Quaker-pocalypse: Nominations, Committee Service, and Spiritual Renewal, Part Two

September 11, 2015 § 3 Comments

Part Two: The Problem(s) with Committees

In this entry, I want to focus just on the purpose of the committee and its dynamics and how they tend to turn off our members.

The Problem(s) with Committees

Committees are oriented toward the meeting and its needs, not the needs of those who serve on them. Each committee’s charge is a set of tasks that meet a set of needs in the meeting. In this system, the committee member’s role is to contribute to these tasks. Committees are the commit-ees—they are the thing to which we are committed, rather than the Spirit or the expression of our own spiritual gifts. This orientation toward the meeting is mostly an unconscious and structurally imposed dynamic that we do not even recognize is at work most of the time.

Committees have a life of their own. They exist whether or not anyone on the committee has a true spirit-led call to be there. Most members of the committee have been suggested by Nominating committee because someone knows they do have some gifts or a concern for the aspect of meeting life served by the committee. But that does not mean that the appointees are clear about what the committee should do. And if they are clear, then God help them! Furthermore, committees can be extremely hard to lay down. Even the most moribund committee will often have one member who thinks it’s unthinkable that the meeting does not have a peace committee, or whatever.

Committees quench the spirit. If a member of committee has a real leading in the committee’s area of concern, the committee inevitably tries to fit that leading into its own work—rather than turn its full attention to the Friend and her leading, providing the discernment the leading probably needs in order to reach full maturity, and providing whatever support the Friend called to this ministry might need to be faithful to the call. I am serving on a committee right now in which this has just happened. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit is a wild, unpredictable, untamable force; who knows where the discernment process for a new leading will lead? This emerging ministry might fit in the committee—or it might not; it might not fit in any committee at all. Then it’s really in trouble.

Committees are the way of the world, not the way of the Spirit. The way of the Spirit employs worship and collective discernment, and looks to the Light within individuals as the source and ground for direction and action. The Quaker way of structuring spirit-led action is the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. Committees, on the other hand, often employ only a perfunctory period of silence, usually daring, nevertheless, to call this worship. They do practice corporate discernment, sometimes reverting to real worship when it’s clear that the group is either stuck or close to something that needs some Light to get through. However, when a committee is not riding a clear wave of movement in the Spirit, when it is bereft of ideas, it often employs brainstorming  or “visioning exercises” to get over the hump. This happens either informally, with members just throwing out ideas, or in a more structured format, with newsprint pasted on the walls with scotch tape, etc. Brainstorming and “visioning” are (in my opinion) insidious incursions into the Quaker way by the ways of the world. A committee that doesn’t know where it’s going or what it’s doing should commit itself to real worship until it is clear about its way forward or that its work is done.

Committee meetings often are tedious. Committees often spend a lot of time doing business that is only about the mechanics and administration of the committee structure. Developing a budget is one aspect of this. Much of this business is regular or cyclical and routine, business that must be attended to. This often gets in the way of doing new things or exploring new directions, and of thinking about the big picture or the long term. Committees sometimes have weak clerks who have trouble keeping the committee focused. Committees sometimes have appointees who don’t know what they’re doing, don’t understand Quaker process or respect it, who have an axe to grind, who are long-winded, or  who are otherwise ungovernable.

Committee service often is onerous. We lead busy lives. Time is precious. Work and family life is demanding. This can be especially troublesome for Friends who have non-Friend partners who might wish that you were doing something with your time that included them. Serving on more than one committee multiplies all these problems. Then there’s possible service on a quarterly meeting or yearly meeting committee. Uff da, as the Norwegians say.

Membership. The only thing that we offer prospective members as a benefit of membership is service on a committee. We virtually define membership as the willingness to serve on a committee. By presenting membership and committees in this way, we virtually define Quakerism as committee service.

The upshot

It’s a miracle that any Friends choose to serve on a meeting committee. What’s in it for them? In what ways are their spiritual lives served by serving on a committee?

Okay, service is a gift of the spirit. I myself actually like serving on committees, and that is because serving the meeting is fulfilling for me. And it is for a lot of Friends. Good thing, too. And other gifts of the spirit can find expression in a committee, though, as I’ve said, committees tend to interfere with the traditional practice of Quaker ministry.

