Four Pillars of Meeting for Business

In May 2007, the board of the School of the Spirit Ministries, on which I was serving, was in the process of discerning whether to add a new program. We had a very intense one-and-a-half-day meeting, which resulted in the decision to move forward with our new program, which has since become The Way of Ministry. At the end of a long Saturday, I headed to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station to catch a train home to Hartford. I knew I was to speak the next morning at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Hartford, and they had asked me to give a presentation on Quaker business practice. Sitting in the station, I was inspired to write down four key components of Quaker corporate discernment, using examples from the School of the Spirit Ministries board discernment experience, which then formed the backbone of my presentation.

Over the next year I stayed with these four components, and I have continued to grow in my understanding of each of them. As I have sat with Friends in corporate discernment and visited meetings in New England, I have come to believe that we need to revisit the practice of corporate discernment. The form of our business practice is a rich process that builds community, changes hearts, and can unite us with the Spirit, despite differences of opinion. We need to refresh our understanding of our purpose and our practices, and seek to hold them more deeply, to bring ourselves more fully into alignment with God’s purpose in our lives.

At the heart of Quakerism is George Fox’s statement that there is "that of God in every one." Quakers repeat this phrase to try to describe the core that we share. Embedded in it is the belief that the good—that of God—can be raised up in each of us. As early Quaker theologian Robert Barclay described his experience of worship with Friends:

When I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power amongst them which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life, whereby I might find myself perfectly redeemed.

The potential of attending to that secret power, of listening in the silence, of giving way to that power and finding the evil weakening and the good raised up, is foundational to all branches of Quakerism.

The Quaker tradition challenges us to relate to others in ways that call forth and resonate with the good within them, however deeply it may be buried. Quakerism is an optimistic tradition, as we believe that hearts can change and the good can be raised up. The potential for growth in the Spirit is there for each of us. Our worship and our business practice, at their core, are about creating the conditions for hearts to change. By using these corporate practices we are also learning how to act toward others in ways that honor that of God in them.

As I have visited Quaker meetings, I have observed Friends faithfully following the form of Quaker business practices without necessarily understanding the importance and purpose of the forms. George Fox challenged the people around him to seek the power rather than the form. He condemned many as engaged in religious practices that were empty forms, where people followed their practices without understanding the deeper meaning and so had lost contact with that meaning. We are in danger today of living out what George Fox railed against. Accepting the responsibility to keep the Quaker tradition living and vibrant requires that we work to understand why we use the forms that we do, so that the practices are not empty but rich with life. Within the Quaker practice of corporate business there is a treasure that the world needs. It is a way of coming together as individuals with different experiences, needs, agendas, and perspectives and engaging with each other to strengthen relationships and make decisions that affect the community positively.

The pillars that I see undergirding the forms of Quaker business practice are:

  • that the meeting is rooted in worship;
  • that the meeting is clerked;
  • that there is enough time, a sense of spaciousness; and
  • that decisions are made by sense of the meeting.

Meeting for Business is Grounded in Worship

Every business meeting begins with a time of worship. At times the worship is perfunctory, but at its best, the opening worship is long enough to remind those present that we are listening deeply and seeking to hear the Spirit in the agenda items addressed.

The entire meeting for business is the corporate implementation of the skills developed in meeting for worship. Each time we sit together with others in corporate worship, we have the opportunity to further develop these skills. Some of them are at the individual level, where each of us needs to develop our inward ear, the ear of our heart. Building upon the individual skills are the corporate ones of listening together for something more than what we hear individually. Both the individual and corporate skills can be understood as queries:

Can I hear God/Spirit in my heart? Do I know what it feels like to hear God in my heart? When is my ego talking, and when is it other? When I listen, can I tell the difference between my own ego and Spirit?

Early in my journey into Quakerism, after having a powerful experience of being called to ministry, I called together a support committee of three seasoned Friends to sit with me to provide some guidance so I didn’t run ahead of—or behind—my leading. Shortly after they came together, I was led to commit to monthly retreats for nine months. At that time, my children were three and five years old, so it was no small feat to make time to go away one weekend a month. The support and understanding of my husband, John, made it possible.

I met with the support committee right before my first retreat, and they asked what my focus was for that particular retreat. Tears came to my eyes as I told them I didn’t know how to hear God except when I was moved to speak in meeting for worship. My hope for the personal retreats was to be able to come to know that voice—that Spirit: to recognize it when I felt it, and to be able to hear it when I stopped to listen. The retreats were at different locations—a Benedictine Abbey in Connecticut, a Quaker conference center in Massachusetts, a friend’s home on Block Island in Rhode Island—but at each place I would look for a comfortable armchair beside a window and spent a lot of time sitting comfortably there. That silent time was where I became aware of the physical sensations that accompany my attending to the Light within.

