The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism

Quaker Decision Making

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This discussion paper was written by Ian Hughes for New South Wales Regional Meeting in February 2011.


Quaker process is a remarkable decision making strategy which enables us to use simple rules to discern a way forward in complex situations. In the 21st Century we face more change and complexity than in any time in our history. To adapt we need more than one decision making strategy.

This paper outlines decision making in six domains. Items coming to the Regional Meeting Clerk can be sorted into one of the six domains, then processed in an appropriate way. Simple matters can be managed by following routine procedures; complicated matters referred to people with specialist training and experience; confusion, conflict and chaos require charismatic leadership; Quaker threshing process is appropriate in situations which are complex; Quaker discernment has special value in the unformed domain of potential knowledge, and in worship we approach the unknowable.


Quaker decision making process can be deeply and beautifully satisfying, and sometimes tortuously slow, convoluted and frustrating. There has been an enormous revolution in information processing since the second half of the Twentieth Century. In the 21st Century the amount and rate of change is greater than at any previous time in history. The Religious Society of Friends must be more adaptable and more flexible than at any time in its previous history. To achieve this adaptability we must make many different kinds of decisions.

The process of meeting for Worship for Business (often called Quaker process) is described in our Handbook in these terms:

1.4.4 Business Meetings. Quakers reach decisions collectively by seeking to discern the will of God together in Business Meetings (Brinton 1955; Doncaster 1958; this we can say, pp. 86 - 7). Thus even Business Meetings are regarded as unhurried occasions of prayerful worship (2.3.2, 2.4.3). Indeed, the importance of the worshipful seeking of God’s guidance is reflected in the proper name for a Business Meeting, i.e. Meeting for Worship for Business, although the abbreviation, Business Meeting, is commonly used in practice.

In preparing for a Business Meeting, the Clerk lists items that are certain to be discussed and checks relevant facts. Possible eventual conclusions might be sketched out for consideration by the Meeting, to save time when in session.

The procedure in Australia is to begin the Meeting with an acknowledgement of the Aboriginal custodianship of the land on which the Meeting is being held. There is then a period of silence for recollection of God’s presence and perhaps an inspiring reading. After that, agreement is reached on the agenda ahead.

Practices within the Society that foster effective corporate decision-making amount to what is called ‘Quaker process’, as follows:

{C} {C}Those wishing to speak either raise a hand or (in a large gathering) stand to attract the Clerk’s invitation. When addressing the Meeting, they should stand, if able, and be clearly audible. There is respectful openness of expression.

{C} {C}Normally people speak only once on any given topic, at least until everyone else has spoken. This provides equality and encourages adequate thought before speaking

{C} {C}All voices are to be heard with sympathetic listening, to give mutual support in seeking the right outcome, waiting patiently for God’s will to be discerned.

{C} {C}Each individual in the gathering seeks to stand outside the self to find what is right, i.e. God’s will. There is no lobbying or voting and even a single dissenting voice is carefully considered. The aim is to reach unity, neither unanimity, consensus nor a majority opinion (Morley 1993; Sheeran 1983) [SC 84.6/47].

{C} {C}If unity appears out of reach, the Clerk may call for a period of silent worship before discussion is resumed. Dissenting Friends might then accept that a decision can be made, perhaps subject to any disagreement being noted in the concluding minute. Alternatively, the Meeting may postpone dealing with the matter any further, to allow time for reflecting on the way forward, or may agree not to proceed with the matter.

There is an unusual procedure for recording any decision that has been reached after everyone has had the opportunity to contribute to the discussion of the topic. The Clerk of the gathering first attempts to write down succinctly the sense of the meeting. What has been written is then read out. This draft is subsequently amended in accord with comments from the gathering, until it is agreeable to all. So the minute of record is set down transparently, as part of the occasion. However, simple editorial changes can be made to the minute afterwards, if permitted by the Meeting.

Quaker process is usefully applied in Business Meetings, Clearness Meetings (4.4) and committee meetings (5.3.1). Although settling an issue in this manner can be time-consuming and the resulting decision may differ markedly from what might have been expected, it is commonly much better and more acceptable.

