The presuppositions of the corporate meeting for worship have, from the very beginning, profoundly affected the method of decision-making in the meeting for business. In both, there is faith in the Guide. There is faith in a continuous revelation that is always open to produce fresh disclosures. And there is respect and affection for each other that cuts through all diversity and that helps to kindle a faith that, with patience and openness, the group can expect to come to clearness and to resolve the problems that come before it.
– Source unknown
From Faith Into Business
Friends’ decision-making is rooted in the spiritual oneness of a religious community. We reject majority rule for the higher goal of reaching decisions in unity, through distinctive attitudes developed by Friends over the centuries. Our process is democratic in the sense that everyone is encouraged to participate. However, it also goes beyond democracy in that it does not rely solely on human will or ability. Participants are expected to put aside personal desires and allow themselves to be led by a Guide beyond the self.
When this decision-making process is used carelessly, its lack of formal rules of order can lead to abuse by neglect or by design. When used with care, it is deeply satisfying and produces practical decisions that are in harmony with the Spirit.
The act of choosing is inescapably religious, in that it reveals our fundamental values and deepest loyalties. Friends must therefore be rigorous in discerning the ultimate source of their leadings, always looking beyond the self, and never letting their own wills become a substitute for God.
The Religious Basis of Our Decision-Making
Despite the difference in format, meetings for business are meetings for worship in which our business is held and are conducted in the same openness to the leading of the Spirit. For our religious community to thrive, it is essential that we nurture our love for one another, maintain our spiritual unity, and live in harmony with the Spirit. These beliefs underlie every attitude and practice in our meetings for business.
As we wrestle with outward issues, the Inward Light gives us new perspectives and creative responses. On all matters, even the mundane, its presence promises a fresh revelation of truth and a clearer understanding of God’s will.
It is also our experience that new openings to truth may come at any time and from any source. Each Friend should therefore listen to all efforts to express that truth, testing them against accumulated experience, the life and teachings of Jesus, and moral and spiritual guides in Scripture and elsewhere. Yet we are careful to rely not on the letter of the text, but to read as George Fox enjoined us to read the Scriptures: “in the Spirit in which they were given forth.”
The Goal of Friends’ Decision-making
The goal of Friends’ decision-making is a Spirit-led sense of the meeting—a crystallization of the search for clarity on the topic under consideration. Even in the face of strong difference of opinion, that goal is achievable when there is spiritual unity.
Our search is for unity, not unanimity. We consider ourselves to be in unity when our search for Truth is shared; when our listening for God is faithful; when our wills are caught up in the presence of Christ; and when our love for one another is constant. A united meeting is not necessarily all of one mind, but it is all of one heart.
We believe that this unity, transcending apparent differences, springs from God’s empowering love, and that a Meeting, trusting in the leadership of that love and gathered in its spirit, will enjoy unity in its search for truth.
A Meeting is a living spiritual entity which may encompass strong differences of opinion. It is like an individual who may have many conflicting inclinations but who still has a final sense of how to act. The sense of the meeting is not designed and fitted together, but is conceived, born, and nurtured; the Meeting’s care for the quality of its decision-making process is essential to the rightness of its decisions in the same way that an expectant mother’s care for her own health is essential to the strength of her child.
Sense of the meeting is not synonymous with consensus. Consensus is a widely used and valuable secular process characterized by a search for general agreement largely through rational discussion and compromise. Sense of the meeting is a religious process characterized by listening for and trusting in God. Both result in a course of action agreed to by all of the participants, but the sense of the meeting relies consciously on the Spirit. Although reasoned argument and lively debate may often play a role in Friends’ decision-making, they are useful only to the extent that they are the expressions of spiritual leadings.
When the sense of the meeting has been rightly discerned, those present will know that they have faithfully followed their Guide, and will feel a continued affection for each other.
Expectations of Participants
Among Friends, the decisions made by a group are enriched when all members commit themselves to regular attendance at meetings for worship as well as at decision-making sessions.
By maintaining a spirit of worship throughout the meeting, participants nurture their openness to the leadings of the Spirit and its gifts of trust, humility, compassion, and courage.
Although an individual Friend has the designated role of clerk, all share the responsibility for the maintenance of a Spirit-led gathering, for the wise use of time, and for a steadfast search for truth. All are expected to be attentive and to offer concisely such insight as each may have. None should remain silent in the belief that the conclusion is foregone, or that an insight apparently counter to that of the body of the Meeting will be divisive.
Friends who feel they cannot agree with what they perceive to be the weight of the Meeting must not yield to the temptation to absent themselves from the meeting for business in order to spare both themselves and the Meeting. Such an absence implies a lack of faith in the Meeting’s access to divine guidance and its ability to find unity.
