An Introduction to Quaker Business Practice
subcommittee meeting of the Special Commission on
Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches
This paper is also published on the WCC web site
This paper is intended as an introduction to how Quakers make decisions,
and why we do it that way. The hope is that this perspective might
be helpful to the Special Commission as it asks these questions
of the WCC’s own process. In offering this introduction, I
speak, as is the custom among Friends, from my own experience of
the Divine truth as I have received it and without any authority
to speak officially for the Religious Society of Friends. My experience
is as an American Friend, and I offer here a reflection on the practice
used by American and European Friends. Friends all over the world
have discovered the ways that Quaker practice speaks to their condition.
I hope that my contribution can be supplemented in the future by
contributions from non-western Quakers, and that a richer picture
might thus emerge which could be of even greater use to the World
Council of Churches.
The first comment to make about Quaker business practice is that
it is of central importance to Friends. It is rooted in our deepest
theological affirmations, and is one of our highest spiritual experiences.
To ask a Quaker to describe the Meeting for Business is to ask for
a testimony of the core of our faith. Therefore I will need to start
here with some basic theological affirmations, and then proceed
to draw their implications for decision-making.
The primary theological doctrine and spiritual experience of Friends
is that the living Christ is present to teach us Himself. No priestly
intermediary is necessary for Divine access, for "there is
One, Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition."1 Rooted
in such texts as John’s prologue, Quakers believe that the
Light of Christ is given in some measure to all people. This experience
of the immediate presence of Christ, both personally and corporately,
implies that we may be led by the Inward Teacher. Since Christ is
not divided, the nearer we come to Him, the nearer we will be to
one another. Thus the sense of being led into Unity with one another
becomes a fundamental mark of the Divine work in the world.
Based on this theology, Friends commit themselves to discovering
and implementing the will of God. This is the purpose of the Quaker
Meeting for Business. "Since our method of transacting business
presumes that in a given matter there is a way that is in harmony
with God’s plan, our search is for that right way, and not
simply for a way which is either victory for some faction, or an
expedient compromise."2 What we call "the Sense of the
Meeting" is not the collected wisdom of those present, but
the collective discernment of God’s will. There is no place
for activities such as motions, seconds, amendments and votes in
our process of collective discernment. Our bold affirmation is that
God does indeed have a will for us, that God is actively trying
to communicate that will, and that we are capable, through corporate
prayer, to discover that will. A sign that we have achieved our
goal of discerning God’s will is the experience of Unity which
is recognized and affirmed by those gathered.
Quakers profess a theocratic understanding of authority. "The
primary authority is that of God, as the God whose will is sought,
as Christ who presides, and as the Holy Spirit who inspires and
empowers. Thus the task of the meeting is to listen in worship,
putting itself under that authority, to discern the right way forward
on any piece of business."3 All human leadership is subordinated
to the authority of Christ, the true shepherd of any gathering of
Christians. All participants in the Meeting are equally capable
of being used by the Holy Spirit, and those who moderate the Meeting
are seen as servants of the gathering discernment process.
A Quaker Meeting for Business is conducted in the context of worship,
and with the same expectant waiting upon the Spirit as in the Meeting
for Worship. The Business Meeting begins and ends with periods of
open worship, and an atmosphere of reverence and devotion is maintained
throughout the Meeting. Each contribution to the discussion is heard
in a spirit of prayer. As the spiritual momentum grows and the movement
of Christ is felt among us, we experience the Gathered Meeting,
in which we are gathered into Unity with Christ and become of one
heart and mind.
Quakers do not practice the outward ritual of Eucharist in our worship,
but seek rather to experience and celebrate the inward spiritual
participation in Christ’s death and resurrection which comes
from being raised up together into Unity in God. "We believe
that a corporate practice of the presence of God, a corporate knowledge
of Christ in our midst, a common experience of the work of the Spirit,
constitute the supremely real sacrament of a Holy Communion."4
In the experience of Quakers, the Meeting for Business is one of
the deepest occasions for this "eucharistic" event. Thus
the spiritual depth of the Meeting is cherished and upheld throughout.
