Monday, 27 November 2017

Understanding and Trusting Quaker Nominations

Engraving of Elizabeth Fry, seeming to look at the reader, overlaid with text reading "Friends - your Meeting needs YOU"
Nominations is one of the more mysterious, and in my experience often mistrusted, processes in the world of Quakers. A relatively small number of Friends go into a room, and comes out with a list of who should be fulfilling which role in their Meeting. They pounce on unsuspecting Friends, or possibly just send them an email, letting them know that the committee has discerned their name for some terrifying, or just unexpected, role, demanding to know whether the Friend is willing and able to take on that role.
Well, that's a bit of a caricature, but I'm sure most experienced Friends recognise that image of nominations. It's also likely that a fair proportion of experienced Friends have served on a nominations committee or other nominating group at some point, though not everyone ever does – quite rightly, as not everyone really has the requisite gifts, just like not everyone is suited to being a treasurer or clerk, or elder.
There are all sorts of variations in nominations practice, some of which are necessary, or at least logical and reasonable, adaptations to circumstance. Some are innovations that are in keeping with the essential principles of Quaker nominations, and some are, frankly, compromises of those principles in the name of expediency. In this post I will explore what I consider to be the essential principles of Quaker nominations, both spiritual and practical, and how they can be implemented in such a way that it maximises the trust that Friends not on the nominating committee can have in the process.
Nominations is a very specific application of the principles of Quaker spirit-led decision-making, applying it to the question of who should serve the Meeting (or other Quaker organisation) in what voluntary role. Elements of it are also sometimes used in recruitment for Quaker roles, but the nature of recruitment and volunteering are sufficiently different that we cannot expect the processes to be terribly similar. The nominations process consists of some group within the Meeting – occasionally that being the whole of the Meeting in session – being tasked with finding the names of those who “should” take on each of the roles that is vacant, or soon to become vacant. Like in a business meeting, this is done by way of prayerful discernment.
From the outside, this generally looks something like this: a nominations committee has a list of roles to fill, and some idea of what roles are held by which people in their Meeting. They use some method to come up with ideas of who might be suitable to serve in which role. They meet behind closed doors, and come out with a list of names and roles that they have discerned. They then ask those people so named if they would be willing and able to serve. If they say no, they go back to discern that name some more (or go to a second choice, if they discerned a preference list), while if they say yes, they take the name to a business meeting, where it is offered to the Meeting as a whole, for final discernment as to whether to accept the nomination (or forward it on if the Meeting is not the appointing body).
Inside the room, there are variations on how those initial ideas are come up with. The committee might solicit suggestions from those in the Meeting, possibly including allowing people to suggest themselves for a role. They may actively solicit useful information for their purposes by asking Friends to complete forms indicating their interests and experience. They may even choose to rely entirely on the experience and knowledge of members of their own committee to think about possibly suitable names for each role, though I personally wouldn't recommend that except, possibly, in a small Meeting with a very stable community. In my time on Nominations at Young Friends General Meeting, we strongly solicited anonymous suggestions from the community as a whole as the first step in our nominations process. That wasn't the only unusual step, and certainly not the most unusual step, but that's probably beyond the scope of this post.
Once a nominating committee has a set of possible names before it, they then have to discern which name is the right one to put forward. How to do this is easy to describe in a way that is absolutely consistent between groups – and entirely unhelpful. That is to say that the committee will “prayerfully discern” the names, or “seek to know the will of God” in the matter. Apart from implying that this means something like Quaker Business Method is to be used, it's terribly unhelpful.
I am aware that there are nominations committees that start tackling the problem rationally, trying to filter the names based on their own views about suitability – though they will generally try to stick to things that feel pretty solid, like not thinking someone has the required skills, or doubting that they have time. I'll be honest, I don't approve of doing that; those are concerns that need to be voiced, but ruling out names on a rational basis is pre-empting the discernment that should be applied. However, there is a role for rational discussion, as long as it is within limits. As I described in my recent post on small-group discernment, when discerning in a small group it can be very helpful to thresh matters before discernment, and it is at this stage that you can work together on questions like “what are the requirements for this role, both officially and practically”, or “what else does this person have on their plate”. This gets these matters into everyone's thoughts and allows them to be discussed, but without going the step of saying that people should not be considered.
I am also told, though have never seen it on a committee I have been involved in, that one traditional phrase is used by members of nominations committees that acts as a no-questions-asked veto: “that name would not have occurred to me”. If this is true, it is a fantastic example of Quaker double-speak and process obstructing progress; a single member of a committee being able to veto a name without explanation would never, in my opinion, be appropriate, and even if there were limited situations in which it would be appropriate it would be too open to misuse. Quakers are human too, and we do ourselves a disservice if we think we above personal grudges and misjudgements. Had that ever been tried in the committee I convened, I would have indicated that that was not sufficient ministry to be terribly helpful in finding the sense of the committee, were it given during discernment; if it were given during threshing, I think my response might be “that's nice, but not really appropriate when we're threshing the facts around the role and names. If you want to elaborate on that during ministry, you can see if the Spirit moves you to do so.”
I have also heard Young Friends using the phrase not in such a coded way, but as an expression of surprise – without necessarily disapproval. I have also heard of it being used as a code phrase, but with an explanation; in that case, it is an example of Quaker-speak with all the possible negatives that entails, but is otherwise harmless.
It is at this point, where the committee is discerning the actual name to nominate, that trust becomes difficult. Sometimes the pattern of names that comes out is suspicious to some Friends – the same names being cycles through the “more important” roles, and limited opportunities for meaningful service to other Friends, or those newer to our community. Sometimes there is a strong but frustrated desire to serve that burns in a particular Friend, and the committee seem to be unaware – or uncaring. Sometimes the committee tells the Meeting that they could not find someone willing and able to serve, but a Friend is sat thinking “I could do that, and they never asked me”. It is important to remember the important role of nominations in bringing people more fully into participation in our community. In terms of the idea of our Religious Society as a community of practice, once people have engaged in legitimate peripheral participation they may also need a formal structure for legitimately supporting their centripetal motion within the community; nominations is a major tool for that purpose.
There are so many things that can happen that make people unsure of the nominations process, especially if they have never served on a nominations committee – or even if they have, if they have never served on that particular nominations committee.
Ultimately, the question of trusting nominations committees is a matter of trusting the Friends involved to faithfully follow their process, and in trusting that the process is appropriate and effective. Where the process is closed to the point that no-one who hasn't served on that particular committee can be sure what the process is, it is difficult to have that trust. Nominations Committees should consider whether “we do nominations, you can read about it in books” is really a sufficient description, given the range of variation there is between committees and Meetings, or even on one committee over time. Without opening up a real meeting, which would be completely unacceptable, it's worth opening up the process so people can know what's involved. Walk people through the stages, maybe have a role-play; I once conducted one based on nominating a Quaker representative to an interstellar expedition to make contact with an alien civilization, with the names under consideration being dead Quakers. As well as being entertaining for those watching, it was informative about the sort of things we discussed in threshing roles and names, and the sort of things that come out as ministry (and in the fact that nominations got special snacks to sustain them during long sessions), which improved confidence, and seemed to increase the willingness of Friends to serve on nominations!
Nominations underpins everything we do as Quaker organisations. It is how we choose our elders and overseers, clerks and trustees, treasurers and social events committees. Not only must it be done right in order to allow the rest of our work to be done faithfully, it must also be seen to be done right in order to command the confidence and trust of our communities. Trusting a black box has limits, which is something of which we must be aware. Don't ask people to trust a black box. Open the box so people can see how it works, involve them and interest them, and then close the box back up in order to do real work with it.
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