The Clerk’s attitude tends to set the desirable pattern of worshipful listening. During any discussion, the Clerk tries to avoid expressing any personal view. Also the Clerk deals firmly with anyone speaking too long or irrelevantly, but at the same time keeps a sense of proportion and humour, and is not too brisk. Business Meetings close with a short silence, for reflection on what has transpired. (The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia Inc. 2010, hereafter referred to as the ‘Handbook’)

Sacred and profaneEdit

For many Quakers, Meeting for Worship for Business is a sacred occasion set apart from the hurley burley of everyday life. We start with a period of silence which, when we do it well, continues through our reflection, threshing, discernment and decision making. Quaker process sets our Meeting for Worship for Business apart from other occasions of decision making, such as choosing what to buy from the supermarket. Our practice seems to rest on an assumption that there are two domains for decision making: one sacred and the other profane. Quaker process is a sacred act of worship, and decision making in other contexts is a profane matter of effectiveness and efficiency.

Some people who are intelligent, well educated and competent in their everyday and work lives suddenly become ineffective when doing Quaker business. I am one of these. My Local Meeting once asked me to buy some ball point pens on-line. A task which I might normally complete in a day or two took more than six months. Because this was ‘Quaker Business’ the pens seemed to take on a sacred character in my mind, and the usual commercial practices did not seem to apply to this transaction. I was prompted to inquire into this.

Be discerning about discernmentEdit

Our Handbook mentions several decision making practices used in different situations. As well as Quaker process in Meeting for Worship for Business, office bearers have responsibility for some decisions; some matters are dealt with by routine procedures; various approaches to conflict management are mentioned; as well as processes for financial management, ministry, care of Members and Attenders, care of Meetings, oversight, nominations and appointments, property management, public statements, clearness, decisions around membership and other matters. Quaker discernment process is not a solution to every decision making problem, but one of many ways in which Quakers make decisions. In this paper I introduce a way to sort decisions into six categories, and select an appropriate approach for each category. Before diving into this theory, I offer some tips about how it might work in practice.


{C}1. {C}The Meeting for Worship for Business is first and foremost a meeting of friends. While people will disagree and have differing opinions (indeed the bringing together of varied viewpoints is essential to Quaker process) this should always happen in the context of friendship and respect for each other. Relationships among friends are important to the life of the meeting. There should be space for laughter and light heartedness as well as serious and diligent consideration.

{C}2. {C}Divide the agenda for Meeting for Worship for Business between two meetings, a Meeting for Worship for Discernment (or threshing meeting) and a Meeting for Worship for Deciding (or decision-making meeting).

{C}3. {C}The Clerk should prepare the agendas ahead of time and distribute documents a week before the meeting.

{C}4. {C}The Clerk should divide the business as follows:

{C}a. {C}Simple and trivial decisions should be kept off the agenda, and referred (if necessary) to appropriate committees, groups or individuals.

{C}b. {C}Matters which are appropriate for RM committees, AYM committees, Local Meetings and Worshipping Groups, or other bodies should be referred on, with a request for feedback if required. This may be recorded as a routine minute and starred in the agenda of the Meeting for Worship for Deciding.

{C}c. {C}When the decision to be made is not clear, financial, resource allocation, practical and administrative matters should usually be referred to the Treasurer, a committee, or a working party. If no appropriate committee or working party exists, it may be useful to appoint a small ad hoc working party with relevant knowledge, expertise or enthusiasm. Specific recommendations should come back as a draft minute for Clerk to put on the agenda of the Meeting for Deciding.

{C}d. {C}Matters for decision, including minutes of record, routine minutes and minutes which have been discerned or discussed in other forums, should be placed on the agenda of a Meeting for Worship for Deciding

{C}e. {C}When the Meeting is to discern the movement of the spirit, items should be placed on the agenda of a Meeting for Worship for Discernment either in the form of a draft minute, or if it is too early to draft a minute, in the form of a carefully worded question.

