Friends developed their way of making decisions in the late 1660’s in response to the sufferings of Friends in prison and the crucial needs of their families. A crisis of leadership had arisen within the Quaker movement. It became clear to George Fox — himself in prison at the time — that Friends needed to take collective responsibility for decisions, rather than depend on a few outstanding leaders. Fox worked out a system of Monthly, Quarterly and Yearly Meetings through which Friends could deal with matters of corporate concern and responsibility.
The Quaker method for reaching decisions is based on religious conviction. <see meeting for worship for business p. 21> Friends conduct business together in the faith that there is one Divine Spirit, which is accessible to all persons. When Friends wait upon, heed, and follow the Light of Truth within them, its spirit will lead to unity. This faith is the foundation for any corporate decision.
Friends do not resort to a vote to settle an issue. Friends expect to find unity. This unity transcends both consensus, which retains only the views common to all present, and compromise, which affirms none of the positions presented. Unlike a decision resting upon a majority vote, one made according to a true “sense of the Meeting” can avoid overriding an unconvinced minority. It allows unforeseen insights to emerge and it enables Friends to modify previously held opinions. They may then agree on a new view of the matter under consideration. Until the Meeting can unite in a decision, the previous policy remains unchanged or no action is taken on new business, as the case may be.
Friends begin Meetings in which decisions are to be made with a time of silent worship. In the stillness, they recall that a business or committee meeting is, in fact, a Meeting for Worship to deal with certain matters of importance.
Friends try to seek divine guidance at all times, to be mutually forbearing, and to be concerned for the good of the Meeting as a whole, rather than to defend a personal preference. Thus, having once expressed a view, a Friend is expected to refrain from pressing it unduly, at length or repeatedly. The grace of humor can often help to relax the tensions of a Meeting so that new light comes to it. The authority and responsibility for decisions on the affairs of the Meeting reside with the members, and those present at a regular monthly Meeting for Worship for Business have the authority to make decisions for the Meeting. Until the Meeting can unite in a minute, the previous policy remains unchanged.
Most Meetings for Business proceed without distinction between members and non-members, and this benefits the Meeting. On occasion, a decision may call for invoking this distinction. At such times, non-members should not respond to the Clerk’s call for affirmation of a proposed minute, and the Clerk may so remind the Meeting.
Friends’ way of conducting business is of central importance. It is the Quaker way of living and working together. It can create and preserve the sense of fellowship in the Meeting, and from there it can spread to other groups and decisions in which individual Friends and Meetings have a part. Thus it contributes to the way of peace in the world.
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Friends Meetings ordinarily take care of their business at their regularly scheduled monthly Meeting for Business. However, the Clerk may call for a special session to deal with an urgent matter. Adequate notice of a called meeting should be given, particularly if the topic is controversial.
Committee clerks and members should inform the Clerk ahead of time when they have business to come before the Meeting. As items are dealt with, the Clerk makes sure that all present have opportunity to express their views. Friends address the Clerk, not one another. Friends who stand to speak find that their ministry is more faithful, concise, and better heard. Each vocal contribution should be something that adds to the material already given.
The Meeting’s work of discernment is a corporate search. The Clerk does not direct the communication toward certain predetermined goals, but keeps dialogue open, promoting free and full exploration of the matter under consideration, while fostering a sense of the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Clerk is responsible for discerning and stating the sense of the Meeting and presenting a minute when unity has been reached.Members of the Meeting may sometimes assist the Clerk in this. If a member believes that the Clerk has incorrectly discerned the sense of the Meeting, it is appropriate to speak up. Similarly, someone may propose that unity actually has been reached and suggest that a minute should be recorded.
When the wording appears satisfactory, the Clerk asks Friends if they approve the minute. If Friends approve the minute without objection, it is recorded as an action of the Meeting. If, after careful consideration, minor editorial changes appear to be needed, the Clerk should have authority to make them. Those changes should be noted at the next Business Meeting, when the minutes of the previous session are read. If the business before the Meeting is difficult, anyone may request a pause for silent worship. This can often lead to finding a way forward. Sometimes a member with doubts about a minute favored by most of those present will voice his or her reservations but release the Meeting to move forward.† This will be recorded in the minutes as “one Friend standing aside.” In rare cases a member may ask to be recorded as standing aside; however this practice is best limited to occasions when that member’s professional or legal status might be jeopardized by implied consent to a minute.
Another way of avoiding a deadlock is for the Clerk or another member to suggest that a matter be held over for consideration at a later time. It may be helpful for the Clerk to ask a small committee, including Friends of diverse leadings, to revise the proposal in the light of the concerns and objections, and report to the next Meeting. If the matter is urgent, the committee may retire from a given session to return to it with a revised proposal.