"The right conduct of Business Meetings, even in routine matters,
is important to the spiritual life of all. Care must be taken that
the enduring value of a spiritual community is not sacrificed to
the immediate goal of action."5
"Consensus" is a word sometimes used to describe a Quaker-like
process. Yet Quakers would insist that this is not the most suitable
term. Consensus (or unanimous consent, or general agreement) are
based on the work of human wisdom and reason, whereas "the
Sense of the Meeting" is based on the prompting of the Spirit.
Consensus is commonly understood to require mutual compromise --
shaving away at positions until we find a core which is objectionable
to none. The Quaker approach tries instead to reach toward a higher
and greater Truth that speaks to all concerns in ways that could
not have been foreseen. We discover what God wants for us, as opposed
to what we thought we wanted. "Consensus is the product of
an intellectual process. Sense of the Meeting is a commitment of
faith."6 This difference is more than semantic. In resisting
the word "consensus" we refuse to allow our Sacrament
to become secularized. Preferred terms would be "Unity"
or "Sense of the Meeting". The latter emphasizes the goal
for the Gathered Meeting, and the former evokes the core theological
affirmation of God’s will for humanity.
I will freely admit that a Quaker Meeting for Business is vulnerable
to abuse. Those who do not enter the process in a right spirit can
seriously jeopardize the Meeting. In order for the Meeting to function,
the members must share a commitment to a spiritual discipline. This
discipline is cultivated rather than regulated, and it takes time
to acquire. There is no official list of rules, although each Yearly
Meeting (autonomous Quaker church) has a book of discipline which
gives guidance on the spirit and practice of the Meeting for Business.
Some elements of the discipline are:
attitude toward God: We enter into the Business Meeting with hearts
and minds prepared to be led by the Holy Spirit. We renew our commitment
to Divine authority and our belief that the living Christ is present
this day to teach and lead us. We submit to Divine will and seek
to lay our own strong feelings and desires before God.
attitude toward the other members: Our process places a high value
on the strength of the community. A Sense of the Meeting is only
achieved when those participating respect and care for one another.
It requires a humble and loving spirit, imputing purity of motive
to all participants and offering our highest selves in return. We
seek to create a safe space for sharing. We pray that we might listen
carefully, respectfully, lovingly. We listen always for the presence
of God through what someone is saying, knowing that each of us is
endowed with some measure of Divine Light. The creation of the blessed
community is both a necessary prerequisite and an inevitable by-product
of corporate discernment. While this is most easily accomplished
at the local level, where members are already known to each other,
it has been our experience that, when we ask the Lord’s help,
deep Christian community can form even among strangers.
attitude toward the process: We value process over product, action
or outcome. We respect each other’s thoughts, feelings and
insights more than expedient action. The process of reaching a decision
yields more "results" than the decisions themselves. Attention
to the Divine movement in the community is, in fact, the source
of decision and action, so that process and outcome are ideally
two sides of the same Sacramental experience. Through that experience
of the Unity of the Meeting, we are prepared for faithful discipleship
in the church and world. A decision which is made without that experience
is of little value.
attitude toward potential outcomes: We know that none of us is
likely to enter the Meeting with a fully-formed understanding of
the will of God, and so we expect that a new way will emerge which
is not necessarily identified with the position of any person or
faction. "... a group, meeting in the right spirit, may be
given greater insight than any single person."7 "A gathered
meeting under the authority of God is often able to find unity in
creative ways which were not considered before the meeting but which
become apparent during its course. Though the process of Quaker
business may take some time, at the end it can find a united meeting
able to act swiftly because the action has been widely agreed."8
commitment to the authority of the meeting: All authority rests
in God. Once the Meeting has discerned God’s will as best
it can at that moment in time, the decision of the Meeting is vested
with a measure of Divine authority. Decisions are not "revisited"
by staff, clerks or committees. Those who were not present accept
the decision of the Meeting. This is not to say that the Meeting’s
decisions have ultimate authority, since our discernment is never
free of human imperfection. The Meeting itself can always revisit
decisions, and new light may be found.
role of human leadership: The Meeting is served by a Presiding
Clerk, and often also a Recording Clerk. Friends are appointed for
a limited time, and these roles are widely shared among the membership.
