Comments on PYM Annual Sessions

August 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Part Three — Discernment, Minutes and Quaker Business Practice

In the two sessions of PYM that I attended last week, clerk Thomas Swain used two slightly different variations on the practice of discerning and writing/approving minutes. Both were an improvement, in my opinion, and in my experience, on the way Friends’ meetings usually conduct business; the second session came fairly close to the practice I personally think works best. I would like to outline the practice I prefer (which I’ve only seen used a couple of times) and compare it along the way with the one we usually use:

  1. Background phase.
    1. A committee has prepared a presentation introducing the matter and someone from the committee lays it out, often describing who was on the committee, what their process was, including sometimes how often they met and how they divvied up the tasks, and then he or she introduces their conclusions and recommendations for actions. Good presentations of this sort are very helpful.
    2. The clerk asks for questions aimed at clarification before inviting contributions to discernment in the ‘discernment’ phase. This is not always done.
  2. Disernment phase.
    1. The clerk opens discussion from the floor. There’s often a little confusion here about whether to address the clerk or the presenter, who is usually still standing or still at the podium, and about who has authority to recognize speakers and respond. I would have the presenter sit back down, but near to the podium or microphone, if the size of the body has required them, so that it’s clear that things are back in the hands of the clerk, and yet the presenter can answer questions, if needed.
    2. Often the matter breaks down into several issues or aspects and it’s helpful when the clerk can focus the body’s attention on them one at a time. As the clerk feels that a sense of the meeting is beginning to emerge around one of these issues, s/he echoes this back to the body with preliminary reflections and queries, along the lines of “I sense that we might be saying, ’xyz’. Am I getting this right?”
    3. At some point, the clerk will sense that a sense of the meeting is emerging about the matter as a whole. Here again, it’s useful to float preliminary minutes along the way and invite further ministry.
  3. Decision phase.
    1. If the body is struggling to find unity, the clerk may call for an extended period of worship, or choose to lay the matter over to another session. If the Spirit seems to be moving the body forward into unity, the clerk offers a final ‘minute’, a clear, concise expression of her or his sense of the meeting. Still standing (or however s/he signals that s/he’s NOT recognizing new speakers, s/he allows a little time for Friends to think about the minute.
    2. Here’s where the practice I’m proposing diverges decisively from our usual practice. Usually, the clerk states that s/he senses that the meeting is ready to hear a minute and turns to the recording clerk, who reads the minute s/he has crafted. Then the clerk asks, “Do Friends approve?” Members of the body say, “Approve.” Then the hands go up. Not everyone approves; or Friends ‘approve’, but they still have questions, comments or tweaks to propose. We end up sinking into a deeper level of discussion and discernment as the urgency of approving the minute calls out the deeper objections, and, to complicate things, we now do this through the process of editing the minute, which skews the discussion, warping it around the text under discussion rather than leaving it open to new leadings. This often descends into an iterative process of revising and rereading new drafts that then evoke new comments, creating new drafts, etc. Ultimately, we approve a final draft, often after a confusing and repetitive process that, in the worst case, is dispiriting and exhausting.
    3. Here’s what I would do instead, which I learned from a source I can no longer remember (I think it might have been Jan Hoffman at a conference at Powell House, New York Yearly Meeting’s conference center; but I no longer remember for sure):
      1. The presiding clerk presents a final minute for consideration (not necessarily a crafted text, but a clear expression of the decision s/he believes the body is making) and leaves a little time for reflection. The recording clerk is writing this down, as s/he has been recording any earlier preliminary minutes, and s/he’s thinking of slight modifications that might help clarify and simplify the actual text.
      2. Then the clerk asks whether there are any objections. Pointedly asking for objections raises the bar for comment. Friends will comment anyway, even if they do not have what amounts to an objection, but it deepens the process a bit.
      3. Once all the objections have been uttered, which has been signalled by some time without anyone calling for recognition, the clerk invites new ministry toward discernment.
      4. When the clerk feels s/he understands the new sense of the meeting, s/he presents a new minute and asks for objections.
      5. When, finally, there are no objections, the clerk asks the recording clerk to read what s/he has to make sure the actual text reflects the presiding clerk’s sense of the meeting.
      6. If there still are no objections, the presiding clerk asks: “May the clerk then accept your silence as approval?”
      7. Now the body finally calls out its approval.

I like this process for the following reasons:

  1. It maximizes the chances for true unity without hidden objection.
  2. It conducts the discernment process in open worship for as long as possible, rather than shifting it into the process of editing a text.
  3. It does not fragment the clerk’s discerning role from her or his ‘management’ role at the critical moment of decision: Throughout the discernment phase, the presiding clerk has been helping the body answer to the Spirit at work among them, by choosing who will speak in what order, by providing opportunities for deepening silence, by floating preliminary ‘minutes’, by feeling the movement of the spirit. All along, his or her discernment of the movement of the spirit in the body has been integral to her or his conduct of the meeting. Then, when it comes time to offer a minute for approval, suddenly that integrity is fractured: someone else presents the sense of the meeting. Recording clerks used to record minutes and the presiding clerks used to draft them. We have almost universally abandoned this practice. Recording clerks are often chosen for their writing skills; presiding clerks are chosen for their discernment skills. I have myself served as a recording clerk who has been called upon to draft the minutes, and it often works out just fine; being a passable writer doesn’t mean you lack the gift of discernment. Furthermore, it’s true that the recording clerk sometimes sees things that the presiding clerk doesn’t, caught up as he or she might be in the process of conducting the meeting. But I would prefer that the recording clerk simply speak to the presiding clerk ‘offline’, as it were, bringing such things to the presiding clerk’s attention. Expressing the sense of the meeting should be in the hands of the person who has throughout the process been helping the meeting discern what God wants them to do.

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