Strengths, Weaknesses, and Clerking

I was minding my own business one day when the idea came to me that someday, someone would ask me to be clerk. "No way!" I thought at once, and began practicing the word no. My main reason for refusing was because psychiatric medication greatly limited my attention span. I simply didn’t have the energy to clerk the marathon business meetings we were having.

The idea went away, but presented itself again a few weeks later. "No way!" I thought again, and again practiced saying no. The idea went away again, only to return a third time a few weeks later. "Wait a minute," I said. "Is this You?"

I suddenly began thinking about clerking in a different way. I realized the person who was currently clerk had a disability, too. Friends simply adapted to his needs with perfect matter-of-factness and lack of resentment. I understood that Friends would accommodate my disability too, and that I did have gifts to bring to the task of clerking. I told God I would serve when asked. A few weeks later, someone called and asked if I would accept the nomination. I was ready.

I hung up the phone and turned to God in prayer: "Thank You for all Your gifts, strengths, and weaknesses alike. My strengths are also my weaknesses, and You turn my weaknesses into strengths in Your service. Thank You for helping me dedicate all my strengths and all my weaknesses to loving, serving, and pleasing You."

In my early days in the clerk’s chair, I began to see ways to keep our business meetings from becoming marathons. I asked Friends to e-mail their committee reports to me two days before business meeting. Reading reports ahead of time allowed me to divide up the focusing effort required. Long-winded committee reports became more concise—Friends had already collected their thoughts. As I studied the reports, I had a clearer sense of which ones included action items and which action items needed to be presented first, when Friends were fresher.

I talked with the treasurer and advised her that on most occasions, I would put her report last, when Friends were tired and less likely to grill her on minutiae. "Believe me, you’ll like it better this way!" I told her.

When committees wanted the meeting to make a decision, I asked them to compose a draft minute ahead of time. By doing this, business meeting was less likely to get bogged down deciding on the perfect word choice. Since committee reports were electronic, I began preparing detailed printed agendas including the text of proposed minutes. All Friends had the minute in front of them. The new agendas helped Friends stay focused. I shared the electronic version of the agendas with the recording clerk. She loved them—they drastically cut the amount of time she spent taking minutes and typing them afterwards. This allowed her to focus on recording Friends’ concerns during discussions at the meeting.

Controversial matters were referred to specially called meetings for business, in which the controversy was the only matter dealt with. Two short business meetings were easier on me than one requiring Olympian endurance. Friends who dreamed up new items of business on their way to business meeting were firmly encouraged to season them in the appropriate committee and have the committee bring it back to a later business meeting. Committees—rather than the entire business meeting—dealt with half-baked ideas, and good ideas got better in committee as more ideas were contributed.

Shortly, business meetings dropped from three or four hours to an hour and a half—and on a couple of memorable occasions, to 45 minutes. I personally invited newcomers to participate in business meetings. They came, found our process worthwhile, and came back. Because there were new faces and new ideas in business meetings, any bad group dynamics were jiggled around so that new, better interactions took shape. Instead of feeling totally wrung out after business meeting and wanting a nap, I had enough energy to go for leisurely walks as well as to attack my clerking errands later that evening. Friends began to compliment me for being so organized and running more efficient business meetings. Yet, most Friends seemed to feel they were not rushed nor our decisions ill-considered. They smiled and lingered to chat after business meetings instead of rushing to their cars, grim and wan. It was clear to me that most Friends did not like long business meetings.

None of these innovations was particularly new or earth-shaking. What was new was my concerted effort to conduct business meetings short enough so that I could focus as long as necessary. I look back on my three years of clerking and I see that, indeed, God took my weakness—my inability to focus for long periods of time—and turned it into a strength in God’s service. I am awed. I am grateful.

Mariellen Gilpin

Mariellen Gilpin is a member of Urbana-Champaign (Ill.) Meeting. She edits What Canst Thou Say? quarterly newsletter on Quakers, mystical experience, and contemplative practice.