{C}f. {C}If there are matters for threshing which, in the judgement of the Clerk, will require more time than is available in a Meeting for Worship for Discernment, or which for other reasons would be better considered in another forum, the Clerk may propose a threshing meeting, workshop or other way to carry the matter forward.

{C}g. {C}Situations of conflict, confusion or chaos should not be on the agenda of Meeting for Discernment. The Clerk may refer the matter to a Regional Ministry and Care Committee, or consult with a person known to have appropriate skills and experience (as described in Section 4.6.3 of the Handbook) . It is appropriate to inform Meeting for Deciding that this has been done, and to ask all concerned to support action or intervention on behalf of Regional Meeting. Clear and charismatic leadership is needed, and should be supported.

{C}5. {C}All members should come to meeting with ‘hearts and minds prepared’ (Farrell 2011), having read the agenda, accompanying documents and other relevant material and when appropriate, having discussed matters at Local Meetings and Worshipping Groups, committees or with individual friends.

{C}6. {C}People should arrive early, and refreshments should be available for those who have travelled long distances.

{C}7. {C}Preparations in the room are part of the Meeting for Discernment or Decision-making. The meeting starts when the first person sits in silent worship, or when the first person starts to set up papers or equipment for the meeting. While some conversation may be necessary, this should be quiet and limited to the preparing the meeting.

{C}a. {C}Allow time to set up furniture, organise documents, set up laptops and projector or any other equipment and supplies.

{C}b. {C}Have cool water available in the meeting room, especially on hot days.

{C}8. {C}Meetings start and finish at the advertised times. Time is extended only under unusual circumstances and only when the Meeting is in unity to extend.

{C}9. {C}When a threshing meeting and a decision-making meeting are to be held on the same day, hold the meeting for discernment first, with a break of not less than 30 minutes for a meal or snack.

{C}10. {C}Each threshing or decision-making meeting starts with silence and ends with silence, and people speak from the silence. Each is conducted within the guidelines of Section 1.4.4 Business Meetings in the AYM Handbook.

{C}11. {C}Friends should speak simply, speak only once on each matter (at least until all who wish to speak have spoken), and not repeat what they or another friend has said. Quakers may respond with ‘that friend speaks my mind’ to save time and assisting the Clerk to gain the sense of the meeting (Joy no date).

{C}12. {C}It is not possible to find true unity unless dissent is openly and freely expressed. Dissent which is not expressed openly and truthfully can lead people to subvert or disown a decision. Part of the Clerk’s task is to make it safe for people to express dissent. From time to time the Clerk may explicitly invite dissent or other views.

{C}13. {C}The Meeting for Worship for Discernment (threshing meeting) is parallel to a preparative session during Australia Yearly Meeting. Decisions are not taken. If the meeting seems in unity, write a minute then let it season until the Meeting for Deciding (which may be later the same day).

{C}a. {C}Though it is often not possible to predict, the Clerk should guess how much time may be required for each matter to be threshed. A matter which is likely to take more than an hour may be referred to a threshing meeting set up only for that business, or a workshop or some other strategy likely to assist discernment of the movement of the spirit towards a way forward.

{C}b. {C}In planning the agenda consider that people’s capacity for discernment declines with tiredness, dehydration and lack of exercise. Consider a ten-minute break each hour to stretch or use facilities.

{C}c. {C}If 60 minutes is needed or used on one matter, and there are other items on the agenda, it is usually best refer the matter to another time, a threshing meeting, workshop or working party.

{C}14. {C}The Meeting for Worship for Deciding is in many senses parallel to a ‘formal session’ at Australia Yearly Meeting. The agenda includes matters which the Clerk thinks are ripe for decision making.

{C}a. {C}A draft minute should be prepared ahead of time for every item on the agenda of the decision-making meeting. If a minute cannot be drafted, the matter is not ready to come to decision-making. A badly drafted minute is more useful to the meeting than no minute at all, as it provides a clear focus for deciding.

