A couple of weeks ago I became the presiding clerk of Minneapolis Friends Meeting.
I didn’t run for this position. I didn’t win an election; I didn’t beat a list of competing candidates. In fact, there are several other people in the meeting who have fulfilled this role admirably in the past and would be at least as qualified as I am to do so again.
About two months ago, the Nominating Committee decided to ask me if I’d be willing to become the meeting’s next clerk. After giving it considerable thought, I said yes. So my name was submitted for approval at the February meeting for business, and those present approved me as clerk.
I’ve been attending this Quaker meeting for about 25 years, and I’ve contributed my time and energy in many ways. Among other things, I’ve taught children, served on various committees, designed the meeting’s web site, led the Stewardship & Finance Committee for five years and the Ministry & Counsel Committee for two years, and substituted for our paid director of ministry while she was on sabbatical. In other words, I’ve been deeply involved with Minneapolis Friends Meeting for a long time and in a lot of different roles.
Presiding clerk could be viewed as the top position in a Quaker meeting. But Quaker meetings don’t operate in a top-down fashion. Ultimate authority on all significant decisions rests not with any one person, but with the entire body.
So what does it mean to be the presiding clerk?
Does it mean I can assign other members to tasks or tell them what to do? No. I can ask people to do things, but whether they will is up to them.
Does it mean I know more about the Quaker faith, its history and practices, than anyone else? No. There are a number of people in our meeting who I’m sure have studied these things in much more depth than I have.
Does it mean I’m the most upstanding, the most righteous, the most spiritual member of the meeting? Certainly not.
What it really means is that the members of this meeting see me as being worthy of their trust and having the skills necessary for fulfilling this particular role. And it is just a role – one to be taken on for a limited amount of time and then turned over to someone else.
The very term “clerk” provides a clue that, although it’s a leadership position, it’s a different kind of leadership than would be implied by terms like “chair” or “president.” This is truly a leader-as-servant position.
The most visible role of the presiding clerk is to clerk our monthly meetings for business. There’s preparation involved: the clerk sets the meeting agenda, based mostly on issues and proposals brought forward by various committees.
Clerking a meeting is primarily a matter of being a good listener. It’s not about making unilateral decisions or exerting your own influence one way or the other on issues. Instead, you try to make sure that the full range of views on a question can be expressed. You discern when the group seems to be converging on a decision, and then ask the group if you’ve got it right. Sometimes you have to recognize that the group is not ready to make a decision, and it’s time to move on to something else and come back to the unresolved issue at a subsequent meeting. I’ve learned these skills by observing past presiding clerks in action, and by clerking committee meetings myself.
Being presiding clerk also means attending a lot of other meetings. I’m now an ex officio member of four other committees!
I do enjoy being at the center of things. But I’m not one to actively put myself there or deliberately make myself the focus of attention. I’m both sobered and gratified that the members of my meeting have chosen to trust me with this position.
Here’s an excellent summary of the role of the clerk in a Quaker meeting, based on material by Arthur Larrabee.