September 25, 2009

Reflections on my committee service

The other night was my last night serving as clerk of a large committee within the monthly meeting. I've been taking some time reflecting on my service, both as a participant on that committee and as one of its co-clerks over the last year.

It so happens that I'm one of the few Quakers, it seems, who enjoys clerking. So many times when I've clerked, I have felt as though God has acted through me in a clear, unhindered way. With God's grace and assistance, I have been able to call the group I am clerking at the time to dig deeper, listen more carefully, and practice the corporate discipline of spiritual discernment that uniquely defines our faith.

During private conversations that I had with both of the incoming co-clerks of this particular committee, I mentioned to each that I believe that the best clerking comes out of the gifts we ourselves bring. The more awareness we have of our own gifts--and of our own shortcomings--the more grounded and effective our clerking will be.

In my case, my organizational skills were affirmed because they helped me track what items to have on the agenda, what items were to be brought to Meeting for Worship for Business, and what items needed some greater attention and exploration before bringing them before the committee.

But my experience also shows me that my spiritual gifts include listening between the words of what committee members say; a willingness to test with others what I'm hearing, feeling, and sensing; and an ability to let fellow committee members correct me when I test the sense of the committee and the members have heard something different.

These are not gifts that I came to Quakers with. No: these are gifts that, with God's love and with the piercing and firm eldership of the wider world of Friends for over more than 15 years, I have grown into.

Here are a few specific reflections about my experience, both as clerk of the committee as well as being a participant of it:

Naming when there isn't unity

For a few years, I have come to understand that one of the hardest tasks that a clerk has is recognizing when there isn't unity and what to do about it.

When there's unity, there's a feel-good sense about the whole room. Our energy is up, our sense of stress is low. At the very least, there is a perceived and shared sense of calm among us. At its best, there are smiles among us and sparkles in our eyes.

Many times, unity comes when an unforeseen way forward through a difficult situation has been articulated. I often say that one sign of being rightly led is that we end up in a place that no one could have predicted earlier, once the Way opens to us.

But when there isn't unity... When there are disagreements about how to address a concern, chances are the group will spin its wheels, rehashing the same material several times without having new insight.

It's important for the clerk to identify when this is happening, and there are a few indicators of such wheel-spinning:

  • when there's little silence or worship between speakers;
  • when several people speak more than once or indicate that they want to speak an additional time;
  • when more than one or two themes, ideas, or possible solutions are repeated;
  • when testing the sense of the meeting is met not with correction or approval but with even more input from committee members.

I seem to have been able to name when there isn't unity, but on reflection, I found that I didn't leave it at that.

I don't know why this was Given to me, but after testing that in fact, we had no unity around how to proceed, I would often find myself saying to committee members something like this:
    As much as we are eager to move forward and take action, I'm going to ask that we exercise a spiritual muscle that sometimes gets overlooked: This is a time when we need to sit with this piece, unfinished as it is. We need to trust that with time, as we revisit this item, some new Light will come to us and make it clear how we are to proceed. For now, as uncomfortable as we might be, let us settle into a brief period of worship before we move onto the next item...
Mostly, my experience has been that Friends will stop pushing the river when someone reminds us that we strive for unity with God's Direction, but that the waiting in the blankness of a way forward is not always comfortable for us to do.

Settling into worship

Some of the most fluid, effective, grounded committees I've either clerked or have served on have been those during which there is worship or a just plain ol' "settling" that envelopes each item on the agenda. I have found that such settling and recentering of the group throughout the course of the committee meeting somehow reminds us that there is an important intangible quality about our manner as Friends that lends itself to our decision-making process.

We seem to listen better--inwardly, to the Spirit, and to each other--and we seem to have a bit more personal "space" to reflect on what just happened when we insert those few bits of worship. In addition, for those of us who need an extra beat or two to figure out why something is niggling at us, these moments of resettling can give us that extra time we need.

Halfway through co-clerking this particular committee, the two of us as co-clerks agreed to insert more "transitional worship" between agenda items. I would say that not much clock-time was sacrificed, and the quality of our work and sense of caring presence to one another and to our tasks improved as a result.

Interestingly enough, given my own serious nature, I found that the more willing we as a committee were to engage in short bits of worship, the more willing I was, as a co-clerk, to allow us to get off-track or use what otherwise would be inappropriate laughter to let off steam about a frustrating situation. I count that as one of God's little mysteries I've encountered while I've been clerking...

Needing the group to help temper me

When I first started serving on this large committee, I found that I felt very separate from other committee members. I seemed to hold a different perspective from many of them, sometimes with great judgment against who was speaking.