{C}b. {C}Matters of record, routine items which are typically not discussed and matters which have been previously threshed and are expected to be non-contentious may be starred (that is, marked with asterisks). Such minutes might read ‘We accepted a report from ... without discussion’; ‘we have read a report from ... which is attached to the minutes’; ‘we accept the recommendation from ... committee, which is attached to the minutes’. Starred items may be processed in the following way

{C} i. {C}The Clerk asks whether any starred items should be ‘un-starred’ for discussion. If so, asterisks are erased from nominated items.

{C} ii. {C}The Clerk may, at his or her discretion, ask any whether additional items may be starred. This is done if there is no dissent.

{C} iii. {C}The Clerk asks the Meeting whether we agree to all starred minutes in the agenda.

{C} iv. {C}If the Clerk senses that the meeting is in unity, he or she declares that we have agreed to all the starred items.

{C} v. {C}The Clerk may suggest a single minute to cover all starred items, such as ‘Starred items in were agreed to without discussion or dissent.’

{C}c. {C}The Clerk makes a notional allocation of time for each decision remaining on the agenda. Decision-making then proceeds, within the guidelines of Section 1.4.4 of the Handbook (reproduced at the start of this document). All voices should be heard and the wording of draft minutes may be changed. If it is apparent that unity will not be achieved in the available time the matter is not ripe for decision making and should be referred to a threshing meeting, or some other forum (such as a committee, workshop etc.) for further preparatory work.

{C}d. {C}Sometimes consideration of administrative or financial questions opens up a need for discernment, or a deeper spiritual question lying beneath the surface. It can be useful to name the spiritual and the profane aspects or dimensions of the issue, and deal with each in an appropriate manner.


If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him (Trad)Edit

A way of thinking about decision making which I have found useful is called the Cynefin Framework. This approach is too complex to describe here, but those who are interested might like to start with Snowden and Boone (2007) or the Cognitive Edge (2007-2011) website. The Cynefin framework divides knowledge into three large territories, which are labelled ordered, unordered and disordered. In the ordered territory we apply knowledge which is already known, either widely known as common sense, or known to those with special training or experience. Knowledge in the ordered domain can be transferred from person to person by teaching. The unordered territory is where new knowledge emerges through research, inquiry, learning, and experimenting. This territory includes ‘experiential knowledge’, and can be learned through experience but not taught in a didactic way. There are two domains of unordered knowledge called ‘complex’ and ‘chaotic’. We will return to them later. The third, disordered territory would be better called an-ordered, a word which does not exist in English, meaning ‘without order’ not implying that order has broken down or collapsed. This territory contains two domains, the unformed domain of potential knowledge; things we do not know now but may in the future, and the sacred domain of the unknowable, which (as far as we know) will remain unknowable. This domain includes things which cannot be named, which we give names to, like ‘God’; and things which cannot be described, which we give descriptions of, like ‘Tao’.

To summarise, knowledge can be arranged into three ‘territories’ each of which can be divided into two ‘domains’. {C}Table 1{C}{C}shows three territories and four domains identified by David Snowden and his colleagues, and two domains marked ‘^’ added by Steve Smith and myself (publication forthcoming).

Table {C}1{C}: Domains of knowledge

Ordered territory: Cause & effect relations are knowable in advance and can be taught

Unordered territory: Cause & effect relations are knowable in retrospect and can be learned.

Disordered (an-ordered) territory: Relations are unknowable, cannot be learned but may be discovered.

Complicated domain (expert knowledge)

Complex domain (emergent knowledge)

Unformed domain^ (potential knowledge)

Simple domain (structured knowledge)

Domain of chaos (fragmented, incomplete knowledge)

Sacred domain^ (unknowable)

Clerking a Quaker Business meeting is a complex task which we can learn by experience but not through instruction. There is no instruction manual and no formal procedure which will guarantee success. If we are open to learning and the movement of the spirit we may grow in wisdom and skill, but if we get to a point when clerking becomes routine, it is time to quit.

