Helpfully Preparing a Controversial Matter for Meeting for Business
by Steve Mohlke
NYYM General Secretary
What does it take to prepare a potentially divisive matter for meeting for business in a way that allows everyone to do their best individual and corporate discernment? Based on my experience I have some suggestions.
When I was new to the process of bringing weighty matters to the meeting for business it sometimes didn’t go well. The discussion would be frustrating and ineffective. The sharing occasionally led to disrespect, hurting the community.
The process often started in consultation with other committee members. We would create a report that covered all our points in a way that we hoped people would understand and agree to. As the date of the meeting approached, we would ask each other questions like, Will it be approved? Will anyone object? Will so-and-so object? We would present and see what happened. Sometimes someone would raise a concern that depended on an unknown piece of information. Rather than lay the matter aside, we might slog through for a while to see if anyone had the answer. We might even guess at answers. It was also reasonably common, as the group seemed to be moving toward unity, for someone to raise a new concern late in the process. This was jarring and usually took us out of a spirit of worship. Or, a concern might stir significant emotional response as people heard it for the first time. It’s hard to practice good discernment while recovering from missing information or processing a big emotional response. When those things happen, unity is unlikely. Sound familiar? There is at least one better way.
Instead of bringing a committee report straight to meeting for business, think of the report as a draft. Circulate it in the newsletter or as a separate printed handout well in advance and in such a way that everyone has the opportunity to see it. There has to be enough time for people to respond but they don’t need forever. At this point the committee members should seek feedback but not by asking whether others agree with the report. Instead, ask, “What questions or concerns would you want to see addressed when this matter comes to the meeting for business?” If a person has a question, answer it and then include the question and the answer in the next version of the report. If the person expresses an opinion, don’t argue or defend the report. The idea is to collect contrary views, not squash them. The contrary views need to be shared. If you think someone has expertise on the matter or is likely to hold concerns or strong opinions, don’t passively wait for them to respond, ask them. Don’t try to persuade anyone that their concern isn’t worthy.
The committee may decide to continue its recommendation despite contrary views. However, it needs to rewrite the report to include all concerns. The meeting needs to know all the concerns in order to be able to adequately consider the committee’s recommendation. The revised report should strive to explain any concerns clearly even if the person who originally expressed it wasn’t clear. Before publishing the revision, ask the people who expressed concerns whether the written revision adequately explains what they were trying to share.
At some point during the preliminary work, it may become clear that people have strong emotional reactions about the matter. It helps to find a way to welcome the emotions, process them, and allow release before attempting corporate discernment. Consider presenting the draft report at a gathering for questions and sharing. Sometimes we need to hear the emotion from each other in person. It is important to be explicit in advance that the meeting is not for reaching a conclusion. Shifting toward a conclusion closes down the sharing space.
When confidence is high that known concerns have been identified and explained in the report, it is ready for Meeting for Business.
While this process may seem like a lot of effort and time, it offers several benefits to the meeting for business and the community.
- Everybody starts the corporate discernment with all known concerns explained in writing.
- People feel heard—they can be fully present to the discernment knowing that the concern they raised is in the report and everyone is aware of it.
- Concerns are separated from individuals—It isn’t so-and-so’s concern anymore, the concern belongs to the group.
- The flow is improved—the corporate discernment can begin with the largest issues first.
- Emotion is dissipated—it’s had a chance for expression and release.
- Trust is built in the group.
This isn’t meant to be a prescription. I offer it as a model to be adapted to particular circumstances in order to promote good use of our precious corporate time, and to allow participants to open to the movement of the Spirit.