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.


September 21, 2009

Past due: Reflections on book reading at FGC Gathering

Thanks to Robin, who wanted to know how the reading went when I introduced the book Writing Cheerfully on the Web during this past summer's FGC Gathering.
I was on the phone with QuakerBooks' co-manager Lucy Duncan in the early fall of 2008:

"That sounds like a worthwhile project, Liz," she may have said to me back then. "If you can finish the book in time for the summer Gathering, we can give you a reading slot to help promote it during the week."

When I first realized that the seed of an idea had taken root in me at the 2008 Gathering in Johnstown, Pennsylvania--to self-publish a collection of Quaker blogposts--I hadn't given it any thought as to how to get the word out. The steps that were directly in front of me included flying the idea of such a book by a few other blogging friends, and figuring out a way to identify potential blog posts to be included.

But Lucy's offer gave me incentive to stick with the project, and in February of 2009, I got an unexpected call from her:

"I'm calling to find out if you want a slot during the Gathering to promote your book. How's it coming? We're finalizing the schedule now for book readings because we have to get information about our events to the university..."

I was relieved that I could tell her, in fact, that the book project was moving right along and I thought I could have it complete by mid-June. I offered to read during the Monday slot that was available. The only other time slot I was offered, best as I can recall, was a Friday afternoon one--but I worried that Gathering attenders would fizzle out after the long week.

When I arrived at the Gathering in Blacksburg this year, I took time to find the handout that listed all the pre-scheduled events for Monday. The book reading was there--and so was another event, a panel of well-respected Friends, speaking on the topic "Living into Prophetic Witness."

Now, it's true that at every afternoon and evening time slot available at Gathering, there usually are two or three great-sounding events going on at the same time and people just have to pick one, based on intuition, discernment, or the Fear of Missing Something.

In this case, ooooooh, I seriously thought about canceling my book reading so I could attend the panel. I remember that Amanda Kemp was one of the panelists, along with Noah Baker Merrill and a few others.

But no, I had a commitment and I kept it. Plus, I had known that a few bloggers who are represented in the book would also attend, and I was curious who would show up and what I would say.

As I usually do, I looked at the room where the reading was going to be the day before. It wasn't a room at all: it was a loft area over the main part of the Gathering store, and wow, did the conversations in the bookstore below carry! I went into problem-solving mode: when I have too much noise in the background, I have a hard time focusing.

After I got the green light to move the chairs, I took time to rearrange the room about half an hour before the reading was to begin, facing the chairs toward a corner that I hoped would help absorb the voices and noise of the activity below. It did.

The next thing I had to face, like the upward carriage of the noise from below, was the rising of my own ego. I wasn't feeling grounded at all, and I could tell my hubris wanted to insist that I was better than this room arrangement and deserved more attention than what I was getting.

Bleah, how I dislike myself when I feel that sort of entitlement rising within me. I think that's when I made the decision that I'd start the reading with worship and ask for prayer support during my remarks.

Kody and Peterson came in as Jeanne and I were finishing organizing chairs. I was glad to see both of them and felt that familiar unspoken motion of Love pass between us, deeply appreciating their presence as well as the support I had from Jeanne.

A few others came in--maybe a dozen or so Friends--and a few minutes later, FGC's Publications Manager Barbara Mays introduced me, and we were off. I decided not to read anything from the book directly, though I spoke about topics that were in the introduction and where the idea for the Quaker blog reader came from.

Then I opened it up for questions, and at times I turned to my fellow bloggers to respond. That was a relief, to not feel like I had to have The Perfect Answer to a question and instead to allow others to contribute. In some ways, it felt like an online conversation, with Friends chipping in to speak to pieces I had overlooked, or to expand on something that had caught the attention of someone else. Unfortunately, I don't recall the questions that were asked. I think I was working so hard to stay present and to keep low...

By the end of the discussion, the room was filled, if not with people, then with intense curiosity and energized attentiveness from those who had come and who had truly wanted to learn more about the Quaker blogosphere and its part on the sense of renewal that has been rippling throughout our meetings and worship groups.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

It's been more than two-and-a-half months since the book made its debut, and a few people have been asking me how sales have been going. In a recent call to QuakerBooks, a staff person there told me that he thought sales were going very well: in addition to the books they had sold to Gathering attenders, they had sold others to people who called in orders or placed orders online, with other copies being sold through booktables at various yearly meeting sessions.

I'll toss out a reminder here that there is a 20% discount available for books that are ordered for use by book study groups, as described on QuakerBook's page on Customer Service.

A few people have written up their own thoughts about the book, including Tania of the Friendly Funnel and Robin from What Canst Thou Say. If others of you have written about Writing Cheerfully on the Web, I hope you'll speak up and point us to your post!

Thanks again to so many of you for your support, encouragement, and involvement in this project, whether it was suggesting a blog post to be included, completing the survey that helped shape the final product, attending one of the interest groups about Convergent Friends that were held at the Gathering, or actually buying a copy of the book for yourself, a friend, or your meeting's library.

It's been absolutely humbling to be able to serve the wider Quaker community in this way.