When a committee falls apart

What do you do when something you’ve worked hard to develop, and then let go of, falls apart?

I’m on two sides of that dilemma right now, in two different Quaker organizations. One where I’m agonizing over my former labor of love, and one where I’m picking up the pieces, and feeling bad for the ones who put so much into it before.

Who’s responsible when the clerk of a committee fails to do their work? For real reasons, but still, the work didn’t get done?

And what if you were worried that this would happen all along?

Is it the other committee members? Didn’t they notice that they hadn’t had any meetings or received any emails or phone calls? What responsibility does a committee member have if the clerk doesn’t provide any leadership?

Is it the clerk of the (monthly, quarterly, yearly) meeting? The ministry and oversight committee? Does anybody check to see if all the committees are functioning properly?

Is it the nominating committee who proposed a person who was not capable to the position? All the people who could have done it but said no? The body of the meeting that approved the person?

Me, who had concerns but didn’t say anything, trying to trust the discernment of the nominating committee, knowing that other people had probably turned down the position, and most of all, not wanting to be asked to do it any more?

What if the previous clerk was rightly led to stop? What if the previous clerk stepped out of the way in a healthy and helpful way? Met with the new clerk, gave the new person all their materials, advice, and best wishes?

In both cases, I thought the transition had gone pretty well. I was wrong.

But in one case, I’m still a consumer of the work of that committee. I depend on it functioning. And I’m angry that the situation has come to this.

I’m praying for patience and compassion.

I’m trying to find the right balance between helping where I can and NOT stepping in to solve the whole mess.

I’m trying not to eat a whole batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies in my anxiety.

I’m trying to discern what further action I should take. Should I let more people know? Will it all come together in the end? What lessons does God want me to learn from this? Only time will tell.

I’m also trying not to make things worse by writing too much about the specifics here on my blog. But I know that this kind of situation happens in lots of meetings and non-Quaker organizations. Have you handled a situation like this before? Gracefully or badly?

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Blogger Unknown said...

I've seen several committees fail to do their work in my day, and the response was various, including:

A) Just wait until someone on the committee finally has energy to pull it together.

B) Ministry and Oversight gets involved.

C) Meeting for business starts prodding the committee to act.

D) Things right themselves when Nominating Committee gets the committee a new clerk.

E) Meeting for business asks the clerk to jumpstart the committee.

I guess there's no standard Quaker process for how committees that have fallen apart get fixed?

1/20/2008 4:26 PM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

It's not exactly an answer to your question but one of my theories of clerking (and Quaker leadership in general) is that a clerk can only have about a 20% affect on the group. Obviously, I'm not being scientific but what I mean is that an effective clerk can raise the general centered-ness of a group about 20% higher than it's baseline and an ineffective clerk can drop it about 20%.

The observation is that a strong group or committee steeped in an awareness of good process will be able to lift up an inexperienced clerk with its gentle questions and timely reminders and the best clerk in the world couldn't bring a totally dysfunctional committee together. Having clerked a dysfunctional Quaker body or two this observation has helped keep me from despair when I saw it traveling in a direction I thought was self-centered and it helped keep me from using politically strong-armed means of trying to force it to my ideas.

Sometimes committees just have to die. Here on the East Coast there are a lot of committees made up of people who serve based on some commitment they made twenty years ago or because of guilt about what would happen if no one served on the committee. If the committee does collapse that sometimes opens the space for unexpected people to be recognized by nominations or perhaps for the institution of a long-needed change of direction or mission. God can be at work in the chaos, as I'm sure you know.

Good luck!
Martin @ Quaker Ranter

1/21/2008 4:15 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks Lynn and Martin. I think you're both right.

Another Friend sent me an email with the basic advice: clerk thyself.

1/21/2008 5:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Robin,

I've shared this frustration on more than one occasion, to be sure.

In retrospect, there's one thing I can say I learned.

If the meeting (and/or God, for that matter) are not behind it, the project/committee will fall apart. Count on it. (And as you know, lip service means nothing.)

Even if God is for it, we humans can stand in the way. And if the meeting is for something and God is not, then oftentimes we will find ourselves fighting an uphill battle, as we're fighting God's will and promoting our own instead.

At my former and longest term meeting, I effectively WAS the Outreach Committee. As it turned out in the end, no one else really cared. New people weren't wanted and neither were retreats, Bible studies, etc. to enrich the spiritual life of the meeting. As it stands they are in a booming area population-wise and the meeting itself continues to shrink. They've been without a clerk for years and even its longest term members are drifting and uncommitted.

I also was the Library. I spent many an hour cleaning, organizing, filing, straightening, promoting its use. I'd bet money that right now there are the same old piles and junk in there as when I left, and that the books are as read as they ever were (which is to say, not at all).

I was also wanting to get some grants for work on the physical structures and to possibly get a van to transport new people and old folks who shouldn't have been driving. Again, much paperwork and many an hour spent on the phone getting info. No one continued to pursue these things when I left and I'm sure the deterioration continues. Probably the old folk are still driving (scary!) or not coming to meeting anymore.

It was hard when I left years ago to let go of all that time and effort, but now I realize that it was MY thing. Also, sometimes as hard as it is, we sometimes have to put distance between the work itself and ourselves. This is a hard lesson for me especially and probably for all of us as we are always invested in our work and particularly in the outcomes, and we identify ourselves with our own good efforts. Sometimes it winds up being ego when we think we're being selfless. Go figure.

Let us know how things turn out.

1/22/2008 12:12 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks, Julie. Your points are really good.

So this is probably the last I'll say on this topic.

1) In real life, I have been far more direct and clear about the issues than I have been on this blog. Other people have stepped up to handle things appropriately, and I do not feel alone in my concerns.

2) Finger pointing doesn't really help, but I'm much clearer in my sense that all the members of a committee (or board or meeting) have a responsibility to keep track of what is happening or not. If you agreed to serve on the committee, don't tell me that "nobody asked me to do anything, so I didn't."

3) Prayer helps. Non-violent communication helps. Moderate consumption of chocolate and chamomile tea also help.

Thank you to everyone whose prayers have joined mine this week.

1/22/2008 1:43 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Hi, Robin--

I wish I had seen this post earlier; I'm slowly getting back into a routine, of sorts...

Like other commenters, I too have had my share of failed committees. I worry that as Americans, we slough off what is really our shared responsibility, whether that is caring for our neighbor in need or watching out for the care of a committee on which we serve.

I have taken to heart an advice that a participant lifted up once during a clerking workshop: on a Quaker committee, all of us are responsible for helping clerk it.

Still, I get how what you've been through has been a sort of "exercise of the spirit" for you--keeping your cool; wanting to understand how things happened; wondering what you could have done differently...

And I agree with many of the comments that Friends have already posted.

(I also wanted to say hi and feel like I was making progress in playing catch-up with blogs!)

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

P.S. I recall that Marty Walton has a pamphlet that has a good article about committee work.

1/23/2008 11:50 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Welcome back, Liz! I'm glad you're getting back into some routine, for your family's health and for the rest of us who miss you when you're away from the blogosphere.

1/24/2008 11:16 AM  

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