In the Religious Society of Friends, the business of our community is conducted within a meeting for worship where we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our outward affairs. Whether in matters of finance, ministry, social concern, or any of the other issues that commonly concern religious communities our intention is to come to unity in a “sense of the meeting” as to how we should proceed.
So, decisions are made by consensus?
No. Consensus is an entirely secular process. “Sense of the meeting” requires a deep grounding in the Spirit. Like voting, consensus simply means that decisions are made when a certain threshold of agreement is reached within a group of people; only instead of decision by simple majority the threshold of agreement is raised to unanimity. Everybody agrees. The decision that everyone agrees to, however, may still be short-sighted since efforts to reach consensus can easily be driven by the dynamics of group psychology.
Groups are enormously powerful in their pull toward conformity, so it takes considerable spiritual discipline to counter these forces. Friends, in recognizing how deeply flawed we are in our human condition, and how profoundly misguided we can be when cut loose from our spiritual moorings, have rejected both voting and consensus in favor of a process in which we reach for something infinitely larger than mere human opinion or conventional wisdom.
How do Friends reach a “sense of the meeting?”
We reach first for a felt sense of the Holy Spirit, the Presence of God, the Inward Christ or Light that gathers us into worship and deep listening. Because Friends do not embrace creeds, we strive to keep our theological language creative and open, employing a multitude of metaphors for the unnamable Mystery. As a Christian, my language is more Trinitarian, and leans toward words like “God,” “Christ” and “Spirit.” Another may prefer “Light,” “Life,” or any number of other gestures of speech, all of which may evoke some aspect of the Divine without defining it. Some Friends will “translate” my words into language more suitable to their theological sensibilities. Whatever our preferred speech, we all seek to get “below” words, so that we can come into a “gathered” meeting where there is a collectively felt sense of being drawn out of our separateness into a community that is anchored in and guided by that which is larger and wiser than us all. Our first order of business, therefore, is always to surrender human opinion in an attitude of humility and sincere seeking to be led. When a community is gathered in a shared sense of the Presence and all have become willing listeners in the stillness, willfulness has been replaced by willingness, and the movement of the Spirit can more easily lead us to new openings.
There is a radical trust in this practice that there is a Divine Mystery that can be reached, and felt, and known, such that we can affirm, in our various ways, that God is a present and active guide in human affairs and that all who willingly seek guidance will eventually be favored. The group comes to a “sense of the meeting” when a way forward finally opens and our collective discernment is that we have once again been guided by a merciful and patient God.
What happens when the community cannot come to a “sense of the meeting?”
Even after a worshipful discernment process, there may be some who are still uncertain about the decision, but who are willing to “stand aside” and allow the community to go forward. We know that the Spirit moves in different people at different times, and that for each of us there are many variations of mood and temperament, such that our access to the Light of God is sometimes clear and sometimes not. We “stand aside” in trust, because we know that God often uses the community to lead the individual.
We also know, however, that sometimes God uses the individual to lead the community. On occasion, a member may feel an inward call to “stand opposed,” and the community returns to silent and prayerful waiting on the Spirit. If new discernment does not emerge, then the matter will likely be held over to a future meeting to allow further seasoning. Often those opposed will meet with others in the community in a “threshing” session to see what new light might come.
On rare occasions the community may move forward even with someone standing opposed when the collective discernment is that the opposition is “outside the Life” of the meeting. This is a step not to be taken lightly, and only with great tenderness and care. Far more commonly, the community prays and labors until all are either united or some are willing to stand aside.
This seems like a laborious and lengthy process. Doesn’t it get frustrating?
Frustrations invariably arise when participants misunderstand the process. Not only newcomers but sometimes Friends of many years experience fail to appreciate the extent to which they are bringing worldly assumptions with them into the meeting for business, a common one being that success is measured in terms of efficiency and productivity. Left unexamined, this assumption leads not only to impatience and subtle arm-twisting, but also to a kind of “works righteousness” in which human opinion and achievement displaces God’s leading. When the focus is on results, or when one or more of the participants are wedded to a particular outcome, the process becomes forced or overly dominated by one or two people.
