Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Standing Aside

North Pacific Yearly Meeting Annual Session ended a week ago and it was a rich and edifying experience.

One of the most edifying things, for me, was asking the question I was moved to ask of a Friend speaking at a plenary on behalf of a committee charged with supporting and encouraging a discernent process over the past year.  I asked whether her expressing her own views about the business at hand while charged to foster discernment on the question was good practice.  I asked because, during the past year members of this committee, on occasions when they acted as a members of the committee (including during this plenary), freely and openly expressed their personal view on what the outcome of this discernment should eventually be.

Sometimes, on these occasions, they said things like "Speaking now as an individual and not a member of the committee..." This disclaimer, the committee member answered me at the plenary, prevented her expression of personal opinions from implicating integrity--hers or that of the process it did not influence their conduct of the discernment process or the views of others.  (I note as an aside that, traditionally, the very act of advocating, at all, compromises the Friends business process.)

My settled view is that Friends participating in discernment should never hear the personal views of those charged to support and encourage their process.   Friends may have an idea of what those Friends think the color of carpet to be chosen should be, but they should not hear about it as the discernment process is taking place.

I came to this as clerk of Bridge City Friends when we were a preparative meeting.  During those two years there were times, following after clerks I had seen, I "stood aside" from clerking and otherwise freely expressed my views on items of business.  Accumulating experience during those two years it was revealed to me that this was not edifying, to me or to the process.  Subsequently finding validation of that revelation in the literature of clerking, I stopped doing it.

I know that there is no settled unity on this, and if Friends disagree with me that's fine.  However, I will--as I did at this last annual session--insure that when people who are charged to support and encourage discernment also express their personal views in public they are asked about how they see doing so implicating the integrity of the process (and their own).  I will ask this of them first in private (as I did in this situation) and, should they continue, I will ask it in public.  It's something all Friends need to consider when someone is, in one moment, speaking for the process and in the next is advocating for the outcome.  (As I say, advocating, at all, is a problem.)

In corporate discernment processes the role of the clerk or facilitator is to be mindful of the process, not the outcome.   I have found that, aside from compromising my ability to do that, expressing my own opinions while in that role corrupts the process for others.  Preventing, in so far as possible, that corruption requires the sacrifice of self from those supporting the discernment--one cannot serve the master of one's own position on a question and the master of serving the process.  ("One's own position," is another obvious problem, here.)

Clerks and those involved in supporting discernment should not underestimate the influence they have on the process, both because of their selection to "leadership" and because they have far more opportunities to talk than anyone else.

It might seem ludicrous to us, if we are not looking carefully at ourselves, that such things could possibly corrupt our participation in meetings for worship for business.  It might corrupt others, but we know how to keep our our own feelings from influencing how we support an even handed discernment process.  We are seasoned Friends.  That's why we were selected to be in this position.

But hearing such rationalizing is why I don't find it ludicrous, at all.  Hearing it tells me that there is a problem.  When I hear such self exoneration I often see such corruption.  Thus it is apparent to those who, as it is written, know what to look for.  Often, however, we do not think to look for them in ourselves, forgetting that everyone's  measure of maturity is limited and oversight of all of us is necessary, especially when we are in a position of authority and have an interest in a process. Our minds are excellent accomplices to our rationalizing what we want as being right--and how we go about getting it as "Quaker process."

I have heard that a visitor from another domain of the Society said, after observing one of our Annual Session plenaries for business last year, that it as the least worshipful he had ever seen.  This hearsay did not surprise me.  That plenary featured Friends making advocacy speeches they had prepared in advance, supporting their own views.

It has been of concern to me for quite some time that the mores of American democracy and the world of non-profits have drifted into the business process of Friends, at least here in the Liberal domain of the Society where I am planted.   This may be because we attract people who, in other aspects of their lives, are used to "doing business" in that way.  They easily mistake what's going on in meeting for worship for business for that same process and, too often, they employ these mores here, complicating and even corrupting the process.  

Our business process is not supposed to be a reconciliation our diverse views, a compromising or overcoming of opposition that creates (or forces) something we can all live with (or not).  We are supposed to finding the will of God and then reconciling ourselves to that.  It's hard enough to stay in that low place while sitting among Friends doing business, subject to the wolves of our own egos, wills and vanities  It's even harder to do while trying to tend to the process from the facing bench, where there is ready access to the levers of rationalistic and psychological influence that, whether one is aware of it or not, we can (and do, sometimes) use to subvert the will of God, and substitute our own will--sometimes because we are so caught up in our will-worship that we could not see the will of God if it were written on the wall and labeled as such.

