Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Improving Business: Small Group Discernment

A small group of people works around a table, one taking notes
Quaker decision-making, in the sense of collective discernment, is one of the most consistent elements of Quaker practice among the worldwide family of Friends. Waiting on the Spirit for guidance and taking decisions based on the leadings that that Spirit brings out of silence is an amazing expression of faith, of trust in the process and in whatever-it-is that you believe gives us those leadings.
However, there are variations in the practice, related to different communities and traditions, or to do with the circumstances of the discernment. One major factor for this is the size of the group. If you're dealing with a group from around a dozen to several dozen, it's all much of a muchness – the basic principles and common expectations work in most such cases, like leaving silence between contributions, the structure of business items, and the clear expectation that each Friend minister at most once. However, with much larger groups, or with smaller groups, things can't easily work in exactly the same way. In those cases, you need to vary practices and expectations slightly, while maintaining the principles that underlie them.
In this post, I will be sharing some of my thoughts, largely based on experience, on small group discernment. This is especially useful for committees, when they are taking decisions by discernment rather than discussion (I tend to think a lot of committee work can be more effectively conducted by discussion, though by no means all of it – but that is a subject for a future post). However, it's also relevant to smaller Meetings, who may simply not get more than half a dozen or so people at a business meeting – and for whom the burden of expectations of the usual conventions of Quaker Business Method may become a barrier to effective working.
We must be clear on one thing to begin with; this is not about diluting the essential principles of Quaker discernment, which I would consider to be thus:
  • The process and practice is based in silence, from which the ministry emerges and to which those gathered return to digest the ministry.
  • Except for direct, informational matters, we speak as led, rather than simply to express opinions or preferences; we do not try to convince others to our own point of view, but rather to find the way forward together.
  • All those participating speak from positions of essential equality; while some will have greater relevant background knowledge or expertise, the Spirit may speak through anyone, and all contributions should be heard on that basis.
  • It is not a matter of rationally working through options and implications and optimising based on the desired outcome, but nor is it a matter of completely letting go of rational thought; the Spirit will make use of our faculties alongside the inspiration it gives us.
  • The final decision is made based on the sense of the meeting, rather than weight of opinion expressed – sometimes the sense of the meeting will form around a single piece of ministry that seems to be directly opposed to most of the rest.
Those essential points remain the same, and in my opinion must do so for it to be said to truly be a Quaker process of collective, spirit-led decision making. The common practices and expectations in a Quaker business meeting largely flow from these principles, but are not all inherent in them. So we have the convention that each participant only speaks once to a given item, that the clerk does not minister, that we stand to indicate our intention to speak and wait to be acknowledged by the clerk. All of these things flow from the key principles, but should not be confused with them.
These conventions and expectations generally work well in medium-sized meetings, with participants measured in the dozens. They can become inconvenient, and exceptions to some of them are common – clerks standing aside from the table to contribute, or Friends contributing more than once to an item as it evolves. However, in small groups they can be more than inconvenient – they can be counterproductive and act as a barrier to the essential principles. Say you have a group of only half a dozen, including a clerk. A maximum of five pieces of ministry will often fail to give rise to a clear sense of the meeting, and sitting close enough together to feel connected makes standing awkward, as the clerk cranes their neck to acknowledge you and watch as you speak.
It is from this that my own “guidelines” for small group discernment flow, as well as some very practical matters noted from experience. Put simply, these are:
  • Thoroughly thresh items immediately before consideration.
  • The clerk is free to minister, though with due caution.
  • Each participant ministering more than once to a given item is to be expected, though ministering twice in succession should be a matter of great caution.
  • The clerk will usually have to act as an elder as well as clerk.
  • The clerk should clearly communicate with the rest of the group during discernment.
  • The clerk should be more open to criticism by other participants – and they be more ready to call the clerk to account.
Every one of these is included for a definite reason, and bears elaboration in order to properly understand that reason, and the practicalities of their application.
