Transferable Skills

Juan Roberson, New South Wales Regional Meeting

I put this compilation together for the non-Quaker Chairman of the company I worked for some years ago. In addition to my role as CFO, as Company Secretary I also had the job of writing the Minutes of Board Meetings.

 As I observed to the Chairman at the time, the processes of the Quaker Business Meeting and the way decisions and minutes come about would, I felt, transfer perfectly well to other places. The substitution of “for the good of the company” for “Divine Will” would make these quotes eminently applicable to any Board Meeting in the commercial world. They would also work well for Committees in the not-for-profit sector (a tennis club, a Rotary club etc.).

 You may have already observed these processes in evidence elsewhere – when adopted by those with an inclination towards consensus, whether Quaker or not. In any event there are some perceptive comments here – and the occasional wonderful turn of phrase – that make it worth sharing these with a wider audience.

 From The Quaker Bedside Book (1952)

 … Two original features of Quaker meetings for church business will help to define what this deliberative system is…. There is no chairman or president; only, in front of the Meeting, a Friend sits at a table with a minute book in front of him. He is the “Clerk” of the Meeting – not a chairman, not exactly a secretary, and hardly a clerk in the usual sense… Decisions are reached without vote, unanimous or otherwise, and yet are regarded as united decisions…

 The Meeting has begun with worship in silence…as in a Meeting for Worship. In this phase the members are seeking to draw nearer to God and asking that his will may be known for all matters that are to come before them. There should then develop a relaxed, waiting mood, a “sitting loose” to one’s own will on the business, a readiness to see God’s infinitely wiser view triumphant. When the business begins to be examined this waiting mood has not to be shaken off for the effort of speaking and listening; it should continue underneath. A question is broached; various, perhaps quite contrary, views upon it are expressed with restraint, because no one wants his opinion to prevail if there is a better way. All the time the Clerk is listening to the discussion, and maybe setting down some parts of it that seem to him to have special significance in the light of what all are seeking – “not our wills but thine”. If a point of fruition seems to have been reached there is a pause – still of worship – while he drafts a statement which he thinks might express the “sense of the Meeting”…. The draft is read aloud to the Meeting… usually the draft is accepted, with any amendments proposed and considered and agreed upon, as a Minute of the Meeting.

 Again and again it is one’s experience in such Meetings that, although one came in with an opinion quite contrary to that which becomes embodied in the minute, one can accept it wholeheartedly as being the right decision for the Meeting, and can make it one’s own.

 From Edward Burrough (1633 – 1663)

 Being orderly come together you are not to spend time with needless, unnecessary and fruitless discourses, but to proceed in the wisdom of God… not in the way of the world, as a worldly assembly of men, by hot contests, as if it were controversy between party and party of men, or two sides violently striving for dominion… not deciding affairs by the greater vote… but in the wisdom, love and fellowship of God, in gravity, patience, meekness, unity and concord.

 From London Yearly Meeting (1925)

 As it is our hope that in our Meetings… the will of God shall prevail rather than the desires of men, we do not set great store by rhetoric or clever argument. The mere gaining of debating points is found to be unhelpful and alien to the spirit of worship which should govern the rightly ordered Meeting.

 Neither a majority nor a minority should allow itself in any way to overbear or to obstruct a meeting for church affairs in its course towards a decision. We are unlikely to reach either truth or wisdom if one section imposes its will on another. We deprecate division in our Meetings and desire unanimity. It is in the unity of common fellowship, we believe, that we shall most surely learn the will of God. We cherish, therefore, the tradition which excludes voting from our Meetings and trust that clerks and Friends generally will observe the spirit of it, not permitting themselves to be influenced in their judgement either by mere numbers or by persistence. The clerks should be content to wait upon God with the Meeting, as long as may be necessary for the emergence of a decision which clearly commends itself to the heart and mind of the Meeting as the right one.

 From Duncan Fairn (1951)

 The extraction of sense from some Meetings calls for no little skill. It is not just a matter of counting speeches for and against. The silence of some is often of greater significance than the speech of others. But the salient point is that, throughout, the proceedings are conducted in the spirit of a Meeting for Worship, all seeking, however great may be their differences, to know and to do the will of God on the matter before the Meeting. Differences can be and are expressed freely, though the mere scoring of debating points is discouraged, and gradually the judgement of the Meeting emerges from the exercise. Majority has not gained a victory over minority. All have contributed to a decision represented by the Clerk’s minute which is submitted in open meeting and subjected to correction before being finally accepted. Long experience has given us a number of competent Clerks and an astonishing faculty on the part of Friends when assembled together to grasp, amend and sometimes re-fashion minutes altogether… But the Clerk has also his moments of relief…. the experienced Clerk knows that when X or Y rises to speak he can go ahead with drafting of his minute undisturbed; not all Friends are equally gifted with a sense of relevance.

 There are disadvantages, naturally, in this way of conducting business. It can sometimes be slow. A Meeting must wait for the way forward to be opened. Occasionally the discussion on a subject must be adjourned when the Meeting is not ready to come to a decision…. It was a wise Friend who remarked that it is easy to deal with the Devil when he went about as a roaring lion; but not so easy when he sat on a Quaker committee and asked for a time of silence when the committee was just about to come to a vital decision!

 From London Yearly Meeting (undated)

 The method of holding our meetings for church affairs under a sense of Divine guidance should be carefully explained [to a new applicant] together with our concern that Friends should work with one another in a humble and loving spirit, each giving the others credit for purity of motive, notwithstanding differences of opinion, and being ready to accept the decision of the Meeting even when it may not accord with his own judgment.

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