Welcome!

Welcome!

I often wonder what exactly other people think about our Quaker meetings. What do they really know about us? What kind of welcome do we extend? How hard do we really try to share it?

I first found out about Quaker meeting when my first year college room mate, an inveterate explorer of whatever type of spirituality he could find, came home enthusiastically one day. I was a convinced dropout from the Catholic church (ask me about that some other time) but I was reading my Bible and open to new ideas.

“Hey, Brown!”, my room mate said in his raspy voice. “You ought to come and check out this Quaker meeting!” Not having anything else to do on Sunday morning, I came along.

I found a quiet welcome at Mt. Toby Friends Meeting. Nobody asked me who I was, where I came from, or why I was there. The quiet worship felt like the home I’d been looking for all my life. I came back the next week, and the week after that, and for the rest of my four years of college. I got to know them, and they got to know me. I poked around in the library and found some books and Pendle Hill pamphlets. A couple of families invited me over for a meal (a huge plus for a college student!). Another family asked me to join them for a weekly evening of folk singing (another story).

They didn’t have a big outreach program, but they welcomed me in their own way. I’ve been in a lot of Quaker meetings since then. Some were warm and welcoming, others felt cold and unattractive. I won’t name any names.

Welcome has always been a big concern of mine. At different times, I’ve focused on whether the meeting has been ready to welcome people with different abilities, who spoke different languages, who came from other countries, or whose sexual orientation wasn’t exactly like mine.

I’ve wrestled with the question of whether the meeting I’m in should be more open to the way visitors and newcomers worship – should we change, or should they get used to our tradition? Most of the time, the meeting has opted not to change or even experiment, and the other people have moved on. Sometimes I think that’s OK, other times I think we’re poorer.

Many Quaker meetings send out invisible (or sometimes not-so-invisible) signals about whether they accept people of different political beliefs, dietary expectations or spiritual journeys. (Full disclosure: the meeting where I’m currently serving is somewhat divided politically and most Friends have agreed to disagree, except on Facebook. They hold a huge pork shoulder barbecue every November, which would make some Quakers faint, and what’s more, they serve it on Styrofoam plates. Still working on that one. They are also some of the kindest, most hospitable and genuinely welcoming people in this part of North Carolina.)

They have had LGBT members for over 100 years (including having them in major positions of leadership) and not made a fuss about it. Most don’t drink, but some do, and it’s not an issue. Older members reminisce about helping relatives raise and harvest tobacco. People used to come in their “Sunday best”, but today they wear just about anything, and almost everyone gets complimented about how nice they look. Some have tattoos and dye their hair interesting colors.

I wish that more Quaker meetings (including mine) would have the nerve to print some version of the following welcome, which has been circulating around the internet for a while and was originally attributed to a Catholic congregation:

We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, lesbian, not sure, filthy rich, dirt poor, yo no habla Ingles. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail or could afford to lose a few pounds.

We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or can’t carry a tune in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s baptism.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians and junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.

If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!

Just how welcoming are we?

Quakers and applause

A couple of years ago our meeting hired a new choir director, a recent college graduate who did his best with our oddly-assorted group of Quaker singers (3 sopranos, 4 altos, 1 tenor and 1 bass). He also agreed to sing a solo once a month to liven up our music at worship.

The first time he sang, at the end of the piece he bowed very slightly and then waited, expecting some kind of response from the meeting. Being traditional Quakers, they bowed their heads in silence, which led into the unprogrammed or open worship time we have every week.

The choir director came to me afterward and asked if there was something wrong with what he did – why didn’t anyone applaud or say something? He was clearly hurt and anxious about whether he was about to be fired. People had come up to him and thanked him after meeting, but for him, the lack of response in the moment was very discombobulating.

I tried to explain the difference between performance and worship, but he was still very upset. We talked it over at the next choir practice and at Ministry and Counsel, and several people said that they had always been puzzled about our not applauding. We decided that it would be all right if people wanted to clap for musical solos or for the choir – we already clap for announcements about birthdays or happy events like a wedding announcement or the return of someone who has recovered from a serious illness.

It made me reflect that there is some part of the Quaker ethos which makes us reluctant to thank or congratulate each other openly, to acknowledge achievements or mark the milestones in each others’ lives. In Quaker communities, there seems to be a feeling that applauding will make the applaudee feel stuck-up, or that we’re honoring the individual rather than honoring God.