The Clerks have no formal authority of their own and can not speak
for the Meeting. Their task is to focus and enable the discernment
of the Meeting by laying business before it in an orderly way, managing
the pace and discipline of the discussion, listening for the Sense
of the Meeting to emerge, restating that Sense in clear language
and asking for approval, and recording the business in written minutes.
The Clerks develop the agenda and discern whether an issue is ripe
for consideration by the Meeting or needs further seasoning by a
committee. The Clerks are responsible for judging the "weight"
of each comment by discerning the movement of the Spirit in the
Meeting, rather than developing a tally of opinions pro and con.
The Clerks are servants of the Meeting and not participants in the
discussion. On rare occasion, when a Clerk finds that he or she
must speak to an item of business, a replacement Clerk must be found
until that item is concluded. Thus we avoid the temptation to assign
any authority to human figures which would obscure our utter dependence
on the authority of God.
role of written minutes: The Clerk makes sure the Meeting understands
what is being approved by stating it in clear language which is
written down, read back, discussed and approved by the Meeting at
the time the decision is made. The minutes, once approved, become
authoritative. They are kept and referred to indefinitely. Thus
minutes and minute-taking are crucial to the process, and are seen
as a weighty spiritual practice rather than clerical function.
preparing an item of business: Generally, the Business Meeting
benefits from having items seasoned beforehand by a committee. The
committee usually brings the item with a recommendation, but even
if it does not, it should have done some work on preparing the item
and anticipating various questions and concerns.
personal conduct: We usually only speak once to each item. We
only speak when recognized by the Clerk. We don’t plan messages
ahead of time, but listen instead to the movement of the Spirit
and pray for guidance as to whether we are being led to speak. We
fully expect that our message may not be needed, as God may have
empowered another individual to offer the same insight. We do not
offer redundant messages, since the Sense of the Meeting is not
discerned by a tally of opinions. We pray continuously for the Meeting
and its Clerks. Friends often find the Meeting for Business to be
a purgative, humbling and awe-inspiring experience as we let go
of our own self and personal agenda. Although the Meeting is a solemn
event, humor is sometimes appropriate and helpful. We refrain from
comments which suggest argument, debate or an attempt to convince,
and rather give testimony to our experience of the leading of the
Spirit in this matter. We listen thoughtfully and respectfully,
observing a pause between messages for deeper listening. Each person
present has a responsibility to participate and not hold back if
they are led to speak. Every member of the church has the responsibility
to attend the Business Meeting to the extent they are able.
on dissent: "If an individual differs from what appears to
be the general sense of the Meeting, it may be taken as a sign that
the Divine will has not quite been grasped."9 The Meeting should
be especially sensitive to sincere expressions of difference from
the growing Unity. These may indicate that the Meeting has not truly
listened to God’s prompting among us. When a Friend feels
he or she must "stand in the way" of Unity, the Meeting
and the Friend will patiently labor together in hopes of coming
to a truer understanding of God’s will. However, individuals
do not hold a power of veto, and should be ready to recognize the
validity of corporate leadings and to submit to them if conscience
allows, being recorded in the minutes as "standing aside".
