31 May 2007

Commandments Я Us, part two

Part one, "Ten Commandments of Management," appeared last March. I began working on today's list, "Ten commandments of Friends meetings for business," about thirty years ago, when I was still a member of Ottawa Monthly Meeting in Canadian Yearly Meeting. But I took it up again recently when my current meeting, Reedwood Friends Church, devoted the spring term of its Center for Christian Studies to a course entitled "Discernment 102: Building on our Insights Into Corporate Discernment."

Lon Fendall, Jan Wood, and Bruce Bishop taught the course, using the book they've recently written together, Practicing Discernment Together--Finding God's Way Forward in Decision Making. I offer the tentative list of commandments below with great gratitude to those three for the class and the book, and with the hope that other Friends will improve the list.

I'd particularly like to know whether I've succeeded in expressing these principles in a functional way, not preserving options and nuances that are purely cultural, but instead only listing principles that actually serve the purpose of corporate faithfulness.

Example: One commandment I don't include is "be diffident and moderate in tone." I remember a session of Cuba Yearly Meeting where a full-scale debate raged on the floor, with participants who were anything but diffident and moderate. Yet, at the end, the clerk was able to weave together a minute that gained approval from the whole body, because he remained sensitive to the yearnings and leadings underneath the drama, and was able to put those leadings into words. Not only can passion and Quaker process co-exist, but, conversely, mild affect can also mask willful manipulativeness.

I confess: I love business meetings. Every business meeting, calm or lively, is potentially a Divine drama. One of my favorite parts of the Fendall/Wood/Bishop book is the story (anonymized for a non-Quaker audience) of the Northwest Yearly Meeting session that approved service in Russia and North Africa. We had to deal with an apparent collision of two foundational Quaker values--the book retells the situation well--but with mutual affection and sensitive clerking, we were able to come to unity.

Here's my list:

Ten Commandments of Monthly Meetings for Business

I. If you know that you have business to bring before the meeting, be diligent in your advance preparation. Tell the clerk in advance that you want to be on the agenda. Speak with others who might be affected or whose names you might need to mention; gather the information that others are likely to want to know; be prepared to tell the God story (thanks, Jan Wood) of how you came to be seized by this concern. (If the matter is not important enough to do this advance work, is it important enough to occupy your friends' time and attention?)

II. Weave prayer and spiritual attentiveness throughout the meeting, not just at the beginning. (Thanks to Bruce Bishop for this succinct formulation.) My favorite memories of several occasions at Ohio Yearly Meeting sessions include hearing prayers and devotional readings of the Bible at (outwardly) random times during the meetings. (Remember always who is Lord of that time and place.)

III. Uphold the clerks and the whole meeting in prayer. (Our Friends business process is one of corporate discernment. We are not seeking a group consensus or individual intellectual gratification, much less a majority vote. Instead, we are praying to be corporately given the language from which the clerks can trace and record God's will.)

IV. When you wish to speak, stand or signal clearly to the clerks, but do not speak until given permission by the presiding clerk. (Clerks, if you don't consistently require this permission, you will soon lose the ability to clerk evenhandedly. Participants, if you find that your clerk habitually permits those who are more aggressive to obtain air time, please speak directly to the clerk about this matter.)

V. When you speak, try to put your contribution in words that could be used in a minute. (In the best business meetings I've seen, the presiding clerk, with the help of the assistant--or recording--clerk, states his or her understanding of the way forward, and that language is recorded and approved before proceeding to the next item of business. Approving minutes one by one at the very time of decisionmaking helps prevent later arguments as to whether a decision was correctly recorded. I remember an argument that took most of a morning at Canadian Yearly Meeting: was a disputed minute factually incorrect but correctly recorded, or was it just incorrectly recorded?)

VI. If someone has already made your point well, do not repeat it unless you have a genuine leading to add evidence, modify the wording, or (in a tense situation) reveal clarifying or reconciling aspects of the recommendation.

