Some Thoughts on Doing Business Together: Why Not Consensus?

What difference does it make in our behavior, in our hearts, and in the attitude we bring to doing business together if we speak of “consensus” or if we look to the “sense of the Meeting” or “unity”?

This peculiar practice of ours of coming together in the Spirit to consider how we interact with one another, with the world, and with God AS A COMMUNITY is crucial to who we are as Friends. This is the place where we learn about bringing the stillness of worship into the busy-ness of our lives. This is one place where we can test out our leadings, our sense of the work God has for us to do, the practical reality of what it means to be faithful to the Holy and to live in the Spirit. Here we can bring our understanding of compassion and justice into a community of people who join in the search for Truth.

In such a community, when we are attuned to the voice of the Holy, a human voice which speaks with compassion rings true. When we seek to meld worship and business, our understanding of justice deepens. In a community which knows of prayer and brings its conversations with God into the ordinary stuff of life, the nature of the questions we ask one another changes and we can see further glimmers of Truth.

Start with the question of “Why consensus?” Consensus is a good practice. I often advocate it in many situations. I am sure many of you do as well. Matthias Drake, at a consultation at Earlham in 1985, gave several definitions of consensus:

1. A decision participated in by all the members or group and representing the maximum area of common acceptance.1

2. . . . a decision process for making full use of available resources and for resolving conflict creatively.2

3. . . . means that every group member has an opportunity to influence the final decision. Members of the group reach substantial agreement not necessarily unanimity. In consensus seeking, it is possible to achieve a solution that all members can regard as fair. When members strive for what is best for all, rather than trying to triumph over opponents, they fulfill the highest expectations of the democratic tradition.3

4. In a consensus system. . . the goal of a meeting is . . . the articulation of the spirit of each member of the meeting who wishes to be heard . . . all members are given the opportunity for full expression of their views. The discovery of an expression to which all can give approval often evolves slowly. The chairman of the meeting has the responsibility for trying to state the sense of the meeting that emerges from the discussion. Drawing together those common threads of agreement found among the various individual expressions.4

In practice, consensus often describes the way we do business together. Hugh Doncaster spoke to the limitation of consensus.

But the Quaker method is not simply a technique: it is a faith which finds expression in a method. The method without the faith will work so long as differences are not too great, but may then break down. The essential safeguard against such breakdown amongst Friends is the faith that God is and that faithful following of such light as we have seen will lead into realizable unity.5

Compassion, Truth, Integrity

Unity and the Sense of the Meeting are about aiming at something other that “what is best for all.” Seeking Unity rather than consensus becomes crucial when we are considering new ways of acting out our testimonies, or in times when strong emotions or divisive questions are before us. In the more day to day process, we create patterns of working together. When we hit the hard spots, and our easy interactions are challenged, these patterns can influence how we respond. Do we reflexively turn to negotiation, to compromise, to practical business decisions or to prayer?

One way to speak of the distinctive nature of our business process is to say that in doing business together, as in all else each one of us does, we seek to respond to the still, small voice of God, to the Inward Light. Early Friends knew that life can be lived in accord with divine leading, we can be a community of mystics. They also knew that it is easy to be mislead and that feelings can deceive us when we don’t understand their source. They developed an number of ways to describe what it means to live in the Light and ways to help one another be faithful to that Light. The practice of doing business together in a spirit of worship is one such way.

What does it look like in practice to follow the way of God? It is means our decisions are shaped by Compassion and reflect the search for Truth, and that our actions speak with Integrity.


Compassion is natural. Compassion is the simplest, more joyful thing in the world when we are attuned to God. Compassion is also a complex, difficult concept to live when we focus on it solely from a rational and practical perspective. This is one place “consensus” can fall short with its emphasis on the rational and the “best practical decision for all.” Compassion may lead us someplace which is not at all practical.

Compassion is reflected in our business method in two ways. First, is in our response to others in the room. How do we listen to what they have to say? Do we dismiss what is said because we “know” that Mary Sue always has a certain agenda? Do we give the whole question short shrift because we see a quicker, easier way to do things and don’t have patience for all this endless discussion? In a very different direction, do we let someone ramble on and on in the wrong direction, thinking it would be unkind to stop them? There are many such questions which probably arise at each business meeting. Part of knowing that this is a sacred time is to respond to each other and to the subject of discussion out of prayer, not forgetting all we know of practical business sense, but tempering it with a deep compassion.

