Clerking: Better and Worse than I Imagined

For the last two years, I have had the good fortune to serve as clerk of our meeting. It was a role I assumed reluctantly and expectantly. I was never let down on either front.

It is better and worse than I might ever have imagined. The nuts and bolts are easy and straightforward: the clerk sorts the mail in the clerk’s box at the top of the stairs into folders for the various committee conveners. The mail that is left over is for the clerk to deal with—in some cases responding to letters, in others passing on thank-you notes at business meetings from our donations. The clerk facilitates the meetings for business—with or without worship, depending on who you are talking to. I send out a request for agenda items the week before each meeting for business.

But there’s more. Because our members and attenders come mostly from numerous Protestant denominations and the Catholic faith, expectations of the clerk can be quite varied. Some see the person as a spiritual leader, others as a mere administrator. Some want your beliefs to mirror their own, while others see you as free to explore your own path, even if it is quite different from their own.

When crises develop, as they will with the number of individuals and families in our meeting, the clerk is often on top of the list of those to notify. Some will want your advice and involvement, while others simply want you to be aware of what has happened. I’m sure that with my professional work (family psychiatrist) as a known entity in the meeting, I have probably been called on perhaps more frequently to give advice where interpersonal conflicts arise.

Facilitating meeting for business is more of a challenge than it might appear. To attempt to allow time for silence, for settling in, still seems like something foreign to these meetings when the topics become hot and opinions flare. The meetings can range from the very boring and mundane to times where new insights and approaches can emerge from time spent quietly. I am forever inspired by one member’s experience at a conference on clerking, when she spoke of coming to disagreements and discussions with your mind open to having your opinions altered.

The experience of clerking is life changing. It has allowed me to insert new leadership in groups in which I am a part—not to control, but to initiate discussion and to make sure minority viewpoints are heard. Recently, I did this automatically in a group of physicians with whom I share responsibilities where there had been concerns about how well we were working together. In starting the discussion, I automatically turned to one of my colleagues who appeared to have concerns but wasn’t expressing them. I knew then that my Quaker training in the meeting for business was something of great value that I will bring with me to other venues, in addition to our own meeting.

In February of 2007, I sent out this email to multiple Friends across the country:

Dear Friends—as a clerk who is stepping down this year at the end of the usual term, I am putting together some suggestions, advice, and experience from Friends who have served as clerks of their respective meetings on what they would offer up to a new clerk. I’ll be submitting this piece to Friends Journal, which has expressed interest in anything to do with clerking!

I wondered if you could share your own advice for a future clerk—what might they need to know as they take on this position?