Grief, Not Shame
by Emily Provance
15th Street Meeting
The stories we tell about endings matter. Here’s one that I’ve heard told:
Years ago, there was a Quaker meeting that got smaller and smaller until, finally, there was only one remaining member, an old man who continued to come to worship every First Day, always bringing along his sheepdog. The old man would open up the meetinghouse and go inside, taking the bench closest to the wood stove, and sitting in silent prayer for an hour. His dog would settle down at his feet.
Then, the old man died. (He was presumably buried by distant relatives who somehow didn’t notice the existence of the dog, but that part doesn’t come into the story.)
Despite the death of the old man, the sheepdog continued to arrive at the meetinghouse every First Day in time for worship. Not having thumbs to open the door, he was fated to stand on the porch, whining.
It so happened that, one particular Sunday, a young man who was new to town noticed the dog standing on the porch and scratching at the meetinghouse door. The next Sunday, he noticed the same dog at the same time, and—figuring that the dog must have some good reason for wanting to enter—he went over to the meetinghouse and let him in. The sheepdog entered and immediately settled on the floor next to the bench closest to the wood stove. Figuring the dog would probably be cold, the young man started a fire, and as the room warmed cheerfully, he himself settled down for a few minutes of quiet. A peaceful feeling came over his soul.
The next week, the young man brought his wife, and the week after that, they invited some neighbors. By summertime, two dozen people—and one sheepdog—gathered for silent worship every First Day, and so the meeting was revived.
This is a fabulous story, and we can enjoy the humor and celebrate the concept of the unlikely hero. However, there’s an excellent chance that most Quaker meetings will not be revitalized by a sheepdog. Relying entirely on a last-minute miracle most often leads to meetings that are closed at the point that the remaining members (if there are any) don’t have enough energy or resources to do the work of closing well. The result is long legal entanglements, resources such as money and property that wind up being used for things that might or might not line up with the meeting’s prior ministries, and little or no cohesive effort to preserve a record of the meeting’s history.
The idea of closing a meeting can feel extremely hard, especially if we have been part of that community for a long time. Maybe we remember becoming members of the meeting. Maybe we met loved ones there or watched our children play on the grounds. The meeting might have held our marriage under its care or might have arranged the memorial service for a parent or close friend. We may have put many hours of work into the meeting for years, maybe even decades.
Grief is an expected response, and we can honor that grief by making space for it. Friends are likely to need opportunities to share memories, to worship together and in the familiar physical meeting space, to touch the objects that have been in the building, and to make decisions—not rushed—about where and how things should be moved, donated, or sold. Members of the meeting, or people who have long been familiar with the meeting, might want to record some of their favorite stories about it. This recording does not need to be polished or formal as long as it works. The act itself is the most important part of honoring the meeting’s history.
But sometimes, when Friends consider closing a meeting, they also experience feelings of shame. It can help to remember that all meetings die. If our meeting comes to its natural end during our lifetime, that is not an indication that we have done something wrong. It is simply a call to good and faithful discernment: how do we make space for what God does next?
This article is one of a series of essays on laying down meetings. You can access the entire series here: quakeremily.wordpress.com/resources-for-quaker-meetings/end-of-life-for-meetings/