The solution(s)—a preview

I said at the outset that, if there are solutions to the problems of committee service, they will have to be sustained and long-term, far-reaching and multi-dimensional, structural and radical.

In the next post, I want to offer some approaches to a solution., then in subsequent posts, I will unpack some of these ideas with more detail.


§ 3 Responses to Quaker-pocalypse: Nominations, Committee Service, and Spiritual Renewal, Part Two

  • It is also a problem is a committee that meets regularly (M&C), is asked to tackle specific questions/issues because it is the only committee that meets regularly.

  • Thank you Steven for these very relevant posts.

    I serve on the Nominating Committee for New York Quarterly Meeting and you have named a number of the problems our committee has encountered.

    Not all of them.

    One of the things Friends may wish to examine is whether it is more or less truthful to use the term “Quaker Service” rather than simply saying “service,” “Quaker Witness” rather than “witness,” and “Quaker Advancement” rather than “advancement.”

    It is my sense that we are called to serve G*d’s Will as we understand it, that doing so IS witness, just as vocal ministry IS service, and that advancement has to do with sharing our understanding of G*d, God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the Light, the Still Small Voice Within, Allah, Hashem, or whatever name it is that we each find most endearing and inspiring for the Sacred. My sense has not been that we are called to advertise or ‘grow’ Quakerism.

    It does not seem truthful to me to claim that our way of doing so is the only way, or the best way, or even that it is one way of doing so (just ask any two of us). It is the best way FOR US, and others are welcome to visit, sojourn, join. It is my conviction that advancement is just as faithfully carried out by encouraging someone to cling to the traditions and essence of their existing religious affiliation if that is truthful for that person.

    Digressing her for a moment, I’d like to ask whether it even benefits the Society of Friends to grow in numbers? Is bigger better? Is it growth?

    Going back to nominations and committees, I believe another problem we have is that of appearances. A proposal to lay down a committee for religious education in our Yearly Meeting was met with: How can we as a Yearly Meeting NOT have a religious education committee? (tr. How would that look to others?) We continued to grapple with that kind of self-reflection when we could not staff our Peace Cocerns committee.

    Beyond perpetual committees beginning to sound somewhat creedal, do we regard our list of committees as our corporate identity? Must we have a ‘definitive’ identity? If we are comfortable with the Mystery of the Sacred, can we be comfortable not having a “Quakerism is…” elevator speech at the ready? If we don’t have an intention to ‘grow’ the Society of Friends, do we need to worry about elevator speeches?

    Notwithstanding all of the above, I feel there is great value in having committees, that value having to do with commitments. But my personal sense is that all committees should be presumed to be ad-hoc, with an articulated purpose and an expectation that the committee reports to the body as to how it has carried out its work. Then the committee should be laid down. If a meeting sees that such a committee is re-organized again and again, then such an exceptional committee may become a standing committee. But, I am personally persuaded that he default status of most committees should be ad-hoc.

    I think another aspect of our meetings which contributes to our problems has to do with the fact that many meetings are legally incorporated and Friends expect our committees to express and respond to our individual and corporate leadings at the same time as we expect our committees to comport with legally sanctioned by-laws. Serving the Sacred while serving the Law.

    Spinning out from that, our Quarter is now grappling with a conflict of interest policy which goes far beyond those of for-profit corporate boards, which guard against financial self-dealing and self-enrichment. Whereas our Quarter is considering/reconsidering a policy which relies upon the assumption that some committees in our meeting have interests that conflict with the interests of other committees in our meeting.

    (This is no secret – the documents are available online without logging in: http://www.nyqm.org/docs/150417.Nominating-ConflictsOfIInterestPolicy.pdf)

  • QuaCarol says:

    Bravo, Steve! Oh, how I love what you’ve written here!

    “Brainstorming and ‘visioning’ are (in my opinion) insidious incursions into the Quaker way by the ways of the world. A committee that doesn’t know where it’s going or what it’s doing should commit itself to real worship until it is clear about its way forward or that its work is done.”

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