A Field Guide to Quaker Process: Politics, Politicking, and Process

In 2008, one of our former ministers, Dan Kasztelan, wrote a booklet entitled Living with the Body of Christ: A Field Guide to Quaker Process. To share this valuable information about how Friends make decisions during monthly meeting, sections of this booklet are being posted via the online Traveling Friend. This is the third installment of an eight-part series. You can read the entire booklet, complete with recommendations for further reading and end notes, by clicking here.

I learned in philosophy class that politics, contrary to both public opinion and the Oxford American Dictionary, doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Politics derives from the Greek words for citizen and for city. Politics is the process by which citizens make decisions regarding the common life of the city. By extension, politics is the process by which any group of persons—a nation, an institution, even a church—makes decisions. Because Monthly Meeting for Business is the way in which our community of Friends makes decisions, it is inherently a political process.

Yet even though we engage in a political process, it would be inconsistent with our life as the body of Christ to be political in the dictionary's sense—or the world's. By definition and common assumption, politics is the endeavor to gain both power and the authority to command; politicians deal with strategies for building support, setting policies, maintaining power, and asserting control. This is the definition of politics that we mean when we talk about a political game, or a political machine.

In a democracy, the political "game" is often about persuasion: How can my group gain the most supporters? How can I make my idea seem better than the other options? What do I need to do to make sure that my supporters show up at crucial times to indicate their support—by their voices, their signs, their money, or their votes?

Monthly Meeting for Business is undoubtedly a political process in the best sense, closest to the root meaning of politics. Monthly Meeting is the setting and the manner in which our community of Friends makes decisions for and about our common life. But that very endeavor—the way of deciding together which we mean when we speak of "Quaker process"—is harmed if we allow amongst ourselves any politicking of the second kind.  And the easiest way for that kind of politicking to manifest itself within a Meeting is by holding conversations outside the Meeting about decisions to be made within the Meeting.

What would that kind of politicking look like? It can begin with just two people. A member of the Peace and Social Concerns Committee might call a Meeting friend to say, "I hope you'll be at Monthly Meeting on Sunday, because Peace and Social Concerns is bringing up our proposal to buy only organic coffee, and we need your support."

It would be more blatant politicking for one Friend to call another and say, "Hey, Joe, a group of us have been talking over this proposal from the Widget Committee, and we really don't like it. People listen to you. Will you speak against it for us at this next Monthly Meeting?"

What happens at Monthly Meeting is not meant to be a secret, and very little of it, if any, is even confidential, but Quaker process sustains serious harm when you try to persuade people to attend Monthly Meeting simply because you want them to "vote" on one side or the other of an issue, leading, or concern. That's because we are trying to discern where God is leading all of us on any given issue—not just you, not just you and a group of members whom you trust, not just me, not just me and my friends. We are trying to discern where God is leading all of us. And not a single one of us can know that on our own, outside the bounds of community discernment. We can wonder. We can pray. We can turn it over in our minds. We may even get the answer, in prayer or in the shower, and know that we have an idea to bring forward. But we cannot decide whether this idea is the right idea for the community, the idea God has put forward for us to follow until the community itself says so. What God wants for the community is not something individuals can learn in private conversation outside the bounds of Monthly Meeting.

So we covenant with each other, loosely, not to talk about Monthly Meeting concerns outside Monthly Meeting. Not because they're meant to be secret—they're not. Not because only some people should know, and others not—Monthly Meeting has greater decision-making authority than any one of its committees. But because it's so difficult, once we get started talking about the issues, not to leap forward into discerning what we cannot actually discern on our own, and what we are not meant to discern on our own.

Since we covenant to reserve our discussion on the leadings and concerns which lie before us for the time and space of Monthly Meeting, it can be easy for Monthly Meeting to become shrouded in mystery, like some kind of guild of secret knowledge. Yet ideally the work and discernment of Monthly Meeting should be transparent to all who attend. I think we all partake in some measure of the natural human tendency to protect information: to want to protect each other by withholding names, by pretending ideas don't carry emotions with them, by keeping our cards close to the vest about who said what, and why. Most of us have learned that being polite or professional means keeping things private, rather than public.

But Monthly Meeting works best with openness and transparency. The more everyone has the same information, the better we can distinguish all the separate voices for which we're listening. The more we know about decisions in the past—what they were and what the sense of the meeting was at the time they were made—the more we know about each other's experiences, histories, and yes (horrors!), even emotions, the better able we are to know both what we're hearing, and what's at stake in the decision. We covenant with one another to discern only together what we need to discern together, but our decisions, our decision-making, Monthly Meeting itself—none of these are secrets.

Perhaps one way to keep apparent the difference between politicking and discerning is to remember that while Monthly Meeting might look like democracy in its purest and most idealistic form—because decisions can't be made or implemented without unity—it is, in fact, nothing of the sort. Monthly Meeting is intended to be a theocracy under the governance of the Light, in which we gather together, not to discern our own will and sort out our own ideas, not to see what most of us want to do, but to listen for God's ideas and to discern God's leading. We are not united in support of one idea or another; we become united as we discover, together, the path the Spirit reveals to us.

This kind of unity means that we may wind up "owning" decisions we wouldn't have made on our own. But for Quaker process to work, we agree that we will participate in implementing the decisions Monthly Meeting makes. Our covenant as members one of another is an agreement to move forward with the work because of our unity—even if my idea didn't carry the day, even if we didn't feel concerned one way or another, even if we weren't certain but approved the minute expressing the sense of the meeting, even if we felt ourselves out of unity but stood aside, or even if we missed the relevant meeting for the best of reasons. Owning the decision expresses not our unanimity, but our unity. It's how we honor the fragile nature of Quaker process.

The obvious corollary is that if we fail to honor Quaker process, we often discover that the Meeting lacks unity. Nor can we be sure that what seems to be the sense of the meeting will be honored by actual participation in a new agreement, or participation in the Meeting's common work. If the Meeting approves a plan to buy only fair trade coffee for the kitchen but Quaker process isn't honored in that decision, we'll discover soon enough that the local supermarket brand of coffee is back on the kitchen shelves.

Who will we call? We might eventually kick the offender off the Hospitality Committee. If worse comes to worst, or we feel passionately about fair trade coffee, we could maybe kick them out of Meeting. But the truth is we have little in the way of punitive power, and not much desire to use it. We come together by voluntary association. Our failure to carry out a common decision is sometimes the result of one individual's stubbornness, but is more frequently the result of a flaw in the way we've conducted our Quaker process. We made a decision too quickly, or before we ever entered the space of Meeting for Business. Or we didn't actually listen for and respond to God's leading. Or we didn't listen to each other. Or we weren't clear, somehow, about our own motives and emotions.

God help us, Quaker process is difficult work—demanding spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. We can only expect it to bear fruit if we are all equally pledged to respect the participation of the whole body in our common discernment, and to respect, individually, that the common journey of our Monthly Meeting won't always be exactly synchronized with our individual leadings or concerns.

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