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Many decisions are of a routine nature and can be handled during one Meeting for Business. Business Meeting accomplishes much of its work by trusting standing and ad hoc committees to have adequately seasoned matters beforehand. Some matters are better served by, and deserve, longer periods of deliberation. It is standard practice to hold over decisions in matters of membership, marriage and nominations for at least one month before a final decision. The extra time of seasoning allows Friends to labor together in an orderly exploration of unexpected objections and thus better to discern God’s will. This is characteristic of Friends’ sense of “good order.”
Items may be held over for later consideration, as committees or the Clerk deem necessary. It is generally helpful to name the date when it will be reconsidered. The absence of Friends with a specific interest from Business Meeting (after notice has been given) should seldom be a factor in delaying a decision.
It is the responsibility of the Clerk to discern when it is appropriate to delay a decision or refer a matter back to a committee for further seasoning. If the Clerk has decided in advance that no decision will be made at a given session, he or she should inform the Business Meeting before discussion begins. The Clerk should also indicate the possible consequences of a delayed decision.
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In Times of Difficulty
If it were necessary for every member to feel equally happy about the decisions reached, we should be presuming to be settling matters in an angelic colony and not among flesh and blood members of a local Quaker meeting! From the point of view of myself as a member of a meeting, the kind of unanimity that is referred to is a realization on my part that the matter has been carefully and patiently considered. I have had a chance at different stages of the process of arriving at this decision of making my point of view known to the group, of having it seriously considered and weighed. Even if the decision finally goes against what I initially proposed, I know that my contribution has helped to sift the issue, perhaps to temper it, and I may well have, as the matter has patiently taken its course, come to see it somewhat differently from the point at which I began. … I have also come to realize that the group as a whole finds this resolution what seems best to them. When this point comes, if I am a seasoned Friend, I no longer oppose it. … I emerge from the meeting not as a member of a bitter minority who feels he has been outflanked and rejected but rather as one who has been through the process of the decision and is willing to abide by it even though my accent would not have put it in this form.
the quaker decision making process
Sometimes Friends have business that seems to require decision, but their differences appear unresolvable. Usually no action is taken, and the matter is held over with the expectation that unity can and will be found. Deference to the objections of even one or two members demonstrates the great reluctance of the Meeting to override any of its members — especially when matters of conscience are involved. Some people mistakenly believe that this procedure provides each member with a veto. Rather, Meetings place a high value on unity.
Unity does not imply unanimity of the entire membership of a Monthly Meeting. A Meeting may proceed in the absence of, or (more rarely) over the objection of, one or more Friends present while recognizing that objections may contain, or lead to, new light on the matter being considered. Friends with hesitations may choose to state that they are “standing aside” when the final decision is made, or, rarely, may ask to be recorded as standing aside.
Meetings may occasionally act even over the objections of one or more Friends. Due weight should be given to the insights of any Friend, long experienced in Friends meetings, whose judgment and service have been proven over considerable time. A “stop” in such a member’s mind should be heeded. If, on the other hand, the one who is withholding support is known for persistently objecting, then the Clerk may call for a period of silent worship and, if so led, announce that the weight of the Meeting seems decidedly to favor the action, and the proposal is approved. The same principle applies even on occasions when there is more than one objector.
One of the Clerk’s more demanding responsibilities is to tell the difference between those occasions when it is right that the objector’s views be heeded, and those times when the Meeting has reached unity and, despite objection, it must act. Friends seek neither unanimity (a matter of votes), nor consensus (a resolution of differing opinions). Friends seek unity in the Spirit. When the Clerk is clear that the Meeting approves an action, even in the presence of dissenting views, it is his or her obligation to articulate the sense of the Meeting in a minute and so record it unless others present also object.
Any ministry in Meeting for Business may contain elements essential to discovering a Spirit-led decision around which the Meeting may unite. This is true of the ministry of experienced Friends, newcomers, and Friends whose ministry others often find unhelpful. Before considering going forward over the objection of a Friend, the Clerk and the Business Meeting must be confident that it has labored in good faith with the objecting Friend and that the Meeting has done its best to understand the objection and that the objecting Friend has had spacious opportunities to understand the leading of the Meeting to proceed. It is unusual for a sense of the Meeting to be achieved over one or more objections, and there are good reasons for this. The objector(s) may actually be right, or the proposed action may profoundly strain their bonds to the Meeting. Sometimes concern for their feelings may weigh heavily in favor of deferring the decision. Meetings should not ignore these features of a decision taken over objection of some Friends, although the Meeting may still have to proceed. It is important to ensure that objections have been faithfully considered, and that everyone is satisfied that this has happened.
