Wednesday, May 22, 2013

quaker process

A couple weeks ago at our monthly meeting for worship for business we had a conversation that I thought illustrated some interesting and slightly absurd aspects of Quaker business process. Now, there is much that is excellent about Quaker process (when done well), such as listening to God together and assuming everyone has the ability to hear the direction of the Spirit on any matter put before the gathered meeting. But sometimes, Quaker business process goes into areas that are slightly bizarre and potentially absurd...and potentially very important.

We were having a discussion about a policy our education committee is putting into effect regarding who does and does not qualify for scholarships from our meeting to Quaker colleges/universities. As the policy was explained, the education committee representative, with the approval of our administrative committee, said this policy wasn't exactly up for discussion by the monthly meeting, but it was being presented for informational purposes, because it had already been approved by the education committee (tasked with coming up with a policy) and the administrative committee (given power by the meeting to make such decisions).

We probably talked about this item of business for about half an hour, not because anyone had any sort of problem with the policy, but because people were concerned with this kind of approval process. How much power did the education committee have? Could any committee make their own policies just because they'd been tasked to oversee various ministries of our meeting? At what point was and should the whole meeting be involved in this process: simply in the appointment of members of the education and administrative committees? Or do they have some say in what decisions are made by those committees?

During this conversation I sat back with a wry smile, thinking about the seeming absurdity of such a conversation. Interested parties in our meeting could have given themselves an extra half our in their evenings by simply accepting this policy that they all agreed with to begin with. Why does this matter to us? DOES it matter to us?

I also had a conversation recently with a friend who's a pastor in another denomination about the differences in our business processes. In his denomination, the pastors are called by the congregation in order to free up the rest of the congregation from having to make administrative decisions. There is also a small group of elders chosen by the meeting who work with the pastors on some decisions. The people in the congregation are happy to not have to be part of such conversations.

In some ways, this model sounds so appealing. One person or a small group of people could make all the decisions, and the rest of us wouldn't have to sit through so many meetings. Why in the world do we Friends emphasize consensus and correct process so much? Shouldn't we trust the people we "release" (whether financially or by appointing them to committees) to make Spirit-led decisions? Are we holding ourselves back through an antiquated process that requires everyone's participation and approval? Wouldn't we be so much more productive if we did things differently?

And yet, though I have the ability to laugh at our process and to see its shortcomings, I still believe this process is the best one I've encountered. It's absurd to assume people can actually hear the Spirit, but if we don't believe this, what's the point of faith? It's absurd to think that we can come to a similar conclusion based on our listening to that invisible, inaudible, sometimes-inscrutable Spirit, and yet, sometimes we do! Maybe our meetings don't grow over a couple hundred people at the most when we do business in this way, but isn't that part of what we love about Friends meetings? It's absurd in our culture to value relationship over efficiency, but perhaps that's what we're doing in Quaker process. We're so enculturated to value numbers and growth, and sure, we should hope that the Quaker church would grow in one way or another, but I hope that we grow in depth and knowledge of the Spirit. I hope that we grow in care and empathy for one another, and that if we grow too big, we have the wisdom to invest in a new meetinghouse or place to worship.

Maybe we didn't need to have a half-hour conversation about this particular issue, but it's the principle of the thing, and I'm grateful to be part of a community that values principles. I'm grateful that we're protecting ourselves from future missteps and the development of damaging power hierarchies in our midst. I hope and pray that we continue to be absurd to our culture in all the right ways.


Rachel Barton said...

As a sort of quaker ex-pat, I have to say your post makes me homesick for a meeting for business, in all it's seeming tediousness. Something I've appreciated about the approach we take is the way it protects people (often, not always) from the spiritual and emotional injuries that occur when a more elitist-for lack of a better term-decision making method is used. There is transparency and equality.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Rachel! I agree--it attempts to be less elitist...doesn't always succeed. =) Good to hear from you! Hope you are well!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post Cherice. I have a concern that our Meetings for Business have become mundane and rather temporal, instead of focusing on core spiritual and pastoral matters as a meeting of the whole. You can read my post on QuakerQuaker at

You may need to cut and paste that URL. This particular concern is covered in the section of my post on Quaker Process.

Thanks again for your post,

Howard Brod
Midlothian (VA) Friends Meeting