by Susan Smith of Ohio Yearly Meeting

“Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.” —Proverbs 3 : 5-6

We have heard this week that OYM (Ohio Yearly Meeting) Friends maintain a tradition of familiarity with scripture, reading the Bible frequently and often thinking almost automatically in terms of Biblical phrases or stories. You may hear me doing that this evening. In addition, Conservative Friends’ tradition includes an underlying listening to and checking with God, as we go about our daily decision-making. Also, as Fran Taber suggested at the beginning of this week, Conservative Friends were traditionally brought up to live their personal lives in harmony with what the meeting as a body discerns.

I would like to explore with you how these traditional attitudes and practices of our yearly meeting play out in our business meetings, both with respect to the forms we have and in terms of individual Friends’ participation. I would note first that although I will be talking in terms of “we,” meaning OYM Friends, there is actually quite a range of viewpoints and practices within our yearly meeting now, and not every OYM member will agree with all I say or be represented by it. I would also like to make clear that nothing we in OYM do need be exclusively ours. Many of these practices will be familiar to most of you and, in fact, originated with the early Friends whom we all claim as our religious ancestors.

Christ’s guidance

Those early Friends taught that Jesus Christ is with us and that we are to seek and accept His guidance, in the totality of our lives. Individually, OYM Friends tend to be aware of Christ’s available personal guidance, at least a lot of the time. Meeting for business is an opportunity to seek and find God’s guidance corporately, with respect to decisions the meeting needs to make.

So we expect Christ’s presence to play an essential part in our business meetings. However, we do not think of our business meetings as “meetings for worship for business.” While that phrase can be useful in reminding Friends to rely on God’s guidance during business meetings, it muddles the meaning of worship. Worship is a particular, intense kind of human activity. We have all experienced its sweetness and power often here this week. According to a recent Wikipedia entry, worship is “reverent love and devotion accorded God” or “regarding with ardent esteem.” In worship we are caught up in the wonder, glory, love, and power of God, while perhaps being aware of our own insignificance. Worship for me does not include thinking about things like the First Day School curriculum or the need for more light on the porch, even though those and other topics could need the meeting’s attention. Having two different names (meeting for worship and meeting for business) helps Friends enter fully into worship when that is our corporate intention, and, when it is time to attend to the meeting’s business, to do so carefully, under the guidance of God.

What then do we do when we attend to business? We gather initially for worship, as usual with no agenda. Ideally, we are caught up in that reverent love and devotion for God, and, ideally, we are not silently rehearsing the committee report we expect to be asked to give later. We let worship last long enough for Friends to be gathered deeply (at least 15 minutes, but often significantly longer). Sometimes messages of ministry or prayer spring forth. When it eventually seems right to the Friend appointed to do so, he or she suggests aloud that, if all Friends are clear, the meeting may “turn to the business at hand.”

That turning involves a change in the purpose of our sitting there. We are now asked to “attend to business,” to find what God’s answer is for particular questions facing the meeting. Our corporate ability to do that is affected by:

  1. Participating members’ attitudes and actions
  2. The clerk’s gifts and faithfulness to God’s immediate direction
  3. The meeting’s customs.

I will consider these in turn.

The Attitudes and Actions of All Friends Present

The attitude carried by those gathered to conduct business create a context in which the business meeting proceeds. When participants believe that God is about to lead them to the decision that He knows is best for everyone, they act differently than do people who are expecting to find a good conclusion through an exchange of facts and intelligent analysis. What exactly is the difference between corporate seeking for God’s best right answer and a discussion that may lead to consensus?

In our corporate seeking, Christ is our Teacher and Guide. He is present with us, and He leads us as persons and as a body. For example, I may have brought in my notes several pieces of information that are relevant to the topic being considered, but whether I mention them, and when, should be under God’s direction, just as giving a message in meeting for worship should. Or I may have come with no information at all about a topic, but Christ may give me an insight – of analysis or synthesis or example – that is quite beyond my own expectation and is to be shared aloud.

