Gospel Order—Four Types of Clearness Committees

March 3, 2016 § 6 Comments

The gospel order packet committee of New York Yearly Meeting wanted to include resources on clearness committees, but as we looked into them, we discovered a bit of confusion and heard accounts of Friends being mishandled in their conduct. So we did some research and some thinking and came up with this handout on Four Types of Clearness Committees, which I have revised very slightly for this publication.

Introduction

Clearness committees are an ancient tradition among Friends, originating with clearness committees for marriage in our earliest days. In a letter written in 1653, George Fox refers to some process in which, “when all things [are] found clear,” the faithful “might appoint a meeting on purpose for the taking of each other” in marriage.

In our own time, this tradition has enjoyed a renaissance, with new forms emerging spontaneously as meetings creatively adapt the basic format to new situations and needs. In this process, some confusion has resulted about what a clearness committee is, how it is appointed and conducted, and what it can be used for. With this short paper, we hope to clarify very briefly the various purposes and formats for clearness committees that we have encountered. It is also a resource guide, citing pamphlets that provide useful information on the variations described.

We have identified four kinds of clearness committees in use among us so far. These include:

  1. The traditional clearness committees for marriage and meeting membership.
  2. The more recent but widely used committees for helping a Friend reach clearness in making a decision or solving a personal problem.
  3. Clearness committees for discerning a leading.
  4. Clearness committees used for conflict resolution.

Some comments: In our experience, the last two uses just mentioned are much less well defined than the first two. For one thing, there are fewer support materials available, especially of the ‘how-to’ kind that would be useful to conveners. Consequently, in discussing them we have gone past description of present experience and practice and have provided some general suggestions for the purpose of clarity. Nevertheless, questions about their actual practice remain unanswered. We hope that more research and experimentation will produce more useful materials in the future. As we explore these new forms, we recommend that meetings use some caution. We know of circumstances in which the wrong format was used and Friends were hurt. We hope that the clarifications we offer below will help prevent accidental misuse.

Some suggestions: Experience with clearness committees suggests several things. It’s important to have some seasoned Friends on any clearness committee, folks who can guide the process when it needs it, and leave it to the Spirit when it is gathered. It’s useful to have some connection to Ministry & Counsel in the meeting, so that someone has an overview of what’s going on in the meeting and can help with resources, if necessary. We also recommend thinking out which kind of clearness committee is called for in those cases that are not for marriage or membership, to help provide good order for the committee’s conduct.

The role of worship: Finally, a word about the role of worship in the clearness process. The more worshipful a clearness committee is, the better it works. As in meeting for worship and meeting for business in worship—and especially like worship sharing, with which clearness committees have many affinities—it is God who leads us into clarity of mind and singleness of heart. It is the faith of Friends that in silent attention to the Inner Guide, the Spirit of truth of whom John speaks (John 14:17) will come to us and guide our work. One key to such worshipfulness is humility. The more we come to the work of the committee as servants of the Friends involved and lay ourselves in God’s hands, the better the process seems to work. Many Friends have had the experience of surprising openings in the process of the committee session and of unlooked-for answers afterwards, even when the session itself has seemed at first unfruitful. Worship, cultivated in all aspects of the clearness committee’s process, nurtures this rising up of God’s leading light, in which we are enabled to answer that of God in each other.

Four types of clearness committee

Clearness committees for marriage and membership

The meeting chooses the committee. The committee has a specific goal: whether the meeting and the applicant(s) are clear to go forward with either the marriage or the membership application.

Resources:

  • The NYYM pamphlet on Marrying Under the Care of Friends.
  • Peter Woodrow, Clearness: Processes For Supporting Individuals And Groups In Decision-Making, Movement for a New Society, 1985. Part Two covers clearness committees for membership in a Movement for a New Society household; developed from the Quaker process for membership.

Clearness committees for discerning a leading

The committee might be chosen in consultation between the meeting and the member. The goal is to determine whether a specific leading is of God and/or how the meeting might support the ministry that arises from the leading; in this sense, the form is close to that for membership and marriage.

Resources:

  • Patricia Loring, Spiritual Discernment: the context and goal of clearness committees, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #305.
  • Paul A. Lacey, Leading And Being Led, Pendle Hill Pamphlet #264. What Quakers mean by a “leading.”

