One of the most cherished - and useful - practices in our Quaker tradition are variations on what we call “clearness committees.” Generally they refer to an opportunity for an individual or couple to gather in a worshipful, confidential setting with four or five friends for reflection/discernment about how to respond to a concern or dilemma. The most common clearness committee is for an individual to explore how to deal with changes in one’s life - job change, move, take on new responsibilities, for example. And the clearness process is the primary way couples receive counseling and support in preparation for marriage. But the process can be effectively used to address a wide range of situations when we are willing to be open to the trust and vulnerability required.
The unique essence of the Quaker understanding of the clearness process is based on the assumption that each of us, consciously or subconsciously, is seeking to establish a unified sense of our self, a wholeness, a sense of spiritual and ethical integrity about how we make daily and ongoing decisions. And within each of us is the capacity to better understand and know that inner self. And one way to explore and search for that wholeness is through a worshipful gathering of friends who are committed to engage you by asking open, honest questions, with the guideline of no fixing, advising, saving or correcting. We are trusting that the process will help access that inner guide of wholeness we all seek.
There is much more to say about the purpose and process of conducting a clearness committee, and I will share references in the footnote if you wish further information. But tonight I want to write about a variation on the process that I experienced this past week as a means of encouraging you, too, to consider a similar opportunity.
I am not a formally recognized leader in my wider Quaker community, such as ordination in other Christian traditions. But I do consider myself a “public Friend,” meaning I present myself, and am generally publicly recognized, as a Quaker leader. And one of the persistent questions I need to ask myself is whether I am conducting myself faithfully and appropriate to that role. So once a year I check in with five other Friends, my “support committee,” where I can share my past year’s experience and open myself to my questions about any need for possible change or redirection.
In preparation for my meeting this week I wrote a brief report about my current activities and how I see them relating to my understanding of my Quaker ministry. I wrote about my criminal justice advocacy, my anti-war work, my participation in the life of my monthly meeting (Quaker community) and other various activities I consider part of my personal peace and justice work, and at the outset of our meeting I quickly reviewed what I had reported.
But the majority of our gathering focused on my primary question for which I was seeking clarity, that is, whether I am being faithful with my gift of writing. I reported that I was struggling with an internal hesitation about whether I should write for a wider public than my weekly Saturday Evening Post. Why was it so difficult for me to consider submitting my writing to Quaker publications, for example, let alone a wider non-Quaker readership, even though I have regular encouragement to do so? For nearly an hour we explored various proposals I offered as to why I struggle with sharing my writing beyond my self-controlled SEPs.
Because some of the others on my committee were also published writers they were able to ask insightful, searching, honest questions about the writing process itself, and I could benefit from their professional experience. And other close friends simply reflected on their appreciation for my writing as a way of encouragement but also tried to share their wonderment about my hesitancy. So each in turn asked their questions and waited for my response. For example: Was my hesitancy because I was not sure I had something important enough to share? Was I afraid of rejection or criticism? What part did my ego play? In my truest self what did I believe I really wanted to share in my writing? What in my heart did I think God wanted from me in terms of my writing? Where might I being led? And what were my legitimate reservations?
I found myself able to gratefully respond from a safe place of vulnerability that served the purpose of the clearness process, that is, with the help of a safe, confidential, worshipful invitation and prompting to explore my deeper self, to better discern a sense of wholeness. What was being called from me out of sense of integrity, courage, and the support of my friends? I will not offer my responses to these questions because they were offered, after all, in confidentiality, and far too complex to share in any case!
But I share part of my experience itself because I want to encourage you to consider if there might be a possibility for a similar use of a clearness process in your life. Are you trying to figure out if and when you might need to make changes in your life, for example? Would you be willing to ask a small group of your friends to share the worshipful intimacy of a clearness process to help you with a way forward in your discernment process? I can enthusiastically assure you, both as a respondent and a committee member, how deeply appreciative we all are when we have the opportunity to share such a profoundly deep sense of community support.
I welcome your responses to my sharing.
Part of my response to my clearness committee has been to continue to develop my website. My archived SEPs are now available at https://www.tomewellconnections.org
If you are reading a forwarded copy of my weekly “Saturday Evening Post” blog and would like to receive a personal copy, please mail me a request at email@example.com
More information about clearness Committees
► Guidelines for Clearness for a Leading or Ministry
► Process for Clearness Committees
Parker Palmer - "The Clearness Committee - A Communal Approach To Discernment"