When the Quaker discernment process was developed three centuries ago, the legal and cultural expectations of a Meeting were very different to those which face us today. Early Monthly Meetings were not legally incorporated entities with responsibility to take out public liability insurance, administer working with children declarations, submit annual audited accounts, and comply with a growing host of legal, ethical and financial requirements which are expected of non-profit organisations in the Twenty-first Century. These are proper matters to come before Business Meeting, but they may not entail the same need for spiritual discernment as some other issues, such as whether and how to support a Friend’s leadings, how the Meeting should respond to needs in local, national and global communities, or considering how we can witness to our Testimonies in the Twenty-first Century.

In {C}Table 1{C}{C}above we identified six domains of decision-making. In {C}Table 2{C}{C}, below, the dotted lines illustrate that boundaries between adjacent domains are fuzzy and permeable, except the boundary between the simple domain and chaos, which is shown as a strong barrier. This has been called the ‘edge of chaos’ (Gleick 1987, Legge 1990) over which systems occasionally fall from order into chaos.

Table {C}2{C}: Boundaries of knowledge

Complicated domain (expert knowledge)

Complex domain (emergent knowledge)

Unformed domain (potential knowledge)

Simple domain (structured knowledge)

Domain of chaos (fragmented, incomplete knowledge)

Sacred domain (unknowable)

Complex domainEdit

Everything from airplanes to kitchen blenders and even chopsticks comes with an instruction manual. Children, with all their complexity, do not (Lawrence Kutner).Edit

I will discuss the complex domain first, as Quaker discernment is appropriate here. According to David Snowden and his colleagues, in the complex domain cause and effect relationships can be understood only in retrospect, and do not repeat. That is, we are not able to predict the outcome of decisions or actions with accuracy that is much better than chance. When we look back at complex events in the past we can often see how patterns developed, but that does not significantly increase our chances of predicting the future patterns. For example, raising a child is a complex project. Although some people are better at it than others, for each parent, success with one child does not indicate that he or she will achieve better outcomes the next. In this domain, mutually interdependent members of a system act autonomously on the basis of the information available to each actor. A child acts on the child’s understanding. The situation is too complex for to gather and process enough information to get a complete picture before acting. Generally, good ways to proceed in complex situations involve probing the system to collect information; gaining an overall, holistic impression of the situation, including looking for patterns and unusual or atypical elements, deciding, acting, and then probing the system again in repeated cycles (probe-sense-respond cycles).

There is a large body of literature, research and expertise on a way of operating in complex situations called ‘action research’ (e.g. Hughes 2008, Wadsworth 1984, 1991, 2010). This involves patterns of reflection and action often described as repeating cycles of observe, reflect, plan and act.

Probe-sense-respond cycles and cycles of observe, reflect, plan and act bear similarities with Quaker process which involves listening to information and viewpoints from all present ( ‘probe’ or ‘observe’), periods of silent worship (‘sense’ or ‘reflect’), drafting a minute which expresses the unity in the Meeting (‘respond’ or ‘plan’) and then implementing the minute after the Meeting (‘act”). There are significant differences, including the seeking for unity in Quaker process.

Complicated domainEdit

Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple (Dr. Seuss).Edit

Financial management, decisions around property maintenance and other practical matters, as well as scheduling and arranging events are in the complicated domain. These are not matters which require spiritual discernment, and not matters which are best managed using Quaker process. Sometimes we waste a lot of Meeting time on complicated matters, and can’t quite see how to do things better. In general, the best way to manage complicated decisions ‘sense-analyse-respond’; that is, obtain the required information, analyse this information using appropriate methods, then make a rational decision based on ability to predict the likely outcome of actions. Relevant skills and experience are most valuable in this domain, so it is wise to delegate decision making to members of the Meeting or other people who have appropriate expertise.

Financial and practical matters often come to Regional Meeting for approval, without needing spiritual discernment. It may be useful for the Clerk arrange the business so that complicated matters are referred to people with relevant expertise, who bring a specific recommendation to the Meeting for approval. In setting the agenda, matters requiring approval should be clearly separated from matters requiring discernment.

