Tag Archives: nominations

What’s the role of emotions in nominations?

(Welsh word of the post: teimladau, feelings.)

Recently I’ve been discussing our Quaker nominations processes in several different contexts – looking at what works and what doesn’t for finding the right names, thinking about what I personally might or might not accept in the future, and reflecting on past experiences. I caught myself thinking something like this: “If X happened, I would feel Y, but I would also feel ashamed about that, because feeling Y isn’t really allowed under those circumstances.”

What a thing to think! Are there really genuinely-felt emotions which are ‘not allowed’ in Quaker discipline? That doesn’t seem to have the emphasis on honesty which is a common feature of our processes. At first I wondered whether I was wrong – maybe it is allowed and I’ve got the wrong end of the stick, for example – but I found I was just coming up with more and more cases where people either suppressed their feelings about the nominations process, or expressed them, but only in private and along with an acknowledgement that somehow they thought they shouldn’t feel those feelings.

Here are some feelings I think we sometimes ‘don’t allow’ even when we are feeling them.

  • Active desire to serve in a particular role. People are allowed to express willingness, especially when asked directly, and to indicate interest through code-questions like, “what does that role actually involve?”, but to want to serve in a role is usually not acceptable. (The expression of interest form for the Book of Discipline revision committee is an exception – although note the carefully mild phrasing.) If overdone, it can be met with suspicion and even specific attempts to prevent the person from serving in that way. (So if you really want it, it may be that the last thing you should do is say so – especially if the role you want could be seen as a position of power.)
  • The flip side of desire: disappointment about not being asked. If a nominations committee approaches someone, they say they are willing, and then the committee doesn’t take that nomination forward, the rejected nominee is usually allowed to be a bit sad about that – and if there was confusion or miscommunication and they had thought the nomination was confirmed, appointing bodies sometimes try and include them anyway. If you’re not asked, though, you are supposed to pretend never to have considered the role – although if you were a very obvious name, you would be allowed to express a small amount of relief at having ‘escaped’.
  • Enjoying the role you’re in – too much. This is about quantity, not the specific emotion. It seems to be okay to like some things about your role, so long as you are also able to join in the ritual moaning about how hard it is and you wish there were more people to help. (I suspect this is part of the group bonding process in many meetings – if everyone was having fun in their roles, the whole thing might collapse. I’m only partially joking!) When someone really gets into a role and loves it, though, there can be worries about them being ‘overenthusiastic’ and ‘controlling’ – both genuine problems in some cases, but used at other times to squash people’s joy. In a system where everyone is renominated regularly, say every three years, this becomes part of the first point: if you actually like your role, you might want to stay in it and express a positive desire to be renominated. Dodgy!
  • Despair. I worry that the ritual moaning not only hides some joy, but also disguises cases where someone is really struggling. Can we always tell the difference between “well, there are a lot of meetings involved (but I enjoy going and find it nourishing)” and “oh, there are so many meetings involved (and I can’t really cope but feel obliged to keep going)”? Even when it’s clearly the latter, it can be tempting to ignore this if there’s nobody else to take on the work.

I do think Quaker discipline calls on everyone who participates in it to manage their own emotions in various ways. To participate in an item of business about which I feel strongly, I often need to either work through that emotion beforehand – a form of threshing – or decide not to speak because my feeling is personal and not for the meeting. Sometimes it really benefits a meeting for worship for business to hear from someone who feels passionately, though. It can balance a group who would otherwise be over-cautious, or show the urgency of action to a group who might otherwise not get involved, or restore a spiritual dimension to a group who might otherwise make a decision which was purely rational and had nothing to do with God’s will.

