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Rhythms of Silence in Group Discernment

One of the gifts of Quakers to the wider Christian community is the understanding that God is present and active in the midst of human affairs. In simple terms God, who loves us, delights to partner with each of us in all facets of our lives.

This is not a static relationship with God being in control and our job being to find the right path so everything works out all right. Rather it is an amazing dynamic relationship with God who journeys with us while honoring our free will and unique individuality. This is God who is fully aware of our glory and our brokenness; who is not flummoxed when we blow it; who is honored by our courageous trust to be fully human.

It is because of this bedrock conviction that all of God is present and wants to partner with us, that Friends/Quakers have put such an emphasis on listening to God. We know that we can hear God anywhere, anytime. We know God communicates in multitudinous ways. But we also know that it is deeply valuable to quiet the outer voices to “listen” to the Spirit’s “voice” within us—individually or as a gathered group. While most of us do not hear the inward voice as audible sounds, experience has shown us that each person can come to recognize the Spirit that communicates inwardly.

Partnering with God through Group Discernment
Over our three and a half centuries Quakers have learned to integrate the spaciousness of silence into our worship, our business, our learning. In worship, we are quiet together to better hear the message God might have for us that day. In our business meetings, we practice group discernment through which we allow participants to pay attention to bring forward “their piece” that furthers the decision-making process. Then in the quiet, we let the Spirit start to take these disparate pieces and start to move them into a more complete decision than anyone of us might have had in mind. I think of it like assembling a jig saw puzzle. We have different pieces that we put on the table—and then we all partner with the Spirit to see how these work together to make a complete picture.

Traditionally there is a specific rhythm to this process. The information for the issue is given to the group. The group goes into silence. And then—with intentional, spacious waiting in between speakers—folks offer up the ideas and feelings that seem pertinent. Using the jig saw puzzle analogy, when it appears that the various pieces have been put on the table, the group moves into listening together to see what picture is emerging. And when the picture is clear, the group has a sense of energy and direction that settles the issue. For Friends, this is a very familiar cadence. Great care is taken that folks don’t challenge what a person has put forward, but rather hold every contribution with respect and consideration. It is frowned upon to speak too quickly after another Friend has spoken. The contributions are directed to the Clerk rather than the other participants. It is considered unnecessary to repeat an idea because you agree with it. And it is usually the Clerk who gathers, integrates and articulates how the group is being led.

Meeting for Learning
Over the years I have become aware that as valuable as this shape of group discernment is, there are other rhythms of silence that are appropriate for other purposes. For instance, we very much want Jesus, the Present Teacher, to fully participate in our learning experiences. But part of the flow of discovery is the tug and pull of conversation that happens in learning settings. We have found that there is a powerful dynamic that happens when the listening silences are structured in a different way.

The rhythm of silence for learning is both individual and dialogical. It is quite normal that in a learning setting, content is presented. Then a period of silence allows each person to hold what has been said and think into it. From that silence, there is conversational dialog. While each person’s thought is held in respect, there would be no requirement for silence spacing the comments. It would be totally appropriate to respond, clarify, question, add a thought in the discussion. But in all, there would be an awareness that Christ is kindling new learnings among us. Then at appropriate times, the group would go back into silence to hold what they have been experiencing/learning. The cadence of conversation and silence is a powerful learning tool that has appropriate uses from children’s education through adult education.

Silence and Group Creativity
One of my favorite things in the world is collaborative creativity. In the early stages of a groups creative process, I have long observed how one idea sparks another and concepts—both useful and not useful—tumble over one another like clothes in the dryer. Conversation is not usually slow and measured; it is animated and builds thought upon thought with the flow of additional realizations. This is an energetic stage of co-creating with God. You can almost feel the delight of the Holy as discovery breaks into discovery.

We can understand how this works when we are intentionally setting out to create something. But more often than not, these creative moments break out when you don’t expect them for the God who partners with us is by nature a creator. Sadly, I have watched Friends misread these unexpected gifts and assume that folks have become uncentered—or have left Quaker process. I have watched well-meaning folks dampen the energy by separating the kindled logs into containers of silence. You can see the group return to “normal” and the joy slide quietly out of the room.

I would propose that the rhythm of the Friends’ process can maintain its integrity and still uphold whatever God is doing among us. In the case of this serendipity of creation, it is a totally centered act to let the energy of the process fully have its place and space. The strategic place for silence is when the process hits a snag or when the building together comes to a resting place. That is the time to consider the new thing in the Light of silence. Turning it over. Examining it with the eye of the Holy. Entrusting it to Christ to affirm, disaffirm, test, improve and refine.

Form Supports Function
Last month I was privileged to clerk a group that was forming a new organization for several churches wanting to journey together. It was an unusual situation. There was an immense amount of very basic organizational work that had to be done. Yet, there had not been enough time to create the normal relational groundwork—much less a sense of trust and certainty of shared goals. There was vibrant energy and an overflow of ideas as to how the new thing should be shaped that had never had a chance to be given voice. Folks were bursting to talk.

As the clerk, I was aware that the usual cadence of Friends decision making would not serve us well. I also knew it would be wrongly guided to try to impose any kind of order on the situation through presented proposals for the group to consider. It was clear that we needed the opportunity to create together. Drawing from the Meeting for Learning rhythms of taking in information and allowing space for listening to self and Spirit, I offered yet another variation of the group discernment rhythm of sharing, co-creation and silence in the spirit of Christ. And this, too, helped us be the people we wished to be together.

I treasure the very practical ways that Quakers live out the reality of listening to Christ who is present among us. The template of Friends’ corporate discernment is an invaluable gift. But we don’t serve the form. The form–our particular familiar rhythm of silence—is not our Quaker law. The form is always meant to support our faithfulness to what God is doing among us. And I suspect that there are a variety of rhythms of silence that do just that.

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