Quakers, Our Business, and the Minutes
August 10, 2013 § 4 Comments
I keep notes on Quaker process when I attend meetings for business in worship, looking for patterns, problems, ideas, or just comments to myself when something catches my notice. Many times I have watched a meeting follow roughly the process outlined below when pursuing a piece of business and it disturbs me. I also have some suggestions about how to avoid the pattern this outline describes. Have you had this experience, and do you have suggestions for fixing it? Here’s the pattern I see:
- We labor over a piece of contentious business until a direction seems to have emerged.
- The clerk asks the recording clerk for a minute; when it’s ready,
- the clerk asks the body, “Do Friends approve?”
- A chorus of “Approve”s follow the question.
- Then hands go up, or Friends stand—whatever the practice of the meeting is for asking the clerk to recognize you. They are not happy with the minute.
- Because these Friends are not comfortable with the decision, or at least they have something they feel they must say, we then dive back into the discussion.
- So we return to our discernment, only this time we do it after having already approved something, and that feels weird. And now we often do it by editing the minute rather than by speaking to the matter directly: Friends rise to criticize some aspect of the minute or to offer some correction or amendment. Essentially, we have spiraled back to #2, with the body now acting as recording clerk. Yikes. I hate watching Quakers try to do important business by editing a minute.
- At some point, we once again reach #3—some sense of the meeting—and the clerk again asks for approval.
- Enter another chorus of “Approve!”s.
- Then—when things are really bad—hands go up again and we return to this cycle of purgatory, in which Friends continue to criticize, correct, and amend the minute.
- We plod on, often until exhaustion claims the sense of the meeting.
I have seen some version of this cycle occur many, many times—Friends insisting on speaking after approval has been voiced for a minute, and then flogging the minute until it’s been distorted into some shape that no one feels ready to criticize, and we close the matter out of a sense of exhaustion or pity.
Do you recognize this pattern in the meetings you attend?
On the face of it, this is mainly an issue for clerks, who, it would seem, have prematurely presented a minute to the body without allowing it full collective discernment. But it would be wrong to blame the clerks for what is quite universal practice among us now, and which many of us take for granted. In fact, I suspect that many Friends may not even see the pattern as a problem.
No, it’s not a clerking problem. It is rather a cultural problem that has much to do with taking a habitual clerking style for granted, with the pressures of the clock on our business agendas, and with a sense of entitlement concerning vocal ministry in meeting for business in worship.
I would like to present three practices that I think would help to head off this kind of spiral into what I consider (rather extremely, I admit) to be Quaker-practice hell:
- A more ordered way to present contentious business items to the body.
- An alternative way to present minutes to the body.
- A radically different way to seek the body’s approval on the decision.
Presenting the matter of business
Many articles of business are not very weighty and even verge on the pro forma. But when something comes up that is important and likely to be controversial, you can help the body find its way to unity by sorting out the kinds of ministry you will ask for from the body and then asking for them separately. By “kinds of ministry” I mean
- the facts—Friends’ clarity or confusion about the facts of the matter and its history,
- the feelings—Friends’ emotional responses to the matter, and
- the solution—Friends’ proposals for decision or action.
In such cases, it helps to take these “kinds of ministry” one at a time:
Start with a presentation, carefully prepared, of the history of the matter, explaining how it has ended up before the body and what kinds of discernment it has already received. It’s helpful when someone besides the clerk does this, so that the clerk can watch the members of the body for their reactions while the report is being given.
- Then ask for questions from the floor that are about matters of clarity only, firmly asking Friends who want to say something else to wait until the body considers that aspect of the situation. Here, we mostly are talking about emotional venting. Over time, a given meeting will become accustomed to this three-phase process and will follow the process with some discipline.
- When a request for more questions about points of fact or clarity elicits no more responses from the body, then . . .
Open the discussion to expressions of feeling regarding the matter—allow venting. Let the venting continue until it is clear that everyone has had their say. Encourage those who are displeased with some aspect of the matter to express themselves. This is perhaps the most important thing to get right.
- Try to be sure that the members of the body really are done venting before you move on to “stage 3”. Do this by making a final request for more ministry related to feelings when things seem to have wound down or someone jumps to the next stage naturally. Let your last request for emotion-related ministry stretch into a relatively long period of silence to make sure everyone is done.
- Then extend this silence some more with an invitation to enter into deeper worship before we move on to Friends’ ministry toward a solution.
After this period of worship, open the meeting to vocal ministry toward a solution or decision.
- During this last phase of the process, remind Friends that we have had an opportunity to express our feelings, though Friends will probably revert to venting occasionally.
