Decision-Making in the Manner of Friends
A presentation by Tom Corl and Diana Rein to Third Haven Friends Meeting, March 24th, 2013
In 1662, Edward Burroughs described the Quaker meeting for business at London Yearly Meeting—:
"In the wisdom, love and fellowship of God, in gravity patience, meekness, in unity and concord, ... and in the Holy Spirit of Truth, ... in love, coolness, as one only party, ... to determine things by a general mutual concord, in assenting together as one man in the spirit of truth and equity, and by the authority thereof." (Sheeran, p 4)
Other faiths have peace testimonies and use silence in important ways. Many are committed to simplicity. The silent meeting for worship and decision-making in the manner of Friends profoundly distinguish the Religious Society of Friends and Quakers.
Decision-making in the manner of Friends seeks awareness and guidance of the Spirit (Light, Truth, God, Divine). Discernment and decision-making in the Quaker meeting for business are Spiritual practices. As Friends, we seek Spiritual guidance to inform and help us discern the way forward and make decisions, individually in everyday life and corporately in the meeting for business.
Personally, I do not like the term "Quaker process," though it is commonly use in Quaker settings, especially Friends schools. I am not sure what that "Quaker process means." I prefer decision-making in the manner of Friends, clearness and unity, especially in Quaker meetings and meetings for business. In my experience, I find that the assertion that we are not using or following "Quaker process" can have the effect of challenging and even subverting decision-making in the manner of Friends.
Michael J Sheeran, a Jesuit, studied Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and decision-making in the manner of Friends, and summarized 9 distinct principles of Friends' "voteless" decision-making: 1) no voting, unity in decisions, 2) silent periods, 3) moratorium when decisions cannot be reached, 4) participation by all with ideas on the subject, 5) learning to listen, not going in with mind made up, 6) absence of leaders, the clerk steers but does not dominate, 7) nobody outranks anybody, 8) factual focus, emotions kept to a minimum, and 9) typically small meetings.
While there is a great deal written on unity, there is rather less on clearness. Clearness is essential in Quaker decision-making and necessarily must precede sense of the meeting, unity and decision. Clearness means that all the participants understand quite well what they are deciding. It does not make sense to achieve unity on something confusing or unclear. Such is the basis for subsequent confusion, disunity and conflict. Most decisions would benefit enormously from greater clearness.
Careful corporate discernment and clear communication among participants can lead to clearness and common understanding. Through corporate discernment in the meeting for business, Friends seek and come to know God's will in the circumstances. Friends speak of discerning the way forward, as the way opens. Issues and decisions can be more or less clear. There really cannot be meaningful unity without clearness.
"Consensus is achieved through a process of reasoning in which reasonable people search for a satisfactory decision. But in seeking the sense of the meeting, we open ourselves to being guided to perfect resolution in the Light, to a place where we sit in unity in the inward Presence." (Morley, p 5)
Arthur Larrabee reinforces the distinction between the 2, stating that consensus is secular and rational, reaching general agreement under the authority of the group. Sense of the meeting is Spiritual, reaching a Spirit-led decision is the spirit of worship. (Larrabee, p 10). Consensus asks "what can we agree to?" Sense of the meeting asks "how are we led?"
Sense of the Meeting:
Sense of the Meeting is a gift. It came to Quakers through their commitment to continuing revelation. They discovered that the Light which had come to teach people could lead them to revealed corporate decisions. (Morley, p 3)
Sense of the Meeting is a religious process characterized by listening for and trusting in God. (Faith and Practice, p 23) Sense of the Meeting works because we turn our decision-making over to a higher power. (Morley, p 5)
"When we seek the sense of the meeting we allow ourselves to be directed to the solution that awaits us. It is a process of surrender to our highest natures, and a recognition that, even though each of us is possessed of light, there is only one Light. At the end of the Process, we reside in that Light. We have allowed ourselves to be led to a transcendent place of unmistakable harmony, peace, and tender love." (Morley, p 12)
Often the clerk will try to articulate the sense of the meeting and test that sense. It is very important for the clerk to state, clearly and concisely, what is to be approved. The clerk may choose to test the correct articulation of the sense of the meeting before asking for approval. Saying "Are we ready to approve this?" often is not helpful in moving forward. Sometimes, a Friend may suggest an addition or a refinement that may better reflect the true sense of the meeting. If a Friend or a committee is asking the meeting for business to approve a report or a proposed minute, it is most helpful to present the text in writing in advance. Such good order used among us, helps Friends understand more clearly what approval is sought.
