Clerking our meetings
Duncan Frewin, Queensland Regional Meeting
Both regional and local meetings report that finding Friends to take on significant roles, especially for clerking the meeting, is getting harder. I have been reflecting on some aspects of clerking, with the hope of encouraging Friends to take up such roles.
Quakers speak of the practice of equality as one of our witnesses to the world. From the beginning, Quakers made no distinction between women and men in speaking in worship, or as elders or clerks. We try to transcend race, gender, sexuality, age etc. in appointing people to roles of authority among us – elders, clerks etc. Sometimes we also say that all members are equal, which is a claim that no individual has greater power than another. And, indeed, in our business meetings, all voices can be heard. But the decision that follows the discussion is more than a compromise of competing voices. At its best, it is what we recognise as something that the Spirit leads us to. This does empower the whole group, including those who may have started from a different position, whether the group is a small committee or a regional meeting. We can feel the spiritual rightness of the decision, and know that we are not alone in following it through. More than that, we see how such a decision can awaken individuals to their own power in the Spirit.
However, despite this practice of equality, we actually DO vest some power or authority in our officers, especially elders and clerks. I’d like to look more closely at those powers and what they mean to our worshipping community.
I recall a late Friend, Clayton Bredt, explaining two different types of power, using the two Latin words for power: auctoritas (which gives us the English word authority) and potestas. Auctoritas refers to a person’s moral stature. When we say someone is a “powerful” speaker, we are acknowledging their auctoritas. It is that inner force that makes us listen to them and that persuades us. It is close to charisma, but without the “magic” element. In contrast potestas refers to the ability to compel others. It is the power of the police, or managers, … and of a good parent. It is not automatically bad. Auctoritas is a characteristic of good leaders. We listen to them and sincerely consider their proposals. But we also need leaders to have potestas if we wish them to keep order in society and in our Society.
Now Quakers keep their treasures in clay vessels – the humans we choose for our offices. Since we are only human, we all fall short of the mark and make mistakes. But, with the Psalmist, our trust is in the Lord. We trust that Divine Assistance will guide us to choose good elders and clerks, and we trust that Divine Assistance will uphold them. I’d like to consider how we choose clerks especially.
We try to choose our clerks (co-clerks, clerking teams) for auctoritas, or rather for their potential for auctoritas. No one is a ready-made clerk; clerks grow into the role as they develop the sense of auctoritas. Nevertheless, we DO also confer some potestas on our clerks, trusting that they will use it wisely, sparingly, lovingly – as parents try to do. We ask them to discern the agenda for business meetings, to run the meeting and discern the decisions without a vote. (The group still retains the power to adjust or reject a proposed discernment.) For the agenda, not everything that comes up should be put before the meeting. We trust the clerk to push back items that are not a true concern or that have not been properly prepared, and to exclude items that can be dealt with outside a meeting – promoting upcoming events is a perennial. During the meeting, we trust the clerk to control speaking. Everyone has a right to be heard, but we trust the clerk to control (or even stop!) speakers who are debating a point, or have wandered from the topic, and we trust the clerk to prevent dominant speakers from overshadowing less confident speakers. We give the clerk authority to prevent the confusion when many voices are talking at once. Finally, when we have considered an item for a length of time, we trust the clerk to discern if we need to let the matter rest in order to “season”, or to discern what the Spirit has told us, even when no one person has expressed the idea clearly. And of course we trust our clerk to represent us in outside forums without vetting what they might say.
That is quite a lot of responsibility. And, as I said, no one is a ready-made clerk, ready to handle all of that. (Nor do we really expect one person to handle it all – we tend to have a team nowadays.) We look for someone who is willing to grow into the role, to discover their inner authority and to use their power wisely. We try to support them with mentors (former clerks for instance, or a support committee). We allow them to learn from the inevitable mistakes. In fact we all learn from such mistakes, and we forgive ourselves and each other.
But there is a practical way we can all support our clerk. In our business meetings we are not twenty Friends plus a clerk; we are twenty clerks helping the Clerk we have appointed. Foremost, we support the clerk in our prayer. Knowing that those in the meeting pray in order that the Spirit can prevail gives great strength to a clerk. In a more material way, we question ourselves about how we go about business matters. For instance, we can be thoughtful in proposing items for business. “Have I given this to the clerk in good time so that the clerk can be prepared?” (The key is “unhurried consideration”.) We ask ourselves, “Is this item just a good idea that I hope someone else will carry out?” (Hmm, perhaps I should try doing it myself first!) “Is this something I want others to know about?” (Could I put it in an announcement or newsletter?) “Is it a concern just forming in my mind?” (I should test it with others first!) In the meeting itself, we can ask “Am I wanting my own idea to prevail or am I waiting to hear the Spirit?” (Maybe step back a bit.) We can also ask “When others speak, am I listening deeply as a clerk?” (Good!) “When I speak, am I helping the meeting to a clearer vision of the way forward, or am I just repeating my own take on the matter?” (Time to sit down!) And at all times, we can be helpful by “clerking” from the other side of the desk – pointing out when we have lost our way (clerks get lost too!), offering help when a minute does not seem to hit the target, giving practical suggestions when the clerk is struggling. We all bear responsibility for “right ordering” of the meeting.
In this way, each of us can exert power over ourself so that the meeting can focus on waiting on the Spirit rather than debating or talking in circles. And in this way we support the appointed clerk(s) to carry out the responsibility we have put on them.
So my prayer is that our meetings will continue to find people who are ready to grow into the roles of clerk, that we will support them as they grow into the role, and that we will encourage them not to be afraid to use the power we have given them. And I hope that when the call comes to any of us to step up to a clerking role, we will not automatically say “No, I can’t do that”, but will prayerfully consider what Divine Assistance will help us to do, and so to take up such a role with humble confidence.