Clearness Committees at the Crossroads of Our Working Lives

The fork in the road—it’s an experience that affects many of us at one time or another in the course of our careers. We show up for work on a typical day and the scene looks familiar: same co-workers, same screen saver on the computer. Then the phone rings with an unexpected call, or an e-mail arrives with a new assignment. And suddenly the same old job feels ominous and strange:

  • Richard was a data processing manager in a company that sometimes hired programmers as temporary contract workers. One day he was called into his boss’s office. It seemed the company needed help with a project that was falling behind schedule. "I pointed out that in our area programmers are in short supply," Richard said, "but my boss countered that if I offered them enough money they would quit their present jobs for the better-paying one. I should run an ad offering a very high salary. When the project was completed, he told me, I could just lay them off."
  • Art worked as a night desk clerk at a large hotel that happened to be across the street from a topless bar. It was a good enough job, except for the prostitutes who sometimes spilled over from the bar to the hotel. Art had qualms about the profession of prostitution, but he kept his opinions to himself. Then, one night, a prostitute came up to the desk and asked to cash a check from one of the hotel guests. She needed to be paid in advance. Art knew that if he refused to cash a check from a guest he could be fired.

Over the years, as a career counselor and teacher, I’ve met many individuals with stories like that. They’re at a crossroads, perhaps looking for a new job, or exploring a new career. Based on my own experience, I understand that situation very well.

Some time ago, I was attending a conference at Pendle Hill Quaker conference center in Wallingford, Pa. It was a meeting of a group known as Quakers Uniting in Publications—QUIP. Soon after the conference began, I sensed that I really didn’t belong there. Oh, I was a fellow Quaker all right, but I was a writer and these people were publishers. I hadn’t understood the purpose of the meeting. Nevertheless, I stayed on for the worship sharing groups, because I had a sense that they might help me with a vexing problem.

A few years back, I had broken into the field of journalism as a way of helping people cope with the kinds of employment and training issues I’d dealt with as a career counselor. I’d become a careers columnist for a local daily newspaper. I enjoyed that work and threw myself into researching and writing my columns. After a time it seemed I was experiencing some success.

My problem stemmed from my success. The publishers decided to put me on the front page of my section, and they assigned me an editor who began to tell me what to write. This person had been promoted from the position of fashion editor, and she had some clear advice. Forget the columns on emerging trends and retraining, which was what I knew how to write. Now I was to turn out copy on how to behave in job interviews, and especially what to wear.

I suppose part of my difficulty was that I felt like a hypocrite. To put it charitably, I’m not a slave to fashion. Nor did I think that teaching readers what to wear was very important. So something in me rebelled against my new editor. Yet here I was on the front page, my mug shot in living color. I had an opportunity to reach more readers than ever before if I followed her directives, but only if I wrote about subjects that I considered superficial. What to do?

When I came back from Pendle Hill with my experience in the worship-sharing group, I knew what I would do. I went in to see the editor the next day and resigned from my column. "Look," I said, "I’ve seen thousands of people lose their jobs in Denver when the energy industry went down. What they needed was not a new outfit to wear for a job interview. They needed to learn new skills, and that’s what I know how to write about."

To make a long story short, I agreed to stay on the front page for another month. But I’d also write another short column each week on page three. That piece would address new skills needed in growing industries. We’d call that second column "Skills Update." At the end of the month, I expected to be let go.

As it turned out, the story had a positive ending. It seemed the skills column addressed a need that no one else was filling, and before long it was distributed nationally on the Scripps Howard wire. I researched and wrote hundreds of those columns and was able to write two books from the material.

Later, I found myself reflecting on what had gone on at Pendle Hill. I knew that group had helped me. But what had they done? All I could recall was that I’d taken a few minutes to tell my story and they’d listened quietly. I’m sure one or two had assured me that they understood my dilemma. But that was all.

Still, I knew that I’d experienced a powerfully supportive ministry, without which I’d not have had the courage to take a stand at the newspaper and help the editors understand the purpose of my column. At a time when my head was spinning with indecision, these Friends had created a place where I could settle down, take stock of my values, and come to a decision. They’d helped me find a space for the Spirit.

I came away from that experience with a new confidence in the work of concentrated, focused gatherings such as clearness committees. I had a sense that, as Quakers, we could try more often to cultivate that kind of ministry with one another. And I began to think more about how we can offer others a safe and quiet space to consider the questions that come up in their working lives and make the kinds of decisions that could help them affirm the purpose of what they’re doing and, it may be, change direction.

Now, I’m not proposing a science of clearness committees. I have no doubt that the movements of the Spirit in our lives are often serendipitous, and it’s foolish to try to orchestrate all the moments when we may find centeredness and depth. But I believe it’s worthwhile to consider some guidelines for effective clearness committees. Over the years, I’ve convened and served on a good number of them, dealing with all sorts of serious issues. As I look back on these groups, I believe there are certain traits that characterized the best of them.

The first principle, for me, is that any Friend who asks for a clearness committee thereby takes charge of the process. That person sets the agenda, determines where and when the meeting is to be held, who will take part, and how long it will last. (I find that an hour and a half is an outer limit and three or four Friends a good number of participants.)

Second, a clearness committee should not set out to change anyone. Clearness committees exist to help a person who is wrestling with a decision find some clarity in the process. It may be the case that the seeker contributes to the quandary in which he or she is caught, and perhaps could use some professional help. A clearness committee may make such a suggestion. But it is not the role of the committee to engage in therapy.

Third, the primary job of a clearness committee is not to give advice, but to listen. Psychotherapists sometimes talk about "the rule of abstinence." That is, when tempted to invade the space of a person and give advice, don’t. Foreign language educators speak of the "60/40 rule." Students learn best in class if they do the majority of talking. It is their growing competence, not that of the instructor, that counts. Similarly, a clearness committee is not the place to showcase one’s knowledge.

And fourth, it may indeed be that the primary prerequisite for serving on a clearness committee is a sense that one is utterly unqualified to do so. I remember times when the agenda of a prospective committee seemed overwhelming—say, preparing for an impending death—and I believe that the sense of powerlessness that pervaded those groups may have opened us all to the power of the Spirit. Conversely, when I have been called in as an expert career counselor or whatever, I’ve sometimes found myself talking too much instead of listening to the person who had convened us.

Once I served on a clearness committee that met in our family room on a cold winter’s evening. A fire was crackling in the fireplace. The young Friend who’d called the meeting was facing some serious problems in his work, and several of us had spent a couple of hours trying hard to advise him. Finally, he brought the meeting to a close. "That’s enough," he said. But he asked us not to leave, wanting something more. "Could we just sit here for a few minutes and listen to the fire?"

Clearness committees are a resource to help persons who find themselves caught in some cloudy circumstances find clarity in coming to a decision. These committees function best when we Friends are willing to share the honest data of our human experience with someone who is seeking a direction. For Quakers, they’re based in confidence in the capacity of each person to find the right way forward, when nurtured within a caring community of fellow seekers.

William A. Charland Jr.

William Charland is a member of Gila Meeting in Silver City, N.Mex., where he serves as convener of the Ministry and Oversight Committee. He is the author of Life-Work: A Career Guide for Idealists, and a novel, Soundings.