Monday, February 22, 2010

As If Your Life Depended on It

A while ago, I talked with Liz about a committee charged with a specific task (I'm keeping this non-specific because the issue has since been addressed).

I was upset because the committee and our meeting didn't seem to act on a couple of things I sent the clerk and the committee about the task. I don't remember exactly who said what, but Liz and I came to the conclusion that if I brought my concern to the committee or the meeting, I'd be asked why I didn't do the task myself. My response?


Then I realized this might be a social class thing.

At my meeting (and at the yearly meeting and in a few other Quaker settings), if you bring a concern or solution to a problem, you're often asked to lead the committee for the concern or implement the solution.

Does this happen in your Quaker circles? Do you ask, "Why aren't they..." and you get, "Why aren't YOU...?"

This, I posit, is an expression of middle class individualism and not Quakerism.

Growing up, I was taught to go directly to a person or group responsible for a task they were supposed to do but weren't doing (or were doing badly). This, I think,comes from a working class culture. When you see something in the workplace that isn't getting done the way it's supposed to be getting done, you help protect the person on the line with you by saying something to them, because you know what it's like to have the boss come down on you, what it will be like if you lose your job. And they would do the same for you.

You're concerned because what he or she does impacts your job, your livelihood. He or she may live in your neighborhood, may be related to you closely or distantly. And you can't do his or her job also because your work won't get done.

If your coworker doesn't respond, you go to his or her family. If that doesn't work, you go to the union. And you never, ever go to the boss.

No, the committee's task isn't impacting my livelihood or isn't threatening my way of life or the lives of people in my meeting. But there's something embedded in me that wants, no NEEDS, that committee to do what it has been charged to do.

Does my worldview have a place in Quakerism? I think so.

Early Friends often let each other know when they weren't faithful, when they outran their Guide. We hesitate to do so and are sometimes offended when others do so because we so value our individual freedoms, our individual leadings and beliefs. They knew their spiritual lives, their corporate lives and Quakerism in general depended on it.

I think they were right. I feel like my spiritual life, the spiritual well-being of my meeting, and Quakerism in general depend on our collective faithfulness, our ability to do what we've been charged to do.


RantWoman said...

Friend speaks my mind.

One of these days I will get around maybe to explaining some resonance on that theme in current affairs in my Meeting.

Hystery said...

I am pretty sick of "why don't you?" responses. I don't think I'm socialized as a working class person and I'm not sure from whence my own feelings on this originate, but I feel that when someone is charged with a job, they should do it and do it well. If they fail to do it well, then the members of their community should raise concerns. I fail to understand why it is important for us all to feel that if we want something done we should do it ourselves. Don't we live in cooperative communities with many hands and hearts turned to a task? It is possible that we might recognize a need in the community and also recognize that we aren't the ones to do it. People have different skills, schedules, etc. Some are excellent organizers. Others are better brainstormers. Some are educators, researchers, or are handy with tools. Others are good at making calls, nurturing, cooking. If someone who is good at cooking and making phone calls has a concern about the needs of First Day school, they shouldn't expect that they'll be told, "Why don't you?." They should be able to bring the concern to the educators in the meeting. Telling someone to "do it yourself" is a community cop-out and prevents good ideas from coming to the fore.

Karen said...

"It is possible that we might recognize a need in the community and also recognize that we aren't the ones to do it."

Absolutely! Isn't that the point of having, I don't know, say... a community?

Rich in Brooklyn said...

I can't disagree with Jeanne's position as stated, but I think a lot depends on the individual situation. I think there are some situations where "Why don't you do it?" is an unwarranted brush-off and others where it's a reasonable response.

If a committee or a Friend under appointment has accepted a well-defined responsibility it is reasonable to hold her or him responsible for fulfilling it. BUT, if a Friend in the Meeting becomes concerned that some laborious task be undertaken at once, I think the Friend's concern has less weight if she or he feels led to lay it as an obligation on someone else rather than to undertake it herself or himself.

I have had the experience of doing a great deal of work on a Friends committee, doing the best I can to meet all the responsibilities, and constantly fielding proposals from other less active Friends for new things that we could be doing (if only we weren't already burning ourselves out carrying the load we already had).

Rich in Brooklyn said...

I just want to add something as a counter-balance to my previous comment. There have been times when I myself felt that something ought to be done but that I was not the person to do it.
In these cases I have tried to present my concern as a suggestion and to hope that if it met with approval someone would pick it up and run with it. In some cases this has happened and in others it has not. But I feel I'd have been a little out of line if I had proceeded to pass judgement of another Friend's level of commitment, based on his or her failure to carry my concern.

Liz Opp said...

A long-standing concern I've had about a committee I know that addressed issues of peace and social concerns is that the members of the committee seldom seemed to be doing work on behalf of the meeting.

Instead, the committee seemed to be seeking support for the issues and concerns that the individual committee members held.

Once when I brought a concern to the committee, I was told to meet with the committee, share more details, and prepare to present the concern to the meeting.

I was very turned off at that point. Now that the same committee has been laid down for about two years, Friends are beginning to consider what had happened and what needs to happen if it's revitalized.

My sense of what happened is very much what Jeanne points to in this post.

I also agree with Rich, that there's a line we walk between trusting committees to do the work on behalf of the meeting and experiencing frustration when the committee doesn't exactly rush to take up the concern that I myself am wanting it to!

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Anonymous said...

This discussion troubles me because I am led to write that the energy would be better spent getting in touch with God, Spirit, the Holy Ghost, the Advocate, Intuition, fill in the blank. A successful outcome makes everything better.

