Archive for September, 2010


Quaker Decision-Making

September 23, 2010

Maybe you’ve heard the folktale about three blind people who encounter an elephant. The first blind person reaches toward the elephant and grabs hold of her tail. The second blind person reaches out and grabs hold of her ear. The third blind person reaches out and touches her flank.

Later, the blind people gather to discuss their extraordinary experience. “An elephant is like a rope,” says the first blind person (who had grabbed the elephant’s tail).

“No, no, no!” insists the second blind person (who had grabbed the elephant’s ear). “An elephant is like fan of palm leaves.”

“You are both wrong,” interjects the third blind person (who had touched the elephant’s flank. “An elephant is broad, like a wall.”

This story illustrates how a larger truth can unite the different pieces we bring to the discussion. Because it’s unlikely that a single individual will possess All Truth, the Quaker decision-making process works to discover the larger Truth that can unite our different points of view.

This explains why we don’t vote. No matter which candidate (rope, fan or wall) collects the most votes, a better answer will be missed. Nor is it particularly helpful for everyone to keep insisting, “rope!” or “wall!” or “fan!” If everyone simply defends their favorite answer, then the process is doomed to fail.

For the Quaker process to work, everyone must LISTEN. Everyone must try to discern the Truth behind everyone else’s points of view. If you KNOW that an elephant feels like a broad wall, then your primary responsibility will be trying to understand how someone else could conclude that an elephant feels like a rope or a fan of palm leaves. Listen until your heart is full of understanding and compassion. Believe that there is a larger, better truth that can unite all the different perspectives. Elephants are big, but God’s Truth is even bigger!

If you are not willing to do the work of listening for the larger truth, then you are not willing to use Quaker process. You are probably arguing to win the debate. That’s a different game, altogether!

Listening is difficult work. Listening takes concentration. It requires a willingness to silence the voice in your head that insists, “Yes, but…” when someone else is speaking. A good practice is to monitor how much you are speaking. If you are speaking more than most other people, you are probably speaking too much and listening too little.

In the Quaker process of decision-making, the clerk has a very important job. From time to time, the clerk will try to articulate the larger Truth that unites all the various perspectives that have been spoken. It’s the clerk’s responsibility to say something like, “An elephant is a very large animal with diverse parts.” If the conversation has been particularly productive, the clerk might even be able to add, “The elephant has a rope-like tail; ears on either side of its head like palm fans; and a wide flank, like the side of a barn.” Or perhaps the clerk could say, “All the diverse parts of an elephant are covered in a tough and wrinkled skin.” You get the idea.

When the clerk articulates a larger Truth, this is called, “Giving the sense of the meeting.” The clerk might even say, “My sense of the meeting is that an elephant is a large animal with diverse parts, all of which are covered in skin.”

The clerk does not always get it right! Everyone who is attending the business meeting is asked to APPROVE the clerk’s work. If people agree that the clerk has captured the larger truth that unites all our different perspectives, then Friends say, “Approved.” The clerk is not asking people to approve one SIDE or the other. If there are still sides, then the work of seeking a larger truth has not yet been accomplished.

If someone feels that the clerk’s sense of the meeting is inaccurate, or incomplete, then that person has a responsibility to speak. It’s also acceptable for someone to stand and ask for silence. A period of silence gives us an opportunity to reflect on the proposed “sense of the meeting” before making any final decisions. In fact, a good clerk will often interject periods of silence throughout the process.

Despite all our best practices, we can still find ourselves at an impasse. When no larger, unifying Truth suggests itself, it is tempting fall into old habits of “us” and “them.” Let us remember to practice humility and compassion! If there is no clarity, the clerk may decide that there is NO sense of the meeting. Instead of making a decision, the community will have to wait. Fortunately, a month of prayer and reflection can sometimes resolve what couldn’t be resolved at a particular business meeting. Sometimes, simply waiting together can get us “unstuck.”

Sometimes, a person who disagrees with the proposed sense of the meeting will decide to “stand aside.” For some reason, he or she cannot unite with others, but is willing to let the group proceed as they feel led.

Very rarely, the clerk may conclude that a person who objects to the sense of the meeting is not doing so based on a genuine leading. This decision is always difficult, but sometimes necessary. Otherwise, the community could be held hostage to someone who would rather promote his or her agenda than listen for the larger Truth.

In our tweeting, blogging and 24-hour broadcast culture, not everyone can handle the work of listening. In our culture of instant gratification, not everyone is willing wait for a way to open. Not everyone believes that God’s Truth is large enough to unite our different points of view. But Quakers embrace the Light of God in all people. By working together, we can all reach a truth that was beyond any one of us at the start.