Leaving the direction of the meeting to Christ may be very hard. Many of us who have had extensive secular education and who have not grown up in this yearly meeting are accustomed to using our knowledge and our intelligence as our own tools in a discussion. Some of us are no doubt quite good at interpreting the interplay of dynamics within a meeting and, by adding comments or information strategically, directing the group’s decision toward the goal we think right. There can be a fine line between a person’s manipulating a business meeting and someone’s witnessing clearly under God’s direction – just as it is sometimes difficult during meeting for worship for a person to discern the difference between his or her own concerns and a message that God would have spoken aloud. Waiting for clearness about whether to speak is useful, as is gentle discussion with an elder after the meeting.

In addition to rushing into speaking, there is also the error of waiting too long. As Peter Blood-Patterson reminded us a few days ago, speaking up when God prompts us in a business meeting can be daunting. We may fear the aftermath of upsetting what seems to be a foregone conclusion, we may not want to seem ignorant, or we may simply not want to stand out as different from those who have already spoken. Again, sensitivity to the Voice of God is important. Can we discern whether our holding back is from fear, or from a stubborn assumption that we are not worthy to speak? Those of us who witnessed Helene Pollack’s recreation of 19th C Rachel Hicks may remember Rachel’s 20-some years of personal trouble before she was willing to speak what God told her. We should seek to be obedient to God, speaking when and only when, what and only what God directs, in business meeting as well as in meeting for worship. Faithfulness in a small matter strengthens a person for clearer discernment and more faithfulness later.

I’ve been talking about how God can and does guide individual Friends during business meeting. God also can and does lead the meeting corporately. Sometimes God will bring forth statements from a series of individuals to lead to a shared conclusion, rather than having one person lay out the whole story. And many of you will be familiar with divine molding of everyone’s understanding during a business meeting, as God opens up a way through which people with previously very different points of view can go forward together. That divine leading usually results in more than a secular compromise or agreeing on the least common denominator. Rather, through Christ everyone gains a new perspective. Friends sometimes quote a piece of scripture (Revelations 21:5) to the effect that God makes all things new. Although the “all” in that verse has sometimes puzzled me, I can see its truth in this finding a new answer in a gathered meeting for business.

How can members assist in maintaining corporate seeking and finding?

Members’ self-discipline:

  • Speak only when moved by God, but do speak then.
  • Be concise; speak to the question
  • Do not quibble with each other or with the wording of a minute, but
  • Be willing to say so if something seems to be wrong or more should be added
    Expect to speak only once on a topic; avoid an ongoing interchange with 1 or more other people
  • Listen carefully, to God and to each other
  • Actively pray, probably silently, when contention or confusion arises.

Exercise gift of eldering:

  • When led, and with love, when contention has halted progress, point out to the meeting that a time of waiting to refocus on God’s guidance might be useful.
  • Gently and lovingly, and only as led, after the meeting say a few private words to a Friend who spoke without Christ’s guidance – or to a Friend who was noticeably helpful in furthering God’s work for the meeting.

The Clerk

I’ve mentioned several things that happen to and through Friends as they participate in meetings for business. I have not yet said anything about the clerk. The clerk certainly has an important role to play, but it is not the same role as that of the president of a secular organization. The clerk is not the leader of the meeting. Christ is the leader. The clerk is the servant, first in service to God, and also to the meeting. The clerk helps the meeting find the answer that God intends. That idea may raise up in you a flag of warning, and indeed, there are errors into which a clerk can easily fall. Let me get back to that, and first talk, partly from my own experience (OYM for 13 years, monthly meeting for longer than that, various other gatherings), about what a clerk can and usually does do.

Preparation is important for successful clerking. In terms of outward preparation, the clerk should have at hand information Friends will need about each topic, or know that another Friend will have it at the meeting. The clerk should understand the questions that need to be answered with regard to each topic. It might be easy, particularly by offering only certain information, for a clerk to influence the meeting’s decision. That sort of influence, however, is not appropriate. The clerk should be careful not to have a particular outcome in mind, or even “in hope.” It is good to intend to be yielded to the Lord’s will, but even that is impossible in one’s own strength. Undergirding the whole process with prayer, before and during the session, is also essential.