The lesson of discerning when my ego is talking is one I have not learned easily, and I have to relearn this lesson time and again. But I remember one particular business session at New England Yearly Meeting where the lesson came home strongly. I knew the session was going to be long, although I couldn’t have predicted how few people walked out even when we were over an hour and a half late in completing the business. During that evening session I groaned internally when someone repeated what another had already said, or when a speaker was going on at what I thought was excessive length, or when a speaker didn’t appear to be listening to what others had said. I came to the realization early on that all of these internal criticisms were my own ego, and I committed right then to lifting those internal voices up, and then letting them go. I listened deeply that night, holding the business in my heart, feeling deep warmth in my belly, and knowing that we were exactly where we needed to be as a worshiping community. That experience helped me name the voice of my own ego.

The touchstone for discerning Spirit and ego in my own experience is the love that will fill any motion that starts with Spirit. And the love will be for all. So the voice that holds up honor and respect for each of us is more likely to be Spirit than a voice that diminishes the worth of another. Paul provides his own guidance for this same discernment when he says:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." (Gal. 5:22)

When do I hear Spirit moving in the silence?

Quakerism is about listening in silence. Early Friends spoke about what happened in the silence and focused much less on the content of vocal ministry. It was in the silence that their hearts were broken open. As Robert Barclay describes it:

Yea, though there be not a word spoken, yet is the true spiritual worship performed, and the body of Christ edified; yea, it may, and hath often fallen out among us, that divers meetings have passed without one word; and yet our souls have been greatly edified and refreshed, and our hearts wonderfully overcome with the secret sense of God’s power and Spirit, which without words hath been ministered from one vessel to another. (Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Proposition 11, Concerning Worship)

We need a vocabulary to describe the different textures of our corporate silence so we can better appreciate the experience. When we focus on the vocal ministry to evaluate the quality of our corporate worship we have looked to the fruits and missed the source. Attending to the quality of the corporate silence can disentangle the personal issues that arise in reacting to the vocal ministry of another. Sometimes our experience in the silence might be fragmented, distracted, or scattered, with our thoughts and focus jumping from one thing to another. Other times it might be a deep stillness where many of those present feel held to attention, perhaps like what happens in a yoga asana where the breath moves through us while the mind is quiet. Practice can help us come to that place of deep, focused attentiveness more readily.

We practice listening to the Spirit in meeting for worship. It is important to also practice listening individually, on a daily basis. A regular spiritual practice such as daily prayer time, a journal, walks in nature, or Scripture reading can help us tune the inward ear to God’s presence. Meeting for worship is an opportunity to practice corporate listening, and the skill of listening to Spirit as individuals prepares us to move beyond ourselves into this corporate experience. We need to develop the skills of listening in the silence for the Spirit, to know when the silence is rich and deep, and to feel when the silence is scattered, disjointed, and not yet gathered. Then we will understand that the quality of Quaker worship is about much more than the messages.

When do I hear Spirit in the ministry of others? Can I hear the spirit of the messages of others, the Spirit that underlies the words?

The work of listening, the capacity to distinguish between when something is only "a good idea" and when it is the Spirit moving, is fundamental to the Quaker business practice. We work on that listening corporately every week in worship. This is not an easy listening, and it is an extension of the earlier exercise of being aware of our own ego. I have visited meetings where the Spirit was powerfully present in the ministry, even though messages felt to be longer than needed and there wasn’t as much silence and worshipful space surrounding the messages as I would have liked. If I had stayed with my impatience over the length of the messages and the lack of silence, I would have missed the very real presence and movement of the Spirit.

One of the challenges in learning to listen deeply to the Spirit in worship and silence is that Quakers seldom intentionally create opportunities to check with others about what they heard in worship, and to receive feedback on our sense of when the Spirit is moving and when it is not. We need to create more opportunities to work on our worship skills—to talk about, practice, and then discuss the experience.

The skills of discernment and listening that we practice in meeting for worship are essential for the corporate business practice. Being grounded in worship is critical. If the worshipful environment changes or discussion becomes heated, the clerk may ask for silence to give those present the time to go back to worshipful space. Centering in the silence can help us be tender with the agendas of others, and be more aware of our own.

Meeting for Business is Clerked

Each meeting for business has an individual who has been named to clerk the meeting. The clerk’s work includes visible and invisible tasks. The former include preparing the agenda, calling on people to speak, and suggesting a sense of the meeting for those present to respond to. The latter include the prayer and discernment that go into preparing the agenda, being in a grounded and centered place from which to attend to the motion of Spirit in the corporate body during the conduct of business, and hearing what is not said but is present in the room.

The visible tasks are not necessarily simple. In most meetings, the clerk is responsible for identifying agenda items and discerning the order in which to consider those items. The order of the agenda can be important: for instance, addressing difficult items—the ones where discussion might be tense—closer to the beginning of the meeting, when people are fresh and may be more focused.

The clerk is also responsible for recognizing individuals before they speak. This can be a very important practice of discernment, as Jan Hoffman demonstrated during her time clerking New England Yearly Meeting when she listened inwardly to discern whom to call on next. This is an important tool that allows clerks to wait and feel the inward motion, reminding the body over and over of the importance of that posture of deep listening. Clerks of New England Yearly Meeting continue to use this practice, although some present may not understand.

