Raise your hand if you enjoy attending meetings. You know, groups of people getting together to do the work of boards, councils, committees, organizations, businesses. Hmm, I don’t see many palms up in the air. No wonder people respond to me with scrunched eyebrows or dropped jaws when I say that one of the things I cherish most about Quakerism is… business meetings.
Or, more accurately, Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business. That’s how early Friends referred to these times of corporate decision-making; today, we often shorten it to Meeting for Worship for Business, or Business Meeting, or (even before texting existed) M4W4B.
It’s the worship part of Meeting for Worship for Business that makes me look forward to this activity much more than I do for meetings in the secular world. Still not convinced? Maybe Eden Grace’s explanation will help.
“The way Quakers do business is a really significant part of our spirituality, our practice, our identity as Friends, and that isn’t always something that’s easy to understand upfront.” She breaks it down to this: business meeting is “an opportunity for sacramental encounter with God.”
Eden, a member of Beacon Hill Friends Meeting in Boston, shares more of her views about this sacramental encounter in a recent episode of QuakerSpeak
and on her website.
Even with Eden’s thoughtful interpretations, I’m still challenged to explain why I welcome sitting inside for an hour-and-a-half on a sunny, spring Sunday afternoon to labor with others on questions large (Should we sponsor the showing of a documentary about sexual abuse in the military?) and small (Should we print our welcoming brochure in color?).
Eden describes this labor as “the collective discernment of God’s will.” I don’t imagine a human-like God hovering over us with an ear tuned to each speaker, but I do have a sense of a presence, a wisdom, that wants goodness, justice, joy, and peace in all of our work. And that wisdom is available to all of us and comes to us in many ways when we gather in an atmosphere of reverence and faithfulness to listening, receiving each person’s contribution in a spirit of prayer.
Here’s what this style of decision-making looks like:
- Leadership – the Presiding Clerk (similar to a meeting facilitator) brings business before the Meeting in an orderly way, gently guiding the pace and openness of the discussion and listening for promptings of the Spirit and a sense of unity. When/if unity is achieved, the Presiding Clerk restates it clearly and asks for approval (not a vote), which is then included in minutes by the Recording Clerk (secretary).
- Personal conduct—those attending the Business Meeting enter expecting to be led by Spirit, listening thoughtfully and respectfully with pauses between messages. Except for those who are giving reports, people attending the Meeting don’t prepare in advance what they will say, listening instead for leadings of the Spirit.
- Dissent—sincere expressions of disagreement with a growing sense of unity need to be considered as possible signs that the Divine will hasn’t quite been grasped yet.
- Time—Newcomers often find the time needed for Quaker decision-making frustrating, but a sense of urgency or pressure can quickly erode a process of deep seeking. While some decisions are time-sensitive, many benefit from unhurried consideration.
- Not finding unity—sometimes Business Meetings don’t achieve unity. In that case, no action is taken, and the matter may be reconsidered at another Meeting.
Sounds cordial and, well, friendly, doesn’t it? And usually it is, even when people feel angry or scared or in opposition. But discussions can get heated, and Eden acknowledges that Quaker decision-making processes can be abused. It’s an approach that requires the community’s shared commitment to a spiritual discipline. “This discipline is cultivated rather than regulated,” Eden explains, “and it takes time to acquire.” Sometimes Friends stumble along that learning curve.
So. It’s not perfect, but these are my predominant experiences over nearly thirty-five years of attending Business Meetings: being heard, hearing perspectives I wasn’t aware of, coming to new understandings and seeing others do the same, ending up someplace different than where we started or where we imagined we might end up.
In my view, that’s sacramental.
Eden uses the example of community discernment over the color of a carpet as an example of a decision that seems trivial but “becomes transformational.” Have you had an experience of coming together with a group of people to decide something trivial and emerging transformed?