The Agenda. Another aspect of preparation is developing the agenda. I have found that it works best to have a few “easy” items first. For our monthly meeting, that may be the report of our Representative Meeting, or a treasurer’s report, for we rarely disagree over them. Then it is good to get to something more substantive but still not divisive, something on which Friends can settle down and seek deeply and come together. I find that answering our regular queries are often good here. Then the meeting is ready for a hard item, one on which people are likely to start from different viewpoints.

Scripture. Another part of my preparation, which I often do first, is choosing a scripture with which to open the meeting. As I wait before God, it is only very occasionally that a particular verse or story comes to mind. However, I often feel led to some part of the Bible – the psalms, Isaiah, a letter from Paul, etc. I open the book in what I suppose is that place (The psalms are right in the middle.) and read what I see. If what I read first doesn’t fit with my sense of what is needed, I keep reading more or less where I am. If after several minutes of reading I haven’t found “the right” passage, I go back to the place where I started, and wonder if I was resisting that passage in my own will, and maybe settle on that original place.

To summarize this section so far, the clerk’s task is to present topics in a helpful order, to offer relevant background information, and to help the meeting to seek God’s answer. In facilitating progress during the meeting, the clerk can ask questions that clarify confusion and can remind the meeting of the original topic if speakers stray afield. In our meetings the clerk does not extend permission to Friends to speak. We leave that function to God and to members’ sensitivity to His prompting. It is unnecessary to get the clerk’s attention before speaking; the clerk should be paying attention to all that is happening. In our meetings it is considered inappropriate for a clerk to call on someone, except for a specific report, again because God will be doing the calling. I have, however, occasionally done so when I saw clearly that someone was struggling to get started speaking.

Writing Minutes. In addition to all this, of course, somebody writes minutes. In some yearly meetings, a second person, the recording clerk, writes the minutes. In OYM one clerk both facilitates the corporate seeking and writes minutes. For me, the two functions have always seemed like aspects of the same process. We do sometimes have a reading clerk, whom the clerk can ask to read documents aloud.

Writing a minute involves discerning truth. This is a weighty responsibility. It absolutely cannot be done in one’s own strength, any more than giving a true message in meeting for worship can. God opens to the clerk what the bits of truth are in what people are saying. The gift of clerking includes the ability to listen with an outward ear to what is being spoken, while at the same time listening with an inner ear to the prompting of God.

I might liken that prompting to highlighting in a written text. As I hear what a Friend is saying, God highlights in my awareness a sentence or two of what is being said, so that they stand out as a kernel of Truth. I then write that down, usually verbatim, while still listening to what continues to be said. Sometimes I write a lot of a person’s statement, but usually a sentence or two captures the essence. Occasionally I written nothing, especially when a person is saying no more than a repetition of what has already been said, but that is a judgment that is not lightly made. When Friends’ speaking is over, I have written down a series of “kernels of Truth,” but they are usually not in a logical order. All that remains is to arrange them into a coherent minute. Numbering them down the side of the page, and drawing a few arrows back and forth, results in a minute that can be read back, usually quite promptly.

At that point the meeting needs to discern whether the minute reflects the course of the deliberation, includes the important bits of understanding offered, and states a conclusion which does reflect Truth, as the meeting has come to understand it. If that is not the case, everyone waits upon God some more, and the process continues. Sometimes reading out a minute settles the meeting into a good sense of unity. Sometimes it opens the need for going farther in resolving the question. The clerk needs to be alert to the sense of the meeting after the minute has been read.

Reading back each minute as it is written is important. Each minute clarifies for the meeting what business has been accomplished. Reading back each minute affirms the servanthood of the clerk, for it is the meeting that decides on each minute. It maintains a deliberate pace and rhythm, allowing time for prayer and reflection between topics and preventing a rush. It avoids misunderstanding, or trying to remember later what really had been decided. Everyone knows where unity has been found before going on to the next item of business.