I have previously discussed threshing meetings, and the opportunities they provide to improve the running of business meetings. In the case of smaller groups, I have found tremendous advantages to threshing items in situ, so to speak. This takes some of the principles of threshing meetings, and of dealing with factual questions before business items when discerning in larger groups, and applies them to the specific case to make business more efficient. Essentially, the idea is to do two things before settling down into discernment: clear up any factual matters or uncertainties (possibly leading to delaying consideration of an item until that can be cleared up), and allow people to get thoughts and feelings off their chest – provided they are appropriate. This means being clear among everyone participating what is appropriate. For instance, in nominations threshing a role, or a name, might involve making sure the committee is clear on the expectations or qualifications necessary for a role, or what we know about the previous experience of the person being considered. It might mean raising a significant concern about the suitability of a name, such as whether they are legally qualified to be a trustee, or whether they could pass a Disclosure and Barring Service (the current system in the UK for background checking those who will be working with children and vulnerable adults) check – or that their personal business affairs raise clear questions about their appropriateness. In a premises committee, it might mean making clear what the options are for a given project, their concrete costs and benefits, and pointing out significant issues with any given proposal – such as a definite, but as yet unnoticed, negative impact on accessibility of a building, or where there are likely to be objections from the wider Meeting. Less clear-cut concerns should be saved for the discernment phase, and such threshing should not drive a decision, other than a decision to delay an item until more information can be obtained. A feeling, however strong, of opposition to or support for a particular name or course of action, where not based in clear matters of fact, should instead be tested as possible ministry during full discernment, rather than aired during threshing. On the other hand, a nebulous feeling about the facts that have been presented can be worth raising at the threshing stage, where it can be easier for the group as a whole to figure out what you're talking about, even when you can't; if it doesn't become clear in threshing, ministry may make it clearer anyway.
Threshing in this way allows you to ensure, at least to a good extent, that discernment remains discernment, that ministry is not interspersed with a great deal of fact-checking, and that discernment is working on all available information.
I expect that some Friends will be concerned by the idea of the clerk in small group discernment being free to minister, but those who have done much small group discernment will know that this happening is a reality of the situation. You have a limited pool of people, and it is my experience that meaningful and important ministry may need to come through the clerk. However, the clerk must also be aware of the tension of doing so in the position they are in; it is an inescapable fact that a clerk is in a leadership role, and their views will often be influential on other Friends – within the committee, it accords them significant additional weight, especially where they strongly command the confidence of their committee or Meeting. As such, a clerk should test their ministry very thoroughly, be as sure as they can be that they are not simply giving voice to their own opinions. Additionally, as clerk they must also speak in that role, and perhaps somewhat in the role of an elder, as discussed below. A clerk must therefore take care to be very clear which hat they are wearing when they speak; where a committee works together regularly over a reasonably long time, this may become clear through content or tone of voice, but the clerk must be as sure as they can be that all Friends participating are clear each time they speak.
As mentioned earlier, five – or even six – pieces of ministry may not be enough to bring a clear sense of the meeting and confidence in the unity behind that decision. Sometimes it will, and those are happy times, but it's not unusual for an item a small group is considering to be far too complex, with factors pulling in different directions, for it do be disposed of so readily. Thus, it is necessary to be entirely open to each Friend ministering more than once. However, the principles underlying the convention of ministering only once, of speaking of led and of equality, must still be served. It is thus essential that those participating in small group discernment be very mindful of the discipline of testing ministry, ensure that they give time between contributions in order for ministry to be digested, and not allow multiple ministry from a single individual to dominate the discernment. This also requires careful but potentially proactive eldering, often provided by the clerk themselves – more on which below. Key points to bear in mind, however, is that it should be very unusual for one participant to minister twice in succession, without other ministry in between (generally comparable to how rare ministering twice should be in larger groups), and that no one – or two – Friends should dominate ministry. This is complicated by the fact the clerk may need to speak with several hats, as may any Friend taking on the task of eldership of the committee, as discussed below; the clerk speaking in ministry followed by the clerk speaking as clerk is not ideal, but is likely to happen fairly often, and is not in itself a problem. Ministry should also avoid becoming a conversation; while it will often happen that ministry is shaped by the ministry that goes before it, it should not generally be in clear reply to other ministry.