How could emotions be better handled in our nominations process? Can we better balance the need to share out roles and distribute power with letting people participate in ways which are attractive to them? Can we find ways to talk about the joy of service which also help people to embrace the right time to lay work down? For example, I wonder whether identification with a role (“I’m a clerk at the moment”) makes it harder to pick up and let go, compared with a verb form (“I’m clerking at the moment”). We might need new verbs for talking about some roles (among others, “eldering” has taken on other connotations and “nominating” is a more specific act), but if you compare possible expressions of enjoyment it I think there are benefits: “I like being a clerk” has different implications to “I like clerking”.

How do you really feel about nominations? Anonymous comments accepted!

Reading Qf&p: chapter 12

Most of chapter 12, ‘Caring for one another’, looks at the formalised ways we use ‘eldership’ and ‘oversight’ to take care of the spiritual and practical needs of a Quaker meeting. However, tucked away at the end of the chapter there are also a few fascinating snippets called ‘small groups’, and it’s these I’d like to talk about today.

One part within this looks at creative listening and worship sharing. It’s a fairly full description, compared with some of the others, and if you read it and then walked into a group who were going to engage in one of these practices, you’d have a fair idea what was going on. You might even be able to run one with little more than what is in here – having tried it yourself, or some specific guidance, might be useful, but it’s probably not completely necessary. If you do need it, there’s a line which directs you to Quaker Life for more information. (A good place to start would be the ‘ways of working’ section of the joint Quaker Life/Woodbrooke project Being Friends Together, which includes resources on most of the things mentioned in this post and many more besides.)

Another section deals with Meetings for Clearness (scroll down to find 12:22-25). When I asked for a Meeting for Clearness, I did find this section useful; but there was also a lot it didn’t say, and the experience of other Friends in my meeting who had used the process for big personal decisions was invaluable. Meetings for Clearness need to be tailored to the question and the asker as well as the gifts of those involved as facilitators and listeners, so perhaps this will always be the case. I don’t think that my experience of a Meeting for Clearness would have been at all the same if I didn’t already have trusting relationships with those who came to participate in it, but I can see that this will not always be possible. Perhaps there are other ways to produce the atmosphere of loving support and challenge which I experienced – a process of meeting more than once might be able to create this from a group who didn’t previously know one another, for example.

At the very end, a section deals with support groups. Of these I have no direct knowledge, but maybe they have some of the aspects of the repeated Meeting for Clearness process.

There is also one paragraph which describes threshing meetings. I spent quite a long time with this paragraph last year when I was involved in a piece of research about the use of threshing meetings, and although it’s all true, it doesn’t seem to be adequate to the complexity of the current situation. It would not, I think, be possible to read this and then run a threshing meeting, although it might give you an idea about whether it would be a useful process for your meeting at this time. Much more specific guidelines can be found in the Quaker Life leaflet about threshing – if anything, I’d say that these go too far the other way. In being specific, they cut down the possible flexibility of the process, which can adapt to meet a range of needs. What’s important about it is that it creates a boundary space, held in worship but without the drive towards an answer produced by the need to write a minute, within which issues can be explored from all relevant perspectives. You can read more about this idea if you download our report on the research.

(You can also – advert! – attend a Woodbrooke course in June 2016 in which we will explore threshing, Meetings for Clearness, and other discernment processes.)

Overall, I like the fact that there is a section about meeting together in small groups, and I agree that it belongs with other aspects of ‘caring for one another’. Over the years, small groups of these kinds, including study and discussion groups, have been very important to my development as a Quaker. The other kind of small group, dealt with much more extensively elsewhere in Qf&p but which has also nurtured me in these ways, is the committee or working group. Doing something together is often a powerful way to bond people together, to get to know one another and to explore different perspectives. When we use the Quaker business method for committee meetings, it’s very closely related to worship sharing as well as to threshing. We can explore opposing views, listen to one another deeply, and be held in the Light as we move towards a discerned answer. Does ‘small groups’ deserve a cross-reference to ‘nominations’ or ‘forms of service’?

