Shepherdstown Friends Meeting

The Quaker Way: Collective Decision Making

Most of us have been trained up from our youth in secular methods of debate: Rhetoric, emotionalism, rationalism, misleading analogies, theatrics, threats and intimidation, repetition and shouting, factions and coalitions, Robert’s Rules of Order, compromise and majority rule.

For most of us these methods feel totally natural. We have known them since junior high. Alternatives to these methods of persuasion and coercion are seldom seen or modeled in our work places or our governmental bodies — although those of us who grew up in loving families may have seen effective alternatives.
By contrast, Quaker methods do not have such a natural feel for those of us who are new to Quakerism. In reaching for and arriving at collective decisions, Quakers do not rely on the methods enumerated above. Our reliance is on God. We debate, yes, but we do not strive to overpower our comrades whose ideas differ from our own, not through emotional appeal, superior logic, and subtle threats.

Our methods consist of trust in one another, and love for one another, and patience. We exercise patience in listening for that still small voice that speaks in each of us, knowing from experience that it is a sure guide, both individually and collectively. Just as it is in Meetings for Worship so it is in Meetings for Business that the listening part of discussion is more vital than the speaking part.

We ask Friends to consider the following internal monologue as advice for each of us in our meetings for business:

A friend just spoke. I heard her words. What did she mean? Maybe her message is deeper than her words. I must reflect on the message in silence for a while. I must not be hasty to draw conclusions. What new thoughts rise up in me because of what was said? What stirrings come from a deep and centered place?

Perhaps I had an immediate reaction, had a sense of great urgency. How could she be so wrong? Why can she not see what I see? What if others are persuaded to her point of view? How can her point be spiritual? It seems so political (or ignorant) (or unloving). The Meeting will make a mistake.
The temptation is great. Just stand up and rebut her remarks. But should I? Is my thought a new idea that no one has expressed? If new, should I share it? Does it come from a deep place? Probably I should speak … but have I allowed enough silence for others?

And what if I have spoken before? By speaking again am I not usurping time wherein another might speak? And what if my thoughts have already been said by another? Then that Friend spoke my mind, and I can rest content knowing my thought has already been added to our debate.

I sit relaxed and confident, expectantly waiting. There is no rush. All in good time. All in God’s time. The silence and the speaking continue. What new thing can I bring to the discussion that may resolve the dilemma of indecision; what contribution can I make that may uncover our underlying unity?

Perhaps I should wait for insight, as I do in Meeting for Worship. I can hold everyone assembled here in the Light. Maybe this is the best thing I can do. It is a good thing … and often it can be the very best thing if the discussion is divisive and unity elusive.
Additionally, I remember that although it is the responsibility of the Clerks to listen intently and carefully for the sense of the meeting, this is also my responsibility. It may be a Friend other than the clerk, maybe even myself, who will grasp the sense of the meeting and express it for the group.

By R. Neal Peterson, 2010