Collective Witness

February 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

Activist Friends sometimes get upset because their meeting has not taken up their cause and this apparent indifference feels hurtful. At the same time, meetings sometimes feel that they should have some collective witness, that the meeting as a whole should be engaged with some concern. At the very least, meetings sometimes feel that they should at least have a vital peace and social action committee, and are unhappy when they don’t.

The answer to both forms of discomfort, I believe, is the energetic and creative embrace of the faith and practice of Quaker ministry.

For the activist Friend, this means thinking of your impulse to engage some concern as a leading from the Spirit. Following a leading in the framework of Quaker ministry focuses the minister on several questions.

First, am I clear what my leading is and is it from G*d? Do I know what I am supposed to be doing and am I confident in my purpose?

If I am uncertain, then the next step is to ask the meeting for a clearness committee for discernment (for which the primary resource is Patricia Loring’s Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Spiritual Discernment: The Context and Goal of Clearness Committees Among Friends). Even if I am certain about my leading, it’s still a good idea to ask for a clearness committee. Here’s why.

First, of course, is the clearness. Even if you are clear in your concern, you will almost certainly learn things about yourself and your call that you didn’t know before.

But also, the clearness committee will go a long way toward easing your disappointment in the meeting’s lack of interest in your concern. A handful of Friends will become intimately familiar, not just with the character of your impulse toward social or ecological justice (along with yourself!), but they will also get to know you better as a person.

In my own experience as a participant in such a clearness committee, I came out of the clearness committee a champion of the ministry. This doesn’t necessarily translate into action alongside the minister in the cause, but it does at least bring the concern into my prayer life.

If the committee and the minister agree, then the next step would be to bring a minute for travel or service to the meeting. Now the whole meeting (or at least, those gathered for business in worship) learns about the call and brings to it the corporate discernment of the whole meeting.

If such a minute gets written and approved, then the next step is for the meeting to form a care committee, or a committee for support and/or oversight, for the leading. Now another small group of Friends becomes intimately engaged with the concern and with the activist.

Finally, as the activist reports periodically to the meeting about their leading, the meeting’s engagement is refreshed.

One more thing. Properly practiced, the structures and processes of Quaker ministry keep returning the focus to the ministry, and not just to the minister. This also goes a long way toward relieving the activist’s unhappiness with the meeting. It’s not really about you, it’s about the divine call to action. Your job shifts from trying to get the meeting to come on board to seeking to be faithful to the call.

And all this works to alleviate the discomfort the meeting might feel about not having a collective witness—for now they do. If several Friends go through this process of clearness and support committees, the network of relationships spreads through the meeting, deepening this sense of action on the part of the meeting. With this spirit-led dynamic at work in the life of the meeting, the meeting comes to feel that the Spirit is, in fact, at work amongst you.

And of course, chances are fair that, through this intimate contact with it and the Friend, some other Friends will join in the work of the leading more actively.

This is one of the reasons why I feel very strongly that we should not organize our witness in committees, but rather through the faith and practice of Quaker ministry. Committee’s are almost by definition silos of activity that only make contact with the meeting when they present business to the body, much of which amounts to reports and their budget.

There will be the occasional call to action, of course. But this almost always takes the form of asking for approval to act as a committee, which returns the action to the silo, or of approving a minute of conscience, which has its place, but a minute is not much to crow about as an act of collective witness.

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