VII. If an item of business does not have an advocate present at the meeting (someone who is able to explain how the item relates to the will of God for the community or mutual accountability within the community), it should be simply circulated in written form or deferred to a later time when such an advocate can be present. (Meetings that degenerate into verbal knitting through the endless repetition of routine report items will attract only those who enjoy that activity for its own sake.)

VIII. If participants cannot unite on a minute, the concern should be deferred. However, if after significant effort at study and consultation throughout the meeting, the matter returns to a subsequent business meeting, and unity still evades the participants, the clerks should weigh the concerns of those whose objections stand in the way of unity. Clerks may recognize the adoption of a minute if objections arise solely among those who have not made an effort to engage with the issues in the interim, or who have little or no experience with the group. (This is where "weight" becomes important--but clerks should also weigh the possibility that the Holy Spirit may be speaking through a complete newcomer.) (A clerk who becomes known for overruling objectors and adopting minutes despite evidence of significant disunity will soon lose the trust of the community.)

IX. If you are not in unity with an action that seems headed for approval despite your clear expressions of dissent or caution, and if upon careful reflection and a check upon your own ego, you are unable to grant that you might be in error, you must pray and think carefully about your next step. Consider deferring to the group if at all possible. If that is not possible in good conscience, consider informing the group that you will stand aside from the community in this decision. (This is not a step to be taken lightly; overuse of "standing aside" threatens the integrity of the process and the fabric of community and can imply that there is no such thing as individual deference to corporate wisdom. Asking to be recorded in the minutes as objecting is also an extreme device; the clerk is not required to accede to this request but may do so if it seems the wisest course. When this happens, elders should speak to the person in question to assure themselves that the ties of community have not been damaged and that the person truly wishes to remain in membership.)

X. Refrain from politicking after the meeting for business has been concluded. Cynical commentaries and corrosive gossip have no useful role to play. If you believe that a business meeting has gone seriously astray, put your concerns in writing and share them with the clerk, but beware of using copies and blind copies to conduct a campaign that might undermine the integrity of the group.

(My eleventh commandment would be to read the book.)

Is it necessary to observe ten wordy commandments to experience successful meetings for worship for business? Not really; I collected these ideas mostly from observation of good practices in my time among Friends, but no single meeting ever dutifully and perfectly trudged along the narrow path of all of them. If someone were to challenge me to boil them down to one or two principles, it would be, "Try to speak the prophetic word of God to the community as best you're able to discern it. Don't attribute your own personal preferences to God--never bear false witness to God's word. And when others try to speak God's prophetic word, quiet your own spirit so that it can be ready to respond when prophecy does arise. And in all things, remember to exercise common trust and common sense."

Righteous links: One view of How the richest Russians became rich. ~~~ Mark Danner on "Words in a Time of War." ~~~ Miroslav Volf on "Redeeming Bitterness." ~~~ "Left Behind: The Skewed Representation of Religion in Major News Media." (Thanks to faithvoices.org.)

The valuing and misvaluing of diversity. Rich Accetta-Evans recently posted his review of Chuck Fager's Without Apology. It was a fascinating review and it engendered a good discussion. One small aspect of that discussion caught my attention: the valuing of diversity within the community of a Friends meeting.

A few weeks ago, I considered the issue of (stated crudely) being Christian first or being Quaker first. That question came back to me as I read these comments (separate in time) from James and Zach on Rich's blog: "I really want to work toward a Quakerism where Christian Quakers, non-Christian theist Quakers, an nontheist Quakers, all feel embraced and free to speak their faith openly. But the particular strain of Christian Quakerism that insists on its own primacy within our society, is a horse of another color." (James); and "... I would venture to say that in the 21st century, when the grounds for Christian conviction are much less firm than they once were, it is those who would deny fellowship to non-Christians who are at risk of leaving the path of goodness and truth." (Zach).

