Holding Space

As a "listening people," the Society of Friends has a tradition of "holding space" for another person. While the term is new, the practice is old and went without a name for generations. Because of the roles that I play among Friends, I often listen to hurts and frustrations of our members. This piece describes a framework that I have developed over time to make sure that I understand the situation so that I can help the person find guidance for the way forward. The framework is the result of my own mistakes, learning through prayer about it, and consulting books and Friends with experience doing this. I use it for a range of situations, reaching from a small part of a conversation to a request to talk about problems privately.

Obviously, "holding space" has shades of meaning in different places. Some see it as a mini meeting for worship, where two or three people meet together to allow someone to share burdens or hurts. This is what I would call the context of holding space but not the contents. Obviously these sessions work best in person, but it can be done over the phone. When someone asks to share something with me (rather than doing this as part of a longer conversation), I find it best to keep the number of people involved to only two or possibly three. More people than that introduces a different dynamic.

This piece does not discuss confrontations or deeper issues that require psychiatric therapy, partially because these are not strengths of mine. This article is also not about "sharing stories." I approach the role of facilitator the same way I approach my role as Clerk: focus on the issue at hand, let the other person carry the conversation, and maintain a safe environment for sharing. In this posting, I will speak to thee as the potential facilitator.

The first part of a session is finding out what the person needs to share about. What usually happens with me is that someone needs to talk about a situation that precipitated feelings of insecurity or hurt. It is important for thee to make sure that the person conveys the entirety of the situation. Try to keep the person focused on one specific event or cluster of events - this is not psychiatry with multiple sessions. Some people share more easily than others, so one person might be able to share a situation in five minutes while another person might need 30 minutes. This cannot be safely rushed (says the Wilburite) - just be sure to get the entire story. 

My next part of the process is what I describe as understanding the interpretation. I might go through the same events and possibly not be bothered or feel something entirely different, but that is not what the session is about. It is about finding out how the other person interpreted the event. Usually the person will say this during the story, but not always. Was the person frustrated? Did (s)he feel betrayed? Did the event cause feelings of isolation or anger? As people say these days, "feelings are facts."

Throughout the process, it is critical for thee to make the person feel safe. This entails several things. Ohio Friends have a remarkable reputation for receiving this kind of information and never sharing it with anyone (except possibly with a spouse). Safety includes the facilitator agreeing not to mention the details to others and especially not to use the details later to harm the person in need. Safety also includes telling the person that things are okay if the person gets emotionally stirred up. Don't use this to try to manipulate the other person or to achieve some objective for thyself.

Another important role for the facilitator is to validate the person. The person needs to hear words from thee that demonstrate thy attention to the sharing. When a person shares a very difficult experience with thee, a part of validation is to say "wow, I am so sorry to hear this happened to thee. That must have been incredibly painful" [or whatever is appropriate to say]. Don't skip this step - the person needs to hear thee express something like this. Probably the worst thing to do is to minimize what the person went through, either by saying "well it wasn't as bad as I thought" or comparing it insensitively to something that is not a suitable parallel.

At this point, the facilitator is informed about the event and the person's interpretation. The next thing that I do is to work with the person about what to do from here. Does the person need to speak with someone in particular about these things? Does the person need to take some other specific action? Can the person learn something about themselves so they can do better in the future when faced with something similar? These questions obviously can't all apply to each situation - usually the situation makes it evident what questions need to be considered. I remember one time when a Friend needed to share a frustration about a third party who I knew well also. This gave me a perspective that led to something that I don't believe that I have said in any other case like this - she was carrying out her gifts during the events under discussion and, while it was difficult for her, she needed to continue forward with her behaviors that caused the other person to respond in a way that was not best. I find it helpful for the third phase of the discussion to include some element of how to behave in the future to achieve better results, because this makes it a learning experience with the potential for lasting results.

If a session goes more than 10-15 minutes, I like to say something when we have reached the end to indicate either the conversation is over or to indicate that we can talk about another topic. If the person shared something deep, it is good to say something like "Cynthia [use the person's name here], thank thee for sharing that with me. I hope the Lord brought thee some healing [or direction or whatever word is right] and that thee will feel free to let me know what happens in the future."

One last thing that I want to share on this topic is care for the facilitator. Holding space for others is not always easy and can take a lot of energy. Most of us have a spouse or family member that we can go to afterwards and share generally about how things went. I don't know if psychiatrists do this or not. As a single person, I find it difficult that I don't have anyone to "decompress" with. Another part of "care of the facilitator" is the question of what to do when the facilitator needs to share something. I face this problem from time to time because acting as the listener is such a part of my personality that others do not naturally consider that they sometimes need to facilitate me. Also part of my problem is that I need to separate "holding space" from sharing stories, so I am not able to be the facilitator and then turn around immediately and reverse roles. Sharing stories is fine, but my mind sees this as a different interaction.

