Advice for Clerks

Here are my thoughts for a new clerk. You’ll have your own way of doing things, and they’ll be wonderful ways, but I thought perhaps you’d like to see in one place my own ideas about how to clerk effectively.

Praying for the meeting. However egalitarian Quakers may think they are, they tend to look to their clerk for spiritual leadership. The best advice I can give is to pray for the meeting, daily, in whatever way you are guided to do. I pray for everybody by name, and it works for me, sometimes in amazing ways, sometimes in perfectly ordinary ones. Whenever a visitor comes, I add their name to the prayer list, whether or not I ever see them again. Thus I seldom forget a name. Recently a woman appeared in worship. It was her second visit, after a six-month gap. I shook her hand and called her by name. She was amazed—and she came again, a couple weeks later. That’s one of the ordinary ways praying for Friends by name is helpful.

Keep pen and paper handy during prayer. So often in the midst of prayer for meeting, I’m given a task to do. I write it down, and move on with my prayers.

Praying for the quality of our worship— every day, not just on Sunday mornings. Sometimes this means that I speak in worship; sometimes it means others speak. Also, sometimes we have a totally silent meeting, but I will have a sense afterward that it has been a very good meeting for everyone present. Another Friend and I meet about an hour before worship in order to hold the meeting in prayer. I don’t find it hard work to pray for the meeting during worship, because I always go away feeling I’ve been blessed just as much as those I’ve been praying for. It is not a selfless act, in other words, to pray for the meeting. I have been advised to include myself in the prayers for meeting, and judging by the effects on me, the meeting is indeed being blessed.

I have found that being clerk seems to increase the number of times I speak in worship. That may be peculiar to me, but I suggest you be open to the possibility you’ll be used in the spoken ministry more often than you’re used to.

In business meetings, keeping discussions moving. Meetings for business that are allowed to bog down in discussion are going to lose members. Have some standard moves to bring things to a timely conclusion. For instance, state early in the discussion what you think is the growing sense of the meeting. If you state where you think the group is headed, it helps keep discussion moving. You may have to state the sense of the meeting several times as the discussion develops, but you will have helped the group stay on track. If it’s clear there’s not going to be an agreement that day, postpone the issue and move on to the rest of the agenda, asking an appropriate committee to discern the issue further and make a recommendation later.

Creating agendas. Ask committees to send you their minutes a day or two before business meeting: it reduces the level of discernment needed on the floor of business meeting, because you already know what business needs to have priority. Put the business items that will take lots of energy first on the agenda, while Friends are fresh. Put the treasurer’s report dead last, when Friends are ready for the meeting to be done. They are less likely to question minutiae in the treasurer’s report and drive everybody else crazy.

Appreciating. As you read the committee reports, spend time and prayer being appreciative—draft minutes of thanks often for special efforts Friends have made.

Giving committees homework. Encourage committees to draft minutes they want the meeting to consider. In this electronic age, it’s a simple matter to copy a draft minute directly into your agenda as you prepare it. Friends work more efficiently and stay on task better if they have the exact wording in front of them. Detailed agendas help Friends stay focused—and make the job of the recording clerk much easier. Drafting a proposed minute in committee means less time and effort in business meeting deciding the exact word choice—it won’t, and shouldn’t, stop Friends from thinking carefully about word choices, but having something down on paper helps to keep the discussion moving.

Dealing with controversy.Controversial matters may need their own business session, or several special sessions. Friends are more tolerant of two two-hour meetings than one four-hour meeting—and the decisions reached will be more durable. A shorter meeting helps to keep Friends’ tempers from fraying. Consult with an appropriate committee (in my meeting, Ministry and Oversight) about how to conduct a session about a controversy. Lack of careful planning may open the door for wrangling and miscommunication. Before you begin a difficult discussion, remind Friends of good practice:

  • Friends should not compose what they want to say in rebuttal while another Friend is speaking. Focus on listening deeply to the speaker, not on the rebuttal.
  • Leave a short silence between speakers, so Friends can reflect on each speaker’s words.
  • Friends who agree with an earlier speaker should not reiterate a point, but simply say, "That Friend speaks my mind."
  • Encourage silent Friends to speak to an issue. The light of each Friend should be cherished by every other Friend present.
  • Do not speak unnecessarily. In the words of John Woolman: It behooves all to be cautious how they detain a Meeting. . . . In 300 minutes are five hours, and he that improperly detains 300 people one minute, besides other evils that attend it, does an injury like that of imprisoning one man five hours without cause.

