Friday, June 10, 2005

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 ( I welcome any further thoughts from others.

Ann wrote:

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.
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?
My long-winded answer was:
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?

Rich Accetta-Evans


Blogger Lorcan said...

Richard... I am not sure the solution is in the form... but the application. I think our meetings quite often fail to foster love and trust... and most importantly trust... fear, as the bible says, is the greatest berrier to perfect love.

We have to actively stop facilitating each other's illnesses based in fear.


10:04 AM, June 11, 2005  
Blogger Joe G. said...


The way you describe an agenda for Business Meeting reminds me of a prayer list. The agenda is our prayer list to God for guidance.

I also appreciate Lorcan's thoughts about trust: can we trust God and each other to abandon the agenda whenever and/or wherever the wind of the Spirit might lead to do so? This doesn't preclude having an agenda; but it does remind us that sometimes God would have us focus on other things.

Just some thoughts!

11:06 AM, June 11, 2005  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Thanks for raising this simple but rich question. I find myself returning to two awarenesses:

One is that I have heard some Friends talk about Meeting for Worship for Business as a programmed Meeting for Worship—that is, with an agenda and also with the expectation that Friends are to wait for a movement of the Spirit before speaking; to listen for the Spirit when others speak; etc.

The other is that I often consider allowing long spaces where there is no set agenda during Meeting for Worship for Business—maybe call it "Open worship for other concerns to rise," or something to that effect.

As things have played out, and especially in the short time I have been serving as clerk for the worship group in which I participate, I find what seems to happen organically and with the grace of the Spirit is that we often take extra time in-between comments, or when shifting from one item to another. My hope is that the pace of our business sessions allow for intentional deep listening to one another and to the Spirit, and I often have experienced a sweet tenderness among us as a result.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

10:31 PM, June 11, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, but why is it that some people knit, etc. during meeting for business but not meeting for worship?

12:14 AM, June 15, 2005  
Blogger Lorcan said...

that is a great question... in some meetings where the biz meeting gets somewhat... well. ... worldly and contentious, I found that staying aware but keeping it light, funny notes to folks next to me, helped to keep me from getting into the fray... though in my last few biz meetings before my absence, I just divorced myself from all issues but love each other and listen to each other...

I have noticed knitters. Almost a year ago, I was sitting with youngish Friends at their first Biz meeting. One was so put off by the rancor that this Friend began to cry. As some of us worked to create more worship in meeting, small notes to lighten the mood helped ... so it was said to me at the time, but, we also had to do the serious work of healing the meeting.

An older Friend lamenting the state of the meeting often says to me she misses the sense of humor of the Friends of our younger days... Perhaps knitting and a non-disruptive joke, helps to keep the tensions down, which while we labor to be worshipful may not be a bad idea...


8:41 AM, June 15, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I've known some very faithful Friends who knitted during Meeting for Business. While this always seemed a little inappropriate to me, it doesn't bother me as much in practice as I think it ought to in theory. Often, I think these Friends are using the knitting almost meditatively to keep themselves focussed and to avoid getting agitated. As far as I know, they are still able to be attentive to what's going on and to the Spirit.

I find Lor's idea of passing notes to be more troubling. Almost by definition, it means taking one's attention off the business at hand and also out of worshipful openness to the spirit. I personally find it distracting and mildly annoying if Friends whisper to each other during Meeting for Business, especially during those times when the recording clerk is working on a minute. I understand that Lor is saying he needs these light distractions in order to avoid "getting into the fray". If the business meeting really has become a fray, then I suppose that the fray, rather than some Friends' means of avoiding it, is the real problem.

That said, I've come away from some business meetings that seemed to me perfectly in order, only to find that others found them "contentious". I guess it may depend on what one means by contentious. To me, it's to be expected that people will differ over proposed courses of action. It's not expected (or at least, not right) that they become personally abusive about it.

3:16 PM, June 15, 2005  
Blogger Larry Clayton said...

Re Lorcan's reference to some one crying: We were not in a business meeting, but a 12th Step Meeting at Langley (NO VA) made up only of quakers; the presumed qualification was that you were the victim of an obsession.

One member of the group, only recently a Quaker, accused my wife and me of not having an obsession (hence not belonging);

My wife started to cry (she can be very emotional at certain times). That led to an outburst of warmth and love from the rest of the group.

God works in mysterious ways, etc.

4:37 PM, June 15, 2005  
Blogger Lorcan said...


I hope you and your wife stayed ... explaining that you were obessed with the idea that you had no obessions!


6:45 AM, June 16, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Friends sometimes get tied up by focusing on what something is not, rather than what it is or should be. In this respect, I've long been bothered by the "unprogrammed" term which is not a traditional Friends term. It seems to me that everything in Friends worship and business should be programmed - by God, not by our human wills.

If we focused on the positive - seeking the will of God for the Meeting on matters which may be on the agenda or not - we might get farther. In Ohio Yearly Meeting business sessions, I have often found that worship did underly the business considerations, which did not preclude having an agenda. Starting with a considerable period of worship (not the token few minutes more common in monthly meetings) and speaking out of the silence rather than a one-after-the-other pattern do a lot to help.

In some meetings, there does not seem to be even agreement on seeking the will of God. If there's disagreement on such essentials of faith, it is going to be very hard to really do business in the manner of Friends regardless of the externals of format.

9:07 AM, June 24, 2005  

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