Anyway I hope this might help someone who is looking for a framework for holding space for another in a way that provides guidance for how to engage with the person in a meaningful way.



Negative Self Talk

Matthew records an interesting conversation that Jesus had with the Pharisees about using words as a weapon. After Jesus healed a man who was blind and unable to speak, some Pharisees there accused Him of healing through the power of Beelzebub, an ancient Canaanite god. Jesus gave a somewhat lengthy reply that included the "house divided" passage, the caution about blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, and an admonition from 1 Samuel regarding idle words that come from one's heart (Matthew 12:22-37).

The three things Jesus said in His response to the Pharisees can stand alone as independent teachings, and one can apply them individually to various situations. This posting, however, is about the application of the three parts of this reply to a specific problem.

Over the past weekend, I spoke with two dear Friends. Both are beautiful people who seek to live their lives as witnesses to the influence of the Light of Christ Jesus. They both have nurturing personalities, and any meeting would love to have these two people worshipping with them. One of them has been involved in a long-term project assisting a Friend who is going through a difficult time in life and has shown persistence in providing help that I do not believe that I would have the strength to sustain. I have met part of his family, and his wife is a lovely woman with her own gifts and wisdom. The other person is a woman with an emerging gift of eldership. She has been active in praying during worship for the Lord to be so palpably present that all gathered will know the  touch of the Divine Hand. I have not met her family. The man and woman I am writing about have both had difficulties in their lives, but I cannot recall an unkind word that either has said about another person. These two people are much more advanced towards sainthood than I am.

What struck me for the first time this weekend, though, is that both of them struggle with negative self-talk. I had individual conversations with them, and they both brought up this tendency without prompting. All I can say is that I am dumbfounded by both of them. Their lives are precious examples of the Lord's molding presence.

Using words to wound

Our Friend John Edminster said something recently that struck me. He is trying to stop using words to wound other people. John is a very tender and loving man, and I was surprised that he found this to be a problem in his life. I do not recall hearing John doing this, but apparently he feels a need to be intentional about eliminating it from his life. Living in the Life and Power that takes away the occasion of all war includes not sewing the seeds of discord, so his concern is a good one that we can all find instructive.

What struck me about John's words was the associated issue of a person using words for self-wounding. Sustained negative self-talk is not good. This is particularly the case if it becomes something that drains energy from thee or otherwise keeps thee from the exercise of thy gifts.

If this is a problem for thee, consider this: God created thee for certain purposes. Saying something like "My life is a failure" denies that thy faithfulness has ever touched the heart of someone else. That statement belittles what God has done in thee and for thee. This is the very thing that Jesus complained to the Pharisees about - denying the workings of the Holy Ghost in a person's life (in this case, thy life). Negative self-talk insults God.

Bearing in mind that I am not a psychologist, the following may be helpful for thee (or not). These are some things that have been weighing on my mind that could provide a way forward for thee to get out of the habit of negative self-talk.


Let us distinguish between negative self-talk and modesty. Many of us are careful not to puff ourselves up. Jesus set an example of this Himself. Several times when the Father revealed to others that He was the Christ, He would tell them not to repeat it. He would say things like "See that no man know it." Some things that Jesus was called to do needed to be done in a particular sequence, and until His time was come, He arranged circumstances in various ways including through directions to those who heard Him. Some followed His words and others did not. Considering who Jesus was and what He had the ability to do, He was incredibly modest (such as when He stood before Pilate).

Many Friends are also modest. For example, the three people who I feel have the most sustained gifts in the ministry in Ohio YM are remarkably modest. I have never heard any of these people (J, W, and N) say anything like "well, you know, I happen to be one of the most gifted ministers in the historic Quaker tradition." This could easily be a statement of fact for any of them, but they do not talk about themselves that way. In fact, often the Ohio ministers are so humbled by the recognition that they often won't mention to an outsider that their gift has been recognized unless the person specifically asks if they have been recognized.

Modesty is an outstanding Christian virtue. It helps convey that one's abilities are divinely given, so that the exercise of gifts feeds the spiritually hungry rather than feeding the ego.

Modesty is not a part of negative self-talk. The latter is a destructive tendency that involves a decision (conscious or not) on thy part to undervalue thyself, thy abilities, or thy gifts. It is wrong for thee to entertain the notion of undermining thy labor in the Divine vineyard. Much of thy faithfulness has been in response to a divine prompting. Thy negative self-talk tears thee down, undermines thy faithfulness, and denies the prompting of the Holy Ghost that caused thee to take thy faithful action.

