Principle vs. Preference: The Speed of Quaker Decision-Making
Finding my Way into Group Discernment
One of the most often questions I get asked as a Quaker by non-Quakers is how do we practice the “Quaker discernment process,” or consensus decision-making, as it is sometimes called. And the follow up question, if there is one, is about whether or not Quaker process takes as long as it sounds like it must take. The Quaker group process of working towards a “sense of the Meeting” is not just baffling to many, it is downright alien to the typical person (see here for more on Sense of the Meeting). I don’t blame folks for not knowing how to practice Quaker decision-making, I didn’t know or really understand it until I began to pastor a Quaker Meeting* where I learned under the tutelage of folks who had been doing it for a long time.
In this post, I want to address the speed of Quaker discernment, but before we get there, I want to address the first part of this question: the fact that group discernment is so different.
What I have come to understand is that Quaker decision-making is deeply counter-cultural for a culture of people who grow up learning to value the practice of voting.
Group discernment is not the norm, nor is it obvious how it is done. You cannot learn it through osmosis. It is something that must be taught and apprenticed to. Once you learn it and once you are in a community that really embraces it as their own, it can become second-nature, but that is not where you start. There are rules and virtues internal to the practice of Quaker decision-making that one can only learn after embedding oneself deeply into the practice.
Overtime group discernment can begin to feel more normal. Some longtime Quakers will admit to feeling weird ever voting. In my family so much of our own parenting style is shaped by the underlying principles of Quaker process that we even often select TV shows and Friday night movies through a consensus-lite process and when we don’t there’s mutiny!
“We didn’t all agree to watch the Flash,” says our eight year old.
In our house parents still have veto power. :)
It is also counter-cultural because it moves at a different pace and is oriented around not having losers and winners (or blocking those whose voices we do not want to hear), but rather discerning together God’s will for the whole community. Because this practice is not the norm it doesn’t come easy and is not something people come pre-loaded knowing how to do. That means it is something we need to teach explicitly to those in our community and we need to be willing to brush up on these practices as a community as needed. This is not something you do once and master. New people in a community change the dynamic and offer us new opportunities to relearn and re-articulate these practices. Each new decision that comes before a meeting brings with it new challenges and opportunities. But when the community commits to doing this work together then they will experience the truth of Jan Wood’s words when she says,
“Quaker decision-making is less about arriving at a final decision and more about becoming the people of God together.”
Three Ways To Impact The Speed of Quaker Process
The running joke is that Quaker process “takes forever.” In my Quaker orientation Kahoot, I made for first year students at Guilford College one of the options to the question, “When it comes to decision-making, Quakers…” is the answer, “Decisions? Why make decisions?” Quakers probably make this joke far more than even non-Quakers do.
There can be truth in it. It does take time and patience, something we 21st century folks like to think we have very little of. I am not going to try and paint this “Quaker process is perfect” picture. It’s not. But neither is voting. No human system of organizing community is perfect. Instead, I’d like to contend that Quaker process of decision-making is intended to constantly re-center the entire community around the desire and call of God on that community.
Beyond this, I am not sure whether the joke about the speed of Quaker process is actually true?
For one, it seems to assume that making quick decisions is always best (in some cases, yes, a quick decision is best — a child having an allergic reaction needs a different kind of decision than working out a community budget, but I do not believe this is not true for every decision — say picking a life partner or writing out a new mission statement. Secondly, it’s hard to know how much time a decision takes because there are at least two entry points: the entry point prior to a decision versus the entry point after a decision is made.
As Robert Wood writes:
The search for the sense of the Meeting is time-consuming, and many people who are used to voting procedures think it highly inefficient. However, after many years of working with it in a variety of quite different Quaker institutions, I believe that the time from idea to action may be about the same in both systems, and that a truly shared sense of Meeting facilitates collective action. What is shorter in voting systems, where the majority rules, is the time from idea to decision; but if the decision does not reflect a consensus, the time from decision to action can be long indeed.
Here are three ways I see communities practicing group discernment can have a real impact on the speed that it takes to follow this process.
1. The Decision After the Decision
In another post, I take up the idea of the before and after of a decision. Commonly, so much of our emphasis is on the lead up to the actual decision, but there is a lot to be said for communities and people who are able to support and adjust when a decision has been made.
I learned this lesson most powerfully when I had a very clear leading to say “yes” to something that I knew had the potential to impact the larger community I was in. After saying “yes,” making a quick decision in the moment because that was what was called for, I went to the elders of my Meeting and told them about the decision I’d made, the reasons why I made it, and then asked for their help in knowing how to move forward. They could have taken this and said, “You need to go back on that decision until we have time to have “proper” process around it.” They were certainly entitled to that response. But I think they understand to that there are multiple ways into decision-making as a group.
