two Quaker models

“Meeting for Business”

Traditionally, Quakers have no clergy. Instead, all are called to “minister” to the whole community. Thus, each group’s “business” is conducted not by one person or even a committee of a few, but by all its members, with the input of each having equal weight: true democracy, in action. In such a painstaking process, joint action is taken only once consensus is reached—a process that can take much time (weeks, months, in rare cases even years) but is undertaken mindfully and meant to honor the dignity of all involved.

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Typically, a “clerk” facilitates and periodically records the proceedings of a monthly “meeting for business,” which traditionally occurs after a “meeting for worship”—the unstructured quiet time during which traditional “Friends” (as Quakers formally are called) reflect meditatively and, if moved, offer messages which arise out of the shared silence. In this way, any actions taken as a body possess a clarity and durability unknown by those lacking such “seasoning.” And, the tender, worshipful nature of “meeting” is extended from a collective mystical experience to a mutual worldly one.
Even as such a “business” model enriches the spiritual life of a circle of seekers, it lends a finely-tuned sensitivity to whatever projects Friends engage in. After local Quakers discern what matters most to them at a given time, representatives from their “monthly meeting” convene with those from other, nearby meetings on a “quarterly” basis—a regional representation of which then sends delegates to “yearly” meetings. Regional meetings are open to all, yet the selected representatives meet to further discuss issues of concern and distill a “sense of the meeting” to guide further, future collective actions.
This careful way of conducting worldly affairs has shaped Friends’ responses to war, the discrimination of women or minorities, economic injustice, ecological degradation and other matters of common concern for almost four centuries. It lends itself to “governance from the bottom up” in that no person or clique can usurp or corrupt the process; each person present has equal say and opportunity to influence the direction followed by all. At the same time, the communal life of early, largely rural Quakers differed greatly from the atomized, urbanized existence of most moderns. For that reason, alterations to the model are necessary.
Instead of a pure consensus, for example, a “pure majority” of two-thirds (66%—as opposed to an often divisive “simple majority” of 51%) of those present can overcome the gridlock of divergent blocs obstructing group action. Also, as the relative uniformity of a geographically-defined, ideologically-homogeneous group of Quaker farmers is now rare, the conditions requisite for participating in “modern meetings for business” beg for a secular equivalent to the communal membership of old. While Quakers do not “vote” as such but rather allow a matter to “season” until it seems mature enough to sustain group action as deemed by pure consensus, the virtual stranger status of most urban “neighbors” requires that voting take the place of recurring “threshing sessions” characteristic of the Quaker process.
Given the fluidity of contemporary life, one model to assure commitment to genuine group process might be that in order to be allowed to vote on a given matter, each would-be voter must have attended at least two of the previous three weekly meetings; to be considered as a delegate to a monthly, quarterly or yearly meeting, s/he will have attended at least three of five recent meetings, as documented by a clerk’s attendance log of those present, recorded at the beginning of each gathering. Anyone arriving at a meeting after it’s begun (so, after attendance has been logged) may not vote on any issue, as involvement in (or at least observation of) the group process from the beginning is requisite to participate.
While most Quaker meetings have entrusted one person to serve as clerk at a time, secular meetings are best served by selecting co-clerks, ideally a woman and a man who share clerking roles: convening a meeting, facilitating the order of events, recording the names of those present as well as the matters discussed and a summary of action agreed upon given at the end of a meeting, then adjourning that meeting. The clerks divide tasks such as responding to inquiries, distilling the “minutes” of a meeting, issuing regular reports or releasing public statements, and addressing concerns of individual meeting members.
Finally, as secularity is key to conducting a truly democratic process, whereas meetings for business used to follow “meetings for worship” an alternative to silence-based spiritual meditation might be “parties” held to facilitate neighborly sharing. An example on a local level might consist of potlucks that precede facilitated group discernment, then the processing of matters concerning the majority of those present. Even if the frenetic pace of contemporary life might make doing so seem like an extravagance, the weekly gathering of local groups offers a consistent way to encounter as well as network with those who share immediate needs and concerns common to those people who share a place. In order to build significant, durable bonds, at the minimum a local “party” should take place at least monthly: The form (e.g., meeting over food or music, film, live performance, child minding, art or handicraft exhibits, sports) is adaptable to those drawn to come together and address mutual concerns while celebrating their ability to make a difference.

the Scattergood Hostel

Opened in 1890—the year this web page’s motif photo was taken—Scattergood School operated until 1931, when it closed because of the worsening Great Depression and declining numbers of local Quaker children.
In summer 1938, Quaker youth and young adults meeting in Clear Lake, Iowa, pondered what they might do to respond to the growing crisis in Nazi Germany and occupied Austria: Specifically, how might they reach out to the swelling ranks of those persecuted by the Hitler regime? Out of their concerns arose a letter to the American Friends Service Committee in Philadelphia, suggesting the former boarding school (a few miles east of recent President Herbert Hoover’s hometown of West Branch, Iowa) be reopened as a safe haven for Europe’s dejected Jews, but also non-Jewish political, religious and artistic refugees.

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Working together, Iowa’s two branches of Quakerdom—which had experienced a theological schism some half-century earlier—reunited for the first time to refurbish, equip and staff the vacant school. Over the next four years, from spring 1939 to summer 1943, more than 40 Quaker and non-Quaker, mostly young volunteers provided a refuge to 185 souls fleeing oppression and likely death. Though born out of spiritual convictions and carried out with meagre resources by untrained non-professionals, this grassroots call to give social concern a political form embodied the best of collective action, based on individual commitment to heal a broken world. Following the monition to “Ask what love might do,” determined Iowa Quaker farmers and idealistic young people not only forever changed the lives of hundreds of people who lived and worked there, but enriched the lives of the thousands who have since been touched by the legacy of Scattergood Hostel. (To learn more, see “Rescuers of Jews” or watch the related video.)
At a time when even most Jewish groups failed to effectively respond to the victims of Nazi terror, that a group of Quakers on the remote Iowa prairie found the means to actively save tens of lives, despite having no tangible connection to those endangered by events in faraway Europe, inspires many. Today, in an era of multiple global crises, many feel powerless to affect larger dynamics taking place that are irreversibly changing our world, destroying much of value that has been built over centuries, and threatening our abilities to survive as communities or individuals. Scattergood Hostel offers a model, proof that—as American anthropologist Margaret Mead once advised—“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”