Monday, 11 September 2017

Testing Ministry part 2: Business

In my earlier post, I explored the idea of testing ministry in Meeting for Worship, and outlined some simple tests that I find helpful when testing ministry. I also mentioned that these were only readily applicable in simple, undirected worship, and other sorts of meeting in which we might minister need to be handled differently. In this post I will explore the most common other sort of meeting, the “Meeting for Worship for Business”, often shortened to “Business Meeting”, and known formally in Quaker faith & practice as “Meetings for Church Affairs”.
These meetings are the primary decision-making organ of Quaker bodies, from our Local and Area Business Meetings, to Britain Yearly Meeting in session, and all of the business meetings to run all sorts of other groups. It is probably helpful at this point to quickly recap the essential principles and process of the Quaker business method, though a full exploration would certainly merit a post all to itself.
So, let us take a theoretical, idealised Meeting for Worship for Business. Any given “real world” case will deviate from this, but in various different ways depending on the meeting, so the platonic version seems a good starting point. The meeting in session is a number of Friends, probably in the small dozens – to avoid any of the complications brought by a particularly large or small group. One or two Friends undertake to clerk the meeting, and sit at a table where they can see everyone. Everyone else sits arranged in such a manner to be able to see as many of the rest of the meeting as reasonably possible. The clerk introduces an item of business, a decision that needs to be taken. The clerk will introduce the business, perhaps with the help of another Friend who is familiar with the matter in question. The decision to be taken will be made clear to Friends, and all necessary information will be provided at this time, or even better in advance of the meeting (this being a point where pretty much every real world case will depart drastically from the ideal, but it is a complication that is besides the point of this post). At that point, the meeting begins discernment – a period of worship focussed on making a decision.
This is why, although it is an unwieldy phrase, many of us like using the term “Meeting for Worship for Business”, to remind everyone that this is worship, just with a specific purpose. It is not the time for everyone to voice their opinion, to micromanage the decision, to stick their personal oar in. It is a time where we all sit silently, considering the matter before us, and speak as we are led to speak. Contributing to a business session should be, theologically speaking, hardly different from contributing to a normal Meeting for Worship. From the ministry that comes from the silence, the clerk attempts to discern the “sense of the meeting”. It is through this collective effort that we determine, as best we can, the way forward – and depending on your theological attitude and preferred language, you might call this “the will of God”, “the right decision”, or perhaps a decision “with divine guidance”.
For all that I argue elsewhere that this is, in a fundamental sense, democratic, it is not seen as a decision simply made collectively by those present; if our ministry does flow from the spirit, it is not simply an expression of our opinions. This can, in my experience, lead to problems, as there is little or no formal opportunity to express opinions much of the time, and opinions do matter. There are ways to resolve this, some accepted parts of Quaker tradition, and I will return to some of them in a future post. However, we are talking about an ideal case, so the ministry is all truly spirit-led, and the decision is a pure reflection of the guidance of the Divine.
Obviously, we can only attain anything close to that ideal if we test our ministry before speaking. There are factors that make the strategies I suggest for “ordinary” Meeting for Worship difficult or inappropriate to apply in this case. For instance, it is my experience that the spirit is more likely to move people to speak to say something they already at least somewhat agree with, in a business meeting; this is not suspect, as the spirit rarely supplies us with a complete set of words to express it – it relies on our knowledge and experience as well, and those who already agree with something are more likely to be well equipped to express it. Similarly, the need for a decision may lead to a certain back-and-forth, making it more likely that valid ministry will seem to be responding to earlier ministry. We are also less likely to be able to take several minutes to test ministry in business, as we have a certain amount of business to deal with in a certain time, meaning the spaces of silence are likely to be shorter. Ideally, we could take the same time as we do in ordinary worship, but it simply isn't practical most of the time. That said, it is still important to take time, and it is still the case that feeling led to minister something we disagree with, or disagreed with until that business session, is a possible indicator of the validity of the leading. So don't completely disregard the advice of my earlier post.