Reading Quaker faith & practice: Chapter 3

Chapter 3, ‘General counsel on church affairs’, is one of several chapters in this book which seems to me to really start with the second item in it. The beginning of 3.02, “In our meetings for worship we seek through the stillness to know God’s will for ourselves and for the gathered group.” is so much better, such a stronger beginning to ‘counsel on church affairs’ than “This chapter refers especially to…”! Apologies to whichever committee member painstakingly drafted 3.01 in order to meet someone’s need to have this and that clarified at the beginning, but couldn’t we at least take the ‘this chapter includes…’ stuff after a little bit of inspiration?

That said, once I get into Chapter 3 there are a number of passages which seem to me both helpful and inspiring. Some which stood out to me on reading it through are:

  • 3.05, “… open minds are not empty minds, nor uncritically receptive: the service of the meeting calls for knowledge of facts, often painstakingly acquired, and the ability to estimate their relevance and importance.” I think this is hugely important, partly in pointing out the role of preparation before a Meeting for Worship for Business (n.b. this is my blog and I reserve the right to capitalise whatever I like even if contrary to the house style of the Qf&p/F&P!). It is especially important, though, in demonstrating how ‘head’ and ‘heart’ are brought together in the process. Later on in 3.05 there is a line about the need for “sharing of knowledge, experience and concern”, and I think this too reminds us that our intellects, our emotions, and our spiritual selves are not separate. The business method actually requires our whole selves, including our minds, though it may sometimes led us in irrational directions just as it can led us in directions which we find emotionally distressing.
  • 3.15, which is about the acceptance of minutes. This is, I think, most of the most important and distinctive things about the Quaker way of working, and one which it is easy to fail to grasp. However, 3.15 puts it very clearly: “It is at the moment of accepting each minute that the united meeting allows you [the clerk] to record it as a minute of the meeting.” Before the moment of acceptance, it is a draft minute, and no more; after that, it is a minute owned by the whole meeting, and only the meeting have the power to change whatever decision is recorded in it. It’s easy to forget how important the acceptance of the minute is – especially for minutes of record, where the draft is good enough, clerks sometimes forget to ask the meeting to formally accept it; at other times, people forget that the minutes are accepted one by one as a Meeting for Worship for Business progresses and ask a meeting to approve a fair copy later on. These are significant mistakes because the moment of acceptance should be doing a good deal of work: it is, in a sense, the pinnacle of the business process, the point at which the consideration of a matter is over, at least for now, and we recognise ourselves as a united meeting.
  • 3.22: “It is a responsibility of a Christian community to enable its members to discover what their gifts are and to develop and exercise them to the glory of God.” Working on nominations matters over the last year – in the context of the review of our central or national nominations processes – has made me more sharply aware of the ways in which we sometimes fail to do this. One problem is that we start with the hole, the need for someone to do a job, and look for someone to fill it, rather than beginning with the people and seeing what each is led to do at present. Another is that we sometimes have a narrow view of what will count as a ‘gift’. Some of the qualities which I and others find most irritating about me – that I’m loud and outspoken, that I have very strong emotions, that if you put a case to me I will always, always try and see what the other side would say, even if I agree with you – can be positives if found the right space. I try and remind myself of that when yet another person tells me to keep my voice down or that I’m talking too much or that I’m overreacting or being contrary! This passage prompts me to ask how I can use these gifts to the glory of God – including in ways which might fall completely outside the Quaker nominations process.

Overall, Chapter 3 seems to me to be an uncategorisable chapter. Many Friends talk about a division between ‘governance’ and ‘inspiration’ and sometimes that divide is clear – 16 is a procedural chapter about marriage and how Quaker marriage relates to the law, while 22 is an inspirational chapter about people’s experiences of close relationships. In this case, though, where would you put it? On the one hand, church affairs are a governance matter, and this chapter does include directions for clerks and others which clearly belong in church government. On the other hand, Meeting for Worship for Business is a form of Meeting for Worship, and as such it is as much at the heart of our spiritual practice, as many other ‘inspirational’ topics such as our testimonies.