Where there is discomfort, Oversight or Worship and Ministry Committees should act quickly to heal wounds, lest they fester and spoil the community of trust. If Friends feel that the Meeting should not have recorded a particular minute, they should bring their concern to the Worship and Ministry Committee (which has the responsibility for the care of Meeting for Business), the Clerk, or the Meeting for Business. It is important for differences to be aired and faced rather than to try to muffle views or circumvent attitudes for fear of dissent. Friends believe that truth, fully and openly sought, will carry its own conviction, and that unity will be found in truth and love.
It must always be remembered that the final decision as to whether the minute represents the sense of the meeting is the responsibility of the meeting itself, not of the clerk.
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Occasionally an issue may be complex, controversial, dependent on technical details, or emotionally charged so that significantly more corporate preparation is required than can reasonably be accomplished in Meeting for Business. In such cases the Meeting should arrange a series of separate meetings. If technical details are crucial, study sessions may be in order. If matters are emotionally charged or members need to be heard in a receptive setting, Quaker dialogue or worship-sharing may be helpful. If extended preliminary exploration is needed, threshing sessions may be appropriate.
Threshing sessions derive their name from the assumption that through them the chaff might be separated from the grain of truth, clearing the way for later action on the issue. However, no corporate decisions are made at such meetings.
The Clerk or moderator of a threshing session is responsible for ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to speak, drawing out the reticent and limiting redundancy. Special efforts must be made to see that Friends of all shades of opinion can and will be present.
To the extent that Friends who hold a given view are absent, the usefulness of such a meeting will be impaired. Knowledgeable people should be asked to present factual or complex material and be available to answer questions. A recorder should take notes of the meeting for later reference.
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Clerks and Clerking
The Clerk coordinates the business of the Meeting. The Clerk sees to it that all pertinent business and concerns are presented clearly to the Monthly Meeting in good order for its deliberate consideration, united action, and appropriate execution. The following guidelines apply generally to the Clerk of any Friends Meeting or committee.
The Clerk is a member of the Meeting,who enjoys the confidence of its membership and who, in turn, respects and cherishes its individual members and attenders. He or she seeks the leading of the Spirit for corporate guidance. It is essential for the Clerk to be familiar with Faith and Practice and other Quaker literature.
The Clerk should be able to comprehend readily, evaluate rightly, and state clearly and concisely an item of business or concern that comes to the Meeting. He or she should be able to listen receptively to what is said, and, through spiritual discernment, to gather the sense of the Meeting at the proper time.
The Clerk attends Meeting for Worship and keeps close to the work of committees, in all of which he or she should be considered an ex officio member. In order to be aware of the condition of the Meeting, it is essential that the Clerk attend Meetings of the Worship and Ministry and the Oversight Committees. The Clerk presides at all Business Meetings. (An Alternate Clerk may preside when the Clerk is unable to be present.)
The Clerk prepares the agenda, and encourages committee Clerks and others to provide reports, concerns, proposals, and other materials in advance. The Clerk’s care in preparing the agenda, and judgment of the relative urgency of each item, greatly facilitates the Meeting’s business. The Clerk makes sure that someone responds to any correspondence that comes to the Meeting.
The Clerk sets the pace of the Meeting to assure full and balanced expression of the views of the members. He or she does not express personal opinions, but if an essential viewpoint has not been presented, the Clerk asks the Meeting for permission to offer it. If the Clerk is led to take a strong position on a controversial matter, the Alternate Clerk or another appropriate person is asked to preside and take the sense of the Meeting.
As actions are taken, the Clerk makes sure that assignments are clear and responsible persons and committees are notified promptly in writing.
The Clerk signs all official papers and minutes, including minutes of sojourn and travel, letters of introduction and certificates of transfer or removal. If legal documents and minutes are involved, it is good practice for both the Clerk and the Recording Clerk to sign.
The Clerk also endorses travel minutes and letters of introduction presented by visiting Friends. The Clerk ensures that the activities of the Monthly Meeting are coordinated with those of its Quarterly and Yearly Meeting and that representatives to these gatherings are appointed. Reports, minutes and other concerns must be communicated to the proper officers on schedule. Business and concerns received from Quarterly and Yearly Meeting must be delivered to the proper persons and committees and to the Meeting as a whole.
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Minute-taking in The Monthly Meeting
Minutes should be correct, accessible records of what occurred during a Meeting. Because Friends believe every offering in a Meeting for Business comes from God, the idea is recorded but not the names of the persons who speak. Items may be attributed to “one Friend” or “some Friends.” Names of persons appear only when necessary — such as to identify who presented a report or who was charged with a task.