As it is not always possible to have a clear elder role within a small committee, or indeed in a small Local Meeting, a clerk may find they have to fill part of the role of an elder during discernment, that is to ensure right ordering. This may involve: reminding Friends that discernment requires ministry, not opinions and discussion; reminding Friends to keep ministry on-topic, drawing them back from tangential digressions; ensuring that contributions are not dominated by a single Friend or small subset; ensuring that all participants feel able to minister; calling for more silence, or a clear period of silence to restore centring. Lots of tasks, large and small. As such, the clerk of a small group engaged in discernment must be mindful of lots of details, and be prepared to speak up to ensure that things are conducted appropriately. The clerk must also have discretion, and trust their own abilities, in order to know when to do these things; small group discernment must be flexible, and sometimes if ministry starts devolving into conversation it is a sign that discernment should be paused while a matter is taken back to threshing, for instance. The clerk must be ready to handle all sorts of different permutations of circumstance and to do so largely without reference to much advice at the time, such small groups rarely supporting co-clerks or an assistant clerk. However, it is a good idea for the clerk to make use of the particular skills and experience of other participants, and the clerk should not be too reluctant to break up discernment to consult with one or two Friends for this reason.
This feeds in to the final point of these guidelines – communication. The clerk must communicate very clearly with the small group. It may be difficult to follow the typical discipline of standing or otherwise indicating an intention to speak, and awaiting acknowledgement from the clerk, so if there comes a point where the clerk feels there should not be ministry – such as while drafting a minute, or wanting some extended silence for re-centring – the clerk must make that clear, ideally verbally. If the clerk feels that a sense of the meeting is beginning to develop, but is lacking clarity in certain areas, they should let the committee know that, and hope that this leads to ministry addressing the areas in which such clarity is lacking. If they feel that ministry is becoming confused, they should speak clearly to refocus is – but carefully, as that confusion may reflect a genuine movement of the Spirit to reframe how the matter is being considered, or even just a good sign that everyone needs a break. This sounds terribly difficult, but just as we trust the Spirit to give us ministry that allows us to see a way forward in decision-making, a clerk should trust in that same Spirit to guide them as they find the way through their role. If ministry seems confused, but you feel a disinclination to act to address it, that can be a good clue that ministry is muddled for a reason.
Because of this more complex role for the clerk, and the fact that they cannot practically put themselves as far from the decision-making role as they might in a larger group, clerks will more often “fail” to reach the high standards we ask of them. This is really no failure, given that clerks are as human as the rest of us, but it risks worse outcomes if it goes unchecked. As such, if Friends participating feel that a clerk may be too close to an issue, or seem to be resisting what they see as an emerging sense of the meeting, it is important to actually challenge the clerk on this. Do so tenderly and lovingly, but do not shirk from doing so; just as eldership and oversight are everyone's responsibility, even though some Friends are appointed to the task, so is such a Meeting a committee collectively responsible for right ordering, including clerking. If the clerk is too close to an issue, they are also likely to be too close to see that they are too close; if there is some deep-seated reason they favour a particular outcome, it may not be conscious. Even if such a matter is conscious, it is sufficiently important that we should be shy of confrontation to avoid such a conflict of interest or biased process. Express your concern, and if necessary the clerk may find it advisable to recuse themselves. The fact that someone else has to take over is another aspect of our collective responsibility.
Other conventions and general practices of discernment in the size of group with which many Friends are more familiar remain, of course. It is helpful to begin all meetings with silence, and to settle into a deliberate and deep silence at the beginning of full discernment on any given matter. Friends should not address one another directly, should avoid conversational responses, and should always have their mind on the intention to work under divine guidance rather than rational enquiry – but not completely discard rationality. Business should be presented in a clear and well-defined a manner as possible, with the decision to be made rendered as clear and definite as it may be.
These ideas may seem strange to some Friends, and difficult to follow. They certain require care and discretion. It is my experience, however, that following practices of this sort when discerning in a small group will, once you are used to them, make such discernment easier and allow it to flow more readily, while remaining deeply seated in worship.
I would love to hear about other people's experiences, and whether they have come up with any such guidelines of their own. Whether your experience suggests my ideas do or don't work, and with what you might substitute them. As always, the comment section is ready and waiting.
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