As I said at the time …
One acquaintance, preparing to be married under the care of another meeting, finally concluded you couldn’t find so many loonies collected in one place if you tried. There are times I suspect most of us would agree, especially when we get jammed on an item of business. We are an intelligent, opinionated, independent bunch of people. It’s said of us, as I also heard Jews at temple refer to themselves, that where twelve are gathered on an issue, you’ll have thirteen points of view.
Our way of doing business, requiring unity but no voting, requires us to try to listen carefully to each Friend. In practice, this can be difficult, especially if someone opposed to a proposal refuses to speak up or speak fully or, perhaps more serious, refuses to attend the business sessions where the matter is being considered. Sometimes, knowing there is unvoiced opposition, we will lay an agenda over to the next session, hoping for better representation – itself an admission that low turnout for our monthly meeting for worship for the conduct of business may also indicate its low priority in our lives. Laying it over, in turn, can often mean beginning all over again as a different set of individuals addresses the issue. Moreover, being present is essential, because miracles can occur in the session. Sending a statement on paper or via another Friend avoids moving with the Spirit in the meeting. There are times when being uncomfortable in the context of business meeting is healthy, and a sense of agreeing to disagree for a while may in turn lead to a third way and innovative resolution.
Our structure of doing business, in which each Friend is expected to participate in the operation of our faith community, can also be subject to breakdown. Individuals may fail to follow through on promised action, or not step forward at all for committee service. The work then falls back on a small core of Friends, who quickly become overburdened. Has there ever been a period when all of our committees were sufficiently filled and operating smoothly? It’s a lovely ideal, all the same, one that makes me all the more grateful for committees that are running well through the year.
Other dysfunctions arise in business meeting when we veer from the decision at hand, usually by trying to introduce a host of other problems and concerns – that is, trying to solve many of the world’s problems instead of replacing a furnace; when we forget the tenderness of the individuals involved and their motivations; when we try to redo work a committee has already labored over; when a committee comes forward to business meeting without finding unity on the proposal, hoping we can do what they couldn’t; or when we leap ahead toward a project we’re unlikely to give full support over time.
Once upon a time, reflecting on the traditional assumption that our business meetings would be led by Christ and that our job is simply to listen for the answer, I jested, “I don’t think Jesus cares what color the carpet is.” A decade or two later, when we were faced with that actual, prolonged decision, I had to add: “But he does care how we engage one another in deciding.” People can and do come away from our deliberations with hurt feelings, and it’s something requiring our mindfulness. Being opinionated doesn’t necessarily have to mean being heartless, even unintentionally. In the rug decision, the reaction of Friends in bringing heirloom Asian carpets to the meetinghouse for the wedding, while we were still deliberating the choice of permanent floor cover, remains a colorful reminder of the third way and its surprises.
We also need to be mindful that working through differences on small things is practice that strengthens us, as a body, for larger, more difficult issues.