Meeting for Business for Community

In psychotherapy there is a technique we call "paradoxical intervention." It’s what we do when we tell a two-year-old who won’t eat, "Don’t you dare eat those peas!" then exclaim, "Stop that!" when the child gleefully devours them. We see similar reactions from adults when we give them permission to fail at something they are asking for help to stop failing at. It often frees them to succeed.

Quaker meetings for business are, I think, based on a similar paradox. At their best, they are not really about taking care of business or making decisions, but about building community. Unlike most other types of business meetings where efficient and careful decision-making is the objective, Quaker business puts community-building above decision making. This is such a radical idea that Quaker business meetings can be unusually inviting, peaceful, and deliberate. At the same time, they can be very frustrating to those who feel pressure to make decisions or are simply impatient. In a carefully run Quaker business meeting, partly because pressure and impatience are minimized, participants become friends. They listen carefully to one another.

I am growing increasingly concerned with a breakdown in the Quaker business process. It concerns me to hear many Friends leave business meetings shaking their heads and saying, "We sure got bogged down in nit-picky things." Those Friends often don’t return to business meetings, and unless we deal with it, we stand to lose the true purpose of business meeting. In a word, the problem is micromanagement—a common roadblock to community. Micromanagement most often happens when a person who has been asked to bring a proposal to business meeting finds that upon making the report, the meeting, instead of wrestling with the proposal itself, wants to go back over how that person made the decision or worded the proposal. Then the whole meeting for business shifts into a process of redrafting or "wordsmithing."

When meetings assign tasks to librarians, treasurers, First-day school leaders, meetinghouse committees, and adult religious educators, micromanagement of their work sometimes implies mistrust and a lack of confidence. It’s as if the business meeting decides to do the work for the person or committee, rendering the earlier work unimportant.

When meetings for business micromanage, they are like a pilot who pays too much attention to the controls, forgetting to see what’s out the window. Micromanagers cannot have a clear vision ahead.

The importance of Worship in Meetings for Business

Quaker business meetings are structured to be slow, deliberate, and respectful of individual concerns, following the pattern of silent worship. In worship we sit quietly and peacefully, tolerant of body noises, traffic sounds, and even inarticulate messages. Unprogrammed worship insists that we wrestle with ourselves and with God as much as with others. More often than not, no one is saying something with which you can argue. Quaker worship lends truth to Mohandas Gandhi’s assertion that the more difficult wars are the ones we fight within our own hearts. If we can win that war, there’s a chance we can become peacemakers.

Participating in Quaker worship is key to understanding Quakerism in general, and business meetings in particular. One could argue that:

  • Quakers are so interested in peace because our worship is so quietly peaceful.
  • Quakers are so casual because our worship has few formalities.
  • Quakers are so interested in listening to the poor, dispossessed, and "enemies" because some of the best messages in our worship are from almost inarticulate people.
  • Quakers are so methodical in our manner of doing business because our worship encourages us to be quiet as we absorb what was just said.
  • Quakers are so interested in equality and civil rights because we worship in a way that encourages all present to minister to the meeting.
  • Quakers are so interested in community because "gathered" meetings are deeply satisfying.

Business meetings are sometimes referred to as "meeting for worship for the conduct of business" to indicate the importance of worship in business proceedings. We want to keep our ears tuned to the Divine. We are also trying to discourage business meetings from sinking into a highly contentious state. Despite the fact that Quakers can exhibit somewhat homogenous political and social views, we argue about the details.

When our business meetings descend into micromanaging, we need to return to the business of weaving ourselves together. We can begin with the query, "How shall we build community?" In my experience, for building community you can’t just pray, you can’t just work, you can’t just play. You must prayerfully work and play. Together, we are working and playing with God.

Business meetings are special places where business is attended to with prayerful quietness. We are working and praying quite appropriately. When the work feels particularly important, Quaker business meetings can be moving and meaningful—even fun. But when we succumb to micromanagement, it’s no longer fun or meaningful; it’s just work. We pray to get this out of the way so we can have some fun or deal with more important matters. Certainly there are meaningful moments when major issues are managed with insight, care, and clarity; but business meetings that lose their sense of fun don’t enhance community.

