It is Nominating season again, the time of year when our Quaker community tries to identify those who will serve as clerks and leaders of the Meeting in the coming year. Which raises an interesting question: What does it mean to be a leader in a Quaker Meeting? Technically, there are no leaders in unprogrammed Quaker Meetings, such as Reno Friends. Everyone is equal, and no one is in charge. But if there are no leaders, how does a Meeting organize to get its work done? How do Quakers determine how to worship, how to manage their programming and finances, or how to grow?
Early Friends were defined, in part, by their rejection of the leadership and ministry of traditional church clerics; Friends turned instead to their personal experience to understand God. Even today, most Quaker Meetings operate without a pastor or minister. There are no deacons, nor a church board, as is common in many Protestant churches. Instead the Meeting, as a gathered community led by spirit, performs the functions of leadership collectively.
The foundation for this is articulated in the Pacific Yearly Meeting’s guidebook, Faith & Practice: “Ministry in word and act, responsibility for the good order and material needs of the Meeting, visitation, faithfulness in testimonies: all these things, in the measure of the Light that is given, are the responsibilities of persons in the Meeting.”
This means that all those affiliated with a Quaker Meeting bear a responsibility to contribute to the workings on the Meeting, in whatever way they can or feel led to do. Some serve on committees, such as Ministry and Oversight, which tends to the spiritual and personal needs of Meeting members and attenders. Some participate on Nominating, the committee that works to discern who can best fill each organizational role. Others will take responsibility for our finances, or our buildings and grounds, or will serve as Meeting Clerk, the person who handles administrative procedures and runs Business Meetings. At most Quaker Meetings, and at Reno Friends, all these tasks are done by volunteers.
Yet none of the individuals filling these positions have authority over the Meeting. That authority rests with the Meeting for Business, which gathers once a month to make decisions. Unlike most governing boards or groups, Quakers do not vote or adopt the will of the majority. Instead, they work to find common ground that will lead them to unity.
To reach unity on a decision, Quakers understand that those present at Business Meeting need to listen to each other, and to the spirit of God. Sometimes they pause and return to silence, to allow everyone to look within for the solution forward. “By listening to the Divine in ourselves and in each other, Friends are better prepared to find God’s will. Friends should not listen for the most convincing argument, but for the greater understanding to which each contributes and to which each may assent…. When unity is realized, the outcome is deeply satisfying. It produces a sense of the rightness of the decision and a loving connection between members.” (PYM, Faith & Practice)
It can feel challenging at times for any small group to operate without the guiding hand of a leader. Sometimes unity is hard to find; the issue is then tabled for another day, to give everyone more time to reflect. But we have faith that if we love and trust and listen to each other, we can usually find the path. As Faith & Practice says, “A united Meeting is not necessarily of one mind but it is all of one heart.”
Wendy Swallow, Blog Editor, Reno Friends Meeting
The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.