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Taking Time to Ask, “Why?”

Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist
On Time (March 2014)
Healing the World

My family does a lot at our meeting. I currently serve as clerk of our First Day School Committee, co-clerk of our Kitchen Committee, and I also sit on our half-yearly meeting’s Continuing and Nominating Committees. My husband fills the arduous and time-consuming role of clerk for our meeting’s House Committee, which cares for the physical home of our meeting, a 100-year-old house that requires near constant upkeep, and he is a regular teacher in our First Day School rotation. Many nights each week, we compete for the computer after our kids are in bed, each of us trying to coordinate committee meetings or write reports or request quotes for purchases needed by the meeting. And we spend most First Days scurrying around the meetinghouse, preparing coffee, and chatting with people about committee work.

In the midst of all of this, I decided to become a member of our meeting, and went through an immensely rewarding and thought-provoking clearness process, during which time my husband transferred his membership from his hometown meeting, and our children joined the meeting as young Friend members.

By the time those processes were done, however, I’d felt my relationship with our meeting begin to shift from joy and satisfaction to, well, just plain work. When our Membership and Marriage Committee tried to plan an official welcoming for our family, I avoided their phone calls and emails, afraid to share that I felt like it was just one more thing to schedule. I started dreading going to meeting, because I knew I would encounter things I had to do and would not get much worship out of Worship.

I thought about resigning from some committees, and I thought about asking for guidance, but ultimately I felt too busy to do either, so I just kept puttering on. When I heard the announcement that our meeting was planning to host a Clerking Workshop, I felt overjoyed. Something was already planned, and all I had to do was show up. No coordinating, no emailing, just a day I could mark on my calendar and hope that other people would help me solve my problems.

I’m not going to do justice to the organizers of our Clerking Workshop. They brought a set of incredible handouts, including “Clerk as Human Being” and the very useful “Ways to prepare for a committee meeting.” They planned great activities, including building a pie out of all of our committee “pieces” and staging a role-play to focus on clerking strategies.  But I have to say that I was largely distracted throughout the workshop, contemplating the question that I saw on the big easel when I walked into the room: How does the committee you selected support your vision of the Meeting?

At the start of the workshop, we went around the room and described our visions for our meeting. For me, my vision is of a community where my children can thrive and learn and be safe, and a place that will envelope me when I need comfort and push me when I need to explore. When I started attending Quaker meetings in my twenties, my main priority was my own spiritual sustenance. As a parent, my priorities have shifted to fostering community for my children and others. I envision a meeting that welcomes and educates newcomers, that learns as it grows, and that never lets go of its ultimate dedication to simplicity and peace.

Stopping to think about that larger vision and hearing about other people’s visions slowed me down a bit, pulling me out of my obsession with daily time crunches. I shifted into a larger, more peaceful mental space from which I could better explore my personal relationship with my meeting.

Next, we each chose a committee – one on which we did not sit – and described how that committee supports our vision. And while I appreciated that exercise, I found myself still stuck in reading the sign as a direct question to myself: How does my committee work support my vision of our Meeting?

When I stopped to think about it, the answers were self-evident: My committee work supports my vision of our meeting by feeding the rhythm of our community – like making coffee or scheduling teachers for the children – to help make this place a home to my kids and others. By supporting the practical, logistical, and sometimes physical needs of that community, I help support the framework that allows for the spiritual sustenance and growth that happens there.

I’d gotten so caught up in the hows of committee work that it been too long since I had asked myself about the whys. And in that time, I’d gotten quite a chip on my shoulder, feeling that too much was being expected of me. As I thought this over, doodling spirals all over my agenda, one of the workshop organizers said, “Clerking and committee work are not burdens. It is a gift to serve the meeting in this way.”