If the Meeting is laboring or struggling, Friends should seek the Spirit, God's will and the love in the Meeting community. The sense of the meeting may or may not contain a decision within it. There can be a sense of the meeting that does not contain or lead to a decision. "A sense of the meeting is a shared awareness of a place to which the Spirit has led us." (Larrabee, p 11) Sense of the meeting gives all participants confidence in the rightness of the decision. "When the sense of the meeting has been rightly discerned, those present will know that they have faithfully followed their Guide, and will feel a continued affection for one another." (Faith and Practice, p 23) In spite of the unrelenting earnestness of Quakers, humor is allowed in the meeting for business, and sometimes a very good idea.
Unity is not unanimity, being of 1 mind. Unity is not complete accord among all participants. Unity is all uniting with a way forward for the good of the meeting community. When sense of the meeting is achieved—that is unity. Sense of the meeting is the Quaker way of decision-making. Unity is the result. Unity binds us together in the decision and commits us to implementing and supporting the decision.
Sometimes after a good deal of discernment and deliberation, Friends may not reach clearness and unity. Often Friends let such an issue lay over and season to another time and meeting. Friends can and do join in unity after feeling and even voicing disquiet, uneasiness or reservation. The principle of unity in decision-making in the manner of Friends does not give an individual Friend the authority to veto an action or prevent the Meeting from moving forward when there is a sense of the Meeting. "A person cannot 'stand in the way' of the meeting. Rather, the meeting allows the truth, even the truth of a single person, to stand in its way." (Larrabee, p 19) In the end, everyone must feel that he or she can support the sense of the meeting, even though she or he might have decided differently if he or she were to decide the matter on his or her own. Each participant should be in sufficient harmony with the unity of the meeting, that he or she does not feel led to resist it.
When Friends do not agree with the stated sense of the Meeting, they may stand aside so as not to prevent the Meeting form moving forward. Such Friends may ask to be recorded as standing aside. If a Friend states that he or she will not stand aside that individual, can prevent the Meeting from moving forward. Such a situation is very awkward and difficult for the clerk and the meeting for business. Such an individual takes a very great responsibility for his or her version of the truth, such that it can rule the sense of the meeting. Decision-making in the manner of Friends can be derailed or subverted, when participants are not led by the Spirit and practicing the good order used among us.
Responsibilities of Participants:
The first responsibility of all participants is to listen very attentively and carefully. Before speaking, it is best to wait to be recognized by the clerk. Stand when speaking. Never talk to others when someone is speaking. Allow time between speakers for the thought to be understood and appreciated. Listen and appreciate each offering thoughtfully and respectfully. "Participants are expected to put aside personal desires and allow themselves to be led by the Guide beyond the self." (Faith and Practice, p 21) As in the meeting for worship, messages should be Spirit-led, not personal.
As in meeting for worship, Friends should attend to business with heart and mind prepared. Friends are reminded to consider:
- Intention, attitude and expectation—Are your, attitudes and expectations Spiritual and open?
- Listening—Do you listen for the leadings of the Spirit? Are you attentive and open to the Light in offerings of others?
- Attachments—Are you willing to examine your attachments, and let these go, so as not to let your attachments interfere with the Light in the meeting.
- Teachable—Are you open to the Light in the meeting and in other participants? Are you willing to be teachable? (adapted from Larrabee, p 15)
Each participant should come with heart and mind prepared. Meeting for business should start on time and try to end as an appropriate time. Meetings for business that that run too long, stray from the topic or do not reach resolution are more properly ascribed to the participants than the clerk. Friends should speak infrequently and not repeat their offerings. Give full attention to the work of the meeting. Do not be otherwise occupied or distracted.
Everyone has a responsibility to share his or her truth about moving forward. A Friend should usually speak only once and release his or her idea, view or position to the Light, to the collected wisdom and will of the Meeting. A Friend can affirm his or her agreement by adding "I agree" or "This Friends speaks my mind." Debate and back and forth between 2 participants is not good Quaker practice. The clerk may encourage those who have not spoken to add anything new. Arthur Larrabee reminds us that we do not need to hear everything that might be said on a question, but only that which needs to be said to move forward. If the Meeting approves, Friends should not keep talking on the matter, unless the sense of the Meeting has been incorrectly or articulated or a Friend is not in unity in some meaningful way.
Role of the Clerk:
The clerk is the agent of the Meeting community and serves decision-making in the manner of Friends. The clerk supports continuing Spiritual awareness and focuses the participants on the business at hand. The clerk develops the agenda, often in consultation with others. The clerk helps maintain an atmosphere of safety throughout the Meeting for business. The clerk helps the meeting for business mange the rhythm and temperament of the meeting for business. The clerk should use of silence, even extended periods, when emotion rises or the meeting for business comes to a contentious or difficult place.
The clerk role is active, not passive, in maintaining a worshipful spirit in the meeting for business and securing the good order used among us. "Absent leadership from the clerk, the domination of some, inefficiency, and exhaustion may take over." (Larrabee, p 25) The clerk may ask if others agree with a different (individual or "minority") view so that such Friends may feel such support as may exist and the meeting for business can avoid a misleading emergence of a sense of the meeting.
