The clerk of a Quaker Meeting has a pivotal role: he or she is supposed to lead the monthly business meeting and keep track of administrative tasks and how they are executed. When I first offered to serve as Meeting clerk for Reno Friends Meeting several years ago, I figured my background and skills as a former university professor and administrator would be just the ticket.
How wrong I was.
I recently attended a workshop on clerking in Quaker Meetings, and within half an hour I discovered that I had missed the big picture. Yes, part of my job is to “keep the trains running,” but more important my job is to midwife the Meeting’s spirit-led decision process.
Unprogrammed Quaker Meetings such as Reno Friends have no minister or board of deacons to provide leadership. Instead, the Meeting is a gathered community led by spirit. That means Quaker process is less about reaching practical decisions quickly and more about finding solutions by opening collectively to what God would have us do.
Easily said, but difficult to do. When I run business meeting, I have an agenda of items we need to address, and I am always watching the clock. Individuals in the Meeting often have different ideas about how to proceed. Some speak frequently, while others sit back and say little. And all of us have slightly different beliefs and convictions. How am I to reconcile these conflicting currents and needs?
It turns out that I’m supposed to make time and space for us to better discern God’s leading. Over the last 400 years, Quakers have developed a body of moral and spiritual advices and testimonies based on their experience of God in the world. These range from how to seek that of God in everyone, to issues such as practicing social justice and non-violence. These guidelines help Quakers discern God’s intentions.
Our business meetings are formally known as “Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business.” That’s a mouthful of a title, but it contains an important point: business is to be done in a worshipful process. According to Storm Evans, a Quaker in Philadelphia, the purpose of a business meeting is to listen to each other, to listen to God, and to deepen our understanding of God by deepening our love for each other.
To help this happen, we open our business meetings with a period of silent worship, and we take the time we need to let answers emerge. We remember to speak out of ministry, which means sharing ideas and concerns that feel led by God. We seek to reach unity of heart, rather than a compromise or consensus of will.
Sometimes we need to stop and return to reflective silence, or table a discussion to gather our thoughts and consult our own hearts. If something is contentious, we can convene a worship sharing session, when everyone gets a chance to share during a service where messages are heard rather than debated. All these tools require patience, but the decisions that emerge from a careful, thoughtful process are usually more durable than resolutions arrived at hastily.
I am beginning to understand. As clerk of the Meeting, I am not helmsman or sheepdog or leader. I am a listener, and I am to listen to the Meeting and to God.
Wendy Swallow, Clerk of Reno Friends Meeting
email: wswallow54 (at) gmail.com
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting