Discernment, Clearness and Decision-making

Friends use discernment processes to gain clarity and support for personal leadings, to test a corporate leading to act as a community, and to seek unity in meeting matters. For Friends, discernment is the act of searching for truth, remaining open to the Light beyond the self. Friends have faith that, for those who question and seek, there is always a way forward.

1. Individual Discernment

Friends practice discernment in their individual lives, prayerfully seeking divine guidance in daily activities. They may also seek the meeting’s support in finding clearness when considering a change in life direction or proposing an action to follow a leading. The act of seeking God’s guidance is assisted by the meeting to assure that what is sensed by one is tested and affirmed by the worshipping community. A small group of Friends may serve as a “clearness committee” that meets in worship, listens deeply to the person seeking clearness, and assists that person in exploring the issues and discovering a way forward. The clearness process may be initiated informally by the individual inviting a few trusted Friends to participate. Alternatively, the appointment of a clearness committee may be entrusted to the meeting, often to its pastoral care committee. (See Section VII. Guidelines for Care Committees.) When an individual requests membership in the meeting or marriage under the care of the meeting, the meeting then must discern whether to approve the request. Specifically, it assumes the dual responsibilities to learn if there are other commitments or possible difficulties involved for the individual making the request and to discern whether the meeting can fulfill the request. Such clearness is specific to the needs of a marriage or membership. (See Section VII. Quaker Marriage Procedure and Application for Membership.)

2. Corporate Discernment and Decision-making

Just as it is paramount for Friends to have clearness in their personal lives, so it is important for Friends to have clearness regarding issues or concerns brought to the meeting for consideration. Friends undertake corporate discernment and decision-making in the same expectant waiting for the guidance of the Spirit as meeting for worship. With this in mind, some Friends call the occasion for conducting business “meeting for worship with attention to business.” Others call it simply “meeting for business.” It is also known as “monthly meeting” because it is usually held once a month. Regardless of the name used for the occasion, the basis for Friends method of reaching decisions is a spiritual one. In accordance with our understanding that there is that of God in each of us and that Truth is continually revealed, all those attending the meeting for business seek to release whatever preferences or opinions they may have about an issue before it is considered and become open to the leading of the Spirit as they would in a meeting for worship. The goal of this decision-making process, then, is to discern God’s will for the meeting as a whole regarding the issue under consideration. An important part of the process of corporate discernment takes place in the committees of the meeting, one or more of which often is charged to season an issue before it is brought to the meeting as a whole for consideration. Seasoning an issue might include gathering background information, drawing together those affected, or drafting a proposal. The work of the meeting committee is conducted with much the same process and goal as a meeting for worship with attention to business.

3. Sense of the Meeting and Unity

“Sense of the meeting” and “unity” are two important concepts of our Spirit-led method of reaching decisions. Friends use “sense of the meeting” in two ways. The sense of the meeting may mean the decision reached by the meeting on some issue or concern. Or it may be a statement of how the meeting processed a matter, framed by the clerk or some other person. In the latter case, the sense of the meeting may reflect that there is unity on the issue, whether to act or to refrain from acting, or it may reflect that the meeting is not in unity and that no decision has been reached at this point. “Unity” for Friends is spiritual oneness and harmony sought by the group. The unity that Friends seek in meetings for business is thus the sense of being led together by God. Sometimes unity is reached easily; sometimes it requires a lengthy process over a number of business meetings; and sometimes it is not yet available to the meeting community. In recording a decision, one meeting may say they “reached unity” on the matter, while another may report that they arrived at a “sense of the meeting,” and they may mean the same thing. While there are subtle differences in the language and approach used among Friends, at the heart of Friends discernment process is a discipline of deep listening that supports the unfolding of a sense of Truth among the members of the community as facts and feelings are sorted through. Being attentive to the Light Within grounds discernment beyond those facts and feelings so that members grow in unity with Spirit. Our search is for unity, not unanimity. We consider ourselves to be in unity when we share in the search for Truth, when we listen faithfully for God, when we submit our wills to the guidance of Spirit, and when our love for one another is constant. Friends differentiate between sense-of-the-meeting decision-making and consensus. Consensus is the outcome of a widely used and valuable secular process characterized by a search for general agreement largely through rational discussion and compromise. A sense of the meeting is the outcome of a spiritual process characterized by deep listening to each other and trusting in God’s guidance. While ideally both processes result in a course of action to which all participants can agree, reaching the sense of the meeting relies consciously on the Spirit. Reasoned argument and lively debate are secondary to spiritual insight and divine leading. Seeking the sense of the meeting is democratic in that all Friends present are encouraged to participate. However, it goes beyond democracy in its expectation that participants set aside their personal convictions in order to be led by a Guide beyond the self. It can be deeply satisfying for those participating in Friends decision-making when the needs and aspirations of the meeting take precedence over individual preferences. When everyone listens with an open heart and remains teachable, the meeting has the opportunity to come to decisions in harmony with the Spirit.