While we boldly profess a spirituality of unmediated relationship
with the Divine, we are always mindful of how the human person is,
in fact, already a mediating force. Our own past experience, our
fears, our sin, and the influence of our cultural context, can all
obscure our discernment of God’s will. The presence of dissent
and discord in the Meeting is therefore always an occasion for prayer,
repentance and conversion by the whole Meeting.
on time: Quaker decision making takes time. We can not allow ourselves
to be hurried. A sense of urgency or pressure can quickly erode
a process of deep seeking. We don’t impose a deadline for
making any decision. If Unity is not reached in one Meeting, the
matter is laid over.
on not finding the sense of the meeting: We take no action until
there is Unity on taking action. Thus the Quaker process is essentially
a conservative process in that respect. Things stay the same until
we are in Unity on changing them.
Friends would not claim to have perfected this process, or that
we always practice it with complete faithfulness. What I’ve
described in this paper is Quaker process in its ideal form. Most
Friends are painfully aware of how our humans falls short of the
spiritual ideal, and of how fragile our process can seem. Corporate
discernment of the will of God is a risky and imperfect proposition.
In relying so extensively on the Holy Spirit, we make ourselves
vulnerable to pitfalls and failures. However, far from being a weakness,
such vulnerability is central to our understanding of the power
of worship (and business) "in spirit and in truth." To
fall into the hands of the living God requires leaping, laying ourselves
open to risk. Our commitment to this process, and our assurance
of its outcomes, can only be proven in the eschaton, but still we
give testimony to the truth we have been given, and are able to
say that we have tested this method and found it that it does indeed
bring us into Unity with the will of God.
More could certainly be said about how Quakers make decisions, and
I hope others will supplement this paper with their own contributions.
It is exciting to Friends that the World Council of Churches is
looking at models of decision making in hopes of developing one
which is less conflict-based and more spiritually grounded. Quakers
believe that we hold our process in trust for the whole Church,
and now may be a time to share it. I hope that my contribution here
has been faithful to the gift I have been given, and that it will
prove helpful to the Special Commission as it continues to discern
God’s will for the future of the World Council of Churches.
- Brinton, Howard., Guide to Quaker Practice, Pendle Hill Pamphlet
20, Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1955.
- Faith and Practice of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends [NEYM
F&P], Worcester MA: New England Yearly Meeting, 1985.
- Morley, Barry, Beyond Consensus: Salvaging Sense of the Meeting,
Pendle Hill Pamphlet 307, Wallingford PA: Pendle Hill Publications,
- Nuhn, Ferner, Friends and the Ecumenical Movement. Philadelphia
PA: Friends General Conference, 1970.
- Sheeran SJ, Michael J., Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions
in the Religious Society of Friends, Philadelphia: Philadelphia
Yearly Meeting, 1983.
- Scott, Janet, "Worship in the Religious Society of Friends
(Quakers)", manuscript submitted as a study document for the
Faith & Order Commission of the WCC, 1998.
- Scott, Janet "Business Meetings", manuscript submitted
for inclusion in the forthcoming Dictionary of the Religious Society
of Friends, 1999.
1 George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends in the
2 Thomas Brown, Faith and Practice of New England Yearly Meeting
of Friends (hereafter NEYM F&P), p. 117.
3 Janet Scott, "Business Meetings" manuscript.
4 From a Quaker position paper written and offered by the three
Quaker delegates to the Lausanne Conference on Faith and Order in
1927. This paper, which tried to explain the Quaker position on
sacraments and the non-use of outward elements, became the center
of a heated debate on whether Quakers could be considered Christian,
and more broadly on the matter of religious liberty. The question
was finally determined by Bishop Charles Gore of the Church of England
with his statement "God is not limited by His sacraments."
see Ferner Nuhn, Friends and the Ecumenical Movement Philadelphia
PA: Friends General Conference, 1970, p. 19-22.
5 NEYM F&P p. 222.
6 Barry Morley PHP p. 5.
7 George Selleck NEYM F&P p. 116.
8 Janet Scott, "Business Meetings" manuscript.
9 George Selleck NEYM F&P p. 116.
© 2000 Eden Grace
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