I have come across several accounts of prayer in meetings in the 1700’s and early 1800’s. Allen Jay describes the scene: “The stillness was sometimes broken by vocal prayer, during which the congregation rose, pulled off their hats, and turned their backs to the one who was engaged in vocal prayer. We were also expected to bow our heads, and, when he was through, to sit down with as little noise as possible.” (Autobiography of Allen Jay, 2010 edition, pp. 8-9) As a Quaker pastor, I’m certainly glad we have given up that practice! I’m not sure I could handle that every week.

I’ve been in several Quaker gatherings where someone has started to applaud, only to be severely eldered along the lines of “Quakers don’t do that!” In some settings, particularly at FGC, Friends have created an alternative “silent applause” (waving hands at shoulder height) which has always seemed a little contrived and cute to me.

Over the years I’ve picked up a similar reluctance by Quakers to highlight peoples’ achievements or recognize milestones in their lives or careers, to thank leaders for their service, or even to thank them for their hard work. I doubt that most Friends could identify Luke 17:10, but we seem to have taken it into practice – “When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless servants; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

Or there may be a sort of understated snobbery in our lack of response – “We knew you would do the right thing, because that’s the sort of people we are.”

We sometimes unbend so far as to ask for a minute of thanks to be added to the minutes of a meeting – usually it’s done at the last minute and is worded as briefly as possible. The only time we really cut loose with our appreciation is in the memorial minutes which are published in Friends Journal and Quaker Life, when a eulogy can go on for pages.

By contrast, when I’ve been a part of African-American congregations, they’ve bent over backwards to acknowledge and applaud the smallest achievements, the littlest steps forward. It’s as though they know how difficult life is, how many barriers people face, that it’s the church’s responsibility to shelter and encourage every flicker of light and faith. The same kind of atmosphere is often found in 12-step meetings, where every achievement gets applauded.

I understand the risks of adulation, and I’ve been in groups where leaders bask in appreciation and people who do the scut work go unthanked. Quakers have instinctively shied away from showing our appreciation in public – but I think we take it too far. A little spontaneous applause now and then doesn’t hurt, and we could learn from the culture of appreciation which African-American churches and 12-step groups have built.

Say amen, somebody?

Leadership – perils and potholes

For years I’ve heard Quaker pastors, yearly meeting superintendents and organization leaders moaning that “Quakers don’t respect leaders – they don’t want to be led.” That hasn’t been my experience, but I’ve picked up a few thoughts about this subject along the way.

When I ask these folks what they mean – “give me some actual examples!” – it often boils down to complaints like these:

  • They wouldn’t approve the funding for a project I want
  • They won’t agree to a suggestion, plan or recommendation I made
  • They always move me to the last place on the agenda, when half the people have left
  • They complain all the time but won’t make changes to address the complaints
  • They spend more time talking about their favorite sports team than they spend praying
  • They won’t show up for activities I’ve planned, publicized and prepared for
  • They don’t read the report/newsletter/bulletin/web site I spent so much time on

These complaints can be valid – there are frequently serious consequences for failing to pay attention to our leaders. Quaker leaders are also prone to frustration, discouragement and burnout. Very few Quaker leaders have much in the way of active support; many feel they spend a lot of time shouting down a barrel.

On the other hand, it’s easy for those of us in leadership positions to forget some very basic things. Here are a few, in no particular order. You may have your own thoughts to add!

  1. It’s not “my” meeting to control. The people of the meeting were here a long time before I got here. They will be here long after I leave.
  2. If I get what I wish for 25% of the time, I figure I’m ahead of the game
  3. A lot of people are following God in their own way. Maybe I need to ask people how they want to follow God.
  4. One of the key missing skills in many leaders is the ability to make prayer deeply inviting to others.
  5. Another key missing skill is the ability to thank people sincerely and spontaneously for what they’ve done or tried, without even hinting that I wish they’d done what I wanted.
  6. It’s a very old truth, but worth repeating – it’s much more important that I follow Jesus myself, that I share his words and not my own, that I bring his love alive in people’s hearts, that I look for ways to be faithful myself, instead of scolding people about not doing all these things.
  7. Another aching truth is that Quakers overwhelmingly are volunteers and amateurs. We’re not dealing with professionals most of the time – these are folks who haven’t read the books, haven’t taken the courses or workshops and who rely for 99% of the time on their own experience and their fuzzy desire to feel good about themselves. It doesn’t help to judge people for what they’re not; it’s better to help them take small, memorable steps toward what they want to be.
  8. Sometimes money is the problem. But sometimes it’s not. Poor communication, conflict, and disengagement from the basic purpose of the organization, are often much more important problems.
  9. Quaker organizations habitually budget on inertia – “this is what we approved last year, let’s just do it again.” Or they budget on optimism – “let’s go ahead with this figure and hope the money comes in”. Or they budget on guilt – “if everyone would just give $1 a week more, we would reach our goal.” They very seldom have the patience or courage to take an entire budget back to zero and start over, and almost never remember that paid staff need cost-of-living increases, too.

