Identifying the Difference between Consensus and Sense of the Meeting
Friends decision-making encourages communities to collectively to seek truth for the community – rather than pooling the needs of individuals. Sense-of-the-meeting and consensus are often confused because they have in common a non-voting process. One way to contrast them is to ask “What is the question that calls for a decision?” (From
Quaker Process is about the collective seeking the will of God in matters of discernment. For Guilford, that discernment is done in the context of what is best for the whole community. What helps this story (we call Guilford College) progress in a way that is most in line (or faithful) with its principles and practices? The Quaker process of decision-making also works from a place of abundance trusting that “this community has all it needs to do what it is being called to do.”
To do the process well requires training, ongoing intention, and patience. It is a practice that takes time to develop. It is not a quick fix but a long-term commitment.What I have come to understand is that Quaker decision-making is deeply counter-cultural for a culture of people who grow up learning to value the practice of voting.
It moves at a different pace and is oriented around not having losers and winners (or blocking those whose voices we do not want to hear).
The process should be seen as a tool for community building. It is process that relies on relationships and commitment to common goals and vision. The Quaker process of decision-making is intended to constantly re-center the entire community around the desire and call of God on that community.
“Quaker decision-making is less about arriving at a final decision and more about becoming the people of God together.” -Jan Wood
How might we say that in our context?
Ways To Impact The Speed of Quaker Process
👇 It matters where you put the emphasis of the decision
As Robert Wood writes:
The search for the sense of the Meeting is time-consuming, and many people who are used to voting procedures think it highly inefficient. However, after many years of working with it in a variety of quite different Quaker institutions, I believe that the time from idea to action may be about the same in both systems, and that a truly shared sense of Meeting facilitates collective action. What is shorter in voting systems, where the majority rules, is the time from idea to decision; but if the decision does not reflect a consensus, the time from decision to action can be long indeed.
👥 Everyone in the know
It is important that as many people understand the process and are trained explicitly in it so that the process can be efficient and fully participated in.
Does everyone have all the information they need in order to make a good decision or are certain things being withheld from the community?
🌬️ The Clerk Disappears
Clerking is the most humble role in the whole process (in service and temperament):
To be the clerk is to be like a DJ who “disappears”
The ability of the clerk to hold together these various threads, tensions, and potentially competing interests requires that they are able to “get out of the way” enough to allow the music to speak for itself. If the DJ is good enough, the music blends together so well, so beautifully, you don’t even know they are there. The best DJs “disappear” while the music takes center stage.In a similar way in a Quaker Meeting, the clerk disappears. A really good clerk of a Quaker process is someone who is able to work the turntable enough that they go unseen so that God’s will as it is being discerned by the community can take center stage. This is why it requires such great humility to be a good clerk.
By focusing intently on the process rather than the content under discussion.
By helping to educate everyone else in the room about what they are supposed to be doing (thus taking some of the weight of the clerk to lead us or save us).
By the clerk doing their own spiritual work around humility, listening, and giving up any pretenses to per-ordained decisions.
By helping the Meeting to give up any per-ordained decisions and to enter into a business meeting “with hearts and minds clear” and ready to do the work together as a community.
Working smoothly is not always equal to speed, but often it means that it is working within the time constraints the community has placed upon it.
🧠 Discerning between Principle and Preference
I know difference between saying something like, “We can’t stop doing that, that’s my favorite…” and, “If we did that it would radically change the nature of how we interact with that community and we made a commitment to them when we…” One is rooted in a narrative where my wants and desires and I am the center, the other is rooted in a narrative where our community’s needs or another community’s needs or God’s own calling is at the center.
Can I discernment between what I want and what I need and place that in the context of other needs within my community?
Am I willing to let go of my preferences in order that other needs can be addressed?
In my experience, these non-essentials of ego and preference are often the cholesterol that blocks the arteries of Quaker group discernment.
🕰️ Every Minute Matters
the focus is to take minutes on the decisions that are made because:
The practice of minute taking is important:
it helps to test where the community is at
it sets a “check point” in the ground as to where the community was last in unity
it finalizes the discernment up to that point
🔗 Embrace the Weak Links
Every one’s role is important and connected. There is no “Star” of Quaker process. Thus, everyone needs to know what they are doing and making sure our relationships are in order is essential. Quaker process is a mature process, it works best when people are seeking to live healthy and whole lives as individuals and within their community.
“Sometimes we resist getting know each other, which is the soil in which this practice thrives. Just the right amount of time to do this work, not too much, is what is necessary.”
Conclusion and Queries
Quaker process is spiritual work. It is transformative work. It invites us to show up with our whole-selves and listen in order to be changed. It also invites us to be committed to a process all the way through, trusting that this process can and will bring a different kind of community and decision to bear on the things we need most.