- Consider letting Friends know that you will cut short any clear attempts to vent rather than offer a solution to the matter.
- However, if Friends just cannot keep themselves from getting things off their chest again, then formally return to the venting phase and let go of finding a solution until it seems that the body really is ready.
Testing minutes verbally
When the subvocal assents, body language, and vocal ministry suggest that the meeting may be reaching unity on a direction, the presiding clerk articulates a test minute, presenting it as a test minute, rather than having the recording clerk read a written minute. For her or his part, the recording clerk records what the clerk says.
- This is the way we did things for a very long time. The practice of relying on recording clerks to write minutes that are then read to the body is now so long-standing and so universal, that many Friends do not know that we ever did it otherwise. But, when a meeting is struggling with a matter that is very contentious, it often works much better to rely on the presiding clerk to verbally float a minute while the recorder records. There’s something about the reading of a written minute that sets in motion a new phase in the dynamics of the meeting, one that makes further discernment more complicated.
- So the clerk verbally floats a minute and then invites Friends to respond. Further discussion ensues. Usually, the body will start tweaking the verbal minute; sometimes someone will start off in an all new direction, once they have become clear what the clerk thinks the direction is and they don’t agree. Eventually, some new sense of the meeting will begin to emerge.
- At this point, the presiding clerk reiterates this process, floating a new tentative expression of her or his sense of the meeting. S/he keeps reiterating this process until the body no longer offers changes in new ministry to a test minute.
- The recording clerk has been recording the test minutes all along and has already recorded the final version when it finally arrises.
Asking for approval
The greater problem with our habitual process lies in the way we ask for approval for a minute. When the clerk has spoken a verbal test minute and asked for comment and no one has risen to speak, instead of asking the body to call out its approval, the presiding clerk should ask one more time whether Friends have any further objections, corrections, or additional ministry. Do it clearly, as a last call.
One of the reasons people still want to speak after a minute has been approved is that most of us have a natural aversion to speaking against the direction that the body seems to be going. It is especially hard to call out “No” when many other Friends are calling out “Approve!” But when it comes down to it, our discomfort often wins out, as it should when we are not in unity with the decision. So, to reiterate, here’s what we should do instead:
- We keep encouraging Friends to speak until Friends stop asking to be recognized, letting time stretch out into worship when there is a lull—for there almost always is some further ministry after the first couple of lulls.
- At some point, though, when the clerk asks for further ministry upon the latest test minute, no one will rise to speak. At this point, the clerk should formally ask the body if G*d has given anyone anything further to say. This last formal appeal is important. It’s a last call for vocal ministry. And I think it’s important to get G*d involved—to remind Friends that we are in worship and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, before we go to the written minute.
- If no one asks to speak, it’s useful at this point to confer with the recording clerk briefly to make sure that the recorder’s written text corresponds to the verbal version the body has been working with.
- Then ask the recording clerk to read the last minute verbally expressed by the presiding clerk and ask one final time for vocal ministry.
- If still no one asks to speak, the clerk can say, “May I then take your silence as approval?”
Here it is:
This is the real innovation in this approach to clerking—not to ask for a voiced approval from the body, but to ask whether the silence means approval.
If no one responds to this last request for ministry, the clerk can then declare the minute approved. This way approval comes in a holy silence, rather than in a chorus of “Approve!”s.
This process seems to take longer than our habitual (but not traditional) one; sometimes it really is longer. But it feels better and it nurtures greater unity with the decision. It also virtually eliminates the need to read back the minutes for approval because the minutes have already been approved. And it often reduces the time that the recording clerk sometimes needs to finish crafting the minute.
This approach redefines the roles of presiding and recording clerks. Nowadays, recording clerks are chosen because of their facility with words and some gift for discernment. Presiding clerks often are chosen for a wider set of gifts, though discernment ought, of course, to be one of them. The approach I have just laid out does diminish the role of recording clerk and it lays a new burden on the presiding clerk, who, it is often thought, has enough to do with just shepherding the meeting process.
I suggest that the recording clerk serve more actively as an assistant clerk and that the two clerks actively confer with each other throughout this process about the progress of the discussion, rather than obsessing about getting a good minute. It may even be useful for the recording clerk to write the test minutes for the presiding clerk to then verbally share with the body. I think it’s less important who crafts the minutes and more important that the presiding clerk take responsibility for reading the sense of the meeting—not just the readiness of the meeting to hear a minute—and that the final written minute only be read after the body has labored over tentative verbal minutes and all have had their say.
I learned some aspects of this process from Jan Hoffman.