Compassion should also shape our decisions as a group. Often, as clerk, I have used the term “are Friends comfortable” when we are making a decision together. The more I reflect on our business process and the more deeply I am attuned to the mystical, the fuller my relationship with God, the more I know that is not the question we should be asking of ourselves. Sometimes what we are asked to do in reaching out to others is anything but “comfortable” in a conventional sense. Acting out of compassion is not always easy for us as individuals. It may disrupt my life, require that I deal with difficult people. It may mean I give up doing something I enjoy in order to better reach out to others and relieve their suffering.

When we are wrestling with hard decisions, we are seeking for that deep inward sense of peace which comes of God, not an outward comfort.


For me, Truth with a capital “T” is an inadequate way of referring to the profound mystery that is at the core of creation. Truth is beyond all knowing. Truth is present with us everyday and filters through into all the mundane tasks of each hour if we only look for it. Truth is about the reality which is more than any of us can know fully. Truth is what we reach for and find to a surprising degree when our worship is truly gathered, in the hour of silence and as we do business together.

We, as Friends, are Seekers, seekers after Truth. We are not seekers after compromise and making sure everyone gets a little piece of the pie. We wrestle with the nature of Truth each time we deal with our testimonies and what they mean in practical terms. We seek Truth each time we weigh what we are doing against the basics of justice, compassion, mercy, equality, integrity, and peace. We acknowledge the centrality of Truth each time we step back and realize that we are short-sighted and arguing over the wrong questions.


The last point I want to mention is Integrity. Integrity is about having our “aye be aye” and our “nay be nay,” it is about our testimony on oaths, but I also see integrity as being about bringing our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies into alignment with the Spirit, with the Inward Christ.

By living with Integrity, we are reaching towards wholeness, spiritual maturity, and obedience to God — all aspects of what early Friends spoke of as “perfection.” By considering integrity more broadly and in the context of wholeness it challenges us to know ourselves fully and honestly — to be aware of our weaknesses and our strengths and not get hung up on either of them. It calls us to admit when we are wrong. It also calls us to be clear when we feel something is right and hold to it, not in a pushy, aggressive way, but with a combination of patience and listening for further guidance.

Integrity calls us to take responsibility for our own actions and our own words. Integrity also means that we must be totally honest with ourselves as to whether what we think is right is coming from our own desires or is truly coming from the deep center that is of God.

When we do business together as a community, as a people of God, integrity also calls us to take responsibility for the decisions of the whole community. In practical terms this means we cannot sit in a business meeting, watching what is going on, silently disagreeing, then leaving the room saying “that was a wrong decision, I don’t have to pay any attention to it.” If we truly seek to be a community together and to do business together in the Spirit, then each one of us has a part and each one of us is bound by what we do.


We are seekers. Not for God, for
the Holy One knows us before we
are formed in our mother’s womb
and is always with us.

We wait, not for words, but for a
stillness of heart which
reaches out more fully
than words.

We attend, not bound by our individual
wants and needs, but
reaching to the wonder
and strength of Truth.

We act out of the Unity which
crosses through our
disagreements, breaking
hearts open to compassion.

“Behold, I am doing a new thing:
now it rises up.
Do you not perceive it.” (Isa. 43:19)

These words of Creation are full of
promise and the unexpected,
visible in the stillness of heart.

“In quietness and confidence will
be your strength.. . . Your ears shall hear
a word behind you, saying,
‘This is the way, walk in it.'” (Isa. 30:15,21)

When we can feel the deep peace reverberating
in the cadences of our words, we
look to guidance by something
greater than ourselves.

1 Horace B. English and Ava Champney English, A Comprehensive Dictionary of Psychological and Psychoanalytical Terms, New York: Longmans, Green and CO., 1958, p. 113.
2 Jay Hall, “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions” Psychology Today, vol. VI, November 1971, 51-54ff, p. 54.
3 Leland P. Bradford, Making Meetings Work, A Guide for Leaders and Group Members, University Associates, LaJolla, CA 1976, p.45.
4 Earlham College, Earlham College Catalogue 1972-1973, Richmond, IN: 1972, pp. 110-111.
5 Hugh Doncaster, Quaker Organization and Business Meetings, Study Paper No. 2, London: Friends Home Service Committee, p. 73.

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