After I was done sharing the backstory, the clerk of elders asked time of silent waiting worship (see also this fuller description). Eventually one of the elders spoke, not just in support of the decision, but offered one piece of the next step in moving forward. Then another spoke up and offered another piece. Then another and another. This showed me that there should be as much importance on the back-end of decision as on the front-end, and sometimes even more.
Our ability to track with and build upon the initial decision that has been initiated in a community is actually an essential part of participating in the decision-making process of that community.
It’s one thing for a leader, a committee, or a community to say “we’re going to do this,” it’s quite another to actually to take the role of “yes, and” and carry that decision forward in new and creative ways. This saying “yes” builds the community because it requires the whole community to do so.
The first point about Quaker process and the speed at which a decision is made then is this: it matters where you put the emphasis of the decision. If it is simply getting the “yes” or “no” of a vote, and our question about timing doesn’t include the participation in the decisions-after-the-decision or the-actions-after-the-decision, then we are not taking into account all of the cost of time, emotion, and work involved in decision-making as a community building process.
2. The Clerk Disappears
A second aspect that helps loosen up the ligaments in Quaker process enough to help keep things moving is this: the ability of the clerk to remain both humble and in a posture of authentic listening to both God and the community. The role of the clerk within a Quaker Meeting is essential to the proper functioning of group discernment in that community.
Consider this metaphor between remix and discernment and the role a clerk plays as the “turntablist” in a Quaker Meeting:
One of the clearest ways that we practice remix is through discernment. Discernment is in fact the DJ turntable of the Quaker community, it is the space where the various tracks, or threads come together, and are mixed together by the Holy Spirit and by the discerning community. This is the table where the original artwork, the traditions we draw on, are mixed with the convictions and concerns of the discerning community under the Holy Spirit… (From Discernment and Remix)
The ability of the clerk to hold together these various threads, tensions, and potentially competing interests requires that they are able to “get out of the way” enough to allow the music to speak for itself. If the DJ is good enough, the music blends together so well, so beautifully, you don’t even know they are there. The best DJs “disappear” while the music takes center stage. In a similar way in a Quaker Meeting, the clerk disappears. A really good clerk of a Quaker process is someone who is able to work the turntable enough that they go unseen so that God’s will as it is being discerned by the community can take center stage. This is why it requires such great humility to be a good clerk.
Typically clerks in Meetings understand that theirs is a position of humble service to the community. It is the one role in the Meeting where you voluntarily are meant to give up your own voice, your own power and position, so that the will of God can be discerned by the whole Meeting. You are the one person who is responsible to be listening deeply and authentically enough so that other people can hear and listen.
In other words, I believe that the clerk’s position is the most humble position in a meeting. Theirs is the position by which there is no position; they are shepherds or the “DJs” of the process itself, making sure that everyone in the community is able to do their best listening.
This is very challenging spiritual work and not something someone takes lightly or agrees to easily. They know that there will be challenging ego-work in this role. They also know how hard it is to not get hooked by one side vs. another, giving in easily to “positions” rather than listening and guiding process.
But this can be done in at least four ways:
- By focusing intently on the process rather than the content under discussion.
- By helping to educate everyone else in the room about what they are supposed to be doing (thus taking some of the weight of the clerk to lead us or save us).
- By the clerk doing their own spiritual work around humility, listening, and giving up any pretenses to per-ordained decisions.
- By helping the Meeting to give up any per-ordained decisions and to enter into a business meeting “with hearts and minds clear” and ready to do the work together as a community.
The alternative is to continue to “dance the old” as Kester Brewin says, that is to say, to not take up this work of humility is to continue to play into the human propensity of tribalism, suspicion of others, and division around decisions.
“Only if I am still. Only if I have stopped what I was doing to listen and hold my breath and enter some spiritual apnea and wait. The perception of the new step will come only to those brave enough to stop dancing the old. The realization that we must descend this low peak will come only to those prepared to stop and take stock of their position. We fear that if we stopped for a week, a month, a service, a moment, we might be forgotten, or lose our momentum, weaken our profile, appear ill-thought-out and failing.
A number of years ago I joined an ad hoc committee, which was tasked with making some recommendations to the larger board we were on around a very challenging topic. I had a very clear stance and was not particularly willing to give it up under the guise that I felt morally justified in my position. When it came time for the committee to select a clerk, I realized that I needed to offer myself so that my voice would be taken out of play. Because I felt so clear that it was my way or the highway on this topic, there was no way I could be a good participant in the group, nor would I help the decision move smoothly because if there were any dissenters I was prepared to challenge them. In taking up the clerking role, I voluntarily laid all of that down and entered a different position in the group. It helped me to take the focus off my position and “the issue,” and instead focus in on the practice of listening and following the Quaker process. In doing so, a third way was able to emerge, our process through this very sticky situation was smooth, and we delivered a very solid recommendation in a timely manner.
