Revamping the Job Descriptions

It’s been months ago now since a friend of mine said, “I really liked that series on multiage inclusion, but I think you missed something.”

She went on to tell me a story about her meeting and how difficult it’s been for the meeting to find a clerk. Essentially, no one—and it’s a fairly good-sized group of people—will do it. Most can’t do it. For many Friends, either the particular conglomeration of skills is too much or the time requirement is overwhelming.

Let’s think about what a local meeting clerk is often asked to do:

1) Keep track of what’s going on in all meeting committees;

2) Serve as a center of communications for all meeting committees;

3) Ask, remind, and generally nag committee clerks for reports and other paperwork in time for those things to be added to the agenda;

4) Assemble an agenda for meetings for business, bearing in mind all of the various factors that go into questions like, “If I put item A before item B, will everyone be so distressed by item A that we can’t deal with item B?”

5) Sensitively anticipate a variety of potential reactions to the items on the business agenda and do the behind-the-scenes work of talking with Friends who might (either reasonably or unreasonably) need some conversation about the items ahead of time;

6) Appear on time and completely reliably for meetings for business, and listen intently the entire time without ever becoming distracted;

7) Introduce items of business, including their history;

8) Hear and articulate the sense of the meeting;

9) Sense the moments when the group needs silent worship or an opportunity to stretch, and call for these;

10) Follow up promptly on all matters requiring the clerk’s signature, clerk’s forwarding, etc.;

11) Occupy a visible leadership position (whether we call it that or not), which requires understanding the culture of the meeting, engaging with interpersonal dynamics, remaining reasonably impartial, being a listening ear for those who are troubled, and often figuring out how to respond to anything that’s “nobody’s job in particular.”

Now imagine asking a person with a full-time job, two children, and a hospitalized mother-in-law to serve in this position. Even if this Friend is almost super-humanly gifted and has an abundance of relevant experience—and neither of those things is terribly likely—the pressures of job and family make this a nearly impossible sell. It’s not just a matter of asking someone to give up leisure time; it’s a matter of asking someone to sacrifice time that is desperately needed for parenting, partnering, and caregiving. That is not okay.

The same thing happens on a wider scale. At a recent yearly meeting gathering, Friends struggled with a particular proposal that came from a small group that considers business on our behalf between sessions. The particulars of the proposal aren’t relevant to what I’m saying here, but for me, a startling moment came when one Friend rose and observed that “nearly person in the group proposing this is over sixty-five. And of course they are, because you only get to be a member of that group because you’re serving as a clerk of one of the large yearly meeting committees, and those clerking positions take so much time that it’s virtually impossible to do them unless you are retired.”

To that I would add and financially secure, and available for meetings in the middle of the day on a Tuesday, and able-bodied, and fluent in the English language (spoken and written), and capable of easily engaging with budgets, and knowledgeable about Quaker process as well as all of the quirks of our particular setting and history, and practiced in engaging with the dominant white culture of our organization.

Back to my friend: “I really liked that series on multiage inclusion, but I think you missed something…we need to be looking at the job descriptions.”

Somehow, we have it in our heads that the best approach to run a Quaker meeting is like a business. We design a system to serve the purpose of the organization, and then we slot people into the various positions that we’ve designed. We might occasionally cut or add or alter a job, should the purpose of the organization require it, but we continue to behave as though human resources (generally the nominating committee) is a separate department, and their responsibility is to staff the structure. This ignores the fact that we don’t have an entire world of applicants to choose from. It also ignores the spiritual principle that service to our communities—service from every Friend—is an important part of being a people.

Let’s take a look at a different kind of process.

Say that the First Friends’ Church needs a new clerk. But they’re committed to being as fully inclusive as possible, and besides, nobody will do it. So they sit down and make a list of each of their names. (My First Friends’ Church is going to be pretty small, for simplicity’s sake.)

Name    
Randy
Jacqueline
Alejandro
Hector
Adriana
Fatoumata
Kristy
Ruben
Holly
Rosa

Their next step is to settle into worship sharing. They look at one name at a time and start naming gifts. They can do this because they pay attention to one another, and they’re reasonably familiar with the gifts that each community member carries.