D is for Discourse

Although I don’t call the kind of analysis of language I do “discourse analysis” – it arises from different sources to the academic practice known technically by that name – as a method, it has a lot in common and I do end up identifying some ‘discourses’ around the topics which interest me. You can read the Wikipedia article about discourse or the University of Strathclyde’s piece about discourse analysis, but these get technical quite quickly. Rather than using the term discourse, I might talk about the way in which an issue is framed, or how some terms are expected to appear together – so often, sometimes, that it can seem natural or even inevitable, although language isn’t really either of those things.

For example, much of my work focusses on religious language, and specifically on ways of talking about – or the discourse around – God (or the Light, or the Spirit, or whatever you call it: regular readers of this blog will know this song by now!). In this work, I’ve identified the use of lists as a key feature of some ways of approaching the problem. They work in several ways: pointing out and making explicit the diversity of the community’s theological views; demonstrating the value the community places on both inclusion (all these perspectives are included in our list); and potentially directing us back towards a negative theology in which we cannot say anything about God by saying too much, overwhelming us with words. Here, talking about the discourse around naming the Divine directs our attention towards the way that language is used in a particular social context to construct a community with particular features (one which values both diversity and inclusivity, for example).

In other situations, the discourse around a term might tell us how people understand that word or phrase – looking at how they use it and what else comes to mind when they think about it can tell us a lot about what the term means to them. This is part of what I’ll be doing in my current research project about ‘threshing’ as a Quaker concept. I don’t want to say much about this yet, because it’s still in progress (you could help by filling in the survey or coming to the workshop). However, the questions we are asking in that work could be described in part as looking at the discourse around threshing.

The concept of discourse has been used in all sorts of contexts to look more deeply into the ways which people talk about things. Everything from the way we talk about health to the way the media talks about political figures can be addressed by looking at discourse which surrounds a concept – usually there turn out to be overriding ideas present in popular discourse around a topic (for example: ‘health’ looks a certain way and can be measured by weight and other numbers; ‘politicians’ are described using a particular set of verbs and adjectives). Recently, I’ve been paying attention to the Quaker discourse around nominations, and realising that the words paired with the term ‘nominations’ can be subtly weighted: ‘nominations committee’, ‘nominations business’, ‘nominations process’ and ‘the Friend nominated’ but also ‘accepting nomination’, ‘considering nominations’, ‘nominated and appointed’, etc. Perhaps some of the significance of these becomes clear when you consider possible alternative discourses: what if, instead of ‘accepting nomination’, Friends ‘welcomed nomination’ or ‘submitted to nomination’? It’s clear to me that these terms feel very different and that in choosing the term ‘accept’ the community is saying something about what it is like to be asked to be nominated and to say ‘yes’ to that. (I’m still working on exactly what it says, suggestions for further discourse analysis in this area are welcome!)

Nominations Matters

On Thursday I went to the first meeting of a working group which will be reviewing the Terms of Reference for the Central Nominations Committee of Quakers in Britain – i.e., the people who find the people who do the things which need doing. This is obviously an important job and a complex one. We’re reviewing the terms of reference, and more broadly thinking about how nominations work, in the hopes of making it run as smoothly and effectively as possible.

It was a good, productive meeting – focussed on what needs doing and how we’re going to do it, as such meetings often are. (Sidenote: anyone with experience convening/clerking meetings by skype, I’d be interested to hear from you.)

I came away thinking about the theological underpinnings of our nominations process and about the literature, or lack of literature, about it. There’s what it says in QF&P, of course. There’s Roy Stephenson’s book, Freeing the Spirit. There’s a little leaflet to hand out with a basic explanation. There’s information about how to give Central Nominations Committee your information. Last year, I wrote a blog post about Nominations and so did Gil. And digging around in Friends House library, I found an article from the Friends Quarterly from 1974.