In most congregations, there will only be a handful of people who care deeply and passionately about:

a) the peace testimony
b) what early Quakers believed
c) actually changing the world
d) properly caring for old books and papers
e) taking care of the children
f) inviting new people to come and worship
g) dealing with climate change
h) helping to make the meeting more welcoming to LGBT people or diverse ethnic groups
i) making urgently needed repairs to the meetinghouse
j) helping to create the very best possible website and outreach materials
k) correcting the minutes (let alone reading the minutes)
l) doing a labyrinth walk
m) planning a meeting-wide retreat
n) other (fill in the blanks)

Sometimes there will be overlap in groups A-M. Other times each of these groups will be isolated from each other, but tolerated by the meeting as a whole even though not everyone gets involved. As a leader, you will almost never get everyone involved in any one of these for a sustained period of time.

I would rather work with a few highly motivated people, than a whole meeting full of only somewhat motivated people.

And as a leader, these people have to put up with my passion for A-M and beyond, when they have their own legitimate concerns to work on. Quaker leaders aren’t always the easiest people to get along with!

Causes of Quaker decline

Why are there fewer Quakers? Everybody has their own favorite explanation. I hear them all the time – people who say the problem is specific (“Quakers have too many splits”) and people who say the problem is generic (“we need to get prayer back into the schools”).

Some religious groups are in catastrophic decline due to scandals – mainly financial or sex-related. Friends have had our share of these, but our scandals are mostly local and haven’t affected Friends meetings across the board.

There’s a lot of distress about the gradual decline of Friends in North America, which has been about 1% per year in most yearly meetings for the last two or three generations.

I’ve lived and worked in four different yearly meetings – New England, New York, Indiana and currently North Carolina – and I’ve tried to figure out some of the reasons. Read these, take a look in the mirror, and see if any of them apply to your situation.

Some specific causes of Quaker decline in North Carolina include:

1) Mass migration of Friends to the Midwest because of opposition to slavery (1780’s to mid-1800’s)

2) Mass migration to other parts of the country because of economic hardship during and after the Civil War

Some causes of decline which may be shared by other yearly meetings:

1) Disownment, both because of failure to follow Quaker testimonies and especially for marrying out of meeting – this was a huge cause of decline in the 1700’s and 1800’s

2) Members joining other churches, usually ones with a more evangelical emphasis – starting in the 1800’s and continuing today

3) Conflicts over theology, worship style and music, different interpretations of the Bible, plus various social and political issues – ditto

4) Financial stress on yearly and local meetings – this is often the real cause underlying a lot of other conflicts, where the apparent cause on the surface may be something else

5) Focus on maintaining older, rural meetings rather than starting new ones in growing urban areas

6) Failure to build and maintain a pool of trained Quaker pastors and leaders – this one is really starting to bite hard, as fewer people want to spend their lives in this type of work, or can afford to spend money on professional training which will never be paid for

Causes of general church decline – things which are not specific to Friends:

1) Dying off of the “builder” generation, which supplied so many dedicated leaders and givers

2) Decline of the neighborhood church, which drew people simply because of location

3) Funding demands of denominations which can’t be sustained by local congregations

4) Decline in denominational loyalty

5) Erosion of respect for the church, for pastors and for the Bible

6) Growth of entertainment-based megachurches – this is a favorite punching bag for many smaller churches which aren’t facing up to their own problems

7) Explosion of competing interests during what used to be Sunday “church time” – work, sports, rest, etc.