Both speaking and listening should be marked by respect for others, with speakers saying only what they know to be worth others’ hearing, and with listeners seeking the Light as it is revealed through others. An openness of spirit is crucial, especially when differing views are being expressed.
Friends have learned the value of contributions from serious and consistent attenders who are not members. Many Meetings welcome all who care to attend at decision-making sessions. Non-members should show sensitive restraint when addressing Meeting affairs. Each Meeting is at liberty to limit the participation of attenders; such limits should be clearly defined and communicated in advance to avoid embarrassment and hurt feelings. Prior definition is particularly important with respect to any sessions which involve confidential information or evaluations of individuals.
No one should take action on the Meeting’s behalf in anticipation of a minute’s approval, but should wait for actual approval.
The Role of the Clerk
Ideally, the clerk is both servant and leader who thoughtfully prepares for the meeting; maintains a worshipful spirit in the meeting; sets a helpful pace; discerns the sense of the meeting when it is present; and expresses it clearly or identifies those who can do so. Such a clerk sensitively searches for the right course of action and helps maintain the meeting’s spiritual unity. All these tasks are accomplished in an active, informed, helping spirit, facilitating but never dominating, carefully free from partisanship.
When nominated and appointed by members of the Meeting, the clerk accepts the obligation to focus time, energies, and gifts in the fulfillment of that trust.
The clerk helps the Meeting move through the agenda with efficient but unhurried dispatch, keeping the members’ attention on the matters to be considered. The clerk listens, learns, and sifts, searching for the sense of the meeting, possibly suggesting tentative minutes or periods of silent worship to help clarify or focus Friends’ leadings. The clerk encourages those who are reluctant to speak, and in like manner restrains those who tend to speak at undue length or to speak too often.
When the sense of the meeting seems to be clear, the clerk lays it before the Meeting. If there are objections or reservations, the clerk opens the way for further seeking and refinement. When there are no further objections or refinements, the clerk directs that the sense of the meeting be so recorded.
It is especially important that the clerk make clear what previous decisions or customs have been established on a given issue since lack of unity on a proposed change normally means that the status quo will be preserved.
When the sense of the meeting seems elusive, the clerk should be sensitive to the potential benefit of deferring the matter to a later time, to a different body, or to a different forum.
The clerk should be careful to refrain from opinionated participation in the discussion. Further, the clerk should be alert to those occasions when his or her ability to read the sense of the meeting may be blurred by deep personal convictions. In that event, the clerk stands aside and asks the Meeting to recognize someone else as clerk for the moment.
After the meeting is concluded it is the clerk’s duty to ensure that those charged by the Meeting with new tasks or specific actions are informed of their responsibilities. The clerk also takes care that matters held over appear in later agenda. Finally, letters or documents whose drafting has been entrusted to the clerk are promptly dispatched.
The Role of the Recording Clerk
The proceedings of a meeting should be carefully and appropriately minuted by someone designated to serve as recording clerk.
Since meetings are held for different purposes, the recording clerk’s minutes reflect the essential purpose of each meeting, be it for decision, for discussion, or for inspiration. The recording clerk should state precisely the nature, extent, and timing of actions directed to be taken and the persons responsible. Ambiguity and inaccuracy must be avoided.
Minutes should be written in the knowledge that at a later date the Meeting may well need a full and circumstantial account of its decision and how it was reached.
In the writing of minutes, the recording clerk is more effective when there has been detailed prior consultation with the presiding clerk so that names, dates, and proposals are already familiar. It is then also possible for the recording clerk to prepare tentative introductory sentences for each item of business, especially those that are routine.
A recording clerk does not hesitate to ask for help in formulating minutes. Where the action to be taken is clear but the wording of the proposed minute is not, it is sometimes useful to ask a few Friends to withdraw to prepare a final draft for the Meeting’s later consideration. In some cases, the presiding clerk rather than the recording clerk will be in a better position to write the minute.
The recording clerk may at times be asked to prepare a minute on a matter of substance while the Meeting waits. All others present should settle into silent and supportive prayer until this task is complete.
In some instances a meeting may approve a minute in principle, being satisfied that its later refinement need not come before the Meeting again.
Once adopted, minutes retain their authority until amended by a subsequent minute.
To prevent confusion and misunderstanding, some Meetings find it useful for the recording clerk to read the minutes and have them approved from time to time during the course of the meeting or at the end; others read only those minutes referring to weighty and difficult matters and approve the complete minutes at the following session. Meetings follow a variety of practices in this regard, each of which has merit. If minutes are considered at a later session, those not present when business was discussed and actions taken should refrain from sharing in the approval of the minutes.
Recording clerks and clerks are granted the freedom to make only editorial changes or correct inaccuracies in the minutes, taking care that their meaning is in no way changed thereby. If other correction is needed, it should be brought before the Meeting at a later session.
All minutes are preserved in ways that will ensure their availability and permanence.