July 22, 2010

To clerk or not to clerk...

Recently the informal fellowship-through-singing group of Quakers called Nightingales got together at a family farm in Wisconsin.

In recent years, we've been moving through a transition that has meant saying goodbye to many of the long-time Friends who founded Nightingales. Most have either passed away or have become too frail to participate. As most of these "Celestial Mamas" have left us, their biological and spiritual offspring have been reluctant to step forward, but we've kept at it anyway. The thought of not having Nightingales is more painful than the work of understanding who we are as the torch is passed to us.

We still gather about once a quarter to sing, eat, and camp. We still take work-shifts to help with food prep and clean-up. We still rent a Port-a-Potty and set up tents on people's land. And we still wrestle with how to welcome newcomers and who will say any words of explanation about "Nightingales' culture"--like, that we encourage folks to look into people's eyes and sing to one another, rather than have our noses pointed into our songbooks.

Or that we have no designated leader but we ask that each person pick a song and then wait for others to have a chance to pick a song before requesting another one.

Or that we allow the person who has requested a song to start it off as she or he wishes, to set the pitch and tempo, to select any alternate verses we are to sing (or skip), to ask someone else to start the song if he or she doesn't want to do so.

It sounds like a lot to keep track of, but in practice it's very very simple.

There's a comfort in sinking into the small pools of silence that frame each song, allowing us to consider what song to ask for next, or letting us absorb the tenderness of a hymn we just sang with especially sweet and delicate harmonies.

There's another element to being a non-hierarchical Quaker-based somewhat-transient fellowship of Friends, and that is that on occasion, we have a request to address some business as a group.

Maybe it's that there's a request for us to consider holding Nightingales at a campsite or joining with our smaller sister group to the south, the Meadowlarks, composed of Friends from Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative).

Or maybe there's a concern that we don't make explicit enough the extent to which we welcome and incorporate children and young families, and we take some time to consider that need and craft some language that may (or may not) be used in future mailings.

Lately, there's been a repeated concern about how we can be consistent from gathering to gathering so Friends may find it easier to join with us: What if the gatherings were the same weekend in April, July, and October? What if we had some guidelines around how many stories can be shared before introducing a new song?

At the recent spring Nightingales, there had been some discussion about how to be more welcoming, how to make the most out of our time together, and how to "foster gathered singing," but what wasn't clear was what to do about that discussion. So it was that when we gathered for our summer Nightingales, a Friend asked that we have a short business session to follow up from spring.

When the time came, though, the Friend realized she was not in a place to clerk, and the question came up, Who will clerk the session?

A number of what I think of as "clerking decoys" were offered:

    What if we each just said what we wanted to say and made sure there was time between each sharing?

    How 'bout we go through the list of topics that was brought up last time?

    Let's just do worship-sharing around whatever the concern is.

    Why not use a talking stick?
That last offering, as many readers might guess, turned my stomach. So of course that's when I spoke up:

All of us here are at least familiar with Quaker practices so I prefer we not use a talking stick!

Eventually, and in part because I felt a couple of Friends were hopeful I'd offer to clerk, I went on to say that I felt like we often talk about these same topics--how do we become more welcoming; what would help us be more consistent from gathering to gathering; how do we get the word out that Nightingales is gathering again...?

I think I also added something like, Rather than rehash these same topics, I think we have to start living into the answers.

To say the least, I was frustrated. We ultimately moved on to firm up plans for fall Nightingales (in October, outside of Milwaukee) and for spring Nightingales (in April, hopefully at the same camp in western Wisconsin where it was held this past spring).

But what I came home with and have been reflecting on are two questions:
    When does a gathered body need a clerk, and when does it just need space to reflect on something together?


    Would Nightingales be served if one or two Friends were identified ahead of time to step in as clerk if a matter came up that warranted clerking?
Of course, as an ad hoc group with little infrastructure between gatherings, there's no clear process to nominate anyone, other than in the moment.

But as I was re-reading the summary of spring's discussion, I saw these two things, which had a way of making the other concerns melt away:
    We like to talk with each other and we don't want too many rules.


    We come together to sing because we love each other.
I would add:

We come together to sing because we love singing with each other. Somehow the Spirit just rises up in all of us, singing, and we are gathered in that experience.



Jay T. said...

From time to time, I've found myself led into (or I've fallen into) a role as clerk or recording clerk for a Friendly committee or neighborhood group that would be otherwise leaderless. I don't always ask or state what I notice happening, but I always hope to be sensitive and yielding to the notions or leadings of others who might be similarly led.

Sometimes all that's needed is a brief statement of what the sense of the meeting is right then. I know this as "clerking from the floor." I've seen it happen in Friends meetings when a clerk didn't notice or didn't sense when the meeting was uniting.

Liz, where did the summary of discussions come from? My experience is that if a group is respectful in its discussion that the role of recording clerk is more essential to long term functioning than the clerk's role.

A clear restatement of the sense of the meeting, leading to a record of what's been decided is vital. It helps us know when we've found the right action and to remember later what action we intended.

I hope this helps.

Liz Opp said...

Hi, Jay. Thanks for the comment and the question.

My understanding is that the summary of the discussion was one person's summary of the previous gathering's remarks, but I don't know if the group asked the Friend to take notes, or if she offered. I don't know if the Friend shared her compilation of notes with anyone to test them, or if she was invited to bring her own compilation...

We are so often such an informal group, with so little business to attend to, that we don't have a recorder; we seldom take notes; we seldom read back the few notes that are taken.

It's not that we are Bad Quakers: it's that we love our time together for singing so much that I doubt we'll pursue anything as formal clerking and/or formal recording.

That said, there are enough of us who will "clerk from the floor" as needed. And what I appreciate about what you've offered is that in the prior discussion, it may have been useful for someone there to have said, "Might we test the sense of the meeting, to be sure we are on the same page...?"

Ah, hindsight in 20/20, as they say.