8) Growth of “spiritual but not religious” segment of the population

9) Church music, sermons, Sunday School and traditional activities perceived as boring

10) High degree of physical mobility; fewer families with long-term commitment to staying in an area and building a congregation over several generations

11) Lower birth rate – families don’t contribute as much natural growth as they used to

12) Young adults moving away for college, work, etc. – this is one of the largest contributors to church decline

13) Change in attendance patterns from coming every week to only every 2-8 weeks – this is responsible for 30-50% of the drop in attendance in many otherwise healthy congregations

None of these needs to spell the end of the Quaker movement, but Friends DO need to work much harder, much smarter and in a much more focused way. In future posts, I’ll talk about some ways we can do this — and have fun along the way!

Real diversity

In my work as a Quaker pastor, I see many different kinds of people.

This weekend, I spent Saturday morning working beside a guy who is making some repairs to our historic meetinghouse. He is highly skilled at what he does, and he volunteers one weekend every month on projects which most of us would have no idea how to accomplish. He’s one of the hardest-working guys I know. Most of my so-called “help” on these projects involves fetching things, holding things, cleaning up and mostly staying out of his way while he does the work of 5 or 6 ordinary people.

A lot of Quaker meetings might not appreciate him, because he loves hunting. He has a hunter’s watchful eyes and he notices absolutely everything. He loves the outdoors and he’s happiest whenever he can spend time just being with nature. He can name every tree, almost every kind of wildlife, and tell you where to find things in every season. He brings home 6 or 7 deer every fall, and whatever he and his family can’t fit in their freezer, he donates to the local food pantry.

He’s a lot more politically conservative than most of the people you’d find in an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, but he’s thoughtful and he cares a lot more about character in people than about political affiliation. He’s unflinchingly honest, utterly reliable, and keeps his word about everything – while he wouldn’t put it in the same words as George Fox, Truth is at the heart of his spirituality.

This weekend, he brought his 7-year-old grandson with him to our monthly work day. It was a gift to watch the two of them together. He glowed with love and pride as he showed his grandson how to do simple tasks, and you could see the hope shining in his face that his grandson would learn the skills he has.

On Sunday morning I usually save the hour before meeting for worship begins to visit with people who arrive early. This Sunday, I talked for nearly an hour with one of our oldest greeters. He’s in his mid 80’s, and his great love in life is gospel music. He follows gospel groups the way other people follow sports teams – he knows their names, their hits, their life stories and concert tours.

This Sunday he brought in a laptop which his daughter handed down to me. He confessed that he didn’t know how to run it. He said he’d heard about the Internet, and wondered if any of his gospel music groups might be on it. We turned his laptop on, connected it to the meeting WiFi, and headed for YouTube.

As you might expect, it only took a few seconds before we found dozens of videos. As soon as one song finished, he’d name another that he wished he could see. After 4 or 5 gospel groups had showed up, there were tears of joy rolling down his cheeks. He said he’d heard there was some “really bad stuff” on the Internet, and that people have to be careful, but he said that being able to watch and hear his beloved music was “a miracle” to him.

I talked for a few minutes before meeting with another member, a retired police officer who just lost his daughter-in-law this week. In broken words, he said that “it wasn’t supposed to be this way” – that she shouldn’t have died so young.

I talked with our clerk of Ministry and Counsel, a wonderful guy from Brazil who is still homesick for his native country after 20 years of living in the U.S. A deeply spiritual person with a beautiful voice, he often enriches our worship with his singing and guitar.

The elder who sat with me on the facing bench is a middle-aged woman who left school at age 16 to work as a florist. April is her busiest time of the year and she was pretty tired last Sunday. For our meeting’s Easter breakfast, she brought a 5-gallon bucket full of flowers, and in 15 minutes she effortlessly whipped up a dozen gorgeous table decorations, which we later used for our Flowering Cross during Easter worship. One of her other gifts is that she offers the most beautiful and sensitive prayers of anyone in the entire meeting. I always feel privileged to listen when she prays.

What’s my point? Quakers talk a good game about diversity, but in the real world we often come up short. Just like everyone else, we like to be comfortable, and one easy path to comfort is to hang out with people who look and think just the way we do. Most Quaker meetings wind up with a remarkably homogenous makeup. Whether it’s a liberal unprogrammed meeting, an evangelical meeting, a university-centered meeting, or a rural meeting, there tends to be relatively little real diversity within the group.

Most meetings would be better off with a wider range of experiences and life journeys, and nearly all meetings would be better off ditching the countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways we make people feel like outsiders when they “don’t fit” our meeting’s profile. Real diversity – the kind that welcomes people as they are, and eagerly listens to their stories and welcomes their gifts – is one of the most wonderful things we can offer.

