Tag Archives: discernment

Choosing how to help your community

In my recent post, ‘Choosing what to be good at‘, I wrote about how I made choices throughout my life, but especially as a teenager, about what skills I would work on and which things I would choose not to be good at. In discussion of this on Facebook, one of the themes which came up was: how does this interact with other people? How do my choices about what to do and what to be good at affect people in my community, whether that’s a small community like a household or family or a larger community, like social groups I might belong to? I want to spend a bit longer exploring this now because I think it raises all sorts of good questions about expectations, needs, agency, and the relationship between an individual and a community. I’m going to keep using personal examples because that’s what I have to go on, but of course my experience as a white middle-class British cis woman may not generalise.

Here’s a story from when I was about thirteen. At my school we had ‘food technology’ classes, mostly cooking but with a veneer of industrial process. I had mostly already done all the forms of cooking involved at home, I intensely disliked the way that ‘team work’ in the kitchens mostly meant boys threatening people with knives and girls doing the washing up, and I found some of the activities, such as ‘designing’ a pizza topping, laughable. One day the exercise was to bake bread rolls. My mother bakes bread at home, all the bread the family eats and almost all the bread I had ever eaten was homemade, and I had been joining in and making my own bread since… well, for longer than I could remember. I could make loaves and rolls and hedgehogs and basically any shape of bread. So I baked a batch of bread rolls in the classroom. They were fine. They looked just like the bread I ate every day. The teacher came over and she said, “I don’t think anyone would want to buy those, they’re a bit uneven.”

(I hope this teacher is now cringing every time she sees something ‘artisan’ for sale.)

Here I was at the crossroads between two sets of expectations. The expectations of my family about the right appearance for bread, about what qualities mattered in bread, and how to make bread rolls were at odds with the expectations my teacher wanted to create about quality control, regularity, the relationship of appearance to acceptability, and where I should focus my efforts. I hadn’t baked bread for sale, I had baked bread for eating. I was, unwittingly, choosing which community and set of values to follow.

Years later, I laid some of my frustration at what I saw as an unfair criticism to rest when I used my skills in bread making to make the bread which would be used in the communion service in Iona Abbey. That’s bread to be seen, but also bread to be eaten, and bread to bring us closer to God. (As a Quaker who had never taken physical communion before, I did put myself in a slightly tricky theological spot that way, but I really couldn’t think of the God I knew having me qualified to bake the bread but not eat it. And there was a non-alcoholic option. So I took communion there.) It’s also bread for the community of worshippers, and their expectations are not so much about the quality of the bread – although using ordinary home-baked bread instead of wafers does attract attention – but about the way it is used within the ritual to form spiritual connections.

If I hadn’t been so well supported in bread making at home, so relatively experienced and used to eating my own baking, I might have concluded from that lesson that I couldn’t bake bread. I’m sure some of my classmates did. I don’t know whether the teacher at some level intended us to conclude that home-baked was inferior to factory made bread; perhaps she did mean for us to appreciate how difficult it is to make and therefore learn not to waste it, or something of the sort. Instead I chose to reject her feedback and go on thinking that I was perfectly capable of baking bread. If I had drawn other conclusions, would I have been willing or able to serve a later community by getting on and baking the bread we needed on Iona? I would certainly have needed more and different support from the colleagues in the kitchens there.

What about a case where I am on the other side, lacking or refusing to get a community-useful skill? These are harder to identify and own up to because of course I think that my reasons for refusing some tasks are legitimate and discerned rather than excuses to get out of an unwanted task! However, I think I do have an example: hospitality. I am not naturally a very welcoming or indeed a social person; I find most people tiring and anxiety-inducing, and it usually takes a really friendly extrovert or a particularly close match of common interests, or a long time, to overcome that. At some times, I have made the effort to perform hospitality. As it happens, I also have an example of this from Iona. When I arrived to work in the kitchen there, I was told that part of the job was to eat meals with the guests, talk to them, and create a welcoming atmosphere. It was one of my least-favourite parts of the work, but because I had been told it was part of the job I did my level best. I did have good conversations and I hope I made people feel welcome. I also spent moderate amounts of time lying awake at night going over and over what I’d said or people’s reactions, frightened of doing it wrong, and thinking of ways to get time alone despite working in team, sleeping in a shared bedroom, etc. Near the end of my seven weeks there, someone else on the team said me, “I really appreciate how seriously you take the hospitality part of our work. So many people don’t bother but you’re really good at it.” Now, actually I think that people who are truly good at something make it look effortless, and it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to say this to them; but it is evidence that I tried and mastered some of the skills involved.

