1. Can I come to a business meeting if I am not a Member?
2. How long will the business meeting last?
3. Will I have to do anything if I attend?
4. Can I take an active part in the discussion?
5. Is there anything special I should do when I am speaking?
6. How do I express disagreement with what others have said?
7. How often may I speak?
8. What happens if I don't like the minute drawn up by the clerk?
9. What if Friends who are not present do not agree with the minute?
10. Who sets the agenda?
11. How do I get something on the agenda?
'Quaker business' is a general term which covers items such as membership, finance, the concerns of individual Friends in relation to the Society and its work, as well as relations with other organisations.
Quaker business meetings are held regularly. The structure is organised at local level (Preparative Meetings), smaller and larger district levels (Monthly and General Meetings) and [regional or] national level (Yearly Meeting). Monthly Meeting is the principal meeting for business and deals with membership, property, finance, appointments, arrangements for Quaker weddings, etc. It is the main link between members and the Society of Friends [regionally or] nationally.
As you will discover, Friends' business meetings are quite unlike other business meetings you might have experienced. Their form differs from that of a debating society or a union or board meeting. Their form is also liable to vary in detail from one monthly meeting to another. There is a form to it, but it is a flexible one, sensitive to the needs of the individual meeting. Perhaps a Friends' business meeting can be described as an exercise in attentiveness, in listening to the promptings of the Spirit. The overriding need is to discern the will of God in the meeting, and business meetings should be conducted with that fundamental aim in mind.
The physical setting of the meeting reflects this worshipful atmosphere. Where possible, the members of the meeting sit in a semi-circle facing the clerk. The clerk is not in any sense a minister or priest but is there to help the meeting to articulate its decision in the form of an acceptable minute.
* Everything from the initial silence to the final handshake is to be regarded as worship.
* We observe silence between individuals' contributions. These silences are crucial, not only for the period of reflection they provide; but also because they enable a meeting to proceed as a gathered body. They act as a brake against one or more individuals seizing control of the meeting through rhetorical display, appeal to emotions or other means.
* We try to come to meeting in a prayerful, open state of mind, so that we may be open to the Spirit. In the meeting, we strive to lay ourselves open to others' arguments: no matter how much we may think truth is on our side we must consider the possibility that we may be mistaken. The true spirit of the business method is thus one of attentive listening.
* We should not speak until called upon to do so by the clerk. The usual way to indicate that we wish to speak is to stand up [or raise one's hand]. In particular, we do not attempt to speak while the clerk is trying to draft a minute.
* We normally speak once only on a subject unless responding to a direct question or giving factual information. (We may speak on another subject if we want, however.) We speak plainly. We do not speechify, hector or attempt to filibuster. It is appropriate to speak with conviction or with passion, but not with prejudice.
* We may express contradictory views, but do not argue with one another in meeting. We state what we want to say frankly and briefly without belittling each others' points. The meeting thus should never become a debating club; nor should the situation ever arise where we try to interrupt or shout down another's contribution. Having spoken once to the issue, we must trust that if further valid points occur to us, others will raise them.
* If documents are brought to the meeting, they may be referred to, but should not be read out unless the clerk or meeting asks for them.
The clerk is a recorder of the minute of the meeting, one who helps those present discern the will of God within the meeting. The clerk prepares the agenda; and may also introduce an item on the agenda by summarising it. An assistant clerk sits at the table to help to read out relevant information. In these activities the clerks wield considerable power to influence the way issues are presented to the meeting. Although the clerk faces the meeting physically, he or she certainly does not either lead the meeting as a convener or chairperson may, nor express a view. In discussion, the clerk can pull together and summarise feelings which are being expressed in the meeting. He or she can act as shapers of debate, encouraging silent or reluctant Friends to participate in it. The clerk can also remind Friends when they are speaking at too great length.
In these activities, clerks require paradoxical gifts of restraint and fluency, discipline and sensitivity. But perhaps the greatest test of a clerk's ability to read the collective mind of the meeting lies in the ability to draw up, at an appropriate time, the minute which will express the sense of the meeting to those present and to others beyond the meeting. Sometimes a meeting cannot come to a decision on an issue; sometimes the feeling may be strong that a decision must be reached, but the meeting may be perplexed as to what the decision may be. In these as in many like situations, the clerk needs to discern the true sense of God's will.
The minute records the decision of the meeting on a given topic. If it is more than simply a factual recording, the minute will also indicate the context and reason underlying the decision. While the clerk reflects on what has been said by those present and is composing the minute, the rest of the meeting remains silent. It requires sensitivity on the part of the clerk to discern when it is appropriate to begin to write a minute. Similarly, we should be sensitive as to when the clerk wants to begin writing the minute.
When the minute is drafted, the clerk reads it out to the meeting, after which those present can begin 'speaking to the minute.' They might want to question its wording, or perhaps the way it reflects accurately one contribution but distorts another. If necessary, the minute is then rewritten by the clerk and re-presented to the meeting. The agreed item is not generally opened up for further discussion.
In all cases, the meeting must unite in agreement on the minute, for the minute should be an accurate recording not only of the decision reached, but of the collective spirit of the meeting.
QUESTIONS YOU MIGHT WANT TO ASK
Preparative Meeting usually lasts about an hour. Monthly Meeting usually lasts for three or four hours with a break for lunch and is followed by a sociable tea. General Meeting is usually much the same but once a year meets for a whole weekend.
If you are referring to someone who has spoken earlier the correct Quaker practice is to say 'As our Friend reported' or 'As our Friend Jane Smith has been explaining'. Quakers do not refer to themselves as Mr. or Mrs. or 'ladies' or 'gentlemen'.
If feelings are running high on a subject, the clerk might stand, in which case anyone speaking should stop. The clerk, or any Friend for that matter, might call for a period of reflective silence.
A Friend who is seriously at odds with the Minute on an important topic may say that he or she cannot unite with it. The clerk will ask if that Friend is willing to let the business proceed nevertheless. The Friend can agree to this, or agree but have the dissent minuted, or continue to oppose the Minute. The clerk may in this last case conclude that 'We are not of one mind' and the business may be carried forward uncompleted.
This document explains Friends' business meeting practices at Glasgow Meeting, Scotland. While certain elements of that practice will differ at other Meetings (for example, at Homewood Meeting in Maryland we have a recording clerk who writes minutes, and we raise our hands to be recognized by the clerk), this document nevertheless provides a useful introduction to Quaker meetings for business. I have made a few additions (items in brackets) to clarify matters for Friends in other areas of the world. -- George Amoss
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