Besides the usual Quaker assortment of teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers and counselors, the meeting I’m fortunate to serve includes:

  • an environmental attorney
  • the daughter of a famous NASCAR driver, who runs our local food pantry
  • a woman who ran a successful hot air balloon business
  • a blind programmer who worked for NASA
  • a family who are all professional rodeo riders
  • a transgendered wood carver
  • a retired restaurant owner who also attends Pentecostal services
  • a Mexican immigrant who runs a successful landscape business
  • a young sawmill owner and his wife

We are blessed to have so many different people! Even though we seldom agree about politics, solutions to social problems, and many other things, we have discovered a unity which comes from a much deeper place.

“. . .though the way seem to thee divers, yet judge not the way, lest thou judge the Lord, and knowest not that several ways (seeming to reason) hath God to bring his people out by, yet all are but one in the end. . .Deep is the mystery of Godliness. . .”

–  George Fox, Epistle, 1653

Quakers and Christmas

As I write this, Christmas is about 3 weeks away. Stores in our area have been playing Christmas music for at least 2 months now, and cable TV is in non-stop Christmas special mode, as they pull out every Christmas movie in their libraries, no matter how good or bad it is.

Quakers have not always celebrated Christmas. Actually, this wasn’t just a Quaker thing; many of the Puritans in the mid-1600’s in England were also strongly opposed to the holiday. Under Oliver Cromwell’s government, Christmas celebrations of any kind were forbidden by law. The Puritans thought that Christmas was really a pagan holiday, adapted and adopted by the Catholic church. The Puritans thought that Christmas, along with saints, stained glass, most of the sacraments, and over a thousand years of celebration, should be swept away.

Preachers were arrested in the middle of worship services for preaching about Christmas. Shopkeepers were required by law to keep their businesses open. A poster in Boston, a Puritan stronghold, will give you the idea:

PUBLICK NOTICE

The Observation of CHRISTMAS having been deemed
a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings,
dressing in fine Clothing, Feasting and similar
Satanical practices are hereby
FORBIDDEN
with the Offender liable to a fine of FIVE SHILLINGS

(OK, tell us what you really think about this!)

Quakers disagreed with Puritans on a lot of issues, but Christmas was one they agreed on. Well into the mid-1800’s, Quaker books of Faith and Practice admonished Friends not to observe what they called “Days and Times”, since all days were equally holy. Quakers were also cautioned against “those tumultuous demonstrations of joy, and nightly illuminations, which are generally attended with rioting, drunkenness, and many other excesses incompatible with the Christian name.”

In the 1700’s, Friends were even advised not to attend performances of music such as Handel’s Messiah, on the grounds that it “artificially stimulated the passions” and was therefore not relying on the leading of the Holy Spirit.

I remember, early in my work as a Quaker pastor, a dear elderly Friend who had lived for many years in Philadelphia scolding me because I had set up an Advent wreath and invited the children to come and light another candle each week.

Not all Quakers still think this way. Last weekend, the Young Friends of our meeting put on a hilarious Christmas dinner theater production. This year, our meeting is having a Christmas “memory tree” and hanging ornaments with the names of loved ones written on them in silver, gold and red glitter glue. At worship, everyone in the meeting came down to hang them on the tree together.

For many years, Springfield Friends has had a special “White Christmas” collection from individuals and Sunday School classes. This year, the offering will be divided between the local food pantry which we support all year, and scholarships for kids to attend Quaker Lake Camp.

A tradition at our meeting going back several generations is handing out “treat bags” after worship on one of the Sundays close to Christmas. Each bag has a couple of oranges, some nuts, a candy bar and a peppermint stick. Older members of the meeting can recall years during the Depression when the brown paper bags were the only special Christmas treat they received.

Me, I’m a sucker for Christmas – I have a whole shelf filled with Christmas stories, and our family has Christmas ornaments which we’ve treasured for several generations. I’ve collected dozens of carols and give programs of Christmas music. I’ve written a Christmas devotional book (What Does An Angel Look Like?), and even now that our children are adults, we still hang Christmas stockings every year.

