SP2527 Spiritual Life and Leadership: Individual Discernment in a Group Context (Clearness Committee)


Participants of the class in Clearness Committee pose on the steps of Geneva Hall - May 2006

Spring, 2006
Time/place:  Geneva 100 Wednesdays, 8:30-10:10 a.m.
Instructors:  Stephanie Croom, Elizabeth Ford, Elizabeth Liebert, Kang Hack Lee


This class introduces participants to some theological and spiritual foundations of discernment through learning about and engaging in Clearness Committee. This spiritual practice originated in the Society of Friends to assist believers to discern within a faith-group context.  Participants will read and discuss several historical and contemporary Quaker texts. The center of the class, however, will consist in small groups functioning as Clearness Committees for each of its members. Each participant will serve in all the roles within the Clearness Committee structure and have the opportunity to “seek clearness” on an issue of his/her own. Learning strategies: lecture, discussion, role-play, reflective reading, small group process, reflection paper. Grading: pass/fail only. No unexcused absences and no more than two excused absences.

Required Reading

Palmer, Parker, “Clearness Committee,” Weavings (July/Aug 1988): 37-40. (handout)

Loring, Patricia, “Spiritual Discernment,” Pendle Hill Pamphlet #305, 1992.

Steere, Douglas , ed. Quaker Spirituality: Selected Writings. Mahwah , NJ : Paulist Press, 1984:

                Introduction, pp. 3-53, John Woolman, Journal (Abridgement), pp.159-237 and Carolyn Stephen, Quaker Strongholds (Selections) in Quaker Spirituality, pp. 239-258.

Recommended Reading

Palmer, Parker, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco : Jossey-Bass, 2000.

Course requirements
Participants will:

                Actively participate in the group process, taking a turn at each of the Clearness Committee roles, and respecting confidentiality of all members of the group.

                Read, process and share about the required reading, including brief written response (ie a paragraph, containing “lessons and puzzles,” --something you take away and a question that occurs to you). These “lessons and puzzles” will be given to the group leader on Feb. 8, 15, 22 and March 15 They can also inform the final reflection paper.

                Prepare a reflection paper of 4-5 pp. (typed, double-spaced, 12 pt font) in which you reflect upon and integrate the readings and the Clearness Committee process in general and in your particular experience of discernment. Hand in two copies of this paper on May 3.

Recommended, but not required: keep a journal that includes both the readings and the discernment process as you experience it over the course of the semester. It will maximize not only your learning, but your own growth in self-awareness through your discernment.

Course objectives
At the conclusion of this class, participants will be able to:

1. Identify insights from the Quaker tradition that inform this method of discernment and compare and contrast with one’s own theological tradition (through lecture, readings, brief written responses to the reading, final paper; evaluated by the group facilitator and the lead instructor).


2. Frame a focused issue relevant to this form of personal discernment (through practice in the small group; evaluated by the group facilitator)


3. Articulate the process of one’s own discernment through the writing of the precis, responding appropriately to questions as posed within the Clearness Committee, and reflecting on the process through the final paper; skills (not the quality or outcome of  the discernment) evaluated  by the facilitators and the lead instructor.


4. Demonstrate the skills attendant in each of the Clearness Committee roles: focus person, clerk, recording clerk and member of the committee (through role play, small group practice and debriefing and final paper; evaluated by group facilitator and lead instructor)


5. Manifest behaviors that foster the discernment of others, specifically, maintaining worshipful silence, holding the focus person in prayer before, during and after the Clearness Committee, framing, testing, and timing useful discernment questions, avoiding indirect advice-giving and problem-solving and maintaining confidentiality (through small group practice and debrief and self-report, evaluated by the group facilitator).


6. Distinguish appropriate responses for a Clearness Committee from those of Contemplative Listening and gain ease with the shift (through lecture, small group practice and debriefing; evaluated by the group facilitator).


7. Identify insights and skills from the Quaker tradition and this spiritual practice that can inform skills for ministry (through group process in final plenary session, small group practice; evaluated by facilitators and lead instructor).

                                                                                                * * * * *

Process for reflective (spiritual) reading to be used in this process


Divide the week's pages into several sittings so that you can savor, chew, ponder the various levels of meaning, reading formationally rather than informationally; that is, to let the readings address you rather than to master their contents.


Begin each session by consciously centering yourself and letting go what is running around in your mind. Be aware that the kind and purpose of the reading you are about to do differs from the informational reading you do so much of every day. Ask for the presence of the Holy Spirit in your reading.


Pick up the selected text and read slowly, ruminating as you go, proceeding without hurry through the section. Write down your significant movements/insights (whether or not they feel "positive") in your journal or on sheets that you can keep cumulatively. (These entries can form the basis of the short written reflections due with the reading assignments and also the reflection paper you will be writing later in the semester.) Proceed to the next chapter or section, spending no more than one hour reading, pondering, writing at each sitting.   


At the conclusion of the sitting, write down any questions about the content or the process which you would like answered, along with something that struck you


Repeat this process on the next day, again pondering/digesting for no more than an hour.  Continue the process until the assigned sections have been completed--usually no more than two hours total per week. The evening before class, read over your jottings. Select one or several that you feel comfortable sharing in written form with your group leader.