This situation is much more nuanced, and difficult to know whether you are reading things rightly, than in undirected worship. It helps if you are practised in testing ministry in that less-pressured scenario, but it would be inappropriate to suggest that those who have ministered rarely, or ever, in ordinary worship should not participate in business. I know Friends who make valuable, clearly spirit-led contributions in business who have never ministered in Meeting for Worship, and not for lack of attendance.
There are also considerations that don't apply in undirected worship – matters that are specific to the situation of attempting to make a decision. After all, in undirected worship, there is no goal, no question of a conclusion being reached, so there is no situation of ministry tugging in different directions that will have a tangible result for the future (as opposed to an impact on people's spiritual journey, which is important in itself, but in a different way – so there is less likelihood that it will resemble an argument).
So, rather than a set of indicators of whether you should say what occurs to you, here are some things to think about.
  1. Did you know you would be saying this before the session began? If the process of sitting in silent worship does not affect your decision to say something, be cautious. This is not the time and place for sharing opinions, but seeking with humility to find the way forward. If ministry is what you thought before discernment began, it can still be valid ministry – but in that scenario you would expect to feel the spirit either cementing that feeling, or urging you to speak what you already thought, but might not have been inclined to sharing. Indeed, if you enter a session knowing what you will say to a particular piece of business, you are probably not approaching business with the right frame of mind. You don't need to set your own views aside when you enter discernment, but you do need to be open-minded about the possible outcomes.
  2. Has this already been said? There are times when lending additional weight to a perspective that has already been shared is worthwhile, but generally speaking, it is not. This is not a matter of consensus, nor of voting. You do not need to speak to support ministry in order to lend it more weight – that weight will be clear through the overall tenor of ministry, and through the clerk's discernment. Where ministry is pointing in several directions, it may be appropriate to minister in support of one of those directions, if led to do so. In that case, however, it may be expected that such ministry will shed new light, perhaps cut a Gordian knot, rather than just be another tug in one direction. Of course, just because ministry points in the same direction as other ministry doesn't mean it's saying what's already been said. Different reasons, different illustrations, can be very helpful ministry. “I agree that we should do X” is almost never helpful.
  3. Am I straying from the point? Business it purposeful worship, and we should bear that purpose in mind when we are testing ministry. Sometimes ministry will start us towards a tangent, and it can take discipline to keep it on course. Indeed, I wouldn't even say this is about testing the ministry for validity as a leading, but just that the spirit itself can sometimes get caught up in the moment, or perhaps we do and our perception of the spirit gets distorted through that lens so the ministry continues on a strange course. Ministry in business should help the discernment towards a conclusion. It may do so obliquely, and some diversions are valuable, but it's also easy to get sidetracked and focussed on minutiae.
  4. Am I ready to make the point as clearly and concisely as appropriate? Business meetings are almost always under time pressure, and ministry should bear that in mind. The purpose is to come to some conclusion, make some decision, and meandering ministry can easily distract from that – including by inducing others to stray from the point, as mentioned above, as well as taking up valuable time. This is not to say that longer, verbose ministry is never helpful in business; I have seen times when a long, seemingly meandering ministry has been key to helping a meeting come to unity. Those occasions are dwarfed, however, by the times that meandering ministry has given very little to the meeting's efforts to reach decisions. So it is worth having a clear idea, perhaps clearer than you would in undirected worship, of what you are saying before you stand to speak. It is normal to not know exactly what you're going to say, and let the spirit lead you, but you should have a clear idea of the overall picture. Of course, having that clear idea doesn't mean you won't surprise yourself with what you end up saying, but it does help to ensure clarity and concision.
  5. Am I sure this is what I want to say? By convention, a Friend should not minister twice to the same item of business, though seeking or providing a factual clarification need not count towards this conventional limit; ideally such matters wouldn't need to take place during discernment. As such, you should seriously question whether this is the contribution you should be making. If you rush to your feet to say the first thing that occurs to you, you may be faced with the difficult choice of breaching Quaker etiquette by rising to speak a second time (it's usual to apologise in this situation), or hoping, trusting that something else that occurs to you will occur to someone else as well.