After a decision or approval of a minute, the clerk may want to speak to how the Meeting, a committee or the clerk herself will proceed with the action needed. This can then be recorded in the minutes to ensure such follow-up action as may be needed. The clerk and the recording clerk ensure that the minutes accurately reflect the important points of the meeting for business. The minutes record decisions, and the approval of minutes and reports.
Suggested Reading and References:
- Faith and Practice, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1997, especially pp 21-28 and 177-190
- "Beyond Consensus: Salvaging the Sense of the Meeting," Barry Morley, Pendle Hill Pamphlet (PHP) 307, 1993
- Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decision Making in the Religious Society of Friends, Michael J Sheerhan, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1991
- "How Quakers Do Business," Arthur, Larrabee, Southern Quarterly Meeting, 1.19.03 (10.28.02)
- "Decisions, Decisions: A Quaker View on Quaker Process," Committee on Truth and Integrity in Public Affairs of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) [Britain Yearly Meeting], no date
- "Before the Meeting: A Handbook for Clerks," Keith Redfern, Quaker Home Service [Britain Yearly Meeting], 1994
- "A Handbook for the Presiding Clerk," David O Stanfield, North Carolina Yearly Meeting of Friends, 1989
- "Before Business Begins," William Braasch Watson, New England Yearly Meeting, 1996
Written by Tom Corl and presented to Third Haven Friends Meeting on 3rd Month, 24th, 2013
For our religious community to thrive, it is essential that we nurture our love for one another, maintain our spiritual unity, and live in harmony with the Spirit. These beliefs underlie every attitude and practice in our meetings for business.
It is also our experience that new openings to truth may come at any time and from any source.
Our search is for unity, not unanimity. We consider ourselves to be in unity when our search for Truth is shared; when our listening for God is faithful; when our wills are caught up in the presence of Christ; and when our love for one another is constant. A united meeting is not necessarily all of one mind, but it is all of one heart.
We believe that this unity, transcending apparent differences, springs from God's empowering love, and that a Meeting, trusting in the leadership of that love and gathered in its spirit, will enjoy unity in its search for truth.
When any member present feels so strongly led as to wish to prevent the Meeting from acting, it is important that the Meeting take the time to test this leading in a loving spirit, and examine responsibly the consequences if the action is not taken.
The Meeting may move to a deeper spiritual searching and sharing, often entering periods of silent worship.
The Meeting may wait or proceed with other business while a small representative ad hoc committee withdraws
The Meeting may reschedule the matter for another time
After patient searching over a considerable period, the Meeting may conclude that the sense of the meeting is clear and unity in the Spirit can be maintained if that sense is translated into action, but acknowledge that a few Friends continue to have reservations about the substance of the proposed action.
Those Friends may feel led to withdraw their objections
Those Friends may say that they feel released from the burden of their concern, having laid it on the conscience of the Meeting
They may stand aside while maintaining their objections, asking that their names and the grounds of their objections be minuted. Friends who stand aside are affirming their continuing spiritual unity with the Meeting. That unity will require of those Friends acceptance with good grace of the decision's consequences for the Meeting and for themselves. It will require the rest of the Meeting to keep the objections firmly in mind as they proceed.
Role of the Clerk
Ideally, the clerk is both servant and leader who thoughtfully prepares for the meeting; maintains a worshipful spirit in the meeting; sets a helpful pace; discerns the sense of the meeting when it is present; and expresses it clearly or identifies those who can do so. Such a clerk sensitively searches for the right course of action and helps maintain the meeting's spiritual unity.
It is especially important that the clerk make clear what previous decisions or customs have been established on a given issue since lack of unity on a proposed change normally means that the status quo will be preserved.
When the sense of the meeting seems elusive, the clerk should be sensitive to the potential benefit of deferring the matter to a later time, to a different body, or to a different forum.
Role of Participants
Members who are prompt in arrival and disciplined in settling into worship contribute much to the depth and power of the meeting.
Although an individual Friend has the designated role of clerk, all share the responsibility for the maintenance of a Spirit-led gathering, for the wise use of time, and for a steadfast search for truth. All are expected to be attentive and to offer concisely such insight as each may have. None should remain silent in the belief that the conclusion is foregone, or that an insight apparently counter to that of the body of the Meeting will be divisive.
Both speaking and listening should be marked by respect for others, with speakers saying only what they know to be worth others' hearing, and with listeners seeking the Light as it is revealed through others. An openness of spirit is crucial, especially when differing views are being expressed.
Source: Faith and Practice, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, 1997, Philadelphia, Pa.
Written by and presented to Third Haven on March 24th by Dee Rein