The ability to let go of the old dance of taking sides and arguing the minutiae of the issues, rather than listening for the deeper, emerging truths allows Quaker process to be freed up to work more smoothly. Working smoothly is not always equal to speed, but often it means that it is working within the time constraints the community has placed upon it. Humility and the ability for the clerk to do their own spiritual work of laying down prejudices helps free the community to follow a smooth(er) process.
3. The Community’s Impact on Speed
I have primarily focused on the clerk’s role up to this point. Now I want to think about the rest of the group. In a sense, everyone should be clerking, as my friend John Helding, founding clerk of Quaker Voluntary Service, has said on more than one occasion. That is to say, what I have said above really should be true for everyone in the Meeting! You do that, and you’ll be amazed by the kind of flow one can have in a Quaker meeting for business!
Two ways everyone can clerk and help the flow of a business meeting:
A. Quaker Process as “Weak Link” Organizing
First, a majority of the group invests in becoming knowledgeable in the Quaker practice of group discernment. You do not need everyone to know how to practice Quaker process for it to work, but the more who know, the more who are invested in taking up the authentic work of being personally and corporately changed through this kind of process, the better the process becomes.
Quaker process is a “weak link” way of organizing or thinking. Here is a quick summary about this idea I first heard on Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History Podcast episode “My Little Hundred Million.”
“According to some economists who have studied the issue, the way to maximize wins in soccer is to improve your worst player. Success typically comes to those who have have better 9th, 10th, and 11th players rather than those who have the best player. It is argued that this is due to the nature of the sport being that one player typically cannot create opportunities alone. Thus, it makes sense to invest in making your least talented players better relative to your opponent. Soccer is a weak link sport for this reason.
Alternatively, basketball is a strong link sport. Typically, the team with the best player wins. It’s a star driven sport because one player can have an outsized impact on the game despite also having the worst player on the floor as a teammate. It is nearly impossible to prevent a great player from getting the ball, and/or helping his team score.” Link
Too often we’re looking for the clerk, or the pastor, or this or that elder, to be the star of the basketball team. Quaker process was never meant to follow a “strong link” approach, and it breaks not only the intention of the process, but the actual process itself by creating a space where only the strongest, loudest voices are heard (because they are either not intimated by the clerk or because they mirror the clerk’s voice).
B. Discerning Between Principle & Preference
Second, when it comes down to thinking about a way forward on a decision, people are expected to distinguish between “principle and preference.”
During a meeting for business the clerk would often remind Friends to consider whether the concerns they were raising were a matter of preference or principle. This is not always easy to do and requires a good amount of ego work. But when I am honest with myself, when I have the good of the community at the forefront of my mind, then I am usually able to adjudicate between the two.
I know difference between saying something like, “We can’t stop doing that, that’s my favorite…” and, “If we did that it would radically change the nature of how we interact with that community and we made a commitment to them when we…” One is rooted in a narrative where my wants and desires and I am the center, the other is rooted in a narrative where our community’s needs or another community’s needs or God’s own calling is at the center.
Usually, in a community that cares for one another, when someone shares a preference, the rest know so, and are able to address it gently, sometimes in that Meeting, sometimes in other, appropriate settings. The same is true for principle. I have been in meetings where I have heard someone share a matter of principle that went against what I wanted. As I reflected on what the Friend said, I realized that what I wanted was a preference that did not rise to the level of a principle and so I needed to step back; I came to a place where I was able to say, “At the end of the day, if I am being honest with myself, this is only my preference and therefore I am able to let it go.”
This simple formula of adjudicating between principle and preference does wonders for the speed and the flow of a community trying to make decisions.
It doesn’t fix everything but it makes an impact. When people are doing the hard work of filtering their own ego, their own preferences and principles, and are educating themselves over and over again in the process, the process typically runs smoothly because the clerk, and the process as a whole, are not being bogged down with all the extra non-essentials. In my experience, these non-essentials of ego and preference are often the cholesterol that blocks the arteries of Quaker group discernment.
We too often confuse our preferences with our principles. We are quick to make every preference a principle!
Not only does this conflation between preference and principle betray our own unwillingness to tame our ego, but it may be the single most way to guarantee that a process will take forever. If we constantly debate and bicker over our preferences with one another, thus avoiding the deeper listening work we are being invited into, we can very easily end up in a blood clot.
But if we are able let go enough, so that I do not expect, nor need, everyone to have the same preferences as me, then we can actually find a way to either keep the arteries of the process clear enough or get them unclogged so that things keep moving (to keep the artery metaphor going just a little longer!).
C. Creating Low Threshold Acts of Community
Finally, communities that put effort into relationships across the Meeting or organization outside the of the times when group decisions need to be made have a greater capacity to handle the hard stuff when it comes, trust each other enough to do that hard work, and understand the nuances, back stories, preferences/principles, and needs of the members of their community.
