Should Business Meeting Be Unprogrammed?
Vijay recently mentioned that the 15thStreetFreeform google group has been quiet since it was formed. This is the group that was intended, among other things, for open discussion of issues without any implication that the views expressed represent the views of our Meeting.
A few weeks ago, a Friend named Ann Armstrong raised an issue on another list (Quaker-G, maintained by Licia Kuenning and Larry Kuenning) that I think might be of interest here as well. I met Ann and her husband Doug over 30 years ago at a Quaker community (now defunct) called New Swarthmoor, and I know her to be a serious and dedicated Friend. Her question was about whether a meeting for business (which we often call a "meeting for worship with a concern for business") ought to be free of agendas just as a regular meeting for worship is free of pre-planned messages. It seemed like a simple question - which is a sign that it is a good question. But thinking about it raised, for me at least, a lot more questions. With her permission, I am now sharing Ann Armstrong's original question and my response with both the 15thStreetFreeform group and with my own blog, Brooklyn Quaker (http://brooklynquaker.blogspot.com). I welcome any further thoughts from others.
I am currently clerking Acton Monthly meeting. As I was carefully and prayerfully putting together the agenda for the last business meeting, I selected an excerpt from NEYM Faith and Practice to include at the top of the printed agenda.My long-winded answer was:
This done I realized that to a certain extent preparing an agenda (and adding that excerpt) is a little like preparing a sermon ahead of time, or is it?
I assume the implication here is that if having an agenda is a little like preparing a sermon in advance then it shouldn't be done or is unQuakerly or is inconsistent with any intention to seek guidance from the Living Christ during the business meeting.
I don't agree. Preparing an agenda in advance is a little like preparing a sermon in advance in that both are prepared. But it is also different, and in more important ways. A sermon is or purports to be a form of vocal ministry, and the classical Quaker view about vocal ministry is that it should only arise from the immediate moving of the Spirit of Christ. An agenda is not in itself ministry, it is a list of items that the Meeting intends to lay before the Lord and consider. An agenda does not even really limit what can be considered once the meeting convenes. It serves only as a reminder of matters that someone thinks require attention. The meeting, if members are so moved, can amend the agenda by adding to it or ubtracting from it. And even once the agenda is adopted the Friends present should be free, if they are moved by God, to raise new issues.
Of course, it could be argued that since the meeting for business is also a meeting for worship it should also be completely "unprogrammed" with no advance thought given to what should be considered. This might seem superficially plausible and logical, but to me it does not feel right - any more than the argument of some early Friends that the times and places to hold public worship should not be scheduled, but left to the Lord's free movings.
I freely concede that preparing an agenda is probably a 'creaturely' activity. I would even go so far as to say that other creaturely activity can properly occur within a business meeting. I think members should be free to use their human faculties of thought and judgement while deliberating in meeting for business - though they should also be open to unexpected motions of the spirit that upset their plans and thoughts.
My reasons for this are as follows:
first - the Creator has given us natural gifts as well as spiritual, and it seems reasonable that both can be drawn upon in doing Him service.
second - in some matters it would almost be a kind of presumption to insist that we won't proceed at all without an explicit command from God. God may expect us to work out some things for ourselves. A Friend in meeting for business may urge a repair to the roof if he sees that there is rain coming through even though the Spirit has not seized him and commanded him to speak about it.
third - the absence of a written agenda that can be presented to the meeting and accepted or rejected would not necessarily result in the lack of any agenda at all, nor in more devout attention to the Lord. It would more likely result in a "hidden" agenda being pushed by some members through eloquence and force of personality, or - in some meetings - in a passive failure to attend to necessary but unpleasant business because no one thought to bring it up.
As for Biblical or other quotations at the start of a meeting: I think these should be used sparingly. If they serve to remind Friends that their business should be rooted in worship then they are helpful. If they in any way seem to "set a mood" or predispose Friends to any particular way of viewing the business they are about to consider, then I think they should be avoided.
Incidentally, this topic seems to me related to the question of what a clerk's job is in the meeting for business. According to Rosemary Moore in "The Light in Their Consciences" early clerks in the 17th century simply took notes on what happened in the meeting. It was only in the 18th century that clerks acquired as well the function of helping meetings arrive at the sense of the meeting in the way that I think most Friends expect clerks to do today. It seems to me that this was a useful development.
In a later e-mail, after reading various responses to her question (including but not limited to the one I wrote)Ann Armstrong told me:
I don't expect to give up preparing agendas in writing before each business meeting."I may continue to select readings to print at the top of the agenda page, but I will not automatically read those excepts during the opening worship!"Sounds like a sensible solution to me. What do other Friends think?