August 2, 2006

Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative):
Part I

There is so much I could write, regarding my experience among Friends from Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) [IYMC]... I hardly know where to start. At the same time, I can name some themes that emerged during the course of the week:

Discipline. Friendship. Love.

Discipline of the body

Over and over again, I was struck by what I would call the discipline of the gathered body.

In the two years I have attended IYMC events, including annual sessions, I have never heard anyone complain about having too much business and not enough recreation. It's clear to me that Friends come to sessions "with hearts and minds prepared," prepared to address the business of the yearly meeting. Way will open for fellowship and recreation at other times.

There are some specific instances I can point to that demonstrate what I mean by this discipline. For example:

When the clerk recognizes that Friends have been sitting still for a good long while, she will say plainly, "Friends are invited to stand and stretch quietly at this time." And we do.

For about 20 seconds.

Then the clerk carries on: "We now return to the business of the yearly meeting."

No coffee break; no refreshments. And no mass migration to the restrooms.

It isn't oppressive; the clerk doesn't demand or insist that Friends stay put. And neither did I pick up even an inkling of resentment from the 100 or so Friends there. (To be clear: Friends do use the restroom, etc., as they need to!)

I believe it is out of Love--a Love that in many cases has been knit together over a number of years, or over a lifetime--that Friends stay as centered as they do here.

Maybe it is because such discipline is and has been the expectation, the traditional "etiquette" of Conservative Friends, at least during this clerk's tenure, nearing 10 years, I think...

Or maybe it's because of how the clerk wordlessly expresses her deep love for those gathered. As reports are read aloud, she glances around the room from time to time, smiling as she "connects" with the Friends she sees. Sometimes she raises and lowers her eyebrows as she smiles, or nods her head slightly, conveying the silent greeting, "It is so very good to have you here. I see you; I see your love for me, too. Thank you. Isn't it great that we are all gathered here again?!"

I also believe that the clerk, Deborah Fisch, is gifted as a clerk, and that she and the yearly meeting have earned one another's deep trust in one another and in the Guide. She certainly has earned mine!

When there is such love and trust, we are likely to want to give it all we've got, to go the extra mile, to give one-hundred-and-ten percent. The spiritual covenant of the community is superlative and it works both ways: the clerk so clearly loves the Friends who make up the yearly meeting, she wants only to affirm the respect, care, and love she has for them; and the Friends in the yearly meeting so clearly love the clerk, they want only to offer respect, care, and love to her.

And because of that reciprocal L/love, everyone seems to want to work harder, to be faithful, to come under the discipline and the authority of the Living Presence.

I think of the love between a hard-working horse and its long-time beloved trainer; or a group of sled dogs and their experienced and beloved mushers...

Metaphors are inadequate but the love and commitment in the meetinghouse last week was palpable. Put simply:

These Friends love God.

Their life, their words, and their works demonstrate it over and over and over again.

Reining us in

All committees of the yearly meeting give written reports, which are read by pre-appointed readers. This seems to prevent "off the cuff" reporting from the floor and raises the bar in terms of accountability and having your report ready in advance, lest you have no report to present at all.

And the only report that was read where we intentionally paused for questions to be answered on the floor was the treasurer's report. Any questions regarding any of the other reports could be asked after the report was read--and it's assumed that committee clerks are paying attention to any comments made after the report is read--but few questions if any were answered on the floor, as far as I recall.

No answers to questions raised in the face of the meeting likely means no rehashing of work that the committee has already taken up, threshed, and seasoned. Imagine!

But there are a few times when a decision needs to be considered.

At one point, the very active, very respectable Peace and Social Concerns Committee had its report read. It included the text of several drafted letters and a minute that were to be considered by the body.

One letter was about the war in Iraq and referenced Tom Fox and the request made by Langley Hill Friends for meetings to contact their U.S. Senators and Representatives. Another letter was about military recruitment at William Penn University. A third letter was to be sent to the editor of an Iowa newspaper, thanking the paper for printing a full page ad in support of same-sex marriage. The minute to be considered was regarding the rights of immigrants to the U.S.

(And I know there were one or two OTHER items as well, believe it or not.)

First of all, the report itself, which included the text of these items for approval, was long. Very long. As she had for every other report presented, the clerk pulled the report from the table and visibly paged through it. Four, maybe five pages. Single-spaced I believe.

Before she passed the report onto the readers, the clerk said, "Within this report, there are several items that call for action. We will hear the entire report and then we will go back and address each item separately. Are Friends easy with that?"

