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Hard decisions.... When Quakers disagree... When there is no unity....
Quaker faith & practice 12.26:
This term currently denotes a meeting at which a variety of different, and sometimes controversial, opinions can be openly, and sometimes forcefully, expressed, often in order to defuse a situation before a later meeting for worship for business. Originally the term was used to describe large and noisy meetings for convincement of ‘the world’s people’ in order to ‘thresh’ them away from the world.
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When might a threshing meeting be considered?
• Where a difference of opinion(s) is causing distress or disturbance to
individuals or the meeting, or delaying a necessary decision.
• Where a potentially contentious or controversial issue needs to be
• To allow views to be expressed to enable movement towards greater clarity.
• As a preliminary to a decision-making meeting.
Preparing for a threshing meeting
• Give good advance notice.
• Include all who have a particular interest in the matter.
• Make a special effort to ensure that Friends of all shades of opinion will be
present. The meeting will be less useful if Friends of a particular view are
Everyone attending needs to be clear about the purpose and conduct of the
They should be able and willing to understand the disciplines inherent in the
process so that sensitive and vulnerable people do not feel marginalised or
Those with confidence and authority should be prepared to stand back to allow
the less articulate to have their say and should have the ability to challenge
actions, views, behaviour in a caring and affirming way.
Appoint a clerk or co-clerks who are not involved personally in the issue. It
may be helpful if they are experienced Friends from outside the meeting so
that everyone within the meeting can take part. It is important that the clerk
maintains the discipline of the agreed guidelines.
Background papers with factual information should be circulated beforehand,
together with guidelines for the meeting (see below). An outline of the
intended procedure is helpful. A timetable is useful, although this should not
limit what needs to be said. Adequate time is needed to allow everyone space
in which to be heard, though it is wise to agree a time by which the meeting
• Friends should wait to be called by the clerk, who will request a reflective
silence between contributions. They are not limited to speaking once
only, but should only do so after everyone has had the opportunity
and encouragement to speak, so as to allow space for the less confident
members to be heard.
• Everyone is free to state his or her views clearly, passionately and honestly.
• Contributions should be received with respect and attention, seeking what
truth they may hold.
• Friends should resist using words suggesting accusation or blame and
should keep to simple statements of how a specific view, action or
behaviour affects them.
• Any personal disclosures are confidential to the attending group.
At the outset the clerk reminds Friends of the importance of the guidelines and
obtains their explicit agreement to observe them. They may be amended if all
The meeting begins and ends with a period of worship.
The first part of the threshing meeting will be a time for feelings and views to
be expressed and heard. This is followed by looking forward to the future, if
the meeting is ready. On the other hand, it may be that the forward look will be
better addressed at a further meeting which may be called to do this. A break
may be taken if it will be helpful.
The meeting should be a safe place for expressing and receiving feelings. It is
best to make no notes of the threshing as these might not help the process of
The clerk will close the meeting, minuting that a threshing meeting has been
It is important to be aware of a need for informal oversight to ensure that there
is care and thought for everyone’s well-being and to see that anyone who has
been emotionally affected is not left to leave unsupported.
What can a threshing meeting achieve that other meetings may not?
Doubt and anxieties can be expressed without obstructing a decision, which
can be liberating.
It may be helpful in clearing the air and bringing some clarity and
understanding that had previously been lacking.
It can be useful when there is an issue that would benefit from hearing ideas
and views without any intention of coming to a conclusion.
It allows for an interval for reflection before a decision needs to be made.
When is a threshing meeting inappropriate?
Where a conflict involves a particular individual or individuals, threshing can
be experienced as oppressive or even as scapegoating and is not recommended.
When only two or three people have a disagreement, mediation may be
When the issue is complex and requires particular knowledge or detailed
explanation, a meeting for learning or exploration, with papers in advance,
would be better.
Other Quaker processes to consider are: a meeting for clearness, creative
listening, worship sharing.
Produced in 2011 by Quaker Life
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Arthur Meyer Boyd in FriendsJournal :
Friends operate by “sense of the meeting,” not consensus. This is not the same as unity or “everyone has agreed.” So, the clerk might state that “we appear to have reached a sense of the meeting to do X, would (address by name the objecting person or persons) be willing to stand aside?” (...)
There is Quaker lore that any individual can stand in the way of a decision and prevent the decision from being taken. This is not entirely true. “Standing in the way” is a mutual responsibility between the individual and meeting to test our sense of the Truth as we are imperfectly able to sense it at the time. But no one, after prayerful consideration by the meeting, can “stand in the way of a decision” without the meeting’s permission. The meeting can proceed, in loving tenderness to those who cannot join in the decision.
Arthur, a member of Stony Run Meeting in Baltimore, Md., is associate executive secretary of Friends Committee on National Legislation.
Rachel Muers and Rhiannon Grant in their research project report wrote:
Threshing meetings are relatively rare and many Quakers in Britain Yearly Meeting have never encountered them.
When they are conducted – as often as every few years in some places – there are a wide range of understandings about how they could or should be run. Usually, they are preparatory meetings which support a Meeting for Worship for Business by considering a single complex issue without deciding on it. This report aims to articulate the basic principles and purposes of threshing meetings in order to enable Quakers to use them confidently and effectively, but it also addresses some deeper issues.
Most importantly, threshing meetings illustrate how Quaker decision-making processes are extended and diffuse, not contained within Meetings for Worship for Business. Many formal, semi-formal, and informal practices can properly be seen as part of the decision-making process, and threshing meetings are one of these practices.
The diversity and experimental or locally-devised character may be part of what makes threshing meetings useful, and it does not prevent the accumulation of wisdom or the sharing of good practice in relation to them. What can be damaging is an unacknowledged diversity which is projected as "the others are doing it wrong". With plenty of "rule sheets" available, some stricter than others, there is plenty of advice circulating, but it is necessary to articulate the underlying principles which relate these multiple sets of guidelines to one another.
We find it helpful to see a threshing meeting as a „threshold‟ or transitional space – usually, into Meeting for Worship for Business. Threshing an issue is one of the ways in which a meeting can work to bring "the whole of its… life under the ordering of the Spirit".
Threshing meetings themselves are usually held in a spirit of worship, but, unlike business meetings, they are not focussed on reaching a decision through discerning the will of God. Rather, they focus on exploring and understanding the complex, messy and multi-stranded nature of the "whole of life". This includes, especially, strong emotions, rational arguments, and disputes about matters of fact – all aspects of our lives that might be set aside or downplayed as a Quaker business meeting reaches a decision, but which need to be heard and taken into account in the preparation for that decision. A threshing meeting is one way in which Quakers can respond collectively to the advice to come with heart and mind prepared.