Clearness committees to help a Friend make a decision or understand a personal problem

The committee is chosen mostly by the applicant. The process is one of simply asking good questions designed to clarify the situation for the ‘focus person’; there is no specific goal or corporate decision to be sought.

Resources:

  • Jan Hoffman, “Clearness Committees and their use in Personal Discernment.” A short piece widely reprinted.
  • Peter Woodrow, Clearness: Processes For Supporting Individuals And Groups In Decision-Making, Movement for a New Society, 1985. Part One covers clearness committees for decision making and seeking greater clarity about ones directions in life and work.

Clearness committees for conflict resolution.

This is a new and as yet somewhat undefined use for clearness committees for which there are no set format or guidelines currently in use among Friends. Meetings seem to be doing whatever makes sense to them in an attempt to resolve a conflict and calling the process a clearness committee. Here we offer some suggestions to help clarify things.

Both the meeting and those in conflict might choose the people on the committee. The ideal, long-term goal is reconciliation or a new agreement between the parties in conflict; the practical, short-term goal is a safe environment in which those in conflict can speak and be heard and achieve enough clarity about the situation for the meeting (including the parties in the conflict) to choose a course of action. The form can have two parts.

The first part uses Quaker dialog, a process in which the parties in the conflict respond directly and in turn to questions out of worship, as in worship sharing, addressing themselves to the questions rather than to each other’s offerings, and with no discussion, responses, or rebuttals, but rather silence between the sharings. This is not really a dialog.

It seems to work well if the questions stay focused on a single thread until some clarity is reached about that thread. Two such threads—about what actually happened, and about how we feel about the events—often get tangled and it’s useful to keep them separate, exploring first the factual or “events” thread, and then the other “emotional” thread, if possible: one thread tries to clarify what has actually happened; the other explores how each party to the conflict feels as a result.

We have seen that the parties in the conflict often have different stories about events, that neither story is fully accurate, and that misunderstandings have colored the perception of events. It can be very difficult to arrive at a single narrative that all agree on, but it’s one way to structure the questions. So one person tells their story without interruption, then the other. Then follow questions to clarify the discrepancies.

Feelings come up in the process of telling the story. They are part of the story. But they can derail the session. Experienced, spirit-led facilitation and worship are the key to sorting this out.

A second part might follow the listening session if it seems that some progress has been made or it seems it’s safe to reach a little deeper. If not, then the clerk should just end the session and let the simple act of having listened to each other do some work. At some later time, it might be useful to convene a more open dialog between the parties in the conflict.

Whichever way it’s done—immediately after a listening session or some other time—this second session consists of facilitated question-asking by a clerk or other participants, to which each party in the conflict responds, trying to maintain a spirit of worship and using periods of silence to return the participants to this spirit when necessary. But, in contrast to the earlier session, here the parties in the conflict are really in dialog, speaking their point of view in answer to the other party’s statements.

It is useful to have someone trained in mediation clerking this session, if possible, as the stated tentative goal of the session is to arrive at a new agreement between the parties in the conflict about how things will go in the future. At some point, if things seem to be opening up and if the parties in the conflict express readiness to do so and an agreement seems achievable, then the parties to the conflict and the other participants can try to zero in on what that agreement might be. This might be treated as a third stage in the process—trying to fashion an agreement about behavior in the future.

We want to stress that these guidelines are experimental. Some of them we’ve seen in action; others are just suggestions based on experience. Meetings will want to think the process through carefully and then adapt these suggestions and/or come up with new elements that they think will work in their situation.

Resources:

  • Fellowship; in Depth and Spiritual Renewal through QUAKER DIALOGUE “CREATIVE LISTENING, Suggestions for Leaders of Group Dialogues Derived from the Experience of Claremont, California Friends, Library Committee, Claremont Monthly Meeting, 727 West Harrison Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. A pamphlet on the so-called Claremont Dialog, also called Quaker Dialog.
  • Margaret S. Gibbons, Encounter Through Worship Sharing, FWCC 1506 Race St., Phila. PA 19102.

 

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§ 6 Responses to Gospel Order—Four Types of Clearness Committees

  • I am uncomfortable using Clearness Committees for Conflict Resolution or Conflict Transformation.

