Ask a former clerk:

How do I cope if nobody wants to speak in response to an agenda item?

"Have I introduced the item adequately, so that those present know what they are being asked about? I try restating it: might the matter be broken into smaller questions to address? Or I ask for any questions or comments - that might reveal issues which need exploring. If it’s a report, maybe everyone is happy to accept it along with the recommendations. A single ‘hope so’ may be all that’s required.
Is the item potentially contentious and no one wants to make the first comment? Questions for clarification may break the ice. But silence here may be a good thing too, to recognise the tenderness that will be required to speak sensitively."


How can I work out how to introduce a difficult agenda item?

"I do research by asking around Friends beforehand, mostly by phone. This helps clarify my mind and gives a clearer picture of the issue."

 

 

 

This section covers some less discussed elements of being a clerk.

To use or not use a laptop

Clerks develop preferences working off their draft minutes:

  • working off a blank sheet of paper and handwriting the minutes as directed by the meeting (very brave)
  • drafting digital minutes and writing by hand on the printed out sheets
  • working only with laptops or other devices (where in some situations the screen can be followed by the whole meeting). Clerks and meetings differ as to the use of laptops that a clerk types into in real time. It works well for some. Some meetings dislike the visual barrier of an open laptop lid coming between them and the clerk (and vice versa). The danger when everyone is following new text on a screen is that Friends can become mesmerised by watching the appearance and changes and stop listening to the deep place where the words come from. They can become over-keen on pointing out typos, spelling errors and grammatical infelicities. Still, your choice!

'Minutes as read'

A useful tip for saving time with routine standing items or straightforward ‘minutes of record’ is to prepare what are sometimes called ‘minutes as read’, otherwise called ‘tabled minutes’. Friends are given, in the meeting or sent round with other papers, sight of a handful of minutes. Example of these would be agreeing anything that follows standard policy such as donations to meeting house appeals or approving something for bureaucratic reasons that does not need discernment. When this comes up in the agenda you give the meeting time to read through the draft texts, asking them to look up to signal once they have done this. Then you ask them if these minutes are acceptable. Any hesitations or incorrect names or financial amounts can of course be raised, and the item would be dealt with by being put before the meeting in the normal way as a fresh item. Predictable re-nominations are sometimes dealt with in this way, again with the proviso that any slightest reason not to agree them on the nod ensures that the meeting gives full attention to the content and the wording as usual.

Reports

The clerk’s good handling of reports can have a beneficial effect on the meeting. Different meetings will have a procedure for circulating reports in advance, or distributing them during the meeting (including as ‘screen-share’ or equivalent for online meetings). As part of your preparation you will have alerted Friends who are expected or expecting to give a report as to which meeting’s agenda it is likely to be added. Be wary of Friends who have not produced anything in writing (even scribbled notes) as their spontaneous report may well eat into a great deal of time and your preparation will not have included anything that could go into the minute. I suggest they offer no more than one side of A4 paper, or approximately 300 to 400 words. Assuming Friends have received something prior to the meeting, it is usually sufficient for the reporting Friend to assume it has been read; they can then ‘speak to the report’. This slightly quaint phrase implies a little spoken summary as a reminder to the meeting, plus anything they particularly want Friends to reflect on. They should expect to deal with questions as well as comments. Having said that, there is a case for longer reports that deserve quality time to the content, for instance reports of visitors to an applicant for membership, or a major issue such as grievance. This type of report (for instance, membership matters, grievance or conflict matters) would not be circulated in advance.

When to take spoken contributions

There is a little-understood custom of ‘eyes-up/eyes-down’ which can aid the smooth running of a meeting, and some newer members of the meeting might not have spotted this custom taking place. The silences that punctuate a Quaker business meeting can be very confusing for newcomers. What on earth is going on? When Friends see the clerk looking up and round the room during the discussion parts of the meeting, that is a sign that the clerk is ‘open to hearing spoken contributions’. But when the clerk looks down – either to make notes or to drop into inward discernment – the meeting should respect that and remain silent. Waving at the clerk to get attention at these moments is therefore unnecessary. But you as clerk need to be crystal clear about your own visual signals. Get agreement too with other members of the clerking team at the table with you so that you are all giving the meeting the same signals. You might usefully describe aloud what the signals are each time if there are newcomers or some Friends with sight difficulties in the room. If the meeting is online you will definitely need to use words to signal each of the steps. Elders can help by reminding Friends as necessary.

Using silence in the business meeting

You can expect quiet upholding while you works on the minute before presenting it to the meeting. At this point contributions from the meeting should be only about the minute and whether it accurately reflects the wish of the meeting – it is not a time to bring up new points. This leads on to the judicious use of silence during business meetings. Anyone can ask for silence, not just the clerk. It is a lovely way of keeping Friends focused and of calming tensions when things start to go off at a tangent. These non-speech moments can be refreshing as well as lowering tensions, and help to rest the mind.

Handling confidentiality

And now some guidance on how the meeting might need some leadership decisions from the clerk. There are a few occasions during the meeting when Friends are asked to leave the room for a particular item involving confidentiality. How this is handled depends on the custom and practice of the meeting – some meetings ask attenders to leave, some do not. For nominations matters it is usual for those under nomination to leave while the meeting discerns their appointments. For membership applications and any other confidential item most meetings ask attenders to leave, and of course the attender who has applied. In a meeting dealing with employment issues many meetings head the minute as CONFIDENTIAL and omitting the actual agreed text if the minutes are to be made public (or sent out to a wider body of Friends). The clerk can keep the text of the minute in a confidential minute book or be very careful how each version of the minutes should be distributed. Often these practices will seem unnecessary but it is right to maintain the discipline so that for the rare difficult situation you have the meeting properly constituted.

Handling controversial matters

Sometimes in spite of a clerk’s best preparation endeavours, an agenda item unexpectedly opens out into a more major or even controversial matter. Clerks have to make fairly quick decisions about how to approach that and what guidance to give the meeting. It’s been my experience that these tricky subjects often benefit from an introduction followed by just a surface-level handful of contributions. As it becomes clear that the meeting is moving into a deeper world – or has gone off into a side avenue and can’t find its way back – one solution is for the clerks to check their understanding together and propose either returning to the matter ‘next time’ if that is feasible, or setting up an extra meeting as soon as possible after the first one. These single-issue meetings can either take the form of an additional, clerked meeting or a facilitated ‘threshing’ meeting with no expectation of ending up with a substantive minute.

Having an ending time

People often wonder (perhaps even during a lengthy meeting) if it’s OK to have a definite ending time to a Quaker business meeting. There is no guidance on that. The principle remains that the meeting is being led by the Spirit, however I have frequently found that God is pretty good at accommodating train times, end of rental time in a public building, children’s needs and so on. A tricky call for both clerks and elders. On the other hand, seemingly tediously slow meetings often end up poorly attended and that is in nobody’s interest. Sensing how the meeting is coping and whether focus is being lost through tiredness is part of the clerk’s skill set. Body language will help you discern this if you look carefully – or you could just ask the meeting if it has run out of energy. They will tell you!

Signing the minutes

It’s still the custom in many meetings for the clerk to sign the agreed set of minutes on behalf of the meeting at the end of the session, usually during the closing silence. This custom may be changing as more clerks use laptops in the meeting and there are only digital minutes. Fair copies should be archived in minute-books using acid-free paper and these at least should end with the clerk’s signature each time ‘on behalf of the meeting’.