I know that my Quaker community also needs those skills. All communities need some hospitality work doing, and Quakers can fail at this easily. I have felt unwelcome or been ineptly welcomed at many meetings over the years. Even at the local meeting where I attend now, I wish I felt more welcome, and I don’t stay for refreshments after meeting because I don’t want tea or coffee or biscuits of unknown ingredients (and hence probably not vegan). That’s my fault – I could sign up for the rota and change things. I do sometimes welcome people at the door, and I can do door-holding and hand-shaking, and if necessary answer questions about Quakers and meeting for worship, but I very rarely know people’s names and I have to leave the small talk to others. I like it best when the weather is unusually hot or wet because then there’s something easy to say! I could try harder, as I did on Iona. But the fact is that I don’t.

Why not? Partly because I do at lot of this sort of work in my paid work, so I don’t feel I have spare energy to do it on a voluntary basis as well. I find it a little bit easier at work, where my role gives people a reason to engage with me and I don’t count ‘discussing something on which I am knowledgeable’ as hospitality in this sense. I still find it stressful and worry a lot about all my minor failures, though. And, ironically, I sometimes teach about pastoral care, of which hospitality is an important competent. I say ‘teach’: I don’t try and tell people what to do, but instead ask them to reflect on their experiences and compare with others to get a better of idea of what works and what doesn’t.

I could give other reasons, about the situation and the timings and lots of practical stuff, but the deeper truth is that I don’t want to and at the moment improving hospitality in my meeting doesn’t feel like a good use of my energy. There are other people who can attend to it, and many of them are better at it than me; and some of them, whether they have the skills or are learning them, are led to offer that service. I think I’m also especially resistant to the idea that I should be good at some aspects of caring and hospitality which are stereotypical traits of women: when I’m not good at them, I’m not going to work harder to correct that than a man would be expected to.

Is it fair or wise to expect from a community something which I am not willing to give? Yes, it is. If I trust that the community is diverse enough, large enough, strong enough – Spirit-filled enough – to work as a community, I have to do exactly that. Sharing is a community function. If I had to do everything myself, I might as well be alone. Sometimes, especially in a small community, there needs to be compromise and I will need to step up to do things I’d rather not do, but am more or less capable of. (Some jobs are better done adequately than not at all: I’m no good at arithmetic, but I can make a computer do sums for me, so I’ll step up to run the accounts if nobody else is better qualified. Other jobs should be skipped or passed on if they can’t be done well: it might be better to donate to someone else running a foodbank than to start one and run it badly.) I think what I’m talking about here is a finer grain of discernment. We might need to distinguish not just between what makes the heart sing and everything else, but between ‘makes my heart sing splendid operas’, ‘makes my heart sing an acceptable pop song’, ‘more like my heart having an earworm but I can live with it’, and ‘not so much singing as a horrible grinding noise’. A few horrible grinding noises and some earworms are necessary parts of life, but it’s okay to ask whether someone else might get at least a pop song if not an opera out of the same task.

Choosing what to be good at

“You should be good at chess,” said the maths teacher who ran the lunchtime chess club when I turned up to try it one day. I’d played a little bit of chess at home, and I wanted to be in a supervised space rather than in what I experienced as the violent wilderness of the playground, so I went to see what it was like. Despite some initial attractions – indoors, sitting down, not being mocked for being clever – it didn’t keep me. That was partly because I didn’t get on with the company (the football playing boys outside were sexist and loud, while the chess playing boys inside were quieter but still sexist – and teenage girls could tell at a glance that I had Social Death Plague). It also had a lot to do with chess itself: although I’m fine with most of the individual bits of chess, can plan ahead, think about moves, remember patterns, etc., I didn’t actually have any motivation to use those skills for this task. I couldn’t see the point. Nothing much of interest happens during a game. At the end, you might win, but you might not, and both of you take it personally.

