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Decision making

Index to Section 3:


3.1 General  

In our Meetings for Business we worship together, care for one another, attend to necessary administration, seek for guidance sincerely and openly on matters of common concern, test personal concerns that are brought before us, and get to know one another in 'things that are eternal' as in 'things that are temporal'.

3.1.1  Meetings for Worship for Business

When Friends come together to consider business and to make decisions, we are seeking in a spirit of worship to find the way in which God is leading us.  Just as in silent worship we trust that, through the centred attention of all present, the group will move towards inward truth and depth, so we trust that, in a meeting for worship for the conduct of business, the group seeking guidance will find it.

The distinctive pattern of Quaker decision-making arises from two insights reached by George Fox and other early Friends: that each of us is directly open to the power of the Spirit, to Christ as teacher, friend and guide; and that we need the gathered community to test, support and encourage us, because on our own we do not reach our full spiritual potential and we can mislead ourselves.  From these insights arose the meeting for business in which together we seek for a sense of the meeting which expresses our perception of the right way forward, a unity which can transcend individual preferences.  This goes beyond consensus. This means that neither individuals nor a majority have authority; decisions are not made by the ruling of an office-bearer, nor by vote.  It is unity in the Spirit which we seek in our decision making.

3.1.2  Pattern for Meetings

Early Friends also introduced the pattern of meetings on a broadening geographical base, so that ideas from local groups could be sent to the wider Quaker community.  Local meetings seek for and follow guidance on their own affairs.  The needs of Friends over a wider area are met by a Monthly Meeting of Friends from that region.  The insights and leadings of individuals can be brought to and evaluated by their own group or committee, and as they are brought to broader groups the discernment is carried further.  Each Monthly Meeting sends its minutes to the Yearly Meeting clerk who then passes on to other Monthly Meetings those minutes that require consideration. The matters on the agenda at Yearly Meeting should first be discussed by all Monthly Meetings.

3.1.3  Quaker decision-making

Friends' practice of decision-making is used in all meetings, including regular local, monthly and yearly meetings, committees and other working groups.  To wait together for guidance and unity is an essential, not a luxury to be enjoyed only if the business is not urgent or practical. Friends' experience is that patient trust leads to guidance, even if the direction is unexpected.



3.2 The conduct of Meetings for Business

3.2.1  Times

A meeting for business may take place after a regular meeting for worship, or it may be held on a separate occasion.  It opens in the silence of worship; the business is a continuation of this worship, and the meeting returns to silence after its business is done.  The length of the opening and closing periods depends on circumstances, but they should always be more than a brief moment, so that we can become quiet in mind and spirit.  Vocal ministry may occur, and the clerk may offer a suitable reading.  Friends attend the business meeting as for meeting for worship, 'with heart and mind prepared' (see Advices & Queries 1994:9, of Britain Yearly Meeting). 

3.2.2  Agenda

Items of business are introduced by the clerk or by another Friend invited to do so.  If you introduce an item you should bring sufficient information to set the meeting purposefully on its course.

3.2.3  Speaking

Those wishing to speak indicate this and wait to be called by the clerk.  In larger meetings it is usual to stand when speaking so that others can hear and concentrate better.  Speak audibly, addressing the meeting as a whole. Leave a space after each speaker, to enable what has been said to find its right place in the mind of the meeting.  Expect to speak only once on a particular topic — unless the focus of the discussion changes and you have a new contribution which cannot be made otherwise.

When you speak to an item, remember that this is a form of ministry.  Together the group is trying to discern the right course.  Your contribution may include: factual information, an observation that further information is required, your understanding of ethical, religious or other issues involved, prayer or reflection, your sense of what decision is required, or suggestions on how a course of action might be carried out.  Ask yourself whether your contribution is relevant and helpful to the work of the meeting at this point.  If it seems so, speak openly and plainly. If an issue affects you strongly, say so; but express yourself lovingly and tenderly, and receive other viewpoints in the same spirit, listening carefully and sensitively for the truth in them.  If others disagree with you, do not take this personally or see it as hostility. Crosstalk and personal arguments do not belong here.  

3.2.4  Supporting the Meeting

Throughout the meeting, whether or not you speak, hold one another in support or prayer and try to sense in what way the meeting is being guided.  Such silent support is particularly helpful when the clerk is drafting a minute; this is not a time to break into private conversation, or to express opinions on the topic.  When the meeting is experiencing difficulties in finding the right way forward, or the spirit of worship has been lost, the clerk or any Friend may invite the meeting to join in a time of silence; this often leads to new insight.

3.2.5  Spirit

The spirit of worship in which business is conducted allows for lightness and humour which are gifts of the spirit and in the right place can help the work forward.  Equally, God's purpose may require a business-like attention to detail which should not be overlooked in a rush of high sentiment.

