The Task of the Recording Clerk: Spiritual Exercise and Ministry

Illustration by Lucy Sikes.

For me, the first step in all aspects of living, including recording the minutes of a meeting, is the personal practice of awareness of the Spirit. I can practice silence when I have to wait at a stoplight, or when I am walking down the hall to another meeting. It’s as simple as relaxing my shoulders and slipping into a moment of silence. I might read a few lines of a spiritual calendar or book; I can bask in the beautiful long shadows of the rising or setting sun; I can record the day’s gratitudes. The more I practice inner silence, the more I am ready for any task.

Bill Taber was a longtime released minister in Ohio Yearly Meeting and a noted teacher and spiritual nurturer of Quakers of diverse theological styles. He suggested that over time, as we practice silent worship alone and with others, we will learn to move into an “altered state of consciousness” as we enter a worship meeting for business. We will put on “joy” as we come together into community, then we will move gradually to “assurance”: “It is as if we are entering into a stream, which I am fond of calling the Stream of the Quaker Process, which is as real as stepping into a stream of water.” Taber, as quoted in The Mind of Christ: Bill Taber on Meeting for Business, edited by Michael Birkel, advises Friends to enter into worship before a business meeting with “a strong inward intentionality.” Ben Pink Dandelion, currently at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and the University of Birmingham, also reminds Friends in Confident Quakerism that we are “open to new light . . . a community of seekers,” and he, too, remarks on the importance of our “intention: to be faithful above all.”

So: First is daily practice. Second is the joy of gathering. Third is our intention to be faithful. Each participant in a meeting for worship with a concern for business is a consequential part of the whole, even if he or she is silent, for we all are part of the “Stream” Taber mentions. Each participant is partly responsible for the quality of the discerning, clerking, and recording.

Almost everyone can be a clerk or a recording clerk at some time. Indeed, unless there are special circumstances, everyone should try each role sometime, preferably beginning in a committee meeting. This is not to undervalue committees. Committees do much of the work of the whole meeting and their meetings should be held with the same level of care as the business of the whole. The better the committees fulfill their charges, the more useful committees are to the worshiping community. In addition, committees can be supportive places to learn and to practice the ways Friends might participate in more comprehensive meetings.

Now to the business part of recording: First is preparation. The recording clerk should know the form that the minutes should take for the meeting. Former minutes will show the way that the place, date, time, name of committee, and any other header material is handled. They will also reveal the style in which minutes are numbered. In a simple committee meeting, minutes may be numbered 1, 2, 3, etc. Quarterly, regional, and larger meetings have their own ways of numbering, often year, month, day, such as 2011.1.15 or 201101-15. This makes references and indexing easier. If in doubt, use simple numbering. It can be changed after the meeting.

The recorder may come prepared with a sheet of standard sentence forms for certain minutes, such as those for requesting membership, clearness for marriage, receiving reports, and so on. Such formats can be found in old minutes or in booklets. A good booklet is available in “Unforeseen Joy”: Serving a Friends Meeting as Recording Clerk, by Damon D. Hickey. Many yearly meetings have a printout concerning recording. Local meetings may adapt such directions. This encourages productive consistency among related meetings. In any case, always come prepared to record with a copy of the previous minutes and a copy of Faith and Practice and use them regularly before, after, and even during meetings as necessary. If the section in Faith and Practice that the recorder needs is unclear, the recorder can report that to the yearly meeting for future revisions.

Too often, but sometimes necessarily, a recorder is appointed at the meeting. Then the recorder needs to write down all such pertinent things found in headers in some neat form. If the agenda has not been announced, it is appropriate to ask the clerk to outline it orally, and to jot it down for later use. This also helps the participants to understand the agenda and it may help the clerk to order things in a reasonable way.

In a well-planned business meeting, the agenda has been distributed, including the appropriate formal names of the people who will introduce the topics and, when appropriate, the person’s meeting (and/or yearly meeting or other organizational affiliation). Any other specific names, as well as places and dates, should be written out and handed to the clerk and/or recording clerk. If these are written down ahead of time, all preferred recordings of names and all correct spellings are in hand. If names are not readily available, the recorder should ask the clerk to verify the name and meeting of the speaker and to clarify spelling. If anyone wants to rush over this, I suggest that the recorder respond pleasantly that it is important to be accurate in the minutes. It is tempting to want to wait and fill in the names, places, or dates later; I suggest not. After the meeting, too often the person has disappeared; no one knows how to spell the name or knows exactly the name of the committee or organization being represented. Also, calmly asking for clarity and accuracy reminds participants of the measured and thoughtful manner in which a meeting is conducted. It also gently reminds participants to do their homework ahead of time.