In the Monthly Meeting for Business, the recording clerk and the Presiding Clerk act as a team in preparing the two types of minutes: minutes of action and of exercise (see below). Narrative passages are helpful as well in recording how a decision was reached.
Minutes of Action – Numbered Minutes: When the Meeting arrives at a decision, it needs to be clearly and correctly recorded in a“ minute of action.” Such a minute should be read aloud, modified if necessary, and approved at that Meeting. Once approved, it should not be changed other than for authorized editorial modifications that do not alter the meaning. When finding the precise wording appears both difficult and important, the Presiding Clerk should name a few Friends to retire and work out language to present for approval later in the Meeting. Describing the issues that were considered, and how they were resolved, can contribute to later understanding of how the decision was reached.
Minutes of Exercise: When discussion of a matter produces important considerations, but no decision, it may be useful to record salient points in a minute of exercise, capturing the sense or recording the process of the session. What is the Meeting’s dilemma? How was it addressed? What were the conclusions? Even matters such as whether a committee should be laid down or if the Meeting is to support a Friend’s leading may require time at more than one Meeting for Business. A minute of exercise is especially useful to avoid unnecessary repetition and strengthen the basis for further discussion. It is the prerogative of the clerk to discern why the Meeting could not unite.
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Clearness and Clearness Committees
One of the special joys of a Friends Meeting is the recurring reminder that each person contributes to the spiritual strength of the loving community, and that the community is a guiding and sustaining force in the life of each individual. This mutual relationship strengthens the Meeting and produces a bond of love and trust among its members, helping the Meeting find unity in its spiritual life and harmony in its actions.
Such spiritual unity is evident in a Meeting when members feel free to ask for help with clarifying personal problems and making decisions. These may relate to family adjustments, marriage, separation, divorce, stands on public issues, a new job, moving to a distant area, personal witness, traveling in the ministry, and other decisions. Meetings usually respond to such requests for help by appointing clearness committees.
A clearness committee is generally formed at the request of the person or persons seeking clearness, though Friends in the Meeting may initiate an offer of help. The seeker may make a request of the Meeting as a whole, Overseers, or the Worship and Ministry Committee, as appropriate. In every case, the request becomes the responsibility of the Oversight Committee. Overseers will sometimes find it desirable to have serious preliminary talks with the seeker on the nature of the issue. Such talks may convince the committee that the seeker needs professional counseling, rather than the help of a Meeting committee, and they will advise the seeker accordingly.
If the Oversight Committee believes that a clearness committee is appropriate, it will, in consultation with the seeker, appoint a committee, and designate a convener from among its members. A clearness committee should be composed of persons who, because of gifts and background, seem particularly suitable to help with the problem. A clearness committee normally includes three to five members of varied ages and experience. If, in the judgment of the Oversight Committee, the Meeting is too emotionally involved in the problem to be helpful, members of the clearness committee may be selected from outside the immediate Meeting community, for example, from the Ministry and Oversight Committee of the Quarterly or Yearly Meeting.
A clearness committee meets with the seeker neither as professional counselors nor as colleagues discussing a problem and giving advice, but rather as caring Friends, drawing on the same resources that bind the Meeting together in worship. Listening and patience are essential. All must listen not only to the person in need, but also to the movement of the Spirit.
Friends seek clearness in the Light. Committee members seek to help an individual become clear about a problem or impending decision by maintaining a spirit of openness and prayerful worship procedures and by serving as channels for Divine guidance. Their purpose is not to criticize, or to offer their collective wisdom. They are there to listen without prejudice or judgment, to help clarify alternatives, to help communication, to provide spiritual and emotional support, to find God’s will.
In a clearness committee, as in a Meeting for Business, all parties seek “truth and the right course of action.” Some clearness committees are formed to help a seeker see a problem more clearly or to make a decision in the Light. There is no need to find unity: only the seeker’s clearness is being sought, and once this is accomplished, the committee may stand aside. However, when the individual has a strong leading toward a specific action and wants the Meeting to affirm it, the clearness committee seeks unity on whether this is indeed a leading of the Spirit .When forming the committee, it is important to be clear about which type of committee is being formed.
Friends who are asked to undertake the ministry of spiritual clearness and support should not be deterred from accepting this responsibility because of their own human weaknesses. They will learn from their mistakes, from one another, and especially from the ones they are called upon to help, when they reach out to each other with an attitude of prayer. Asking for help requires personal discernment and trust in the Spirit. Similarly, being asked to help invites Friends to seek inner guidance about how best to respond. Thus, asking for help and responding to such requests creates the opportunities for us to invite spiritual guidance into our everyday lives.
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Source: Excerpted from Pacific Yearly Meeting, Procedures, Friends Process for Making Decisions, 2001