Which of course we all were.

It took about twenty minutes to have the report read aloud. No one budged; no one hemmed or hawed. But the clerk endeared us once again to her when she slouched in her chair when the reading of the report was complete and she let out a huge sigh of relief.

In that sigh was recognition that we were human; that she was human too. We couldn't sit there perfectly and not acknowledge it was a lot to listen to.

"Friends are invited to stand and stretch quietly."

20 seconds.

"We now return to the business of the yearly meeting."

Now, I don't know about you, but I was expecting that each letter and each minute would have to be re-read in the face of the meeting; and I was expecting that there'd be concerns about one paragraph or another; one sentence or another; one word or another, and that there'd be concerns about one another's concerns, if you know what I mean.

Not so.

It was as if we had received each letter as an indivisible whole. Consequently, during the initial reading, the body had already felt itself come under the weight of approving it or not.

I say this because of how quickly approval happened. The clerk would say, "We first heard a letter to be sent to Congressional representatives and senators about such-and-so. Do Friends approve?" Silence, head nods, and an occasional quietly muttered, "I approve."

The remaining letters were handled and approved the same way. None of the letters was re-read, though my own guess is that if anyone asked to hear the letter again, that would have been provided.

When it got to the minute on immigration, our discipline was tested a bit. Maybe since the minute was short, and maybe since approving a minute provides more weight and significance to the concern than does approving a letter, the minute was re-read before we considered it.

There were a few concerns that Friends raised: We can't predict what would happen if immigration were, in a sense, deregulated... Would open immigration invite a new form of low-wage slavery...? One Friend spoke to the fact that she (or he) supports what is currently being pursued by the administration, which was counter to the spirit of the minute being considered.

It couldn't have been more than after four or five Friends spoke--and they each spoke amazingly briefly, literally no more than three sentences--when the clerk interrupted: "I see there are many hands. Let us settle and return to worship."

No hemming, no hawing. We settled.

And then this is what I saw: The clerk began to write a minute. It took her awhile, maybe two or three times as long as all the other minutes she had prepared up to this point.

No one called out, "Clerk please." No one raised a hand or whispered to a neighbor.

But then again, no one had done this during the previous two hour sessions either.

After quite a few minutes, as is the practice of this clerks' team, the clerk shared the crafted minute with the assistant clerk. Some small changes were noted, and then we heard this: "The clerks would like to try a minute for your consideration."

Up til now, the clerk would say, "The clerks have prepared a minute for your consideration." So we were in somewhat new territory for this item, and that single word-change, from "prepared" to "try," was an invitation for us to listen with an extra measure of care.

According to my somewhat faulty memory, the minute stated simply something to the effect of:
While Friends are not in unity around this minute, we ask that Peace and Social Concerns Committee continue to labor with us around these issues. We ask that the committee help educate us further about immigration/migration. We thank them for their work.
The minute was approved rather quickly and we moved on, knowing that the concerns were not simply dead in the water. I fully believe that at the 2007 sessions of IYM(C), we'll hear a revised minute from the Peace and Social Concerns Committee.

But what struck me with such delight was that Friends could be united in a spirit of care for what had happened; that Friends were willing to be kept under a short rein by the clerk; and that the body was disciplined, yoked together, in such a way that what could have taken up the entire two-hour session took maybe 40 minutes: 20 minutes to read a very long report; maybe 5 minutes to approve a few letters; and another 15 to address the minute on immigration.

Shortly after that session, I was able to visit with Deborah at the end of lunch. I commented on how well I thought she navigated us through what could have been a trying time. She said to me, "Well, y'know how with a horse, you sometimes can let the reins fall loose for awhile, but then when you want more control, you can tighten up the reins...?"


And I must lift up: Being willing to be disciplined, by the Spirit or by a well-led clerk, requires a tremendous amount of love and trust!

Out of curiosity, I looked up in IYM(C)'s 1974 Discipline what it says about Meeting for Worship for Business. Here is one part that affirms what I had witnessed all week:
The Clerk should be a person who has the confidence of the Meeting's membership and who, in turn, has a real respect and warm regard for its individual members and attenders. The Clerk should be able to comprehend, evaluate and state clearly and concisely an item of business or concern. He/she should be able to listen receptively to what is said and gather the sense of the Meeting at the proper time. No doubt few Friends can measure up to the qualifications of an ideal Clerk, but the role is an excellent one for developing leadership. (emphasis mine)
It was made clear to me at that particular session that we really don't have to hear from every Friend who seeks to be recognized during our Meetings for Worship for Business. And by stating the sense of the meeting so quickly when there is so much trust already built up, well, our egos to "have the floor" are also kept in check.