If a letter, memorial minute, or spiritual passage is read, it should be handed to the recording clerk immediately after it is read for entering into the minutes. It may be attached to the minutes and also written into a short minute as one or two summary statements, quotations, or pertinent remarks. Lists of nominations, treasurers’ reports, and so on, can also be handled in this way.

Committee business and committee reports are normally summarized succinctly in the minutes. It is best if someone on the committee has submitted to the recording clerk a copy of a report prior to the meeting, or at least, at the beginning or at the end of the presentation. The report may take on a life of its own while on the floor, but a written statement will help the recorder establish the intent of the report and give specific details. If it is a formal report, the copy is attached to the minutes. The recording clerk should still summarize the report and its reception in a few sentences in the minutes. Also, any action approved by the body must stand as a minute (that is, as a record of decision of the meeting).

If a committee has a minute to propose, a copy of it should be handed to the recording clerk, although the minute is recorded in the minutes only as it is finally approved. The name of the primary presenter, and any others as pertinent, are recorded. Names of persons speaking to the report from the floor of the meeting are not recorded.

There is excellent reason for not recording names during any discussion. The Spirit may work on any one of us as individuals or on us as a body during or after a discussion, so that later in the discussion, or the next time we gather, we are in a different place. Also, although we listen to the wisdom of other Friends, we are finally looking for the leading of the Spirit, not for the position of a particular person.

The custom that has caught on of appointing one or more “note-takers” at a threshing or discussion session seems ill-advised to me. Not only may participants change their minds after hearing others but a meeting itself may be led to a whole new understanding through prayer and patience between one meeting and another. Trying to catch the Spirit as we labor may be like catching a bird on the wing; the bird, then, cannot fly free. I like to believe that we will rise from one meeting having absorbed the Spirit behind the words and pray and meditate our way to the next meeting where the Spirit, having flown freely, might gently come among us again.

If a minute is “laid over” (not necessarily a “bad” thing; indeed, it may be the right thing to do at the moment), the recording clerk might include for the record the major points of agreement and/or hesitation (“stop”) or disagreement. If there is action to be taken before the next meeting—if a minute is to be ushered or threshed through a process (perhaps more information is needed, perhaps a called meeting for the purpose of speaking to the minute is needed)—the recording clerk should state clearly the action and the names of the committees or individuals responsible as approved by the body. Any pertinent dates or other details should be included in the minute.

Minutes primarily record the actions of the meeting. “Laying over” with directions for moving forward is an action and must be approved by the body, although the body can simply refer an issue back to the committee and let it decide on the process before it is reintroduced. Then, the recording clerk simply includes in the minute that the committee was asked to reconsider the minute (perhaps “with special attention to ___ ——–“).

Discussion is generally not recorded except perhaps to summarize concisely the general points of view expressed, or sometimes to indicate the flavor of the discussion. If the decision was a difficult one, the minute may read “after much discussion” or “after much searching,” or “after considering _________ and __________, the body approved _________.” In rare cases, names of members are put into the minutes if they choose to “stand aside” but request to have their names recorded as doing so. This is a serious step and should be considered carefully by those doing it. That action, as well as “standing in the way,” might be considered as a topic for a ministry and counsel discussion.

To summarize, the minute should include, as pertinent:

  • approval
  • support without approval
  • referral to committee
  • postponement with appropriate action to be taken after the meeting’s conclusion
  • rejection

The names of members charged with action to be taken after the meeting (whether or not the minute is approved) should be recorded with appropriate instructions (or “the charge,” as it is sometimes called). The clerk should state all this clearly, and it should be written into the minutes and approved by the meeting.