This afternoon I spent an hour unpacking and setting up two Nativity creches here at the meetinghouse. We have several more at home – a carved ebony Nativity from Kenya, where Joseph and Mary have African faces and are seated under an acacia tree; a Bolivian Nativity where all the members of the Holy Family are singing out the windows of a bright yellow bus; a tiny porcelain French Nativity from Normandy with figures 3/4 of an inch tall; a Baroque-style Italian Nativity from my childhood; a terracotta Nativity made by a group of Catholic nuns who live with the poorest of the poor.

In my thinking, there’s nothing wrong with trying to understand how and why Jesus came into the world. And it’s worth remembering that when Jesus told us to care for “the least of these”, he was including himself.

For those of you who are troubled by the commercialism, the overconsumption, and all of the ridiculous things which have been added on to the Christmas story, from the Little Drummer Boy to the endless Hallmark Christmas drivel romances – I get it! I share your concern, and I reject the same things you do. But I don’t think that the cure is to do away with Christmas. I think we would do better to re-read the gospel stories about the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, and to re-discover the Light in the gospel of John.

So, if you’re not offended, let me wish you all a blessed and merry Christmas, in Jesus’ name.

Straight talk on preventing child abuse

The news this week reported that a grand jury has found evidence that over 300 Roman Catholic priests and workers in 6 dioceses in Pennsylvania molested over 1,000 children during a period going back decades. The news has re-opened a major wound in the Catholic church and in the hearts and minds of churches around the world.

Not only did these horrible things take place, but the church did not deal effectively with the perpetrators. In many cases, they were simply transferred to other places, where they very probably did the same things again to other children. The leaders who oversaw them were promoted, even as they failed in one of the most basic responsibilities of the church: to protect the youngest and the least.

In one of his clearest commandments in the entire gospel, Jesus said: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)

I have a personal stake in this issue. I am a former Catholic. Although I left the Catholic church many years ago for other reasons, many of my family still belong. I have many Catholic friends. My book shelves include many Catholic devotionals. When I go on retreat, I often spend a few days in a Trappist community. So, the news this week shakes me. My mother, who died a year ago, was a devout Catholic all her life. But for the last 10 years or more, she didn’t go to Mass, because at least 3 of her parish priests – people she trusted – were dismissed or transferred because of sexual offenses.

Quakers and other Protestants shouldn’t think that this problem is confined to the Catholic branch of the Christian family. During my own career as a pastor, I have had to intervene twice in situations where we found out that members or attenders of the meeting were major league sexual offenders. The shock and conflict of the discovery dominated the life of the meeting for months.

Most yearly meetings recommend that everyone who works with young people should have a background check. Most local meetings I have been a part of resist this, saying that “But we know that person – they have belonged here for years!” Requiring a background check feels to some Friends like an invasion of privacy, or that it goes against the openness and trust which they value in a Quaker meeting. Why should we do a background check on a beloved grandmother who has been teaching Sunday School for 40 years? Why should we check out a popular youth leader in their 20’s?

There are compelling reasons why we need background checks, though. Many people who prey on children like to hide in church communities. The invisibility, the access to children, the many rooms and small spaces in church buildings and meetinghouses, all provide cover and camouflage for their activities. Even worse, things that take place in a religious atmosphere let predators intimidate children by saying that God will punish them if they tell their parents or speak to anyone.

When the meeting I served was wavering on this issue, I went first and had a criminal record check done on myself. The Young Friends leaders volunteered next, and soon all the meeting staff and all of the First Day School teachers agreed. In today’s world, parents need to know that this kind of “due diligence” check has been made. It tells them that we are actively looking out for the safety of their children.

Part of my annual routine with committee clerks and other leaders, as well as with all meeting staff, is having “the Talk” – what we do when we hear any complaints or rumors about sexual offenses, unwanted physical contact, harassment, inappropriate e-mails or offensive language. They are encouraged to contact the pastor, the clerk, or the clerk of Ministry and Counsel immediately, and we let them know that any such behavior is not acceptable in our meeting, will be dealt with. We will respect their privacy as much as they ask, but the meeting will not tolerate such behavior or enable it by our inaction or silence.

Background checks and leader awareness will never guarantee that we won’t have problems, of course. But for many Friends meetings, these are important first steps, and we need to be able to assure visitors, newcomers and families that we have taken them.

I’m sure that this post will trigger a lot of bad memories in some readers. Some of you may have other suggestions about how to prevent or how to handle these situations. Let me repeat: they can happen anywhere, even in a Friends meeting, and we need more open discussion and practical steps.


Disclaimer

All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.

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