Principle vs. Preference: The Speed of Quaker Decision-Making

c. wess daniels
Dec 22, 2017 · 19 min read

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.

“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

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.

The decision before the decision and the decision after the decision.

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.

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.

flickr credit: mawoo86
  1. 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).
  2. By the clerk doing their own spiritual work around humility, listening, and giving up any pretenses to per-ordained decisions.
  3. 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.

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!

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.

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.”

This simple formula of adjudicating between principle and preference does wonders for the speed and the flow of a community trying to make decisions.

Getting stuck on debating all my preferences clogs 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.

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.


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:


*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.”).”

Nursery of Truth

Publishing articles written about the present and future of…

Nursery of Truth

Publishing articles written about the present and future of the Quaker tradition with an emphasis on remix, praxis and dialogue within contemporary culture.

c. wess daniels

Written by

Is the author of “Convergent Model of Renewal: Remixing The Quaker Tradition in a Participatory Culture” and the Director of Friends Center at Guilford College.

Nursery of Truth

Publishing articles written about the present and future of the Quaker tradition with an emphasis on remix, praxis and dialogue within contemporary culture.