Seek and shape consensus

Friendly Reminder: A weekly reflection from the Quaker Leadership Center

This Monday was Martin Luther King Day, a special day of honoring the legacy of a remarkable, prophetic figure. It’s also a day with lots of MLK quotes on social media. Most of them out of context. Then there are those who anoint themselves the guardians of King’s legacy and make it their mission to correct everyone who quotes him without committing to his full vision of social change.

I think the guardians and the misquoters are both missing the point. A truly prophetic leader will comfort and confront all of us, all along the political spectrum. None of us own Dr. King, his quotes, or his legacy.

What about us? How does King’s witness challenge us as Friends? One of his popular quotes has been working on me this week:

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

How might this speak to our condition? I’m not entirely sure. But I know it makes me uncomfortable in a good way.

As Friends, we make decisions by consensus (or “sense of the meeting” or “coming to unity” or “discerning God’s will”). We listen, we share, we wait and minute the sense of the meeting. We believe that the Spirit can be trusted to speak to us and shape us in the process. So we don’t need to do all the speaking or try to shape the opinions of everyone else. Transformation happens by convincement not coercion, I’ve heard Friends say. This is part of our testimony of trust in the leadership of the Light, Christ, Spirit and to the efficacy of nonviolence.

But King was speaking about an American landscape that did not broadly support his public ministry. There was not a consensus in support of the civil rights movement. He had to act in faith, regardless of public opinion. Many Quaker leaders throughout history have had to pursue their calling without a consensus of support from their meeting. Some of the historic Quaker figures we admire most had to follow the Light, forward by faith, even when their meeting wasn’t ready (or even actively opposed them).

Herein lies the tension of prophetic ministry among Friends. We value the individual leadings of Friends but maintain the importance of testing and seasoning those leadings in community. We seek consensus but also seek to co-create a world for which many have no vision or faith.

I certainly don’t have the answers and believe context is key. But can we receive from Dr. King a Friendly Reminder that leaders are called to shape consensus and not just seek it? And, can we do both? Can Friends name and nurture a “sense of the meeting” while also calling the congregation to new steps on the growing edge? Can we celebrate the lion and the lamb coexisting in reluctant restraint while also working toward the day when they lay down with one another in the peaceable kingdom?

Seeking and shaping consensus is a terribly difficult tension to hold. Nothing less than “wisdom from above” (James 3:17) makes it possible. Rabbi Edwin Friedman would remind us that leaders must be “non-anxious” and “self-differentiated” to persevere into real change. Those are tall orders. But maybe you can at least manage a non-anxious moment long enough to consider how you are being called to seek or shape consensus in your meeting or community. And ask for wisdom, I’ve heard that the Divine “gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5).