Choosing these two quotations from the many well-expressed words of both of these commenters does not do them justice--please go to Rich's blog and read the whole amazing conversation in full context. But, as a horse of another color, I want to make just a couple of points: I actually do believe that Quakers who are not Christian are in error. That's the awkward reality. I also know that I'm not empowered to "enforce" my view; I'm simply entitled to express it, just as others are entitled to dispute it. I do live in reality and do know that there are several groups of people claiming the name of "Quaker," and that, aside from more superficial differences of language and culture, these groups have non-trivial theological differences. There are also interesting historical reasons for these differences. The same is true of every other significant religious movement inside and outside Christianity.

I also share important ethical and historical ties with non-Christians who call themselves Friends, and have urgent reasons to cooperate with them, and have ties of love and friendship with individuals and groups among them. I worked enthusiastically for Friends World Committee for Consultation for ten years in service of these ties. This doesn't require me to believe that they stand in that same apostolic life and power that Fox and company proclaimed, and that the differences have no significance at all. (I think Martin Kelley was making a similar point in the comments to Rich's post.) With all the wonderful fellowship I have among all the different flavors of Friends, I'm still going to find myself able to be most vulnerable and accountable among those Friends who are, to put it as simply as I can, born again. (And anyone who's known me for a while can testify that I do not glibly use that term.) In all the concentric circles and ovals of my life as a Friend, the innermost one will have a fair degree of spiritual unity.

Finally, with all due respect to Zach (and that is a LOT of respect--seriously), I don't agree at all that "the grounds for Christian conviction are much less firm than they once were...." The grounds for Christian conviction are no weaker and no stronger than they ever were, but the grounds for Christians claiming special privilege are practically gone. I believe that is a good thing.

A very abrupt change of subject ... Charlie Musselwhite and Anne McCue, "Blues for Yesterday" on the Woodsong Old-Time Radio Hour


Bill Samuel said...

It may be points VIII & IX that are most controversial.

Point VIII I think is essential. If you don't admit of the possibility, you are allowing a veto by a person clearly not seeking the Spirit on an issue. There are cases of people objecting to things purely on the basis of personal animosity (I'm thinking of an objection to an appointment in my former ym by someone who would not relent or stand aside but the clerk ruled the appointment approved and most of the body clearly felt the clerk was correct) or simply being closed to the Spirit. If there are less weighty people who are objecting while sincerely seeking the guidance of Christ on the matter, that's harder to justify.

If you sincerely believe that an action is contrary to the will of God for a body, as distinct from simply personally opposing it, I'm doubtful that standing aside is in good order. Being recorded in the minutes as standing aside seems very questionable; it makes it like a vote. I can see it as something of an act of desperation if you believe the Clerk is acting improperly and seeking to get a decision over seeking clarity on the will of God for the body. It puts one out of the stated unity of the body, which seems anomalous from the Friends understanding.

I might note some particular difficulties when there is a body of appointed representatives. There are instances where this really needs to be done, but it causes a conflict for the representative between whether to represent the opinion of the appointing body or to be a part of the process of finding unity in the body to which represented.

This latter problem was highlighted at the February FUM Board meetings. I have seen reports from more than one representative to that meeting in which they report pain in trying to resolve that. Some report requesting to be recorded as standing aside on a matter when they also reported that they actually believed the action was God's will for the body. The "standing aside" was based on the views of the body back home not on their sense of the Spirit moving at the Board meeting.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Bill. I really thought about the wording of #IX. I've heard traditionalists I respect say that "standing aside" or "being recorded in the minutes as standing aside" or similar devices are unhelpful novelties. On balance, I like having a formal, high-threshold safety valve available for situations that would otherwise completely marginalize conscientious dissenters or else require a paralysis that may not be God's will. I think these devices are a concession to our own imperfections and limitations, and ought to be used humbly and rarely, but they're now in such frequent use that I'm an advocate of framing them and taming them instead of trying (in vain, I'm sure) to ban them.