Some Queries

The following are some queries that may be helpful for thee. Consider discussing them with a confidante in order to get additional insight into thy own situation.

1) What prompts thy negative self-talk? Is it based on frustration arising out of a poor decision thee made in the past? Is it uncertainty during a turbulent transition time for thee? Is it an inability to see how the Lord might be guiding thee into the future? Is it a lack of ways to cope with others?

2) Can the self-talk be better worded? Instead of saying "I am a total failure," would it be more accurate to say something else such as "I don't feel that I have the ability to face my current challenges"? Reaching more precise language may give thee insight into how to proceed and help thee find a good person to share thy challenges with and start to find divine direction for a way forward.

3) Does thee have enough love in thy life?  It can be particularly difficult for single people to experience the care and nurture that they need. This may sound so obvious that it is insulting, but there are three primary ways to increase the level of love in thy life: A) Get more love from the Source, B) Get more love from sharing it with other people, and C) Get more love from sharing thyself with someone else who cannot return the love. Thy circumstances may prevent thee from using all three of these ways of increasing the level of love in thy life. What is the Lord asking of thee in this regard? Try to be realistic and avoid getting over-extended.

4) Does thee have a mentoring relationship with another person? This is one of my ongoing concerns that some people are tired of hearing about. Most of us can have two great mentoring relationships at the same time: one with a more experienced person and one with a less experienced person. Thy circumstances may limit thee to only having a spiritual relationship with someone roughly on par with thee, and if that is thy lot, embrace it.

5) Does thee need help from the Lord to accept the current circumstances of thy life? It is easy to be tempted with the idea that Christ Jesus (or possibly thy meeting) is holding thee back from experiencing one or more of the joys of life. It can be easy to question why good things happening to other people are being held back from thee. I face that problem in life myself right now. Perhaps the Lord wants to arrange some things for thy future and wants to show thee some other things right now. The overarching challenge is thy recognition that God is looking out for thee, wants the best for thee, and sees it right to occupy thee with other things at this stage of thy life. Can thee embrace thy current situation, even for a short time, and look around for ways to be of service or otherwise find spiritual food? These ways may not resolve thy hurts and are not long-term solutions, but the Lord may have some other purposes for thee in life right now.

Negative self-talk and associated issues are not easy to deal with. Don't let thy life be hampered or paralyzed by them. Some of God's greatest blessings take time and/or discipline to experience. Give thyself a chance to know His precious peace and find His healing presence in thy heart.



A Silent Witness

Worship at my meeting today was very good but still a little challenging for me. My meeting is small, though today we had three visitors. A challenge that I face is that we have several men who are frequently led to speak during worship. Their leadings are pretty consistently valid, and I do not want to take anything away from any of them.

What weighs on me is that it is somewhat rare for any women to speak during our worship. It does happen, perhaps once a month. As a result, it is common for nearly every male to speak during worship, but no women.

This has happened before. A few months ago I sensed a leading to speak during worship. The leading was not as strong as it is most of the time. While I was in discernment about sharing it, three different men stood to speak. One of the men in my meeting has been appointed to choose an Advice to read during the worship, so counting him, four men spoke at that particular meeting, but none of the women. If I had shared the leading I had sensed, it would have meant that all men present would have spoken but none of the women. I felt that would be a bad example to set, and I chose not to share the leading rather than set up such a dichotomy.

For the most part, this has not been much of a problem. I normally only sense a leading to speak once a month or so. About two months ago, something happened that seemed to pull a plug in me, and I have sensed more leadings to speak than before. Since that time, I have sensed leadings to speak in meeting about three times out of four. It is this increased frequency that has challenged my discernment process.

Today, three men spoke, the one man read an Advice, and there I was weighing a leading to speak. Part of today's challenge was not just that I felt a somewhat strong leading to speak, but that this one seemed to be among the better leadings that I have sensed of late. I felt for a while today that one of the women visitors was weighing a leading to share, and I was hoping that she would do so. That would have allowed me to also speak. She didn't, so I didn't. As the Lord brought things to pass, meeting broke a little early and I did not speak.

I struggle with the rightness of this new policy that I have. I want to be faithful to the Lord, and in fact I am willing to break my new guideline. My reluctance is based on the message that it would send if all the men spoke at a particular meeting but none of the women. God does not limit Himself to using the Y chromosone, and the women who attend my meeting are all gifted people. This struggle with balancing two different types of faithfulness does not appear to be going away soon, so I may post here about it again.