    I have participated in clearness committees that were conducted almost as courtroom trials and in which there was no possibility of meeting more than once. The presumption on everyone’s part but mine was that Clearness Committee IS Quakerspeak for Conflict Resolution.

    I believe that they can be used in advance of a Conflict Transformation process, but clearness is a different thing from the resolution of conflicts.

    With the exception of a Clearness Committee for Marriage, or for a Quaker Committee that has somehow lost its center, Clearness Committees to my mind function best as a personal testing of clearness… for membership, for a difficult decision which may or may not involve a leading.

    Conflating the two seems to me to muddy the waters as we have a NYYM Conflict Transformation Committee which engages with conflicts.

    A personal sense of clarity, or for a committee or a marriage a corporate sense of clarity, is valuable and can among other things can help avoid conflicts getting out of hand.

    • I agree, Naomi. We originally included conflict resolution as one of the forms clearness committees because we found Friends were calling what they were doing clearness committees and they did have some elements in common with the more traditional clearness committees.

      Like you, I found in looking into this that these “clearness committees” sometimes did more harm than good. We encountered several different forms for dealing with conflict, but most had at their core Quaker dialog, sometimes called Claremont Dialog. When meetings stuck to the simple listening purpose of Quaker dialog, they seemed to serve fairly well, but meetings almost inevitably drifted toward some effort to arrive at a solution, and that’s when things seemed to go wrong a lot of the time.

      Back then, New York Yearly Meeting did not have a Conflict Transformation Committee, either—no Friends seasoned in conflict transformation processes and tools and experience ready to help meetings sort themselves out. We responded when asked with ad hoc interventions that were different every time.

      But I suspect that New York Yearly Meeting may be virtually unique in having a body already prepared to help meetings struggling with conflict, so other meetings may still be looking for some advice. My advice then would be to contact NYYM’s Conflict Transformation Committee through the yearly meeting office, at office@nyym.org.

      And maybe I should review this document and think about some amendments.

  • flofflach says:

    I am arranging my own Meeting for Clearance for basically a crisis of faith. So a timely post to read. One of the people I asked to participate said she felt she might not be able to refrain from giving advice – it was good to have an honest answer, I know she cares a lot for me.
    Even preparing for the meeting has been very helful and the support and holding I feel from those who will be participating and some who are further away but know of it, has been a revelation – I don’t think I have ever felt so held so broadly and over time.

  • Howard Brod says:

    Thanks for this information Steven. I have found that too many Friends come to Clearness committees unable to refrain from giving advice, opinions, and proclaiming judgements regarding the issue at hand. I think this is indicative of not approaching these sacred occasions in a spirit of worship.

    A strong, grounded facilitator (clerk) of the Clearness committee is important to ensure none of the above occurs. I have witnessed disastrous results when advice is given, opinions are expounded upon, and judgements are issued towards the focus person.

    In our meeting we trust the inner teacher so much that we started about twenty years ago treating membership and marriage similar to all other Clearness committees. For example, during a membership Clearness committee, at the end of offering open ended questions out of the silence with no advice or opinions also provided, the clerk of the Clearness committee simply asks the Friend if they “are clear to be a member of meeting”. The clearness committee does not make that judgement. The prospective member does. Then at the next meeting for business, the clerk of the Clearness committee reports that “Friend John Doe is clear that he should become a member of the meeting”. Instead of approving the membership (as is done in many, if not most Quaker meetings), the whole meeting simply approves the process used for membership. Questions may be asked of the clerk of the Clearness committee, such as: “Was the Clearness committee conducted in a spirit of worship?”, “Were no judgements, opinions, or advice given; rather, was Friend John Doe allowed the time and opportunity to seek the wisdom of his own inner voice?”, “Is the decision to become a member of meeting that of Friend John Doe’s, and not the ‘judgement’ of the Clearness committee members?”. If the answer is “yes” to these questions, then the whole meeting approves the process used at the Clearness committee. It does not approve the membership because John Doe has already done that in his own heart. If the answer is “no” to these questions, then the sense of the meeting might be that a proper Clearness committee according to our custom needs to be conducted with John Doe.

    Eliminating a spirit of judgement of the prospective member’s worthiness to be a member is in keeping with the spirit of our whole meeting’s spiritual life – where we simply support the spiritual journey of each other without standing in judgement of one another.

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