I’ve been thinking a lot about Quaker business meetings recently. No surprise, as this is the time of year when we get serious about planning the agenda for Sessions. But the planning involves more than juggling agenda items into time slots like a Quaker version of Tetris, and the preparation involves all of us who will be part of the business, not just the clerks.
The formal name is “Meeting for Worship with Attention to Business,” and the key is in the first part: business meeting is at heart a meeting for worship. What do we do in worship? We come, expecting the Divine, we come to sink into the source to be refreshed, we come listening for the still, small voice and the guidance it provides. We come, in a phrase of Bill Taber’s to “put on the Mind of Christ.” Additionally, long-time adherents of the Quaker path know that preparation may have a fruitful impact on our experience of worship. While we cannot schedule or assume the arrival of grace, we improve our odds (pardon the gambling term) if we spend some time in the days beforehand in reading, prayer, and contemplation.
All of this is true for business meeting, too. Most of us are guilty from time to time, of focusing on the agenda, or perhaps one particular agenda item that we hold dear. And while it’s important to be well-informed, and fine to have an opinion going into the business, what’s most important is that we come with that same openness, the expectation of the Divine, that we bring to worship.
I had a revelation recently (I had probably read it somewhere before) that the outward business (the agenda items) is only a means to a more important end. Yes, we need to pass a budget, and approve committee structures, and determine what outward work we as a people choose to engage in. But how we go about that work and what we learn about ourselves and each other is equally important, if not more so. Our faith and our practice encourage both contemplation and action, and an awareness that one does not exist without the other.
If we come to business meeting prepared, both in the worship preparation of prayer and contemplation, and in being well-informed about the topics for discernment and sink down to the seed, listening carefully for what is being asked of us, we have a better chance of hearing. Can we listen deeply to the words of the Friend who, for whatever reason, tends to rub us the wrong way? If we truly accept that any of us may be given a message for all, then we need to listen to each voice with a fresh mind, open to the truth as it emerges, if only haltingly or obscurely.
It is in this process of deep listening that we open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit. If we are holding rigidly to our position we are not flexible enough to be moved by the gentle voice. If we close our ears when that friend rises to speak, we deny the fundamental premise that any one of us may be given the message we are supposed to hear.
While this approach to business is valuable for any business meeting, even if it’s four people at a small monthly meeting, it’s especially important for a large meeting with some weighty agenda items, as we have this summer.
During our Annual Sessions we will: consider a chapter on Personal Spiritual Practices from the Faith and Practice committee; hear a report from the Right Relationship Group who will bring back the Letter of Apology to Native Americans, to see if we are prepared and led to send it out; we will consider two quarterly meeting minutes requesting that we endorse AFSC’s campaign No Way to Treat a Child, and we will hear a number of minutes from monthly meetings with a variety of perspectives and suggestions on our relationship with Friends United Meeting.
One might say that there is some challenging discernment ahead of us, but I consider, as Gordon Brown said in a clerking workshop years ago: “Friends come together eager to do discernment"—so in that light our agenda is full of opportunity! Opportunity to wrestle with the outer questions of “What are we led to do?” as well as the underlying opportunity of learning how to listen to each other and to God, learning how to love each other when maybe we don’t like what someone else is saying
I am also aware that, despite our emergence from the depths of the pandemic, Friends will be carrying grief and brittleness from a sustained period where at the very least we experienced a suspension of life as we have known it, and for many there was great pain and disruption. We need to be tender with each other.
As my friend Mike Huber said in a message to West Hills Friends: “The only way I can have the most complete picture of the truth is if I listen for the truth that someone else is bringing. It’s about listening in love. Listening for the truth in the words of someone with whom I disagree—hat requires an act of love. ‘I don’t like your conclusion, but I’m going to trust God that there’s something of God’s spirit at work in you. I’m going to trust that enough to keep drawing you back to the question, how is God at work in you?’”
Business meeting is an opportunity to do the work of love.