4. Preparation for Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business

Thoughtful preparation enables the meeting for business to follow the leadings of the Spirit. Meetings may find it helpful to consider the following suggestions. The clerks or other designated persons prepare and distribute the agenda and other essential information in advance. In creating the agenda, care is taken to assess whether an item is ready for consideration by the group, what items should receive the most attention, and, if necessary, what items might be held over to a future session. Individuals and committees expected to bring matters before the meeting are asked to prepare and share their material in advance whenever possible. Also, individuals presenting an issue for consideration meet first with an appropriate meeting committee or clearness committee to explore and test both the concern and a proposed course of action. It is helpful for issues to be well seasoned before bringing them to the meeting. Items of business benefit from research, background information, and review by a committee within the meeting. Friends and attenders prepare themselves for the meeting for business by reading the advance material and preparing their hearts and minds for Spirit-led decision-making. Friends can help deepen the meeting for business by holding the session itself in worship. Members arrive promptly and settle into worship. This contributes much to the depth and power of the meeting. The clerk arranges the time and place of gathering and other organizational details in order to encourage as many as possible to attend and to provide ample opportunity for the unhurried conduct of business. If a presiding or recording clerk has not already been appointed or is unable to serve, the meeting agrees how to proceed, often by naming someone to serve for that meeting for business. The promptings of the Inward Teacher may come with power to anyone present, without respect to age or experience. Friends know both the value of those whose experience and advice in similar matters have been helpful in the past and that sensitive and powerful insights can come through newer and younger participants.

5. Conducting the Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business

Although an individual Friend is designated clerk to facilitate the meeting for business, all members share responsibility for maintaining a Spirit-led meeting, for the wise use of time, and for a steadfast search for Truth. All are expected to be attentive and to offer insights that arise from reflective worship. When a matter for discernment comes before the meeting for business, Friends who feel led to speak to it ask to be recognized by the clerk. The clerk listens for the sense of the meeting in the insights Friends offer and determines when to propose it to the group. After the sense of the meeting is proposed, members may offer suggestions for its improvement. The clerk then tests the sense of the meeting by asking whether the group can unite with it. If so, the meeting records the sense of the meeting—the decision—in a minute that is read back to and approved by the meeting. The clerk is responsible for seeing that any follow-up action is carried out, often by others, and is reported back to the meeting. When the clerk proposes the sense of the meeting, several outcomes are possible. Members who feel it has been accurately stated say, “I approve.” When members have genuine reservations or objections to a proposed action or decision and are unable to approve—or unite with—the sense of the meeting, there are several options for the clerk, the individual and the meeting to consider. These options are explained in the next part of this section. It is also possible that the sense of the meeting may or may not include a decision to take action. We may wrestle with an issue or may realize we need more time or information and determine we are not ready to make a decision at the time. The sense of the meeting will state that and whether the meeting will come back to the subject at another time. Friends come to meeting for business with an openness to the Spirit that inspires careful speaking and listening, trust, humility, compassion and courage. Worship also enhances respect for others, as participants seek the Light revealed through others. An openness of spirit enables Friends to hear and incorporate differing, even contradictory, views. Friends generally welcome the participation in meeting for business of serious and consistent attenders (that is, persons who are not formally members but are active in the life of the meeting). At times, meetings may advise non-members to show sensitive restraint when addressing particular meeting affairs. In rare circumstances it may be necessary for a decision to be reached by the members only. In this case, non-members may be asked to hold the meeting in the Light during that time.

