Drawing on Quaker processes for public, transparent, and bold discernment

In my work, I seek to draw on Quaker principles and processes for discernment, for use in non-Quaker organizations. I think every organization can move closer to listening for and following the Spirit. One group that I'm currently working with is a Quaker organization, but I think the discernment process they are using is a great example of how other organizations can draw upon Quaker discernment in ways that are inclusive, transparent and bold.

Next month I'm facilitating a summit that Olney Friends School in Ohio is hosting. Here are seven suggestions for how any organization can dream big and attract people to that process, with examples from this high school's visioning and discernment process.


1. Connect your organization's questions with pressing global and regional questions. A guiding question for Olney's visioning is, "How can Olney be of service in the creation of a new green economy in Appalachia?" The school is combining bold questions about transitions in the broader society with questions about the future of their school. They are entitling their summit, "People, Planet, Place: Case Studies in Organizational Transformation: A Summit on the Future of Olney Friends School." This kind of broad thinking can make it easier to challenge the status quo patterns of an organization and open up powerful new possibilities for carrying out the mission of an organization.

2. Invite participation in personal and creative ways. For Olney's summit, they are inviting everyone that is already connected with the organization (students, alumni, parents, etc.), but also people they admire who are working on environmental and economic sustainability in their geographic area and professional fields. Olney has worked hard to make the summit a beneficial time of learning and reflection, even for those not invested in Olney itself. The summit will include presentations, music, and films about innovative ways people are working for environmental and economic sustainability.

3. Ask for support for the visioning process. Olney received grants from four Quaker funders to support the summit. They are also structuring classes this fall to integrate the summit process into student life this fall.

4. Make multiple ways for people to engage in visioning. Olney set up an online database of ideas for the school's direction that people can add to. People can also participate in-person at the summit. Summit participants will be able to sample hands-on experiences connected with the school, such as planting garlic and touring the farm on campus. During the summit, we're planning interviews, writing, small group and large group ways for people to give input.

5. Set compelling and bold topics that are both specific and open-ended. Olney's Board defined two broad dreams, "A new green economy in Appalachia" and "Sustainable independent schools," and they are inviting people to fill in the details of those dreams. They provided some direction so the visioning process wasn't too overwhelming, while resisting the temptation to plan all the details themselves.

6. Gather, gather, gather... and then let go and notice what emerges. Olney will be gathering oodles of ideas for how the school could carry out its dreams, and we'll ask everyone at the summit to help us process and absorb those ideas. But the core element of Quaker discernment involves holding all those possibilities lightly and settling into a place of inner stillness to listen for the possibilities that have the most life and sense of calling. In that process, entirely new directions or combinations of ideas might arise. Olney's process is based in Quaker practices, but adapted to welcome and include broad participation.

7. Connect dreaming with doing. I encourage groups that I work with to have a period of prototyping, where they can quickly test out ideas from their vision so they can fail often and learn quickly. The energy and learning of the visioning process can be carried into this phase of experimenting and learning. When a large group of people help shape a vision, many of them will be eager to help implement it.

Olney's summit still has space for people to participate, October 28-30 in Barnesville, OH. All events are free and open to the public. It would be fun to have some of you there!

I'm also interested in others experiences and perspectives about drawing on Quaker processes for discernment in our workplaces, schools, and communities. How do you think it works best?

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