Trust (8/37)

How do you decide who to trust? If you’re like me, that’s not a simple question. I can think of many times, looking back, when I’ve trusted someone too easily. Sometimes I’ve relied on someone to do something, and they haven’t come through. Sometimes I’ve assumed someone knew what they were talking about, and they didn’t. Occasionally I’ve trusted someone who literally turned out to be dangerous to me. Everyone’s had at least a few trusted-too-much experiences.

But we can’t trust nobody. Not if we’re going to live in community. A certain degree of trust is required just to cross the street. We have to believe that strangers will stop at red lights.

The concept of covenant community requires a very high degree of trust indeed. Which is not to say that God would ask us to trust every Quaker immediately and entirely. Abuse can and does happen in Quaker communities. And even when it doesn’t, there are many other ways to violate trust.

So we need some way to know who is trustworthy and to what degree. It’s vital, especially because we’re meant to be nurturing one another spiritually, and that requires legitimate vulnerability. 

One way to go about this is simply knowing each other for a long time. We have small interactions. We trust each other with little things. That works out well, we try again. We pay attention to people’s reputations. We get a sense of one another. This isn’t a perfect system, but it’s one we practice our whole lives long, and it tends to work the majority of the time.

The trouble is, in large local meetings, or when we get to things like regional and yearly meetings, we simply can’t know everybody. So how do we know who is trustworthy?

As far as I can tell, the first time Quakers asked this question was back in the age of Second Day Meeting. This was pretty early Quakerism, when it used to be possible for most or all of the traveling ministers in England to gather on Mondays and discuss what had happened in worship the day before. These ministers reflected informally on the state of the Society and made decisions about who would go where for the next week. 

After a while, though, some rather odd people started to show up for Second Day Meeting. Maybe they didn’t really know much about Quakerism, or maybe they weren’t very spiritually centered, or maybe they were outright disruptive, or maybe they seemed to have a shadowy agenda of some kind. Since the traveling ministers didn’t all know each other, and since new traveling ministers were feeling called all the time, they couldn’t just identify who belonged on sight. So these Friends instituted a rule that each attender at Second Day Meeting had to have something in writing from their own home worship community saying, essentially, “This person’s legit.”

This was the origin of recording.

Later on, when Quakers were more spread out, the ministers couldn’t all gather for Second Day Meeting. For a while, there were tons of traveling ministers, and they were going all over the world. Each carried with them a travel minute, a letter from their home meeting saying that the work they were doing was of God. These letters were the way in which receiving communities knew to trust them. The letter was proof that the Friend had been through a process of corporate discernment, and they hadn’t just gone off on a whim. And these travel minutes were endorsed by each community visited. In other words, people wrote back to the home meeting, letting them know if everything went all right. It was extra layer of evidence that this Friend should be trusted to travel again.

There came a point, though—we are fast forwarding through more than a hundred years of history and crossing the Atlantic Ocean here—when traveling ministers began to differ from one another in significant theological ways. The messages they carried often conflicted directly. This was the seed of the Orthodox-Hicksite division. And after the division happened, Orthodox Friends trusted Orthodox Friends and Hicksite Friends trusted Hicksite Friends. Your travel minute and recording were irrelevant if they’d been issued by “those other Quakers.”

The crack in our Society runs deep. My own yearly meeting, New York, reunited in the 1950s, and there are Friends alive who still remember that (barely). Once, in a small all-age group of Friends, I was leading a game that involved two small stuffed animals. Since we were a reunified yearly meeting, I named the two critters Hicks and Hoag—after Elias Hicks (famous Hicksite minister, now stuffed tiger) and Joseph Hoag (famous Orthodox minister, now stuffed lion). Most of us thought this was fun. But one older man gave the tiger a new name before he would touch it. He didn’t like the Hicksites. Not even in play.

Reunification wasn’t easy. I’ve read the minutes. They make me cry. There’s a beauty in their coming back together, but it wasn’t immediate and total healing. There were a lot of things that Friends then just didn’t talk about. If they did, they quarreled. So they stayed silent. And they formed committees.

Committees modulate the degree of trust necessary. We approve or disapprove of nominations. The nominations happen for a limited time. Big steps still have to be approved by the whole body. We know that committees can’t do anything radical. So we don’t have to worry very much about trusting.

I think that’s one way we manage trust nowadays. The other way we seem to do it is by saying, “I trust you because you are like me.” Most Quaker communities I visit, including my own, have certain key words or phrases they seem to look for. Using them functions as a shibboleth. Some are theological. Some are cultural. Some are sociological. Some are literally familial, in the sense of, “Oh, I knew your grandpa.”

Other words and phrases are essentially forbidden. If used, they communicate, “I am other. Not to be trusted.” And yes, we have phrases that are shibboleth in one place and forbidden in another. As a traveling minister, I’ve learned to be conscious of these. I never lie, but I police my speech depending on where I am because experience has shown me that not doing so can snap budding relationships.

I have a travel minute from my meeting. I’m extremely grateful for it. It’s evidence of corporate discernment of a ministry, and I needed that for my own sake if no one else’s, especially in the earliest days. But travel minutes are no longer evidence of trustworthiness among Friends in the 21st century. Today, trustworthiness comes from reputation. Speaking. Writing. Interacting. Facilitating. It involves a lot of branding and marketing principles. I hated all that for a very long time because it felt dishearteningly worldly.

I complained about this once to a Quaker minister with many more decades of experience than I have, and he smiled sort of gently and said, “Thee must demonstrate thy faithfulness over time.” It stopped me in my tracks. Because of course that’s right

I’m not sure that Quakers have ever had a magical solution to the trust problem. Maybe we invented travel minutes because we were living in an era of letters of introduction, and writing a letter for someone to carry with them was the culturally normal way to establish trust. These days, it seems like it’s done with a blog. And social media networks. And personal contacts. Which is the 21st century’s culturally normal way. I trust you because I’ve gotten to know you…if not in person, then by reading your website.

In all of this, I have four main points.

#1: All institutions have to solve the problem of “how do we know who to trust?” A common solution is hierarchy, but we have rejected that. Still, Quaker institutions have solved this trust problem multiple times. Each time, they’ve done it in a manner appropriate for their historical era. 

#2: Some of our historical models, such as travel minutes and recording, don’t have the trustworthiness effect that they used to, even though these processes haven’t been laid down officially in most places. Why? Perhaps the practices are less well known. Or perhaps they’re less appropriate in the modern era. I have a suspicion that it also has something to do with our current manner of practicing corporate discernment, but I’ll say more about that later.

#3: One solution for the trustworthiness question is committees. But in my opinion, this is less about trusting people and more about a structure in which people don’t need to be trusted as much. And a side effect is slowing, sometimes preventing, powerful ministry. 

#4: We don’t have strong methods in place to decide who’s trustworthy across yearly meetings. For instance, a Friend’s service on a committee in California doesn’t mean much to a Friend in Uganda. So instead, we use theological and cultural commonalities to judge trustworthiness. This plays into an us/them dynamic that is threatening our Society and the world at large. It’s also a terrible way of assessing actual trustworthiness. It causes us not to engage in relationship with many faithful Friends, and it makes plenty of space for people who say the right things but are actually unreliable or even abusive.

I wish I had an easy answer here, a simple proposal we could all accept. But the truth is, our current methods for deciding who to trust are getting in our way, and possibly in God’s way. At the same time, our historical models may not be appropriate answers to the trustworthiness question in modern times. Ignoring the problem also isn’t working. So what will the solution be?

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