Clerking

Having a good process is the way that organizations I’ve been part of have been able to function. Having realized that and started noticing the lack of good process in many places, I decided I wanted to learn to be a meeting facilitator—in Quaker language, a clerk.

The worst example of clerking I’ve seen was at a Philadelphia Young Friends gathering at Camp Onas. During that meeting it was clear to everybody but the clerks that there was unity on the topic. We went on for an additional hour because the clerk was focusing on the fact that people still wanted to talk, and was not gathering the sense of the meeting. The meeting had made a decision, but the clerk didn’t recognize it.

Another cause of a bad meeting for business is a lack of clearness about how to use the process. An example is a group that sits back and lets a decision be made, then complains about it later. A clerk would have a hard time solving this problem without the help of the group.

Another problem is a clerk who continually voices his or her own opinion. People aren’t being heard, because the clerk is talking over the voices from the group. Clerks who want to voice their own opinions need to step out of the role of clerk; if they have a vested interest and cannot put it aside, good process suffers. People often don’t feel comfortable if the clerk is arguing with them.

Experienced adult groups may overcome a problem like this, but in a young Friends meeting, where there’s not as much knowledge of the process, it would probably be a disaster. Adults have more practice and can act as a kind of secondary clerk. More people are thinking about the process; one person isn’t trying to guide it alone. With young people, bad clerking skills almost assure a bad meeting.

I brought a sense of how things should be to my early experience with the Friends General Conference High School Gathering, and became clear that our clerks were our best shot at making the process work for the 100-plus young people spending the week together. At the second Gathering I attended, at the first business meeting it seemed to me that the clerks were sitting in the front of the room unsure of themselves, not getting the pulse of the meeting or calmly letting things go where they needed to go. They were trying to deal with the agenda as quickly as possible. They were joined in this by most of the high school participants,? who seemed to think it would be better to be quick than thorough.

At this meeting, we went through four different topics in an hour and a half. We came up with decisions that nobody objected to and left it with that. Then, come our next meeting, two out of those four issues were raised again. People had not understood what they were agreeing to. We spent long hours deliberating how to deal with those issues, much of which could have been avoided if we had not waited for them to fester. After six hours we decided to leave one issue, since it would only be pertinent for two more days even if we did make a new policy. For the second issue we came up with a policy that was very similar to our previous one, but now everybody really understood and agreed to it. The meeting was a much better example of Quaker process, and the clerks were able to trust that this process would actually work. They decided to go through it to the fullest instead of being happy with a quick decision. Some of the items might have been drawn out a little longer than necessary, but this wasn’t a major problem.

During the second meeting, the idea crossed my mind that the clerks could benefit from knowing that somebody had faith in them and the process they were guiding, so I decided to try to show my support. Remembering the first meeting’s seating arrangements, with the clerks elevated at one point on a very large circle, they decided to change things so people could hear better and be closer together. Now we were seated in a lecture hall format, everyone facing the clerking table. One drawback of this arrangement was that it left about ten feet between the clerking table and where anybody else was sitting, creating the impression that the clerks had a higher status than others. I decided to seat myself in the very front, close enough to the clerks that they could notice my presence. Throughout the meeting I showed them that I was paying attention to the process and happy with them in their role. After the meeting, a few of the several clerks commented to me that it was useful having me show that I cared about them and the process.

At midnight we had to move out of that room into one of the lounges in our dorm, and I decided to sit with some friends farther back. In our new space, we had no way to have everybody see the clerks or each other. Attempting to hold a meeting for worship with a concern for business in that space made me appreciate the configuration of our meetinghouses.

Over the past few years, Friends General Conference has sent six high schoolers to a clerking workshop every year in order to learn the basics. I think this is a great step for thinking about young and new leadership in Quaker communities. I had the opportunity to participate in this workshop in November 2001. It was a good experience both to learn from someone who has spent a long time as a clerk, as well as to think together about being new clerks in the Quaker community. It was also useful to spend time with the other clerks of the High School Program for the next year, for us to get to know each other and think about our process.

At the 2002 FGC Gathering I was one of two presiding clerks for the High School business meeting. It wasn’t perfect. I’ve never known a meeting without some unfinished business, something to be thought about for next time, or one where everybody in the group feels that it was a truly good process and that all concerns were addressed well. Given that, I think we did a pretty darn good job. My co-clerk and I had been at the clerking workshop together and in contact since, so we started with a good relationship, and that relationship grew over the week. Also both of us had been in the program long enough that we had a good sense of the community.

One of the most productive parts of our meeting was our discussion about smoking. After five brief comments, it sounded as if we were in agreement with the current policy and ready to move on. My co-clerk noticed that this was happening, reminded the meeting of how it had ended the year before, and asked people to speak their minds if they had any concerns. This resulted in some good clarification of what the minute actually was saying. Though there was no new decision, it was a chance to build community. It was a lesson on the history of smoking in our community and a chance for people to think about how this related to our group this year.

Although there weren’t specific moments when I remembered a specific learning from the clerking workshop that I had attended, I sense that a good amount of the knowledge that I used came from what I had learned that weekend. The workshop gave me not only new information, but also a clear opportunity to think with other experienced and new Friends about how to run a meeting well. With that, the rest of my experience, and the talents of my co-clerk, I think that we worked well together to run good meetings.

I see the importance of helping young people learn this process thoroughly before sending them off to clerk young Friends’ business meetings. Throughout my clerking experience, there have been a few important adult presences who had been clerks in the past and are now working with young people. I feel that the FGC community has done a very good job teaching and mentoring young people clerking, and I hope they continue to do this important work.