Name Spiritual Gifts and Skills We’ve Observed    
Randy –      organized

–      writes well

–      plumbing

Jacqueline –      kind

–      organized

Alejandro –      always helping people

–      enthusiasm

–      biology

Hector –      party planning

–      observant

–      gentle

Adriana –      natural sense of joy

–      hospitality

–      loves learning new things

Fatoumata –      prayer

–      extremely friendly

Kristy –      open heart

–      artist

–      singer

Ruben –      long experience with Quaker process

–      healer

–      was clerk twenty years ago

Holly –      excellent listener

–      good with technology

Rosa –      editing other people’s writing

–      musician

–      speaks well

–      knows the neighborhood community

Not everything they’ve listed seems relevant right away. Does it matter that Randy understands plumbing when we’re trying to figure out what to do without a clerk? Maybe not, but it certainly can’t hurt anything.

The next step is to make a note of relevant life circumstances. Here, everyone—and especially the Friend being discussed—adds what seems needed.

Name Spiritual Gifts and Skills We’ve Observed Life Circumstances  
Randy –      organized

–      writes well

–      plumbing

works alternating weekends but has many weekdays off
Jacqueline –      kind

–      organized

doesn’t like speaking in front of groups
Alejandro –      always helping people

–      enthusiasm

–      biology

recently immigrated from Honduras, learning English
Hector –      party planning

–      observant

–      gentle

big project at work right now, very little time to spare—but it will be better in six months
Adriana –      natural sense of joy

–      hospitality

–      loves learning new things

is in seventh grade, weekday afternoons occupied by marching band, evenings with homework
Fatoumata –      prayer

–      extremely friendly

recent thyroid cancer diagnosis (prognosis good)
Kristy –      open heart

–      artist

–      singer

new to Quakerism within the last year
Ruben –      long experience with Quaker process

–      healer

–      was clerk twenty years ago

struggling with mobility and hearing loss
Holly –      excellent listener

–      good with technology

mother of three young children, working part-time, currently serving as recording clerk
Rosa –      editing other people’s writing

–      musician

–      speaks well

–      knows the neighborhood community

mother of three young children, working full-time

It’s pretty easy to see why no one here is stepping up to serve as clerk. But let’s see what happens when the Friends talk the role through one responsibility at a time:

1) Keep track of what’s going on in all meeting committees; most of the committees meet on weekdays—could Randy do that?

2) Serve as a center of communications for all meeting committees; and it might make sense for Randy to take this one on as well

3) Ask, remind, and generally nag committee clerks for reports and other paperwork in time for those things to be added to the agenda; this requires a lot of emailing and converting files from one type to another, but it’s a time-flexible job, so maybe Holly…but she’s already serving as recording clerk and doesn’t feel like she can do both…hmm…

4) Assemble an agenda for meetings for business, bearing in mind all of the various factors that go into questions like, “If I put item A before item B on the agenda, will everyone be so distressed by item A that we can’t deal with item B?” Jacqueline’s very organized and could take this on; preparing the agenda doesn’t require speaking in front of groups

5) Sensitively anticipate a variety of potential reactions to the items on the business agenda and do the behind-the-scenes work of talking with Friends who might (either reasonably or unreasonably) need some conversation about the items ahead of time; Ruben can do this if Jacqueline calls him to make sure he knows what’s on the agenda ahead of time—he’s not so good with email

6) Appear on time and completely reliably for meetings for business, and listen intently the entire time without ever becoming distracted; Ruben is willing to do the clerking during the meetings, but he sometimes misses some of what is said, even if Friends are asked to speak loudly…but Adriana is willing to sit next to him and take notes on a large-screen laptop, so that will help!

7) Introduce items of business, including their history; Ruben can do this easily

8) Hear and articulate the sense of the meeting; again, Ruben and Adriana can work together

9) Sense the moments when the group needs silent worship or an opportunity to stretch, and call for these; Ruben can do this easily

10) Follow up promptly on all matters requiring clerk’s signature, clerk’s forwarding, etc.; Ruben needs to do any physical signatures needed, but Adriana and Holly can work together to make sure that everything gets where it needs to go

11) Occupy a visible leadership position (whether we call it that or not), which requires understanding the culture of the meeting, engaging with interpersonal dynamics, remaining reasonably impartial, being a listening ear for those who are troubled, and often figuring out how to respond to anything that’s “nobody’s job in particular.” Fatoumata’s been caring for the group this way for years, though as she’s working through a health crisis, she will need some help with this—probably from Kristy

To recap, here’s the approach that First Friends’ Church has just outlined, with a few additions, as well, to help everything go smoothly:

Name Spiritual Gifts and Skills We’ve Observed Life Circumstances Responsibilities
Randy –      organized

–      writes well

–      plumbing

works alternating weekends but has many weekdays off –      Keep track of what’s going on in all meeting committees

