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I feel rather like the cat that catches a mouse and brings it back, dead, for your approval.1 As a new member of the Nominations Committees my Area Meeting sent me on the Nominations course a Woodbrooke and then I reported back what they might not have wished to hear.

Before I went on the course, my experience of Nominations was that local meetings suggest the name of a Friend to fill an Area Meeting job. The Nominations Committee passes the name to Area Meeting who make the appointment. In accordance with our testimony on simplicity, the task was simply to find a name to fill an office.

This is quite different from the way that I filled jobs in my professional career. There I had a task to be done requiring particular skills, knowledge and abilities. I collected CVs, interviewed candidates and chose the best person. With the person in post, I saw how they were getting on and gave advice, training and support as needed. As a craftsperson in business I still work this way.

Quakers feel they don’t need to do all this because we have a discernment process which dates back 300 years. The theory is that God chooses the person for the job, and by sitting in a gathered meeting for worship we find out who that choice is. We must have complete unquestioning faith in the process and trust the chosen person to do the job without any further ado.

On the course, I heard story after story of things going wrong. The most dramatic case has been documented by Stewardship Committee in Vulnerable Victim. The advice and guidance that I collected had to do with how to do a better job of running our affairs and to avoid the worst of the disasters.

Our Area Meeting is a group of largely single Quakers in families, who mend the world and worship together. In the eighteenth snd nineteenth centuries Meetings were ore often family groups living in near each other in a tight-knit community.

I came away with a view of a very different Nominations process. In Qf&p section 3.22 we find an outline of some structures and procedures for administering and managing the mundane aspects of our community. By appointing people to do the various tasks, the Nominations process brings the framework alive and makes the community work – or destroys it. It turns the Qf&p design into a real community of people who share a culture, mend the world and worship together.

The process has a way of getting to know what tasks the meeting needs to have done. Tasks are not simply offices to be filled but positive contributions to the life of the meeting. The process has a way of getting to know all the people in the meeting. Then it has a positive search process to suggest candidates to do the task. This is followed by further exploration of both the task and the candidate Friends. Only then is there a meeting for worship for discernment with all the facts and factors before it. After the formal appointment the Nominations process continues to monitor the appointee with advice, mentoring, training, emotional and practical support and so on as needed.

Obviously this is completely impractical, idealistic, unrealistic and impractical. People don’t have time for all this. There is no way a committee can know the whole area meeting. It is much easier to use our tried and tested discernment process of appointing the same seasoned Friends so we know what we are getting and we can trust them to do a good job and restore our faith in the process.

So there’s one mouse for you to bury Friends. Which nominations process is appropriate for this Area Meeting?

I talked to several Friends before I prepared this presentation and there was some interest in this discernment process. As I see it, and I might be completely wrong, the discernment process is about making important decisions that have a moral or ethical aspect to them. Decisions are about choosing between options. If there are no options there can not be any discernment. My experience, for what it is worth is that better decisions are made when I have thought about the situation, researched the options – and their consequences – thought about my feelings and what might be right or wrong. In relation to nominations, I think this is “coming to the (discernment) meeting with heart and mind prepared”. In the few meetings I have attended I have not felt prepared. Nor have I felt any deep sense of discernment – unlike some of my fellow committee members.

So there is the second mouse. Will our practice of discernment stand up to scrutiny and does it matter?

I came back with a vision of our nominations process. The revelation was that area meeting is a community of friends worshiping together and mending the world. It has a framework for worshipping, for doing its business and for maintaining the community. Some of the formal aspects are laid out in Qf&p but there is much more to community than formality.

Nominations has special responsibility in the Quaker community for building the framework, maintaining it in good working order and developing it, as circumstances require. Quakers turn upside down the typical practice of finding people to fill jobs, and make the appointments work for the community. They don’t do it alone. They have three main activities.

The first one is ‘getting to know you’. The committee and its members need to know me: who I am, what I have done in my life (not just Quaker jobs), what I am interested in, what I definitely don’t want to do and something of my living circumstances and commitments. From this the committee can extract what skills and abilities I have, how and when they might be best used. For example a professional skill might be best used in a training or consulting role, or a devotee of a particular movement might be best avoided in the obvious job. The committee can also workout when I am over-loaded or Quakered-out or when, with encouragement and training, I might be suitable for a job in a few years time.

I cannot see how a nominations committee can discern and do their job prayerfully if they simply rely on local friends to bring forward names.

A second getting to know you activity, is to be aware of the structures, roles and present tasks that make up the Quaker community’s framework and to be aware of how things are working – or not. This not only helps with suggesting names for appointment, it makes it possible to consider when the structures should be changed or new tasks set.

Bringing forward names should be a deliberate process of discernment not a quick scramble over lunch. Typically the committee have three years’ warning of a job becoming vacant and needing a name. An exhaustive review of the ‘getting to know you’ stuff will usually raise several possible names. Some of them might be in the form ‘yes, but lacks experience’ or ‘maybe with training’. In some, if not all, cases the committee will need to find out more both about the person and about the specific task(s) the meeting wants done in that role by the appointed friend.

Having gathered information and reduced the names to a short list of two or more, it is time for the committee to discuss and then to discern in a meeting for worship, which name or names to bring to the appointing meeting.

The third activity is obvious that of asking the named Friend if they would be willing to serve if asked. This step has the potential for misunderstanding and hurt. On the occasions when I have done this, I am now aware that I have not exercised the care, sensitivity and consideration that I should have done.

The nominations committee brings names to the appointing meeting. In order for it to discern whether to make the appointment(s) the nominations committee need to explain their reasons and present the meeting with their information – in confidence and without the named Friends being present. The meeting might need to make an appointment conditional or more limited than usual. It might want to appoint an experienced friend to be a consultant or to mentor a less seasoned appointee.

After the appointment is made or not made, someone must, again sensitively and care-fully, tell the named friend(s) of the outcome and why, so that there is neither misunderstanding nor unnecessary hurt.

We didn’t discuss it much at Woodbrooke but I think there are some important liaison activities to explore around local elders and overseers and with the Area Meeting clerk.

Qf&p reminds us that the right working of the whole area meeting is the responsibility of every member of the Area Meeting. Vulnerable Victim showed us that this responsibility can fail spectacularly.

Is it part of Area Meeting’s care and support for its appointed friends to also task one or two Friends with actively enquiring into the satisfactory workings of the meeting and of the comfort and performance of the appointed Friends? My personal view is that completing the care and support cycle is vitally important to the health of the society. Its neglect in recent times might have a lot to do with the deterioration that has already led to vulnerable victim.

The last bit is that the nominations committee needs practical tools to do its job.

Our committees have compiled job descriptions and are working on spreadsheets of the regular appointments. But not everyone is comfortable with forms, computers or discipline. We lack a body of knowledge of our members. Some committees use a variation of the offer of service form but it doesn’t seem to work very well. There are also considerations around confidentiality and data protection to take into account.

Most importantly there is the matter of handover, as one committee member leaves and another joins. At present, most of the knowledge of how things work and knowledge of individual friends and their circumstances is lost. By the time the new member has been trained and has caught up with everything it’s time to move on.

We might want to review our practice of having the nominations committee appoint a clerk from among its number. The vision shows that clerkship of a nominations committee involves significantly more work than other members and it has been suggested that our present practice is unfair to committee members and to potential clerks.

It seems to me that Friends appointed to nominations committees also need training and skills in conversation, and personal relationships – equivalent to those of Alternatives to Violence or Circles of Accountability programmes.

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