I was thinking about this recently when I heard some people making clear pronouncements about tasks they are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at – specifically, a group were discussing various tasks, including one which involved devising systems and ways of organising things, probably with an IT element. Several people said in conversations about this: “don’t let me near that” or “I’m terrible at those things”. It got me thinking about who is allowed to declare such things and when: in that situation, such declarations were not challenged, while wheelchair users who can also walk even a tiny distance report that they are strongly discouraged from reducing the amount of walking they do, or even told they shouldn’t be using the wheelchair at all. And about how and when we make such declarations: recently, my mother found a list of my strengths and weaknesses which she had written when we were considering where I should go to secondary school. On the ‘good at’ list, she’d written ‘science’. It stood out as something which no longer seems true, although most of the other items were right (for example, the ‘bad at’ list included not getting on well with my peer group, which is probably still true and is much in evidence in the chess-club story above!). Somewhere between 10 and 13, I discovered or decided that I was bad at science. Even though my dad was a science teacher and my grandmother a researcher with a PhD in zoology. Even though my dad had a poster of Jocelyn Burnell in his lab. Even though I was taught science by women. Even though I wanted to be an archaeologist, and knew science would be required. What happened?

Bad teaching and bad school conditions (a top set science class with 36 out-of-control kids, in which it’s never safe to do practicals) probably had something to do with it. Lack of motivation for the immediate work, as with chess, is probably also a factor. But my sense is that there’s a broader issue, which is about capacity and personality formation. An adult member of my Quaker meeting said to me at around this age something like, “It’s hard to be a good all-rounder.” That remark seems to me to be onto something about the general pressures of these situations. I didn’t actually think of myself as a good all-round student – although I usually got good marks in most academic subjects, I was abjectly aware of all the areas of life in which I was a miserable failure. (PE. Making friends. Being happy. Music.) I did see what she meant, though. School performance is meant to be maintained. When you get a good mark, you don’t get to stop, you have to go on and get the same or a better one next time. In the absence of someone else saying, “that’s okay, you’ve done enough”, I found ways to choose to identify myself as good at things I actively enjoyed, things where persisting would be its own reward (reading, writing, and, err, more reading), and to declare myself ‘bad at’ things where I didn’t see the point or felt incapable of the level of effort it would take me to achieve the next thing which would be demanded of me. I did this with maths and PE before secondary school, science, music, and languages while I was there, and with hobbies: swimming, chess, horse riding.

Writing this, I imagine that some readers are judging my actions. (I know the education system was judging me.) People say things like: Try harder! You shouldn’t stop, you should work at it! You can do anything if you put your mind to it! Proof that you’re lazy! Well, maybe. But what if it’s actually more like a process of simplification? In the group who were discussing various tasks, we ended up with four tasks to choose from, and I would honestly have to say that I thought I would be fairly good at and have something to contribute to all four. What I don’t have is the energy and focus to do all four properly, along with everything else which needs doing in life. Perhaps deciding not to try too hard, to allow oneself not to be good at some things – or even more controversially in a world where effort is meant to be key, to give up or not bother – is actually a move towards simplicity and not having too many irons in the fire.

I can indeed do all sorts of things if I put my mind to them. It must have been a great frustration to some of my teachers when they could see that I chose not to. There is a skill which might be learned from this refusal, though: a skill of discernment, a skill of attending to what is top priority, a skill of seeking to become what God needs me to be and not what others want me to be. I’m still working on this skill (there’s a good chance I’ll end up trying at least three of those four tasks…), but I am trying to honour it as a skill and not a failing, in myself and in others – some of whom will be choosing not to do something I think they could or ought to do!

My experience of Meeting for Clearness

I was teaching about Meetings for Clearness the other week – offering people the chance to try it out for themselves using a ‘mini Clearness process’ in which a small group takes it in turns to be the focus person – and that led me to notice and reflect on the extent to which I use my own experience of having a Meeting for Clearness in teaching. In particular, I try and give people the chance to have an experience of the process something like my experience. Even if I don’t, can’t, achieve that, it’s guiding my decisions about how to describe the process and how to introduce people to it.

It also led me to reflect on the fact that I haven’t come across detailed descriptions of individuals’ clearness processes. There are some sets of instructions around, but – perhaps because the process is both relatively unusual, and where it is used in its full form it’s mainly for very personal things, like ‘shall we get married?’ or ‘should I have major surgery?’ – not much in the way of accounts of experience. (If you know of a published account of someone’s Meeting for Clearness, please do let me know in the comments!) That being so, I offer my story here.

I asked for a Meeting for Clearness as part of a wider process of discernment. I was applying for funding to offer my PhD work in Quaker Studies as a workshop which would be free for Quaker Meetings. The funding application called for a ‘market research’ exercise with a Quaker meeting, which I carried out, and for references, which I had; but I felt that this process was a bit thin on its own. The formal demands of the funding application were, for excellent reasons, entirely secular, but the work I wanted to do felt like ministry, so I asked for a Meeting for Clearness in order to bring some spiritual depth to my process of deciding to apply.

