Spread a little sunshine

Here in the Midwest, winters are long, cold and gray. We tend to view sunshine pretty positively.  Sunshine means warmth, friendliness and life!

In politics and group process, “sunshine” means something different. It means that to the greatest extent possible, discussion, decisions, and business will be conducted in the open, where anyone can observe what is going on, where everyone has access to all of the documents, and where all members can participate in decisions.

Quakers helped to pioneer this kind of decision-making. Long before “sunshine laws” became standard public policy for government across the U.S., Quakers were modeling open business meetings, open records, and open decisions.

There’s a trade-off, of course. Open, widely participatory decision making tends to be slow, and it can be held up by people who don’t know what’s going on or who are obstructive or cranky. Many organizations develop ways to “fast track” decision-making to a smaller group, which is given (or assumes) power to decide things in a more streamlined fashion.

These smaller groups may be self-organized around a special area of interest (focus group or interest group), or appointed (a committee). Interest groups tend to be sloppy and grow in a haphazard manner. Committees tend to be narrower, especially if they have a well-defined charge. Some groups are given (or take on) decision-making power, while others are more for discussion and research, and bring their ideas back to the larger group for final decision.

Quakers in the Orthodox tradition have a reputation for leaving decisions to smaller groups, and for establishing “executive” committees with strong powers. This can work all right as long as the executive committee is trusted and is seen as following the will of the larger group. When that trust breaks down, there is bound to be complaining and restlessness.

This blog is not the place to re-fight the battles of the past, and there are many different views of why Indiana Yearly Meeting fell apart. One contributing factor, though, was conflict over how decisions were being made, what subjects were allowed to be discussed, who was allowed to speak up, and whether decisions were being made in the open.

There’s a strong movement towards openness all across our society. It’s probably no accident that the conflict in Indiana Yearly Meeting came to a head at the same time that the Occupy movement flourished in other parts of the country.

As Friends across the Midwest pick up the pieces and re-organize, it’s important to remind ourselves that “sunshine” qualities – openness, transparency and accountability – are critical for a Quaker gathering to survive and grow.

  • leaders need to be appointed
  • committees and groups need a clear charge
  • minutes need to be taken, shared with the group, and published widely
  • a budget needs to be created and approved
  • money needs to be handled properly, with a complete “paper trail” and any necessary safeguards
  • business meetings are normally open for anyone to observe, and in most cases the discussion is open for anyone to participate. In some situations, the clerk may limit decisions or discussion to Friends to who are appointed by or who belong to meetings which are part of the group.
  • groups which meet by telephone or electronically should take special care to follow the spirit of Quaker process –they need to keep minutes and share them, publicize their work, and take special care to be as open and inclusive as possible
  • only a few meetings need to be closed – for example, to handle  personnel decisions, pending legal  matters, or conflicts where parties need to be able to face each other in private

Decisions are made according to Quaker process, which is aimed at discovering the will of God and the highest level of unity we can achieve under the Spirit’s guidance.  As we believe in God, we also believe that God can help us to find the right way to move forward. “God will lead us”  is our “default” expectation — it shouldn’t surprise us! If we can’t find unity, we can:

a)  stop and give the matter more time for prayer and reflection
b) lay the matter down — not make a decision
c) refer the matter to a committee or smaller group for study and recommendation
d) ask for guidance from our member meetings
e) consider what other Quaker meetings like ours have done
f) continue with our existing practice or previous decision
g) write a cautionary advice or a question (query) to help Friends explore the issues

This may seem like going back to kindergarden, but in a Quaker business meeting,  there is no “voting” by people who are not present. Decisions are made by people who are present, not by those who are absent. Minutes sent by member meetings deserve special consideration and should be answered in writing.  Recorded ministers and pastors should be careful not to speak more frequently than other Friends, and should not be given special weight or privilege in making decisions.

No one exercises veto power. Decisions which are made by the larger group should not be un-done later by smaller groups of Friends, except in case of real emergency. Meetings which do not participate in making decisions or which do not provide spiritual and financial support are a matter of special concern. Friends who are habitually long-winded or obstructive need to be dealt with, usually in private, by Friends who are appointed to do so.

As we move forward, let’s re-commit ourselves to sunshine — let’s be known not just for what we believe and do, but for how we decide to do things together.


1 Response to “Spread a little sunshine”

  1. 1 Steven Davison April 4, 2013 at 8:32 am

    This is one of the most useful and constructive discussions of ideal Quaker practice I’ve ever seen. Thanks, Joshua. I plan to pass it on.

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All of the posts on this blog are my own personal opinion. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the members and attenders of the meeting where I belong or any organization of Friends. For more information, click on the "About Me" tab above.



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