Clerking: A Semi-Serious Look

From 1975 to 1994 there were only two years when I was not involved in some kind of clerking responsibility at the sessions of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. (A broken wrist accounted for one of the missing years; being out of the country, for the other.) A recording clerk for many years, an alternate clerk for one year, the presiding clerk for three years, and back to recording clerk, I have had the privilege of recording decisions and discussions, phrasing the sense of the meeting for important matters, and feeling part of a unique and wonderful process. I have also served as clerk of a monthly meeting, a quarterly meeting, and some committees. I readily acknowledge that I belong to the third group in the humorous classification of Friends as "birthright, convinced, and overconvinced."

But what does it mean to be a clerk? The questions I posed in those lines of verse, written during a gathering of clerks of yearly meetings several years ago, are still with me. Although workshops on clerking can be helpful, much of their value probably lies in the sharing of concerns and advice by the participants. Certainly as I look over my notes from such gatherings, it is not a systematic framework but an occasional gem that has stayed with me: "Believe that everyone can have something worthwhile to say"; "The lifting of an eyebrow by the clerk can prejudice those in the meeting"; "We make more errors when we hurry than at any other time."

At the World Conference of Friends held in the Netherlands in 1991, an interest group, whose participants came from New Zealand, London, Japan, the Netherlands, Belgium-Luxembourg, and the United States, gathered to discuss clerking. What began as an almost unplanned session developed into a sharing of ideas and questions that lasted for almost two hours. There were no prescriptions, but there were some guidelines that seemed to emerge.

While recognizing that clerks must use their own unique resources and personalities, I would include in my short list of requisites for clerkship preparation, objectivity, the ability to listen, and a sense of humor.

Preparation means more than setting up the agenda. The clerk should be well informed about items to be considered. Becoming well informed may involve attending committee meetings where the item is receiving preliminary consideration.

Conferring in advance with the person making the presentation is almost certainly a requirement. Reading pertinent documents or minutes of past discussions may be necessary. Just as a class can sense the degree of preparation of a teacher, a meeting can recognize evidence of a clerk’s preparation and can feel reassured by it. The clerk should see to it that the meeting knows exactly what it is being asked to decide and what the implications of the decision are. Once a decision has been reached, the clerk should be sure that it is accurately minuted and that the meeting hears and approves the minute.

At this point, I can imagine the reaction of the clerk of a small monthly meeting, whose meetings for business usually involve only committee reports or other routine matters. Prepared? Prepared for what? Even the smallest meeting can have a session at which emotions run high, and the clerk’s ability then is of paramount importance. Perhaps being prepared for the unexpected is part of the preparation requirement.

Objectivity and the ability to listen are related but not identical. Objectivity is of great importance when a meeting is dealing with a controversial issue. If clerks are emotionally involved to the extent of wanting the meeting to reach a particular decision, they need to remind themselves that they are not to direct, but are to be open to the will of God as revealed to the meeting. Only with this openness will they be able to discern when the sense of the meeting has been attained.

Objectivity (or, if you prefer, detachment) makes possible accurate listening. As we know from other situations in our lives, really hearing what someone is saying is at best difficult; when we are hoping for a particular outcome in a discussion, the degree of difficulty intensifies. The most effective clerk is the one who can temporarily cease to have any opinion about the matter being considered. The ability to listen is a necessity in routine matters as well as critical ones. A monthly meeting clerk must sometimes "listen between the lines," in order to realize that what appears to be a simple question or comment may have another level of meaning. Answering the unasked question can sometimes prevent later discontent.

Why should a sense of humor be included as a requisite, and how does a clerk demonstrate the possession of this attribute? Certainly not by tossing off one-liners or by other obvious manifestations. I think of a long-ago magazine article whose title was "To Be Serious Is Not To Be Solemn." Yes, it is serious business that we are undertaking as we gather, but we must not take ourselves too seriously while we are conducting it. No matter how well we have planned, we may experience distractions, delays, interruptions of various kinds. At the end of the meeting we may not have accomplished what we thought we would, but the world will not end because one meeting did not achieve several neatly phrased minutes. Perhaps at the next meeting the member who spoke at such length will not feel compelled to repeat the points already made. Perhaps the predictably long speech that follows the "I hesitate to speak again" will not occur. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, "Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly." We might do well to emulate them.

Most of us probably agree that clerks have a responsibility to educate their meetings in the ways of Friends. That education may sometimes take the form of direct information or explanation, perhaps about budgetary matters or the relationship of the monthly meeting to the yearly meeting. At other times it can best be done indirectly. The volume of mail that clerks receive can be used to advantage. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, the effective clerk, after analyzing the notices of conferences, workshops, and other matters, can pass them on to a committee clerk or to an individual who will be interested. After all, the mail is usually not meant for the clerk personally. She or he is the medium through which information or concerns pass to the meeting as a whole. Follow-up of attendance at conferences in the form of reports to the meeting can enrich the meeting as a whole and can nurture future leadership when the time comes to replace the current clerk.

One sobering final thought: If you are a clerk, never fall into the trap of self-importance. If you are asked to continue serving as clerk, it may be an indication of the meeting’s approval of your performance. On the other hand, it may mean that everyone else has said no to the nominating committee!
This is the unrevised text of the article that appeared in the April 1999 issue of Friends Journal.