George Heaton
Palo Alto Friends Meeting

forrest said...

This approach is not so much connected to class (much as that side of things is usually underemphasized) but to practicality.

In small meetings especially, the members and most of the attenders are already putting out all they feel they have available.

In any event, where you lack the power to effectively make anyone do more than they want to, doing it yourself works and saying "You really ought to" simply lets you feel self-righteous. This is the normal state of affairs for most all mortals...

(Slightly off-subject: As a writer, I get particularly annoyed by people who normally don't even read, who have suddenly been inspired by the thought of a wonderful book I could write about a subject that doesn't interest me. True, if I'd accepted the role of ghost-writer for them it would change the ethics of the situation--but not my likelihood of actually producing the book.)

Jeanne said...

Thanks everyone for commenting.

RantWoman: I look forward to your coming blog post!

Rich: Yes, I'm aware that there are times when it's appropriate to ask someone why they're not carrying their own concern. I'm talking about only when the corporate body discerned something and gave that specific task to a committee (or sometimes a person). My beef wasn't a suggestion or something new. It was with what they'd been asked to do.

It's good, as Liz says, to straddle that line of trusting a committee and holding them responsible.

George: Thanks for stopping by. Whose energy? Mine? The committee's? I'm confused. As I say above in this comment, the direction had already been given to the committee and they weren't doing what they'd been tasked with. God had already given direction, through us as a corporate body. And in this instance, a pretty strong sense of direction too.

Forrest: I'm curious. Do you dismiss this as being influenced by social class because of some experience you have as a poor or working class person? I write from my own experience as someone who grew up working class, and who sees serious cultural differences that keep Quakerism mono-cultural. I want to know what experiences you bring that contradict this as a social class issue (though I acknowledge, not solely so).

Unknown said...

Thanks for this, Jeanne.

I like Liz's response a lot, and the way you've summed it up, Jeanne.

I belong to a very large meeting (by Quaker Standards, anyway) and have clerked & served on some of it's bigger committees.

What is often a source of frustration is the "Somebody should really do X" - meaning a specific committee, or me, as a busy, official-looking "somebody".

Examples I'm thinking of are when someone in the meeting has a bright new idea about what someone else (or some other committee)should be doing - and that other person should get right on it! Or, a personal interpretation of what a committee's work *should* be, which doesn't necessarily match what the committee thinks is its job description.

Many committees in Quaker meetings have fairly loose roles which may be fluid and changing, as well as different from monthly meeting to monthly meeting. (Ex - Worship & Ministry: responsible for care of worship? for all religious education? for care and counsel of meeting members? for the spiritual care and nurture of the entire meeting - and what does that entail, anyway?)

I've heard that if you ask twelve different Quakers a question, you'll get thirteen different opinions. I've found this so in our meetings - there often at least as many (or more) opinions as there are meeting members about what X Committee should be doing & how they should do it.

As a former Nom Comm clerk, I've found it's helpful for committees to reexamine their "job description" on a regular basis, reevaluating whether it still fits (do we have new work? are there pieces here which we've outgrown or which no longer apply?) and reporting that to the meeting on a regular basis - "This is what we see as our work at this time, and this is what we've done so far."

Especially when the "job description" the meeting or Faith & Practice has given it is huge or ambiguous!

I do think it's within a committee's right to say, "Thank you for your suggestion - that's not really part of how we see our work at this time. If this is a strong concern for you, please do season this with others to see if this might be a leading for you or something to bring forward to meeting for business for the whole meeting's discernment."

And of course, if a committee has been given a specific charge which it's fallen down on (for example, ARE has agreed to offer Quakerism 101 and several other programs every year, but hasn't for a variety of reasons), it's helpful for the meeting to ask what's going on - hopefully through the meeting clerk - and to see if there are ways a committee needs more support.

Perhaps a clerk is simply burnt-out, or the committee has been struggling with a conflict, or there has been illness, or the committee desperately needs new members.

I guess I would rather inquire with a spirit of gentleness & trust about what's been going on, and find out if there are ways the meeting can help.

- Eric Evans

Eric H-L said...

I have recently begun exploring Quakerism so I don’t have any experiences with slacking commitees yet. I grew up in a family with plenty of social class advantage. I earn my living in as an electrician, and I have noticed the way my fellow workers hold each other responsible as you described. I am sending this Elias Hicks quote because I enjoyed it so much, but it may not be relate well to this discussion. (One reason I enjoyed it was the very human side of Hicks which I did not hear as much in his other entries.)
“The next day being the first of the week, we attended Friends Meeting at West Hartford, which was likewise very small – Friends being but few in number in that place and those mostly appeared in a lukewarm state. And I apprehended they had taken but little care to inform their neighbors of our being there, although we had seasonably requested them so to do – which manifests great insensibility and want of regard for their Friends who have left all their owtward enjoyments for the promotion of the gospel and the religious improvement of their Friends and the people, and are going up and down in travail and labor, as with their lives in their hands, as Truth leads the way. And yet, their Friends whom they visit, in some places either think it too much trouble or are so unconcerned as to take little or no care to give their neighbors notice – a sense of which caused me to take leave of my Friends at this place with a heavy heart.”
(The Journal of Elias Hicks edited by Paul Buckley. Page 346)
Did the West Hartford friends fail to do their job? Apparently. Was Elias Hicks working class? I don’t know (but I imagine you and your readers do.) Did Elias Hicks hold the West Hartford Friends to account, or did he consign the whole affair to his journal? I don’t know.
Peace, Eric H-L