There’s more to every Quaker community than its weekly meetings for worship. That’s why the meeting for business (sometimes called a meeting for worship with attention to business) is such an important part of Quaker faith and practice.
Once a month, the members of a local Quaker community will gather together to address whatever business has come before them. Members might have noticed that the gutters are coming loose, for example: Who should they hire to do repairs? Some Friends might want to invite a non-profit organization to give a presentation at the meetinghouse: Are they weclome; if so, when? Should the meeting hang a Black Lives Matter banner, or a Pride flag, over the front door? Questions like these, among many others, are always coming up.
Answers and decisions, however, are arrived at not by majority vote, but by communal discernment, a shared effort to understand what’s known as “the sense of the meeting.” To put it another way, the ideal meeting for business doesn’t ratify the agendas of the Friends taking part. Instead, those Friends work together to figure out what God (or Spirit) wants them to do—what course of action would best exemplify living in alignment with Quaker testimony.
Sometimes that’s easy to discern, and sometimes it isn’t. Friends might joke about spending all afternoon arguing about whether it’s absolutely necessary to get free trade coffee for the social hour, but it’s not even a particularly extreme example. In such cases, Friends strive to remain open to other points of view, recognizing the possibility that their own desires may not be in the community’s best interests, and do their best to think carefully and prayerfully before offering their own perspectives. It may not be possible to reach a consensus in a single meeting; many concerns get set aside for further reflection. And some issues are so contentious that, even when many present feel they’ve established the sense of the meeting, one Friend’s conscience might spur them to stand apart from the decision—to acknowledge that it’s happening, while refusing to accept its rightness. (That can lead to serious rifts within a Quaker meeting, though, and Friends make great efforts to resolve such conflicts before they reach that stage.)
So who runs the meeting for business? You may remember that the Religious Society of Friends doesn’t have a priesthood, and though some individual communities may have pastoral ministers tending to the spiritual health of their members, in essence every Quaker meeting is an autonomous collective. As such, the meeting appoints a clerk from among its members; the meeting for business is one of a clerk’s most important responsibilities. With recommendations from individual Friends and various committees, the clerk establishes an agenda for the meeting, and makes sure that, as each item comes up, every Friend who feels called to speak on that item has an opportunity. As Friends share their messages, the clerk listens attentively for potential consensus. Often, once everyone has spoken, the clerk may say something like, “I’m hearing a sense of the meeting that…” If the clerk has correctly articulated the sense of the meeting, another member, who has been chosen to serve as the recording clerk, will draft a minute for the meeting to approve—records are kept of every meeting for business, so previous decisions can always be referenced if necessary.
Next: What’s the difference between a monthly, quarterly, and yearly meeting?
“The sense of the meeting is looking for God’s way, God’s will for this group on this issue at this time. So everybody… is praying and looking for guidance: what are we led to do?”