Using Vocal Ministry to Meddle

Something has been weighing on my heart to share today, based on something that took place when I was living in Ohio. A visiting Friend shared something in a line of ministry that felt incredibly suited to me and my meeting. A few weeks later, someone from another meeting told me he had previously spoken with the visitor about the topic.

His ministry had been based on information, not inspiration. Since then, I have seen this Friend a few times, and his attempt to influence our meeting comes to my mind every time.

This blog post details why thee should never use vocal ministry to meddle in the life of a meeting and provides some guidance for Elders who observe this.

For this post, I am using the phrase "meddling through vocal ministry" to describe any of the following:

  1. Using ministry as a tool to get thy meeting (or another meeting) to do something thee wants;
  2. Using ministry as a tool to "fix" someone's spiritual beliefs, especially when thee knows beforehand that someone there has a different understanding from thee; and 
  3. Speaking in ministry on a topic after learning that a meeting is divided on the matter.

Whenever thee feels called to meddle through ministry, please, please, go to thy Elder immediately. Thee needs to get this out of thy mind with haste. Why?

  1. It harms thy ministry. The incident I first mentioned took place in 1992, but it remains fresh in my memory. Thee does not need the reputation of being a meddler.
  2. It tarnishes people's perception of ministry. Remember, ministry is not about thee, not about thy ideas, not about thy insights, not about thy concerns. Ministry needs to be restricted to speaking as the oracle of God, not the oracle of thy ego. Ministry is not to be used as a tool to accomplish thy will. [Note: in a previous post, I outlined the historic Quaker distinction (with which I am in unity) between ministry and giving a testimony.] Ministers are not about the business of sowing divisiveness, so focus on demonstrating what ministers are all about.
  3. It adds unnecessary pain. If thee hears that a nearby meeting is struggling with a given idea, problem or belief, thee needs a major directive from the Lord, sustained by a concerned Elder, before visiting the group. Thy words have the potential to tarnish existing relationships and offend individuals. Also if they find out thee came specifically to instruct them, it will embarrass those who agree with thee and actually encourage those who disagree with thee. It is better to hold a workshop to share thy views rather than speaking on thy own behalf during worship.

Real influence does not need to be forced - and trying to force it creates resentment. Let the Lord carry the burden when the waters are too deep for thee.

Some Advice for Elders

The following items are drafted from the perspective of a minister, and maybe some Elders will feel they are not good advice. Let me know, and I will adjust them as needed. They are arranged in the sequence that Elders might proceed to address a minister or other Friend who has stepped off the path as mentioned above.

Stop the bleeding. If someone is disrupting the worship, please consider going up to the person and asking him to yield. I know this is incredibly rare to do during worship, but I have seen it done rightly by wise Elders. We ministers need Elders to tell us when we are going too far. A minister who is truly concerned will yield, and one who is not concerned will demonstrate that by not yielding. I guarantee that when a speaker does not yield to a rightly exercised Elder, those gathered will side almost unanimously with the Elder.

Investigate. When someone meddles through ministry, an exercised Elder should approach the person afterward to find out what is going on. Elders need to know if the person was speaking from information and (if so) make it clear this is not acceptable. One of thy roles as an Elder is to nurture and guide ministers - so if someone misbehaves in ministry, that person needs thee.

Consult. Ministers historically travelled in pairs. Do Elders ever go in pairs to visit someone? Not being an Elder, I can't say. In dealing with difficult situations, I would think a pair of Elders would be of service - particularly if the matter involves a mature minister. Afterward, the two Elders could discuss if any follow-up is warranted.

Remember, Friends, that we all make mistakes. We need to be more forward in apologizing and forgiving, and we need to be more ready to offer nurture and guidance before problems arise. Our meetings become more healthy when all Friends are exercising their gifts on the Lord's behalf and with the best interests of others in mind.


On Divine Healing

Then Abimelech called Abraham, and said unto him, What hast thou done unto us? and what have I offended thee, that thou hast brought on me and on my kingdom a great sin? thou hast done deeds unto me that ought not to be done. - Genesis 20:9

The above verse is sometimes quoted for its value in demonstrating nonconformity in the larger culture in which we live. I am obviously in full unity with that conclusion, but the verse has another meaning for us that we can benefit from.

Abraham, as the two of you know, was the first man to identify himself as a Hebrew. There is a wordplay in the ancient language that is instructive itself but not relevant here. The point is that Abimelech knew who Abraham was - someone from another culture who followed what Abimelech would have called a "strange god." How do the followers of this "strange god" behave? Abimelech did not know, but he did realize that Abraham made a poor choice when introducing Sarah to others. Abimelech's last statement above carries the underlying question: How can a man of God not know that doing such a thing is wrong?