As I disciplined myself to say less and listen more--no easy task, believe me!--I would find that either someone else spoke to what I myself had been holding, or someone I greatly respected would offer a viewpoint I either had previously dismissed or had never considered.

Over time, I began to understand that I needed to hear what others on the committee thought or sensed or felt so that my own judgments--whether the positive kind or the negative kind--could be tempered by the committee as a whole.

I also understood that there were times when the committee needed me to add what I was thinking or perceiving or discerning.

Over time, I began to feel less isolated and more integrated into the fabric of the committee: my voice and perspective wasn't better than anyone else's. It was simply different and still had validity, as long as I was testing what it was I had to say against what it was that God wanted me to say.

Ultimately, I grew into the discipline of waiting--no matter how uncomfortable I felt--to feel some motion of love, kindness, or compassion before asking to be recognized to speak. That degree of waiting, of sinking down into the Seed, allowed me just enough grace to speak what was on my heart in a way that others could hear my concern.

Leaving the committee

As I was driving to the final committee meeting I'd attend, I remember thinking to myself, "What will my role be in the meeting now?" It may be that this committee service was the only thing that kept me attached and connected to the meeting, since I had reports to make nearly once a month and I had announcements to share at the rise of a few meetings for worship.

Now that a few days have gone by, I worry less about that question and its time-will-tell answer.

During the transitional meeting, when outgoing members had a chance to remark on their experience of service on the committee, I was the last to speak.

"One thing I've learned while I've been here," I said, "is that no matter what the difficulty, it's been so important to hold that difficulty in the Light and to respond out of a place of Love for all those involved."

That seems to make all the difference, no matter where I worship or how I serve.



Anonymous said...

A gift I felt that I brought to clerking was the gift of being wrong sometimes. Sometimes the best way to test unity was to state something, even if I wasn't quite sure I had it right, and accept it when the reply was a resounding, "No!" It helped the Meeting to realize where it was NOT going.

I was also increasingly willing to be wrong in bigger ways, to pause and be eldered from the floor of the meeting and be grateful for that. I think God was using me to show others they could step up to a leadership role even if they weren't perfect. Maybe someone in the Meeting realized, "If Kathleen with her imperfections can clerk the Meeting, surely I can clerk this committee.

Kathleen K.
Philadelphia, PA

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

Very nice essay, Liz. I suspect it may become a useful reference point somewhere down the road.

Liz Opp said...

Kathleen -

I agree that willing to be wrong--in the face of the meeting and in the role of clerk--can be a very important gift or quality for someone.

I'm curious: you use the word "eldered" and I wonder what you mean by that word? Several blogging Friends and I have written about the use of the word "elder" and I've learned to ask what the speaker means when she or he uses that word.

Marshall -

Thanks for the compliment.

Part of why I write some of what I do is not only to make my experience and process more transparent for others but also to mark significant events in case I want to revisit them.


Kathleen said...

In this context, I mean I was corrected in a loving way that redirected my attention to a more Godly way to approach the business at hand. The two incidents that come to mind most vividly involve people on two radically different stages of the age spectrum.

I was on the receiving end many times of the type of eldering that meant having my gifts recognized and nurtured. I hope that during my time as clerk I was able to elder others by naming their gifts and supporting the ministry they have to offer to the meeting, but if that happened, it is like the seed we plant and haven't seen whether or not it sprouted. I'm not sure that's a gift I demonstrated as clerk.


Mary Ellen said...

Liz, I very much appreciate the clarity and insight you have shared here - and also want to affirm that I have witnessed and recognized the growth you describe over this term of clerking. I know my own past committee co-clerking experience has been bumpy, not always centered, and not always Spirit-led, but I resonate to the experience you describe, and am glad to have such a succinct account as a reminder of good order in clerking. May you find way opening, new growth, and continued connections with community that are satisfying (and challenging in a good way).

Nat said...

As one of the incoming clerks, this was really good to read. Thank you, Liz, for your clerking and for your reflection on clerking itself.

Liz Opp said...

Kathleen, Mary Ellen, and Nat--

Thank you each for taking the time to comment on this post and to affirm what you have experienced or observed.

One of my dreams is to host or attend a clerks' roundtable, for monthly meeting clerks, clerks of Ministry & Counsel/Worship, and so forth. I believe many of us start as diamonds in the rough and simply need an opportunity to "bump into" each other, in an intentional setting, so that the Light might help us share our gifts more widely in our meetings.