H is for Honesty

In my ongoing mission to complete the Quaker Alphabet Blog Project in 2014 today I bring to you Honesty.

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There is an old joke in Quaker circles that you always find Honesty in a Quaker garden. Give us a break – we’re not professional gag writers for the most part.

However, one of the attractions, and possibly also scary bits, of being a member of our small but beautifully-formed community is that we try to speak honestly in all our dealings. Naturally we aren’t always good at it, and tie ourselves in knots trying to avoid being hurtful while keeping to the truth. A recent meeting was a good example.

I have mentioned in previous posts on this project that it can be quite demanding being a Friend, because there are so few people and so much work including managing our crumbling meeting houses, conforming to charity law and simply maintaining the day-to-day business of our worshipping groups. There are so many things to do that we have a rather esoteric process called “Nominations”. There is a committee, naturally, whose job it is to find people to do other jobs, from treasurer to conference goer. [As an “interesting” side note there are also Nominations Committees to appoint people to Nominations Committee and, in our geographical Area at least, a Search Group to find people to serve on Elders and Overseers, separate from the Nominations Committee, whom you might expect to be asked to do that. As it is, Area Nominations Committee has to find over 60 names a year to do all the things we want to do so the Search Group is intended to spread the load.]

Yesterday was Area Meeting, the time when we get together with folks from all the local worshipping groups in our geographical Area, to share, learn, celebrate and even do business. One of the items of business was Nominations, and how we can improve the process so it is clear to everyone. The current committee had asked us to think about treating their recommendations more thoughtfully, rather than rubber-stamping them, and to be ready to discuss a person’s suitability for a role.

Well, that was all well and good when we wanted to hear about how wonderful each other are. How many skills, how much experience, how long-standing and dedicated a commitment. But what about when someone felt obliged to stand up and say those fateful words “that name would not have occurred to me”? This dread phrase, or something like it, is the equivalent of “Good grief! Are you barking? You can’t let Gladys do Catering, not after the incident last year which resulted in several hospitalisations for listeria-induced comas and food poisoning!” Worse yet, the name may be for something even more sensitive than catering, such as Children’s arrangements or Safeguarding or Finance and Property.

Quakers seek to find the best in everyone, to recognise the Light within, and to accept the whole person, but we aren’t stupid. We also practise tough love and will face up to behaviours and actions which are hurtful, and will hold the person to account in a loving and supportive way. At least, at our best we do and the rest of the time we try to do so. It’s a thing I like, even though I like it a bit less when I am the recipient of that tough love. After a while I get over it and am grateful someone was caring and brave enough to tell me.

As a result we may have people among us whom you would never put in charge of certain functions, such as children or money, while still loving them as cherished members of the community. You might put the embezzler on Children’s Committee so long as they didn’t manage the budget for wax crayons and glitter sticks, but you would do it knowingly.

Here’s the rub. How much of a discussion should be expected in an open forum about why the worried Friend has stood up and uttered this phrase? You have to be sure and you have to be quite brave to do it; but you also have to be justified.

We want to be honest and open. We need to know if there is a reason someone should not be appointed, but only one or two people may be aware of that reason. In a meeting I used to belong to last century we had a rule that you could only be invited to help with children, not volunteer. It seemed best to introduce a rule before there was any issue about suitability, rather than make it up on the hoof. It didn’t stop anyone making known their willingness to help out, but it did give peace of mind to all concerned in a large group where not everyone knew everyone else well.

Back to our Area Meeting then. We sat and thought about it for quite some time, trying to discern the right way forward. We wanted to be able to raise concerns but there was a balance required between confidentiality and transparency.

I’m not saying we are geniuses in settling this old debate. In fact we fudged it quite a bit and agreed we would not expect to go into detail but would discuss the issue between the person raising it and the Nominations Committee. If the objection was over-ruled it would come back to next Area Meeting, unless there was a time constraint in which case the committee could make the decision. It’s a bit fuzzy. People may still be upset. We are in danger of making the process slower and more complex than necessary. For me the important thing is we faced up to it and talked it over and generally tried to work out what love required of us.

I think we were honest because we recognised that we need to be able to say that a candidate for a job is not right in a safe and supportive way. We need to be able to be able to have and deal with disagreements. We need to be honest about decisions and not just take the easiest path in the name of not hurting feelings. By setting an expectation that our decisions are not automatic, that we take them seriously, and that we will welcome challenges, we make honesty the norm.

I am reminded of a cartoon I saw recently, probably a meme. It was about someone being interviewed.

“Tell us what you think is your worst quality,” said the interviewer.

“Honesty.”

“I don’t think that’s a negative quality!”

“Honestly, I don’t care what you think.”

Namaste.

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