Paying attention to what is right here, right now

In the middle of one of the items being discussed at a business session, a Friend approached the clerks' table and handed the clerk a note. Deborah read it to herself while another Friend was continuing to address whatever it was that was on the floor.

After the Friend had finished speaking, Deborah addressed the body:

I was just handed a note, and I am going to read to you what it says...

The note said that a long-time Friend of the yearly meeting, mentioned by name, had been making his way to annual sessions from Salem, Oregon and had been in a car accident on the interstate, not far from where we were meeting. The note further explained that the Friend had been able to walk around a bit, may only have a broken nose, and was being taken to the hospital.

Deborah was very cool-minded. She asked that someone be in touch with the Friend's daughter, and that someone else go to meet the Friend at the hospital. Once those details were addressed and volunteers had been identified, Deborah then said:

Let us settle into worship and hold this Friend and his caregivers in the Light.

The room settled quickly. We were drawn together in deep prayer and concern. No doubt those who knew this Friend--as Deborah herself knew this Friend--had many questions and maybe even an impulse to drop everything. But at the same time, there was a calm that undergirded the worship, and it was not long before I heard the clerk say:

Let us now return to the work of the yearly meeting.

And we did. Without missing a beat.

Later that night, to everyone's relief, we were given an update that the Friend was doing well, that he did in fact have nothing more than a broken nose, and that he had actually helped divert a number of cars from plowing into an accident that had already occurred at the crest of a hill on the interstate, by having turned his own car abruptly--and at high speed--into the road's median.

Apparently the highway patrol officer had praised the Friend for being attentive and alert enough to have taken such swift life-saving action. And two days later, that Friend arrived at the yearly meeting, a bit purplish around the eyes and nose, but seemingly in good cheer.

Stay tuned for Part II

There is much more for me to write, mostly about some of the non-business events that I attended. I hope I'll get to it all, before I head to Canadian Yearly Meeting next week!

UPDATE: Here's the link to Part II. And here's the link to what I wrote after attending last year's IYM(C)'s sessions.

UPDATE, Eighth Month 2006: As it happens, the clerk of IYMC told me she looked at this post while she and I have been at Canadian Yearly Meeting sessions. So this is my chance to clear up a couple of things.

1. Part of why few committees present written reports is that the committees do much of their work during annual sessions. In addition, there IS a concern about conserving resources, like paper.

2. As Marshall points out in his comment, there has been a multi-year, multi-clerk history of how business is conducted and clerked during IYMC. Deborah herself humbly points out that she has had the opportunity to witness and come under the discipline of these skilled and caring clerks over the years.

Thanks for reading me!



Joe G. said...


Thanks for the "discipline" in relating this to others, especially those of us who have never attened business meetings amongst Conservative Friends.

Some of what you wrote reminds me of Friends for (Gay alphabet soup) Concerns and the business meetings I attended of theirs years ago. The only difference is that the Friends (Gay soup) Concerns had a lot more individual "discussion" and "concerns" than what you wrote here. Have you ever been involved with FLGBCTQQ's business meetings and see similar similarities and differences?

I like how you highlight trust - people seem to know each other (and it's a smaller community, too?). Maybe that's why a process such as this can work better. Hmm.

Mark Wutka said...

Thank you so much for sharing this, Liz. Some of it resonates with my experiences of NCYM-C (although we did take breaks) and you articulated so much better than I ever could. I'm sure you have sat in on business meetings that can be almost painful to be in. And it isn't the length, I think it is that absence of discipline and committment.

I'm looking forward to more of your reflections!
With love,

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Liz, thank you for posting this. I'll be heading out to my first yearly meeting (NEYM) in a couple of days, and, though I'm sure there will be many differences, I will be listening for currents that may be the same. There are things that minutes and agendas just can't convey; I appreciate this kind of storytelling so much!

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Very nice, Liz. You're an acute observer, which is a true gift, and I'm glad you're willing to take the time to share this gift with the rest of us.

As for Deb Fisch, yes, I too feel she's an excellent clerk -- but it seemed to me that her predecessor did it much the same way, and overall just as well, as she did. So I think much of what you're admiring there in the way she handled things was in fact the settled practices of the community. (Of course, Deb does contribute special touches of her own as well!)