                                                                                                * * * * *

Process for preparing Clearness Committee each week.


Focus person: 

                Prepare a precis (summary) (3-5 typed pages) of the issue you for which you seek clearness. Give this to the members of your group the week preceding your focus time.


Clearness committee members 

                Read precis prayerfully, as a sacred text. (If you know Lectio Divina, you may use this method for praying through the precis.) Listen for content, images, questions, connections or anything else which may be helpful for the focus person. Listen, as well, for gaps, for what is not said. Make any jottings you find helpful on the precis directly; it will be returned to the focus person at the conclusion of the clearness committee. (The focus person may find your notes helpful, but in any case, this procedure will respect the focus person’s confidentiality.) Do NOT, however, plan questions to ask the focus person.


Clerk:  In addition to preparing the precis, prayerfully plan the opening and closing of the session. (In the spirit of Quaker Meeting, the context out of which this practice grew, silence is encouraged at these moments.)


Recording clerk:  In addition to preparing the precis, bring sufficient writing materials for note taking; collect copies of precis and return to focus person along with all your notes at the conclusion of the session.

* * * * *

Covenant for Clearness Committee


The small group context helps each discerner in important ways:  


·         it “stands in” for the larger church, the context of all Christian discernment;

·         it provides a context for the discerner to process aloud, hearing himself or herself

continue noticing, naming and weighing;

·         it provides a loving “container” for the focus person to do some inner work;

·         it provides a source of new data, as others share what they noticed as they listened.


Some agreements will help us to do with care this holy work on behalf of those discerning:


1.  Regular, timely attendance in the small group. (If group members come and go, the group is unable to reach a trust level that facilitates discernment. If one member has not yet arrived, the group is hesitant to start). Each member’s listening and offering prayerful support and questions provides a different “lens” for the discerner to use in his/her process.


2.  Contribute to the process: Take a turn at each of the roles of the Clearness Committee.  Prepare, in a spirit of prayer, for any particular task you are undertaking, prayerfully reflect on the precis, and pray in particular for the person who is seeking clearness.


3.  “Test” the content and timing of the questions you ask in the Clearness Committee.


4.  Observe confidentiality: what is said in the small group remains in the group. One exception:  the group facilitator may share with the instructor on a “need to know” basis, observing the professional confidentiality of a supervisory relationship.” (This kind of check-in on the part of the facilitator with the instructor rarely needs to occur in any way that names the person in question.)


5.  Pray for each other.

* * * * *

Probable Calendar
(to be adjusted by the number of persons in the group)


Note: Readings to be completed by the date listed on the syllabus.


February 1: Introduction to the Spirituality Concentration in general and to this seminar; introduction of participants; introduction to the reading and the process of reflection to be used with the reading; other organizational matters. Experiential base for discernment. Spiritual discernment, what is it?.


February 8: Plenary: Overview of  Spiritual discernment,, cont. Quaker theology and practice as the context of Clearness Committee. Small group: introductions, covenanting, scheduling of tasks, confidentiality. 

Discussion of assigned readings. 

                Assignment: Read the following and write brief “lessons and puzzles”:  

                                Patricia Loring, “Spiritual Discernment” (all, pp. 3-32)

                                Parker Palmer, “Clearness Committee” (all, handout)


February 15: Plenary: Introduction to the Clearness Committee, framing an issue for discernment and writing a precis. Introduction to John Woolman. Discussion of assigned readings in small group.

                Assignment: Read the following and write brief “lessons and puzzles”

                                Douglas Steere, “Introduction,” pp. 3-53


February 22:  Plenary: Fishbowl of Clearness Committee. Small group: discuss assigned readings.

                 Assignment: Read the following and write brief “lessons and puzzles”:

                                John Woolman, Journal (abridged) Chapters 1-8, pp. 161- 213.


                                NB:  Focus persons for the first clearness committee gives precis this week.


March 1: Clearness Committee:  Focus person 1


March 8: Clearness Committee:  Focus person 2


March 15: Plenary: debriefing of clearness committee process. Small group:  [or plenary] discussion of readings.

                Assignment: Read the following and write brief “lessons and puzzles”:

                                John Woolman: Chapters 9-end, pp. 214-237

                                Caroline Stephens: Quaker Strongholds, pp. 241-258


(focus person for third Clearness Committee gives precis  today)


March 22: Clearness Committee:  Focus person 3


                NB: focus person for April 5 gives precis today OR makes other arrangements with his/her group.


March 29: Spring Break (no class)


April 5:  Clearness Committee:  Focus person 4  


April 12: Clearness Committee: Focus person 5


April 19: Clearness Committee: Focus person 6 


April 26: Clearness Committee: Focus person 7, if needed, or continuation of individual process for clearness (use the same clerk and recording clerk as in the original CC)


May 3: Clearness Committee: Focus person 8, if needed, or continuation of individual processes for clearness (use the same clerk and recording clerk as in the original CC)


                Assignment: Semester reflection papers due today, in duplicate.


May 10:  Plenary: bookkeeping, pastoral applications of CC to other situations and contexts; course evaluation and closure; small group closure.