a few years ago, i was describing, to my spiritual director, the process used by the group of guys i meet with once a year for support and accountability. she mentioned that it sounded a little bit like a quaker clearness committee. i was intrigued by that (new to me) idea, and blogged about it here.
last week, i got to participate in a clearness committee, and it was a great process. a friend of mine had contacted me asking about getting a group together to help him with some discernment around a life decision he’s trying to make (and is feeling rather “stuck” on, in terms of deciding). he’d heard on a podcast how shane hipps had used a clearness committee as part of his decision process to move to michigan and join the staff of mars hill bible church. i knew my wife, a spiritual director, would be more familiar with the process than me; she suggested my friend needed a facilitator — someone who explained the process, held the boundaries, and hosted the space. at my friend’s request, jeannie (my wife) agreed to play that facilitator role. i think the facilitator role, btw, was only important since none of us were familiar with the clearness committee process. if the participants had all done this before, i think it would be quite easy to self-regulate the process without a facilitator.
this process was fairly simple, really, and is based on the idea that the holy spirit is in each of us (both the person with the question, and the other participants). but it’s not as much about “advice giving” (which often crosses into our own junk and mere opinions), as it is about asking open-ended questions to bring the convener into a space where he or she can more clearly hear what the spirit is saying.
the “rules” are straightforward (as i understand them):
1. the whole group enters into a time of prayerful silence, becoming aware of god’s presence.
2. the convener takes a period of time (10 – 20 minutes?) to describe the question, as well as his or her current thinking about it.
3. then, after some silence, the group asks open ended questions. the whole experience is considered an act of prayer, and there needs to be an open-handedness, expectancy, listening-prayer vibe to it. we were encouraged to not be afraid of silence — instead, to allow spaces of silence for reflection and listening. in fact, after our time was over, the guy who called it said he would have appreciate more silence and space between the questions, as he often didn’t feel like he had permission to reflect. the questions are meant to be “discerning” questions — so we asked things like “what emotions do you experience when you think of making X choice?”, or “what’s your fear about X choice?” this question asking portion is the major part of the clearness committee, and it’s essential that it NOT spill into advice giving. advice giving is not a part of the clearness committee process. it’s also important to give plenty of time for this, knowing that some of the best questions won’t be the ones that come to mind initially. “plenty of time” means at least 2 hours for this portion of the process alone.
4. after a pre-determined boundary of time (it can’t just be that the 2nd section ends when there are no more questions, or the group will naturally think they’ve reached the end when they first run out of questions — but patiently waiting for more brings really good stuff), the group has an opportunity to share observations. again, this is not an advice giving time. the observations are more along the lines of “i noticed that you seemed to have a good deal of energy when you talked about X,” or “it felt like you might be trying to talk yourself out of X choice.” the convener has an opportunity to respond to each of these observations, if he or she chooses.
5. i don’t know if this is technically part of the clearness committee process, but our group ended with a time of prayer – but our prayers were focused on blessing our friend.
after we were done, we all reminded each other not to slip right into advice giving mode. it would be very easy, as soon as the 3 hour process concluded to think, “great, now that’s done, i can tell him what i really think he should do.” but that would be a violation of the process. our guideline was, if he wants to bring the subject up with any of us in the days and weeks to come, that’s his prerogative; but it’s not our place to bring it up with him (and certainly not to tell him what we think he should do).
anyhow. it wasn’t like the process ended with my friend knowing exactly what he should do. his situation is very complex, and doesn’t have anything remotely close to an easy or obvious answer. but i do think the process took him a few steps forward on identifying questions he should be prayerfully wrestling with, and on listening to the spirit (and not only his fears).
here’s an excellent overview, written by parker palmer: The Clearness Committee: A Communal Approach To Discernment (this content is available as a downloadable pdf on a bunch of other sites, including here, and here).