One of the best business meetings in which I’ve ever participated was not a Quaker business meeting, but in a group that ran its meetings like Quakers, seeking unity rather than voting. Our mission was to create a dance weekend. Because we danced together nearly every week, we always wanted to talk about the fun we had at the last dance, how much fun we expected to have during the weekend, and what new dance moves and dancers we were getting to know. We attended to the business of planning and assignments quickly and with much trust for one another. Sometimes we concluded our meeting with music and dance. We worked hard, we had fun, and our dancing was very prayerful.

How can Quakers have fun together? Sometimes, when business meetings are bogged down in hard, laborious work, might it help to relegate most business to small committees so that business meetings are not about business, but about community building. What if we called them "community meetings"? Or "meeting for worship for the conduct of community"?

We could really get carried away with this. We could dance and sing. Someone could show some magic tricks. Another could juggle for us. Another could invite us to play with clay. Another could want to tell us a story. It could be a talent show! We might create an intergenerational collage. And meanwhile, off to the side, a couple of us would be talking about a serious struggle. Others might join in, and the conversation might turn towards problem solving or the ministry of caring—i.e. business?

Meanwhile, other things might happen. A new Friend might complain of loneliness, and perhaps one of us might stop and listen and befriend the stranger. A couple of Friends would probably use the time to clean; they might talk about rearranging something, ask others, and, with no objection, do it. Some would talk about social or political action, and others would join in, sharing a common interest in seeking truth and justice. One of the children would bring in some interesting item and find a cadre of interested adults.
It might get very noisy. Then, just as quickly, the noise would subside as meeting for worship began—with sighs, smiles, wandering eyes, closing eyes, and the deep peacefulness of adults and children sitting quietly together, joined in wordless prayer.

They didn’t get much business done, did they? Except for discovering a few previously hidden talents, and helping someone solve a personal problem, and integrating a new friend into the community, and rearranging part of the meetinghouse, and sharing information and ideas about social action, and connecting children and adults.

The reason why the meeting accomplished so much was because it allowed room for Spirit. When the Spirit of God is allowed into business meetings, community and all its passions, talents, concerns, and activities can happen. And, paradoxically, business gets done.

The In-Breaking of Spirit

At our Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting and Association (SAYMA) in 2004 we had a talent show on Saturday night—excuse me: Seventh-day night. I was the master of ceremonies. Two of our volunteer performers were pianists. One, Richard Allen, from Atlanta, is a professional pianist. He wanted to play Aaron Copeland’s "Rodeo." The other pianist was an eight-year-old child, Danny Rhu, from Columbia, South Carolina. As the MC, I thought I should space these two performers far apart in the program, partly to protect Danny from belittlement in comparison with Richard.

Early in the evening we needed a spark in the program, so I asked Richard to perform. He played beautifully. As the MC, I had the best seat in the house—right next to the piano. I watched Richard’s intense concentration with awe as his nimble fingers flew over those keys.

Then, in the middle of his performance, I saw Danny walk up to the staging area and stand on the opposite side of the piano from me, staring at Richard’s hands. He stood there studying, and I was thinking, "If this is the Spirit’s doing, I’d better not get in the way."

Richard finished and received great applause. As he stood up and bowed, I slipped around the piano, put my arm around Danny and asked him, "Do you want to go next?" He nodded yes. So I introduced him.

My adult friends told me they, like me, figured he was going to play something like "Chopsticks." I was wondering what had gotten into me. I’d never heard Danny play, so this might be very much a letdown from Richard’s performance.

Danny sat down, looked around, and—without music—began playing a Scott Joplin piece. Not just playing it—playing it beautifully! Some adults shifted in their seats to see his fingers, and as they moved, Danny turned his head to look at them without missing a beat. This young prodigy, who had felt compelled to watch Richard perform up close, finished and received a standing ovation.