Having strong opinions of your own. I strongly recommend against it. Bring your concerns up in the appropriate committee and let the committee stir your ideas into the pot along with their own to come up with their own recommendations. For the clerk to have a strong opinion makes it harder for the meeting to find that Third Way—to let the Spirit create a unique new alternative that is better for everyone present.

Dealing with complainers. Listen, but don’t fix. Don’t feel you need to make the problem go away yourself, however sensible you think your solution might be. You don’t have a complete understanding from listening to one person’s view, or even both points of view. This is a matter for the wisdom of others. Fixing is not the role of clerk. Fixing is a good way to divide a meeting into sides, for and against. Fixing is a good way to reinforce a Friend for playing If Daddy Won’t Say Yes, Ask Mommy. Instead, make it clear to complainers that they should talk to, rather than about, the person giving them a problem.

Remind both yourself and the complainer of Matthew 18:15-17:

If your brother commits a sin, go and take the matter up with him, strictly between yourselves, and if he listens to you, you have won your brother over. If he will not listen, take one or two others with you, so that all facts may be duly established on the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, report the matter to the congregation; and if he will not listen even to the congregation, you must then treat him as a pagan or tax-gatherer.

The complainer can be encouraged to ask for a clearness committee to help resolve a disagreement.

Following up. Make sure someone has taken responsibility for implementing any decision reached. Each month, review business meeting minutes for the past two or three months to find what balls have been dropped. A gentle reminder to the person responsible will usually help get the ball back in action.

Friends can waste a lot of time in business meeting not volunteering for a task. Ask the appropriate committee to discern who to ask and then announce who has agreed to do the work. Don’t let the business meeting bog down waiting for someone else to implement a decision.

The person who volunteers for a task is not always the right person for the job—for instance, the person who volunteers to cook but doesn’t bother to read the recipe beforehand, so that dinner is two hours late. Or the person who doesn’t really have a commitment to the job of writing a procedures manual—who may actually be opposed to having one—should not be allowed to volunteer. Don’t allow the business meeting to get itself into the situation of asking for volunteers. Again, refer the choice of who should do the work to the appropriate committee. You’ll like the results a lot better. You might even get dinner on time.

Doing the work of the committees. Don’t do this. Remind them if need be, but leave the work to them. If they need more than a reminder, ask to attend the next committee meeting. Show your interest in their work, but don’t volunteer. You have enough to do already as clerk. Leave committee work to committee members. The meeting will be the stronger for having committees that take responsibility and carry it out. Appreciate their work publicly and often, but don’t do the work yourself. Consider that you’re training less experienced Quakers to someday take the role of clerk in their turn. Letting them do the work their way is part of their training in Quaker leadership.

Collaborating. Quaker leadership is collaborative, not authoritarian. Your role as clerk is to inspire and sometimes to suggest and propose—but encourage others to contribute their ideas and make the dream their own. Name concerns, focus the meeting’s attention and energy, listen carefully as the sense of the meeting develops—and then step back. If you find yourself taking ownership of an idea, you’re stepping outside the clerk’s role.

Dealing with brand-new concerns. Have a time at the end of business meeting when Friends can bring up new concerns. Do not discuss new concerns at business meeting; instead, assign the concern to a committee and have the committee season it and make recommendations to business meeting. When committees are allowed to do their work appropriately, Friends don’t end up dealing with half-baked ideas on the floor of business meeting. If it’s a good idea, it’ll get better in committee as other Friends contribute their ideas. If it’s a bad idea, it’ll die in committee rather than taking up business meeting time and energy.

Listening. The last bit of advice I can offer on clerking is this: Listen. Listen in worship, listen in business meeting, listen to conveners of committees, listen to individual Friends who just need a friendly ear. You don’t have to fix things, but you do need to know the state of the meeting—and that’s done by listening. Sometimes you’ll be clear that something needs to be shared with a committee, or a gentle word needs to be put in someone’s ear. Mostly, though, just listen, acknowledge the pain you’ll hear, and wait for divine guidance.

I love the job of clerking the meeting. I love the collaborative style of leadership Friends ways make possible, and I love the way the Spirit moves in business meeting. I also love the way God makes available to the meeting the spiritual gifts the meeting needs at a particular time. The Spirit has chosen you to be clerk, and if you pray for meeting and listen deeply, yours will be the gifts the meeting needs.

Mariellen O. Gilpin

Mariellen Gilpin was clerk of Urbana-Champaign (Ill.) Meeting for three years and wrote this Advice for her successor. She is continually amazed at the overlap between the responsibilities of clerk and elder. She is an editor of What Canst Thou Say? quarterly newsletter on Quakers, mystical experience, and contemplative prayer, and edited Discovering God as Companion: Real Life Stories from What Canst Thou Say.