6. When Friends Disagree

Friends often find themselves most challenged when, during meeting for business, members offer firmly held but incompatible responses to an issue. When a member feels strongly about that issue and even seeks to prevent the meeting from reaching a decision, it is important that the meeting test this person’s conviction in a loving spirit, and examine responsibly the consequences of acting or not acting on the issue. The search for unity rests with all in the meeting, including those who oppose the proposed course of action. The following lists include questions, practical steps and choices that may be helpful to consider when Friends disagree.

(a) Questions that may be helpful for all to consider when disagreement threatens to divide a meeting:

  • Have all Friends tried to set aside their personal desires and preferences in order to be led by the Spirit?
  • Have Friends considered whether God’s will for them as individuals may differ from God’s will for the meeting?
  • Have all Friends taken care to discern, in a loving and prayerful spirit, that of God in the perspective of those with whom they disagree?
  • Do those in conflict regularly reaffirm, in voice and attitude, the love they feel for one another?
  • If Friends have not yet done the work to listen to and affirm those with whom they disagree, what will support them to do this?

(b) Practical steps that may be helpful in enabling the meeting to move toward unity:

  • The clerk, or another member, may ask the meeting to move into silence in order to settle Friends’ energy and deepen the spiritual search.
  • The clerk may ask Friends to examine each position in the Light in order to discern the work of the Spirit or to allow another possibility—a third or new way— to emerge.
  • The meeting may reschedule the matter, encouraging members to continue their search for right action in solitary prayer and meditation.
  • When there is much disagreement, uncertainty or discomfort within the community about an issue, the clerk may suggest holding a threshing session. The special role of a threshing session is that it provides ample time for questions and discussion and allows all differences of viewpoints and feelings to be expressed. It is not a time for decision-making.
  • The clerk may ask a small group to withdraw and draft a minute with the hope and expectation that the resulting minute will lead to unity. The rest of the meeting may proceed with other business or wait in worship.

After patient searching over a considerable period, the meeting may conclude that the sense of the meeting is clear and unity in the Spirit has been reached, acknowledging that some Friends continue to have reservations about the decision. Alternatively, the clerk may indicate that the sense of the meeting is not clear and that no decision can be made nor action taken until unity in the Spirit is reached. (c) Options for when an individual cannot unite with the sense of the meeting: When a Friend has genuine reservations or objections to a proposed action or decision and feels unable to approve—or unite with—the sense of the meeting, there are several options for the clerk, the individual and the meeting to consider.

  • The clerk ensures that those Friends who disapprove of the sense of the meeting have an opportunity to state their concerns. In so doing, Friends may feel released from the burden of their concern, having laid it on the conscience of the meeting, and decide to withdraw their objections, thereby allowing the meeting to move forward in unity.
  • Friends may choose to “stand aside,” recognizing that while the emerging decision does not reflect their personal preferences, the meeting will go forward. A person who stands aside is expected to share their reason with the group. The person may choose to be named in the minutes or remain anonymous. When a member of the community chooses to stand aside, the meeting may be reluctant to proceed or wish to give the matter further consideration. If the meeting decides to proceed with the decision, the person who stood aside is expected to support it.
  • The Friend may continue to hold deep feelings or convictions that prevent them from being able to stand aside.

The meeting takes this response very seriously and may:

  • Postpone making a decision to provide opportunity to further understand the individual’s objections and for all to grow in the wisdom and guidance of the Spirit;
  • Decide to go no further with the issue under consideration, minuting that unity of spirit could not be reached or that the meeting was unwilling to proceed without it;
  • Move forward with the decision, usually having labored over a protracted period with the individual who continued to oppose the proposed action and was unable to unite with the community.

Friends who do not agree with the decision should affirm their spiritual unity with the meeting. That unity requires those Friends to accept with good grace the consequences of the decision for the meeting and for them. That spiritual unity also requires the rest of the meeting to keep the objections in mind as they proceed and to treat tenderly and lovingly those who had disagreed. These expectations reflect trust in divine guidance and the commitment of all members to reach unity in the Spirit.