Corporate Discernment: The Sense of the Meeting

 

by Christopher Sammond, General Secretary of NYYM

 

The Sense of the meeting is what we call the corporate discernment on a particular matter.

The sense of the meeting refers to the discerned sense of what is God’s will for a particular decision. Expressing this in other theological languages, sense of the meeting is our best sense of what is in harmony with love, the fabric and flow of the Universe, what is right ordered according to Truth, what is in alignment with Gospel Order.

It is my belief that for most of our decisions, it is not important to God/the flow of the Universe, etc., whether we decide one way or another. But how we work together and whether our decision-making process strengthens or tears at the fabric of our community is of utmost importance to not only us, but to the Divine. Put succinctly, God doesn’t care if the carpeting in the fellowship room is blue or green. But it matters greatly to our being in harmony with the Divine as to how we approach that decision. Our meeting for worship for business can be a way in which we live out love in our community, how we manifest, make real, the order of the Universe, how we participate in, or drift away from, the Beloved Community we seek to further here on earth. So how we do this part of our life together is of utmost importance.

I would note that most conflicts in meetings can be traced back to a piece of business that went awry. It can take years of work to repair the damage.

What, then, is it, and how do we access it?

Discernment is seeking to know God’s will, or, expressed in other theological languages, to be in the flow of the Universe, to be in harmony with Truth, to be in accord with Gospel Order, to be in step with the movement of the Divine. Wade Wilson describes discernment as “...going to the place where God makes things clear.” Discernment involves accessing a place within ourselves which is beyond our rational ideas about a situation, and our emotional attachment to a particular outcome. To find that place within myself, I need to get to a state where I care more about being faithful than I do about the consequences of a given decision or action. Michael Wajda says discernment “… is 99% spirituality and 1% process. Discernment is where prayer and action meet.”

Corporate discernment arises out of worship.

Corporate discernment arises out of worship. And by Worship, I don’t mean the peremptory examination of our shoelaces or the meetinghouse carpeting which can sometimes precede our attempting to enter into a place of discerning the business of our meetings. I mean a place of worship deep enough where we are centered and grounded, and where we have gathered as a body. Early Friends spoke of “crossing the bar,” meaning arriving at a felt sense of having been gathered up in the Divine. Clerks would not begin the consideration of business unless and until they felt that the meeting had collectively made this shift.

In our worship, we hold ourselves to a practice whereby we don’t speak unless clearly led to do so. Yet in meeting for worship with attention to business, we mostly (myself included) relax that standard several notches, at times speaking almost in discussion mode. I don’t believe corporate discernment is possible in those circumstances. We are using the form of corporate discernment, but are lacking in the substance. Many Friends speak of the ‘rule’ to only speak once to an issue. If someone were powerfully led, I would dearly want to hear them speak more than once. But I fear that this ‘rule’ is a way of putting a hedge around our egos, so that we don’t speak too often. What would our business be like if we gave the same degree of care to speaking only when clearly and strongly led as we do in our worship? What would it be like to await “crossing the bar” before we began to consider the work before us?

Corporate Discernment is done by the whole meeting.

Corporate Discernment, naming the Sense of the Meeting, is not something just the clerk does. It is a group exercise in which all present play active roles. Those roles vary from the committee members who do the research and season an issue before it comes to the floor, to those Friends who hold the meeting in prayer as elders, to those in the body who have come with hearts and minds prepared, to those willing to speak difficult truths, to those able to listen for the Truth being said in a way that runs against the grain.

It is usually the clerk who actually names the sense of the meeting, though less frequently the recording clerk or a member of the body may catch a sense of it. But it has been the entire meeting which has brought the business to this point, and then tests the clerk’s discernment. We call it corporate discernment because the entire body does this work together.

Unity vs Unanimit

Once the clerk has named the sense of the meeting, it is up to the body to respond as to whether or not the clerk has named it correctly. If there are no objections, it is said that the body is in unity. However, unity does not always mean unanimity. One or more Friends may not see the same truth as the others, and it is an important duty of the clerk and the body to hear these concerns out. There are times when a single Friend holds a piece of the Light that the others do not, and it is a gift to the body to welcome these insights. Sometimes one Friend’s faithful witness can change the sense of the meeting.

If those dissenting the sense of the meeting, having been heard and not having swayed the discernment of the body, choose to do so, they may stand aside, or even ask to be recorded by name as standing aside. Their sense of the truth is different than the sense of the meeting, and they cannot unite with it. If there are more than a few Friends in this difficult position, the clerk needs to discern if there is actual unity on the sense of the meeting, or if the matter would be best set aside for a time. This is sometimes a difficult decision, and one not to be taken lightly.

In this practice, there is no “standing in the way.” That is a modern misunderstanding of our practice, and evinces a willfulness on the part of the Friend attempting to do so which is inimical to the attitude of humility and seeking truth together which our practice demands.

Individual discernment is the heart and backbone of corporate discernment.

As I name in the companion article on individual discernment, there are stages of discernment which apply to both individual and corporate decision making.

  • Information gathering
  • Emotional Venting
  • Letting go of agendas and fixed positions
  • Discernment

For an elaboration of these stages, please see the other article.

 

Queries:

How would our business sessions be different if they were more deeply grounded in worship?

How do I prepare myself for meeting for worship with attention to business?

Do I cultivate an attitude of curiosity and humility towards those who have a different sense of the truth on a particular matter?