Notes on Friends Business Practice

August 5, 2012 § 2 Comments

The role of the clerks in the process of discernment

Who writes minutes?

I’ve served as recording clerk for both committees and a monthly meeting and I wrote the minutes for those bodies. In fact, in every Friends meeting and committee in which I’ve participated, the recording clerk has written the minutes.

This was not always our practice. For most of our history, the presiding clerk articulated the minute and the recording clerk recorded the minute as spoken by the presiding clerk.

Question for my readers: does anyone know when we started adopting the newer practice?

The rationale for this more ancient practice, I believe, was that, because the presiding clerk was responsible for discerning when the meeting had come into unity on a matter, she was in the best position to discern what the sense of the meeting was.

I’m not sure that follows, though. I believe the rationale for our current practice is that, while the presiding clerk is shepherding the flock, the recording clerk can write notes and even sentences that try to articulate what Friends in the body and the presiding clerk are saying along the way.

Doing business by editing minutes

Both of these rationales make sense to me. The problem arises, not so much because of who writes the minutes, but in the way we proceed after they are written.

With the newer practice, the meeting usually hears a minute for the first time after a draft of the minute has been written. At this point we have two options. The presiding clerk can ask for further discussion after the minute has been read. Very often, however, the presiding clerk asks the body whether it approves the minute, receiving then a chorus of vocal assent—“Approve!”—from the body.

In this latter case, inevitably, those who do not approve rise to speak against it, and at this point the meeting really gets down to it. Many people take some time to find their way to object, especially if the main body seems to be moving right along toward some unity. And we so often do not feel that we have enough time in which to do our business. But then that feeling that we all know—that something is not right with the way the sense of the meeting has been articulated (usually, we are thinking, “That minute is just not quite right.”)—our objection finally rises to a level that we can no longer ignore, so we ask to be recognized, and back into it we go. Furthermore, in both cases, we do the deepest work of corporate discernment through vocal ministry by editing a minute.

This is bad for several reasons. It perforce casts those who object to some aspect of the stated sense of the meeting as against the sense of the meeting; they should not be forced into this role because, in fact, there is no sense of the meeting—just a minute that fails to capture the sense of the meeting. It also traps everyone who speaks into vocal ministry that addresses the content of the minute rather than vocal ministry that speaks directly to the matter at hand.

An alternative

One of the advantages of recording minutes that have been articulated by the presiding clerk is that she can float tentative minutes verbally as way-markers toward the sense of the meeting; the recording clerk records these, and, when the presiding clerk finally speaks a tentative minute that seems to actually express the sense of the meeting, the recording clerk has already written it down. (You also have a set of markers that I feel would be a valuable record of the meeting’s progress toward unity.)

In any case, once either the presiding clerk or the recording clerk has proposed the minute that they believe expresses the sense of the meeting, the critical next step is to make sure that there are no objections before asking the body for approval. I once heard Jan Hoffman propose in a presentation on business process that the clerk pointedly ask at this point whether anyone still has objections to the minute as written or spoken. The discernment process continues as long as Friends are still objecting, until no one answers the invitation to object. Here’s my favorite part of Jan’s suggestion: At this point, the clerk asks, “May I then accept your silence as approval?” Finally, now, the body vocalizes, “Approve!” after a period of deepening silence.

I’ve seen this done just two, maybe three times. It worked really well. It brought the meeting deeper as it progressed, the silence in the penultimate moment was profound, and the “Approve!” at the very end was joyful.


§ 2 Responses to Notes on Friends Business Practice

  • Carol Holmes says:

    As a recording clerk for the FUM General Board meeting in Richmond, I found it helpful–especially when Friends were engaging with a complex, serious matter–to ”test a minute” in which I thought I had captured the sense of the meeting. I would report quietly to the presiding clerk that I thought I had something. He would look at what I\’d written and give me the go-ahead. Then I’d read what I’d written to the body. It would be greeted with deepening silence, sometimes brief comments would be offered that I could easily incorporate, at other times it would focus or shift the discussion to where it needed to go.

    I didn’t do it a lot, but when I did, it was usually with the sense that I\’d been ”given” the words I’d put down.

    My method of taking the minutes was to make a transcript of everything that was being said–like a court reporter. Because these were the records of a board of directors, I wanted to be sure I had clear information and clearly stated facts.

    Also, Friends made it clear to me that they did not want to approve the minutes as we went along. (That took adjusting to!) But the reality is that for all the deep discernment issues–through the ”test a minute” process–those minutes were approved by the body at the time. I’d say to the board members that I wanted to be sure I had gotten it down exactly right.

    My experience was that the clerk and I were both reading the room. Occasionally, I would nudge the clerk to recognize or call out someone he hadn’t noticed. It felt like we were very much a team.

    I\’ll end by saying that in one committee I clerked, we were blessed with a wonderful recording clerk, Clement Alexandre. My experience was that as I was shepherding the discussion and holding the body, he was putting words to the Spirit that was moving. Now that I write this, perhaps I learned about testing a minute from him. / credentials can be used.

  • Barbara Harrison says:

    I DO know that in my experience, trying to both Clerk and record for a Quarterly Meeting session was not a happy fit for me. Perhaps someone else can do it, but I do not recall any one else even making an attempt except at the committee level.

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