Saturday, September 12, 2015

Herding Cats

My empathy skills are not very good, but I think I have enough of it to say this: being a church elder is really hard. Being a Quaker church elder is even harder.

I imagine a leadership role in Quakerism is a bit like herding cats.  Quakers tend to be ex-something else.  Some find Quakerism as an escape from an oppressive conservative tradition.  Some find value in it as a more ritualized form of Unitarianism.  Still others come into it entirely ignorant of what Quakerism is, but insist that their own ideas fit within Quakerism just fine, thank you very much (this is me).  Like I said - cats.  A cornucopia of chaos.

Liberal Quakers are so leery of anyone having religious power, that elders become little more than bookkeepers with a title.  Evangelical Quakers tend to go farther.  Elders volunteer to organize and lead meetings, help people deal with spiritual crises, and resolve internal conflicts.  When outside groups want to blame the pastor for decisions made by the whole church, elders are there to take the proverbial bullet.

Sometimes, conflicts arise that don't have easy answers.  Or any answers.  Elders can be presented with complaints from one person against another, and as an elder, sometimes there isn't a right thing to say.  From the congregation floor, it's easy to pick a side and lob bombs.  Elders don't have that luxury.  Their job is to look after and care for everyone, even the person on the "wrong side."  Sometimes this means taking criticism that isn't theirs, even if the criticism could be nullified with a few simple sentences.  Because to pacify one person often means casting someone else in a bad light, and an elder doesn't do that.  They can't.  And that's hard.

Recently I watched an elder walk an amazing tightrope.  While being kicked out of the broader religious organization, this elder defended the elders of the broader group.  She did it politely, but her point was strong; These elders have been handed an impossible task.  They made a choice.  I don't like their choice, but they had to make a choice, and they did.  They probably wish the choice had never been presented to them.  But as elders, impossible choices come with the title.  The conflict begins with the bomb thrower, not the defense system.

In my recent difficulties with church, the elders had a hard situation presented to them that they didn't ask for.  I liken it to a parent with 30 kids being confronted by one child complaining about another child. The parent may feel it most prudent to approach the complainee with the complaint, and see if the parent can resolve it as an intermediary. Another parent might have said, "don't make me the referee, talk to your brother directly."  Either choice makes sense.  And if you haven't been confronted with that situation before, and it hadn't occurred to you that it was even possible, it's hard to place much blame on the parent no matter which decision is made.  I certainly don't.

Blame is not a word I like very much.  In the internet era, we seem to feel like if we can strongly connect the out-group with enough blame, we can absolve our own responsibilities for things that go wrong.  Personal relationships, including church relationships, should be an area where we don't look for blame, even if we can find it.  And what good does finding  blame do for us?  Does it solve the problem?  Does it heal wounds?

I've discovered recently that I process things via images.  Some people think in sentences, I think in pictures.  For awhile, I envisioned my future a bit like a hallway.  Certain things were set in place, and were likely to be there for a long, long time.  Now in my mind, my future is an open plain.  There's not a lot built up on the horizon.  Options are open, and the city is behind me in the distance.  Out here on the plains, it's up to me to process my pains and internal conflicts.  It's up to me to decide what's healthiest and most likely to bring happiness.  Who am I?  Who do I want to be?  With whom do I want to surround myself?

My hope is that the church will ask these same questions.  Who are we?  Who do we want to be?  With whom do we want to surround ourselves?  And I hope they will do this without looking for blame for past events.

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