Those charged with supporting discernment, in my experience, should give their undivided attention to the integrity of the process.  As I say, no one has to agree with me about this.  It is, however, for all to consider.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Thank you for this, Timothy. I value your insights on this matter.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, brother. Discernment is neither democracy nor consensus (tempting though the latter may be) but the monarchy of an unseen King.

Sometimes it just all seems pointless. God loves Newberg more than anywhere else in Northwest Yearly Meeting, or so it seems.

I am a young clerk, and despite having served on several committees, I am very frustrated with discernment as a process. My primary objects are these:

1) How do you discern the will of God when certain members (let us say a majority, perhaps) of the committee or Meeting for Worship with Concern for Business are proudly self-declared atheists? (see entries "Friends General Conference", "Friends World Committee for Consultation", and assorted sub-entries thereof).

2) I have never discerned about anything where the decision did not seem to have been made outside of the room. Not in the sense of God being everywhere and of course making the decision somewhere else, but how whenever something was discerned, it usually meant a committee coming up to say "Let us consider Friend X for clerk" or "Let's Do This Thing", waiting for ten minutes and a few comments, and then going with whatever the committee said. Or when a committee does not bring an idea to the Meeting, there's still this sense of predestination, that my/our prayer during discernment means nothing. Some human being or beings with "oomph" has decided what's going to happen and so there.

2a. Sometimes there's the awkward "prayerful" bit where some people mumble about maybe not all is well, maybe let's think about this, or there's some minor objections, lots of waiting happens. Sometimes the discernment takes up several sessions while the body of Christ hems and haws over some quibble, only for the decision to be what everyone knew was going to happen in the first five minutes of Meeting for Business.

2b. An extension/variant of scenario 2a is when no decision is made because not everyone's God Radio is tuned to the same frequency and so nobody can agree on what God wants, or a decision is made and there is great bitterness because Friends X have "won" and Friends Y have "lost" and there is only outward unity.

Elizabeth Saunders said...

Great post, Timothy. I've had similar concerns as recording clerk, where I've strongly wanted to speak. But I've found that unless I have a needed fact that no one else knows, if what I want to say is opinion - then somebody else will say it and my words won't add anything. When I give a committee report, I stand up and move away from my notes.

I feel for "Anonymous," the young clerk who faces disunity and unbelief. I hope this doesn't sound trite, but in your shoes I would select a few Friends to pray for me and for discernment, before and during the meeting.

Tmothy Travis said...

Thanks, Elizabeth

Even before I accept clerking something that is "big" (or even "medium") I ask for an elder/support committee to whom I will be accountable and who can hear and feel what's going on with me in the process.

RantWoman said...

I keep meaning to formulate posts about:

--the God of the bus when I feel called to engage in some kind of civic activity and need all the spiritual resources I can muster to participate. I am clear about the call to be there, but one really CANNOT talk about God because of separation of church and state. Perhaps this line of thought will suggest things to the young Friend.

--Experiences being Clerk of Peace and Social Concerns at University Meeting inSeattle during the 1999 meetings of the WTO ministerial.

But for now perhaps I should stick to the topic at hand. In this case, the clerk commented briefly. My sense was that Friends already were not at unity with the committee's discernment. One more restatement, basically, of the committee's views was not going to make any difference.

To me the process at NPYM Annual Session this year was interesting in acouple ways.

1. The agenda of every single business plenary built in intervals of silent worship between itemson the agenda. I think the flow of events ate up the intervals sometimes but I for instance actually muddle about and think sort of slowly. Building in space for movements of Spirit is an interesting discipline for everyone and I appreciate the space for things to emerge.

2.Things got presented in plenaries with questions for clarification and then plenaries adjourned leaving people to talk over the issues in informal time. I found this a little disconcerting because I did not connect with very many of the informal conversations. However from the threads brought back to subsequent plenaries I was impressed about how well-guided the resulting discernment seemed to be. In particular, the committee in question was able to let go of their dearly held recommendation as the whole body embraced a bigger and more diverse sense of engagement, exploring corresponding relationships with several groups of Friends rather than relationship with only one that looked burdensome to some.