Can you picture a meeting for business in which a proposal was being considered to prohibit "standing aside"? Even I might be tempted to ... stand aside.

forrest said...

The diversity issue for me is about whether a person is building his life on "the Rock." We are all of us connected to God (else the exceptions would be empty, walking corpses) but this is a consciously-known reality for some of us, and for others a matter of ignorance, even prejudice.

If God finds a person ripe for divine companionship, but that person has not received the invitation via Christian channels... for a Christian to find fault with that situation, wouldn't that be to put a human doctrine before God's own selection of members for the True Church?

The life and power seen in early Friends doesn't necessarily blaze out with the same overwhelming force in all times and places, but a person called to a less public life, living that life as he is led, carries a gift of equal value. (I would have loved to see the whole Dissociation of Friends come marching out to feed the hungry, cure the sick and turn everyone instantly toward God, but God did find the same urgency in that hope... God might even know better!)

Humankind asks God, "Daddy, why is... How should I...?" and God gives us many answers. It isn't that any one answer is better or not better than other answers, it's that people are given what they're able to receive, and become the people they're ready to become.

I'd like Friends to become an organization of God's open Friends, not just a Sunday refuge for lonesome goodfolks. That was the postponed promise of the early Friends' movement--and too bad we're still evidently not ready!

Aside from all that. You are of course among those specifically (but not exclusively) invited to join up at
A Quaker Watering Hole

and of course http://kwakerskripturestudy.blogspot.com has needed more good studiers for a very long time!

Anonymous said...

That's a fine list of commandments! I'll be recommending it to others.

But I do have one small concern about it.

While "commandment" X -- "refrain from politicking after meeting for business is concluded" -- is spot on, readers should bear in mind that there is a difference between "politicking" and "continuing to speak to a concern".

If the meeting has not yet managed to fully address a concern before it, and a Friend is given constructive ways to continue ministering to the community with regard to the concern, in a loving and supportive and unifying spirit, that Friend should not be shy about continuing to do so. Such ministry can be not only helpful but healing!

What's wrong is politicking, and the reason is that politicking is divisive.

Johan Maurer said...

Marshall--I agree with what you say "readers should bear in mind."

Good questions, Zach. Regarding convergence: Organizational convergence is a matter for the Holy Spirit to accomplish; it would take a miracle, which isn't the same as saying it's impossible. However, the growth of a community of Friends willing to cross organizational lines, or even lines of personal spiritual preference, to talk affectionately and persistently about what unites and divides them, and even be ready to change in the process of that conversation--that's a form of convergence that is extremely valuable, full of potential blessings for their home communities as well as their personal growth. I don't think all Friends are called to that, but I'm grateful for those who are.

And I believe that this is a relatively new phenomenon, at least at the grassroots. During the ten years I served on the Friends World Committee staff, I was responsible for staffing or assisting with about 18 regional conferences, if I remember correctly. If the average attendance was about 40, then we're talking about 700 or so person-events where convergent conversations could happen--but of course, in any given region, many of the same people came to our conferences over and over (bless them!), so the number of different participants was much smaller. I think, given both old-fashioned and virtual venues, and the way they feed each other, we're doing much better now.

When I say that "the grounds for Christians claiming special privileges are gone," I'm only talking about special privileges (social respectability, having the default language and assumptions culturally, general familiarity with Biblical references) in mixed or secular settings. Within voluntary, explicit Christian communities such as my ideal Friends meetings are, there's no dependence on special privileges. I simply mean that, in the world at large and even in cross-Quaker conversations, the Gospel has to earn a hearing on its own merits, rather than muscling its way in through a position of privilege.

The ways that non-Christian Quakers are in error is a huge question, as is the question about the many ways that Friends, perhaps most Friends, appropriate those portions of historic Quaker discipleship most congenial to them, and marginalize the rest. But, these are separate questions from the point I was trying to make with the "privilege" comment.