Months later, SAYMA Friends were still talking about that event. The Spirit had broken into our midst and united us. At that moment, community happened.

We’ll bring that experience back to SAYMA next year. Perhaps we’ll hold it in the Light in worship and conversation. Such an event is not a sidelight at all! Perhaps it is the real business of the meeting.

Obviously, things have to get done. Someone has to oversee the treasury, someone has to manage the meetinghouse, someone has to organize meetings for learning and First-day school. And someone needs to know what those individuals are doing so that the meeting’s activities are coordinated. But we need occasionally to set aside the details of managing our meeting’s business for the purpose of just building community.

Community building challenges us to let go of our worries about property and money. We have to be willing not to be overly protective of our meeting’s space and money. Though changing our business emphasis from the protection and stewardship of our meeting’s infrastructure to community building could conceivably threaten our property and savings, community building requires the risk of losing what we own in favor of gaining the less tangible and more meaningful.

Quakerism is not built on material things, but, as I see it, on four foundational stones: openness—with self, with others, and with God; the experience of meeting God as Spirit; quietness—the inclination to listen; and detachment from things—simplicity.

Community building challenges people to a sometimes frightening level of vulnerability and commitment, which can be difficult to handle. But the greatest risk is of not building community—and not knowing what true community feels like.

The Risk of Community Building

Communities give life. People are nurtured in communities in extraordinary ways. When we look at some of the world’s most influential people, we see that their genius and drive were born and nurtured in community. Would Plato and Aristotle have been such great philosophers had they not come out of the philosophical community surrounding Socrates? Would Peter and Paul have created a dynamic new religion had they not come out of an apostolic community that surrounded Jesus? Would the Buddha have found his peaceful smile had he not been part of a community of seekers? Would George Fox have started Quakerism had he not found others willing to share in his search for Truth? Would Martin Luther King Jr. have become such a great leader had he not been surrounded by Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, and others of our current great leaders? Communities were what gave these leaders life, and communities continue to give birth to new leaders.

The business we attend to makes our lives more efficient and secure, but it does not give life. Communities give life. And even in Quaker business meetings we need to turn from the business of business towards the building of community. To do that, we need to look for the spark. We need to pay attention to those who have passionate concerns and invest themselves deeply in wholesome and creative activities. We need to listen to what they are doing, why they are doing it, what they are passionate about—and see if it touches our own sense of call.

Let’s pay attention to those who can effectively get things done. We need to lift up the natural organizers who can make things happen, who are natural leaders. We need to give them room to operate, and trust in their natural skill.

Let’s have some fun together. Let’s stop bothering with minutiae and sing, dance, and play together. There will be plenty of time for work, but we won’t work nearly as well together until we start enjoying one another more. We need to discover one another’s talents so that we can affirm them, enjoy them, and lift them up.

At the same time, let’s be honest with one another—truly honest. Let’s open up and share. Let’s see if there are true points of commonality. Let’s stop being distant in our support and understanding of what each other is passionate about. Let’s admit that there are conflicts and face them. It may be hard, but how can we have community if we don’t struggle with its barriers?

And let’s lift our eyes, focus our vision, and see if there is a mission calling. Let’s ask ourselves: What is the vision of this meeting? Why do we exist? What drew us together in the first place? What is unique about us? Is that uniqueness worth sharing? Is it worth investing our time and energy into it? Is it worth the risk?

It’s a lot easier on some levels to be highly individualistic; but individualism is ultimately isolationism. It might be secure and comfortable; but what are we missing?

I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of some very special communities. Some of them have survived for years, while some have aged or run their course and died. But they sure have influenced me. Now I want more. I know the difference between a pseudo-community and a true one, and the real communities are much better.

When we keep our eyes on the vision of true community, especially when attending to business, we may not be taking care of business in the usual way, but there is no better way.

Ron McDonald

Ron McDonald, a member of Memphis (Tenn.) Meeting, is a pastoral counselor, folksinger, and storyteller. His book, The Spirituality of Community Life: When We Come 'Round Right, is expected to appear in March 2006.