Much of it – I haven’t read Roy’s book yet – is focussed on the process, rather than the theology. Trying to think about what the theological principles involved are, I’ve come up with three I think are present (but I might have missed a lot, or got these wrong – do let me know what you think!).

  1. ‘That of God in everyone’. This is a much (over?) quoted Quaker phrase, but does shape our approach to nominations and service. It establishes that everyone is valuable, and everyone has something to contribute to the community. Many of those things won’t be appointed roles, but some will, and we begin from the position that everyone has something to offer and something to gain from participating.
  2. Equality. Related to the previous one, but bringing in two further aspects: the avoidance of hierarchy – the reason we limit terms of service, for example – and the avoidance of stereotyping, seeking as best we can to see what an individual really has to offer and not what we expect ‘someone like that’ to be able to do.
  3. The creation of the Kingdom of God/Divine Commonwealth/gospel order. In choosing how to structure our nominations and appointments process, we might have things to learn from the world but we also sometimes reject the world’s ways: we are trying to do it the way God wants it done. This might mean that it doesn’t look ‘fair’ from some perspectives – recall the workers in the vineyard.

What theological principles do you think are at work in our nominations processes?

N is for… Nominations

Nomination is the process by which Quakers find people do to the things which need doing in our communities. The process usually goes something like this: a need is found (new post created or old one vacated), a nominations committee looks for a name, someone is asked whether they will accept the nomination, and if they say ‘yes’, it goes to the relevant business meeting, who make – or don’t make – the appointment.The latter part is important; the final decision rests with the business meeting.

I have never yet served on a nominations committee, and I must confess I’m glad: it must be a very difficult job and it doesn’t seem like one for which I would be well-suited. I have, however, often been approached by nominations committees, and that experience can be very different depending on the committee, the circumstances, and the service which is being sought.

For example, I’ve been approached by email, by phone, and in person. Looking back, I think I prefer to be approached by email in the first instance: I get to deal with that first enquiry in my own time, think about what questions I should ask, and get back in touch when I’m ready to do so. Sometimes when I’ve been approached in person – especially when I have been just caught before or after Meeting for Worship or when I’m otherwise in a rush – I have agreed to accept nominations without knowing enough about the work involved. In at least one case, I accepted a nomination onto a committee I’d never heard of which reported to a business meeting I’d never attended and whose place in the structures of Quakerism I didn’t understand!

I haven’t, as it turns out, minded serving on the committee all that much, although it has been one of the committees I have complained about the most. The phone is better, perhaps because it’s easier to say ‘no’ to someone whose disappointed face you can’t see, and in any case, it really helps if the person making the approach really understands what service is being requested and knows where to go for more information. (Having it written down very clearly and emailed to you looks good and feels reassuring… but isn’t so useful if it turns out to include major factual errors!)

I generally enjoy Quaker service, and will try and say ‘yes’ to a nomination if I can. Everything has to be weighed up, though: the other things I’m doing, both Quaker and non-Quaker, at all levels; the time and energy this form of service would require; the practicalities (you can’t clerk a meeting which you can’t attend, and if you can only attend things which have a reliable bus service, you can be stuck quite quickly); and whether my skills and talents are really suited to the work in question. As you can tell by the fact that I’m writing this blog as well as a PhD, I like writing, and if you ask me to do some writing for Quakers, there’s a very good chance that I’ll go out of my way to say yes; on the other hand, I’m not brilliant with people, especially people who are upset or complaining about something, so I might be very reluctant to accept a nomination for a role like overseer which involves mainly pastoral care.

Of course, to really understand this you should play the card game Unwilling Unable, a game of trying to avoid nominations. In short: you lose the game if you have more than 15 points. Points are accumulated by being appointed for service. The trick is to save your cast-iron excuses for the right moment (“I fall asleep in business meetings”, “Actually, I quite like war”) and then remember not to use them in real life.

(I just added up approximately how many real-life points I would get. I think I’m between about 14 and 16 at the moment.)