If you try doing a heavy lift on cold muscles you are bound to get hurt. If you got for a 30 mile bike ride when you haven’t ridden in 6 months (Like I’ve done), you’re gonna be sore. In a similar way, we have to exercise and stretch the muscles of community before we do hard work together. It’s no wonder group discernment fails or slows to a halt when we are in communities that rarely ever do these kinds of “warm ups.”
I came across a very stark image of the kind of individualism I see too often in groups trying to do this kind of heavy lifting of group discernment:
“I personally know of this isolation and fragmentation. From the age of five until I left home at twenty-three I lived with my parents in an apartment building in New York City. There were two apartments to a floor, separated by a small foyer and elevator. As there were eleven stories above the first, this building was the compact home for twenty-two families. I knew the last name of the family across the foyer. I never knew the first names of their children. I stepped foot in their apartment once in those seventeen years. I knew the last names of two other families in the building; I could not even address the remaining eighteen. I did address most of the elevatormen [sic]; I never knew any of their last names” (M. Scott Peck, “The Different Drum, 27).
While this is rather stark, how many Quaker Meetings and other organizations are we in where we don’t know first or last names of folks who have been there forever? How many of these folks we worship or work with do we know where they live or have ever seen, let alone step into their homes? How many of their children do we remember their names? How many people in these places we call our community do we know their backstories? Now if I take this list of questions and expand it beyond the few folks who I “like,” who look, think, act like me. How well do I with this list?
If this is the start of our relationships and then we sit down to try to come together as a group around something big and controversial, how well does that go? Quaker process may be easy to blame but it is clearly not the problem.
We need more emphasis in our Meetings and organizations around low threshold activities. Activities that are low stakes, activities that are focused on getting out of the normal patterns, places, and conversations we typically in and instead work to cut across the usual cliques, get people sharing “life” in different ways and in new contexts. These are some of the very things many of us are missing in life more generally, Meetings can be a place where these connections are fostered.
I have three examples of what this could look like, but you could come up with many more. In Washington, a friend of mine who is an Episcopal priest and I started something we called “God Pub.” It was an opportunity for Quakers and Episcopals to come together at a local pub and talk about issues around faith with new people, in a relaxed/unusual setting, and with a different forum or agenda. We would pose some basic starter questions and then folks would share as they felt comfortable. This was not only very successful in terms of engagement from our churches, but it was successful in hearing stories, concerns, and questions about things people would never feel comfortable enough to share on a Sunday morning.
A Second example is working together. Doing a project like working together at a soup kitchen or something like a Laundry Love effort with a small group of people creates opportunities to get to know your neighbors and people in this small group in ways that you wouldn’t know otherwise.
Finally, I have done, on occasion, something we called “Living Room Stories.” It was essentially an “Moth” styled open mic night, at someone’s home, where there would be hors d’oeuvre and a topic set for the evening. You couldn’t imagine the amazing life stories we heard about from people you could never imagine doing what?!
To add a fourth, any low-level, informal get togethers: backyard BBQs, getting coffee together, meeting with other parents at a playground, etc. No one thing will be a fix. But you get enough low threshold activities happening in a community where people can find their way into the parts that they connect with and this really helps to change the dynamics of a community, which in turn changes the dynamics of our Meetings and group discernment. Multiple contacts with low threshold activities build capacity and resilience for when the time comes for higher threshold moments in the life of a community. But before we get there, we’re going to have to learn each other’s first and last names.
Quaker discernment and the decision-making is a spiritual work. This is why for Quakers, it is always done in a manner of worship. People don’t just come to this naturally, and it is hard work. But it is growth work; it not only makes us a better community, it can make us better people for the world. That’s enough for me to submit myself to something that can often seem strange to the outside world, even if it does take a little longer.
If you are interested in more writing on Quaker group discernment here are a few posts:
Learning How to Tell Time and Quaker Process
I'm enjoying the process of Reading and reflecting on Scripture weekly as I prepare my reflections for our Sunday. This…
Blocking and Quakerism as a "No" Tradition
The Quaker movement began like other Radical Reformation traditions, rejecting the basic Christian creeds. This wasn't…
*I have followed the guidance of my good f/Friend and Clerk of San Francisco Friends Meeting, Chad Stephenson on capitalizing “Meeting,” as he says: “‘meeting’ vs. ‘Meeting’ — always a good debate; I have preferred/come down on the side of using “Meeting” when I mean a proper noun (e.g. “the Meeting”) or if it is included in a noun phrase (“sense of the Meeting”) but prefer “meeting” when I mean the common term (e.g. “in our meeting today, the sense of the Meeting is that we should move forward.”).”