The person, working party or committee with relevant expertise could consult with appropriate people, then bring to the Meeting a clear statement of what is to be approved (preferably in the form of a draft minute) with supporting information. Members of the Meeting may ask for information or clarification, but it is not appropriate for the Meeting for Worship for Business to engage in discussion, evaluation or discernment of proposals. The meeting may approve a proposal, decline to approve, or ask for the proposal to be resubmitted after further consideration. If it is apparent to the Clerk that the meeting is not in unity on the matter, the Clerk should seek to understand whether the matter is complicated (that is, outcomes of action are knowable in advance if more information or expertise is gathered) or is complex (knowable only in retrospect) or unknowable. In Quaker terms: is this a matter requiring discernment of the movement of the spirit? If the Clerk judges this to be the case, the matter should be referred to a threshing meeting for discernment.

Simple domain Edit

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler (Albert Einstein)Edit

‘Simple’ in the Cynefin framework does not have the same meaning as the Quaker testimony of Simplicity. Matters in the simple domain do not require discernment. In this domain, cause and effect are well known so that we can predict the outcome of action with a high degree of certainty. In this domain, once the decision maker has observed the relevant detail and categorised a situation the appropriate action is well known and is highly likely to produce the required outcome. This domain includes matters which are managed by known procedures. The instruction books which come with appliances are examples. The procedures may be well known even if not written down. In NSW Region, for example, a Clerk can announce that a ‘shared lunch’ will be held on a given date, and expect that a varied, interesting, nutritious and plentiful meal will appear. For a different group of people, who were not used to providing shared lunches, this task would be complicated or perhaps complex, but because the procedures are well known and have been experienced to work, the organisation of a shared lunch becomes a simple matter.

Sometimes matters which should be simple occupy considerable time in Meetings for Worship for Business. Discernment is not appropriate for decisions in the simple domain, and attempts to discern simple matters make them unnecessarily complex and time consuming. When it becomes apparent that a matter which should be simple is being treated as if it is complex (or even unknowable), it is appropriate for the Clerk to suspend discussion, to delegate the matter to a small working party. The working party should ensure (outside the Meeting) that they understand clearly what task the have been asked to undertake, and then complete the task. Other than delegating the task and noting a brief report at a later time, it is not appropriate for simple decisions or tasks to occupy the time of Meeting for Deciding, and they should never come to Meeting for Discernment.

Chaotic domainEdit

When we comprehend the reality of confusion then confusion becomes knowledge (Dalai Lama) Edit

Open and honest disagreement may be an appropriate part of a threshing meeting or other process in the complex or complicated domain, perhaps leading to mutual understanding or unity at a deeper level. This is part of Quaker process, and is not in the chaotic domain.

A Regional or Local Meeting can slip over the edge of chaos when the life of the Meeting is disrupted and confused by opposition, interpersonal discord, disruption or conflict among members or groups within the Meeting. The I Ching (Hexagram 6) says that ‘conflict develops when one feels oneself to be in the right and runs into opposition. If one is not convinced of being in the right, opposition leads to craftiness or high-handed encroachment but not to open conflict.’

When we suspect there is conflict beneath the surface which is not being expressed it is important not to collude with secrecy and cover-up in the name of (false) confidentiality or unity. It is important to name the elephant in the room, to speak truth to power inside (as well as outside) the Society. As knowledge becomes more fragmented and incomplete the situation is likely to descend further into chaos and become even more difficult to manage.

If not effectively dealt with when they are small, seemingly minor disruptions can escalate and tip over the boundary between order and chaos. In situations of chaos, Meeting for Worship for Business may lose effective control, and the balanced harmony of the Meeting can be disrupted. Decisions made at Meeting for Business may be thwarted, undermined or not implemented, or the Meeting may be subverted and prevented from making effective decisions. When it is clear that the situation has tipped into chaos, when regular patterns of activity are disrupted, then Quaker process is not effective. Conflict, confusion or chaos requires clear action by someone who knows what to do and has the trust of the people.

Handbook Section 4.6, ‘Resolving Conflicts’, suggests a range of strategies to deal with conflict, confusion and chaos, including: ‘To support the resolution of conflicts, a list of willing trained and experienced people should be drawn up by local meeting Ministry and Oversight committees, coordinated by Regional Meeting and published in the regional newsletter (Section 4.6.3). This would enable access to killed and experience people who could act in situations of conflict, confusion or chaos with charismatic leadership with the support of Regional Meeting.

