by Peter Blood
Quaker Meeting for Business is a method by which a faith community can discover God’s will for the group. Most decision-making by religious groups has been done in one of two ways characteristic of human societies in general, namely:
- Top down hierarchical decision-making (e.g. Pope over archbishop over bishop over priest/ over laity in the Catholic Church, in the military, most businesses) or
- Some form of “majority rule” (e.g. in many Protestant denominations, the congregation votes on important questions, including selection of a new pastor.)
Quakers developed over the past 300 years a unique form of decision-making that is radically egalitarian not only in that each participant has an equal voice, but in that even small minorities are honored and listened to with respect and play an important role in reaching decisions. It is not, however, the same as consensual decision-making which involves a horizontal attempt to find agreement among those that make up the group. Instead it is an egalitarian & participatory method by which a group can listen to and follow what the God is inviting them to do.
This a fragile enterprise! It can deteriorate into gridlock, inefficiency, “tyranny of the articulate”, or even schism. Many believe even one Friend can “stand in the way” of action. What often happens is that it becomes an effort to find agreement among those present taking into account the ideas and opinions of each person present, rather than a journey in which the whole body seeks to discover and follow God’s voice on the question at hand. Some of the components necessary for the latter possibility include:
- A culture in the meeting in which members understand the purpose of the process.
- Careful preparation of items in advance of business meeting including sorting out which items really need to come to the meeting for decisions. This makes it possible to move more slowly and prayerfully through the really important issues before the meeting.
- An atmosphere of expectant waiting upon God during the meeting for business. (Many meetings like to refer to a meeting for business as a “meeting for worship for the purpose of decision-making”.)
- A manner or style of sharing by participants of their personal sense of what God is asking the group to do that honors and leaves a sense of space for differing discernment of this from other members of the group (e.g. people refrain from presenting ideas as “the final truth”).
- A skilled and assertive clerk (facilitator of the meeting for business) able to discern the “sense of the meeting” (of what God appears to be asking the group to do) out of the different individual discernmentds from the members present. This is a challenging and powerful form of spiritual leadership⎯a key spiritual gift to the meeting that can grow through training and experience.
- Patience and a sense of confidence that the process can work well as intended.
It is interesting that in many spiritual communities the “highest office” is that of priest, i.e. one who is permitted to carry out special religious rites or ceremonies. In others it is a person skilled at preaching. In non-pastoral Quaker meetings today, our highest “office” is a person charged with helping us to discover God’s voice for the group in meeting for business.
This handout was originally developed for a course on Quakerism by Peter Blood in 2002.