I was serving as an elder in my local meeting at the time. I discussed my idea with some other elders – if I remember rightly, this was done informally, and didn’t appear in our minutes. One person agreed to act as a convener (although my impression is that I invited people, double-checked times, etc.). Another offered her house as a venue – my flat was too small, and I was very grateful to be offered hospitality rather than worrying about cups of tea and things on the day! The final group were all people from my local meeting, and included elders, at least one overseer, people with experience of clerking and minute writing, at least one person who had used a Meeting for Clearness for an important decision of her own, and a friend whose similar academic background helped him understand the specifics of the question I was facing. On the day, one person volunteered to write a minute at the end of the process.

I had read up about the process in advance, and talked to some people about it, but in the end we made some adaptions on the day. The one which stands out in my mind is that where much advice suggests that the focus person should listen to but not try to answer open-ended questions which seek to shed light on the issue, I decided to answer them as best I could. We had allowed plenty of time for the process, which made this possible. My answers didn’t lead to a discussion as such (although sometimes there was a bit of back-and-forth), but relieved me of the need to try and remember my responses for later, helped me to find out what I really thought and felt (on the spot responses can be much more revealing than later ones!), and enabled later questions to go deeper rather than working off assumptions about my responses to earlier ones.

We did follow the usual process in other ways. We used silence at the start, at the end, and between contributions. I, as the focus person, explained my question and why I was seeking clearness, uninterrupted. People asked questions which probed my feelings and approach, but didn’t try to relate the issue to their own problems or the needs of others. Perhaps the most powerful part – certainly the part I hope I can reproduce for those who try out ‘mini’ versions of the process – was the feeling of being the centre of attention in a wholly positive way, heard, accepted, lovingly challenged, and supported.

Potential problems and negative feelings were held tenderly rather than glossed over, and, unusually for me, I spoke extensively without going away afterwards thinking ‘I shouldn’t have said that’. (It’s not unusual for me to talk a lot, but I normally spend a lot of time in the middle of the night regretting things I’ve said.) In some ways, it healed wounds from previous Quaker processes where I felt important things had been ignored.

Most of the specific questions have faded with time – this was four years ago now – but one stands out in my memory. Someone (I remember who, I can still see her face) asked what I would do if I applied but didn’t get the funding. I said, roughly, that I would be disappointed, but that I would look for other ways to do the work. I have thought back to that answer many times since then, especially when the work is difficult or frustrating. The final minute says, “we are clear that Rhiannon is led to take this work forward in some way; and we are clear she is the right person to do it”. When I’m stuck with it – even now, well after the end of the funding which prompted the initial process and when the work is taking on new forms – I can come back to this and think: it isn’t just me. Other people, joining with me and paying close attention to pick up even the faintest signals from the Spirit, have seen that there will be a way forward.

As well as producing a minute, the Meeting for Clearness brought me closer to the five Friends who met with me, and offered a support structure for the work in the early stages. I’ve moved away from that local meeting and am no longer in regular contact with all of them, but for some time afterwards people would check in with me: how’s it going? how many workshops have you done? what next? Because they understood that much better what I was doing, they were able to ask more specific and deeper questions, which helped me to feel fully part of that community in a way that routine small talk never seems to achieve.

In Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment, Meeting for Clearness is routinely used in many Area Meetings for couples considering marriage, but rarely for other purposes. I found it so helpful that I think it’s a shame we don’t use it more. What could you benefit from bringing to a Meeting for Clearness? Have you had one before, and if so, was your experience similar or different to mine?

Reading Qf&p chapter 13 – to formalise or not?

Chapter 13 of Quaker faith & practice, Varieties of Religious Service, covers a bit of a mixed bag: concerns and the testing of concerns, writing minutes and financing work, travelling in the ministry, and some other forms of service – wardenship, librarians, treasurers, and chaplains for prisons and universities. Some of these situations need to be formalised – wardenship, for example, is often an employment arrangement, and as well as being clear for ourselves and in line with our ethical principles we need to be in line with employment law. Prison ministers are also formally appointed by government bodies as well as by us as Quakers, and treasurers have specific responsibilities so their role should be formalised (and they should be in membership).

