The Therapeutic Neighborhood
By John McKnight
State of the Re:Union contributor John McKnight from Abundant Community explores the communal approach once used by Quakers that still holds validity for problem solving today, as explained by Parker Palmer.
If you have a deeply troubling personal problem, where do you turn? To a cleric? A psychologist? A counselor? A therapist? Each is a hired professional with different approaches to our dilemmas. But suppose they didn’t exist. Where would you turn? What about going to a group of your neighbors? They might be more helpful than the professionals.
We can learn how to use this neighborly wisdom from the Quakers. In the 1660s, universities weren’t turning out certified personal problem solvers, and the Quakers had no clergy to turn to. Nonetheless, their members often faced personal crises and suffering. In response, the Quakers recognized that the local community had unusual powers to help its members through difficult times. Relying on the wisdom of their community rather than paid professionals, they created “Clearness Committees.”
The Clearness Committee: A Communal Approach to Discernment
Behind the Clearness Committee is a simple but crucial conviction: each of us has an inner teacher, a voice of truth, that offers the guidance and power we need to deal with our problems. The function of the Clearness Committee is not to give advice or “fix” people from the outside in, but to help people remove the interference so that they can discover their own wisdom from the inside out.
If we do not believe in the reality of inner wisdom, the Clearness Committee can become an opportunity for manipulation. But if we respect the power of the inner teacher, the Clearness Committee can be a remarkable way to help someone name and claim his or her deepest truth.
The Clearness Committee’s work is guided by some simple but crucial rules and understandings. Among them, of course, is the rule that the process is confidential. When it is over, committee members will not speak with others about what was said and, equally important, they will not speak with the focus person about the problem unless he or she requests a conversation. (To read the excerpt in its entirety, click here.)
The premise of this exercise is to assist the focus person – or person with the issue – in finding clarity that might lead to resolution of the problem. The “problem” can be as simple as “should I take this new job?” An important part of the process in choosing the Clearness Committee is to find five or six diverse people (age, background, gender, etc.) to act as committee members. This will ensure a well-rounded audience to help discern the issue at hand. This committee is there to listen and ask pertinent, honest and open-ended questions pertaining to the issues of the “focus person.” That is all. It is a time when members of a community can come together to aide a neighbor in need without judgment or advice. Just good ol’ understanding.
Once the meeting starts, all of the idle chit-chat and joking are set aside, and focus solely belongs to the focus person. He/She goes over three main points: the issue at hand, potential influencing factors of the issue, and what potential problems could arise from the issue. All focus must be kept on the problem. Listening and talking. Really. That’s it. This means absolutely no advice and no amateur psychoanalysis. Keeping an open mind and not interjecting personal stories, anecdotes or advice is a must in order for this Clearness Committee to work. And this isn’t a time for finding out the “scoop” on your neighbor. It is also not a time used for grilling or cross-examination. Questioning should be relaxed, gentle, humane. A machine-gun fire of questions makes reflection impossible and leaves the focus person feeling invaded rather than evoked. And lastly, it is important for everyone to know that the Clearness Committee is not a “cure all” for the problem, nor is it intended to “fix” the focus person, so there should be no sense of let-down if the focus person does not have his or her problems “solved” when the process ends. And, a good clearness process does not end—it keeps working within the focus person long after the meeting is over.
Imagine actually organizing and achieving a Clearness Committee meeting in your neighborhood. Do you think having your own “Clearness Committee” can have helped lessen the nerve-racking pain of important decisions? Does your neighborhood have what it takes to participate in a meeting like this? Is there something to the Quakers’ methodology that can work? Or have we become too isolated as a community for this to happen? What are your thoughts and ideas? We want to know.
John McKnight is an expert on communities. An Ohio native who currently lives near Chicago, he has spent decades organizing communities and researching them, primarily in the Windy City itself. In the course of his career, he mobilized neighborhoods during the civil rights movement, wrote several books about community development, created a center for urban affairs at Northwestern University, and even taught the current President a thing or two about advocacy. (Yes, it’s true: way back when, a young and eager Barack Obama interned at McKnight’s training program for community organizers in southeast Chicago). If that’s not enough, he recently co-authored a book called “The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods.”