A Field Guide to Quaker Process: Process, Decision, and the Body

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 last installment of an eight-part series. You can read the entire booklet, complete with recommendations for further reading and end notes, by clicking here.

As bystanders or participants, many of us will eventually find ourselves in the middle of a Quaker decision gone bad. Meeting for Business will become uncomfortable at best, contentious at worst, tempers may be lost, persons will stop attending Monthly Meeting and perhaps stop attending worship. Small political parties may gather at exclusive tables during potluck or around certain cars in the parking lot.

In these times when the Meeting can’t find or recover its unity, we do well to remember that our decisions together always exist in at least two dimensions. There is the actual decision the Meeting has made. And there is the process by which the decision was made. When a Meeting is in turmoil, we often discover that the upset is a great deal more about the process than the actual decision.

I didn’t understand this in my first years as a Friend, and frequently found myself confused about why things were going badly in Monthly Meeting. When I would speak to more experienced Friends from other meetings, they’d invariably ask, “What’s going on with the Quaker process?” And when we would go through a timeline of events, we’d discover that somewhere along the way a step had been skipped or an opportunity for listening overlooked. It took me years to learn to ask that question for myself: “What’s going on with the Quaker process?” It isn’t always easy to find the answer, but distinguishing between the actual decision and the method by which the decision was made is often the first step in understanding why Monthly Meeting has become so unfriendly.

The following illustration doesn’t represent any actual Meeting, any actual problem, or any actual Friends, but it does represent some actual ways in which I’ve seen Quaker process break down.

For a number of years, members of Red Ditch First Friends Meeting have admired the valiant fight their old elm tree has made against Dutch Elm disease. But in the past couple years it’s become evident that the tree has essentially lost the battle. One half of the tree is already dead, and the other half has come to the point of bearing more dead than living branches.

The old tree sits in the middle of the front yard, where it shades the west side of the meetinghouse, the sidewalk that runs across the front of the property, and a portion of the street. Because the tree is so expansive—and therefore so potentially damaging when the large limbs start to fall—the House Committee brings to Monthly Meeting in June a recommendation that a tree removal service be hired to cut the tree down. But some members object. “I just want us to give the tree all the chance we can,” Jane says. “Why can’t we wait to cut it until it’s completely dead?”

“I saw a pileated woodpecker rooting around the base of that tree just a couple days ago,” Michael says. “And I think I saw a saw-whet owl there the other night. I know it’s getting harder and harder for these tree-dwelling birds to find habitat, especially with all the development we’re seeing in Red Ditch lately. I’d like to see us leave that tree up as long as we can to provide habitat for the animals that depend on dying trees.” When Michael finishes, several other Friends affirm that “this Friend speaks my mind.”

Members of the House Committee reiterate their concern for what might happen if a limb fell onto the sidewalk or street. “Our thinking was that someone might be hurt,” Dorothy, the House Committee clerk, explains. “And certainly property would be damaged—we all know how parked up this side of the street gets during the day. Are we prepared to pay damages for any cars those limbs will fall on? And what if someone were to be badly injured? We’ve left the tree up a long time, but things are getting serious now. A couple of the smaller branches came down in that last big thunderstorm.”

Speaking from silence, one Friend offers that maybe the tree isn’t as close to the street as it seems, and another wonders why we are so prone to believe our human lives are much more valuable to God than the lives of the birds.

Tom, the presiding clerk, lets the discussion continue for a while, then eventually suggests that there is not yet a sense of the meeting, and perhaps the matter should be laid down until next Monthly Meeting. Members agree. The question of the elm tree is laid down for June and taken up again in July. A sense of the meeting is still not achieved. This time Tom suggests that the question be laid down for two months, to be taken up in September, and Monthly Meeting agrees.

Sadly, on a Wednesday morning in early August, a heavy thunderstorm with wicked straight-line winds blows through Red Ditch. The old elm can’t withstand the battering wind, and the deadest half of the tree—the half nearest the street—splits off from the main trunk and crashes to earth, crushing the Meeting’s wrought-iron fence and the parked car immediately beneath the main limb, breaking all the window glass in the cars parked ahead of and behind the crushed car, and blocking the road until the Street Department arrives to clear the way. Neighbors call the pastor, the pastor calls Dorothy, and by late Wednesday morning an emergency meeting of the House Committee is convening with chain saws around the downed tree.

