Quaker Practice

The Magic of Meeting for Business

Few people love a meeting, but most organizations hold meetings because they have essential business to accomplish. Quaker Meetings are no different:  once a month, most Quaker Meetings hold what is formally known as “Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business.” To be honest, a Quaker Meeting for Business is unlike most meetings I’ve had to attend in my life, either for work or with community organizations. And the key to the difference is in the formal name.

Like Silent Worship, “Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business” is held within a shared sacred intention:  that those present will conduct business in the faith that there is that of God in everyone, and that if Friends wait upon the Divine Spirit, it will lead them to unity.

Quakers are famous for trying to find consensus, but what they more commonly talk about is finding unity. Unity transcends both consensus and compromise. Consensus is usually based on the views of those present rather than the entire Meeting, and compromise often emerges from an uncomfortable middle ground that satisfies no one. Unity, on the other hand, is an effort to find a true “sense of the Meeting.” Instead of voting to settle an issue, Friends noodle their way forward – considering different approaches and perspectives, as well as addressing various concerns – until they get to a place where the sense of the group comes clear.

If the Meeting cannot find unity on an issue, the topic is held over for a month to see if a different conclusion will emerge later. Quakers often refer to “waiting for way to open,” and in time, it usually does. Quaker Meetings also try to avoid overriding an unconvinced minority. They listen to the minority with love, and try to address their objections. In the process, better decisions usually surface. Sometimes, on very contentious issues, a few contrarian holdouts may decide to formally remove themselves so that the sense of the Meeting can move forward. This is rare, but it allows a dignified alternative for those who disagree. All of this effort is conducted with thoughtful regard for everyone in the Meeting.

There is a joke that, if there are four Quakers in a room, there will be four different opinions. Because the Quaker faith is built on the idea that everyone should listen to that of God in themselves and speak from their own spiritual experience, Quakers can hold widely varying views. The real magic of Meeting for Business is that we start and end with a few minutes of Silence. Beginning with quiet allows everyone attending the Meeting to settle into a spiritual space of loving regard for others and a calm demeanor. Sometimes, if a debate gets too intense or angry (and, yes, Quakers sometimes get angry with each other), the clerk of the Business Meeting will ask that the group go back into silence, to settle and get back to their spiritual foundation. I’ve seen this happen a few times, and it always works like a charm.

At Reno Friends Meeting, I’ve always felt that the power of Meeting for Business is the chance to listen with an open heart to the wisdom and knowledge of others. And it is through listening that I’ve come to know and love the members and attenders of our group. Many Meetings find that Meeting for Business is, along with social events and spiritual discussions, an essential part of developing true community. Over the years I’ve discovered that everyone in the Meeting brings unique skills and ways of thinking, which often challenge me to expand my perspective. I enjoy the richness this variety gives our Meeting, and I know we make better decisions because we don’t all think alike.

As outlined in Pacific Yearly Meeting’s guide Faith & Practice: “Friends (should) 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…. The grace of humor can often help to relax the tensions of a Meeting so that new light comes to it.”

Meetings for Business often run an hour or more, because Quakers like to take their time when making decisions. This can be frustrating, especially if it’s a beautiful day outside or a meal is waiting. So, Reno Friends are considering ways our Business Meetings could be more efficient. Some Meetings have found that delegating complex issues to a committee or task force to work through the details means that Business Meeting can later consider a proposal that has already been well-seasoned. Many Meetings also have a principle that Friends should only speak in Meeting for Business if they have a different perspective or suggestion, or new information. We are also considering moving Meeting for Business to a different time of the month that might make it easier for younger people to attend.

If you have never joined a Quaker Meeting for Business, we invite you to come watch us in action and participate. Right now we are considering how to renovate our rental cottage and do some other upgrades to our campus; we are also possibly hiring a new First Day School teacher. And we are always planning the next social activity. We welcome everyone to Business Meeting, as it helps all our members and attenders – no matter how new to Quakerism – understand better what powers our group and what we hope for the future. And there is always room for fresh insights.

Wendy Swallow, RFM Blog Editor

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of Reno Friends Meeting.