Of course, business doesn't end with the ministry given by those participating. It falls to our clerks to draft a minute, and they can only do this if there is a sufficient break in ministry. This may occur naturally, or it may be necessary for the meeting to be asked to uphold the clerks while they draft. Trust in your clerk(s) at this time; you should not interrupt this unless there is a massive, overriding reason.
So, a minute has been drafted by the clerk(s), and they read it to the meeting. However, discernment is not over! Our decision-making is a process rooted in humility, and this is reflected in the sharing of a draft minute by the clerk. The clerk offers the draft minute, and there will generally be an opportunity for ministry to the minute. This is not an opportunity to continue the original decision-making process, however; the clerk has discerned, as best they can, the sense of the meeting, and is sharing this. If all has gone well, it should be something the meeting can agree reflects the unity (or, occasionally, disunity) of the meeting. Ministry to the draft minute should address two main things: minor, but not trivial, adjustments to the language, or ministering – again, from the spirit – to indicate that the minute has failed to capture the sense of the meeting.
In the first case, slight errors in names or titles, or niggling points of grammar, do not necessarily require ministry. It is good practice to have the opportunity for “dots and commas” after the business session has ended, where such obviously non-controversial adjustments can be made; “non-controversial” should be interpreted conservatively, ideally things that would seem non-controversial to someone who could read the minutes, but was not in the session. This includes, for example, correcting the name of an organisation or an individual's job title, where it is absolutely clear that the minute was referring to the organisation or person in question. Similarly, major changes to wording would essentially mean re-drafting the minute, and questioning the clerks' discernment of the sense of the meeting. In between the two, however, is a fair amount of room for changes. For example, to change wording in a way that does alter meaning, but in a minor way, such as to emphasise or de-emphasise an element of the minute. Naming someone, or choosing not to name them, would be such an alteration, or adding an expression of thanks. Changing an amount of money might sound like something that should be in dots and commas, but as a matter of governance, meetings should be clear about the authorisation of spending, so that should be handled during the meeting – or explicitly delegated to some individual or group, specified in the minute. Similarly, anything of direct legal significance should not be left to dots and commas. It's also worth finding out if your meeting practices dots and commas, or does it as part of the business session itself; I personally prefer a separate dots and commas, but I am aware that some meetings and clerks do not.
The second case should be much rarer. It is directly suggesting that the clerk has failed in their role. This is not necessarily a matter of being cruel or judgemental; we all fail sometimes, even the very best at a given task will make mistakes occasionally. However, it is likely that most Friends of any experience will have been in a business session where the clerk offered something that did not seem to reflect their own impression of the ministry in the session; this may be because the clerk has their own strong opinions that have clouded their discernment, or simply because they are having a bad day. It is absolutely appropriate to challenge the minute in that situation, but it is a step that should not be taken lightly – and never simply because you do not personally agree with what has been read out. It's also appropriate to point out that the minute suggests something impossible or illegal.
There is another option for a clerk who is unsure of their sense of the meeting; they can attempt to get the meeting to zero in on a decision by prompting. This can be done by informally stating their current impression of the sense of the meeting, and thus urge ministry to help refine it, or by offering a tentative minute, making it clear that they are unsure how well it reflects the sense of the meeting. In those situations, it's a good idea to focus on helping the clerk, but remember to keep the guidance of the spirit at the heart of your contributions.
When the clerk has produced a minute that reflects the unity of the meeting, we express our support and recognition of this; they ask if the minute is acceptable, and we say “hope so”. This reflects that we are not signifying our own agreement, but simply our hope that the decision does reflect the guidance of the spirit, or the “will of God”, if you prefer. Indeed, you will likely find yourself in situations where you are expressing that support, that hope, even where you personally disagree with the decision. A hearty, rather than half-hearted, “hope so” will help show the clerk your support and confidence.
I hope that this has given people food for thought, and help people to approach business in the rightly spiritual and open frame of mind. It's a complex matter, and it's hard to cover all of the situations you might run in to. It also presupposes ideally-organised business, and if you ever come to enjoy a business session that is so organised, you may count yourself very lucky. I'd love to hear other people's thoughts and advice, so please make use of the comments section below.
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