On a few occasions over my years of clerking, I have written a minute with which the meeting united but I did not. I remember concluding one such minute in tears, explaining to Friends that my tears flowed from my own deep regret at the outcome, and proceeding to the next item. The clerk is the servant of the meeting – the helper and articulator, but not the director – and I believe that this role should not be compromised. I do not think that a clerk should “stand aside from the table” in order to add his or her own perspective on the matter being considered, unless God makes very clear that that is necessary.

I mentioned that there are errors into which a clerk may fall. One is acting as head or president of the meeting – presenting optional outcomes from which the meeting should choose, arranging a presentation to facilitate a certain decision, stopping deliberation before unity is reached. Another error is a feeling of owning the wording of a minute. The clerk helps the meeting find God’s answer, but the clerk is not God and does not know the right answer – either beforehand or after having written something. The meeting’s unity must confirm it.

The Meeting’s Customs

These also affect the process of a business meeting. Our custom of reading a passage of scripture immediately after the meeting turns to business provides a transition and focuses everyone’s thoughts on one piece of wisdom or praise. Our expectation that people will speak to an item as they are led by God, rather than by seeking or being given permission by someone else, helps focus Friends’ attention on God’s guidance. We also expect each person to speak no more than once on any item of business. This is, in my experience, never enforced by the clerk but is commonly understood and followed. Similarly, we expect only members to address business items, and we mention that in our printed agenda for yearly meeting. However, in all of these traditions, there is room for an exception under the hand of the Holy Spirit, and we advise visitors that if they feel clearly propelled by God to speak to our business, they should be obedient to Him.

Corporate self-discipline. Another of our expectations is that the gathered body will maintain much of its own discipline, through the words of someone led at the moment, rather than always through the clerk. I have often appreciated the work of some OYM elder who gently said aloud that we needed to return to the question at hand or to wait a bit longer for relfection between spoken contributions.

Another tradition that assists the work of the clerk is the expectation that Friends will wait in prayerful silence while the clerk finishes a minute. Friends gathered there make it clear by their behavior, and occasionally by a few words to a neighbor, that whispering or even unnecessary writing is to be foregone while the clerk is finishing, and that rather everyone should be in prayer for the clerk’s faithfulness.

Unity. Whether we find unity immediately or after a long search together, we interpret unity as a sign that we have found Truth. By that we mean more than “a good answer.” We mean the right answer, the one toward which God has been directing us. Similarly, we interpret disunity as a sign that we have not found the right answer, and that some or all people are holding onto their own understanding. The best thing to do in that case is wait, and pray for more divine guidance.

Common faith in Christ. Once, some years ago, the housing community where my parents lived was experiencing a lot of contention. Mother, who is not a Friend, wondered if I could come and explain to the assembled homeowners how Quakers work out their differences, so that my parents’ friends could do likewise. I regretfully told her that there is an important difference between sense of meeting, as we experience it, and consensus. Our process is based on our common faith in Christ as our shepherd, something my parents’ friends did not share. Furthermore, not only do we share a common faith, but that faith includes our experience-based conviction that as we each grow in hearing and obeying Christ, we grow in love and in unity with each other. Christ wants to bring us into that unity, and He will guide us to it as we trust Him.

Trust. As we undertake business, we are called into trust – trust in the business process, trust in our meeting’s members, trust in the clerk’s exercise of his or her gift, and trust in God.

Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.

Note: This was a presentation made on Thursday, June 28th, 2007, to Quaker Camp (now called Quaker Spring) held at Stillwater Meetinghouse, located in Barnesville, Ohio. Susan Smith was previously the Clerk of Ohio Yearly Meeting and is a member of the board of the Friends Center of Ohio YM. Ohio YM is one of three Conservative Yearly Meetings, the other two being North Carolina (Conservative) and Iowa (Conservative).