A clerk can also make use of the process of recognizing someone to speak to call the group into waiting worship until the Spirit is ready.

In business meeting, speakers address their remarks to the clerk. This allows a little more space for Friends to not feel directly attacked by someone else’s differing opinion, and to listen better to perspectives that differ from their own. This can help Friends disentangle their ego stake in an issue, listen to the guidance of the Spirit, and be open to letting go of their own position. At times when the business is focusing on questions of clarification or when the business before the group is easily agreed upon, the clerk’s role may seem less critical, but even then these disciplines are important because the practice of being recognized by the clerk and speaking to the clerk needs to be second nature in times of tension and disagreement.

The invisible tasks of the clerk help to hold a worshipful space and remind those present of the importance of listening to the Spirit. Praying about the agenda, about which items to include, whether to hold an item over to another meeting, and how best to prepare the meeting for a particular business item can undergird the business meeting with an invisible sense of Spirit.

The first time I went to a meeting of New England Yearly Meeting’s Ministry and Counsel, I was deeply moved by the clerking. Cornelia Parkes maintained a presence free of anxiety despite an overfull agenda. She had clearly prepared well; she knew the agenda items and people involved well enough to rearrange the agenda when needed, to attend to each business item gently and faithfully, and to keep us in a listening space as needed to move through the work people had gathered to complete.

One of the important practices of a clerk is being a non-anxious presence. This is a challenge for many of us. When a situation gets tense, we may become reactive rather than remaining deeply rooted in our own sense of Spirit. When disagreement or strong feelings are present, the greatest hope for change comes when someone is able to remain in a place of centered calm. But this does not mean disengaging from the process or from those present. Instead, it means being able to hold the tension of others without catching it or needing to release it. When we merely avoid tension, we limit our ability to face conflict and to enable transformation from the tension. In contrast, staying in a place of conflict in a respectful and centered way, knowing that we need inspiration to resolve the conflict, releases the full transformative potential of meeting for business and increases the likelihood that those present will be able to hear and respond to the motion of the Spirit.

Business Meeting Will Have Enough Time

Quakers make jokes about how long the business process can take, generally without realizing that what takes so long is for hearts to change. It is difficult for most of us to admit publicly that we are wrong, especially when we have spoken strongly about a topic. This can take a long time, particularly since we may not consciously realize that we’re waiting for participants to set down their egoistic voices. Changing hearts is eased when we all can discern the source of the words that come to us and to others. Quaker business practice is about speaking our own Light on the subject, and then setting aside our own perspective to listen to the moving of the Spirit.

At its best, Quaker business practice carries a sense of spaciousness: the search for the right outcome will take as long as it needs to. There is enough space for people to bring and share their opinions, hesitations, and concerns; and because they will not be attacked for their perspectives, or challenged directly and personally, there is a potential for movement.

In the School of the Spirit Ministries board meeting, where the decision was made to move forward with the Way of Ministry Program, several board members expressed deep concerns about the additional financial burdens and oversight responsibilities for a new program. No one expressed a perspective that initiating a new program would be easy. We held the concerns about the board being too small, and we waited for the Spirit. When we found clarity, it was with a decision to move forward in faith, trusting that way would open and the necessary resources would be found.

I visited a meeting some years ago whose members were struggling with questions about their meeting space—whether they should seek another space, build an extension, or build a new meetinghouse. They were in the stage of gathering information and identifying and costing out the alternatives. The meeting was carefully following Quaker process, bringing the alternatives forward. However, the meeting was a young meeting—not in age, or even in experience with Quaker organizations, but in having limited experience diving fully into the Quaker tradition as a guide for individual spirituality. I was led to remind them that when the time came to make a decision, they needed to put their own opinion of the best option down so they could be open to how they might be led by the Spirit.

Business Meeting Decisions Will Be by Sense of the Meeting

One of the assumptions in Quaker business practice is that something more than the best wisdom of the group will be achieved—that those present are listening for something more than what each person thinks. Working toward a sense of the meeting is about listening for what Spirit would have us do in this instance. It is not a negotiated settlement or compromise, giving each person some of what they want. Rather, it is a moving toward, which does not require logical agreement.

Barry Morley’s Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Beyond Consensus: Salvaging a Sense of the Meeting, is a wonderful description and invitation into the power of waiting and listening for a sense of the meeting.

At its best, Quaker business builds the worshiping community, strengthens relationships, and encourages each of us to grow. When our corporate decisions are faithful to this Spirit, they not only change the participants; they hold the seeds that change the world.

Debbie Humphries

Debbie Humphries, a member of Hartford (Conn.) Meeting, is a public health nutritionist and teacher with a calling to travel in the ministry. She is currently serving on the steering committee of the School of the Spirit Ministries Call for Support. She travels in the ministry among Friends, primarily within New England Yearly Meeting.