The antidote to impatience or subtle manipulations lies in the clear understanding that success in business meeting is measured by the quality of worship and not by the results. Our business process seeks to embody nonviolent principles such as “the end is already present in the means,” (as opposed to “the end justifies the means”), and “be the peace you want to see.” The following contrasts between secular and more faith-based processes may be helpful in seeing how the shift from the former to the latter can transform a process from one which can be frustrating and competitive to one which is refreshing and cooperative. We believe that the world needs communities that seek to embody a living, spiritually grounded nonviolence, and we strive to bear witness to that possibility in our business process.
Voting/Consensus Sense of the Meeting
Focus is on the result Focus is on the process
The goal is the decison The goal is a gathered community
Fixed opinion or belief Openness, listening, waiting
Focus on being right Focus on being led
Disunity is a problem Disunity is an opportunity
Agreements may lack commitment Agreements and commitment arise together
Emphasis on efficiency Emphasis on faithfulness
Priority of results over relationships Priority of relationships over results
We know that groups can be highly efficient in doing the wrong thing. They can come to agreements that have no depth, no real commitment, and no seasoning in wisdom and discernment. Friends seek to live patiently in a hurried world, simply in a complex world, and nonviolently in a world of domination and violence. We are far from perfect and we frequently fail, but we believe that the vision is worth the effort.
What is the clerk’s job in a Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business?
The clerk organizes the agenda in consultation with committee clerks, opens and closes the meeting, and guides the community through our process. It is the special responsibility of the clerk to hold awareness of process over content, and to comment on content only by way of clarification. If the clerk feels a need to speak substantively to content, he or she must hand the clerk’s role to another, and then resume functioning in that role only when that item of business is complete. What is less visible but more essential to the clerk’s job is the effort to maintain awareness on multiple levels.
One level involves attentiveness to both the agenda and the clock. Faithfulness is not the enemy of efficiency, although it is our priority. Another is to be aware of group dynamics: Who is speaking; who is waiting to speak; are the messages becoming repetitive or argumentative; have all views been heard; is there a deepening of a sense of the Presence or do we need to return momentarily to silent worship?
Most importantly, the clerk strives to maintain an inward attentiveness to the movement of the Spirit, and to nurture, encourage, and listen for a quickening of the Spirit in the community. Of course this is everyone’s responsibility, and we share in our efforts to sustain an attitude of worship, and to prayerfully support the clerk. As our way opens, the clerk will attempt to articulate the emerging “sense of the meeting” and the community may approve it as stated or return to an effort to refine it further. Once approved, a minute is written recording the community’s decision and is entered into the permanent record.
How is God’s leading discerned? How can anyone know they are truly being led?
Certainty is not a gift we have been given. We have found, however, that faithfulness to our process more often leads to results that bear good fruit in their season than those that come of processes that do not include prayerful waiting and listening.
Truth does not always speak loudly or insistently. The mere presence of strong feeling or a sense of conviction or passion is no sure sign of leading, and may even be a sign of willfulness and a domineering personality. Truth may just as likely speak in a still, small voice, hesitantly, and humbly. However it appears, it is recognizable not by its form or content, but by its power to quicken the Inward Witness within everyone present. A truly led decision, therefore, is one that grows from soil that is prepared in prayer. Meetings grow in their ability to make truly led decisions in proportion to the depth of their individual and collective spiritual discipline.
We have found that as each of us grows in our own daily practice of prayer, the spiritual life of our community deepens, and our decisions more often emerge as clear guidance, wise, efficient, and grounded, for as we grow spiritually, we are able to come more quickly into our natural dependence upon the Spirit. Mature Quaker Meetings more easily trust the One who knows best how to lead us home, and as that trust deepens, so does our trust that with faithfulness our way will become clear and open.
Quaker process stresses inward spiritual work over outwardly visible results. None of us has the wisdom or perspective to know with certainty which direction will bear the full mark of Truth, and perhaps the surest sign that we are wrong is when we are most certain that we are not. Quakerism is grounded in the vision of a truly Spirit-led community such that in the workings of our daily lives and in caring for the business of our meeting, we strive to practice and bear witness to the present activity and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Quaker business procedure resonates deeply with Proverbs 3:5-8: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your flesh and refreshment to your bones.”