There is a traditional practice of “minutes of exercise,” sometimes called “process minutes.” In a clerking workshop at Pendle Hill in 1997, Judy Wiegand presented such a minute as “a succinct summary” of an issue that the meeting is not going to resolve at this time. Rather than omitting any mention of the issue and the discussion because there will be no minute of decision, the meeting may select to place a minute of exercise in the minutes. Any member may ask for such a minute. It should state the issue and the range of responses to it in neutral terms. It gives the meeting a record of the issue, the date it was discussed, and the various approaches or objections to it. We should always remember that we are trying to make decisions in business meeting not according to our own abilities or to any necessity. Rather we are ready to accept whatever the Spirit gives us in leading us to possible action, or not to action at the time. If the issue comes up in the future, the minute may be useful. The meeting approves the “minute of exercise” or “process” minute just as it does other minutes.

The minutes of the meeting should be read and approved as each is written. This is far more important than many Friends realize. If there are several items of business that can be recorded briefly, such as opening worship, a few introductions of visitors, and receiving the treasurer’s report, the recording clerk should, at the direction of the clerk, read those in a group for the body to approve. (If the clerk does not ask, it is appropriate for the recording clerk to request that they be read. Clerking is done as a team, although responsibilities should not be confused.) In my experience, after attending meetings across the United States, reading and approving minutes as they are written— preferably one by one except for a few routine ones, called “minutes of record”— leads to a greater sense of worship and intention in the group. The meeting will move at a more steady pace, yet reach its ending just as soon and in a far more orderly fashion than the meeting where participants rush into the next item of business before they hear what they have just decided. Those persons participating can correct misperceptions at the moment. We all learn to listen better and may also learn to speak more thoughtfully and to the point.

After any long and perhaps complicated piece of business, the recording clerk may need some time of silence to put the minute into readable form. This is an opportune time for the meeting to settle into worship. Business meetings punctuated by such worship are rewarding. The recording clerk may find it helpful to ask the clerk or the Friends assembled for help with the wording. Such help should be given in few words, and the body should again settle into worship, holding the recording clerk in the Silence while the task is completed. The recording clerk needs only to write the minute in clear and readable form at this time. Small matters of grammar, spelling, and style, and even minor errors not only can be, but should be, revised later. It is appropriate to tell the body that the recorder will do that after the meeting.

The final minute records the meeting’s closing in silence. It is often not approved; however, wherever I have taken minutes, the recording of the final silence, marking the enfolding of the meeting and the moving on to carrying out the body’s directions, concludes the minutes. As the conclusion of the formal worship of any meeting for business, it reminds us that the meeting’s decisions discern something larger than our collective opinions.

Time will be needed to proof and file the minutes as soon as possible. Know the particular procedure in the committee or meeting where you are taking minutes. Know who helps to proof the minutes, who must approve them as proofed, who types the final copy (usually the recording clerk), and how they are filed: where, by whom, by what date. Also, be certain that there is a process for having the minutes archived regularly. Be as precise in these steps as in all others, even if at first this is a challenge.

It is good to recall that in some instances, minutes will be treated as legal documents. They are formal organizational records. Also, it is good to remember that the Religious Society of Friends has a historical reputation for its well-kept records. People expect us to be honest and as exact as we fumbling humans can be at any given moment. It is part of our testimony about not taking oaths; it represents our truth: “This is the meeting as it occurred—the truths Friends found.”

I expect that most of us who have recorded for yearly meetings recall the voice of one or more former recorders who have cautioned us about our responsibility to our ancestors and our descendants! Many of us have the voice of someone like Elizabeth Moger, longtime excellent record-keeper for New York Yearly Meeting, in our heads to keep us on the Quakerly path: “Just say the body approved; nothing more is needed.” Anyone new to recording may be reminded: “We don’t thank people. Everyone is participating, doing whatever he or she can. We may notice it; we may not. But all contribute their gifts.” Under a flushed face, the recorder asks herself, “Can I remember all these caveats? Perhaps not, but people will remind me again.” She smiles and carries on.

Recording clerks can be creative, ponderous, or intellectual, but each brings a certain note of grace to the process of writing minutes. No one has the only way to record. The heart of writing good minutes, whatever the recorder’s style, is to make an enduring account of Friends testimony at any given meeting.

Sharon Hoover

Sharon Hoover, a longtime member of Alfred (N.Y.) Meeting, currently attends Lewes (Del.) Worship Group. She has served as recording clerk for local, regional, and yearly meetings.