I think one advantage that older rural unprogrammed meetings have, whether they are Conservative or Hicksite, is that a high percentage of their member families have been practicing Quakerism together for generations, and the present members of those families have grown up steeped in the skills and common sense of their meetings. This gives them an almost automatic knowledge of how to proceed in most of the types of situations that commonly arise among Friends; and they can proceed in those established ways without hesitation, resolving difficulties in ways that they know will almost certainly meet with approval from the group.

It's kinda like watching the art of fifth-generation trapeze artists.

Paul L said...

I, too, am glad you wrote this report.

I have a question, though: Were the reports that were read aloud printed ahead of time and available to Friends, either before or during the meeting?

If so, then this makes a lot of sense. If not, then the ability of Iowa Friends to hear, comprehend, and remember is phenominal.

Liz Opp said...

Joe G. -- I appreciate the reference to Friends for LGBTQ Concerns (or FLGBTQC) and how that group conducts business.

I've attended a few of their sessions over the years, and FLGBTQC is often lifted up as an example of a MfWfB that is grounded in the Spirit.

But IYM(C)'s business sessions were still distinctly different, in my opinion, mostly in how the minutes are crafted--IYM(C)'s are brief and seldom refer to specific points raised in any discussion (see the part about the minute on immigration); whereas FLGBTQC's minutes are more akin to what I observe in minutes from a monthly meeting, with specific concerns that were raised.

There are other subtle differences--how the body quiets itself inwardly when the clerk prepares a minute, for example--that would take me much longer to consider and write about. But you raise a question that is worthy of my further consideration!

As for the size of the communities... While FLGBTQC has 90-125 Friends show up at its Midwinter Gatherings, and 125-200 show up at the FGC Gathering (these are very crude numbers), I would say about 40-50 Friends attend MfWfB sessions. Comparatively, IYM(C) I have heard may have about 1,000 Friends in its constituent meetings and worship groups; about 80-100 attend MfWfB at annual sessions, and about that same number attend IYM(C)'s midyear meeting.

But FLGBTQC doesn't have constituent meetings, so there are differences, too, with how both groups create, knit together, and sustain community.

Again, another point worth considering more fully when I have the time!

Mark -- Thanks for stopping by. I have been curious about hwo IYM(C) might compare to North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative). I guess I'll have to wait to see if Way opens for me to travel there some time!

Cat -- Glad the stories help convey some of what I am wanting to get across. There are many yearly meetings I have not visited, though it is far easier for me to list the ones that I have:

Northern Yearly Meeting
Southern Appalachian Yearly Meeting & Ass'n
Iowa Conservative
(and, God willing) Canadian Yearly Meeting.

That leaves out the "biggies":

Philadelphia YM
Baltimore YM
New England YM.

I hope you'll share your experiences when you return.

Marshall! -- Nice to hear from you. And yes, like you, I wonder how much of what I admire actually is simply part of the "settled practices" of IYM(C). I have never seen Bill Deutsch clerk (Deborah's predecessor), so I appreciate the experience you bring to this conversation!

Shame on me for not thinking to include that part of my musings in this post, but it certainly is a valid question and a likely possibility.

As for the multigenerational nature of Quakerism among these Friends, yes, I feel I got a glimpse of that aspect when I heard the Scattergood panel--which I write about in my next post.

Paul -- The reports, from what I can tell, are NOT made available to Friends before or during the meeting. Perhaps this is simply a matter of conserving paper. Perhaps it is a reflection of the trust they place in their committees.

I'm not sure, and I have never thought to raise the question.

Though I DO recall that the letters that were crafted by the Peace and Social Concerns Committee were put on display by the food line at meals... I don't recall seeing many Friends clustered around those drafts, however.

On the other hand, there are committee meetings that occur during the week, and I suppose some non-committee members do drop in on those meetings, maybe also hearing drafts of the reports being considered, etc.

Maybe in 2007 you can join me in attending Iowa Conservative's annual sessions and ask those Friends these sorts of questions yourself! smile

Speaking for myself, though, I have to say it was pretty easy for me to recall my overall feeling towards a letter when it was considered for approval.

On the other hand, I also remember that at the 2005 annual sessions, the same committee brought a letter for consideration regarding its concern for the "scapegoating" of same-sex couples, which required at least two readings for the body to listen to. But there were not that many items to consider at the time, so perhaps it is the clerk's call, to gently suggest to the body which items might be read through a second or third time.

Thanks, everyone, for your time and your comments. It is eye-opening to attend a yearly meeting that is different from your own.