However, some of the other forms of service in this chapter can meaningfully be offered which much less formality than is described here. Sometimes a concern needs testing through the channels described, but sometimes individuals report simply needing to act and can test this through less formal means. Even something which is tested using a Meeting for Clearness may not need other aspects of the support; I had a Meeting for Clearness before applying for funding for my ‘Or Whatever You Call It‘ workshops, but because the application was to another body, it never came before the Area Meeting as such. I think I can in some senses call that work undertaken under concern, but it didn’t automatically need the full weight of the processes described in chapter 13.

Similarly, the process of visiting other meetings can be ‘travelling in the ministry’ accompanied by a minute as described here, but I think it can also be fruitful without this. I suspect the clerk of my local meeting would be frustrated if I asked for a minute to take when I visit another meeting on holiday or when travelling to give a workshop or attend a committee meeting (perhaps the solution mentioned in 13.31, of giving a minute which lasts a year, would be easier – but we would still have to take the reports from all of our many well-travelled members…). I still find the process of visiting other meetings very enriching, though – both when it’s a one-off visit and when I have been able to participate fully in the life of several meetings as I’ve moved around the country over the years.

Other forms of service can also be usefully given informally. I am not now and never have been a Meeting librarian, but I recommend books to people as soon as look at them, and lend books if I have a chance. Do we need to think through which forms of service require formal support from a meeting, when it is optional, and when the service should be encouraged for everyone? Should we have a renaissance of travelling minutes? (Would my meeting be enriched or bored or both by an account of the other meetings I’ve visited over a year? I suspect they’d be bored, which is why I don’t ask for a minute, but I might be wrong.) Should we work harder to be ready and available to offer formal discernment processes, such as Meetings for Clearness,  to people who are making decisions about their lives including their paid and unpaid work?

Making Choices

How do you choose what to do?

Here’s a classic example: suppose you’re a bit lost in a forest, and come to a place where the path forks. You can go left, or right, or try and cut your own trail through the undergrowth. You don’t know whether either path will lead. (And you’re somehow completely ignorant about where you started, north and south, etc. It’s a thought experiment, too much detail could break it.)

How do you decide which way to go? Do you look around or wait for someone to ask? Do you just go on intuition, figuring that it’ll all come out right in the end? If the two paths look the same, do you suppose it doesn’t matter? If one goes uphill and the other down, do you choose the easy one or the hard one? Do you think that there is a right answer, or not?

Suppose you have to choose between something now and the future possibility of something else, maybe something better, with a risk of nothing at all.

Suppose you are writing cryptic blog posts and not getting on with making a decision! What factors do you take into account? What evidence do you trust and how much of a risk are you willing to take?

D is for… Discernment

We had a Hearts and Minds Prepared session about Discernment recently, so the topic is fresh in my mind – and it will be coming up again, as part of our theme for Yearly Meeting.

What is Discernment? It’s seeing clearly, or seeing what is the right part. It’s not what you desire, although it might sometimes happen to line up with what you want; it’s how you work out what you’re being led to do. Quakers, generally speaking, try and practice both individual and corporate discernment – seeking the will of the Spirit, the right path forwards, for ourselves and our communities.

I think lots of things can factor into discernment. In my own life, sometimes discerning the path forward simply seems like having no other option: on my feet to speak in Meeting because I couldn’t stay in my seat. Bigger life choices are more complex. Sometimes it seems there’s no real choice, or that a way has opened before you, that this is the best chance you have to use the gifts you were given, or that you have to do this to be true to your principles. (Starting the PhD, for example, felt like all of those.)

Sometimes individual discernment and our corporate discernings lie alongside one another – I went vegan at Yearly Meeting 2011 when Quakers in Britain made a formal commitment to sustainability. Sometimes what feels like the right path forward also feels impossible – I keep discerning a leading to go plastic-free, and finding that I cannot live up to this in practice.

Discernment isn’t just an internal process. Information is often needed and must be gathered. Everyone in a situation will have their own forms of discernment. Sometimes a random outside element can be helpful – runes, oracle cards, or the Tarot can provide this (or you can let Quaker Faith and Practice fall open). Sometimes straight up prayer – asking Deity a question and listening for the answer – is the way forward.

I think discernment is a bit like the process you use when you’re being led along a string trail. Have you done the string trail exercise? The string trail is just a string, which leads through a wood, having been tied around trees, over logs, under bushes, past a nettle patch, and so forth. You’re blindfolded and your team leader gives you instructions. You have to listen carefully to the instructions, and at the same time keep hold of the string and use your spare hand (and your feet) to feel for obstacles.