Reconsidering "I Approve"

Friends have a unique way of conducting business in which unity of all those assembled is sought on decision items. We are proud that we go beyond consensus to the sense of the meeting. This serves as a check that the Divine will might be operating through us; that is, lack of unity tells us that the proposed decision is not the Divine will for the group. Finding the sense of the meeting sometimes presents a challenge to the clerk and the meeting. This article explores one aspect of this challenge—seeking approval.

Have we ever experienced the following in a meeting for business? The clerk asks for approval, many Friends say "I approve," the clerk is just noting approval and then someone raises a concern—that is, s/he did not approve. There are at least three variations on this scenario. First, "No" or "I do not approve" may be verbalized at the same time as the "approves" and is heard by the clerk. Second, "No" or "I do not approve" may be verbalized with the "approves" but only heard by one or more Friends sitting near the person. Do the alerted Friends then get the attention of the clerk, or urge the Friend to speak again louder, or choose not to respond? It can be an awkward moment. Lastly, the concern may only come out later after Friends have proceeded to other business and then a Friend says something like, "I hope we could reconsider the approval of . . . because. . . ." This can be problematic if anyone present at the earlier time has had to leave or if other Friends have just arrived at the business meeting. Many of us have witnessed these unsatisfactory scenarios. What can we do?

We must be sure to listen for that still, small voice that speaks through Friends even, and perhaps especially, when it is an individual Friend who has reservations about an item of business that others are ready to approve. Finding the unity of the meeting demands that we do not risk covering up the still, small voice with our verbal "approves." As clerk of the North American Friends Committee on Unity with Nature (FCUN), I have striven for a way to avoid these problems.

Indeed, there is a way that Friends have used over the last two centuries that minimizes these unsatisfactory scenarios. In addition, it suits Friends beliefs better than oral approval. The method is silent approval, from the Wilburite tradition.

Silent approval works very simply, as follows: After an item of business has been presented, clarifications and questions seem to have been satisfactorily answered, and alterations have perhaps been made to the recommendation or minute with no objections voiced, the clerk or recording clerk states or reads a draft minute expressing what s/he feels is the sense of the meeting. Then, instead of the clerk’s asking for approval, s/he asks, "Is there any Friend with reservations about this matter that we need to hear?" After the clerk asks this, unless someone speaks immediately, the meeting settles into silence. If a Friend raises a concern during the silence, it is dealt with by the meeting. Otherwise, the silence connotes approval, which the clerk states before moving on to the next item of business.

The wording of the clerk’s question has been worked out by trial and error over several years of clerking. Three other variations of the wording were tried and found less satisfactory, one being "Does any Friend have reservations about proceeding as indicated on this matter?" The problem with this question is that a Friend may have mild uncertainties but discerns that they are not of sufficient weight to prevent the matter from going forward; these should not be solicited. In the current version this is implicitly taken care of by adding the phrase "that we need to hear." A second wording might be: "Is there any Friend who cannot approve this matter?" The problem here is that asking for negatives gives the wrong tone to the meeting and puts a person who speaks in an awkward position from the start.

We are seeking what we can approve, not disapprove! A third alternative, "Does any Friend have objections or stops about moving forward with what has been stated?" is unsatisfactory since it places the bar very high. The reservations, at the beginning anyway, do not rise to the level of objections but nevertheless need to be considered. Typically a meeting would not have proceeded this far if there were a Friend with objections. Thus, "Is there any Friend with reservations about this matter that we need to hear?" seems the best question. Another alternative suggestion might be: "Is there any unreadiness to approve?"

Several further dimensions of the process deserve consideration. First, the clerk determines the length of the silence needed before approval is clear. The length of time may vary according to the gravity of the item. For example, acceptance of a routine financial report may require only a very short silence for approval, while items such as a decision to lay down a midweek meeting may demand a long silence. Contentious matters may require longer periods of silence so that the meeting may be sure that the resolution is a centered one. Having the silence also allows the meeting to slow down and gives ample time for thoughtful and prayerful consideration.

When a Friend does speak into the silence with a concern, this signals that the matter needs reconsideration in the Light. Other Friends then contribute, and a new vision may emerge. Or, other Friends will speak to the reasons for the importance of proceeding according to the clerk’s original statement. In this case, and if no one else expresses a need to alter the statement, the clerk has another matter of discernment—whether to proceed again with seeking silent approval or instead call directly on the Friend who had the reservation to learn if s/he is clear or accepts that the meeting move forward, wishes to stand aside, or feels clear that s/he must object and potentially stand in the way of the decision. In many situations calling on the person is not needed because the clerk can tell from the voice or the body language of the person whether s/he accepts proceeding given the contributions of other Friends since s/he raised the concern. If the clerk feels a need to clarify whether the Friend accepts the matter or not, then calling on the Friend is appropriate. For example, the clerk might say: "Can Friend Smith unite with this matter or is Friend Smith willing to stand aside and let this matter proceed?" On one early occasion when I used this process while clerking with silent approval, I was eldered after the meeting by some weighty Friends. They held that one should not single out a Friend in this way and that a Friend should be expected to speak into the silence again if s/he still has a doubt. When I asked the Friend concerned, he said he was grateful that I had specifically checked in with him. Over time, and only calling on a Friend in this manner when I sense it is essential, FCUN Friends have come to accept it as a good process. I am convinced that it is sometimes needed so we are sure of our unity or lack thereof.

I feel clear that this manner of clerking can help clerks and meetings in finding unity in their decisions. Further, I believe that silent approval will allow us to hear more often that "still small voice" that can guide all of us to more Spirit-led decisions as we seek to build the kingdom of God on Earth. I look forward to responses from Friends on this suggestion, particularly from clerks who may have used it or feel led to try it.

Stan Becker

Stan Becker is a member of Homewood Monthly Meeting in Baltimore, Md. Before serving as clerk of FCUN, he was clerk of its population subcommittee. He has a minute of support from Homewood, Chesapeake Quarter, and Baltimore Yearly Meetings to travel among Friends under the weight of the concern about rapid population growth and our impact on the Earth's ecosystems. He is a professor of Population Studies at Johns Hopkins University.