Jason Byassee: Quaker rule

One college manages to stay faithful to its Christian heritage. And just so it is making better institutional decisions.

We usually associate the Quakers with Pennsylvania, for the good reason that William Penn founded that colony and ran it on Quaker principles for some years. But here in central North Carolina we still see the Quakers too. You can drive by their meeting houses along country highways (sometimes, two in a short distance is evidence that even Friends can fight).

The Quakers might be in trouble numerically—with 300,000 adherents and a history of eschewing evangelism they make our problems in bigger mainline denominations look manageable. But the Quakers may have their sights set higher than we do. They may have a healthier vision for thinking institutionally than most of us.

Kent John Chabotar, president of Guilford College in Greensboro, has recently written of the way Quaker beliefs shape the budgetary process of that institution. It’s encouraging to see places where a Christian heritage is more than a symbol on the occasional plaque, and the story more interesting than the gradual erosion of Christian trappings amidst the inevitable secular onslaught. If I read Chabotar correctly, Quaker principles do more than make for more civil conversation and more healthy body politic.

Meetings at Guilford, from the trustee level on down, seek a “sense of the meeting” rather than the building of coalitions toward an up-or-down vote. “We never vote,” Chabotar says simply—it tends to disempower the losing minority. Decisions happen then by consensus (not unanimity), where those opposed must be persuaded to “stand aside.” Meetings begin with a moment of silence. This is not merely a ceremonial nicety—for Quakers historically sought God in silence to the point of not hiring clergy. Friends’ meetings were times of waiting until someone heard a word amidst that silence. In planning sessions around budgeting and personnel, silence allows centering on the task at hand and greater participation from all parties. Participants are encouraged to raise “queries,” which are open-ended questions without clear answers. This is especially important to remembering the institution’s mission amidst difficult decisions. And one who agrees with another is encouraged to express this by saying simply “Friend speaks my mind,” rather than grandstanding with a second speech.

The most interesting practice he mentions, to my mind, is that of eldering. We’ve all noticed when participants in a meeting tend to hog the time and emotional energy by over-focusing on their own pet issue (we’ve probably all been that person a time or two). Quakers encourage an “elder” to take the other aside and encourage that one to participate more constructively in the meeting. I love the connotation of a wiser elder helping a precocious younger one participate in the whole more helpfully.

In Chabotar’s recent experience, Guilford managed to plan for the worst financial calamity possible, only to see that scenario averted with better enrollment figures. He makes no promise about these processes bringing economic success. After all one can elder all day and still the budget might not balance. Yet this sort of transparency, mutual accountability, and attentiveness to the reservations of the one who is not yet willing to stand aside are precisely the sorts of things we are lacking in many institutional conversations. Such practices leave space for moral and common-sensical objections to would-be disastrous policies. As “Kent” (which he prefers to “President Chabotar”) points out, Quakers insist we “Think it possible that you might be mistaken.” Who doesn’t wish that a few financial, governmental and religious institutions had held that in mind in recent years?

Stan Hauerwas and his mentor John Howard Yoder like to hold up the Quakers as examples of people for whom commitments to non-violence did not mean unwillingness to govern. For Quakers did found and run the colony of Pennsylvania, with a record of civility to Native Americans that stands up as a light amidst the generally dismal record of that relationship in most early American history.

Perhaps the Quakers can again provide leadership, this time on procedural matters, that would provide a light amidst our gathering darkness.

Jason Byassee is an executive director for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.