–      Serve as a center of communications for all meeting committees

–      Do occasional weekday phone calls with Ruben to pass on information

Jacqueline –      kind

–      organized

doesn’t like speaking in front of groups –      Assemble an agenda for meetings for business

–      Take the recording clerk position so that Holly can be freed for other work

Alejandro –      always helping people

–      enthusiasm

–      biology

recently immigrated from Honduras, learning English –      Provide childcare during business meeting every other month (alternating with Kristy)
Hector –      party planning

–      observant

–      gentle

big project at work right now, very little time to spare—but it will be better in six months –      Begin serving as assistant clerk six months from now so that he can eventually take over for Ruben
Adriana –      natural sense of joy

–      hospitality

–      loves learning new things

is in seventh grade, weekday afternoons occupied by marching band, evenings with homework –      Sit with Ruben and take notes in case he can’t hear what is being said; read back minutes aloud so Jacqueline doesn’t have to

–      Help with post-meeting follow-up

Fatoumata –      prayer

–      extremely friendly

recent thyroid cancer diagnosis –      Care for the group as a whole; be a listening ear and handle unusual situations that come up
Kristy –      open heart

–      artist

–      singer

new to Quakerism within the last year –      Help and learn from Fatoumata

–      Provide childcare during business meeting every other month (alternating with Alejandro)

Ruben –      long experience with Quaker process

–      healer

–      was clerk twenty years ago

struggling with mobility and hearing loss –      Take on the clerking function during business meetings, with Adriana’s help

–      Help with post-meeting follow-up

Holly –      excellent listener

–      good with technology

mother of three young children, working part-time, currently serving as recording clerk –      Ask, remind, and generally nag committee clerks for reports and other paperwork in time for those things to be added to the agenda

–      Help with post-meeting follow-up

Rosa –      editing other people’s writing

–      musician

–      speaks well

–      knows the neighborhood community

mother of three young children, working full-time –      She’s got enough going on; we’re not going to ask her to serve in a formal role. But we do value her voice in meeting for business, so Alejandro and Kristy will alternate childcare responsibilities to make sure that Rosa (and Holly) can attend.

Is this complicated? Yes.

Would this exact distribution of responsibilities work for any other meeting? Probably not.

Will it work for First Friends’ Church a year from now? We don’t know. Circumstances change. But if the Friends gathered are sufficiently flexible in their viewpoints, they will be able and willing to make changes as necessary. In the meantime, they have ensured that every member of the community—including Alejandro, who is still learning English, and twelve-year-old Adriana—is making a meaningful and named contribution to the community, and each person’s contribution is a reasonable expectation given the individual’s circumstances.

And dividing responsibilities in this way has another advantage, which is succession planning. Randy, Hector, Adriana, and Holly are all Friends who definitely can’t serve as clerk right now but quite possibly could a few years down the road. The thing is, if we discount them right now and wait until they’re available to take on the full role, then at the point they’re available, they won’t know how to do it.

Friends, it is time to revamp our job descriptions. We are not a corporation that outlines positions and then hires the most suitable candidates. We are a covenant people challenged to work with the people we have to ensure that every person is served and serving and has a voice.

One more time, here are the steps in the simplest form possible:

1) Make a list of the tasks that need doing (not the positions to be filled).

2) Make a list of the people who are willing to help.

3) In worship, name the gifts and skills you have observed in each other.

4) Give each Friend an opportunity to name their current life circumstances.

5) In worship, and treating one another gently, match the tasks to the people. Each person gets to say “yes” or “no” or even “yes, with the following conditions…”

6) Write down what’s been agreed to and make sure everybody has easy access to the list.

7) Try it.

8) Whenever you need to, go back and make changes.

One thought on “Revamping the Job Descriptions

  1. LOVE THIS!

    Slot filling annoys me to no end. Once upon a time, I was asked about a certain committee, and I said yes. Never came up in business meeting. I shrugged. Nominating committee must’ve discerned a “no.” Whatever. Then I found out that after I said yes, it didn’t actually come back up again before them, because they’d talked to multiple people, and they only had one slot to fill, but heyyy some people are about to hit term limits on that committee soon…still a “yes”?

    And I’ve been told small groups are untenable because committees _are_ the small groups. Or because people who are already on three committee don’t have time to also do a small group.

    Maybe people shouldn’t be on three committees. Ditch the “must fill 6–8 slots on each of 12 committees” mentality (that’s more adults than are commonly in attendance, for the record). A committee could be just 3 or 4 people. Or maybe not every little thing needs a committee at all.

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