17 April 2008

Clerk, please

I spent part of my morning talking with a friend who's a clerk of the board of a Friends organization. She told me that one of the board's newest members had, at a recent meeting, commented on a recent public presentation by that organization. "You did a good job on the history, and on what we're doing now. But what is your vision for the future?"

First of all, what's a vision? It's an engaging picture of a desirable future that is consistent with the values of the organization or its audience, and that encourages their commitment of themselves on behalf of that outcome. For many organizations who have moved beyond their founders' generation, expressing a vision is often left--sometimes by default--to the paid leadership. In fact, the ability to express a vision persuasively is sometimes how one gets to be a leader.

We Friends, along with other faith communities, understand that visions are sometimes born of God's leadings, which can come to anyone God chooses, whatever their status. A "wandering Aramaean" was entrusted with founding the Jewish nation; nearly 2000 years later God appointed an unwed mother to be the God-bearer and first prophet and theologian of Christianity. "God has brought the rulers down from their thrones and has lifted up the humble. God has filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich away empty-handed."

But who will see and proclaim these things to new audiences if we are so busy trying to sort out our structures, nomination processes, and interpersonal animosities that we don't take the time to discern and honor leadings? This was the puzzle that my friend and I were talking about this morning.

Last year I suggested a set of "commandments" for Friends business meetings, and presented them at a session of Northwest Yearly Meeting. I think they were decent suggestions, but I now see that I was mostly focused on preserving the core of Friends practice from the dual dangers of cultic legalism and impatient rejection--I've seen plenty of both--but I wasn't really thinking about the stewardship of leadings and vision.

In that post I did mention the book by Lon Fendall, Jan Wood, and Bruce Bishop, Practicing Discernment Together--Finding God's Way Forward in Decision Making. In light of today's conversation, I've been re-reading the book. It's written for participants as well as presiding clerks. This morning, my friend and I were considering the tendency of those present at a business meeting to focus on maintenance and conflict-avoidance, to the extent that vision ends up being neglected. For me, an important lesson of this book is that a presiding clerk is in a strategic position to provide hospitality to the leadings from which a valid vision will be built.

I vividly remember two discussions that took place in 1985, at a Friends World Committee triennial meeting in Oaxtepec, Mexico. In one, on Right Sharing of World Resources, there was a classic collision between two viewpoints--one upholding the importance of inspired amateurs, the other defending the critical role of experts and expertise. (It is possible, of course, for these roles to overlap, but I think it's unproductively sentimental to pretend that they always do!) The role of clerk includes allowing space for the experts to lay out their inventory, but at some point, the clerk must also make deliberate space for inspiration, and keep that fertile space open for expertise and inspiration to mix.

In the second discussion at that Triennial, on men's and women's equality, more than one speaker from the Africa Section explained that women had to be patient, the culture was not ready for equality. One said that you have to learn to walk before you could run. Then Gordon Browne put the issue in perspective: What did God expect of us? Friends in Britain and the colonies held up a vision of equality long before the culture was "ready" for it. In fact (before we get too self-congratulatory), even those early Friends were not all that ready for it, but the theology was fully-formed in that first generation, and the resulting vision was a powerful shaping force for our structures and discipleship. Our clerks need to keep the space open for candid assessments of today's reality but also for the prophet who asserts God's perspective. As Jan Wood says in Practicing Discernment Together,
The clerk facilitates a collaborative process. The giftedness and skills of a clerk are as important to the group as a coach is to an athletic team. Yet the responsibility for the decision does not rest upon the shoulders of the clerk, for it is God who makes known the decision and the next steps. The clerk does not control the content or the outcome of the meeting, yet he or she does maximize the conditions under which people can work helpfully together.
In many ways, the purpose of this book is to suggest how to maximize these conditions. This is why I hope that every Friends clerk or clerk-candidate gets a copy of this book.

Much of the contents would help him or her deal with the maintenance dimension of business meetings--the necessary routine meetings that keep our stewardship and accountability healthy. But the very same principles will help the clerk discern when the matter becomes one of vision and purpose. Then many of the good practices in this book, ones that keep routine business flowing smoothly, become even more important: learning our own discernment styles and cultivating foundational skills, doing our organizational and informational homework, attending to differences in temperament and personal history, listening "inside and outside," soliciting input from implementers, praying, waiting, waiting, waiting. And: remembering that, while some have the gift of knowledge, others have the gift of faith; some have the gift of discerning of spirits, others have the gift of hospitality; some have the rootedness of long "ownership" while others are experiencing the excitement of first-generation apostolic discovery. It's all needed!

My morning conversation friend has seen a fair number of clerks in her lifetime, to provide context and models for the advice in this excellent book. But I wonder how true this is for many Friends. How do we prepare clerks; how do we show them that the task is important but not heavy? How do we help them steer a joyful path between unhelpful passivity and an inappropriate executive model? (I've seen both approaches, and in terms of Friends organizations, I've seen too many cases where clerks have been pushed into near-executive levels of workload, causing them to burn out, or, very occasionally, cross a line and become too focused on power.) I know that I've been profoundly influenced by the best clerks I've seen, and I'm going to take the risk of naming just two of many: Barbarie Hill of Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, and Paul Enyart of Friends United Meeting. What are some of the ways we're preparing future Barbaries and Pauls?

