Tag Archives: Quaker Roles

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!

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Finding out what I already know

There’s a chant, circle dance, song – one of those things that’s just Around, and even Google doesn’t seem to know where it’s from – which goes: We are angels, we have forgotten these things/Trailing clouds of glory, we are remembering.

At one level, I don’t get on with this at all. I’m deeply suspicious of most of the metaphysical propositions people put forward to try and make this kind of thing ‘make sense’ – if you can even do this which such a brief and evasive text.

At another level, I have been sitting with these evocative words recently and finding that they reflect some of my experience beautifully. This isn’t a matter of ‘not thinking about it’ as sometimes advocated when people feel like mysticism and intellectualism are opposed – I have thought very carefully about what I’m about to write – but thinking about it in a metaphorical, exploratory way rather than asking, for example, what angels really are.

One of the pleasures I have had in the first few months in my new job as Tutor for Quaker Roles at Woodbrooke is the opportunity to assist with, and hence sit in on, some events for people who are taking on roles which I’ve heard of, but never been directly involved with. Almost nobody else comes to learn about being a trustee, for example, unless they already are or soon will be a trustee themselves. (You’re welcome to if you like – but it’s unusual.) I have gone into these events assuming, and assuring everyone else, that I knew nothing about the topics at hand.

There are, as I expected, all sorts of things I didn’t know about these roles. I’d never thought before about the problem of lone working in relation to meeting house wardens, although I’ve known several wardens well over the years and am aware of issues about lone working in other contexts. There was a lot I didn’t know and couldn’t have guessed in  presentation the trustees conference were given about employment. There were things I became aware of but couldn’t learn directly – the feeling of responsibility which goes with being a trustee, for example, I can imagine but have never experienced.

What surprised me was how much I did know – not the details, but the principles; not the answers, but the methods suggested for working them out or looking them up; not how to do the jobs, but how to learn how to do the jobs. I’d forgotten this, but I think I had a similar experience when I became an elder. I needed to spend time thinking about, for example, how to help people have a better experience of Meeting for Worship, and I was glad to be able to read about my duties in chapter 12, but I’d have been able to guess at most of them (although I’d have put a few I don’t like doing on the overseers list!). There were things to learn, but also a deep sense of when things were ‘in right ordering’ and when they were ‘off’. It’s a bit like knowing whether a sentence is grammatical, without being able to explain why!

If when we take on these roles, whether we are nominated or offer them as unpaid ministry or take on paid Quaker work, we are becoming angels – God’s messengers, give or take whatever struggles you have with the word ‘God’ – then, as in the song, we will remember what we need to know, even if we never knew it before. We’ll still have to look things up (whose responsibility is such-and-such? does employment law really say so-and-so?), but the underlying principles don’t have to be a struggle. Putting them into practice sometimes will be, especially when they run counter to the prevailing culture (try insisting on the correct use of ‘fewer’ while standing in a supermarket’s ‘ten items or less’ lane!), but we’ll know – perhaps by the clouds of glory! – where we should be going.

(Could you benefit from finding out what you already know, and maybe learning some other stuff as well? Search Woodbrooke’s courses online.)