Potential domain Edit

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it? (Albert Einstein)Edit

In the domain which is unknowable now, but potentially knowable, matters can rise into dim awareness; intuition can begin to form; the Spirit may move us towards a direction. Deep awareness is required here. Listening for what lies underneath what is said; listening for what is not said; feeling what is happening in the room and inside myself; seeing what is not apparent; touching hidden places within myself; waiting for the movement of the spirit in others; discerning the quiet, gentle stirring of an as-yet unformed and unspoken way forward. In this domain we may discern emergent patterns, but not a specific way forward. Directions for further inquiry or seeking further information may emerge from this domain, and there may be a number of possible ways forward. Quaker process enables us to seek the movement of the spirit in this domain. The movement of the spirit cannot be hurried, and it is often appropriate for the Clerk to suggest the meeting hold a matter over to the next Meeting for Discernment. The Clerk may also propose a threshing meeting or workshop for discernment or other strategy to discern a way forward.

Unknowable domainEdit

The truth is there is no truth, including this one (Karl Tomm) Edit

Matters which are genuinely unknowable are the core business of Quakers. These can be approached in Meeting for Worship, in periods of silence during Meeting for Worship for Business, or at other times of quiet reflection, prayer or meditation. When there is a reason to mention the unknowable, it is often best not to invite discussion, but to suggest a period of silence. It is often helpful if those present relax their bodies, empty their minds, allow thoughts and feelings to enter and pass on, while waiting quietly in a state of openness to the spirit. It is not necessary to emerge from the silence with something to say. In the words of Lao Tzu: ‘The way that can be spoken is not the true way.’ In the unknowable domain, non-action can achieve all.

Appendix: Possible RM agenda outlineEdit


Preparation & arrival. People enter the room and either sit in silence or attend to practical preparations in a quiet, worshipful atmosphere.


Continuing silence.


Meeting for Discernment: Opening announcements, acknowledgements, welcomes, confirmation of Meeting for Discernment agenda


Silence, Discernment for decision making on a complex matter of current importance or priority




Silence, Discernment for decision making on other matter(s) requiring discernment




Meeting for Decision-making: Silence, Confirmation of Meeting for Decision-making agenda. Processing starred items.


Decision-making process with requests for information, changes to draft minutes.


Short break


Decision-making on items requiring more process, with re-wording of draft minutes. If unity seems not achievable, refer to other forums.


Buffer time and closing silence

References & sourcesEdit

Briskin, A., Erickson, S., Ott, J., & Callanan, T. (2009). The Power of Collective Wisdom and the Trap of Collective Folly. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Cognitive Edge (2007-2011) Cognitive Edge online at

Farrell, L. (2011). Lyndsay Farrell on clerking (Notes from a Summer School). Unpublished notes. Australia Yearly Meeting.

Gleick, J. (1987). Chaos: Making a New Science. London: Sphere.

Hughes, I. (2008). Action Research in Healthcare. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Action Research (2nd ed., pp. 381-393). London: Sage.

Joy, L. (no date). Collective Intelligence and Quaker Practice. Retrieved 6 February 2011, from

Legge, J. (1990). Chaos Theory and Business Planning; How Great Effects come from Small Causes. Melbourne: Schwartz & Wilkinson.

Snowden, D. J., & Boone, M. E. (2007). A leader's framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review, 85(11), 68-76.

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Australia Inc. (2010). Handbook of Practice and Procedure in Australia (6th. ed.). Brisbane: Australia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) Inc. (Referred to as the ‘Handbook’).

Wadsworth, Y. (1984). Do It Yourself Social Research. Melbourne: Victorian Council of Social Service.

Wadsworth, Y. (1991). Everyday Evaluation on the Run. Melbourne: Action Research Issues Assoc.

Wadsworth, Y. (2010). Building in Research and Evaluation: Human Inquiry for Living Systems. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

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