We remind ourselves often that the name for a business meeting is “Meeting for Worship with attention to business.” Our business meeting is first and foremost a meeting for worship. Business is secondary.
The goal of business meeting
The goal of business meeting is to figure out how our community is led by Spirit, the Spirit of love, to act in the world.
There is no one answer.
- To take a silly example, trying to decide what colour rug to buy, it’s not as if God has the colour orange in mind and that we’re being bad little Quakers if we purchase a red rug.
- Arthur Larabee, long-time clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, speaks of the goal of business meeting being “to find a loving outcome.”
- There are many possible loving outcomes – orange and red and other coloured rugs – and none of them is known in advance before the meeting starts.
- The purpose of the meeting is to discover some loving outcomes.
- A loving outcome isn’t necessarily an action: it can be worshipping together.
The clerk sets the tone, explains the item or asks knowledgeable people to do so, moves the item from a stage of information, to clarification, to action, to assigning action to people or committees. The clerk tries to find the sense of the meeting and eventually unity. The clerk tests his or her understanding of the sense of the meeting by proposing it and asking if it is right.
The more people think and act like clerks, the better the business meeting.
The assistant clerk facilitates business meeting in the absence of the clerk, and generally assists in tasks such as correspondance and announcements.
The recording clerk tries to record the decisions and the sense of the meeting.
The sense of the meeting
The sense of the meeting is the generally agreed upon articulation of the discernment and decision. The sense of the meeting could be that there is no unity, it could be no decision, it could be multiple opinions. The sense of the meeting is an articulation of where the group is at generally in their feelings and opinion.
Unity vs. consensus
Perhaps some have been part of a consensus-based group. Basically, it means a kind of voting where everyone has to consent to an action.
Unity is the spiritual unity of the group, the clear sense that the Spirit is leading the group in a particular direction. Note that the Spirit may be moving us individually in a very different direction than the group. Unity is corporate, not personal.
Unity is usually known through unanimity. Most of the time we know unity through a unanimously agreed upon sense of the meeting that the group is moved by Spirit in a particular direction or to take a particular action.
Unity amid disagreement
Standing in the way
If others believe there is spiritual weight to the objection, and believe that it should hold up the process, then there isn’t unity. That person is “standing in the way” but it’s not the person but the group who allows their witness to stand in the way of unity.
Depending on the size of the group, a tiny minority cannot hold up the process without others recognizing that there is spiritual weight to their objections.
- For instance, if one person out of a group of 30 cannot unite, and all other avenues have been tried, as a last resort, the clerk may ask if others see spiritual weight in the objections raised that should hold up the process.
- If no one else sees reason to hold up the process, then the meeting is in unity and will move forward.
Similarly, Quaker business meeting has expectations about how members behave.
- Most importantly, we need to be open in mind and spirit.
- If the meeting senses that a member is not open in mind or spirit (e.g. “No, stupid idea and I don’t want to talk about it!”) or comes with preconceived or selfish notions then their objections don’t count.
- If no one sees fit to hold up the process for that objection, and as a last resort, the meeting is in unity and can move forward.
Unity is neither unanimity nor consensus even if unity should usually be found by a unanimous sense of the meeting. In rare cases, the group may decide it is in unity despite objections of a tiny minority.
Nonetheless, moving forward without unanimity should be quite rare.
Standing aside means that a participant recognizes through others’ ministry that the Spirit is leading the group in a different direction than that participant’s sense of the meeting.
- For instance, most people in the room sense a collective leading to help a refugee family, but one individual believes the group is led to volunteer at a homeless shelter instead.
- Standing aside means that the participant recognizes where almost everyone in the group feels led.
- Recognizing their different witness in Spirit, and not feeling moved to continue to object, the participant may choose to tell people that they “stand aside,” which means they’re prepared to move forward.
- The minutes may or may not reflect this fact.