The damage to the street looks pretty bad. The one car is totaled for sure, it’s hard to tell how badly the other two are damaged, and it looks as though even some cars further down the street in both directions may have been dented or scraped. The head of the Street Department comes over to say that in his opinion, that tree should have been taken down a long time ago. Committee members start with the big limb and the branches at the sidewalk, and gradually cut their way back past the crushed fence and toward the standing trunk. The three committee members with saws switch them off, set them down, and turn to help the other committee members who have been gathering wood and dragging branches to a mulch pile around back. The sky begins to darken and a wind picks up, and when the committee looks south past the edge of town, they see a thunderhead growing on the horizon. They quicken the pace of their gathering and dragging. As the wind builds, they hear the old tree start to creak and moan. With one especially strong gust they hear a loud crack within the tree, but when they look up, they can’t see any obvious damage.

Dorothy gathers the committee around the partial trunk of the old elm. “Look,” she says, “the way it’s leaning now, it’s clear that if this half comes down, it’s falling straight onto the meetinghouse roof, and it will break through, there’s no question. We’ve seen what the smaller half did to the street. I think we need to cut the whole thing down now. This isn’t a question anymore, it’s an emergency.” Heads nod all around the circle, and they manage to hire a tree service to take down the rest of the tree the following morning.

Most Friends in Red Ditch have seen the picture of the fallen tree in the paper by the time they reach meeting on Sunday. But they walk sadly around the stump of the tree as they enter the yard, they go over to examine the bent and broken fence, they remark on the strange brightness in the western windows once they’re seated in the meeting room. A few Friends who live at a distance from Red Ditch are taken by surprise when they come to the meeting and discover the empty space where the tree had been. Tom is disquieted when he hears Michael say to one of these out-of-towners, “I guess the House Committee just used the storm as an excuse to do what they wanted to do anyway, no matter what Monthly Meeting thought.”

Sure enough, Monthly Meeting on the next Sunday is contentious and ill-tempered.

“You folks on the House Committee just used the storm as an excuse,” Jane says.

“You didn’t see the damage to the cars. Take a look,” a committee member says, passing around photos.

“Yeah, so the worst damage was already done. You could have waited until Monthly Meeting to see how we felt now,” someone else puts in.

“You didn’t hear the tree cracking. We were afraid it was coming down that same day. We couldn’t wait.”

“I think you just heard what you wanted to hear.”

Tom asks for silence, and asks for some members to hold the Meeting in prayer. Eventually the community grows quiet. When someone suggests that the Ministry Committee come to Monthly Meeting next month with a proposal for how to resolve this conflict, there is united approval.

Here is a case where Meeting members might have ultimately agreed with a decision, but are angry about the process—or lack of process—by which the decision was made. Given the damage to the fence and the nearby cars, and the clear threat to the meetinghouse roof, even those who most wanted to see the tree stay as bird habitat would probably have agreed that the risk of keeping the tree had become too great. There would probably have been no fight if the House Committee had come to the Monthly Meeting in mid-August and said, “Look, we know we said we weren’t going to talk about this again until September, but the situation with the tree has changed. Most of you are aware how much damage it caused during that last storm, and if you’re not, here’s a re-cap ... We really think the meetinghouse itself is in danger now. We’d like approval to cut down the tree.” My guess is that approval would have come.

But because the process was short-circuited—under pressure of time and wind, it’s true—the unrest will quite probably last some time. The unease, the outright anger, will be about the process, not the decision. But it will be mistaken as anger about the decision. People will continue to think they’re arguing about the old elm tree, when what they they’re actually upset about is the fact that six committee members made the decision to cut down the elm without the approval of the Meeting community.

How could the process have been protected? Not easily, in these circumstances. Our Quaker process is always most at risk when we’re under deadline pressure or when we’re afraid, since fear creates its own sense of crowded urgency. But bringing even a few more people into the process would have helped Red Ditch First Friends. What if Dorothy, standing beneath the creaking elm, had whipped out her cell phone, called Tom, and said, “Tom, it looks like this whole thing is going to have to come down. Who else do you think we should call before we’re okay to start looking for a tree service?”