If I’d heard those words twenty minutes earlier, I probably would have guffawed. But by spending just a few minutes reminding myself why I take the time to serve my meeting, I realized she was absolutely right – service is a gift. I might be very busy, but I can do this work – I am blessed with a supportive spouse, a secure home, a car, a fast internet connection, and reliable phone service. Also, I enjoy the practical to-dos of meeting that might be a bore to others, and I don’t mind a little physical work. Though it’s not always easy, it is a gift to have the abilities to serve, a gift to be welcomed into my meeting as a member and an organizer, a gift to have this spiritual home, where both spreadsheets and silence are valued and embraced.

I left the Clerking Workshop feeling inspired, renewed, and so relieved. I cried on my way home, such a weight was off of my shoulders. But the real challenge lay ahead – maintaining this feeling and spirit through the actual work I had to do.

It’s now been five months since the Clerking Workshop, and much of the spirit I gathered then is still with me. While there are certainly moments of high stress, and plenty of times when I throw my hands into the air, unsure of what to do next, I feel a close connection with my meeting, and I still feel that service a gift to myself and to my family. I’ve learned and implemented some new steps for getting through the hard times, holding onto a few simple touch-points to help maintain a positive attitude:

• Don’t forget the silence. I now try to be disciplined to always start each committee meeting with even just a couple moments of centering silence, as tempting as it can be to jump right into business like one might do at work. I pause to consider how Faith might be involved in our Practice.

• Ask “why.” After the opening silence, I try to start every meeting by asking why each of us if there. I’ve learned so much about my fellow committee members this way. The stories of why we are drawn to certain work can trace all the way back to childhood. In these conversations, we form relationships with one another while reminding ourselves why we’re gathered together in this way.

• Meet outside of meetings. A few months ago, when I felt one of our committees needed more teamwork and communication, I didn’t schedule a meeting, I scheduled a dinner party. First of all, scheduling a dinner party gets me over my personal resistance to having another meeting. Second, when you have a dinner party, you invite everyone you want and accept anyone who shows up. This way, I don’t stress out about attendance like I do with formal committee meetings. At a dinner party, we can chat about any issues we’re having in our committee, but we also have more time to chat about our lives in general, or about things happening in our meeting. After a dinner party, I feel like I have a deeper connection with each person there, and a renewed dedication to the work we do together.

Accept the things that don’t get done. A Quaker community asks a lot of its members. We can’t shuck the work off on administrators or paid ministers. We are our own ministers, our own staff, and our own administrators. We can only do so much. Finding peace and satisfaction in my committee work has involved a lot of letting go and saying “no.” I’ve found that when I’m honest about my limits and abilities, those limits are honored by others.

• Find Worship where it’s possible. I don’t go into Meeting for Worship very often, as I’m generally with the children instead. When I do sit in Meeting for Worship, I find my mind is often not there with me. It moves instead through my litany of to-do lists and daily clutter. But I try to accept this. I don’t expect too much of myself, and I accept my moments of Worship as they come, even if they are fleeting. I’ve also found that my experience of Quaker faith is indelibly tied to practice, and that my Worship is often in that practice. I find Worship in teaching the kids and in making the coffee. It is most present for me in Meeting for Worship with Concern for Business, which I make a concerted effort to attend every month. My Worship is in that business – in the thoughtfulness and stillness that Friends bring to running and maintaining our meeting.

As I grow in my meeting and deepen my understanding of Quaker process, I hope to help us develop more support systems for members and attenders seeking a deeper relationship with our meeting. How can we support people as they dive into committee work? How can we teach and mentor Friends, enabling them to step into clerking roles with confidence and purpose? I look forward to exploring these questions with my own meeting and beyond, and I am grateful for the opportunities I have to ask others to stop and consider, “Why?” ~~~

Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist is a member of Pima Monthly Meeting in Tucson, Arizona (IMYM). She is a freelance writer and editor, loving wife and playful mother to her two children, Carter and Hazel. You’re likely to find Sarah washing dishes in the Pima Meeting kitchen on First Days; feel free to help out!

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