Discernment-in-Community, Quaker-style

If you don’t know enough about Quakers to stand in utter awe of their understanding of discernment, it’s time you learned. For centuries, The Society of Friends—popularly called Quakers—has been promoting discernment-in-community both for individuals and groups (especially their business meetings).

Say a young Quaker couple wants to get married. They are advised to be part of what is called a “Clearness Committee,” a group of wise and trusted members of the meeting convened to pray in silence and ask them honest, open-ended questions that help them “become clear” about the way forward in their relationship. In the same way, the Quaker meeting (local gathering) might go into a Clearness Committee around an important question facing their church. The goal is to find unity within the greater body before taking the next step. Not everyone has to agree wholeheartedly, but for unity to be found everyone has to agree that the Spirit seems to be moving the meeting in one particular direction.

You don’t have to be Quaker to benefit from a Clearness Committee. I’ve been part of several at the request of seminary students, clergy, spiritual directors and directees.  When properly facilitated (Quakers use the term “clerked”), Clearness Committees are beautiful sacred spaces offering the focus person (the one with the discernment question) assistance as they listen for the still, small voice of the Holy in their life.

For a wonderful and useful description of Clearness Committee, check out Parker Palmer’s classic article on it here.

Then, to form one to help with your discernment do the following:

  1. Find a clerk to facilitate. You could locate a spiritual director, give them the Parker Palmer article and ask them to be your facilitator. It’s relatively easy and spiritual directors have the skills to hold the space and follow the guidelines.
  2. Invite 4-6 spiritual “heavy hitters” in your life to be on the committee.
  3. Set a date and allow about 3 hours for the process.
  4. Write up a one page description of your question and the background for committee members. Email it to them a few days before the committee convenes.
  5. Meet with your clerk prior to the committee setting to agree upon how you want the time to go. You have some options for the last 30 minutes of the session.
  6. Enjoy the sacred space and the sense of peace that comes from having a group of people sit with you in silence, prayer and inquiry.

In our next session, we’ll talk about using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral in discernment.

For more about spiritual direction as I practice it, check out my website. If you have questions or comments about the content of Spiritual Direction 101, please let me hear from you in the reply section below.

About Teresa Blythe
  • Pat Pope

    It should be stated this is not the case in all Quaker churches. You’re liable to find the clearness committees in conservative meetings versus the evangelical ones. Not sure about liberal meetings. They may or may not utilize the clearness committees.

    I just felt the need to point this out since meetings vary widely depending on their doctrinal stances and practices. When people say Quaker, they can be quite surprised to find that some meetings (Quaker churches) do or do not subscribe to all the various traditions. Some meetings are moer like Protestant churches, while others can be close to universalism with other meetings falling somewhere in between.

  • Leslie

    I attended two different unprogrammed meetings that would probably be described by others as liberal (unprogrammed means there was no minister, but rather a clerk of the meeting, and there was no pre-determined service, but rather speaking out of silence) and both offered Clearness Committees. I think it is a standard of the Quaker tradition – as well as a great blessing to have such a thing available when you are in a spiritual quandary or taking an important action.

  • http://www.couragerenewal.org Erin Lane

    As someone who works with Parker Palmer – and the organization he founded over 15 years ago, the Center for Courage & Renewal – I’ve had the privilege of seeing how Clearness Committees can help us not only learn to listen to our inner teacher but also to grow our listening skills with one another. One of the most life-giving practices of the experience is learning how to ask of each other open and honest questions. In the retreats I’ve been a part of through the Center, this has been an especially important gift to those in the serving professions who are used to “fixing” others’ problems rather than simply bearing witness to others’ discoveries. Thanks for this important post!

    • http://www.teresablythe.net Teresa Blythe

      I so agree. We use Parker Palmer’s edict of “no fixing, saving, preaching or setting another person straight” as our Prime Directive in the Hesychia School of Spiritual Direction!