I’m gearing up to teach a course on Making Difficult Decisions (with Rachel Muers at the beginning of March) and naturally that’s got me thinking about difficult decisions I’ve been involved in making. In Quaker meeting for worship for business as practised in Britain Yearly Meeting, if you are in the meeting, you’re participating in the decision, and although we know that not everyone will always agree, there’s no provision for standing aside from the decision. If you think a wrong answer is being reached, it’s your responsibility to either speak up about it, or try and see why the decision is being reached and accept it – maybe both. I once presented the report and recommendations of a review group to a large Quaker meeting, who promptly rejected everything the review group had recommended. I felt that they were placing too much emphasis on a few powerful voices, and not hearing what I was sharing from people who had spoken to the review group in confidence. But I also had to accept that the group were not ready to hear this, not ready for change for lots of reasons – some of them strong reasons – and once I had explained my perspective, my work was done. After that, it was my job to accept the situation and let it go. (I’m not saying I found that easy to do! But I had to try.)
That decision was difficult because of the conflicting interests involved and the complexity of the situation. Others might seem relatively simple for a Quaker group to make but hard to carry out or hard to embrace because of their effects on other people. I was at Meeting for Sufferings when the decision was made to boycott goods from Israeli settlements, and I have often wondered since whether that was the right decision (I still don’t know). At the time it felt clear and we heard from people with direct experience of the situation that it would be helpful. On the other hand, it was probably easier for us to say than for people to put into practice (not least because a boycott of certain settlements too easily turns into a general boycott of Israel, which some Quakers took up personally but was not what we were aiming for collectively). It also had serious consequences for our relationship with the Jewish community, for obvious reasons. The difficulty here lies, I think, in understanding and assessing – from a faith perspective and not necessarily a logical or worldly one – what the consequences might be and whether it’s right for us to take those risks. Sometimes we are called to disagree with others, but discerning when and how to do that can be complex.
Sometimes we make a decision more difficult, especially if we are struggling to work out what the question actually is. One of the times when Quaker meetings for worship for business surprise their clerks – or everyone – is when a question which appears to be straightforward or practical turns out to have hidden depths. A classic example of this is when the meeting owns a building and it’s time for it to be refurbished. All buildings need work from time to time, and some decisions can feel obvious, but deciding on the nature and extent of changes to a major resource which belongs to a whole community often brings up all sorts of associated stuff – memories and emotions, different ideas about the purpose of the building, and sometimes conflicting needs or desires. This doesn’t have to take us by surprise, of course, but it still can, even when the pattern is familiar. What seems obviously needed to me can be obviously a waste of time or money to someone else!
There are also cases when a decision which seemed obvious to some people hits a bump in the road and needs to go through a much more extensive consideration – and ends up feeling obvious to many more people. In an ideal case, the Quaker way of making decisions tries to take the whole community along, with everyone understanding the decision and okay with it even if they wish it could have been otherwise. Something like this happened with Britain Yearly Meeting’s decision to revise our book of discipline. Meeting for Sufferings had consulted Area Meetings, and discerned that the revision needed doing. But when the recommendation to revise was taken to Yearly Meeting, people expressed doubts and hesitations, and there wasn’t time to explore them properly. Instead, a Revision Preparation Group – already planned by Meeting for Sufferings but expected to serve for perhaps a year, while the Revision Committee got ready, rather than several years – conducted an extensive process, and four years later the question was brought back to Yearly Meeting and given extensive session time. By then, some people wondered why we needed to spend so long on it! The need for the revision was agreed by the whole community, anxieties were named and addressed, and the process is now underway.
In the Quaker tradition, we actually have lots of ways of approaching these questions. We might use a threshing or listening process, take our time, form a committee to look into something, ask an expert or outside facilitator to help us, and so on. But I think it’s also important to acknowledge that some decisions just are difficult. There may be no single right answer, because of the complexity of the situation or an inability to meet everyone’s needs. We try to get into God’s perspective, but we always miss some things. We try to listen for the guiding Light, but other stuff – our egos, our wants, our haste, our fears – can distract or mislead us. We hope to get better with practice.