In early 21st century culture in the United States, we have similar issues. Many people observe the behavior of others. How do Christians behave? What does it mean to live a spirit-filled life? On occasion, a stranger will approach thee and ask "Are you saved?" Thy friends and family are well aware of the degree to which thy life points others to Christ Jesus, and they rarely need to ask that question. Believe me, they know.

The scriptures emphasize over and over the importance of right behavior. This information is conveyed through the laws, through Proverbs, through the Sermon on the Mount, and through the aspects of the fruit of the spirit. When God touches thee in a deep way, thy behavior changes to reflect it. Real communion with Him introduces leaven into thy life that causes thee to enter doors thee could not see before.

One thing needs to be made clear here. A person who chooses to follow a divine prompting is not trying to "earn" salvation. That person is trying to express an existing salvation. It usually takes little discernment to tell when someone does something in their own power. The remainder of this meditation deals with some principles of how thy life reflects the touch of the Divine upon thee.

Jesus was known in his day as a great healer. Look at all the stories about healing. What we sometimes miss is that divine healing is not limited to the healing of physical suffering. That is only a part of the great expanse of God's healing that is going on all around us right now. The Lord is also interested in healing thee mentally, socially, and intellectually. He wants to heal thy habits, thy thought processes, and thy use of time. He seeks to leaven the whole lump of thy body if thee will work with Him. Our Friend Isabel Penreath recently wrote an outstanding essay on this topic - that God wants to heal thee. I hope her essay will be published soon so that it may be distributed widely.

A person who has experienced even a little divine healing has something of value to relate about God. The husbandman must first be partaker of the fruit - otherwise, how can the husbandman convey to others how special the fruit is? Witnessing to others about Christ Jesus is powerful and encouraging to believers everywhere, but take care not to limit thyself to expressing thy healing only through words. The world is filled with words and all kinds of empty notions about spiritual things. I used to have all kinds of notions about what it meant to be a Christian and talked about this at length even though I had little or no experience of it. I regret that my life is not a better reflection of what He has done for me and in me.

Many Christians are well aware of how to express their faith verbally. Little needs to be added to the guidance we already have. Here are some things that I have noticed of late as far as expressing Christ Jesus to others nonverbally.

If thee has truly experienced divine healing, thee wants others to experience it, too. Having healthy relationships with others opens doors for thee to express the state of thy heart. Furthermore, one whose heart is filled with the inward waters brings encouragement to others during conversations and visits - rather than leaving thee drained and discouraged after the visit or conversation ends. Someone who is always complaining or insulting others is not demonstrating what it means to be healed. Jesus died (and rose again) to help thee as well as the people who bother thee. Obviously, each of us needs to complain from time to time - but let it be a small portion of thy life. Focus on using complaints to bring healing, not complaining for its own sake.

A person who has experienced divine healing knows that the Lord has established the right parameters of life for each person. Of course, there are times when He prepares thee for new parameters in life and causes thee to seek and welcome these new parameters. Keep in mind, though, that He has thy best interests in His mind. We may sometimes wish for different parameters, but instead of complaining to everyone about thy current parameters, take some time to consider if the Lord has some additional service for thee where thee is now. Are there things to learn here that may not be learned once thy parameters change? This is important, because often the Lord builds thy insights upon earlier experiences so they will take hold in thy mind. As humans, we often find that we are always ready for things to happen in our timing, losing sight of the principle that the Lord brings things about at the appropriate season. A nine year old girl may want to have a child, but she really should wait until later before doing that. As the apostle said, Let patience have her perfect work.

The previous paragraph is not intended to excuse bad behavior by anyone. I am not at all in agreement that God directs people to do bad or wrong things. I do believe that often experiencing bad things is an important sign that He is about to change thy parameters in life and that each of us has our share of bad experiences of one kind or another.

Those who have experienced healing want the best for other people. There is no need to condemn or insult others. In fact, when thee does these things, thee pushes others away from God, which I can assure thee is not in thy best interest. If others find thee so obnoxious that they don't want to be around thee, what does that say about thy heart? Don't limit thyself this way. Don't engage in self-pity so deeply that thee misses the opportunities to exhibit perseverance under pressure, which the apostles mention over and over as a Christian virtue. The Lord does some wonderful things through suffering sometimes.

Walk worthy of the gospel. Learn what it means to be the kind of person whose life is an inspiration to others to find their spiritual calling. Demonstrate how a Christian should live. When thee does these things, others will be far more interested in listening to thy words about what Christ Jesus has done for thee.