Tom could have said, “Call Jane and Michael and Bridget. Explain the new situation and see whether they can be in agreement with cutting the tree.” Or he might have said, “Let me see if I can get hold of the members of the Oversight Committee, and we can all meet over there together tonight, and see what we think.” Maybe between the House Committee and the Oversight Committee and a bunch of cell phones, every active member of the Meeting might have been called, informed of the situation, and asked for approval to cut the tree down. Maybe the couple hours it took to gather the Oversight Committee to join with the House Committee would have been enough time for that southern storm to bypass Red Ditch, and Dorothy could have said, “If we can hold a specially called Meeting for Business after meeting for worship this Sunday; I think it’s worth the risk to wait another four days before we do something we can’t undo, like cutting down that tree.”

Every one of these alternatives is an attempt to keep alive the possibility of sense of the meeting by bringing as many people as possible into the decision-making process. If we tried to put those options into a formula, we might come up with something like this:

  • Evaluate the actual—as opposed to the perceived—urgency of the situation.
  • Find a way to expand the time available for the decision.
  • Depend upon prayer and faith to overcome the urgency and fear which may be pressing toward a hurried decision. In this regard, it can be helpful to ask some members of the Meeting to specifically hold the Meeting in prayer during a difficult decision. Not only can the prayer be useful, the fact that people are praying is a reminder to all present that our business is done under the covering of God’s presence, and within Christ’s body.

There will be a very few times when business can’t wait until Monthly Meeting, or when the Meeting doesn’t have time to prolong the decision-making process until sense of the meeting is reached. But most of the time, the sense of urgency which propels us into decisions made by bad process is an artificial urgency. It arises from a deadline imposed by an outside organization, or from a prophetic impulse on the part of an individual or group within the Meeting, or from a sense that this is the proper season for the decision. (For instance, we want to think about a new lawn mower in the spring, not necessarily in late autumn when we’re done cutting the grass; just like we want to adopt a new curriculum for the First Day School in the fall, not the middle of the year.)

Michael Birkel makes a point that might help us rest easier about the time it takes Friends to make decisions—even, or especially, about carpets and landscaping. He supposes that one of the reasons our decisions seem to take so long is because in the world we’re accustomed to a short decision-making period followed by a lengthy implementation process. The majority who make the decision may still have a long time ahead to persuade enough people to agree to the idea that the work can be completed. Friends, he says, reverse the world’s custom—our long decision-making process is made up for by our speedy implementation. Once the decision is made, there’s no foot-dragging, no extra persuasion required, no obstacles manufactured for the purpose of bringing things to a halt. Birkel thinks the obstacle-free implementation may balance out with the lengthy period between idea and decision.

That thought can encourage us when we wrestle with how long it takes Friends to get anything done. Still, our commitment to Quaker process isn’t primarily a commitment to efficiency. It’s a commitment to being the body of Christ, with all the discomfort that life in the body entails. When we fail in our process, we fail in our life as the body, because failure of the process inevitably means that one part of the body has been judged less to the body than another part of the body.

While the reality is that some voices carry more weight than others, I don’t think that’s where our process usually breaks down. The process breaks down when something gets in the way of all the members of the body being able to speak in the midst of a community gathered for the purpose of listening to each other and discerning the common path to which God calls them all. One practice that obstructs that common listening is any kind of attempt to manipulate what happens in Monthly Meeting around the discussion of a particular idea. I’ve called this politicking. Another obstacle to our common listening is the urgency or fear which can lead a small group within the Meeting to make a decision that rightly belonged to the entire group. I’ve called this bad or broken process.

Either of these obstacles, or any of the others with which a Meeting might grapple, can result in a good decision arrived at by poor means. That’s why it’s important, during a Meeting conflict, for elders and members to try to sort out whether it’s the actual decision or the process by which a decision was made that’s caused the upset. The Meeting members who will try to bring about reconciliation will approach that task differently depending upon whether process or decision is the issue.

To reiterate: it’s not what we talk about but how we talk that defines us as Friends. That becomes especially clear when we realize how many of our conflicts are over the way we talked (or didn’t), not over the decisions we actually made. Did we remember that we are one body? That’s what our business is ultimately about—remembering that we are one body. Friends establish our faith on the conviction that the Spirit is able to lead us to the place where God would have us, provided we are willing and responsive.

And so we are as far out on the edge in testing our life in the body as any Christians I know. Our Quaker process says to us, “the ear and the toe are equally deserving of respect.” When we live up to that ideal, when we live that, we are living the communion of Christ. Good Quaker process leads to that communion.

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1 Comment

  1. Eric Hatch | | Reply

    Worth reading.

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