The Quaker blogging community has many examples of Friends being inspired by the increasing contacts between "liberal" and "evangelical" Friends. I also see more evidence that Friends are finally starting to wake up to the small-q quaker work going on in progressive evangelical circles and elsewhere in the world of faith. (It used to frustrate me that Friends could be so insufferably proud of our history of prophetic discipleship and so apparently unaware that others were claiming that discipleship today and moving into the future with it while we continued to stagnate.) It will be interesting to see when this new cross-fertilization starts getting reflected in the policy and program decisions of the larger Quaker organizations. This is one of the questions I had for my clerk friend this morning. Will her organization be affected by these creative currents as it considers how to increase its visibility and faithfulness, and as it discerns its vision for the future?

Righteous links:

Mustard Seed Associates is the site and forum for the work and ideas of Christine and Tom Sine. Back at the beginning of my time at Friends United Meeting, we held a board meeting at which Tom came and held a creativity workshop. It was a great way to nurture vision in an organization that had just passed through a period of painful conflict. Much of the programming that bubbled up during the years following this 1993 workshop came out of that thinking--including the major increase in FUM's cross-cultural work. Others remained on the drawing board, such as the reconciliation squad to respond to political violence in Jamaica.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life presents "'The Evidence for Belief': An Interview with Francis Collins."

In or near Portland, Oregon? Starting tomorrow: Peace Weekend at Reedwood Friends Church.

Trust Noli Irritare Leones to come up with an intelligent discussion on the social psychology and economics of the male birth control pill.

A letter from the CPT-Iraq team to constituents.

Is it or is it not enough simply "to be a disciple of Jesus"? A discussion about going beyond attractive but disconnected rhetoric is here at Open Source Theology. Join the discussion.

"She's Tuff"--tuff enough to withstand three decades! The first performance was recorded in 1980, just a few months after the one time Judy and I saw these guys, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Anonymous said...

Hi Johan: great stuff. I started a reply here but after three paragraphs I realize I'm really writing a blog post! I'll try to get that up on Quakerranter.org later this afternoon.
Your Friend, Martin

anj said...

Timely post for me, a Friend and I were just speaking this afternoon about this dilemma. Thanks Johan.

Anonymous said...

This has been frustrating to me as a new Friend and young person. I often get the sense of living in the past, sitting around reading books about dead Quakers with a bunch of white people older than myself. How does this all apply to me and my life and my identity? I would like to write a book along these lines...

Johan Maurer said...

Although Lon, Jan, and Bruce are long-time members of our yearly meeting (Lon is presently YM clerk), one thing I love about their book is the lack of jargon and in-group references.

Thanks to you all for writing. Anj, I loved your quote for the day.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your post spoke to my condition today, as I have been considering and blogging about my Meeting's discernment of how to avoid buckling under the weight of our structure. Your post has your characteristic careful, analytical, and grounded insights. "Stewardship of leadings and visions" is such a wonderful way of envisaging the role of the Clerk and the Meeting as a whole.

By the way, George Fox University and the Evangelical Seminary are co-hosting a one-week Leadership Institute on Discerning Together during the week of May 19. (Ethical considerations require me to disclose that two of the book's authors and Institute facilitators are colleagues of mine in GOOD NEWS Associates - Jan Wood and Lon Fendall.)

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Susanne! I see that I somehow left Good News Associates off my list of links--I just fixed that. While doing that I noticed the page devoted to the Leadership Institute.

Anonymous said...

When you said: "This morning, my friend and I were considering the tendency of those present at a business meeting to focus on maintenance and conflict-avoidance, to the extent that vision ends up being neglected."

you spoke to me deeply. Vision isn't always subtle and well-maintained as it emerges--and, by virtue of being "think-ahead-try-something-new" it can cause even the person with the vision to feel some conflict about it. And then as the vision is passed around, gathering up bits and pieces of everyone else's brainstorming, it can seem to have a mind of its own.

I've often thought that the best ideas come when we don't try to make the vision fit the rules, but let the vision fight its way out of the paper bag.

That's not to say that Meeting for Business or Clearness should be a free-for-all, but cartainly there are ways to give vision a higher place higher on the agenda.


Chris M. said...

Okay, okay, I want to read the book! Buying books is not in my budget right now. I'll see if our meeting library might have or buy a copy from Barclay Press.

I see that J. Brent Bill wrote a review of it for Barclay Press's website:
over here.

By the way, I summarized some of those rules you wrote a year ago in the first business meeting I clerked, a little less than a year ago. Thanks, it was helpful.

In liberal Friends meetings, I think we're often afraid of words like "vision" and its frequent companion, "mission," because they sound, well, evangelical. Yet many of us work for or volunteer with nonprofits, all of which have a mission statement! One thing (of many) I like about SF Meeting is that we spent a goodly amount of time talking about our vision for our community a few years ago. Time to take up that discussion again, I think.

Finally, well-phrased point about the "small-q quaker" work of progressive evangelicals.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean by "small-q quaker"?

Johan Maurer said...

It's when people outside the Friends movement do stuff that we collectively might say, "Wow, I wish we'd said/done that!" Or, to put it another way, it refers to people who share our spiritual and ethical urgencies. Maybe they have lower-case nicknames for us, too!