Elders and Overseers from Sheffield Central, Nether Edge and Bamford met together to discuss the theme of ‘Inclusion’ at Morley Retreat Centre, on the weekend of 30 March. (The picture, left, is the chapel at Morley).
We worshipped together, and shared views and feelings, around the question of ‘How can we enable everyone in our Meetings to feel more fully included?’ We started from our own experiences, and moved on to identify those moments in people’s lives when feeling part of our community might be problematic. We considered how people move from being newcomers towards a sense of feeling included among us. Some may find it difficult to sustain coming to Meeting in the long term when their life outside Quakers becomes more demanding, or their needs change. Even if they appear to feel at home among us, the connection may not be strong enough to withstand changes, doubts and uncertainties. Longstanding members of our community will have very different needs, and different things to offer, as they move through the stages of their lives.
Sometimes we come to Meeting for Worship every week, wanting to be fully involved, and willing to take on different roles. Sometimes we need more space, so that although we continue to see ourselves as part of the Quaker community, we may not want such active involvement. How do we manage those transitions sensitively, without becoming hurt, feeling left out and passed over – or overwhelmed? How do we make a welcoming space for children, and how do we ‘help one another up with a tender hand’ during crises – spiritual, social, psychological?
When newcomers arrive, how can we assess their needs sensitively? We acknowledged that our Meetings are overwhelmingly composed of white and apparently middle-class people. Our silence-based worship can mean that it takes a long time to find out what is at the heart of our Quaker spirituality, and to find out about one another. We heard from the Epistle of Black, White, Asian and mixed heritage Friends, (1991):
‘Racism within the Society of Friends is perhaps more damaging because it is unconscious and springs from stereotyped assumptions:
‘And no harm is meant by it. Harm may be done but it is never meant.’
Differences other than race, such as class, sexuality and personal religious history, can lead to stereotyping and unintentionally excluding people. Our unquestioned assumptions can then make it harder for them to find and keep their spiritual home among us.
We were reminded that our spiritual process is at the heart of who we are: and yet it can be hard for us to talk freely about this. Do we take every opportunity to talk about our spiritual experiences with one another? To share the joys and demands of the spiritual life? To offer practical help with becoming and staying focused during Worship, and maintaining a regular spiritual practice, to those for whom this may feel new and strange?
As a community in which we all share the tasks that would otherwise fall to a minister, there can be a danger of us becoming preoccupied with organisational matters. This may happen when we talk to one another about business, especially in the precious half-hour after Meeting for Worship. Our intention is important here: if we approach our time together with the desire to include one another at every possible opportunity, we may find that a change develops in what we think our business is, and in how we go about it.
We make an effort to welcome people who are new to our Meetings with warmth, but we need to consider also how we can help them to become integrated. How can we be sensitive to the changing needs of those who have been among us for a while, whom we think we know, and yet whose lives may be undergoing transformation? Sometimes our own feelings of inadequacy prevent us from acting, from saying difficult things to one another. It is risky to hear another’s doubts and questions, to feel their vulnerability – and our own. Do we avoid speaking for fear of intruding into another person’s space?
What happens to those people who come for a while and seem to be part of our Meetings, yet then disappear? They may have found out all that they needed, and are content to leave. Yet how sad if they were searching for something we actually have to offer – but never gave them the opportunity to discover.
Small groups working on ‘Gifts and Discoveries’ and ‘Hearts and Minds’ had enabled some Friends to get to know others better, and to become more deeply part of the Meeting community. Being in several small groups over a period of time is one way gradually to build up the number of people that you know in the ‘things that are eternal’.
Some practical suggestions:
- Get to know each other better across the whole of Balby Monthly Meeting. Ours is an unusual situation, with one large Meeting and several smaller ones. We want to encourage everyone to visit other Meetings, to experience their Worship, and to get to know Friends outside your regular Meeting. We also want to encourage new people who have been drawn to Sheffield Meeting House to visit other Meetings, and we plan to suggest all this in SQN.
- With new people. Identify an Elder and an Overseer by name during notices, and ensure that one of them is available in the Meeting room to talk one-to-one. A Meeting for Reflection can provide a safe environment for general discussion: make its purpose clear to everyone, and name the Friend responsible for its smooth running. This is also an opportunity to familiarise the whole Meeting with the Elders and Overseers, and to say something about their roles.
- When conducting business, especially immediately before and after Meeting for Worship: remember that this is an opportunity to include everyone in our ministry. If we approach jobs as opportunities for people to get to know one another, rather than as chores on a rota that’s hard to fill – we may find that people say ‘yes’ more often, and that the loving quality of our Meetings increases.
- Encourage newcomers to have an envelope – or to join an email list, or whatever system the Meeting uses for communication – as soon as possible.
- Young people and children. We ask everyone to consider how we can encourage all the children and young people to feel more strongly a part of our community, and particularly to find ways to enable the older young people to ‘grow into’ Meeting for Worship. Friends at Central suggested inviting them to join the main Meeting for Worship for a longer period sometimes – perhaps fifteen to thirty minutes. We need to find ways of gathering them in to the Worship, and resisting the temptation to change the atmosphere, so that the Meeting is deepened rather than feeling that it has ended prematurely.
- Follow up on Quaker Quest with a variety of activities, aiming to appeal to Attenders with different needs and interests. Think about how each of our Meetings can use Quaker Week for outreach.
Jane Fitzgerald, Clerk to Balby MM Elders and Overseers