3.2.6  Representatives

When Friends represent their own meeting at a larger meeting, they are not delegated to express a particular viewpoint.  They may need to make clear the thoughts and feelings of their own meeting, but their prime responsibility is to join with others present in seeking the way forward under the guidance of the Spirit.

3.2.7   Non-members

Non-members, and members of other meetings, are welcome to take part in meetings for business with the consent of the meeting, usually obtained by consulting the clerk. Some meetings minute a welcome to attenders and visitors every time they are present, others only when they first attend.

Note:  Yearly Meeting has set up a committee to consider the future status of membership and Attendership.

The present need for attenders to request permission to attend business meetings may be affected by any changes resulting from this work.



3.3 The sense of the meeting

3.3.1  Discerning the way forward

When Friends join together in seeking the will of God, we each bring our own background, experiences, preconceptions and gifts.  These are the raw materials out of which is forged a unity which, so far as we can perceive it, reflects what God asks of us.  It may take time, but when different views are stated honestly and simply, and listened to with care, there can emerge a leading towards the sense of the meeting. Some Friends may not agree, but nevertheless may accept this as the way forward. 

3.3.2  Role of the clerk

The work of the clerk is to discern what sense is emerging and, when it seems clear, to embody it in a draft minute, which is then offered to the meeting.  At this point Friends may be ready to accept the minute, or feel that it expresses the sense of the meeting but needs some alteration.  If it is evident that it is not the sense of the meeting, the seeking continues until the meeting is united in accepting a minute.  Once this happens, the minute belongs to the meeting, and cannot subsequently be altered, except for minor editorial work and correction of factual errors when the final copy is prepared.

3.3.3  When unity is not achieved

If, after considerable work, one or more Friends in a meeting find themselves not at unity with a proposed minute, they may however find themselves able to trust the leadings of the meeting and allow the minute to go forward.  On the other hand they may feel obliged to declare their unwillingness to agree.  If you propose to stand in the way of a decision, you should reflect, and act with humility and a sense of obligation.

When discussion has not led to unity, any Friend may call for a period of silence during which a way forward may open.  Alternatively, the topic may be adjourned to a later session, if this is possible; during the interval a group of Friends, including those with different views, meets to see if a way to unity can be found.  If, after consideration in a worshipful and loving spirit, a Friend's opposition appears to be merely vexatious, the meeting may agree that the decision should not be blocked by it; this course should be adopted very rarely and with extreme caution.  Usually, if unity cannot be reached, the clerk offers a minute to that effect, and the business is left undecided.

3.3.4  Finding unity

This way of conducting business rests on the twin insights of the light of God in each of us, and of the increase in truth and discernment which grows within the worshipping community.  A decision reached in this way is owned by the whole group, and has a spiritual authority derived from the process of seeking for God's leading.  This does not mean that error is impossible; a meeting may, at a later date, be led to alter its course of action, again in the same process of seeking.

Friends' business procedure is justified by experience.  A sense of unity can be felt when a meeting has worked faithfully and lovingly.  A course of action which was originally not accepted, but eventually emerged as the sense of the meeting, may in retrospect seen to be truly guided.  Joyful surprise can illuminate our conduct of business.



3.4 The meeting and its clerk

3.4.1   Role

Friends appoint a clerk to guide and give focus to the process of seeking God's leading.  The clerk is the servant of the meeting and accountable to it.  The meeting, by entrusting heavy responsibilities to its clerk, is itself accountable; it is the whole meeting which has the job of conducting its business in good order and a spirit of worship, and of supporting the clerk.

3.4.2 Different models of clerking

Meetings have evolved different patterns of clerking, depending on size and need.  There may be a single clerk, co-clerks, or a clerk with one or more assistant clerks.  Whatever the pattern, the minutes are offered to the meeting as part of the exercise of discernment, and when finally accepted become the meeting's own.

3.4.3 Agenda

It is the clerk's responsibility to prepare the agenda for a meeting, if appropriate in consultation with assistant clerks or other Friends.  The meeting entrusts to its clerk the responsibility for guiding Friends through the business and deciding on procedure; the clerk should be ready to consult Friends and ask for help and advice as necessary. To help the meeting, a clerk may prepare partial drafts of minutes; but such drafts are usually limited to factual matters, and are not true minutes until approved by the meeting.

3.4.4 Trust

The meeting trusts the clerk's spiritual discernment and places on the clerk the responsibility of watching the growth of the meeting towards unity and of judging the right time to submit a minute.  It also trusts the clerk to lay aside personal preferences in order to be open to the sense of the meeting.

3.4.5  Approval of minutes

Minutes are agreed to in all details at the time. A subsequent meeting may reverse a decision, but may not alter a minute correctly recorded from an earlier meeting.

(For suggestions to clerks, see section 4.7.1-4.7.13.).