with distortions on all sides. These sorts of (badly kept) secrets are symptoms of a culture of conflict avoidance. Speaking behind people’s backs and avoiding difficult conversations in the (misused) name of “kindness” are violations of Friends’ shared witness of speaking plainly among one another and to the world.
On the other hand, we can also see examples of violent confrontations masquerading as “plain speech.” Friends are advised to remember, when they feel an urge to speak in anger, to respect the feelings of everyone involved. Feelings are not a reason to avoid plain speech, but plain speech is not a reason to ignore feelings, either.
In times of strife, consider your responsibility to all parties in a conflict – and to the life of the meeting. Work within the structure of your meeting by approaching an appropriate committee with your concern; avoid setting up parallel and competing structures that will add to confusion and strife. Friends can turn to the structures and practices we have honed over centuries. And when those are not enough, we have Matthew 18:15-17:
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 . . .
Our “church” is not that one Friend we choose at coffee hour; it is our Oversight Committee or our Ministry and Counsel Committee. When a person approaches us in confidence about a conflict with another, encourage them to follow Jesus’ admonishment, then keep their concern in confidence, and participate as you ought.
Finally, especially in heated circumstances, consider that anything you say has the potential to engender further conflict and strife. Ask yourself: How is God speaking through me now? Would breaking this confidence be in good order? How do I think my words might help to bring Divine harmony among the parties involved and throughout my meeting as a whole?
None of us has all the answers. At all times, we should be waiting on the Holy Spirit to guide us.
Ray Rischpater serves on the Ministry and Oversight Committee and Barbara Babin serves as Presiding Clerk of College Park Quarterly Meeting (PacYM).