An essay on Quaker decision making
Quaker Business methods
I must confess a certain naughty pleasure at observing business meetings. There are of course the mundane items where they pass out reports and the committee’s recommendations are accepted without discussion; these dull periods are blissfully brief leaving time to watch the upcoming battle. With multiple visions and people who dream beyond available resources, I can expect regular entertainment at Monthly and Yearly Meeting sessions.
I first started attending business sessions as a teenager when I learned that the goal was consensus. There was a man called the Clerk who moderated the debate, and found in the argument a place where those who fought could agree. Quickly I learned that meetings did not quite meet this description. Some people would never compromise, and sometimes the Clerk would minute a decision in spite of significant opposition. Watching the process lead me to understand that the Clerk was expected to find the “Sense of the Meeting,” even when the meeting seems senseless.
As a ministry student, the dynamics of decision making became more obvious. In the secular consensus model, there is a select group with a strong shared interest to protect. The rules in the secular model will go as far as name the number of dissenters necessary to block action. The dynamic of running an open meeting is necessarily different, otherwise a sufficient number of disruptive people could maliciously shut down the meeting. In order to prevent this, the clerk has the task of discerning whether the speakers are voicing concerns or being obstinate. This revelation helped me to understand that the Clerk is, by necessity, a powerful position – and clerks must be selected by their ability to use his power wisely.
Study made it clear that there are some things that a meeting for business cannot change, no matter how much an individual member wants it to change. One example would be, if there are designated funds, consensus that another project is more worthwhile is not in itself enough to ethically or legally release these funds. Another example is those who wish to debate the appropriateness of the Faith and Practice outside of discussions about the discipline. The Clerk is responsible to maintain principles and past obligations which maybe overlooked by those attending the meeting in order to voice their personal opinions.
As I realized the power of the Clerk, I began to wonder if our experienced clerks might be irreplaceable. I have not managed to find a Clerk’s manual, and in my various discussions with other young Friends, including discussions about strategies for forming new meetings, we have not found a clear understanding of how to replicate the Friends decision making process. Basically, there has been great difficulty finding a method that would preserve the Faith if officers were chosen, and decisions were made by those who’s outlook are different from that Friends have traditionally held. Conversely, it would be senseless to plant a meeting to simply meet the needs of those already involved in another meeting. Clearly, a better understanding of Friends government is necessary for effective church planting within the context of the Religious Society of Friends.” If the goal is consensus, what keeps the group from becoming a narrow clique of friends, who share the same political agenda? What is to prevent the group from agreeing that it is more pleasant to be a social or a political society than a religious society meeting for worship?
While reading and meditating on these issues, I came across an essay by Terry Wallace titled “Misunderstanding Quaker Faith and Practice1” suggesting that our understanding that the goal of Quaker business is consensus is a misunderstanding. On this he writes of the traditional Friends decision making process:
“It consisted of seeking God’s will and allowing the meeting to be brought into unity by the immediate presence and active power of God. This early understanding required each participant in the meeting to cast aside personal agendas, pet ideas, and political positions, and in so doing to seek the divine will. It was incumbent on all present to allow God to challenge and change hearts and minds, and bring a miraculous divine unity, where before there were human strife and division.”
Meditating on this understanding, I have come to realize that consensus decision making is basically secular. The goal of consensus is to find either a compromise or more ideally a collaborative solution. Consensus can be reached with or without God’s help, and when there are several items on the agenda, the temptation is to come to the solution without God’s help.
For some time, I have had difficulty reconciling consensus, which tries to find the will of the people, and the high ideals of Robert Barclay and George Fox who wrote of Christ Himself teaching and leading. Wallace suggests to me that over the centuries we have passed from sacred to secular ideals, from seeking God’s will to seeking the will of man. If this is true, it would be good to consider how we can return to seeking God’s will.
Unfortunately, if we understand that the purpose of a business meeting is to find the compromise acceptable to the greatest number of people, we find that even if there is a prophetic message that the goal becomes to compromise the will of men with the will of God. While a perfect understanding of God’s will might be impossible, a change in attitude could bring us closer to the ideal.
First we must consider our business meetings primarily prayer meetings. As we consider each item on the agenda, we must pray for God to reveal his will, and conform our will to His. The goal should not be compromise, but instead transformation of hearts and attitudes. This change of course will often require a shorter agenda, prayer and waiting for spiritual transformation is not so quick as determining the will of men.
Of course, the first step would be education, presenting business meetings as special prayer meetings would go a long way in helping those who participate having entering with a prayerful attitude. A second step would be introducing each item on the agenda as a prayer item, at first praying out loud for God’s to show his will, and change men’s hearts.
Needless to say, much of the business which is decided only with much debate would still be debated. Though a decision may be impossible without compromise, there is no reason why a controversial issue needs decided in a single meeting. If it is clear that the group is not sure of God’s leading, in most cases it should be possible to delay decision (table the concern until the next meeting for business), and call on the people to privately pray and search scripture so that the issue can be considered again at a later meeting.
If after cooperate and private prayer, time to search scripture independently there is no clear sense of God’s leading the meeting should take heart that they were faithful in their attempt to seek God’s will. Experience has taught Christians that God does not micromanage, but instead gave people the resources which they require. It is also uncharitable for a prophet or a mystic to despise the faith of those who have different gifts. In the case that there is no clear leading, even over the course of multiple meetings and faithful prayer at time does come when the decision must be made. At this point, the compromise offered through consensus has the distinct advantage of respecting the needs of the minority, what other system of group decision making is designed to accommodate for the “least of these?” Through careful consideration, and with wisdom a group can come to a moral and wise decision.
Changing our cooperate understanding of history and decision making will not happen overnight. The Clerk’s manual on Group Discernment of the Divine Will is unlikely to be adopted, or even written in the near future. In spite of this difficulty, the issue is not as impossible as it appears. Though our culture has shifted to largely secular, and secular ideals have entered our religious practices, it does not follow that we must accept this trend.
Awareness, and an attempt to change our attitudes will do far more than the publication of a new method, or restructuring committees. If we accept the temptation to become more like the world we lose our identity, and our role to be Salt and Light to the world. Quakers traditionally hold that Christ touches and brings light to every part of our lives so that His sacred can make the secular Holy. Care to respect this aspect of our Faith is vital if we wish to remain a Religious Society in this deeply secular world.
1Friends Journal January 2007 p. 6